Mystery of the Incarnation
by Jack Wald | December 25th, 2005

Colossians 1:24-27

Aurelius Augustinus, Augustine of Hippo, was born in what is today Algeria on November 13, 354 and died on August 28, 430 when the Vandals had Hippo under siege. Although he lived more than fifteen hundred years ago, Roman Catholics consider him a saint and the pre-eminent Doctor of the Church. Evangelical Protestants consider Augustine, along with the Apostle Paul and the Bible, to be the theological source of the Reformation teaching on salvation and grace. He was North African by birth, Roman by education and a citizen of heaven who, I believe, takes great interest in the church of North Africa as he awaits our arrival.

In his sermon 187 he wrote of the mystery of the Incarnation. Here is a poem taken from that sermon.
Mystery of the Incarnation
by Augustine of Hippo

Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
And small in the form of a servant.

How could the creator of the world be created? How could Jesus, the second person in the Trinity, be with God and be born of Mary? How could he be in two places at the same time? How could Jesus, God in the flesh, who is omnipresent – everywhere present, be a baby in a manger, filling not the whole world but just a small feeding trough? How could the one who rules the world lie helpless as a baby needing to be nursed by his mother? If she did not feed him, he would die. How could this be?

There is much in Christian faith that is a mystery. Mystery is at the heart of Christmas and Easter. Pay attention to the words of the Christmas hymns we sing and you will see mystery written through them. We come near a truth and strain to grasp it and discover that with all our reasoning power and all our reflection that the truth remains a mystery.

There are many who are uncomfortable with mystery. There are many who prefer a gospel that is straight, direct, clear and uncomplicated and who would deny that there is any mystery in their Christianity.

What would the Gospel be like if there was no mystery? Perhaps this might be that story, the Gospel without mystery.

Joseph and Mary had a baby who they named Jesus. Although Jesus was not a family name, they named him Jesus, which means – one who saves, because of their desire that someone come who would save Israel from the occupation of the Romans.

Although they lived in Nazareth, they had to go to Bethlehem because of a census that was being taken. While there, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Joseph practiced his trade of carpentry for a few years before returning to Nazareth. Jesus grew up and became associated with others who desired that Israel be freed from the Roman occupiers.

He had a quick mind and became a spokesman for his friends. He had a charismatic personality that attracted many to him. He began to teach with a wisdom that amazed his friends. Because of the power of his personality, many who came to him were encouraged and some even claimed that they were healed by him, although this had much to do with their positive feelings and in reality, they healed themselves.

As the crowds around Jesus gained in strength, he was emboldened to go to Jerusalem and confront the ruling authorities. While there he was arrested and charged with treason for conspiring against the ruling authorities. He was found guilty and put to death by crucifixion.

After his death there was a resurgence in the memories of those who had known him and they spread the message of his teaching. His teachings were written down and they have passed through the generations and continue to influence people around the world to be better people, kinder to their neighbors and more generous to the poor.

Take away the mystery from Jesus and there is no visit to Mary by an angel, no virgin birth, no appearance to the shepherds, no magi coming to see him, no escape to Egypt and no slaughter of baby boys by Heron. There is no resurrection, no promised return.

Take away the mystery from Jesus and you have a good moral teacher, a positive example that inspires us all, a leader who failed to fulfill his potential to overthrow an oppressive regime but nevertheless was worth imitating.

Take away the mystery of Jesus and there is no salvation, no being seen as righteous in the eyes of God, no being gradually transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

Take away the mystery of Jesus and he is just one of many who have inspired their followers but have done nothing to help with the problem of our separation from God.

Mystery is an integral part of our belief as Christians but many of us are uncomfortable with mystery because mystery means we don’t fully understand and we cannot fully explain much of what we believe.

We will never be able to fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Three persons in one being? The shell, egg white and yolk of an egg? Water, steam and ice? You can take any analogy you want and you will never escape our four dimensional world that limits our understanding.

Ask me to explain the Trinity and I will have something to say but the truth is that I cannot explain it.

Ask me to explain how God could be made man and I will tell you what I know but the truth is that I don’t understand it.

We say so easily that God loves us. But how is that God who created the universe in all its grandeur and perhaps universes beyond this one also cares about us? Do you realize how small you are in the universe? One species on one planet of one solar system in one galaxy of the universe. This is a great mystery. It would be absolutely preposterous if it were not true.

Don’t be uncomfortable with mystery. Don’t be embarrassed by mystery. If there was no mystery, there would be no Christian life. You don’t have to be able to explain something to make it true.

The truth is that truth about God is going to be greater than our understanding. If this were not so, then we would have a man-made religion limited by our imagination. We do not and cannot understand all of what we believe because we believe in the God who pre-existed creation, who created the laws of physics that hold the universe together, who is the great orchestrator and makes all things work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. We believe in the God who is truth which we can only partially grasp.

Don’t take for granted what is too wonderful for us to understand.

In the first letter of the apostle Peter he wrote:
I Peter 1
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,  4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you,  5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care,  11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.  12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

When angels long to look into something, you can count on mystery being present.

Here is a mystery upon which you can meditate this Christmas.

Colossians 1:25-27
I have become [the church’s] servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—  26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.  27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

In another of Augustine’s sermons he again spoke of the mystery of Jesus.
He lies in a manger, but contains the world.
He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels.
He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality.
He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers.
(St. Augustine, Sermon 190 3, 4)

Christ in you, the hope of glory. Jesus found no place in the inn, but makes for himself a temple in the hearts of believers.

Is it amazing that God could be contained in a manger? How amazing is it that Christ is in you? How amazing is it that the Holy Spirit works in you to transform you to be like Christ?

Brennan Manning tells a story of a young boy who became obsessed with the image of a face that appeared in the natural rock formations on the side of a mountain. If you stood just in the right place, you could see the outline of the forehead, nose, and chin of what appeared to be the face of a kingly man. Every day the boy would go up into the hills and stare for hours at the face. Soon he reached the conclusion that this was the image of someone who would someday come to his town, and that he might actually get the opportunity to meet the gentle and mysterious person behind the face.

The boy began hanging around the docks, examining the face of each person who would get off a boat, looking for that one special face. As years went by, the boy became a man, but he stubbornly kept studying the face on the mountain and going to the docks every day to see if he could find that face.

One day, years later, when he was very old, he asked one of the passengers who had just gotten off a ship, “Are you the face on the mountain? Is it you?”

The traveler stopped and looked at the old man for a long time. Finally he answered, “No, it’s you.”

The old man had gazed so intently at the face on the mountain that he had taken on its image.

This is a grand mystery. God is at work in me, transforming me to be like himself.

We celebrate today the birth of Jesus. This is a great mystery and for that we give praise to God who is far greater than we can comprehend, far more complex than we can understand.

We stand with Job to whom God revealed himself. Afterwards Job reflected on what he had seen.
Job 42:3b
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

God is at work in you, drawing you to a more intimate relationship with himself. He has offered to you eternal salvation through Jesus. When you accept his gift he gives you the Holy Spirit who is at work in you, transforming you to be more like Jesus.

This is far more than doctrine of the Christian faith, this is a grand and glorious mystery. Embrace it. Be filled with joy because of it. Find strength and hope in this mystery.