Thoughts from President Ellis — Remembering the Incarnation

This time of year it’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the holidays, as they’re popularly practiced. Food, friends, family; staying up late to talk or play games or watch movies with our loved ones. Maybe they’re loved ones we haven’t seen in months or possibly years, and so we cherish the time we get to spend with them, and they take precedent over other obligations or opportunities. This time we spend celebrating is good and right — we are meant to be present and in fellowship with one another. But it’s just 33 short days from Thanksgiving to Christmas this year, and in between all of the delicious food, family visitation and holiday bustle, it can sometimes feel like we’re running a gauntlet of holiday spirit and cheer just to get through to the New Year. Within that space, it’s crucial that we take the time to attend to the hope of Advent and celebrate the incarnation of Christ among us at Christmastime and the implications for our lives.

One of my favorite verses is 1 Timothy 1:15 — “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.” From this single verse, Paul communicates the Gospel’s deepest truths, truths that are both timely and timeless, and that are certainly appropriate at Christmas. In this passage, Paul communicates to us the core truth of Christ: he came to us so that he might save us. It’s the whole reason for the incarnation. More on this later. Paul also labels himself the worst sinner, but he doesn’t say “I was” the worst. Rather, through the present tense use of “I am the worst,” Paul acknowledges that he yet remains a sinner, and that the memories of his sins prior to his conversion on the road to Emmaus remain with him.

It can be difficult to accept this when we abide solely in our iniquities. The grace of God offered to us through the salvation of Christ doesn’t make sense, especially so if feelings of unworthiness and reluctance keep us from its full acceptance. If you’ve ever received a gift at Christmas, a gift so great or so expensive that you feel you didn’t deserve it, you know something of this feeling. Accepting such a gift can be uncomfortable because it causes us to recognize our iniquity and sin and weigh our worthiness against them. Our sin makes us feel small, broken, weak and ashamed, like the prodigal son returning home after years of reckless and selfish living. But Christ extends his promise to us even here, especially here, where forgiveness makes no sense to our modern minds. In his book “Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming,” theologian Henri Nouwen writes that “…Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake. He left his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to his Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God. Jesus, who told the story to those who criticized him for associating with sinners, himself lived the long and painful journey he describes.”

This is the profound truth Paul communicates: an eternal and loving God as Christ became small, broken, weak and uncomfortable to live in relationship with us, ease our discomfort and ultimately take us home. Paul’s recognition of his sinfulness and need for redemption then allow him to live and act driven by mercy and grace as he extends God’s redemption to each person he encounters. This Christmas, may we remember the beauty of what God has done for us all and be willing to share our story of redemption to those with whom we celebrate.

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