The Nativity scenes on Christmas cards often portray a nice, cozy setting with clean hay, bathed in a warm, yellow glow.
In reality, however, Jesus entered the world as a baby who didn’t even have a proper place in which to be birthed.
In Luke 2:4-7, we read a description of the conditions of the birth of Jesus. Not being able to find a place fit for human birth, they had to go to an animal stable, and the trough on which animals ate their slop had to be quickly emptied to receive the new baby. This was how Jesus chose to come to us – in a dirty, lowly manger.
We find it odd that the debut of the Savior of the world would be so obscure. We find it natural to look for him in the halls of power, in the courts of kings, in the places where most of us would like to operate.
We think that if God wants our attention, he should do something grand or impressive. But unless we understand why Jesus was born in such a lowly place, we will never understand the heart of God.
There is a passage from the Bible that describes the state of mankind and God’s heartache for us, written in Isaiah 59:8-16.
What did God do when he saw that there was no one to intervene for mankind?
What does this say regarding God’s heart for mankind?
Into this cycle of sin – all of humanity at once both the victims and perpetrators, sinning and being sinned upon –
God enters with his sleeves rolled up.
As much as mankind has fallen into the depth of sin,
God travels that unfathomable distance downward to meet us here.
John 3:16, perhaps the most quoted verse in the entire Bible, reads:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
God has sent an embodiment of himself, his son Jesus, to rescue us from the downward spiral of sin.
The love of God is not merely a heart-warming affirmation – God made his love manifest by coming to us in the flesh.
God – the timeless, all-powerful Creator – broke into time and space. This miracle, called the Incarnation, is bewildering enough.
But in a turn of events that no one could have foreseen, Jesus came and did something that is so unbelievable that mankind has been amazed by it ever since.
Jesus – an embodiment of God himself, the most powerful being to ever walk the earth – came to die the lowliest of deaths.
He was crucified on the cross, the Roman government’s official means of torturously executing its worst criminals.
Jesus’ death would have been just another tragic death of a heroic figure and no more, if it were not for Jesus’ identity.
If Jesus is who he claimed to be, if Jesus is indeed God incarnate, then we need to face the disturbing question:
As we covered in Chapter 4, sin is real and a holy God cannot overlook evil or pretend that it doesn’t exist.
When we see instances of evil and sin, we recognize that there must be some kind of response. There must be justice. However, there is a problem.
We have done wrongs that cannot be erased. And despite our efforts to rid ourselves of guilt and shame, these continue to press upon us.
Our sin reaches out and disfigures people, relationships, and our very souls. We casually utter careless, cruel words and move on, probably forgetting we ever said anything unkind, perhaps even feeling like we did not do anything at all.
And the person scarred by those words is in some way marred permanently.
As adults, we may harbor some illusion that our actions don't count, that somehow our conduct has no effect. And yet we see that's not true.
When we sin, in great and small ways alike, we are actually making a permanent mark on history and damaging the moral fabric of the universe.
Our offenses are against the very authority of God. It violates his holiness and challenges his rule over creation. It grieves his heart and brings wrath on our lives. Sin is vandalism against the structure of God’s will and a stain upon the moral landscape he intended.
Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The price of sin, the Bible tells us, is death – not merely the death of our physical bodies, but our spiritual death: separation from God forever.
We sinned. Yet we cannot bear the penalty of our sin; the debt is too great for us. Notice the dilemma. We are stuck between two dire choices: Do we ask God to just erase our sins and do away with justice? Or do we ask God to uphold justice and do away with sinners?
God unveils His surprising solution: God took on the payment for sin upon himself.
Therefore, the cross stands as a powerful testament to justice, authenticating the Bible’s claim that indeed “the wages of sin is death” and upholding the pillars of justice. At the same time, the cross stands as a powerful demonstration of God’s mercy, showing the extent of God’s love to forgive sinners.
Although forgiveness is offered freely, it is rarely actually free.
Imagine a woman who discovers after 10 years of marriage that her husband has had a string of affairs throughout their marriage.
What does she feel like doing? Leaving him in a fit of rage, wishing that he would writhe in pain all alone? He would deserve that.
She tries to do the impossible for the sake of the children and perhaps out of mercy toward her husband, who is now genuinely sorry.
It is a double pain: first, she has been wronged. The vows they made on their wedding day, all the years of her toil, faithful love, and sacrifice, have been trampled upon by her husband.
But now, in addition to that, she has to take on the burden of forgiving this man.
Every act of genuine forgiveness is this costly;
If we understood how costly forgiveness is, we would not ever dare demand it, and when offered it, we would be struck with awe and gratitude.
If we, with our desensitized, calloused moral sense, sometimes react in disgust and shame at our sin,
Yet, God says, “I will absorb it.” The holy God says, “I will pay for it; I will absorb all that poison, the cesspool of all human sin, upon myself.”
This is what Jesus is doing there, hanging on a cross, having taken on the sins of the world, dying as a sacrificial lamb slain for your sins.
Sin is a rejection of God, a violation and offense to his holy nature and a rebellious challenge to his rule over our lives. Sin is not committed in a vacuum, or only against ourselves, or even just against our fellow men.
It is not about letting ourselves down, or failing to actualize a beautiful life for ourselves, and so feeling disappointed and remorseful that we have not become the people we had hoped.
And the cross is God’s forgiving saving action toward wayward rebels, his magnanimous kindness toward those who have turned away from him.
Whether we reach out and grasp onto the lifeline God extends to us depends a lot on the degree to which we come to realize this.
Parents experience a new kind of fear. Before you become a parent, the world could hurt you, of course, but with a child the world can hurt you in ways that truly terrify you. There is a pain greater than any that come from your own suffering:
Consider a scenario in which a drunk driver collides into a young woman's car, tragically killing her.
Imagine the scene of the drunk driver coming up to the grief-stricken parents of the young woman whom he has killed, and wondering why they are so deeply affected.
One of the insights that the cross gives us is this: our sins wreck God’s heart. Human sin causes this much pain to God because of his great love for every person on earth.
God is personally involved in every act of sin. The question “What does God have to do with my moral failings” misses this message of the cross.
In addition, the cross shows us the gravity of sin. Theologian John Stott explains:
First, our sin must be extremely horrible. Nothing reveals the gravity of sin like the cross[...] For if there was no way by which the righteous God could righteously forgive our unrighteousness,
It is only when we see this that, stripped of our self-righteousness and self-satisfaction, we are ready to put our trust in Christ Jesus as the Savior we urgently need. […]
[...] Indeed, only the man who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the cross, wrote Canon Peter Green, may claim his share in its grace.”
Not only does the cross show us the depth of our sins, but it also shows us the depth of God’s love.
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Jesus demonstrated the greatest love for us by laying down his life. He died for a world that hated and despised him. He was dying for the very people who were nailing him to the cross.
Have you come to see that you have sinned against God?
How does the cross highlight the gravity of sin?
What does the cross of Jesus say regarding your sins?
For further reading, a PDF version of Chapter Five can be found here.