Christmas sermon series: God's Greatest Gift
The following model sermon draws from the prologue of John's Gospel that identified Jesus as the Word made flesh. The sermon title is that of the delightful carol, I Wonder as I Wander, which reflects something of the wonder Joseph experienced.
As John brings the prologue to his gospel to a close, the last five verses - verses 14 through 18 - are like the mighty finale of a musical composition played by some great symphony orchestra. We hear the rolling of drums, the crashing of cymbals - the entire percussion section of the orchestra comes alive. The fingers of the harpist fly across the strings and the trumpets blast.
In these five verses three arresting facts surface regarding the incarnation of our Lord - the mystery by which God became man. First of all, let's note:
I. The great condescension (v. 14a)
The Word became flesh and took up residence among us.
To condescend means to lower oneself to a level not normally occupied - physically, mentally, or socially. It means to descend voluntarily to the level of another person. And with human beings, this is not always done with kindness. Sometimes there is an air of contempt, snobbery, and haughtiness in human condescension. But there is another side to the use of this word. It also means to be graciously willing to do something regarded as beneath one's dignity. This is what God did when He became flesh. With a mysterious mixture of Divine grace and love, He performed the greatest act of condescension of all time and eternity.
The Word that John personified is the very expression and manifestation of God. The creative power of God was in the Word (1:3). With such limitless power, the Word of God condescended to be compressed into human flesh.
John purposely used the crude, blunt word, "flesh." The sophisticated Greeks recoiled from the word flesh in regard to Deity. Flesh, to them, was corruptible, temporary, and doomed to be destroyed and cast aside. No God would deal with anything as degrading as human flesh. Yet that is exactly what God did. He entered human flesh, which stands for the whole person.
In becoming flesh, God accepted the limitations of humanity. He became vulnerable to those natural human weaknesses that accompany our flesh - hunger, thirst, physical weariness, and pain. He experienced the emotional traumas we experience - disappointment, sorrow, hurt, loneliness, and rejection. Because Jesus had no sin nature, He did this without the taint of sin.
While Jesus committed no sin while He was on earth, He experienced sin in a way that was far more overwhelming than committing sin. Why did He cry out in Gethsemane in horror? What caused Him to sweat "great drops of blood," and to plead with His Heavenly Father, "Abba, Father! All things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me" (Mark 14:36)?
Jesus was not about to succumb to some temptation to sin. It was worse than that. He was about to "drink the cup" containing all the sordid sins of mankind compressed together. He became sin for us. John said that Jesus "lived for a while among us." Literally, that means He "pitched His tent" or "cast His lot" with us. He moved in with us.
II. The amazing discovery (v. 14b)
We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Another word of deep significance in this description of our Lord's incarnation is glory. Human beings can achieve a degree of earthly glory. A person performs some outstanding deed, some benevolent act, or makes a great monetary contribution to some worthy cause. Often this person receives honor in a blaze of glory, admiration, and appreciation. Or, a person makes some astounding discovery that makes life easier or more pleasant or safer for us - like Jonas Salk who perfected the polio vaccine, or Louis Pasteur, whose process made milk and milk products safer for human consumption. A degree of human glory is attached to these people.
The first time we see the glory of God is when He declares, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). What light was that? It was not the physical light of the sun, for the sun and stars had not yet been created. It was the glory of God in all of His heavenly brightness. God's glory filled the earth with indescribable beauty. The glory of God appeared next in the mysterious cloud that hovered over the Israelites from the crossing of the Red Sea until they entered the Promised Land 40 years later.
But John wrote, "We have seen his glory." He wrote of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. It was manifested every time He performed a miracle and in His life-changing teachings that arrested the people, convicted them of their sins, and showed them God's desire to forgive them and make them His children. Jesus' glory was revealed when He was transfigured with Moses and Elijah before Peter, James, and John.
What about now? Is it possible for us to observe His glory today? God's glory does not abide in one body now, as it did in the body of Jesus. In the Person of the Holy Spirit, this glory dwells within every believer. It is present not just in the stained-glass experiences we have in our corporate worship assemblies, but in the marketplace on Monday, in the school room, on the athletic field, and in everyday tasks in the home.
Evangelicals are sometimes so afraid of a social gospel that we skirt the edges of desperate human suffering. We can express the glory of God with supernatural effectiveness in such situations. Jesus reacted to human suffering when He healed sick and crippled bodies, and to human hunger when He fed the multitudes, and to human sorrow when He raised Lazarus and the widow of Nain's son from the dead.
The crowning statement John made provided:
III. The startling revelation (v. 18)
No one has ever seen God. The only Son - the One who is at the Father's side - He has revealed Him.
Moses had an overwhelming desire to "see God" (Exodus 33:18-20). It was not mere human curiosity, but the compulsion of a man who bore the awesome responsibility of leading Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Often Moses reached the point of exasperation because of the people's rebellion against his leadership. Feeling the extreme loneliness and sense of failure every leader feels, Moses believed that if he could only see God's glory, he could press on.
John declared that, in Jesus, we have the full revelation of God. No longer is He a faraway, mysterious Being, awesome and unapproachable in His glory and majesty. Rather Jesus communicated the love and tenderness of our God through His teachings and His compassion toward sinful, hurting, desperate people. "No man ever spoke like this!" (John 7:46), His enemies said of Him. "This man really was God's Son!" (Mark 15:39), the Roman centurion who led the crucifiers said of Him.
Indeed, Jesus gave to the world the eternal revelation of who God is and what He longs to become to those who will place their trust in Him.
What can you say about Him today? You can observe His glory, not with the natural eye, but with the eyes of your soul. You can know what God is like through a personal encounter with His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. You can experience the wonder that Joseph experienced when the angel revealed to him that his beloved Mary would give birth to the Son of God, who would be the Word made flesh.
The story behind the song
I Wonder as I Wander, the title carol for this sermon, was discovered by John Jacob Niles, who spent many years wandering around the Appalachian Mountains in search of the origins of folk songs. A composer and singer born in Kentucky in 1892, Niles found one folk song that has become a monument to his years of hard work.
On a cold December day in North Carolina, he watched the people who lived in a poor community going about their daily chores. He heard the sound of a solitary voice that belonged to a little girl sitting alone on a bench. She was singing a song Niles had never heard. When she finished, Niles asked her about the song. She told him that her mother had taught it to her, like her grandmother had taught it to her mother before her. The song was I Wonder as I Wander.
He wrote the words in a small tablet. Long after he had left the child, he continued to hear the hauntingly beautiful words and melody. They were deeply spiritual, thoughtful, but profoundly contained the joy and wonder of Christmas. When Niles introduced the song just before the beginning of World War II, he awed people with his discovery. Until his death in 1980, Niles continued his search for the source of the carol. He never found its author, and concluded that the little girl was an angel sent to deliver a message of the wonder of Christ's birth.
"I wonder as I wander out under the sky,How Jesus the Savior did come for to die,For poor on'ry people like you and like I.I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
"When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall,With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.But high from God's heaven a star's light did fall,And the promise of ages it then did recall.
"If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,Or all of God's angels in heav'n for to sing,He surely could have it, 'cause He was the King."
(Source: Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, pp. 86-90.)
The mystery of the incarnation
Mystery is one of our English words that cover a lot of territory. There are many kinds of mysteries. In the world of literature, there are the "who-done-its" of the Agatha Christie style of writing that are entertaining for those who enjoy that type of reading. Then, innumerable scientific mysteries exist, such as the process of photosynthesis by which light transforms carbon dioxide and water into plant food. Today, there is the mystery of space and the knowledge being gained from observing the vast unknown. Certainly there is the mystery of electricity we have harnessed but cannot fully understand.
Yet the greatest of all mysteries is that of the incarnation of the Son of God - that moment in time and eternity when God chose, by His own methods, to become man.
The incarnation: Not a symbolic act
One of the formal duties of the mayor of a city is to participate in ribbon-cutting ceremonies when a new business opens. Often the mayor does the actual cutting. This is a symbolic act in which the mayor serves as the host who welcomes people to the new establishment. After the ceremony, however, the mayor leaves and returns to his or her office or duties, and the business owner assumes the position of prominence.
It was more than a ribbon-cutting ceremony when the Word became flesh. It was not just a symbolic act when He identified with human beings and extended His offer of salvation to them, only to retreat quickly to His exalted station of glory in heaven.
Additional sermon starters
Receiving Christ's fullness (Colossians 1:19-23)
When God condescended to become man, He did not diminish His glory or oneness with the Father. Though it was God's plan for His Son to grow from infancy into manhood, He was fully God from the moment of His conception. This fullness of God is available for us to enjoy as His children, born of His Spirit into His kingdom.
The gifts of the King (John 1:17; Romans 3:24; 5:21)
The gifts the wise men brought to the Christ Child are a significant part of the Christmas story. But we must remember that God also gives incomparably wonderful gifts to those who receive His Son as Savior - grace and truth. God extended His grace to Joseph in the angelic visitation, and then declared the truth of His Son's incarnation.
Application ideas for life stages or situations
Guarding our words - Jesus is the essence of God's Word. God's inspired Word reflects wonderfully who He is. Even the words we speak as sinful human beings often have far-reaching effects, negative or positive - on those who hear and evaluate them. For adults, a flippant word spoken may make a lasting impression on the mind and memory of a child. Our words reflect who we are. Let us guard the words we speak, lest we sin against God and against others.
A picture of God - Children often wonder what Christ looks like. They will draw pictures of Him. During childhood, visual concepts are extremely important. This would be a good opportunity to impress upon them that the glory of God that was present in Jesus was not observable in His physical appearance, but in the way He reflected His Heavenly Father's love and patience and kindness. Before Jesus came, people conceived God as an awesome Deity, unapproachable in His holiness. But Jesus, who became a man, mirrored the true likeness of the Heavenly Father.
Creative worship ideas
Led by a child - Because John Jacob Niles first heard I Wonder as I Wander sung by a child, an effective introduction of the carol could be to have a young girl sing it. As you tell the story of the carol, the child could begin singing softly at an appropriate point in the narrative.