Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas, Mortality, & Resurrection

Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve – December 24, 2012
Texts: 1 John 1:1-4; 4:1-3; and Isaiah 53:3-4
Title: Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs

"He was. . . a man of pains and acquainted with infirmity. . . surely he has borne our pains and carried our infirmities" (Isa. 53:3-4).

Humanity has two big problems.  One, we are liable, guilty for our transgressions against God and his gracious law.  We are rebels that deserve his just punishment. That’s the first problem.  We might call this first problem “judicial.”  We have a judicial sentence against us.

The second problem is not unrelated.  We are mortal.  Our humanity is damaged, weak, subject to sickness, injury, and ultimately death.  And our pathetic mortal condition is the result of the fall.  We brought it on ourselves.  We have been afflicted with a death nature.  We could call this second problem “constitutional,” because it is about our makeup, our constitution.

God graciously sent his Son into the world, born of the virgin Mary, united to our human nature, in order to solve for us both of these problems, the judicial and the constitutional, our guilt and our mortality.

Tonight we should all remember that in his suffering and death on the cross as an innocent man Jesus bore the just punishment we deserved.  He took upon himself the judicial sentence against us.  Therefore, humanity’s first problem is solved.  The judicial problem.  We can be forgiven.  The sentence, the punishment against us is lifted.  We are no longer liable for our sins. And we experience that now, in this life.  As Paul says in Ephesians chapter one: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”  This is one of chief reasons God the Son became a man.  He was born to die.  The angels said to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:22).

But that leaves the second “constitutional” problem—mortality.  As believers we are justified—which means forgiven and righteous in God’s sight because we are united to Jesus by faith—but we are still mortal.  Our human existence is fractured and broken.

I had been thinking about this recently, and so I was struck—bowled over may be a better way to describe it—this week when I visited Jane Doe in the elderly care facility.  It’s been a few years or more since I’ve needed to visit one of these residential care facilities for the elderly infirm.  It moved me.  Perhaps because I am getting older myself and can no longer keep the thought of old age at arm's length.  This is the end of all flesh.  We break down.  We collapse, physically and mentally.  Dilapidation, deterioration, decay . . . this is our future, the destiny of mortal humanity.

Jane’s Parkinson’s disease has worked havoc in her mind and body.  She is just a shell of her previous self.  She retired as an English teacher with the Lindbergh school district. I probably had her for English in High School, but I don’t’ remember.  I try to forget everything about High School.  But just ten years ago Jane was still sharp and ready to offer me constructive grammatical criticisms on my sermons.  Now she remembers me, but that’s about all.  And her husband Dick has always been a strong, athletic outdoorsman.  An avid hunter.  Now he visits Jane with a walker, unable to reign in and conquer his own mortal flesh.

But we don’t have to visit an elderly care facility to own up to our own mortal condition.  I’m sure that this year has brought to each of you some renewed appreciation for our mortal existence, as the bodies and minds of our family and friends at Providence provide us with more evidence of our powerlessness and decay—cancer, MS, heart disease, lung disease, mental illness, Alzheimer's, loss of sight, and all those disorders that we really cannot even explain—fibromyalgia, mysterious muscle deterioration, unexplained chronic pain, and more.  And this is to say nothing about and all those minor infirmities that regularly dog us all.

So what does the message of Christmas say to us who mourn our mortal estate, who long to be free, not from the body per se, but from these mortal bodies, this miserable condition?

This.  The eternal Son of God united himself to our mortal human nature in order to fix us.

The Athanasian Creed has us recite that Jesus was “God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.”  Man of the substance of his mother Mary.  And Mary was a member of mortal humanity. She was no unfallen godess.  Jesus united himself to the same mortal humanity as us.  He became one of us.  Jesus’ human nature was not fashioned afresh from the dust of the ground like Adam’s.  He did not get a pristine, pre-fall human mind and body.  He took to himself our dilapidated, cursed, infirm, broken human existence.  And he lived with the same weaknesses, injuries, sicknesses, and dangers that we do.  “He has come in the flesh,” as John says.

Isaiah prophesied, "Surely he has borne our griefs [pains] and carried our sorrows [infirmities]; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted" (Isa. 53:3).  We rightly apply that prophesy to Jesus on the cross.  Taking the judgment on himself that we deserved.  “Stricken, smitten, and afflicted see him dying on the tree."  But there’s another sense in which he as afflicted.”  One that began with his conception and birth.  Jesus was stricken with mortality.  He united himself to afflicted flesh, if you will.  He was sinless, to be sure. But he was not pain-less or trouble-free.

“. . . since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things. . . he had to be made like his brothers in every respect. . . because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. . . for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses" (Heb. 2:14-18).

Once again at Christmas we are reminded of the character of God.  He is not adverse to mixing it up with our actual material existence.  He is not too high, holy, and aloof to experience or pain and sorrow.  The Son of God was not the Teflon man, gliding over and around all the pain and troubles of this mortal life.  Not at all.

But the Son did not unite himself to our mortal, weak flesh merely to sympathize with us, or even just to reveal something of his true divine character; he became man so that he might “raise our fallen state,” as the hymn puts it.  The eternal Son united with our mortal flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary with the full intention of bringing that human nature through death and resurrection, and into a new immortal existence.  The Son didn’t become man for a time.  The incarnation was not temporary.  There was no exit strategy.  The Son assumed our mortal, cursed humanity in order to work deliverance for us “from the inside.”  He was not only born to die, he was born for the resurrection.  And the Son is now united to a completely renovated, transfigured and transformed humanity, the firstfruits of a new creation.

Surely he has borne our pains and carried our infirmities, and not simply to empathize but to bear them away, to carry them off, to bring in a new creation, a renovated humanity,

Because of Christmas there will be a resurrection.  The life we now experience as perishable, dishonorable, and weak will be replaced by a transfigured human nature that will be imperishable, glorious, and powerful.  Paul: “Just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven" (1 Cor. 15).

At the end there will be a loud voice from heaven: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he that was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21).

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