Augustine: Why the Incarnation?

At Christmas time we marvel at the purpose of Christ’s incarnation. He became poor to make us rich. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by Augustine, a North African pastor from the 4th century:

“The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without   whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day for His human birth. In the bosom of His Father He existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly mother, He entered upon the course of the years on this day.

The Maker of man became man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Courage might be weakened; that Security might be wounded; that Life might die.

To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years.

He did this, although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake, had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits.”

Advent Devotional #3: Receiving the Riches of Grace

Have you ever seen or read about someone who devoted themselves exclusively to the preservation of their own life and their own resources with no regard for others? How would you describe their life? I have one word: Misery!

Remember the original Bah-humbug man in “A Christmas Carol ” – Ebenezer Scrooge? He was a cantankerous, old cynic, full of detestable greed. In the words of Charles Dickens, he was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which not steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster… He edged his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”

But even a man as hard as Ebenezer Scrooge can be transformed. Even he learns to love and care for others as he begins to know and experience grace.

This process of transformation happens for us as well, as we begin to understand why Jesus, the eternally rich God, became poor so that we might experience His riches.

The Apostle Paul writes to a Scrooge-like congregation to spur them on to meet the needs of suffering Jewish believers in Jerusalem. He doesn’t haunt them with three ghosts, but He reminds them of the invasion of divine generosity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Please read II Corinthians 8:1-9.

God’s Word is full of paradoxes. This text contains one of the greatest paradoxes in all the Bible: through Christ’s poverty we become rich. The poverty of the eternally rich God makes spiritually impoverished people eternally rich.

Some think this verse means this: “Jesus died so that I might become monetarily rich! It says so right there: ‘So that you might become rich!’” But that interpretation wouldn’t support Paul’s point as encourages the Corinthians to abound in the grace of giving, like the Macedonians, who were poor monetarily, yet gave beyond their means.

The broader context of II Corinthians 8 unpacks these riches in three fundamental ways.

First of all, we are given genuine freedom to serve Christ and others. Here we have the riches of spiritual endowments, otherwise known as grace gifts, which are God-given capacities for service (II Corinthians 8:7 – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in giving). Charis is used both here and in the next verse as a spiritual endowment or gift of the Spirit. We are to excel and abound in using our spiritual gifts.

We excel in faith. We grow in our capacity to trust the Lord more fully, constantly, and unwaveringly. We excel in speech by confidently and boldly sharing our faith. Some of you are trusting God to give you the words and the opportunity to share Christ with unsaved loved ones this Christmas. Who is it that you will speak with this Advent season regarding your faith?

We excel in knowledge. We begin to grow in our grasp of the Bible — its contents, its teaching, its doctrine, and the whole history of redemption. Are you growing in your knowledge of Scripture? We tend to grow complacent. What is your plan for growth in your knowledge of Scripture?

We excel in giving. Generosity is not something that comes naturally but is the result of God’s grace in our lives. Realizing what God has done for us in Christ liberates us from a Scrooge-like mentality. We become like Christ as we act in our context in the same way Christ acted in His — giving our resources and ourselves for others because of our spiritual riches in Christ. Where do you need to fan into flame the gift that God has given you? (See II Timothy 1:7)

Secondly, we are given genuine freedom to love as the sons and daughters of God. Here we see the distinguishing mark of the children of God – earnest, genuine love (8:8). How are you doing at zealously loving others in your life? Where do you need to repent of the lovelessness in your friendships, your marriage, your family, and your church?

Lastly, we are given genuine freedom to live as the sons and daughters of God. Paul speaks of the riches of our eternal salvation in II Corinthians 8:9, and Isaac Watts summarizes it well in this hymn text: “Behold th’amazing gift of love; the Father hath bestowed; On us, the sinful sons of men, to call us sons of God!”

Ebenezer Scrooge is set free from living for himself and serving only himself. He actually begins to live in concert with the meaning of his name Ebenezer, which means “stone of help” (See 1 Samuel 7:12). He raises Bob Crachit’s salary and assists his struggling family. He becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim. He uses his wealth and resources to bless the lives of others. Dickens writes: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew.” Like our passage mentions, he began to know grace and it transformed him. In fact, this transformation enabled him to keep Christmas well. Remember, this was a man who had said: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

Have you, like Scrooge, learned how to observe well the Christmas season? Ponder
your own spiritual poverty and your bondage to sin and its attendant consequence of death. But don’t stop there. There was another stone of help that was struck so that you might have life and the eternal riches. Reflect upon and revel in the riches that you have received: the freedom to serve, the freedom to love, and the freedom to live as the sons and daughters of God.

Advent Devotional 2: Relinquishing Riches to Make Us Rich

We all have difficulty relinquishing things that we cherish. I still remember my first ten-speed bicycle. It was a fully-equipped, Schwinn beauty that I received as a Christmas present. Not long after I received it, I allowed a friend to borrow it for a quick ride. She then proceeded to get hit by a car, and destroy my bike. Thankfully, she was just a bit banged up, but my precious, beautiful bike wasn’t so fortunate. I wish I could say that I was more concerned for her than my bike in that moment, but…

A bike is a small thing to relinquish. How difficult it is for us to give over to the Lord our dreams, our longings, our careers, our kids, and other precious things. Have you ever thought about what Jesus Christ relinquished to become the God-man and our Savior?

From eternity past, Jesus Christ was the eternally rich God. He not only was, but is, materially rich. He owns everything because He made everything and He is the end for which everything exists. Colossians 1:16 tells us: “All things were created through him and for him.” Abraham Kuyper states powerfully the implication: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” This means that every resource you have — your kids, your home, your car, your church, your 401K, your bank account — does not belong to you, but to the Lord.

Jesus is not only materially rich, but spiritually rich. He enjoys infinite glory in the immediate presence of God, which He set aside to be born to a poor, teenage mother in a cave and to die a criminal’s death, in order that we might become rich in the very things that He gave up.

Remember how Jesus prayed during His passion: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Before He entered that glory, He suffered in the indignity, cruelty, and brutality of the cross. O the magnitude of the generosity and grace of Jesus!

Jesus enjoys perfect love in the immediate presence of God. What makes Jesus rich is that His father uniquely loves His only begotten son. “Because you loved me before the foundation of the world…I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them,” (John 17:24, 26). But Jesus cried out on Golgotha’s cross: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Why have you turned your smiling face away? O the magnitude of the generosity and grace of Jesus!

Jesus enjoys ultimate joy and bliss in the immediate presence of God. He has existed as the glorious, perfect, and happy second person of the Trinity from all eternity. Why? Psalm 16:11 tells us, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” God the Father says: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased.” But in the Garden Jesus says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). O the magnitude of the generosity and grace of Jesus!

What did Jesus do with all of these riches? He relinquished them. From this infinite height, Jesus performed the unimaginable condescension. Though He was rich, He became poor so that we might have the riches of which He let go — so that we might experience the immediate presence of God in heaven ourselves and live coram Deo (before the face of God) forever.

Those who repent and trust in Christ will become unimaginably rich in eternity. The Bible says that “we will inherit the earth” over which Jesus has all authority (Matthew 5:5). We will live in the immediate presence of God and He will dwell with us and we will be His people (Revelation 22:3). We will experience and share His love and joy in His immediate presence forever and ever.

The next time you are called by God to relinquish to Him something you cherish, remember all that Jesus relinquished to rescue you and make you eternally rich in Him.

Thank You, Father, that the Lord of glory
was crucified in weakness for our sakes!
He, the Lord of all, became the Lord of nothing
so that we might become immeasurably rich,
enjoying a face-to-face relationship with You for all eternity. O the magnitude of the generosity and grace of our Lord Jesus! We make our prayer in His name, AMEN.

Advent Devotional #1: A Riches to Rags Story

van_hornthorst_adoration_children_800x583During Advent we remember and celebrate Jesus’s first coming when “the Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.”(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). We also look forward to our Lord’s second coming when He fully establishes His peaceable kingdom.

To grasp more fully the magnitude of Advent, we want to digest over the next month one verse: 2 Corinthians 8:9. It reads: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” I would encourage you to memorize and meditate upon this verse.

In J.I. Packer’s spiritual classic, Knowing God, he reminds us that this is the key text in all the New Testament for rightly understanding the incarnation. Reading this verse is comparable to the experience of stepping suddenly into a deep pool while wading in a stream. He writes: “Here is stated not only the fact of the incarnation but also its meaning. The taking of manhood by the Son is not only a marvel of nature, but a wonder of grace.”

Everybody loves a rags to riches story. Think about Cinderella—here’s a young woman who’s literally dressed in rags, belittled and treated harshly. Her life takes a turn into remarkable fortune: she is dressed in a royal gown and made exquisitely beautiful by her fairy godmother; she becomes the focus of the prince’s affections; and she unexpectedly achieves the riches of profound admiration and love after a long period of obscurity and neglect. How inspiring and moving are all rags to riches stories.

The story of Advent is even more inspiring and moving because it starts with riches and then moves to rags so that those of us who are dressed in the spiritual rags of our own self-righteousness (Isaiah 64:4) might personally experience and enjoy the spiritual riches of our Lord.

During Advent, we recall why the eternally rich God became poor in His incarnation and humiliation for us. The Apostle Paul speaks very succinctly: Jesus became poor so that we might possess an experiential knowledge of His grace (8:9a).

What is grace? It is undeserved favor from an unobligated giver.

Do you personally know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? How important is it to you? How much do you value it? In the light of such grace, how can we who believe it be content to be anything less than His gracious and generous people?

Verse 9 moves us toward generosity by debunking the notion that giving less away and keeping more for ourselves will provide more happiness and fulfillment. It shows that God’s purpose in sending His Son was to create gracious, joyful, and generous givers.

The degree to which we personally experience God’s generosity and grace in Christ will be the degree to which we are open-hearted and open-handed with others with all of His resources – time, talents, and treasures.

E. Stanley Jones, a missionary to India, reminds us what the Lord’s grace does in our lives: “Grace binds you with far stronger cords than the cords of duty or obligation can bind you. Grace is free, but when once you take it, you are bound forever to the Giver and bound to catch the spirit of the Giver. Like produces like. Grace makes you gracious, the Giver makes you give” (Joni Eareckson Tada, Diamonds in the Dust).

Why not pray the following for yourself and your family this Advent?

Lord, make us more like You.

Make us givers rather than takers in our relationships.

Cause us to marvel at Your grace and generosity lavished on us

at Jesus’ cradle, cross, and empty tomb.

Transform us into gracious and generous people by Your Spirit.

For we pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN.

The Cradle, The Cross and The Crown

Cradle
The cradle of Christmas proves that God is with us – Emmanuel. We are not alone in this world. We are not alone in our guilt, shame and struggle. We are not alone when we walk through the valley of the shadowlands.
Cross
The cross of Calvary proves that God is for us and not against us. We no longer have to work to earn His favor and acceptance. We enjoy God’s favor because the cross serves as proof.
Crown
Through his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is now crowned with glory and honor. The crown reminds us that God will ensure that we arrive safely home in glory. Jesus will triumph over all of his and our enemies. Our future is bright indeed. We can fight on behalf of those who are oppressed and weighed down with cares and guilt because the Lord goes before us and fights our battles for us.

I love the oft-repeated command in the Old Testament: “Stand still and see the salvation (deliverance) of your God.” My actions and lifestyle often reveal my struggle in really believing this, but His grace is sufficient.

A New-Born King: The Irony – Matthew 2:1-12

Have you ever lived in a city where it was difficult to become an insider? No matter how hard you tried, you always felt excluded and on the fringe. Our experience in church can oftentimes be the same. Have you ever attended a church where you felt like you didn’t measure up and no matter what you did you could never break into the inner circle?

One of the results of sin is that we all tend to exclude others and to feel excluded ourselves because we all struggle with an inflated sense of self-importance and a sense of personal inadequacy. At times, we actually begin to believe that God is blessed to have good people like us on his team. Furthermore, we tend to view outsiders with suspicion. A question: How would you respond if a spiritually seeking Muslim with a turban on his head walked into our church facility this morning?

How do we ensure that we do not succumb to this insider mentality of the holy huddle syndrome? This morning we observe from Matthew’s Christmas story, from the very beginning, the gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to make us a people for others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that: “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” As we move through the text, watchfor the interplay between outsiders and insiders.

I.         The Irony – Outsiders inform insiders of astonishing and breathtaking news: Your King is born (Matthew 2:1-2). Spiritual-seeking pagans tell religious people who Jesus is. If insiders will not welcome, honor, and worship Jesus, outsiders will. How ironic that outsiders are the ones most galvanized and determined to find and worship the Messiah.

We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.” It’s a popular carol sung during the holiday season depicting the scene we so often see on Christmas cards, ornaments and manger scenes.  It’s a wonderful carol apart from the fact that they were not kings, there were not three, and they didn’t go to the manger.  They were astrologers, they brought three gifts, but there is no mention that there was three of them, and Scripture seems to indicate that they arrived months after Jesus was born at the house where Mary and Joseph and now baby Jesus lived.  The Magi were astrologers, the epitome of non-Jewish believers. We could designate them the “outsiders” or “people on the margins of society”. Herod, the chief priests and scribes were what we might call “insiders” or “people at the center of society — the establishment”.

Insiders refuse to search for and receive Him gladly. Thus, the almighty God of creation leads outsiders to find and worship His appointed King.

What do you think these wealthy strangers expected to find in Jerusalem? I think they probably expected the entire city to be beaming with anticipation and excitement over the birth of its newborn King. They probably expected everyone to be talking about the time, place, and circumstances of His birth.

They would have been shocked to realize that they would be the first ones to announce His birth. They would have been startled by the stir that they created with their announcement.

What are the practical implications of this?

1.    There’s hope for you if you didn’t grow up in church…  if you don’t consider yourself an insider. It does not matter where you come from or what your spiritual heritage is. If you accept Jesus as the Messiah, you become a member of His heavenly kingdom.

2.    Another practical implication here: Matthew challenges insiders’ prejudice against outsiders. To whom is Matthew writing? In his gospel written primarily to Jewish believers, Matthew highlights that Gentiles are the first ones to worship Jesus. The gospel makes us a people for others. The gospel must be taken to the nations.

3.   Those who seem to us to be outsiders may be more spiritually attuned than we are. All throughout Jesus’ ministry, prostitutes and tax collectors enter the kingdom ahead of the religious insiders. Here, God is guiding outsiders to the Messiah to worship him. And he is doing it by exerting cosmic influence and power to get it done. This irony of outsiders getting the real identity of Jesus is repeated often in the life of our Lord (Compare  Matthew 27:41-43, 54)

The New Born King – The Agony – Matthew 2:1-12

The Agony – How do insiders respond to this news? The birth of this King troubles and agitates insiders… the power brokers of the establishment (both political and ecclesiastical). Rather than rejoicing at this news, they are troubled by it. Now, if we are honest, most of us find repulsive the idea of someone ruling over us.

A.         One word in verse 3 summarizes the insiders’ response: Troubled. This word means “to cause one inward commotion and take away calmness of mind.” This sense of agitation and trouble is reflected in two types of opposition. Indifference and hostility.

Indifference – Spiritual apathy and complacency. The first kind is a group of people who simply do nothing about this news of a newborn King. The chief priests and scribes represent this group. Verse 4: “Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.” The sheer passivity and inactivity of the leaders is overwhelming in view of the magnitude of what was happening. This is not only their failure, but ours at times.

Matthew challenges what he regards as spiritual complacency. The insiders knew precisely where their Messiah would be born, but they refused to join the Magi on their quest. Their sin of taking Jesus for granted is a sin that can especially characterize the leaders of God’s people.

B.         Indignant/hostile – A new ruler meant one thing for King Herod: political instability. He would interfere with Herod’s power, position, and control.

Herod the Great reigned from 37-34 b.c. The Roman Senate appointed him king. He was ruthless: murdering his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and many others. It is no surprise he had no problem killing babies in the surrounding district of Bethlehem.

C.         Practical Implications:

1.         People concerned with their own status, position and stability refuse to acknowledge and bow before King Jesus as the only rightful ruler of His people.

2.         People of the establishment in positions of power and control typically resist God’s purposes, while the lowly and marginal (the Gentile magi) embrace them.

3.         I, like Herod, am a pretender-king, and Jesus, is the real King. How often I have been more interested in saving my good name, my kingdom, and my throne rather than saving my soul.