Can I begin by saying thank you to those of you who have bought any of my books, calendars and cards over the last three years – all profits do go to the Christian charity AID (Anglican International Development) working in South Sudan, one of the poorest and most war-torn nations in the world. For the last two years that's been over £500 per year. However, in my first year of producing the books and calendars, things were different. The publishers of my original biblical photobooks on Scotland were initially going to charge me £16,000 for 200 copies after initially quoting me £4,000. However, I maintained that they'd broken their agreement and what they'd actually produced was full of mistakes! Following much prayer (and shall we call it discussion) they graciously humbled themselves and charged me zero, after admitting their mistakes and wanting the money raised from the books to go to charity. £2,500 was raised for AID. Sadly the new publishers haven't made many mistakes! But if you still need a last minute gift….
However, humility and self-denial are not qualities normally associated with Christmas today. You only have to look at the sales figures for Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Green Wednesday and online sales to see that. And the January sales are still to come! Not that we don't want people to give or to find the best prices but Christmas can become a time of buy, buy, buy, get, get, get and then regret, regret, regret when we discover the credit card bill does still appear on the mat or online in January! We forget that real giving, real loving involves humility, self-denial and the giving of ourselves.
I like the story about Little Johnny who went to his mum demanding a new bike for Christmas. She said, 'Well Johnny, we don't have the money to just go out and buy you anything you want, and you're not exactly the best behaved. So why don't you write a letter to Jesus and pray for one instead.' He went to his room and sat down to write a letter to Jesus:
I've been a good boy this year and would really appreciate a new bike.
Your Friend, Johnny.'
Now Johnny realised that Jesus knew what kind of boy he was. So, he ripped up the letter and decided to give it another try:
I've been an OK boy this year and I want a new bike.
Yours Truly, Johnny.'
But Johnny knew this wasn't totally honest, so he tore it up and tried again:
I've thought about being a good boy this year so please can I have a new bike?'
Then Johnny looked deep down in his heart. He crumpled up the letter and threw it in the bin and went running outside. By this time his mother was wondering where he was. 'Johnny, where are you?' She ran upstairs looking everywhere when she noticed that the statue of the Virgin Mary was missing. She went into Johnny's bedroom and found this letter. It read:
'Jesus, I've broken most of the Ten Commandments. I'm desperate. I've got your mother. If you ever want to see her again, give me a new bike!'
But humility and self-denial were very much a part of the very first Christmas, as was grace - or God's Riches At Christ's Expense. We can't earn God's indescribable gift of Jesus; we didn't deserve what happened at that first Christmas: God sent and gave his Son in spite of our rebellion against him. Why? Because he loved us. And Philippians 2.5 tells us that our attitude or mindset should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, whose attitude or mindset in his own absolutely remarkable humility, self-denial and giving is the theme of the first part of this passage. Verses 5-8 say this:
"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
This is mind-blowing isn't it? And it wasn't because he'd made mistakes as my publishers had – he wasn't being banished from heaven to earth and then to the cross. No, he was perfect and was being sent, being given by his Father so that we, who have made mistakes and gone our own way, ignoring God, could be rescued, as we'll see.
Jesus, "though he was in the form of God or being in very nature God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped." What does that mean? It means that before his incarnation (the greatest miracle of all according to C.S. Lewis) – that is, before becoming man, before coming to earth to be born as a baby - being fully God, he was prepared to give up his glory and status with his Father in heaven to do his Father's will by dying for our salvation or rescue. The second line of verse 6 insists that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, something to be used for his own advantage. Rather, he made himself nothing and took the form of a servant. The eternal Son didn't think of his status as God as something that gave him the opportunity to get and get and get. Rather because he was in very nature God, because he's one with God, the ultimate giver, he made himself nothing and gave and gave and gave, for you and me. The way given by the Father was giving not getting, sacrifice and humiliation not taking advantage of one's position. That's the way Jesus willingly went and the way we're called to follow him. Are you following him in such a way?
So, verse 7, he then took the first 'step down' of taking on human nature (not ceasing to be God, but 'taking' human nature as well, simultaneously – fully God and fully man). He "emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men". He emptied himself. What does that mean? Well it doesn't mean he emptied himself of him being fully God or the attributes of him being God, no, but rather of his glory. He made himself of no reputation. He was born in a stable. He, along with Mary and Joseph, was a refugee in Egypt. He understands the plight of refugees today. He often had nowhere to lay his head. Jesus became a servant, even a slave. He abandoned his rights; he became a nobody. He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. But again, Paul doesn't say that Jesus was God, gave that up, and became a slave instead. No, without ever abandoning who he was originally - God, he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a slave. To do this he became in human likeness, he became a human being, born of the Virgin Mary, fully God and fully man.
Jesus then took the second 'step down' of dying for us on the cross. Verse 8:
"And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
I don't know how you react to that verse. It's meant to shock – "even death on a cross". Yet today the cross has become such a domesticated symbol that it's hard to hear the shocking overtones. Crosses hang round people's necks and dangle from people's ears. Yet death on a cross was a death of unimaginable pain and utter shame. It was a curse in the eyes of the Jews. Of the various forms of Roman execution, crucifixion could be used only for slaves, rebels and anarchists, never for a Roman citizen unless by the Emperor's decree. Crucifixion was considered too cruel and so shameful that even the word itself was avoided in polite conversation. The writer Cicero said at the time:
"Very far be the very name of the cross, not only from the body, but even from the thought, the eyes, the ears of Roman citizens."
But Jesus, God the Son, fully God and fully man, stooped low and became obedient to death – even to death on a cross. The Lord Christ made himself a nobody, became in fact a slave (becoming a human being in the process), and then humbled himself yet further by obeying his heavenly Father and dying – dying the revolting death of the cross, a death reserved for public enemies and the dregs of the criminal justice system.
And he died on the cross to save you and me from our sins and their consequences, which is eternal death in hell. That's why Jesus came at the first Christmas. He was born to die. That's why we're having this communion service. In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, we read that Mary "will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." It was one of the verses on the Christmas stamps a few years ago commemorating the King James Version of the Bible. It actually appeared on the 2nd class stamp. But it's a first class message. You see, as another part of the Bible says:
"The wages of sin [of putting ourselves first, of living without reference to God] is death [eternal death in hell], but the free gift of God is eternal life [life with God forever] through Christ Jesus our Lord."
Jesus came into the world to take on himself the death and judgement that we deserve so we could be forgiven. That's what happened when he died on the cross. Because he was God, he'd never sinned. Because he'd become man, he could take our place, face our judgement. So that sins have been punished. He has paid. And sinners, such as you and me, can be forgiven if we trust in him. One Christmas card I've received says:
"He came to pay a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we couldn't pay."
That's exactly right. That's what the cross achieved. So, to go back to verse 7, Jesus considered himself our servant. He whom we should rightfully serve came to serve us. He didn't consider serving us as beneath him. As he himself said: "the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many". And (v8) Jesus considered himself God's servant, his Father's servant: he became "obedient to death – even death on the cross". He didn't consider that God's rescue plan was asking too much of him; he didn't obey so far, but no further. He prayed: Not what I will, but what you will.
You see, in the gospel we discover we are far worse off than we thought but also far more loved than we ever dreamed. Another Christmas card puts it like this:
"The God of the Universe invaded history as a tiny baby… for us. He traded the beauty of heaven for a humble manger… for us. He exchanged his glory at the Father's side for humiliation upon the cross for us. He defeated death so we could live for eternity with him. Why? Because he was, and is, passionate about a relationship with us!"
That's the amazing love Jesus Christ has for you. That's what he willingly gave up and did for you. Will you respond this Christmas by humbling yourself and confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, and go his way? For one day we will all confess that he is Lord whether willingly or not. Verses 9-11:
"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
So, either we humbly repent and confess Jesus by faith as Lord now and so have the sure and certain hope of heaven, or we'll confess him in shame and terror when he comes again and have no hope. That's the stark truth. But he wants you to trust him and confess him as Lord now before its too late. He came to give up his life for you on a cruel cross and then rose from the dead, proving that it's true. God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. He is Lord of all. He is coming again as Judge of all. And we're to respond to him in faith and obedience, having the same attitude as him, to the glory of God the Father.