“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (19) Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (20) But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (21) She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Someone slipped under the church door last week this rather helpful little tract entitled ‘Islam – most frequently asked questions.’ The tract was accompanied by a short cover note, saying that a sister had left this for us – a sister who was hoping to generate more understanding between Christians and Moslems, in the hope of greater peace within our community – a noble goal indeed.
At any rate, I found this tract very helpful, and it has renewed my determination to find where I have misplaced my copy of the Koran and to use the forthcoming holiday break to read it through properly. In the meantime I’ll have to make do with this tract, which I’d be happy to pass on to others of course. It has a very interesting chapter on the merits of polygamy for example, which some of you men might find quite interesting, and which others of you would probably find less inspiring. It also has a paragraph on the truth about the incarnation of Jesus – that is, the truth about whether Jesus is really God – which was why I brought this tract with me this morning, as I want to read that paragraph to you.
Now you’ll forgive me please if I changed the language just a little, by using the word God in place of Allah for instance, as I don’t want us to trip up on that. I don’t think I’ve changed the sense of the words at any rate.
Reading from the Koran 5:72-75:
‘Surely they have disbelieved who say ‘Jesus, the Messiah, is God.’ It was Jesus who said ‘O children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ Truly, whosoever sets up partners in worship alongside God, God has forbidden Paradise for that person and the Fire will be their abode. And for the polytheists there is no help. Surely they are unbelievers who said, ‘God is the third of three (a trinity)’. For there is no God but the One God. And if they cease not from what they say, truly a painful torment will befall them… The Messiah, son of Mary is no more than a Messenger. Many were the Messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a truthful woman. They both used to eat food as other human beings, while God Himself does not eat.’
That might sound like a funny note to end on, but that’s more or less where the quote ends in the pamphlet, and that, I believe, does pretty much touch on the heart of the issue. Jesus, like his mother, ate and drank. We know that God does not eat or drink. Therefore Jesus cannot be God.
We could take this further of course, as those who deny the incarnation do take it further. Jesus not only ate and drank, we assume that he exercised all the normal human bodily functions – that he went to the toilet, and was subject to bilious attacks if he ate bad food. Certainly we find it difficult to think of God in those terms. More than that, Jesus not only ate and drank and exercised all the normal bodily functions, but more particularly he suffered and died, and we surely cannot envisage God suffering and dying. God cannot suffer and God certainly cannot die, therefore Jesus cannot be God.
And yet when we read our passage this morning from Matthew’s gospel, that is exactly what we are confronted with. ‘God is with us’. God is arriving on the human scene in the flesh, and arriving in the normal human way, through the blood and pain of a normal human birth!
Matthew’s gospel tells the story from Joseph’s perspective – so they say: Joseph, who has to be the least colourful character in the whole Christmas pageant. ‘He was a good man’ the gospel writer tells us, and that’s about all he ever tells us about Joseph. Did this good man go on to be a good husband to Mary and a good father to Jesus? We can only guess.
The gospel writer does also tell us about Joseph’s dream of course, in which an angel speaks to him and fills him in on the truth about Mary. But this divine encounter rates rather poorly alongside the angel Gabriel’s dramatic encounter with Mary. Many have been the great artists who have attempted to depict visually that amazing scene where Gabriel confronts Mary with the news about Jesus, and where Mary responds with those faithful words ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord’. No one, as far as I know, has attempted to depict Joseph’s encounter – Joseph sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night, with an expression on his face of ‘what the…’
Many people nowadays find the virgin birth hard to believe – ‘Ah, they just made that up so that we would believe that Jesus was divine.’ It’s interesting, but the early Church Fathers, when they used to refer people to story of the virgin birth, used to do so not to prove that Jesus was divine, but to prove that He was human!
You see, in first and second century world there was a predominantly Greek mindset governing most peoples’ thinking, and, without going into too much detail, nobody had much of a problem believing that Jesus was God. What they did have a problem with was believing that Jesus was really human.
If you read some of the early Gnostic literature that came out of that period, you’ll see the person of Jesus depicted as someone who had very few human characteristics at all. According to Gnostic belief, Jesus didn’t sleep. He certainly didn’t really suffer or die, and, notably, he didn’t really eat or drink either. He just pretended to eat and drink so that nobody would get too frightened.
Now, at the risk of getting overly academic, let me ask you to put your philosophical and theological thinking caps on for a moment.
Those who deny the incarnation – that belief that Jesus was both genuinely God and also genuinely human – tend to fall into two camps. There are those who deny that Jesus was God, such as our Islamic friends (and also traditional Jews and any number of others) and there are those who deny that Jesus was human, which is the position of the Gnostics and many others (including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses I think). Let me suggest to you that behind both of these apparently opposing positions there is a common assumption, namely that God is something ‘out there’.
We know what human beings are, and so we begin our definition of God by reckoning that God must be someone or something that is totally different from what humans are. We are down here. God is out there. We are small and fragile. God is big and powerful. We are limited and mortal. God is immortal, invisible, and also omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Hey, if you’re going to believe in God, you might as well believe in something impressive!
Now it seems to me that most people in history have done their religious thinking by starting with some preconceived definition of God somewhat along these lines. If you do that, then the question of Jesus becomes the question of ‘how do I possibly fit the person of Jesus into the predefined mould that I have already created for God?’ If I assume that I already know who God is, then the question of Jesus will be ‘how can Jesus be that God?’
But what if we turn the whole thing upside-down? What if instead of starting with our well-worked-out understanding of the nature of God, what if we started with Jesus and worked our way outwards from there? What if we started by saying ‘I probably don’t know anything about God except that Jesus is God.’ What if we went from there and then developed out understanding of God from Jesus outwards?
This is what the New Testament writers did I believe. This is what St Paul was doing when he spoke of Jesus as being the ‘visible image of our invisible God’. They started their thinking about God, not with some preconceived notion of God as had been handed on to them by their peers and by their culture, but they started their thinking about God with the conviction that Jesus was God.
Does God eat and drink? Yes. Jesus both ate and drank. Does God suffer and die? Yes. Jesus suffered and died. Was God born as a human baby to a human mother? Yes. ‘The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit….’
My point is this: if we start our thinking about God with our cultural definition of God as something out there, then we may well struggle with the whole notion of the incarnation and of the virgin birth. But if we develop our whole understanding of God around our understanding of Jesus, then we will find that our culturally defined concept of God will be replaced by something more Biblical – an understanding of a God who is not simply out there, but one who is out there and also in here and also over there and also and most especially over there where I don’t feel like going. And we will discover that this God has flesh, and that you can shake God’s hand – not only that you could have shaken it 2000 odd years ago, but that through the presence of the Holy Spirit of God that you can still shake God’s hand.
When we truly understand the incarnation of God in Jesus we discover that God is not some distant spiritual entity who watches us from a spiritual distance, but is a fleshly person who has everything to do with this fleshly world in which we live. And that can be a little unnerving.
God is easier to deal with I think if we can keep Him at a distance. This God who is Jesus is quite a confrontational God, who expects us to get involved in this fleshly world just as much as He did. This God who will not keep his distance from us likewise expects us to break down the distance between ourselves and our neighbours.
I do believe that a mysterious, ethereal, cloud-of-unknowing-type God is much easier to deal with than this Word made flesh God whose arrival we happily celebrate each Christmas. Indeed, if Jesus is God then we probably know far too much about God – far more than we would like to know. To quote G.K. Chesterton:
‘We may be able to debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies, but we can have no debate over whether or not he thought that rich people were in grave danger.’
And so when we read in the Women’s Weekly of some rich and famous superstar talking about their spiritual beliefs, we are not surprised to find that they make no mention of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Rather predictably they speak instead of some distant and mysterious spiritual entity that brings them comfort and peace. We do not expect them to believe in the all-too-straightforward and confrontational God who is Jesus.
Friends, what bring us together today is not the fact that we all believe in God. We believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christians are not religious people who, like all religious persons, have spiritual beliefs. We are persons who worship the God who is Jesus Christ, and who devote ourselves to living out our lives in our flesh as creatively as God lived out God’s life in the flesh in Jesus.
And I mean no disrespect to my Islamic sister who was good enough to pass this pamphlet on to me. As a Christian I too believe in one God. But I believe that that God has a human name, and a human face, and I believe that this God was born to Mary in Bethlehem some 2000 odd years ago, and I believe that the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this ways it’s told in here (in Matthew 1). I do not simply believe in God. I believe in Jesus!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 2nd December, 2000.