What if God was one of us? Why would it be important for God to become human? These are questions that Christians have contemplated through the centuries. We forget that the first three centuries of the Christian era were consumed by debates about the trinity and the person of Christ. Christians wrestled with each other trying to understand how God could be one in three persons and how Jesus Christ could be fully God and fully human. Church historians refer to this wrestling as the Trinitarian and Christological controversies. The Apostle’s Creed, which focused on the person of Christ, and the Nicene Creed, which focused on the Trinity, were the culmination of this theological ruminating. However, Christians continued to wrestle with these questions. For instance, Anselmo d’ Aosta was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century. It seems strange to have an Italian holding the highest office of the church in England, but the Church of England and the Church of Rome had not gone their separate ways yet. Saint Anselm, as we know him, wrote an important book entitled Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In this classic of Western theology, Anselm continued to explore the importance of the incarnation.
The most basic, and perhaps the most important, answer St. Anselm offered was that God had to become human in order to be our Redeemer. “Redeem”, “redemption”, and “redeemer” are not words that are commonly used anymore. In human terms, a redeemer pays a debt that one person owes to another. For example, let us imagine that a person is diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. The cancer treatments are so expensive that they bankrupt the individual. He or she has incurred a debt they cannot pay. Then a family member or a close friend with financial means steps in and pays all the bills. That person becomes their redeemer. He or she pays the debt.
The scriptures clearly teach that human beings have incurred an unpayable debt by our sins, by our breaking of God’s holy and just commandments. This morning’s text from Hebrews speaks of humanity being indebted to the devil. Hebrews 2:14-15, speaking of Jesus Christ, affirms, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” The notion of humans being indebted to Satan or of Jesus paying a ransom to the devil is odd to us, but it was a prominent theory of Jesus’ redeeming work in the early church. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul describes Satan as “the god of this world.” In Ephesians 2:2, Paul speaks of the devil as “the prince of the power of the air.” Similarly, in the temptation of Jesus in the gospels, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. Satan promises Jesus that he will give him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for bowing down and worshipping. All of this is to say that the god of this world (N.B. god with a small g) has real, albeit temporary, power. We might recall the story of Job in which the sons of God assemble before the LORD and Satan is among them. God calls poor Job to Satan’s attention and gives the devil limited power over Job (Job 1:1-2:10). Hebrews says that the devil has the power of death and the text proclaims that Jesus destroyed Satan’s power through his own death, freeing us from the fear of death in the process. As John Calvin surmised, “He (Jesus) has freed us from a diabolical tyranny.” Jesus redeemed us from the evil one and death by becoming human and dying in our place.
But Jesus also redeemed us from sin. Jesus paid the just penalty to God for our breaking of the Lord’s commandments. God’s justice demanded the death of the sinner, but to die in sin a precursor to damnation. The human race was in a terrible predicament. We could not pay sin’s price to God for without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22). This is why it was essential for Jesus to become truly, genuinely human and remain truly God.
God was Jesus’ father. The angel who appeared to Mary declared, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God (Luke 1:34).” Jesus received his divinity from the godhead, but he received his humanity from the virgin Mary. Roman Catholic tradition believes that Jesus received a sinless, unfallen human nature from Mary. They believe that Mary was born without sin herself and so was able to impart a sinless nature to Jesus. This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Interestingly, the doctrine did not become official church dogma until 1854 when Pope Pius the IX issued, ex cathedra, the Papal Bull “Ineffable God”. Now I do not mention this to give our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters a theological black eye. We have much more in common than the things that divide us. However, this is an important difference. St. Athanasius of Alexander writing in the third century A.D. famously said, “What He has not assumed, he has not redeemed.” If Jesus did not assume our fallen humanity, he could not redeem our fallen nature. In fact, Jesus inherited a fallen human nature from the virgin Mary, who was herself a sinner, but Jesus was able to obey God’s revealed will perfectly. Jesus was without sin and, as a result, he was able to offer himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In verses 14 and 17 of this morning’s text, the author of Hebrews strongly emphasizes that Jesus was just like us. “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things.” “Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” Why was it essential for God to become truly human? There is a theological reason. Without the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and the shedding of his sinless blood, there is no forgiveness for our sins and no liberation of our fallen humanity. Further, without the incarnation there is no freedom from the evil one and death. Without the incarnation we would have remained under a “diabolical tyranny.”
But there is also a pastoral reason for the incarnation. Because Jesus was truly human, because he shared flesh and blood, because he was like us in every respect, because he suffered, Jesus can help those who are suffering, those who are being tested and tempted. Hebrews 4:15 makes this even clear: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” John Calvin, commenting on
this morning’s text wrote, “When all kinds of evil press upon us, let this be our immediate consolation, that nothing befalls us which the Son of God has not experienced Himself, so that He can sympathize with us; and let us not doubt that He is in it with us.” Amen!
I liked how the modern commentator, Louis H. Evans, Jr., described Jesus’ human experience. “As a baby, Jesus was born to a teenage girl whose heart agonized at the oppression of her people. As a lad, He walked streets that were occupied by foreign troops. As a teenager, Jesus knew the frustration of having parents who did not understand His radical calling. As a young businessman, He understood the difficulty of meeting payroll and dealing with adamant customers who demanded unreasonable service. He periodically heard the belligerent knock of the tax collector on His door demanding exorbitant taxes for a foreign oppressor. As a leader of a new movement, He was pained by the slowness of His disciples to grasp the true meaning of God’s kingdom and His servant identity. He felt the rising tide of hostility from the religious establishment and recognized the tightening vise of inexorable political power that was determined to squeeze all the breath out of His new movement. He seethed at the corruption of an illegal trial. He knew the stinging pain of the lash, the exhaustion of carrying a heavy cross, the cruelty of the soldiers pounding nails through His hands and feet. As He hung on the cross for hours, His bones began to pull from their sockets; His mouth was parched with the loss of blood and relentless heat. He experienced the alienating weight of the world’s sin, the yawning chasm growing between Him and His Father. He quietly watched the shades of death pull over His eyes until finally He gasped His last breath and gave over His life to God in a final act of submission. Then His limp and lifeless form was laid in a borrowed tomb.” Evans added, “Something happened in the Godhead when the human experience was added to the Almighty. Yes, Jesus was truly one of us. Since Jesus Christ, God does know.”
This is wonderful news for us. What are you currently suffering? How are you being tested or tempted in this life? Jesus knew the same kinds of temptations and trials and tribulations. Jesus really knows what it is like to be a frail child of dust and feeble as frail. As a result, he is merciful to those who have fallen short and need mercy. Jesus is faithful to those who have been unfaithful to God and to their fellow human beings.
Why is the incarnation so important? Because God became one of us, God really knows our plight. God knows our struggle not because the Almighty is omniscient. God’s knowing is not distant, detached or far removed. God knows our plight intimately through the human experience of Jesus.
We will celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a few moments. The sacrament of communion is a visual proclamation of the truths I have just enunciated. The bread and the wine remind us that Jesus became flesh and blood. Jesus offered his embodied self as a ransom to free us from Satan’s power and from death itself. Jesus shed his blood as our High Priest to pay the just penalty for our transgressions of God’s holy and righteous commandments.
And the acts of eating and drinking remind us of the presence of Jesus in our midst as a merciful and faithful friend of sinners. In Revelation 3:20, the risen Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup (eat) with him, and he with me.” Jesus communes with us in the sacrament as a merciful and faithful friend who understands all our foibles, frailties, and failings.
Jesus shared our fallen humanity, but he kept God’s law perfectly for our sake. He offered his flesh and blood to free us from Satan’s power and from death itself. Jesus sacrificed himself to purchase forgiveness for our sins, and he remains a faithful and merciful friend and high priest.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ and the blessed Holy Spirit for becoming truly human, all for our sake. Alleluia! Amen and Amen!