“The Advents of Christ and the Humility of God”
Genesis 3:1-6; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:1-11
December 1, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We will be taking a break from the Gospel of John and will have a seasonal series for the next six weeks or so, focused on the themes of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
We’ll begin, over the next few weeks, by focusing on a number of things that the advents of Christ reveal to us about God: next week we will consider his power, the week after: his comfort, and the week after that: his call.
But we begin our series this week by considering his humility – by considering together “The Advents of Christ and the Humility of God.”
And as we do so, for this morning, at least, we will hear from several texts: One from the Pentateuch, one from the Psalms, and one from the Epistles.
And so, with all of that in mind, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s Word for us this morning:
From Genesis 3:1-6:
3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God [that Yahweh God] had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
Having heard from Genesis, we now continue our reading of God’s word with Psalm 8:
O Yahweh, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Yahweh, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Finally, we conclude our reading of God’s word with Philippians 2:1-11:
2:1So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Through Moses, David, and Paul, stretching from the Garden of Eden to the Work of Christ, this is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Most Merciful God,
In this season of Advent, we remember that you are a God who comes to his people.
You drew close in your interactions with your people, Israel.
You drew close in your birth and incarnation.
You will draw close on the last day when you come back to the earth in power and in bodily form.
And you promise us, that you also draw close now, by your Holy Spirit, when your people are gathered, and when we come to your Word.
This morning, we, your Body, are gathered.
This morning, we, your Body, are attending to your Word.
And so, we ask you now, Christ, to come among us, and speak to us, mold us, and shape us.
We ask, Lord Christ, that you would do this for your tender mercy’s sake.
Advent is the season of the Church year in which the Church has historically focused on the theme of Christ coming to his people.
A number of people have contributed over the centuries to the Church’s thinking and theology regarding Advent, but one chief contributor is Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was an abbot of a Cistercian monastery in twelfth-century France. He was, in many ways, a pastor-theologian: he was a deep theological thinker who oversaw the spiritual lives of the monks in his charge.
And in addition to his ministry to those in his monastery, Bernard also had a writing ministry. He wrote hymns – some of which we still sing today. He also wrote and published his sermons – including a set of sermons on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, which has shaped the Western Church’s understanding of Advent for centuries following his death.
And in that set of sermons Bernard addressed a number of things. But the theme I want to focus on this morning is the humility of God that is revealed in the advents of Christ.
In his first sermon on Advent, Bernard frames the problem humanity faces and part of the solution Christ offers by imagining the thoughts Christ may have had before his incarnation.
In this imagined scene, Christ, considering humanity, says “They have all envied me. I am coming, and I am showing myself to be such that anyone who chooses to be envious, who aches to imitate me, may do so, and this emulation may become a good thing.” [Advent, Sermon 1.4 (p.6-7)]
Now – what’s going on in this short passage?
Bernard is pointing out that both humanity’s fall into sin and death, and humanity’s salvation to righteousness and eternal life are rooted, in some way, in an imitation of God.
The problem is that humanity’s fall is rooted in a false view of God, that leads us to pride, while humanity’s salvation is rooted in a true view of God and his humility.
With that concept as a starting point, we will consider three things from God’s Word this morning.
First, we will expose the false view that we often imitate of a prideful God.
Second, we will behold the true view of the humility of God in his four advents.
And finally, we will consider how we can imitate the humility of God revealed in his advents.
So: We will expose the false view that we imitate of a prideful God, we will behold the true view of the humility of God revealed in his four advents, and then we will consider how we can imitate the humility of God seen in his advents.
So first, we must expose the false view of a prideful God that we imitate.
Bernard of Clairvaux gets at this when he speaks of how humanity’s fall is rooted in their envy of God, which, we will see, led them to imitate a false view of who God is.
And this truth is revealed to us in Genesis chapter three, which we heard just a few minutes ago.
And key here is the serpent’s – is Satan’s – claim about what God is really like. In verse five the serpent offers his explanation as to why God will not yet allow Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He says that God told them to not to eat it because “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”
Within the view of God that the serpent presents, there is a claim about God, and then a claim about what we as human beings should do.
First, the claim about God is that he is a God who elevates himself by keeping others down and withholding good things from them.
God, in other words, is a prideful God. He is a selfish God who hoards good things for himself and is concerned with keeping others down.
This is the false view of a prideful God that the serpent presents.
And within that view is an implication for what human beings should do. The implication is that human beings should act in the same way.
Satan’s implied claim is that since God is pridefully looking out for himself, human beings must do the same. Satan basically tells Adam and Eve that the best way for them to imitate God – to be like God, as he puts it – is to grasp at power and status, and look out primarily for themselves.
Of course, as we step back and think about it, we realize that Satan is not actually helping Adam and Eve to imitate God … he is helping Adam and Eve in imitating him – in imitating Satan. It was Satan who fell from righteousness by grasping at a higher position – not God. It was Satan who wanted to hoard power and glory for himself – not God. Satan, as he talks to Adam and Eve, has described God as being in his own – in Satan’s own – image.
In any case, Adam and Eve embrace the false view of God as a prideful God. And then they imitate that false view of God. In pride and selfishness they grasp at the forbidden fruit, and with it, a higher status and position for themselves.
And human beings have been suspicious of God and grasping at a higher position ever since.
Think about it in your own life: How often are you suspicious of God? How often do you suspect that he is withholding something good from you? How often do you feel like he is not giving you what you are entitled to? How often do you resent God, whether because of some good thing he has withheld from you in this life, or because of some sinful thing you want and are angry he has forbidden?
How often do you feel like God has it easy, and he’s laid too heavy a burden on you? How often do you feel like God does not have your best interests in mind?
Maybe you’d never say it out loud. Maybe you’d never even let the words of the thought fully form in your head. But maybe if you’re honest, you know the thought is there in your gut.
Or … even if you don’t detect it in your thoughts or feelings, maybe it is clear in your actions.
Because every time you grasp at something that God has forbidden from you, you are revealing that in your heart you believe that God is prideful and withholding, just as Satan said he was. Every time you grasp at power or authority or status or prestige that God has not granted, you are acting just as Adam and Eve did, and at root you are embracing the same lie that they did – the same false view of God.
And so much of our sin, whether we acknowledge it or not, is about status, and power, and authority, and so rooted in this false view of God.
Think about anger, for example. How often is the root cause of your anger and outrage that you are not being given the status or the prestige or the power that you want or think you deserve? How much of your anger grows out of feeling slighted or disrespected? How much of your anger grows out of frustration when your prideful grasping at position and power is thwarted?
Or think about greed. Inordinate desire for wealth and money can grow out of many things. But often it grows out of a grasping at position and desire for elevation. More than anything else, you want to have more money than someone else. So often, the driving force behind greed is prideful grasping at status.
And we could go on: On the one side, our drive towards success and accomplishment is often at root a hungry grasping at position. On the other side, our slothful avoidance of work is usually an assertion and a demand that we are above such work, while others are not.
Even sexual sin is often driven by a prideful grasping at status. At the root of so much adultery and promiscuity is the claim that we deserve better, that we deserve more, and that getting what we want proves our superiority to others. And the primary lust that is written into so much popular pornography today is not just lust for sex, but lust for power over others.
In every arena of sin in our lives we see something of Genesis three playing out. We see ourselves grasping at power or position. And the root of that sinful grasping, whether we notice it or not, is a belief in the lie of the serpent – a belief in the lie that God is a prideful God who grasps at and hordes good things for himself.
The first thing that the coming of Christ tells us we must do, is that we must expose this false view of God that we so often imitate.
That’s the first thing.
The second thing that we must do, is that we must instead behold the humility of God in his four advents.
We must behold the humility of God in his four advents.
Because, as Bernard reminded us, one of the many goals of Christ’s incarnation was to show who he really is and what he really is like – and Christ reveals that to us in his four advents.
Now – what do I mean by the four advents of Christ?
Our culture tends to treat the season of Advent as simply a pre-Christmas season, but in the historic reflections and traditions of the Church, while Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas, it is also much more than that.
As Bernard of Clairvaux would put it, it is a season focused not on the one coming of Christ, but the multiple comings of Christ.
The traditional Church calendar walks the Church through the ministry of Christ every year. In Advent, one of the things we focus on is the preparation for and the events leading up to the incarnation and birth of Christ. In Christmas we remember that incarnation and birth. In Epiphany we consider the various ways Christ was revealed to his people and then to the nations. In Lent we remember Christ’s suffering. In the season of Easter we remember his resurrection. On Ascension Sunday we remember Christ’s ascent to heaven and his sitting on the right hand of God the Father. On Pentecost Sunday we remember Christ’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit onto the Church. Then following Pentecost is a long season which in some ways symbolizes the ongoing, ordinary ministry of Christ, now through his Church, by His Spirit. And then, at the end of the Church year we come back to Advent, and remember not only the first coming – the first advent – of Christ, but also the final coming, or final advent, of Christ – his coming again in power and glory at the Last Day, to make all things new, to raise all people, to judge both the living and the dead, and then to live with his people for all eternity.
Historically, the season of Advent has been a time not only of considering Christ’s first advent, but also his final advent – his final coming.
But Bernard of Clairvaux also emphasized that if the theme of Advent is Christ’s coming, then even with these two comings of Christ in mind, our picture is still incomplete.
Because Christ also comes to his people now, through His Spirit. Bernard referred to this as Christ’s “intermediate” coming – his coming to his people through the Holy Spirit, in the interim between his incarnation and his final coming.
Thus, Bernard referred to the three advents – the three comings – of Christ.
And that is a helpful framework for us … but as we think about it, we might add one more piece. We might add to this a fourth category: we might consider the pre-incarnate comings of Christ, particularly as he came to his people not only through the Spirit as he does for us now, but also in mighty works of redemptive history before the incarnation – as Jude 5 says, it was Jesus who saved Israel from Egypt.
Advent then gives us the theme of Christ being a God who is not far off, but who comes to his people. He came to them in mighty works towards Israel before his incarnation. He came to them in flesh and blood in his incarnation. He comes to us now through his Spirit in this interim between his incarnation and his coming in glory. And finally, he will come to us on the Last Day in judgment and power.
Each of those comings is different in a number of ways. The means by which Christ comes in each is different. The works Christ accomplishes in each coming is different. The point in history in which Christ accomplishes each advent is different.
Though the four comings of Christ that the season of Advent point us to are all different, the key … the important piece for us to remember … is that they all point us to the same Christ. They all point us to the same God – the God who comes to, who draws close to, who dwells with his people. And as the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Heb. 13:8]
And so Advent gives us a season to consider together the ways in which Christ draws close to his people, and then to reflect on what those advents tell us about who he is. And one of the first things we see – which we will focus on this morning – is that Christ’s advents reveal the humility of God.
Christ’s advents reveal to us the humility of God – what theologians have sometimes called the “condescension” of God. It points us to the theme of God lowering himself – of God stooping down to those beneath him.
So how do we see the humility of God in his four comings?
Well we see it first in his pre-incarnate advents, as alluded to by David in Psalm 8.
In verses three and four, David, speaking to God, writes: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
David looks at creation and sees its majesty and remembers that God indeed made it all, and that all the beauty, and all the power we might see in all of creation is really derived – is in some sense borrowed – from him … from God.
That is how high God is. David can see this as he looks at God’s creation.
But along with that, David knows from his own life and from the Hebrew Scriptures that God is still mindful of humanity. God has cared for humanity. God has been at work to save, and defend, and shepherd a people for himself – Israel – and he has done this in order to bless humanity.
David recognizes how small humanity is compared to God. And yet … God has been mindful of us. God has cared for us.
This in itself tells us something of the humility of God.
But if that is so in the pre-incarnate work of Christ reflected on by David, then it is even more true in the incarnate coming of Christ.
And that is what we hear in Philippians chapter two. There the Apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus, who as the Son of God was in the very form of God, did not grasp at equality with God, but instead “emptied himself, by 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.”
The astounding claim of the incarnation – the astounding claim of the Nativity – is that Jesus Christ, the Maker of all things, the One who is over all of creation, lowered himself so much that he took on the form of his creatures. And as he did, he arrived not as a strong and powerful man, but he chose to be born as a small and helpless baby. He arrived not to a family of prestige and power, but to an unknown couple from Galilee. He was born not into a palace, but was placed instead in a humble manger.
And why did he do all this? Why did he lower himself?
In order to serve us. In order to save us. In order to draw close to us.
That is the humility of God.
We see it in his pre-incarnate care for Israel. We see it, of course, in his incarnation. But we also see it in his final coming.
Even the final coming of Christ shows the humility of God.
Let me explain what I mean.
Christ’s final coming is usually associated with his glory – and it should be. It is his coming in glory.
And yet, I would suggest that it is also an act of humility.
Consider how the Apostle John describes the final state of God’s people, after Christ’s return and the final judgment. We read in Revelation twenty-one:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’
“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”
Here, in Revelation twenty-one, we have the account of God making all things new. Heaven is renewed. The earth is renewed. And then creation enters its final state. And what is that final state?
The dwelling place of God is with man. God and his people dwell together for all of eternity.
This is of course the greatest joy and consolation we could imagine for us. It is our hope and our glory.
But do you see how it is also a picture of the humility of God?
God, the Maker of the universe, will dwell for eternity with you and with me. With his small and humble creatures. That will be his dwelling place forever.
He will be glorified, to be sure, and he will be joyful and content to dwell with us.
But do you see the humility, the condescension, in the fact that our high and lofty infinite, eternal, and omnipotent Maker will dwell with us, his finite and weak creatures, forever? That he would lower himself to be with us for all eternity?
In the final coming of Christ, we again see his humility.
We see it in his pre-incarnate comings, in his incarnation, in his bodily return.
Finally, we see the humility of God in Christ’s dwelling with us now by his Holy Spirit – in what Bernard calls his “intermediate coming.”
Christ draws close to us his people now, by his Spirit. And that too shows his humility. For we are not an impressive bunch.
First, God’s people have rarely been impressive as a whole in the eyes of the world. We have not usually been the wisest or the brightest or the most powerful. But our God, we are told, is one who associates with the weak and lowly.
And if we are unimpressive in the eyes of the world, then we are even more so in the eyes of God’s righteous law.
We are a sinful people. We are a selfish people. We are a foolish people. We are a self-interested and petty people.
That is what the church was like in the first century. That is what the church is like today. That is what our church is like here in our congregation.
And yet … God still draws close to us by his Spirit. He says to us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matt. 28:20] He says to us: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” [Matt. 18:20]
Christ’s humility is revealed in the fact that he associates even with us. He draws close to us by his Spirit though we are weak, though we are unremarkable, though we are sinful and unclean in ourselves.
Christ’s humility is seen in his pre-incarnate work, in his incarnation at the Nativity, in his dwelling with us forever on the last day, and in his drawing close to us now, even this morning, by his Holy Spirit.
Our God is a humble God.
And the first thing we must do is behold that reality.
That is our God. He is not the passive and indifferent God of the deists or the cold and demanding God of the moralists. And he is certainly not the selfish and self-serving hoarder of glory and blessing that the serpent tells us he is, and which we far too often believe that he is.
In the advents of Christ we see the humility of God. Our God is a God who lowers himself. He is a God who blesses those beneath him. He is a God who serves those beneath him. He is a God who loves those beneath him. He is a God who does all those things, even for sinners like you and me. This is the humility of God revealed in his advents.
And as we have said, one of our chief callings as we consider the advents of Christ is to simply marvel at who he is and what he has done, and to respond with thanks and praise – with joy and worship. The humility of God in Christ’s advents should lead us to delight and hope and thanksgiving. We should marvel at the beauty of the gospel.
But then second, along with that, as Paul reminds us in Philippians two, we should also respond with imitation. Paul points out to us that as we behold the humility of Christ we are not only to marvel, but we are to follow – we are to seek to walk in his ways.
And as we heard earlier, Bernard of Clairvaux considered this one of the chief aims of Christ’s advents – to give us a true picture to imitate. Of course, we seek to follow Christ and to walk in his ways not in our own strength, but by his power and by his Spirit. But while the power is his, the responsibility is ours. And so we must ask what it looks like for us to follow in the footsteps of Christ and imitate his humility.
And following Bernard, perhaps the best place to think about this is to consider how Christ’s advents and the humility of God should shape the way we relate to those in authority over us, and to those under our authority. [Sermon 3.4-7]
Let’s briefly consider each.
First, the humility of God revealed in the advents of Christ should shape how we relate to those in authority and power over us.
Who is it – whether in your family or at work or in the church or the government or in some other role or institution – who is it who has authority over you in an area … and it just drives you crazy that they do?
Who would that be for you?
The advents of Christ remind us that rather than bristling and bucking against the human beings God has placed over us, our calling is to humbly accept where the Lord has put us. We might think of how we are smarter than those over us. We might think of how we are more righteous than those over us. We might think of any number of ways that we believe we are better than those over us.
And even if we are right in every one of those assessments … it doesn’t really matter. Because our superiority to those who are in authority over us will never come close to Christ’s superiority to those who were in worldly authority over him. Yet he honored them and served them. From his imperfect parents when he was a child, to his elders and relatives as he grew up, to the religious leaders in the synagogue when he was a youth and then a man, to Herod, and to Pilate, every human being in earthly authority over Christ was inferior to him in every way that mattered. But Christ is a God of humility. And he served and honored each worldly authority over him in humility. What would it look like for you to do the same? What would it look like for you to imitate our Lord?
The humility of God revealed in the advents of Christ should shape how we relate to those with power or authority over us.
Second, the humility of God revealed in the advents of Christ should shape how we relate to those over whom we have authority or power.
We are often quick to get impatient with those who are under our authority when they do not do what we want them to do. It might be those under our authority at work. It might be those under our authority in some other group or institution. But I think this truth comes out especially clearly when it comes to those who are under our authority in our families – when it comes to our children.
How often, when our children disobey, or when they just make a mess, or when they need help with mundane tasks, or when they break something or spill something or mess something up – how often do we find ourselves getting frustrated because, we tell ourselves, we shouldn’t have to deal with this … we don’t deserve these frustrations … because we are above doing these sorts of things!
And yet … however humbling or humiliating the task is that our children need from us … the amount that we humble ourselves for them will never come close to the amount that Christ humbled himself for us.
The difference between the order we want for our own lives and the mess introduced by our children’s lives will never come close to the distance between the right order God had in his own life and the mess we brought to him with our spiritual condition. The humiliation our children put us through will never compare to the humiliation we put Christ through. And the number of times we have to say the same thing to our children, over and over again, will never even get close to the number of times that Christ has had to say the same thing to us, over and over again, through his Word and his people and his Spirit.
And as it’s true for our children, so it is true in the same way for anyone else who may be under our authority.
Christ shed his precious blood for us and for those we have authority over. How do you need to let the humility of God revealed in the advents of Christ shape how you relate to those under your authority?
There are many ways that the humility of God should shape us and change our actions – these relationships are just a few examples. But they are a good start.
The challenge, in whatever area of life we may be considering, is to ask yourself: How have you been acting like Adam and Eve and the serpent towards those around you? How have you grasped at more power and authority? And then, how does the humility of God revealed in the advents of Christ call you to relate to those around you like he does?
Adam and Eve fell from grace and brought death and destruction into the world by trying to be like God.
Surprisingly, what we find in God’s Word is that humanity’s restoration in general, and the health and healing of our lives in particular, will also come about by us trying to be like God.
But not by trying to be like the selfish and self-centered God described by Satan – not by grasping at being like the prideful God depicted by the serpent.
Instead, fullness of life comes to us as we accept and then imitate the humility of God revealed in the advents of Christ – the God who rescues his people Israel, the God who took on flesh and blood in order to save his people, the God who will deign to make his dwelling place with his creatures for all eternity, and the God who even now draws close to us by his Spirit, despite all our failures and imperfections.
It is by God’s humility that we receive eternal life in the gospel. And it is by walking in that same humility that we truly become more like God.
This sermon draws on material from:
Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard of Clairvaux: Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season. Translated by Irene Edmonds, Wendy Mary Beckett, and Conrad Greenia OCSO. Edited by John Leinenweber. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2007.
Connell, Martin. Eternity Today: On the Liturgical Year. Vol 1. New York, Continuum.2006.