Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Last Sunday and last night we heard the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth from two different writers: Matthew and Luke. Today we hear the poetic prologue to John’s Gospel, which mentions nothing about angels or Mary or Joseph’s dream or the arduous journey to Bethlehem. In our Gospel reading for Christmas Day, we don’t even get a picture of cute, cuddly baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Instead John transports us back in time to the very beginning of time—even before Creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:1, 14a, ESV).
I hope these words are familiar to you. But that doesn’t mean they make sense. Nothing is more confusing to our minds or more challenging to our sensibilities than the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, or what C.S. Lewis called “the Grand Miracle.” How could God become a human being? What really happened on that first Christmas? How do you explain who or what was lying in the manger? In other words, to borrow a line from a popular Christmas carol, “What child is this?” Who is Jesus?
First False Answer: Not Human
Believe it or not, one answer in the early Church was that Jesus was fully God, but not fully human. In other words, he only appeared to be human, but he was not a real human being like ourselves. Perhaps it is difficult for us to understand why anyone would deny the humanity of Christ, but when you look at his miracles, you can begin to understand why some people just couldn’t “go there.” Jesus gave sight to the blind, calmed the stormy seas, and even raised people from the dead. These are not ordinary accomplishments for regular folks like us. As Jesus’ own disciples wondered, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27).
The view that Jesus was not truly human but only appeared human is known as Docetism. People who espoused Docetism claimed that Jesus did not have a human body because God is Spirit. It was all an illusion or ruse.
I think the character Superman from DC Comics is actually a great analogy for the Docetic view of Christ. In the comics (and movies) Superman isn’t really a man at all. He is an alien creature from the planet Krypton who only appears human. The reason he is able to do things other people can’t, such as fly or have X-ray vision, is because he is not a person. Unlike nearly every other superhero who needs to put on a costume and mask in order to assume their altar ego, Superman is actually his true identity. Superman puts on a necktie and pair of glasses in order to appear as Clark Kent, in order to pretend to be human. And, as such, no matter how much Clark Kent might look like one of us, he is not one of us.
The main trouble with the Docetic view of Christ is this: if Jesus didn’t have a body, then he didn’t really suffer on the cross. And if he didn’t suffer and die for our sins, then atonement has not been made, and we are unforgiven, damned, and doomed to hell. A Christ who only appeared human but was not actually human cannot save us from our sins. And that is why in the opening verses of his first epistle, St. John emphasizes the physical, tactile, and material aspects of the Gospel and incarnation: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands… we proclaim also to you…” (1 John 1:1, 3).
Hearing, sight, and touch are all physical senses. Jesus had skin and bones. He was not a phantom, a spirit, a ghost, or an alien. He was (and is) God in the flesh, God with skin in the game, God as one of us.
Second False Answer: Only Human
But others may object and answer with a completely opposite answer than that of the Docetic Christ. For most people in our world today, it takes little convincing to believe that Jesus was a human being. Sadly, for most people in the world today, Jesus was only that—just a man. Such people deny the divinity of Christ and turn up their noses at such ridiculous doctrines as the virgin birth or the resurrection of the Son of God. They may view Jesus as a good teacher or even a prophet, but he was still just a man—and only a man.
But if we believe the Bible is true, then we cannot take such a low view of Jesus. In John 1, the Evangelist goes to great lengths to show that the one he calls “the Word” had a divine nature and eternal existence. He is uncreated and existed before time began. No mere human being could match that description. Not even an adopted Son, such as the Arian Christ, could foot that bill.
Let’s review what John asserts about Jesus:
In verse 1, John tells us that the Word was God in the beginning, invoking the Genesis account of creation and underscoring his divine nature. In verse 3, we learn that this Word made everything that exists in the universe. Without him, not one thing was made. If the Word existed before creation and is responsible for the act of creation, then he himself cannot be created. He must be the Creator. Next, we are told that the light and life in the Word were also the light of all people (v. 4). Can you think of any other human being besides Jesus to whom we can give credit for our entire life? Then, just to make certain you do not regard this Word (Greek: Logos) as some esoteric concept on an ethereal plane (like Plato’s “ideals”), the most powerful verse of all echoes around us: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The divine, eternal Word “became flesh”! He “tented” among us. He made his dwelling among us. He moved into our neighborhood. He became one of us. And when he did become human, Jesus did not lose or give up his divinity. We see the glory of God in him (v. 14). In Christ we see God face to face (v. 18).
Gospel-Based True Answer: The Word (God) made flesh for us.
We’ve already established that we cannot say Jesus is not human. Nor can we say he is only human. So how do we answer the question, “What child is this?” How do we explain who Jesus is? Who do we understand him to be?
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to use the names and titles attributed to Jesus by the angels, as well as his own favorite names for himself. When we search through the prophecy of Isaiah and the Gospels, we discover such descriptions as these:
• “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23)
• “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6b)
• “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35)
• “the Word” (John 1:1, 14)
• “the Son of Man” (Matt. 8:20; John 3:13-14; 13:31).
These names and titles are a wonderful assortment of divine and human names. That’s because Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, is fully divine and the fully human at the same time. He is 100% God and 100% man. And if we were any less of either of these two natures, our salvation would be in question. If Jesus wasn’t human, he didn’t suffer and die, and he wouldn’t be a suitable sacrifice in our place. If Jesus wasn’t God, he wouldn’t have the authority to forgive our sins or the divine power and sinless nature necessary to do so.
Bottom line: Jesus had to be, must be, and must remain fully God and fully human, or we are not saved. That is why the miracle of the Incarnation is so necessary. Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit and his virgin birth are not theological tack-ons. They are not a useless appendix to our faith. They are not a fairytale or the half-cracked dream of an old sheep herder. No, they are core to who Jesus was and is. When we approach the manger on Christmas, we must always remember, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, that “God is in the manger.” Jesus is the Word of God made flesh—God with skin in the game. He came on Christmas so he could save us from our sins. Not everyone believes this or accepts it, of course—most don’t. But for those who welcome the gift of God’s Son wrapped in human flesh, we too may become children of God:
“He came to his own people, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13).
So instead of asking, “Who is Jesus?” or “What child is this?”, ask instead: “Whose child will you be this Christmas—and forever?” In the name of Jesus. Amen. Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!