During the course of Advent, we are celebrating the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. I say celebrating, not mourning. In contrast to a number of Christian traditions, we do not treat this season as a penitential season, but rather a season of anticipation and longing. We celebrate the Incarnation itself, with the deliverance it brought to us, when we come to Christmas itself. But in faith we celebrate the promise of deliverance as we prepare ourselves for the full celebration.
But what is entailed in that promise? The Incarnation highlights two things that we need to have anchored firmly in our minds. First, it underscores the essential goodness of the material creation. The Word of God took on human flesh. Second, it emphasizes the depth of our sin and rebellion. This is what it took to deliver us from our unholy condition. And so the Incarnation must be seen and understood as simultaneously earthy and holy.
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1–4).
Summary of the Text
The reason we are able to celebrate in Christmas joy is because light has appeared in a very dark place. That light is liberation from guilt and condemnation. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (v. 1). But this is not for those who merely say they are in Christ Jesus. There is no condemnation for those who do not walk after the flesh, but rather after the Spirit (v. 1). The condemnation we are no longer under is the condemnation of “sin and death” (v. 2). The thing that set us free is the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (v. 2). In this deliverance, God did for us what the law could not do (v. 3). The law could not perform because it was weakened, hampered, crippled, by the flesh (v. 3). God did this by sending His own Son into the world in the likeness of sinful flesh—not sinful flesh, but the likeness of it (v. 3). God then condemned, in that sacrifice, sin “in the flesh” (v. 3). He did this so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh, but rather according to the Spirit (v. 4).
Flesh and Flesh
Throughout his letters, the apostle Paul uses the word flesh in two distinct ways. The word is sarx, and it can simply mean a material, living body. “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the sarx” (Romans 1:3). Jesus took on a human body, in other words. He truly was descended from David.
But Paul also uses the word to describe the principle of sin that is resident within us. “For when we were in the sarx, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (Romans 7:5).
So in our text, this is why he says “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” This means Jesus was truly and fully a human being—the sinfulness excepted. He had sarx without sarx, in other words.
An Unlikely Marriage
So what Christmas represents is a celebration of materiality and earthiness, on the one hand, and a rejection of unholiness on the other. This is a sensate holiness, in other words. We are called, as Christians, to be earthy—not worldly.
This is very hard for sinners to grasp, particularly religious sinners. We think we understand holiness, but we tend to veer into a rejection of stuff—as though we thought the sin was resident in the matter itself. But Jesus, in the Incarnation, took on a body that was just as material as yours. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). They heard Him speaking, they saw Him in the flesh, and they touched Him with their hands. No, the sin is not in the molecules.
But then sinners veer in the other direction, and think that if the material realm is good, it must be good as our hearts naturally conceive it. But our hearts are where the problem lies. Our hearts cannot see straight.
The Life I Live in the Body
So imagine a platter of fudge in front of you. Christmas fudge, the kind you like. Is there a possibility of sin here? Absolutely, but the problem is not in the fudge. It is never in the stuff itself.
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh [sarx] I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
Gal. 2:20 (KJV)
We are to set our minds on things above:
“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”
Col. 3:2 (KJV)
Now as we do this, it liberates us from the sinfulness of what is going on down here (Col. 3:5). But it also enables us to put on the new man (Col. 3:10), which brings with it a host of practical and very earthy responsibilities (Col. 3:12-17). Being spiritual does not entail becoming a ghostly wraith that floats around the house, beaming at everyone with a ghastly grin. You really need to knock that off.
Too Heavenly Minded?
You have perhaps heard the expression that someone was “so heavenly minded they were no earthly good.” This does happen, and we must guard against it. But if we have taken the lessons of the Incarnation seriously, something else will happen. We will set our minds in the heavens, and with our hands and arms we will pick up material things, and we will do good with them. When I say “pick up material things,” think of Dad carrying all those presents to the car. Think about all the love represented there.
“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
So I would always remind you to think of Christ. Set your minds on Christ. Prior to the Incarnation, before the Word was sent into the world, He was entirely heavenly minded. But remaining that way would have left us in our sins. And so He dwells in everlasting joy now, at the right hand of the Father. But He got there by taking on a material body, which He still has. The Incarnation was permanent, not temporary, and this means that the sanctification of matter was permanent. Being heavenly minded therefore means an ongoing affirmation of material holiness.
Our task is not to “be holy.” Our assigned task is to be “holy with the stuff.”
What role does the transfiguration play (if any) in the celebration of Christmas?