God in Yonder Stall!

The Necessity of the Incarnation [1]

Every Christmas is a poignant reminder of a wonderful divine “contradiction”: the very God who cannot look on iniquity nevertheless sent his Son into a world which was full of it! Many, faced with immediate questions of how God could in Christ become man, and how Christ, the God-man, could visit our world without becoming tainted by our human context and condition, opt for a gushing yet almost vacuous sentimentality. The “wow!” factor, which should envelope any consideration of the incarnation, becomes for too many the total response to this tremendous mystery.

The “Wow!”, where genuine, ought, to be followed by an eager investigation of the how and why of the birth of Christ. While we shall never pin down all the details of the mysteries of the incarnation, certainly not this side of heaven, worshipful adoration means very little without the desire to explore what God has revealed. For this reason, we pause to engage our minds energetically and lovingly, bent on grasping something of the light of revelation which breaks forth from Holy Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ otherwise known as the written and living Word.

In stimulating worshipers to inquire adoringly as to who was in yonder stall, the hymnist Benjamin Hanby (1833-67) focuses the attention of the faithful on Christ’s person. It was none other than “the Lord, the King of glory” who once filled a Bethlehem feeding trough! The question of who?, however, must be accompanied by the why?  While God’s glory in the person of Christ is a sublime matter worthy of eternal contemplation, the Scriptures, as a divinely given rescue manual, record the mystery for our sake. They answer the Why? question by pointing us to the need and the urgency of our salvation.

A Revelation of Love

Whether Christ would have come into an unfallen world is a moot point. A first advent Initiated by God for the sake of demonstrating his Lordship over creation is hypothetically possible, yet impossible to prove. Scripture witnesses to the incarnation of the Christ in space, time, and history, because of the human race’s failure to outlive its first and only generation of perfect existence. Cast out of Eden because of an Adamic mutiny, humankind was refused the exalted blessings promised to our first parents under condition of obedience. Rightly punished for grasping at an unauthorized and unattainable independence from their Maker, God nevertheless promised boundless mercy upon to those looking to his anointed for salvation from their sins.

Angelically endowed with the name Jesus, the messianic babe embodied God’s visitation of his people for their redemption (Matt. 1:20-21; Lk. 1:68). In his baby face was revealed the retrieving love of God. In our humanity the Son of the Highest, now offspring of a lowly virgin, won back the freely discarded and long forgotten privileges of Eden. He did so by recognizing that nothing less and, indeed, nothing else than his death could pay the extravagant wages of our rebellion (Gal. 3:21). Sharing Heaven’s just and perfect hatred of sin, Jesus embodied the triumph of divine ingenuity in which God, in self-giving love found a way to justify sinners while yet remaining just. To this end, Jesus made his way from the stable to the ignominy of the “The Skull” (skanion [Lk. 23:33]), and from the cross to the tomb.

An Embodiment of Glory

Since the chief end of God is to glorify himself, it was fitting that his salvation should magnify his name. On the one hand, our salvation is so sublime that only he could come up with it; on the other, it is so tender that men and women can, in Christ, experience the majesty of God and yet live. Thus, in the face of baby Jesus God concealed his naked glory, but in order to reveal it in terms accommodated to our finite capacities (2 Cor. 4: 6; 1 Jn. 1:1-4).

As the Shepherds and magi gazed mesmerized at the little bundle of wriggling, whimpering, dribbling and incontinent flesh and blood, they spontaneously worshiped the infant as Emmanuel in human flesh. There, in the stable, they heard no weighty discourse, witnessed no miracle, and saw no halo. Yet they understood by faith that before their very eyes was the promised revelation of God’s glory. Says Ryle, “we read of no greater faith in the whole volume of the Bible”. In centuries past his presence had been evident in the cloud of Shekinah glory which at various times had hovered around the tabernacle and Temple (Exod. 40: 34-35; 2 Chron. 5: 13-14). Now here at last was manifest in person the Messiah ~ the brightest effulgence of God’s glory.This was not the carnal glory besought by the world, but a unique other-worldly glory shining through Jesus in a unique and perfect blend of grace and truth.

A Life of Lawfulness

            The “lustre of the incarnation,” to use Calvin’s phrase, conveyed in Anselm’s words, a precious lesson, namely that only God could pay for human sin, yet only humanity must pay for it. In the God-man (theanthropos) both the ability to pay for sin and the necessity of doing so are met. Angels could have come and verified the justness of our condemnation (Gen. 18:16ff.), but only God in human flesh could actually save us. The full divinity of the babe not only legitimized the worship in the stable worship that first “Christmas” day, it also ensured that the law’s demands would be kept by the law’s Maker at every point at which his people violate it. Thus, God in Christ uniquely completed every act of commission and refrained from all acts of omission required by the law. He worked out perfectly in thought, word, and deed, and throughout every moment of his humiliation, a righteousness acceptable to His Father ~ one that could be reckoned to the account of his people in exchange for their sin (2 Cor. 5:21).

Nothing in the obedience of Christ, however, could off-load from humanity the responsibility of keeping God’s law. Cast as the last Adam, Christ fulfilled his mission to undo the disobedience of the first. Despite a natural birth, his supernatural conception ensured his evasion of the inherited depravity common to humankind. Thus, from the outset, the prospering youth (Lk.2:40, 52) set out to fulfill the divine law in our place. Along the way he endured an ongoing barrage of temptation from without, becoming in Jerusalem the battered innocent. Triumphantly affirming from “yonder tree” that his work was accomplished (Jn. 19: 30), he embraced the penal death due us as transgressors of the God’s holy law.

Such truths fill the mind and deepen our appreciation of the incarnation. To study them throughout the year is to counter the multiple distractions of each Christmas season. We reject the dumbness of the stable mules at “the first Nowell” (cf. Lk. 2:7, 12, 16 and Ps. 32: 9), and nurture through prayer the ability to sing with understanding of the Christ who, once born for us. went on to die for us.

[1] Based on “Why was God in Yonder Stall? The Necessity of the Incarnation”, first published in the Evangelical  Magazine of Wales (Dec./Jan. 1998/99), 8-9