He Came Down from Heaven

Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Date: Advent IV + 12/22/13

Come let us walk in the light of the Lord.

We are going to take advantage of an interesting wrinkle in the lectionary for this year as the exact same Gospel reading is appointed for both today, the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and for Christmas Eve, St. Matthew’s account, as he calls it, of “the birth of Jesus Christ.” On Christmas Eve we will marvel together at the glorious event of the birth of the Savior. Today, however, let us contemplate (as the Name Day of our congregation) the doctrine of The Incarnate Word. It is summarized in the Nicene Creed in the words, he “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.” We say those words every Sunday at every celebration of the Mass. It is an article of faith, faith initiated, inspired and worked in us by God the Holy Spirit through the divine revelation of God’s Word, the Bible. We will see on Christmas Eve how important this revelation was for the virgin’s husband, Joseph. Today we need to see how important this doctrine of the two natures of the Christ is for us.

Our Lutheran Confessions address this doctrine at some length in the Eighth section of the Formula of Concord, “Of the Person of Christ.” This section is preceded by the section dealing with “Of the Lord’s Supper. And that sequence is on purpose to say that if you get the doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament wrong, you are bound to get the doctrine of His person wrong, too, and vice versa, if you get the doctrine of Christ’s person wrong, you are bound to misunderstand the sacrament.

The issue is the personal union of the divine and human natures of Christ. As we confess in the Creed, our Savior is the divine Son of God, the Second Person of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the “only-begotten Son.” So important is this doctrine that the Creed seems to go overboard in nailing it down in the repetitive words, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” The Son of God was “begotten, not made.” That is, it was before anything else was created that God has revealed His triune nature by insisting that the Son is “homousious,” that is, “of one substance with the Father” (there can be no closer relationship than that), and that it is through the Son (not the Father only) that “all things were made” or created in the first place (John 1:3).

The truth is that the divine and human natures in Christ are personally united, so that there are not two Christs, one the Son of God, the other the Son of man, but that one and the same is the Son of God and Son of man, or, as I like to say it, Jesus is not 50-50 but 100% God and 100% human. These two natures are not mingled together yet are in communion with each other in a similar way of a man’s body and soul. “Hence we believe, teach, and confess that [in Christ] God is man and man is God.” At Christmas we celebrate the fact that Mary conceived and bore not a mere man and no more, but the true Son of God and is therefore rightly called and truly is the mother of God. So also we believe, teach, and confess that it was not a mere man who suffered, died, was buried, descended to hell, arose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and was raised to the majesty and almighty power of God for us, but a man whose human nature has such a profound union and communion with the Son of God that it is one person with Him. Therefore we must say the Son of God truly suffered for us. On the cross, we confess in the Good Friday hymn, “O sorrow dread, God Himself is dead.”

Now there is much more that needs to be said especially about how this doctrine is confused by human reason which wants to say, for instance, that Jesus was not true God or that he did not have a true human nature of body and soul. And there are many other heresies that could be mentioned. But I especially like what Martin Luther wrote in his “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John” [LW 22:102-103].

But first let us note our special treatment of the Creed today and how it has been the tradition since at least the Middle Ages that the words “And the Word became flesh” were held in great reverence. When the congregation came to the words, “He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man,” everyone would genuflect, kneel or at least bow profoundly. In days past when I saw people bow during the creed I thought at first it was for the entire state of humiliation rising only at the confession of the resurrection. But I was wrong. And that practice would have us also inappropriately bowing at the mention of Pontius Pilate.

Luther writes, “The following tale is told about a coarse and brutal lout. While the words ‘and was made man’ were being sung in church, he remained standing, neither genuflecting nor removing his hat. He showed no reverence, but just stood there like a clod. All the others dropped to their knees when the Nicene Creed was prayed and chanted devoutly. Then the devil stepped up to him and hit him so hard it made his head spin. He cursed him gruesomely and said, ‘May hell consume you, you boorish ass! If God had become an angel like me and the congregation sang: “God was made an angel,” I would bend not only my knees but my whole body to the ground! Yes, I would crawl ten ells[1] down into the ground. And you vile human creature, you stand there like a stick or a stone. You hear that God did not become an angel but a man like you, and you just stand there like a stick of wood!’ Whether this story is true or not, it is nevertheless in accordance with the faith. With this illustrative story the holy fathers wished to admonish the youth to revere the indescribably great miracle of the incarnation; they wanted us to open our eyes wide and ponder these words well”.[2] One of our more dear and current theologians and teachers, the Reverend Doctor Norman Nagel, is said to have put this mystery in this way: “He became what’s sitting on your chair.”

This is important, as we said, not that we should “understand” this mystery but believe it! It was for us, for me and you, that God’s plan of salvation required that He Himself, the very Creator, should take on our human nature so that He could become the one, perfect, qualified sacrifice for the sin of the world, for all your sin, so that you and those who believe in this salvation may be declared righteous by God and delivered from the judgment of God’s wrath. You have been declared so in your Holy Baptism and in every word of Absolution you receive. As God, Jesus shows us the extent to which God still loves His whole creation. As Man, Jesus shows us not only His personal identity with us, with you in all your trials and hurts and troubles, but that in this way God has raised our very human nature to now be shared with our Creator. Stated a little differently, in Jesus there is now a man running the universe! Therefore all those who belong to Him by baptism and faith share in that divine nature as sons of God, reborn to new, eternal life. This, of course, has much to say about how we relate to one another, to the world and to the church reflecting Christ’s faithfulness and love.

In this faith, in this great mystery of the Incarnate Word let us proceed therefore with the greatest awe and reverence to the worship of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man.

[1]  a former English unit of length (as for cloth) equal to 45 inches.

[2] Luther, Martin: Luther’s Works, Vol. 22. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999.