Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 December 2016
Everywhere around us, in shopping centres, on city streets and lavishly decorated private homes, it’s unmistakably Christmas. It’s a season that brings change to our routine, sounds of summer sport, family meals and holidays.
When Christmas fatigue sets in – remember the King. When we begin to slip too easily into thinking it’s Groundhog Day – remember the King who came to stay.
During this last month, have we ever spoken so much about American politics as we have? Whether President-elect Trump will make good on any of his promises remains to be seen. We certainly pray that he will do good, and not harm. But I reflect a moment on how certain past-Presidents do good in the world.
I stayed in a remote village called Neno (a tortuous 2½ hrs drive from Blantyre Malawi), working at a Presbyterian girls school on behalf of the PCA. Former President Clinton had visited the month prior to my arrival, assisting with funding for much-needed road construction and the dedication of Neno Hospital extension. The buoyancy he caused was palpable. The President’s visit to the village brought honour to Neno, fought off financial struggles (at least temporarily) and gave hope to all villagers. Even though – let the reader understand – he was a foreigner’s ex-President and that he arrived via helicopter and stayed for a whole hour! Yes, that’s right, he didn’t even walk on the roads he built. The King came and stayed a while, and Neno boasts of it today (Google: Clinton, Neno).
I was preaching evangelistic messages at an open-air crusade in Kabwe, Zambia. There was great commotion this afternoon: wailing of sirens, cheering crowds and hustle. Something was in the air. I couldn’t concentrate on the mission at all. The city of Kabwe had a visitor, ex-President George W Bush had come to town to dedicate his health centre … on a site just a few urban plots from where we, the CCAP mission team were, and where I was trying to preach. It was the talk of town as well as in the hotel where we stayed that night. The President’s visit to the village brought honour to Kabwe, fought off financial struggles for the centre (at least temporarily) and gave hope to all. Even though – let the reader understand – he was a foreigner’s ex-President and that he arrived via a massive Boeing called Air Force One that I found parked on the tarmac back in Lusaka and stayed for about a day! The King came and stayed a while and Kabwe boasts of it today (Google: Bush, Kabwe).
300 years after Christ, the Christian churches in Alexandria were staggering in the wake of scandalous fallout. One of the elders was preaching a belittling view of Jesus Christ and, getting under his skin, one of the young men of the church was rebutting him.
I speak of Arius who was gaining the popular voice with his diminished view of Jesus as a created being and a young defender of the faith: Athanasius. With unusual maturity, the 25-year old Athanasius wrote a masterpiece called “On the Incarnation of the Word” which remains so fresh that it’s well worth a read today. Some 25 year-olds have fought in world wars and made their contribution for peace and national freedom. Others are at their sporting peak. This young man wrote a masterpiece of Christian literature that’s lasted for 1700 years.
Brave and faithful Athanasius answers the question “What’s the true meaning of Christmas?” Well, of course, he didn’t phrase the question that way, he actually asked: “Why the Incarnation?” And, in his answer, he says: Remember the King who came to stay.
Picture the incarnation of Christ, Athanasius says, as if it’s like a great king entering a city and staying in one of the houses. The city is held in high regard by others, and its enemies no longer attack, all because of the king’s residence in a single house. So it is with King Jesus.
Inexplicably God desires to be with the people he created. In the beginning God walked daily with our first parents Adam and Eve in the garden. The fall changed that when Adam and Eve decided they did not want to have anything to with God.
But God did not give up. In faithfulness, he appeared often and ministered to Abraham, Moses and David (to name just a few). He spoke frequently with mankind through the voice of prophets.
Finally, Jesus came. God in the flesh. God on earth. God walking among the very people who kept turning on him. He came to our world, and made his home in one body among his fellow people. As a consequence, the enemy of mankind is beaten off, and the corruption of death is finished. The human race would have gone to ruin, if the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, had not come among us to meet the end of death.
When a king settles in a city, if it is attacked by the enemy, he certainly doesn’t neglect it, but avenges and reclaims it, for the sake of his own honour. How much more did God refuse to let mankind, his handiwork, go to corruption. At the core of the Christmas story is the idea of incarnation. Incarnation literally means “taking on flesh” and when we use it about Jesus we’re speaking about the most scandalous and wonderful event of all history: God becoming a man.
When Jesus was born he learned to walk as a little boy, he learned to read, he played tag, he skinned his knees, he had his favorite meal on his birthday, he built his first table and was pleased to see Joseph proud of him, he laughed deep and hard, he wept at the grave of his friend. These things now become a way we can relate to God. All of human life can once again connect to God, because he has connected himself irrevocably to human life. He has taken humanity on himself and transformed it.
God affirms this is Scripture when he says:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
Hear this word from the Lord, especially if you are troubled by fear – Jesus has come to share in your humanity … so that you may find liberty from fear.
It’s possible to miss the extraordinariness of the incarnation. The illustrative stories I’ve used about former Presidents are hopelessly inadequate to convey the essence. It’s nothing like a King coming to stay in an African village for an hour, or even a day. Because, while he is fêted like a King, an ex-President just flits in and out of the scene at will (by helicopter, thus missing the potholes). If we pushed the illustration to the edge: and change it to be the King living with the unreached tribes of the jungle … maybe we’re closer (remember Bruce Olson’s discovery in a primitive culture of the story of a man who became an ant?).
The King has come to his own creation. Athanasius reminds us that it is the same agent who created the world as the one who came into the world. Creation and salvation are inextricably linked, as the Father has employed the same Agent for both works.
We belong to a great family of churches. On 25 December over 600 Presbyterian congregations across Australia will be celebrating this theme. Imagine, in a few weeks time, IF each PCA congregation is likely to welcome just 5 visitors, that’s three thousand visitors hearing about God who came and took on human nature for us and our salvation.
Spend a moment in prayer – right now, as you read this – for Aussie souls who need to hear and need to believe in the Saviour who has come. Pray for your neighbour. Pray for your unsaved family member who might be moved this Christmas to come and hear the message your pastor brings. Pray for your pastor that he will be inspired, strengthened and empowered by the Spirit. Pray for the PCA that we might be spiritually renewed and refreshed in the grace of God.
The Christmas message reminds us that God desires to be with us because he made us. He became man for us and for our salvation. The immortal became mortal to raise us mortals to immortality.
I commend to you the reading of Hebrews 2:14 – 18.
John P Wilson