Christianity News & Commentary

The Scandal of the Incarnation

"The one person who was privileged to know all along what had happened was Mary. Joseph at first did not believe, but the angel convinced him."

Merry Christmas. Today is Christmas day, the most wonderful time of year, and Christians everywhere are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. But for some people, this day is not as wonderful as they once felt it to be. Have you heard the old saying, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder and familiarity breeds contempt”? We human beings can become so familiar with a truth, so used to it, so accustomed to it, that it can start to really lose its impact on us. I think this is true for Christmas day. It has been such a blessing for so long for so many people that we can forget just how beautiful and powerful it is.

Keith Green has this beautiful song, called My Eyes Are Dry, where he says:

“My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to You and dead to me

But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine.”

He wants to be made freshly aware of the beauty of the truth about Jesus again. This is my prayer for you this morning, that Christmas would be made alive to you again. There are two kinds of Christmas wonder, and we need to, I think, never lose the sense of both of them. The first is the wonder a small child has at the joy of Christmas day. The expectation and excitement that they get at the fading away of the year and the joy of Christmas coming.

I think you lose this once you get a bit older and it really starts to come back again, once you have had kids. I really enjoy buying my kids presents, it is good to see their joy on the day. The other kind of wonder is the joy you had when you first realized what actually happened at Christmas, the joy of the salvation we have in Jesus. The Bible calls this our first love. We never want to lose our first love, and when we feel that we have we need to ask God to help us restore it again.

So, let’s examine once again what actually happened on that Christmas day, so long ago. And yes, I know it was not technically called Christmas day yet, but who cares, let’s explore it anyway and examine the scandal of the incarnation.

The Scandal of the Incarnation (Luke 2:1-5)

Have you ever considered what a scandal the birth of Jesus was in many ways, to the people of this world? Of course, from our perspective, it is not, but in many ways to the people in Jesus’ day, something had happened they could not get their heads around or accept,

Luke 2:1-5 – “1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

The scandal is in those words, “Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” This account starts off pretty mild. It begins with a call for a census of the Roman people and subjects, and Joseph takes his betrothed with him to be counted in the census. They were not quite married yet, betrothal happened sometime before the marriage, and betrothed women were not supposed to be with child. It starts off mild but ventures into the remarkable.

We know that Joseph at first felt the scandal of this because we read this in Matthew 1:18-21,

“18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

We tend not to give ancient people much credit. The modern sceptic often mocks the incarnation and the virgin birth of Jesus by saying, “That was just a bunch of superstitious peasants in a superstitious age. They would believe anything they are told.”

But what was Joseph’s instant response when he finds out his wife-to-be is pregnant? “19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Joseph wanted to quietly put her away, to save her the shame of what he thought had happened. He didn’t believe Mary for a moment, these people knew how babies were made. What convinced him otherwise? An angel of the Lord telling him how the baby was conceived.

We also know that some people in Israel did not believe the account of Mary and Joseph and considered it be a scandal. In one of Jesus’ debates with the Jewish leaders, some of them respond to him, “You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God” (John 8:41). When Jesus challenges the Jewish leaders about who they truly represent, they hit him with the, “at least we know who our father is” line.

This falls flat because Jesus really is from God, and they really were not.

I show all of this to highlight that the incarnation is not easy for the natural mind to accept. Because in the incarnation we have the coming together of God and man; two natures, divine and human, in perfect union in one body, fully God and fully man.  

It’s not just a miracle, it’s the miracle of miracles. And it is hard to understand for all of us.  

It’s not just hard to understand. To the ancient Jewish mind, it was scandalous in the extreme. Because God was considered to be completely other than man, unknowable in a sense. In their view, God and man could not come together and yet they did.

Everything we have talked about so far, is partly why Peter wrote this, 1 Peter 2:6-8,

“6 For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”

The incarnation trips some people up. It is to them a scandal, a stumbling block. The Apostle’s got it, and the disciples got it. The message of salvation is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God to those who are being saved. The carol writers got it too,

“Gentle Mary laid her Child
Lowly in a manger;
There He lay, the undefiled,
To the world a stranger:
Such a Babe in such a place,
Can He be the Savior?”

People didn’t believe the statement about the virgin birth because they were unsophisticated ancient peasants, they believed it because of the signs that followed that conception.

A Lowly Birth (Luke 2:6-7)

Think about this, think about the glory of God. Think about the majesty of his being. Think about the angels that attend to him continually, think about the presence of his might and light and glory, and think about all this veiled and wrapped into the body of a little boy in a place where animals sleep, “6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

The king of the universe, what does he deserve? And yet this is what he received:

“Away in a manger
No crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay.”

When the Bible says that for a little while he lowered himself to be lower than the angels, it really means that. Jesus, the son of God, did not just become a man, he became an ordinary man, of no earthly power or majesty. A carpenter’s son, who lived in an obscure village, in a humble existence.  

He did this so that he could experience what you experience in your everyday life. He experienced what it meant to have parents, and siblings (and he did have siblings, half brothers and sisters (Matt. 13:55-56)). He also experienced what it was like to work, what it was like to be lost by his parents, what it was like to be human in every way.

You could say the real scandal is that we don’t give him the honour he deserves.

Humanity is so fallen, so broken, so rebellious, so shattered in so many ways by the problems of this world, that we could not make our way to heaven. Heaven had to make its way to us. And it did, in the form of The Son of Man.  

And yet we often think we know better than our Lord. That is the real scandal, and praise God, our Lord is even gracious to us when we do that.

We in our pride seek to orientate our own lives according to our own desires, making ourselves God in his place. But he, in his infinite humility, took on the form of man, to experience life from our perspective so that he might suffer in our place.

He took on a lowly birth for us. He took on frail human flesh for us. He took on the trials and tribulations of this world for us. To save us from our sins and the power of Satan.

The Angel’s Worship (Luke 2:8-18)

And this is why the Angels worshipped,

“8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”

What do the angels do, when the birth of Jesus happens? They go and tell some shepherds. The Shepherds were terrified, but I love what the angels say,

“10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

It is right for mankind to be afraid of the incredible glory of perfect beings. The angels are not deities, they are simply created beings, but they reflect “the glory of the Lord”, because they are in the presence of the Lord continually. Our sin mars the image of God in us. It diminishes it, harms it, causes it to be very tarnished. But the righteous angels carry it with them.

But these angels are just so excited at the birth of the king, the birth of the one who “will save his people from their sins” as the angel told Joseph. And because of this they proclaim and worship, “13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

They worship because they get it. They get how magnificent this whole event is. They understand the magnitude and the joy of this moment. The Bible tells us that Angels celebrate when one lost sheep is found. How much more were they excited when the saviour of the sheep was here?

“Hark! The herald angels sing
‘Glory to the new-born king
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’
Hark! The herald angels sing
‘Glory to the new-born king’”

It’s fitting that they come and celebrate with some godly shepherds. Because the chief Shepherd has been born and he is here to gather his flock, attend to his people and heal them from their hurts and wounds. He is here to set things right and lead his sheep to greener pastures.

Are you going to follow him?  

Mary Treasured These Things (Luke 2:19-21)

All throughout these momentous events is the humble young woman Mary, who rejoiced in the magnificence of all that occurred,

“19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

The one person who was privileged to know all along what had happened was Mary. Joseph at first did not believe, but the angel convinced him. Mary’s family believed, because of the miracles they themselves experienced in the Lord’s presence (cf. Luke 1:39-80). Many of the Jews did not believe the account, some until after the pouring out of the spirit, many never. But Mary knew all along. And she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

For many, this event was a scandal. Remember, “Mary, his betrothed,  who was with child.” Those would be scandalous words except for one thing, the miracle of God,

Luke 1:35-38 – “35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God…37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.”

The life of Jesus proved to many that he was from God. For those of us who believe, we can sometimes forget how glorious this event was. For some others they cannot get their head around the idea of God being man, in the flesh, living on earth.

That is the real scandal, to me, that some reject their true King. But he has come, he has achieved salvation for us on the cross, and he offers this to all who would believe in him. Turn to him now because he is returning. Turn to him now while there is still time. Merry Christmas.