"The Upside-Down Glory of Christmas"
A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Irvine Presbyterian Church, December 21, 2003

Scripture Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6       who, though he was in the form of God,
                  did not regard equality with God
                  as something to be exploited,
7       but emptied himself,
                  taking the form of a slave,
                  being born in human likeness.
         And being found in human form,
8                he humbled himself
                  and became obedient to the point of death-
                  even death on a cross.
9       Therefore God also highly exalted him
                  and gave him the name
                  that is above every name,
10      so that at the name of Jesus
                  every knee should bend,
                  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11      and every tongue should confess
                  that Jesus Christ is Lord,
                  to the glory of God the Father.

The Glory of Christmas

         How many of you have seen "The Glory of Christmas", the annual pageant at the Crystal Cathedral? I must confess that I never had much desire to see it. I'm just not a pageant kind of guy. And, to tell you the truth, I suspected that "The Glory of Christmas" would more about the possibility thinking of Robert Schuller than about the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, for years, both taste and cynicism kept me away from "The Glory of Christmas."

         But God, with his sense of irony, gave me children who love pageantry. He also gave me a wife who's more attentive to my children's needs than I am. So, a couple of years ago, when Linda suggested strongly that we go to "The Glory of Christmas" as a family, I ruefully consented. Of course that fact that we had to spend a bunch of money to see the show, and that we bought our tickets through Ticketron, didn't lessen my cynicism any. Nevertheless, one December evening Linda and I gathered our kids and drove to Garden Grove to see "The Glory of Christmas."

         Nathan's and Kara's youthful excitement about all of this helped to squelch my "Scrooge-ish-ness." And as the program began, I was impressed with how faithful everything was to the Christmas story as found in the Bible. Yes, it all took place in a multi-million dollar Crystal Cathedral. And, yes, the live camels and horses were closely followed by costumed helpers with over-sized pooper scoopers, who immediately cleaned up after the animals whenever they took an unplanned pit stop. But all of this aside, "The Glory of Christmas" retold the biblical story with drama and music that, in spite of my orneriness, moved my spirit to awe-filled worship. Moreover, the whole program ended with clear, straight-forward, faithful presentation of the gospel. No possibility thinking here. Just unabashed biblical truth. I had to repent of my negative attitude.

         I think Nathan and Kara loved the flying angels above all. And they were impressive, I must admit. It sure would be fun to have a flying trapeze in this sanctuary! But what touched my soul most of all wasn't the spectacle or the London Symphony Orchestra soundtrack or the herd of real animals. Rather, I was moved by the utter smallness, humanness, and seeming insignificance of the birth of Jesus. Whatever else happened on the first Christmas, an apparently unimportant young woman gave birth to a baby in the humblest of settings. From a worldly perspective, it was about as far away from glory as it comes. If anything, the birth of Jesus first of all about upside-down glory, glory that looks a whole lot like humility, if not humiliation. And this, ironically, is the beginning of the full glory of Christmas, as we learn in Philippians 2.

The Deity of Jesus

         Philippians 2 tells the story of the glory of Christmas, a surprising, ironic, completely unexpected story. It begins by saying that Jesus Christ,

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness (2:6-7).

The language here is a bit tricky, both because its theologically profound and because it's poetic. The form of this text is poetry, perhaps even an early Christian hymn. It begins by speaking of Jesus Christ before his birth to Mary.

         Even to speak of someone as existing before birth suggests that this is one special person. But the specialness of Jesus is truly unique. He "was in the form of God" (2:6). The Greek word translated as "form" here doesn't refer to outer appearance, but to the essential nature of something. Thus the NIV paraphrase captures the sense accurately: Jesus was "in very nature God." Jesus, the one born in a manger, existed before his birth as a being who shared God's own nature. And please understand, the writer of this letter wasn't some new ager who spoke of everybody as divine. Paul was a faithful Jew who believed that God, and God alone, shared God's own nature. Yet this faithful Jew also affirmed, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus shared fully in the divine nature. In a nutshell, Jesus was God.

The Da Vinci Code

         I need to interrupt this sermon for a pressing public service announcement. As many of you know, one of the bestselling novels this year is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code . (No, not the Dan Brown of our church, an elder whose married to Amy Brown, our children's director.) The book is a fairly typical thriller, with plenty of intrigue, action, murders, and conspiracies. None of this is particularly noteworthy. But The Da Vinci Code has received an incredible amount of attention in the secular media because it purports to reveal secrets about Jesus Christ, most of all his secret marriage to Mary Magdalene, by whom he supposedly fathered a child, whose lineage continues to this day. The novel seems to be informed by scholarly study of the New Testament and early Christian history, and in a few points it is. There actually are a couple of second-century writings, called gospels, in which Mary Magdalene figures prominently, though never explicitly as Jesus' wife. Nevertheless, much of the apparent scholarship in The Da Vinci Code is as fictional as the main characters.

         One of these fictions, which is often found in so-called non-fiction books on Jesus, is the idea that the divinity of Christ was a late addition to his résumé. The earliest Christians, so the story goes, knew that Jesus was a human being, and only a human being. He was an inspired teacher, maybe even a healer, but certainly not divine. The deification of Jesus came decades or, as in The Da Vinci Code , centuries after his death, and it involved rejection of the earliest historical records of Jesus which portrayed only his humanness.

         Theological implications aside, whether you believe in Christ or not, what I've just related is historical bunk. It's nonsense. It doesn't stand up to the evidence of history. And our text from Philippians 2 is part of that evidence. You see, Paul wrote this passage around twenty five years after the death of Jesus. And in this text there's no question that he believed Jesus to be "in very nature God." Jesus is the One who receives both God's own name and the worship that belongs to God alone. And all of this only twenty five years after Jesus had died! So, no matter whether you believe Paul was right about Jesus or not, you've got to recognize that Jesus was believed to be divine only a few years after his death. He wasn't deified by Johnny-come-lately fourth-century Christians, but by his earliest followers, who were faithful Jewish monotheists. In fact there's plenty of evidence in the New Testament to show that most of the first believers in Jesus thought that he was God. From a theological point of view, they could have been incorrect, of course. But my point here is a historical one. Belief in the deity of Jesus is as old as Christianity itself. All theories to the contrary, including that of The Da Vinci Code , are wishful thinking at best.

         If you read the book, just remember that it's fiction, thoroughgoing fiction. And if you'd like more information on early Christian views of Jesus, I'd point you to my book, Jesus Revealed. I go into all of this in much greater detail there.

         Now back to our regularly scheduled sermon.

The Humility of Jesus

Of course Paul's main point in Philippians 2 is not the deity of Jesus, but his humility. Jesus,

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedience to the point of death -
even death on a cross (2:6-8).

         Once again, the language is both complex and poetic, hence difficult to follow. So let me unpack this text with an expanded paraphrase;

Jesus, because he shared God's own nature,
         because he was truly God,
did not regard being God as a matter of exploitation.
         Jesus knew that being God wasn't a matter of grasping, but of giving,
         because God's very nature is gracious, merciful, and sacrificial.
So Jesus emptied himself, and this is how he did it:
He took the humblest form of all, a slave-like form,
By being born as a human being,
         The glorious God became truly, fully human in Jesus.
Moreover, Jesus humbled himself even further,
Not only in becoming human,
But especially in becoming obedient unto death itself,
         Acting as if death had authority over him,
         Even though he held ultimate power of death.
Jesus died in the most shameful way by being crucified on the cross.

         Notice that Jesus did not put off his divine nature when he humbled himself. Rather, he saw that servanthood, self-giving love, and sacrifice were essential aspects of God's own nature. The God who revealed himself to Moses as "the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Ex 34:6) is the same God who, in Jesus, chose the way of humility.

         The humbling of Jesus was a two-step process. First, he humbled himself by becoming human. The infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful God became a tiny, limited, helpless baby.

         This is, of course, the part of the story we celebrate at Christmas. And here we see that the humbleness of Jesus birth is magnified by his surroundings: born in a barn, not a palace, visited by shepherds, not Jewish and Roman dignitaries. The One who shared God's own nature was laid to rest in the animals' feed box. Now that's about as low as it goes.

         But not for Jesus. The second part of his humiliation happened in his death. The Source of life, the One who claimed to be "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," chose to die. And not just any old death. He died by crucifixion, one of the most brutal, barbaric means of executing criminals ever invented by the human mind. Crucifixion was so horrible that polite Romans didn't even talk about it. Yet this was the path chosen by Jesus, who humbled himself beyond human comprehension. Indeed, no being has ever fallen further from obvious glory than Jesus. From God's own nature to death on a cross: that's as far as one travel on the hierarchy of glory.

         My friends, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, as we're reminded of his humble human beginnings, let us not forget that these are just the beginnings. Christmas is not the end of Jesus' human story, but just the start. And we don't really grasp the full meaning of the beginning until we grasp the end: his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter.

The End and the Beginning of The Lord of The Rings

         It's rather like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You really don't understand the first things in the story until you discover how it ends.

         Question: How many of you have already seen The Return of the King ? More than once? More than twice? How many of you haven't seen it yet, but you plan to? Okay, and among you folks, how many have already read the whole Tolkien trilogy? So the rest of you will see The Return of the King without knowing how it ends.

         Well, you're in for a treat, let me tell you. You've got a great surprise coming your way. But I'm not going to give it away. That wouldn't be kind - or smart. I have a good friend who is a fine pastor. But two weeks ago in worship he used The Lord of the Rings as an illustration in his sermon, and he completely gave away the ending. As you might imagine, a few folk in his congregation were livid. So I'm not going to follow his example. Wouldn't be prudent.

         But whether you know the whole story today, or whether you've got to wait until you see the third movie, my point remains the same. In order to understand fully the beginning, you've got to know the ending. And that's exactly the way it is for the story of Christmas. Until you know why Jesus was born as a baby and what he came to do, you really aren't able to celebrate Christmas completely.

         Sometimes you'll hear folks speak derisively of "Christmas-Easter Christians," you know, the folks who go to church only on Christmas and Easter. Somebody's grandmother calls them "Poinsettia-Easter Lily Christians." Well, I certainly believe in the benefits of more regular churchgoing, but, in a real sense, we all need to be "Christmas-Easter Christians." We need to celebrate Christmas with an eye to the future. The birth of Jesus, God Incarnate, is amazing. It's a miracle. But it isn't yet the way of salvation. Jesus was born as a human being so that he might die as a human being, bearing human sin upon the cross. That's your sin and my sin.

         Thus the glory of Christmas is an upside-down glory. It's the glory of God made human, the glory of Jesus, God Incarnate, who was born that he might ultimately suffer ever greater humiliation on the cross. And because of his birth which makes possible his saving death, you and I can live in relationship with God forever. Therefore even at Christmas we can sing the words of the classic hymn:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o'er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o'er-take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me:
Lo! it glows with peace and joy. (vss 1-2).

The Ultimate Glory of Jesus

         Philippians 2 begins with the pre-existence of Jesus, moving through his birth as a human being to his humiliating death upon the cross. But it doesn't end there. Verses 9-11 complete the story:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
         and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
         every knee should bend,
         in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
         that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

         The time will come when all beings will bow before Jesus, worshipping him alongside God the Father. Jesus will be fully restored to his divine glory - a glory now augmented by his sacrifice upon the cross.

         The Christmas story includes scenes that foreshadow the universal worship of the future. The shepherds follow angelic guidance to come to the stable where Jesus was laid in a manger. We imagine that they bowed before him in joyful reverence. The visit of the Magi makes this picture more explicit. For we're told that when the wise men from the East saw Jesus, "they bowed down and worshipped him" (Mat 2:11, NIV).

         In this season we imitate those who came to worship Jesus. We bow at the manger, offering our devotion to the baby who is God Incarnate. We do so knowing how the story goes, how this baby will one day bear our sin upon the cross, dying so that we might live forever. And we do so knowing that someday we will join with all creation in bowing before the One who has been highly exalted by the Father, who deserves all glory, honor, and praise.

How Will You Respond to Jesus?

         How will you respond to Jesus this Christmas?

         Will you remember why he was born, and where his story goes?

         Will you receive the gift of life that he alone can give?

         Will you lay down your glory to bow before him?

         Will you offer your worship, your love, your life?

         There are many of you here today who have yet to come to the manger. You're standing back, peering in, wondering how to respond to Jesus. Jesus is calling you through the Spirit.

         He seeks you.

         He wants relationship with you.

         He wants to give you his salvation.

         And he deserves your worship.

         How will you respond to Jesus this Christmas? With faith? With gratitude? With commitment?

         And my friends, even if you've already taken this first step on the journey of faith, Christmas is a time to get back to basics.

It's a time to remember who Jesus is and why he came.

It's a time to put aside all the distractions that fill our lives,

         and come to the manger once again,

         to offer our devotion, our praise, and our love.

         So, in the words of the classic carol, we sing:

Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o'er all the earth;
Ye, who sang creations' story
Now proclaim Messiah's birth:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

Shepherds, in the fields abiding,
Watching o'er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant light:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising
To the eternal Three in One:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!