A divine substitute?

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,

Yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

(Isaiah 53. 4&5)

The mystery at the heart of the Christmas story, is the mystery of who this miraculous child really was? Why was he foretold by God’s prophets hundreds of years before his birth, and what is the significance of the way he was described in those ancient writings? Babies were born regularly, frequently, it was nothing new, so why all the fuss about this one?

We have the testimony of the gospel writers, who must surely have had the details directly from Mary herself – who else could have told of the visit by the angel to her home in Nazareth all those months before the trip to Bethlehem? That testimony refers again and again to the prophecies given over the years, which pointed to a coming saviour, one who would save his people, would dwell with them, would bring justice, an eternal rule of peace, and real healing of our sin wounds.

We have Jesus own testimony about himself, coming as the fulfillment of all the old testament scriptures, coming as the one who would reveal God to his people, and would lay down his life for his sheep.

We have God’s direct testimony, at Jesus’ conception, birth, baptism, transfiguration, and ascension into heaven. This was God’s own son; beloved, sent, broken and blessed – for the redeeming of the world.

So on the one hand we have a very simple story; a young woman conceives and gives birth to a son. On the other hand we have a mystery which enchants and inspires us even as it perplexes us; God himself is enclosed in embryo, the creator of the universe submits to the process he himself devised, and takes on human flesh. When he was finally born in Bethlehem, the angelic host could contain themselves no longer, and burst forth in praise and adoration to announce to the shepherds that something absolutely unprecedented was going on!

All through his life, the paradox continued to develop. He was fully human, and lived a sinless life; He was sent to save his people, yet never raised a sword or led an army; He came in fulfillment of all the scriptures, yet the religious leaders opposed and hated him, utterly failing to recognise him. And ultimately on the cross, his death in disgrace and shame was to be his greatest triumph and the means by which his mission was accomplished. By his sufferings for our sins, all those who trust and believe in him are set free from the consequences of sin. His death for us, conquers death for us. His life laid down for us, births new life in us. What a mystery, what profound depths are these to consider!

This is the child whose birth we anticipate and celebrate over again each year; this Christ, the helpless baby who was also the eternal, all-powerful word of God. I am so thankful that at the heart of the story of Christmas is this great mystery, from which every year I am freshly blessed and find new cause for praise and thanksgiving. It is no empty sentimental excuse for a party, but the only gift which could ever really do me good, given by a God whose love I have every reason to trust.

The best songs are the ones which focus my thoughts on this truth, the simple, stunning reality that in Christ, God sent someone else to take my place; and this week, I have been singing one of the simplest and best of them. I close with it, and pray that for all of us, this truth will shine like the light in our darkness in the days ahead.

Child in the manger, infant of Mary;

Outcast and stranger, Lord of all!

Child who inherits all our transgressions,

All our demerits on Him fall.

( Mary Macdonald, 1817-1890; tr Lachlan Macbean, 1853-1931)

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