It’s time for preachers to think about their Christmas sermons. This means it’s also a time to miss a golden opportunity. The golden opportunity is to preach a rich theology of incarnation at Christmas. Yet, year in and year out, the chance is missed.
It’s incredible to say it, but explorations of the incarnation can be rare in our churches, even at Christmas. And when preachers do address the topic, it can boil down to the Abrupt, the Apologetic, or the Anselmian.
The Abrupt: “God in skin! I know it’s weird, so let’s briefly acknowledge the weirdness and then move on swiftly.”
The Apologetic: “Jesus shows up in time and space, which means we can verify the gospel via historical methods, and the New Testament documents are very reliable.”
The Anselmian: “As the old theologian, Anselm, reasoned: only God can pay for sin and only man must pay. So the God-man appears to answer a logical conundrum.”
There is much truth to these observations, but they aren’t the incarnation’s heartbeat. And unfortunately, some will actively dissuade preachers from going too near that beating heart.
Preach ‘Three A’s’
I want to hear three different A’s this Christmas. I’d love for preachers to bring out Athanasian, Atoning, and Abasing themes.
1. The Athanasian Incarnation
“As Athanasius, the fourth-century theologian, proclaimed: Christ became what we are, that we might become what he is. This is ‘the marvelous exchange.’ He enters our life that we might enter his. Behold God the Son, who has become our Brother!”
2. The Atoning Incarnation
“The One in Mary’s womb is to be called ‘Savior.’ Here is God with us, come to make atonement. How does he do it? He becomes “at one” with us, taking all that is ours. And he does this in order to take to himself even that dreaded enemy of sin at the cross. He will stop at nothing to be with us. Behold Immanuel!”
3. The Abasing Incarnation
“Look down to the manger. He who was rich for our sakes became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). Being in very nature God . . . he made himself nothing (Phil. 2:5–6). The Word became flesh (John 1:14). See how low he stooped! Behold the glory of the ‘little LORD Jesus!’”
Don’t Shy Away
This is rich fare. Is it too rich for us? Sometimes I think it is.
We shy away from the Athanasian incarnation because we don’t want to get into (or we don’t properly understand) the Trinitarian theology that makes sense of it. The God we preach isn’t explicitly the Father of the Spirit-filled Son. Therefore we struggle to speak of the Son becoming our Brother to make us God’s children. We may prize the legal framing of Anselm, but we can get stuck in the courtroom. Athanasius would lead us to the family home. And the language of “Son,” “Brother,” and “children” calls us home to that adopting love.
We shy away from the atoning incarnation because our theology of atonement is, rightly, about imputation. Yet we can imagine, falsely, that imputation means “at a distance.” It doesn’t. Christ is counted as one of us because he became one of us—in every way yet without sin. We are counted as one with Christ because he united his deity to our humanity—really!
The mere fact of incarnation does not make atonement happen. Easter is still crucial. But God’s purposes do not begin and end with justification. God desires glorification—a world laid hold of, redeemed, and raised up into resurrection joy. Therefore the incarnation—as well as the resurrection—is vital. Christmas should be the time we point with eager entreaty: “Look! God has shown up to put things right. In becoming man, the Lord of all has taken the wheel of this world, switched on the GPS, and pressed ‘Home’!”
Christmas should be the time we point with eager entreaty: ‘Look! God has shown up to put things right. In becoming man, the Lord of all has taken the wheel of this world, switched on the GPS, and pressed ‘Home’!’
We shy away from the abasing incarnation because we default to a theology of glory. Martin Luther used that phrase in the Heidelberg Disputation as a derogatory term. It’s the opposite of a theology of the cross. A theology of glory is about a ladder to heaven, ascending to God through human strength. A theology of the cross is about God’s descent to us in our utter helplessness.
With this in mind, Christmas actually becomes a stark test for the kind of theologian we will be. Will we focus on the stooping love of the incarnate God, or will we admonish people not to dwell too much on the manger—after all he didn’t stay a baby, he grew up. Yet, with Philippians 2 in mind, we might well say “He didn’t so much grow up from the manger. Actually he stooped further — all the way to the cross.”
Luther understood the wonder of the abasing atonement. At Christmas 1527, he preached like this:
Reason and will would ascend and seek above, but if you would have joy, bend yourself down to this place. There you will find that boy given for you who is your Creator lying in a manger. I will stay with that boy as he sucks, is washed, and dies. . . . There is no joy but in this boy. Take him away and you face the Majesty which terrifies. . . . I know of no God but this one in the manger.
Carl Jung once related a conversation between two rabbis. The first asked why God no longer seemed to show up: “The God of Sinai might once have thundered, but how can he be found today?” The second answered: “There’s no longer anyone who can bow low enough.”
The rabbi (and Jung!) spoke better than they knew. Christmas tells us that there is One who has bowed low enough—all the way to our gutter. For we who know ourselves to be lost in failure and frailty, we don’t merely look up to “the Majesty who terrifies.” In immeasurable grace, our eyes are also turned downward to Immanuel—the God of the gutter. There, in the feeding trough, is the God for us.