Advent 2019: The Heart for Christmas

Sermon by David Strain on December 15, 2019

Philippians 2:7

Please keep your Bibles in hand and then turn forward with me in the New Testament to Paul’s letter to the Philippians; Philippians chapter 2. On Sunday mornings we have been using the hymn, the ancient hymn to Christ that was used in the early churches that Paul served, and Paul quotes it here; it’s often called “The Carmen Christi,” in verses 5 through 11 of Philippians chapter 2, page 980 and 981 in the church Bibles. So far we’ve been working line by line through this, a line a Sunday, and so far we’ve considered “The Call of Christmas” in verse 5 – Paul summons us to have a different mindset in light of the first coming of Jesus. Then last time we considered “The Plan for Christmas” in verse 6. Paul takes us back into eternity in the preincarnate Christ, in the fellowship of the Trinity, purposing to come and to be our Redeemer. 

And now this week as we turn our attention to verse 7, we’re going to look at the very heart of Christmas. The words of verse 7 take us into the core of the Christmas story, into the heart of the Gospel, and the glories contained there. And we’re going to unpack them under three headings, really three apparent paradoxes that you’ll find in verse 7. If you’ll look at it closely, you’ll notice the first we’ll call “subtraction by addition,” the first paradox; “subtraction by addition.” You see that in verse 7? “He emptied himself” – that’s subtraction. “He emptied himself by taking the form of a servant” – that’s addition. “Subtraction by addition,” the first paradox. The second paradox, “the Lord became a slave.” The Lord became a slave. The one Paul says is “in form God,” is found in form a servant. And then finally the third paradox, “the Creator is born a man.” The Creator become a creature, born of the virgin and laid in the manger. Do you see those three paradoxes in verse 7? “Subtraction by addition,” “the Lord becomes a slave,” and “the Creator is born a creature.” Really in those three steps we’re swept up into the glory of the incarnation of Jesus Christ that is the molten heart of the Christmas story.

Before we consider those three paradoxes then, let’s pause briefly and pray and ask for God to help us as we meditate together on His holy Word. Let us pray.

O Lord, please give us ears to hear what Your Spirit says to the church. We live every day in the wreckage of Adam’s sin and we hurt and we grieve and we limp and our consciences accuse us and our sins cannot be hidden and we know on every pew, in every life, there are needs greater than we can ever hope to fill. And so, acknowledging our weaknesses, confessing our sin, feeling our own frailties and mortality, grieving our losses, we cry to You to shine the light of Christ into our darkness, to bring comfort in our sorrow and pardon for our sin through the preaching of the Word of God in this portion of holy Scripture, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Philippians chapter 2, beginning at the fifth verse. This is the Word of God:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.

On November 29, 1940, the German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi spy and eventually martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote home to his parents from his refuge in Etol as the bombs continued to fall all across Europe. “Christmas comes,” he wrote, “even in the midst of rubble.” “Christmas comes, even in the midst of rubble.” Whatever the evil and the darkness that was descending then around them, whatever the loss and the sorrow yet to be faced by them, Christmas comes, he was saying, Christ has been born, hope endures, light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Bonhoeffer saw the apparently paradoxical character of the Christian Gospel, of the Christmas message very clearly. Didn’t he? Amidst suffering, the final Deliverer has come. In weakness, the strength of the Lord is displayed. While bombs fell, and even in the midst of rubble, Christmas comes. 

And actually for many of us here this morning, those paradoxes that we’ll be thinking about in verse 7 that Bonhoeffer seems so clearly to grasp, have been a lifeline at Christmastime especially. Our sorrows are real, after all, and they can’t be hidden beneath a string of Christmas lights or wiped from our hearts by yet another Christmas party. For some of us, we have found grief to be predatory. It stalks us – waiting in the quiet moments between trips to buy stocking stuffers for the children or the grandchildren and visits from relatives. It’s there ready to pounce, displacing surface smiles with a sudden reminder of who is not here. And in moments like those, we need the proclamation made by the angels that night above the shepherds’ heads while they watched their flocks. “To you, this day, a Savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord! God has been enfleshed. He has been made one with us in our humanity. Stepped into the theater of our struggles, descended into the depths of our losses. Christmas comes, even in the midst of rubble. Death does not win. Sin does not triumph. Darkness is not final. Christ has come into this veil of tears, and in His victory, in His triumph, we have hope. There is hope. Praise the Lord that it is so.” 

Subtraction by Addition 

That’s the message, actually, these three paradoxes in verse 7 teach us. The first of them is what we are calling “subtraction by addition.” “Subtraction by addition.” You will remember in verse 6 the apostle Paul has told us Christ is in form God. That is to say, all that is true of God is true of Christ. He is God the Son, second person of the holy Trinity. And He’s equal with God, Paul says, and does not fear to lose the glory of that essential divine equality that He enjoys with the Father and with the Holy Spirit in the unity of the blessed Trinity, “not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped,” a thing to be clutched at as though He might forfeit His prerogatives, but rather in perfect security, the perfect security of His deity and His dignity, Paul now says “He made Himself nothing,” verse 7. Do you see that phrase? Other translations have, “He made Himself of no reputation.” The Greek actually says something quite striking. The Greek says, “He emptied Himself.” He emptied Himself. 

And so the question is, “Of what did He empty Himself?” It’s clear the moment Paul is talking about, verse 7, will go on to speak about Him “being born.” So the moment in which He emptied Himself is the moment of His birth. He was born of the virgin and laid in a manger. That’s the moment of His self-emptying, but of what did He empty Himself? And there have been, as you may well know, all sorts of wrong answers to that question across the years. For example, some have suggested that He emptied Himself of His deity when He became a man. But that’s actually not what the text says; it’s certainly not what the remainder of the New Testament teaches. And if you think it through theologically, any notion that Christ was less than fully God would leave us without a Savior and without any hope of salvation. He must be the infinite, eternal and unchangeable God in order to deal with the infinite and eternal debt and guilt of our sin against such a God. No one but God could remedy or rescue us from our sin and guilt. He could not empty Himself of His deity is simply a wrong answer.

The second wrong answer, though, is offered by those who say, “No, no, He did not empty Himself of His deity but He emptied Himself of some of the attributes of deity, like glory or omniscience or omnipresence. When He became a man, it wasn’t that He ceased to be God, but He took off almost like taking off a garment, He took off some of the attributes of deity in order to become a man.” That’s the right answer, they say. It’s a wrong answer, actually. What’s happening there is they are think about God as though He were like ourselves, only bigger. You see, we have parts, we have attributes. Don’t we? And we can be angry or sad. We can be weary. We can be strong or weak. And when we move, transition from one to the other, we are still essentially ourselves. Our attributes are sort of additional to the core of who and what we are. Or more graphically, imagine I were in an accident and lost a finger or even a limb. I would still be me. These are parts of me, but I’m still me. I can lose my parts and still be me. They are additional, as it were, to the essence of myself. And we say, “Well, if God is a bit like we are, then God has attributes in addition to His essential self that He can set aside and so He can become a man. That explains it. He emptied Himself of some of His attributes.” 

The problem is, God isn’t like us! He doesn’t have parts. He’s not made up of various attributes which, in combination, equal deity. We talk about God’s attributes like glory and power and omnipresence and omniscience and all the others in the way that we do because we really have no way to put into words the full reality of what it is we are describing. And so inevitably we have to speak of God in a piecemeal fashion, imperfectly. But the truth is, you might say God doesn’t have attributes; God is all His attributes. It’s not that God has glory, that He is who He is and on top of who He is there is a veneer, a layer of glory or holiness or justice. No, no. God is glory. He is holy. He is love. He is goodness. He is power and wisdom. God is all His attributes. And that means, were it possible for God the Son to take away, to subtract from Himself, empty Himself, take off any one of His attributes for any amount of time even, He would simply cease to be God. God doesn’t have attributes; He is His attributes. All His attributes, really, are different ways of speaking from a finite, limited, human perspective about the same essential reality – the single, indivisible, perfect, simple being of the one God who is there. Put simply, God cannot relinquish His attributes any more than He can relinquish His existence. 

We bump into the limits of our vocabulary all the time, perhaps nowhere more frequently than when we sing Christmas carols. One of my favorites is the hymn with which we opened our service, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Wesley has us say, “Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die.” And we know what he means. We think about the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. He reveals to us the Father, but He does not do it by blazing forth in uncreated, impenetrable majesty. Instead, we see an infant nursing in the arms of His mother. We see a Rabbi, teaching in the streets of Jerusalem. And we see a crucified wretch hanging between two criminals, bearing the condemnation He does not deserve but we deserve. And in such a way, God is revealed to us. And that’s, I’m sure, what Wesley is getting at when he says, “Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die.” And yet, is it strictly speaking correct to say that the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the father lays His glory by? Takes off glory in order to become a man? Well that’s simply impossible because God is His glory. Glory is a way of speaking about the essential nature and character of God. He can’t divest Himself of any of His attributes or marks or characteristics without ceasing to be who and what He is. And so that’s the second wrong answer.

There’s another wrong answer. They say, “Okay, He emptied Himself not of deity nor of His attributes, but maybe of His prerogatives, His divine rights.” I think this approach is closer to the truth but it’s still flawed, for this reason – the scandal of the world’s rejection of Jesus is predicated upon the fact that to Him belongs all the prerogatives and rights of deity. The Gospel records everywhere speak to us of creation coming to heal at His word; of the blind seeing, the wind and the waves obeying, the dead raised at His summons. You remember in Luke chapter 5 when the friends lower their paralyzed companion down in front of Jesus into the midst of the company through a hole in the roof that they’ve dug, and Jesus, seeing the paralyzed man says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” And everyone is scandalized because they understand the implicit claim that He is making. They say to one another, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They get it. Jesus is claiming the right and prerogative of deity to forgive. The only one who can forgive is the one against whom we have sinned and offended. He can forgive because He is the God against whom we have transgressed. He doesn’t relinquish any of His rights or prerogatives. 
That’s the shock and the scandal of the cross, after all. It is the God who made the wood upon which He hangs that the world condemns and rejects and denies. So that’s the third wrong answer.

Well okay, Mr. Smartypants! What does it mean that He emptied Himself? How did this great act of voluntary submission, this extraordinary moment of personal subtraction take place? Funnily enough, as is usually the case, if we just pay close enough attention to the text it tells us. We don’t need to be inventive or speculative. In fact, we don’t need to be a smartypants at all. We just need to read the Bible carefully. Who would have thought? Look at verse 7 again please. What does it say? “He emptied Himself” – how? “By taking,” that’s how. He added to His person something that had not been His before. And the addition was a kind of subtraction, as it were. It entailed a kind of emptying, a kind of self-humbling, not by ceasing to be anything that He always was, but by taking that which He had never been. 

The Lord Became a Slave 

What is it that He added? He emptied Himself, we are told, “by taking the form of a servant.” The form of a servant. That takes us neatly, actually, to the second paradox of the text. Here is the Lord now, become a slave. You could translate verse 7, “Himself He emptied, the form of a servant taking.” Back in verse 6, Paul says he was “in form God.” You remember the word for “form” is “morphe.” His was the “morphe of God” and now he says – he uses the same word again – and now he says when He came, He came in the morphe of a servant, “the form of a servant.” All that is true of God, he’s saying, is true of Him. And all that is true of a servant, is true of Him. Actually, the word “servant” is really the Greek word for “slave.” Don’t imagine a well turned out household servant who is on a salary, you know, and has his own life elsewhere. No, this is a slave. He is the lowest of the low. This is meant to be jarring, shocking, scandalous to us. Here is the one who is in form God, the living God Himself, the great I AM, and when He steps onto the scene of human history He comes as a slave, not His own master, as it were. He comes to bear burdens. He comes to do the menial work. 

Did Paul perhaps have John 13 in mind? You remember John 13? On the night when Jesus was betrayed, all His disciples are gathered to celebrate the Passover meal, the Last Supper. And the custom in those days when you came in from the street to sit down at the dinner table, you would customarily have a slave wash the grime from your feet and the feet of your guests. It was a dirty job, and no one of any dignity at all or self-respect at all wanted to do it. It was the work of a slave. And there was no slave present there, so none of the disciples were willing to condescend to do this nasty chore. And you understand now, don’t you, the shock when Jesus rises and takes off His outer garment and girds Himself with a towel and pours some water in a basin and washes the disciples’ feet one at a time? And there’s just stunned silence; utter perplexity, confusion, dismay. They are uncomfortable. “This is slave’s work! How can You demean Yourself like this?” They don’t understand yet that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.” He came to do the dirty, menial chore of making us clean, you see. 

Did he have Isaiah 53 in his mind? “Behold, my Servant. He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that has brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” This is the work of a slave – to bear the burden; to wash the grime and the mire of my sin away. Bearing the curse due my wickedness, wading into the muck of my lust and pride and greed and anger and vanity and laziness; shouldering the burden of my guilt. 

What is Christmas about? It’s about the One who is in form God, the form of a slave taking. He stoops to wash you clean, you see. Christmas comes even in the midst of the rubble. He stoops to wash you clean. Maybe you’re here this morning, aware of your guilt and longing for mercy, looking for relief. That’s why He came. That’s what Christmas is about. The form of a slave taking. He came to serve you by washing you wish His own blood to make you clean, to bear on His own shoulders your guilt, that you might receive pardon. He takes the slaves part. He can make you clean. 

The Creator Was Born a Man 

“Subtraction by addition.” “The Lord became a slave.” Finally, “the Creator was born a man.” Look at the last phrase of verse 7. Literally it reads, “Himself He emptied, the form of a slave taking, in the likeness of men being born.” “The likeness of men” there does not mean the mere resemblance, the mere outward appearance, as if Jesus only looked like a human being but wasn’t really essentially a man. That’s the opposite error from the error we considered before. There are those who say, “No, Jesus was really a man but He merely appeared to be God or He emptied Himself of His deity.” That’s incorrect, but so are those who say “Jesus is really God, but not really a man.” What Paul intends to say is that Jesus is a human being in all the ways in which human beings can be defined, sin excepted. In fact, he likely has the Genesis account in mind. You remember Genesis 1:26, God says He made man “in the image and likeness of God.” In Genesis 5, that language is repeated. Genesis 5:1, when God made man, He made him “in the likeness of God.” But then Genesis 5:3 says “Adam fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”

When Paul says Jesus was born “in the likeness of men,” he’s picking up on that Genesis “Adam” language. You see that? The divine Son, the Creator of our first father, Adam, who made Adam in His own likeness, now comes born of the woman, born under the law to redeem those under the law in the likeness of Adam, as one of us, the second Man, the last Adam. 

Now you remember what happened to Adam in Eden, right? He was tempted by the serpent through Eve to take the forbidden fruit because Satan said to him – what? What was the temptation? “You shall be” – are you awake? “You shall be like God.” Adam certainly thought equality with God a thing to be grasped, didn’t he? He wanted to become what he was not. And so in his rebellion, he broke the law of God and in consequence of his sin we have all been constituted sinners. We live today in the rubble and wreckage of Adam’s first transgression. But a second Man has been born, a last Adam has come, “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” and who gladly became what He was not without ceasing to be what He always was. The living God took flesh and became a servant. Paul will go on, as we’ll see in more detail next week, to become obedient, “obedient to death, even to the death of a cross.”

You see what he’s saying. In place of our first father’s disobedience, instead of what Adam did not do and instead of what we cannot now do, we can’t keep the law of God perfectly. A new Adam, a new father of a redeemed humanity has come and He has perfectly obeyed as the servant of the Lord, the slave who bears our burden and who washes us clean by His obedience and blood. That’s the molten heart of the Christmas message. Can you see it? Sin and death and hell, undone and defeated, by the one who “the form of a slave taking in the likeness of men was born.” The second Adam, the servant of the Lord, “the only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was and continues to be both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever.”

Look, here’s the “so what” for all of this. The sorrow that may yet find a way in under your guard when you’re not looking this Christmas, that sorrow is a reminder to us – a sharp, sometimes wounding reminder – that we are living right now amidst the wreckage and the rubble of Adam’s sin. Isn’t it? But the Christmas message, our celebration this Christmas, is designed to remind us of another Adam who “has come to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.” He has come to find us in the midst of our rubble and heal us, to cleanse and forgive us, and one day He will make all things new and wipe every tear from our eyes. Till then, albeit sometimes through sorrow if need be, brothers and sisters, you can rejoice. Right now “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and the wonders of His love.” Christmas comes, even in the midst of the rubble. Praise God that is does.

Let’s pray together.

O Lord, there are times when we look at the rubble and the wreckage and the ruin around us, of Adam’s first sin and the wreckage we’ve piled on top of it with the sins of our own, and that’s all we can see. And we lose sight of the glorious truth that there has come another Adam, better than the first, who did what the first should have done, what we now can never hope to do. He has kept Your Law and obeyed in our stead and borne our guilt and washed us clean. And now He reigns and rules and is returning to make all things new. And gone will be the wreckage and the rubble. Thank You that Christmas comes, even amidst the rubble. Help us to believe the Christmas Gospel and to rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, even though for now, for a little while if need be, we have been grieved by various kinds of trials, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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