Sunday, 27 December 2015

Christmas and doubt

Doubt and skepticism are powerful in our culture. In some ways this is good because it can make us investigate and not believe something too quickly. For example, I’m glad I was skeptical of some of the products I saw advertised on some late night infomercials.

 … So doubt and skepticism can be a good thing, especially in a culture where we are dealing with a constant stream of advertising.

Religion is often a target by the doubting and skeptical. In the Bible, in the letter of Jude we read, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (1:22). The Bible allows room for those who doubt. … But, we can go too far with this. It can become a general attitude we adopt as a way of appearing intelligent. Dallas Willard, who was a philosopher from the University of Southern California once said, “We believe the skeptical person to be more intelligent in our culture. You can be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt” (Hearing God by Dallas Willard, Epilogue). A cheap and easy way of appearing intelligent in our culture is just to be skeptical and doubting of everything. Doubt can be useful when it helps us restrain belief until we have more information, but it can be a hindrance as a general attitude. Imagine being married to someone who is always doubting your faithfulness. 
Imagine trying to work on a scaffolding with someone who is constantly doubting its safety. (could you get anything done?) Imagine trying to teach someone math when they are constantly doubting logic itself. It can be hard to actually live life if we are living in a constant state of skepticism and doubt.

Now I don’t want to get into all that too deeply, but as I was preparing I felt i wanted to speak to those here who doubt. I want to address those of us who deal with doubts about the Christmas Story, and maybe even Christianity in general. 

The Christmas Story is this:
It begins with God- specifically, God’s “Word”. (The Bible often uses poetic language to describe things that are mostly beyond human understanding.) God’s Word caused the universe to spring into existence. His Word results in the Big Bang. And, God’s Word doesn’t stop at creating. God’s word also keeps the universe existing. The Word causes the law of gravity, and regulates the speed of light, and causes the forces that holds atoms together, and causes all the intricacies that govern the universe and hold it together like a living tapestry. God’s Word creates and holds together everything in existence.

We read about God’s Word in John’s biography of Jesus, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).

Christianity makes the shocking claim that we have experienced God’s Word as a human being, which is really the same as saying we have experienced God as a human being. In the letter written to the Hebrews we read, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

And in the letter to the Colossians we read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15-17, 19).

The Christmas story is ultimately this. That God, in some wonderfully mysterious way that our human minds can't fully grasp, was experienced as a baby born to Jewish parents in occupied Palestine. It is a shocking claim that a God who is so universal as to create the universe itself, would become a particular Jewish man living in a particular place, and would speak a particular language. God and humanity would be united as Jesus Christ of Nazareth, born of Mary.

There is a political message tied up in his birth, as well. Caesar and his Roman Empire ruled most of what they knew of the world. It was a massive empire that encompassed the area around the Mediterranean and beyond- England to Iraq. The Caesar claimed to bring peace, but it was at the point of a sword. Caesar considered himself divine and claimed to bring immeasurable blessings to the world. He claimed to be the greatest savior that ever was, or ever would be.

By contrast, the “Good News” of the angels to the shepherds is “to you is born this day … the Savior” (Luke 2:10-11). They announce the arrival of the true Saviour, not born in a Roman palace, but identifying with the poor and laid in an animal’s feeding trough- a manger. News of his birth came to social outcasts, which is what shepherds were. He was born to a woman under threat of stoning for being an unwed mother. He was born among an oppressed people in a land occupied by a foreign army.

However, he does have royal lineage. He was one of the (many) descendants of King David, but like David he would be an unexpected king. He will be a threat to royalty. King Herod is willing to kill children to eliminate threats to his rule. Caesar is willing to crucify threats to his rule. … Jesus would not rule by the point of a sword, but through love. He would not be king by killing the competition, but by becoming a servant. That is the Christmas Story.

What if you put your doubts aside for a moment? If you can handle it, put the doubts aside just for tonight and ask yourself “what if it’s true?” What if God really did come to us as a human being in some mysterious way that we can’t fully understand? What if his teachings are true? What if he came to show us a way to live that gives our lives eternal value? What if love is more powerful than the violence of Caesar or King Herod? What if God came and showed us that the poor and oppressed are valuable by being born into poverty and oppression? What if Jesus opened a way for us to have a profound and real relationship with the Creator of the universe? What if it’s real? Even if you just live in that reality for tonight. What if?

For many of us, the story is easy to doubt because it is a familiar story. It is a sentimental image on a Christmas card. It’s like a picture that hangs on the wall in the house you grew up in. You walk past it on the way to the washroom to brush your teeth and you hardly ever give it a glance. It’s always just there as part of the background. It’s familiar.

There was a painting that had been in the family of a man named Martin Kober for a long time. It is a picture of Jesus in the arms of his mother after having been removed from the cross. It was an old painting that had always been a part of the background of the family. It hung on the wall for many years until one day the painting was knocked off the wall when the kids were playing with a tennis ball. The family left the painting behind the couch, perhaps to keep it from being knocked to the ground again. There the painting sat for nearly 30 years, unseen, gathering dust.

One day Martin decided to have the painting appraised to see if it had any value. He blew the dust off and took it to an art expert. To his surprise the expert confirmed the family legend. The expert believed that the painting was the work of the Renaissance painter, Michelangelo, and was painted around 1545. It could be worth as much as 300 million dollars.

What if the Christmas story is like this? For some of us the story about Mary, Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem can be part of the background of our lives. It is like a painting that hangs on the wall of the family home. It is always there, and because it is always there it rarely draws our eyes. It is familiar. So, we don't really pay much attention to it. It's just part of the background of our lives. Sometimes because it is so familiar we don’t necessarily give it any value. … What if we learned that that painting had more value than we thought it did? What if that story about Mary, and Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem was more valuable than we could imagine?

When Martin Kober found out that his family's painting was worth 300 million dollars it was no longer part of the background of his life. It was no longer sitting behind the couch gathering dust. And it was certainly placed out of range of flying tennis balls. Suddenly the painting moved closer to the center of his vision. He gave it a place of great importance and protected it. He treated it as if it was precious. The painting that was just part of the family's background became the family's treasure.

What if we found out that the familiar Christmas story had incredible value? I suspect it would move into the center of our vision. We would treat it like a treasure. We would contemplate it more. We would learn more about it. It would no longer gather dust. It would no longer be a part of the background of our family homes. It would be front and center. If we discovered that that story had unfathomable value, our lives would be centered on that story, and on that person at the center of it.

What if it’s true? Then mysteriously that ancient Creator is present to us as Jesus. He is the force that keeps our hearts beating, and keeps the stars shining in the sky. He is behind the force that keeps the planets in their orbits and causes atoms to bind to other atoms to make molecules. That ancient creative Force is present as we encounter Jesus. He brought everything into being, and he offers new fresh life every minute to the universe.

John’s biography of Jesus tells us that the tragedy of Christmas is that "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (Jn 1:10-11). He came and was rejected. He was given no value. Ironically, he was rejected by the world he made and the people he loved.

The joy of Christmas, John says, is that "to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (Jn 1:12). To those who recognized his mysterious and incredible value he invited them to become his family.

Tonight he invites you to receive his life from the manger- His body given for you. To those who take his story from the background and place it in the center of their lives he invites them to become, mysteriously, children of God. He invites us into his story and it is there we find who we were created to be.

Doubting is easy. And if that’s where you are at, then I am commanded by my Bible to be merciful to you. But, what if you pushed those doubts aside for one night and asked yourself “what if it’s true?” … I invite us all to consider where His story is in our life. Is it in the background- Always there but never really considered? Or, is his story on a stand in front of the sofa in the middle of the living room? Or maybe it is folded up and placed in your shirt pocket next to your heart and you take it out throughout the day? If it is true that "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" then Jesus' story is the most important story you have ever heard and it has the power to change your life. AMEN.

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