Advent 2019: The Cost of Christmas

Sermon by David Strain on December 22, 2019

Philippians 2:8

If you’d please keep your Bibles in hand and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Philippians chapter 2; page 980 in the church Bibles. Across the course of these Advent Sunday mornings we have been using Philippians 2:5-11, sometimes called the “Carmen Christi,” the “hymn to Christ.” It’s an ancient hymn that the apostle Paul quotes and includes in his letter to the Philippians as an apt summary of the life and work and ministry of the Lord Jesus. We’ve been working through the Carmen Christi, line by line, a Sunday at a time, to help us as we think about the significance of Jesus coming that first Christmas. 

And so several weeks ago in verse 5 we thought about “The Call of Christmas.” Verse 5 is a summons, a call to a different mindset, a different outlook and attitude in light of who Jesus is and why He came – “The Call of Christmas.” And then, verse 6, when we considered it together we thought about “The Plan for Christmas.” Paul takes us back into eternity and helps us reflect on the voluntary condescension of Christ, the divine Son who embraces the mission the Father gives to Him and comes for us and for our salvation. And then last time in verse 7 we thought together about “The Heart of Christmas” where Paul reflects on the self-humbling of Christ who, being the eternal Son of God, became man; more than that He became a slave. He came all the way down into our humanity and was born of the virgin and laid in a manger. 

And that means of course that we are, today, at verse 8 where we’ll think together now about “The Cost of Christmas.” “The Cost of Christmas.” It takes us, verse 8 takes us from the manger all the way to the cross. And that may seem to you to be an unusual move for the Sunday before Christmas to be talking about the thirty-three year old Jesus hanging on a Roman gibbet on Golgotha instead of talking about the infant Christ nursing in Mary’s arms, laid in a manger in Bethlehem. But it could not be more important. It could not be more important for us to understand that while the nativity scene is, no doubt, more picturesque, more romantic, more Christmasy, that the nativity really makes no sense, none, apart from the cross. “Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” That’s the question. Why is He there? Why did God become a man in Jesus Christ? What’s going on? “Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian fear, for sinners here, the silent word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.” Apart from Calvary, Bethlehem can’t help us.

In the eleventh century, the bishop of Canterbury in England, a man called Anselm, wrote a book, and a famous book, around an imagined dialogue with a character rather unfortunately named Boso, in which Anselm asks his famous question, “Cur Deus Homo?” – “Why the God-man?” Why did God become a man? Boso could not understand it. What possible need could there be that would necessitate this kind of divine intervention that the God of the universe should be joined to humanity in Jesus Christ? Why? What in the world would demand that God should become a man? As Boso expresses his incredulity, his unbelief, Anselm replies simply, “You have not yet considered the heavy weight of sin.” If you understood sin, then you’d understand why God went to such extreme, such lengths to secure our deliverance. The crushing burden of sin required not just that God become man in Jesus Christ, but that as both God and man, He make full satisfaction for our sin by His obedience and blood. Nothing less could secure our salvation. That’s why Jesus was born. That’s why God became man. That’s why He lay in such mean estate. If you only have the baby of Bethlehem and not the man of Calvary, you may have a pretty Christmas scene for your greeting card but that is all you have. You cannot have peace with God. The cross, do you see, is the reason for the cradle. The cross is the reason. Christmas would be an empty celebration without Calvary. 

And Philippians 2:8, our text this morning, is making that point with some force. Now before we read the passage together and begin to unpack how Paul does that in Philippians 2:8, let me ask you to please bow your heads with me as we seek the help of God to understand and embrace His Word. Let’s pray.

O Lord, we cannot hide from You. Your Word chases us down as it did long ago in Eden when our first parents sinned. You called, “Where are you?” Your Word still searches us out and there’s no hiding place from the light of Your gaze. And so we want to stop running today and find as we turn to answer Your summons that You do not stand before us to condemn, but in Jesus Christ you come to us with mercy; You come to us with forgiveness and cleansing and hope. So as we hear the call and are interrogated by the Scriptures together this morning, we ask You please to bring that good news to bear upon our hearts and minds, on our consciences, on our souls. Bring us to Christ and in Him provide our heart’s deepest need. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

Philippians 2 at verse 5. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”


Among the most beloved Christmas stories surely is Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It’s also got to be one of the most remade movie subjects ever. After a bit of digging I think I uncovered thirty-two movie adaptations of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, although of course you all will immediately agree that none of them surpass the 1951 black and white version, Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim. You can say the same for the various Grinch movies. Couldn’t you? There are any number of animated and live action versions of The Grinch, although obviously all right-thinking people will agree with me that none of them can surpass the 1966 animation, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. You can keep your Jim Carrey. You cannot beat Boris Karloff playing the Grinch and Thurl Ravenscroft singing, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch!” It just can’t be beaten. Look, the fact is, the fact is, when Hollywood does a remake it typically does not improve on the original. Right? Haven’t you found that to be true? When they do a new script, it’s not usually better than the old script. 

What if I were to tell you that it is possible to have the script of your life rewritten and the rewrite be better than the original? It’s possible to have the script of your life rewritten and the rewrite will be better than the original. In many respects, that’s what verse 8 is saying here. The old story of sin and failure, of Adam’s sin and failure way back in the garden and of your sin and failure and mine, has been overwritten. A new script, a new story has been written in the obedience and blood of Jesus Christ. That is why He came. He came to write a new script for your life and mine. And you will remember how Paul in verse 7, as we considered verse7 last week, seems to be alluding to the creation account, to the Genesis account of Adam made in the likeness, the image and likeness of God – Genesis 1:26. And Genesis 5:1-3 when Adam has a child, his children are in his likeness. So when he says that Jesus came “in likeness of men,” he’s saying He came, the one who made Adam in His own likeness, the God who made Adam in His likeness, now comes born of the woman, born of the virgin Mary, in the likeness of Adam. One of us in the likeness of men. One of us to do what the first Adam should have done but did not do – to obey where our first parent failed and disobeyed, to write a new story. 

The Humility of Christ

And verse 8, our text this morning, unpacks how He did that. And it begins, if you’ll look at verse 8 with me, it begins focusing on the humility of Christ. Do you see that language in verse 8 – the humility of Christ. “Being found in human form, he humbled himself.” One of the things you might have noticed as we’ve worked through this passage, Philippians 2:5-11, over the past several weeks, is that verses 5 through 8 map a downward trajectory, step by step, down and down and down. You see that pattern in verse 5 through 8? It begins with Christ “who is in form God, not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped.” So it begins in the heights, in glory, meditating on the dignity and deity of the Son, dwelling in perfect fellowship and equality with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the unity of the blessed Trinity. It begins in unimaginable majesty and glory.

And then Paul says “he emptied himself, he made himself nothing, he humbled himself.” He emptied himself not of deity, nor of dignity, not even of His rights or prerogatives or privileges. He emptied Himself, Paul says, “by taking the form of a servant,” literally “the form of a slave,” and “being born in the likeness of men.” He took human nature. He came down into human nature. It’s a staggering statement – that God should unite Himself, the creature be united to the Creator. We imagine the angels who, as the Gospel records tell us, were present throughout the whole course of Christ’s earthly life and ministry. We imagine them overcome with wonder as their Creator and King, the God who fills the universe, is joined to cells, multiplying and dividing in the womb of the virgin. And there He is now, the righteous Lord before whom the angelic court in heaven must veil their faces. There He is now, born into the world by pain and blood like every other descendent of Adam. It’s a stunning thing to think about. No wonder the angels burst into song as they did that night over the shepherds’ head and erupted in praise, “Glory to God in the Highest!” they sang. Who could keep silent at such a moment?

“But surely that is humiliation enough,” one angel says to another. “Surely the Lord won’t linger in such frailty and ignominy much longer. Surely He will quickly display His power and rise to kingly dignity and authority! After all, isn’t He David’s heir? Isn’t that His birthright?” But no, Paul says, instead “He emptied Himself” – look – “taking the form of a slave.” Not just down into human nature, as shocking as that is, but down further into the menial, unlovely nature of a slave. He came down, remember, into the demands of the fickle crowds who wanted His miracles – “Oh yes, give us miraculous bread! Feed us! Give us healing!” – they wanted His miracles but they didn’t want Him. He came down into bodily need, to physical need. With the woman at the well in John 4, He’s asking for a drink and when nailed between two criminals, He is slowly, agonizingly bleeding out, dehydrating, He cries out, “I thirst.” He came down into the heartrending love that beat within Him, love for the lost. “Seeing the crowds,” Matthew 9:36, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” He came down into grief and sorrow. You remember Him at the graveside of His friend, Lazarus, overcome. “Jesus wept,” John tells us. “Being found in human form He humbled Himself.”

This was His characteristic stance, His daily habit, His constant attitude. He humbled Himself. There was no pride in Him. He came as the servant of all. Adam, you remember, Adam didn’t humble Himself. This was not Adam’s posture. Instead of humility, under the rule of God, Adam’s pride usurped God’s rights to dictate the limits of Adam’s freedom and Adam disobeyed. He ate the forbidden fruit and the whole human race, “descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression,” as our catechism so marvelously puts it. 

And now let’s be honest with ourselves, ever since our first father ate the forbidden fruit, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil back in Eden, we have all come to bear the family likeness. Haven’t we? Paul exhorts us in our passage back in verse 3 that in humility we should “count others more significant than ourselves.” Count others more significant than ourselves. That’s a definition of humility, and we find it awfully hard to do. Don’t we? I do. There’s too much of Adam about me. Isn’t that something you must confess? It doesn’t come easily, humility. Instead, with William Ernest Henley, we can say, if not in words then in a thousand daily acts of quiet rebellion against the rule of God, we can say, “It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” That’s our stance, that’s our posture, ever since Adam ate the forbidden fruit. Hasn’t that been our attitude? “I’m in charge. I will be god and king in my private world!” But not so, Jesus Christ. There was no pride, no boasting in the second and last Adam. He did not withhold any affection, any mercy, any time, anything of Himself from anyone who sought Him, although it made Him the slave of all. The humility of Jesus. Do you see it?

The Obedience of Christ 

And then secondly notice not just the note of humility, but how that humility expressed itself in particular. Look at the text again, verse 8. “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient.” Here now is the obedience of Christ. First the humility, now the obedience of Christ. Down into humanity, down further into slavery, down into obedience the Lord of all obeying under the yoke of His own Law. The Scriptures tell us that He obeyed the command that the Father had given Him when He was designated in eternity, before creation, as the Savior of sinners. He was born that first Christmas – Christmas itself was an act of obedience by the Son. He came because He was obedient to the Father. And all His every words, His every works, His every action, everything that He ever would do, He would do under the governance and direction and in obedience to the decree and design of God. So for example, Jesus would say in John 5:36, “The works the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about Me that the Father has sent Me.” The works the Father has given Me to do. Or John 12:49, “I have not spoken on My own authority but the Father who sent Me, He Himself has given Me a commandment, what to say and what to speak, and I know that His commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told Me.” His every word and every deed was circumscribed and governed and directed by the plan of the Father and He meekly obeyed.

And more than that, more than the secret sovereign decree of God directing His course as our Redeemer, He obeyed the written transcript of the character of God provided and published to the whole world in God’s moral Law in holy Scripture. He obeyed every word, every jot and tittle. He was our obedient Savior who kept the Law perfectly. You remember how He faced down satanic temptation to transgress against the Father and to break God’s Law. There in the wilderness He did not cave; He did not buckle. He was obedient and submissive. He was, Hebrews 4:15, “tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.” He was obedient to the will of God, so much so that He would say, even at the climax of His earthly course of obedience there in the garden, having given His all and is now ready to surrender His very life for us, He would say, “Not My will but Your will be done.” He is obedient. He is obedient. 

Why is He obedient? Think about it this way. Why was it necessary when God became a man in Jesus Christ that He come as a baby and live a whole life, a lifetime before He went to the cross? Why is there a lifetime of obedience necessary? Why not simply come and die? He obeys, there’s a life of obedience because the verdict necessary for God to be satisfied in the heavenly tribunal in your case and mine is more than “not guilty.” You know that’s the best an earthly court can do. The lawyers in the room I’m sure can help me here later, but earthly judges do not declare anyone innocent. The best they can do is say, “not guilty.” And even were that the standard that God would require, we would all fall short of it because we are all guilty in Adam and guilty in our own sin to boot. But God’s standard is higher still. He requires not just a “not guilty” verdict. He requires a verdict of “righteous.” You must be righteous to stand with confidence before the heavenly tribunal at the bar of God’s justice. The standard is righteous. Perfect obedience. 

And in light of such a standard, who here has hope if their hope was founded on their own obedience, their own goodness? Not me. Not you. Your best righteousness will damn you forever. You need the righteousness of another. You need someone else to act for you. You need another Adam. The first Adam acted for us. Didn’t he? He was a public person; he was our representative. That’s why when he sinned we are guilty and his sin is imputed to us, reckoned to us, and his sin has affected the whole human race. We need another Adam to do what the first ought to have done but did not. We need an obedient second Adam. That’s why He came. That’s why there’s a whole life of obedience – that the verdict, “righteous,” that God must pass over the obedience of His Son might become your verdict, the verdict passed over you, not because you are righteous in yourself but because He is righteous for you. That is why He came. That’s what Christmas is about. That’s what’s on offer. Guilty? Ashamed? Afraid to lift your eyes to God, wondering, as David so beautifully put it earlier, “if God is done with you”? Is there any hope for you? There is a righteous Savior whose righteousness can cover all your sin and guilt. He is obedient for you. He is obedient for you, in your place, that looking on you through His Son, God will say of you, “Righteous in My sight,” with the righteousness of Jesus Christ reckoned to your account. “For as by one man’s disobedience,” Adam, “the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience,” Jesus Christ, “the many are made righteous,” Romans 5:19.

The Death of Christ

And then look how far His obedience went. Look at the lengths to which His obedience took Him. First His humility, then His obedience. Now we need to see His death. “He was obedient to death,” verse 8 says, “even death on a cross.” You see, obedience for Jesus required not just that He positively obey the precepts of God’s holy Law, but that He satisfy the penalties of the Law that I broke and that you broke. “The wages of sin is” – what? I’m asking you. “The wages of sin is death.” The wrath and curse of God! And He pays in full that you might live. He dies that you might live. You know, all sin must be paid for. The righteous justice of God requires that all sin be paid for. And we will pay ourselves or Christ will pay for us. Those are the only choices. Either He bears the wrath and curse of God in your place or you will bear the wrath and curse of God in hell forever. Which will it be? Which will it be in your case? 

Do notice how Christ came down into humanity and then down into slavery, down into obedience, down, Paul says, into death. But more than that, we have to go further than that. Not just any death, down into the wretched, ignominious, shameful, cursed death of the cross. “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even the death of the cross.” Paul is stunned. Even the death of a cross! Can you imagine a more shameful thing? You see, in those days the cross was not a symbol of faith. You would never think to wear it as an item of jewelry. That would be in terribly poor taste. The cross was a symbol of horror and shame. The Romans so abhorred the cross they reserved crucifixion only for criminals and slaves and rebels. The Roman orator, Cicero, wrote this. He said, “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen but even from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.” So it’s a repugnant thing to them, do you see. And for the Jewish people there was even more stigma attached than the natural horror at something so ugly as a cross because Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged upon a tree.” To a Jew, crucifixion was the clear sign of God’s rejection and wrath. “He became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood and sealed my pardon with His blood, hallelujah! What a Savior!” No condemnation. None. He was condemned for your pardon. He died that you might live.

Brothers and sisters, make no mistake, here is the central message of Christmas. This is why He came. “Cur Deus Homo” – “Why the God-man?” The cross! That’s why! Because the gravity of your sin demanded it. Now see how much you are loved. Do you see how much you are loved that He should give His all to pay your penalty? That’s what Christmas is about. That’s why it’s worth celebrating. Let me ask you then, “Has your debt been paid? Has your debt been paid?” Has God said over you, “Righteous in My sight with the righteousness of My Son!” Have you taken God’s Christmas gift, His own Son Jesus Christ, by faith? Is He yours? Are you His? What a Savior we have in Jesus. Take Him. He is for you. Let’s pray together.

O God, we cry out to You for mercy. We’ve played with our sin. We’ve called it a trifling thing and we’ve shrugged at it and gone on our way when You have poured out the white, hot fury of Your wrath and curse because of the least of our sins upon the shoulders of our Savior, the Lord Jesus. Forgive us, those of us who are Christians, for treating our sin so casually. Give to us the grace of true repentance. And for those of us who are not Christians, who are not come to know the Lord Jesus for themselves, today, now, we pray, O God, show them their need of a Savior and show them the perfect provision of a Savior You have made in the baby of Bethlehem who is the man of Calvary, who by His obedience and blood has done all that is now necessary to reconcile us to You. Draw us, every one of us here, back to Christ, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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