Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord

If you were to stop 100 people on the street and ask them who Jesus is, what do you think they would say? You would expect to get a variety of answers - as we saw in the video, some people reckon Jesus didn’t exist, some that he was a good teacher, a kind man; others that he was the Son of God. But what does that mean?

As we were thinking about in the discussion, we either focus on Jesus as God, in his power and greatness, only appearing to be with us, or we focus on Jesus as Man, one of us, perhaps the best one of us, but still at best human. But as we’ll see, historic Christianity, the faith of the church throughout all its existence, won’t let us have this either or way of thinking about Jesus. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

Rather than an either / or, what we have is a both and - Jesus is fully God and fully man. But how do we know that? This evening, we’re going to do a quick summary of the evidence as the Bible presents it, before thinking about why Jesus’ identity is important.

If you’ll take your Bibles and open to page 1008. Mark chapter 1, the beginning of the good news about Jesus. Now imagine that you are Simon, sitting in your boat. You are a devout Jew, you know that (as we saw last week) ‘The LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ (Deut 6:4). There is one God. This man Jesus comes along and proclaims the kingdom of God is at hand, and calls you to follow him. You do so.

Later in chapter 1, Jesus heals the man with an unclean spirit in your synagogue in Capernaum. Look at 1:27 - ‘And they were all amazed so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”’ (1:27) So who is this Jesus?

Fast forward to chapter 2, Jesus heals the man let down through the roof on the bed. Jesus forgives his sin, heals the man so he can walk, and what is the reaction of the crowd? ‘they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”’ (2:12)

Chapter 3, and as Jesus is casting out unclean spirits, they are recognising him: ‘And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried, “You are the Son of God,”’ (3:11). And it just keeps coming - Jesus doing these amazing things, and all the time you’re saying - who is this Jesus?

Not long afterwards, you’re in a boat. There’s a storm. A really bad storm, because even though you’re a fisherman, you think you’re going to die. What’s worse, Jesus is asleep on the boat. Doesn’t he care? Jesus gets up and calms the sea and the wind with a word. Look at 4:41 - ‘And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”’

Jesus is a man. No doubt about it. You’ve lived with him, travelled with him, ate with him, listened to him. Jesus is fully human. And yet there’s more to him - so when Jesus asks what you think of him, you are in no doubt: ‘You are the Christ.’ (8:29). You may not fully understand what the Christ means at this stage, but there’s no doubt who Jesus is. It’s confirmed at the Transfiguration, when Jesus becomes dazzling white on the mountain, and the voice from heaven declares: ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’ (9:7).

At his trial, when asked if he is ‘The Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ Jesus replies: ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ (14:61-62). The high priest judges it blasphemy, to make himself equal to God, but what if he is speaking the truth? The whole way through, Mark’s gospel is building and building to the mighty declaration by the foreign soldier, who sees clearer than all the religious people of Israel: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (15:39).

Jesus is man, yes, no doubt about it. But Jesus is also God. As Mark says in his very first line: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1). Now what we see being displayed through Jesus’ life, we also see displayed in Jesus’ resurrection - remember just a few weeks ago we heard Thomas’ declaration: ‘My Lord and my God.’ (John 20:28)

We also see it stated elsewhere. Think of John’s gospel, and how does it begin? ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ (John 1:1) This word (logos, wisdom) became flesh. Or think of Philippians 2, that early Christian creed, ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (exploited), but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men...’ (Phil 2:5-7)

Perhaps the greatest of these statements is found in Hebrews 1 (remembering that we could go to many more places in the New Testament... Romans 1, Colossians 1, 1 John 1 etc), the passage we had read. Who is Jesus? He is the Son, through whom God has spoken, the heir of all things, through whom God created the world. ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.’ (Heb 1:3).

If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus. As the Sunday school child once said, Jesus is ‘God with skin on.’ Now perhaps you’ve followed it all through so far, you can see that Jesus is a man, yes, but that he is also God. But the question running through your mind, perhaps you’ve been asked it by a friend is this: why does it matter? What’s the point of Jesus being the God-man?

I want to introduce you to two groups this evening, both of whom got it wrong about Jesus. First up, there was the Docetists (from the Greek ‘to seem’) - they claimed that Jesus was God, yes, but definitely not a real man - he just seemed to be human. Well, even on that brief introduction, you can see what the issues are. If Jesus wasn’t one of us, then how could he die in our place? How can he identify with our struggles and weakness if he only appeared to be human but didn’t actually take on flesh? The Jesus of the Docetists can’t save us.

A wee while later in church history, we meet a man who goes the other way. If the Docetists claimed that Jesus was only God, then Arius went to the other extreme. Jesus was just a man who came into existence when he was born of the virgin Mary, and while he was a good man, the best man ever, he definitely wasn’t God.

It’s because of Arius and his chums that the Nicene Creed (which we tend to use at Communion) is extended: ‘And in one Lord Jesus Christ, The only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made. Being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made...’ The Nicene Creed makes it absolutely sure, doesn’t it?!

Jesus the man, the good man, the best man may inspire us to the best that a man can be, but that’s it. If he’s just another man, then he is not mighty to save, he would have the same problems as the rest of us.

So you see, we affirm what Scripture affirms - that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Nothing less will do. Nothing less will save us. No one else can save us. We see it through the rest of Hebrews, as you have the vision of who Jesus is right at the start - the Son of God, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature - this God took on flesh, came into the world, was made, for a little while lower than the angels, made purification for sins, identifies with us by calling us brothers, shares in our temptations, serves as our great high priest, prays for us, and has lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne.

Sometimes we can underestimate the Lord Jesus as we think of him, or undersell him as we speak of him to our friends. We all, naturally, tend to gravitate towards one or other of his aspects - either emphasising his humanity at the expense of his divinity, or focusing only on his greatness as God while forgetting his humanity. We really do need to hold both together, not in tension, but in perfect harmony, just as we see them displayed in Jesus.

I’ve used this before, but I still think CS Lewis puts it best when he says in Mere Christianity:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Do you?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 12th June 2011

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