Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 22, 2008

Sermon for the Festival of the Nativity of Our Lord (2008)

WHY BELIEVE IN A GOD?

1. Because he came in real history
2. Because he came as a real baby
3. Because he came for real people

Text: Luke 2:1-14

 

Introduction

 Leave it to the atheists to try to ruin a perfectly fine Christian celebration!  Last month, the American Humanist Association revealed a controversial $40,000 ad campaign that appeared on buses around Washington D.C.  The ads, which ran from mid-November through this Christmas holiday, proclaimed, “Why believe in a god?  Just be good for goodness’ sake.”  An Associated Press report quoted group spokesman Fred Edwords, who explained, “Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of nontheists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion.”  The story went on to report, “Edwords said the purpose isn’t to argue that God doesn’t exist or change minds about a deity, although ‘we are trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people’s minds.'”

Why do you believe that the baby in born Bethlehem’s manger is God?  Do you believe the Christmas story because you were born into a Christian home?  Do you believe it because it is a story that warms your heart and soothes your soul?  Do you believe in the Christ-child because you couldn’t imagine Christmas any other way?  Do you believe because the Bible tells you so?  And if any of those reasons are the reasons you believe, what would you say to the atheists like Fred Edwords who want to “plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning” in your mind?

I’m going to suggest something that seems a little bizarre this Christmas Day.  Why don’t we let our atheist friend direct the sermon today?  Let’s let him shape the Christmas sermon, and let’s ask ourselves the critical question advertized on all those Washington D.C. buses this year: Why believe in a god?

I.

I suppose the first thing we’d probably say is that the Bible tells us that Jesus is God.  Hopefully the critical questioner will be kind enough to take a look at the Bible since we’re kind enough to ask ourselves his critical question.  And if the Bible is the reason for our belief, then we’d better start right with the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke chapter two.  “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.”

Luke writes his Gospel, here and elsewhere, as if it is real history.  And that’s why some critics think that they can prove that Luke really isn’t writing history.  In the verses I just read, Luke tells us that Jesus’ birth “took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” We know from Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus was also born during the reign of King Herod.  Herod died in 4 B.C., but Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until 6 A.D., and the census under him also took place that year.  So if Christians are going to claim that Jesus came in real history, and that’s the reason to believe in Jesus as God, it appears we have some problems.  And critics spare no expense pointing to this as evidence that Scripture is unreliable and unhistorical.

Has this little discovery just ruined Christmas morning?  Should I end the sermon now and send you home early, since it appears that perhaps Jesus didn’t come in real history?  Or maybe we should do the responsible thing and actually check out the claim!

There appears to be a problem at first, but a careful look at Luke’s words and historical information solves the problem.  First of all, we have information that shows us that Quirinius was on the scene at the time of Jesus’ birth.  He was in charge of the armies and foreign policy under a different governor, named Varus.  Our translation says, “Quirinius was governor of Syria,” but Luke literally said that Quirinius “was governing,” not that he “was (the) governor.”  If someone says that the mayor governs the city, that doesn’t mean the city mayor is also state governor.  And so if really Luke says, “This was the first census while Quirinius was governing in Syria,” it sounds as if Luke knows about a different census that occurred later, and it also sounds as if Quirinius could have been governing in one of many capacities, not just as governor.  That’s one solution to the apparent problem.

Here’s one more possibility.  The Greek word translated “first” could also be translated “before” – “This was the census that took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The exact same Greek word is used a couple of times in John’s Gospel where it clearly has the idea of “before” and not just “first” (John 1:15, 15:18NOTE: 15:18 is translated “first” by the NIV but clearly means “first”  in the sense of “before”).

You know how frustrating it can be when someone twists your words to mean something you don’t mean.  You also know how easily someone can do that to somebody else’s words.  We owe it to one another to put the best spin on each others’ words, and not to assume contradictions in another person’s words if there is a reasonable explanation.  Those are not just good standards for personal conversations; those are good standards for historical studies.  And the Bible should be held up to the same standards used for any other historical book.  When we do that, Luke does not appear to be relating religious fiction.  Luke may be writing a work that we call religious, but putting the best, most logical construction on his words tells us that Luke is also writing history.

If Luke tells us that God came in real history, then maybe we’d better sit up and pay attention.  We can’t assume that this story was meant to be spiritualized into a lesson about peace among cultures and nations.  Maybe, just maybe, God came to the world in real history, in real time — and maybe, just maybe, that means we have to check out the rest of the story and accept it for what it is, whether or not we personally like what the results have to tell us.  That’s the mature approach to take when it comes to anything in life, and certainly when it comes to answering the all-important question: Why should I believe in a god?  If this God has come to us in real history, then we have a concrete reason to believe.

II.

With good reason to check out the record, I suppose we should keep reading and check out the record!  “Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

The story of Jesus’ birth has been so romanticized that we forget what the biblical account specifically says.  We imagine a story where everything that could go wrong does.  Mary’s water breaks just as they arrive at the inn, but the cold, uncaring owner has no compassion on this poor, young mother, and sticks them out in a dilapidated wooden shed with a couple of dozen farm animals.  But somehow, through it all, Mary’s halo keeps shining.  Her Advent serum blue head scarf stays in place, as does her hair and makeup, as she painlessly, without an epidural, gives birth to Jesus-and somehow the birth isn’t quite as messy as the ones over at Sequoia or Mills-Peninsula hospitals.

I ruined the critic’s view of Christmas.  Now I’m going to ruin the romanticist’s view of Christmas.  A lot of legend has been built around Jesus’ birth, but let’s look at the record.  Yes, Mary and Joseph probably had a less-than-comfortable trip to Bethlehem since Mary was more than a little pregnant.  But Luke says that “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born” – in other words, Mary’s contractions didn’t start the second they stepped foot into the Bethlehem city limits.  They were probably there for at least a few days.  And then there is the inn.  The inn was likely not a B.C. version of Motel Six, with some heartless clerk sticking them in the equivalent of the janitor’s closet.  Luke’s word for “inn” has a broad range of meaning; it’s likely that Joseph and Mary were staying with relatives, but because homes were so small, they made temporary quarters in the shed that was attached to the outside of the house where a family-owned mule or donkey may have been kept.

So with all the romantic myths stripped away, what are we left with?  We are left with the humble birth of a baby boy.  But this is still no ordinary birth, for it was the birth predicted by the prophet Isaiah in more than one place: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,” and again, “To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 7:14, 9:6).  Rather than focusing on the romanticized version of Christmas, we will be better served if we focus on the simple, humble birth of the infant Jesus.  The story may be simple, but even without the extra hype, the story is totally unexpected.

If you were writing the story, how would you have God make his grand appearance into the world?  You would never write the story this way!  If God descends from heaven and you’re writing the script, he’s not going to appear as a regular human being, and certainly not a little baby boy.  He’s going to show up with lightning bolts and trumpets ablaze!  He’s going to look like a muscular, well-tanned, invincible superhero who defeats his enemies with the wave of his hand.  And that’s exactly what he would do-defeat and destroy every last enemy who ever opposed him.  Of course, if that’s how we would write the story, then he would also destroy us, who by our sin have opposed him since our first breath.

But that’s not how Luke wrote the story, and it’s not how God directed the story.  God does not come with blasting trumpets, but with an infant’s cry.  He does not come as the invincible superhero, but as the helpless infant boy.  He does not come with the smell of victory in the air, but with the stench of animal manure in the shed.  He does not come with angels attending him on his throne, but with a manger of straw for a makeshift crib.  He came in real history as a real baby.  That is how God revealed his Son to the world, and that is the God whose Son you and I can believe in this Christmas morning.

III.

But maybe you think to yourself, “So what?  Maybe the record is reliable, and maybe the prophets were right, and maybe the Virgin Mary became the mother of God at Christmas.  But that happened over two thousand years ago, and I don’t see how that makes one iota’s difference when I have to go back to work Monday morning.”  That’s fair enough.  So what if it all happened?  Does the birth of the Son of God in Bethlehem around 6 B.C. make one bit of difference for people living in the Bay Area on the verge of 2009 A.D.?

To this point, we have found the answer to all our questions by looking at Luke’s Christmas account.  Maybe we should do the same for this round of questions, too.  “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'”

The baby is born, and right away Luke whisks us away to the open fields surrounding Bethlehem.  He takes us from the humble baby in the manger to the humble shepherds in the fields-real, salt of the earth kind of people.  And as far as the rest of the world was concerned, these guys were zeros.  Their job required them to live away from the rest of the population, and their job meant that they weren’t exactly heading to the synagogue every Saturday.  You can imagine what the elites thought about the shepherds.  Not much.

Again, if you’re going to write the story, to whom do you announce the birth of the Son of God?  People of high esteem and great wealth?  Princes and governors and kings?  That’s what you would think, but that’s not where God sends his angel messengers.  Come back to church on Sunday (December 28), and in the Gospel reading (Matthew 2:13-18) you’ll find out just how highly King Herod, who reigned at the time, thought of the little boy Jesus.  He conspired to kill Jesus when he learned that a “rival king” had been born in Bethlehem.  No, the great rulers of the region didn’t receive God’s birth announcement.  If they had, they probably would not have cared, or would have felt threatened and threatened retaliation.

So the angel comes not to the kings and princes, but to the shepherds, and did you catch what the angel said?  We know the story so well that we almost forget.  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

San Mateo County Times.  September 2007.  Birth Announcements section.  The story read, “With parents Rev. Johnold Strey and wife Emily present, a daughter was born to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Belmont.”  That didn’t happen, of course.  It sounds ridiculous.  There was a newspaper birth announcement when our second daughter was born last year, but the paper said that she was born to us, not to the church members.  Now if it sounds like I’m stating the obvious, then compare that to the angel’s announcement.   “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” The shepherds didn’t know Mary and Joseph from Adam and Eve, and they certainly wouldn’t have thought anything special about the baby Jesus just from looking at him.  But the angel says the baby was born to them.

And if the angels tell these guys, who would have never made it in “Who’s Who in Judea,” that “a Savior…Christ the Lord” was born to them, doesn’t that say something to you?  Real people like you who have been hit hard by the recession and have seen your income slashed.  Real people like you who have conflicts coming at you from every corner of your world, and it never seems to stop.  Real people like you who can’t seem to fight off the same old sin that tempts you every day, and the same old guilt that plagues you when the temptation is gone.  Real people like you who are left dazed by the drastic and unforeseen turns that life has taken, and it all leaves you wondering if God still remembers you.  Just as God’s angel messengers told the shepherds, so he tells you, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Just when you are tempted to think that God has forgotten about you, or that the birth of his Son means nothing for you, then God comes to you as he did to the shepherds and says, “A Savior has been born to you.” And it is not just anyone born to you, but a Savior.  How stunning!  How amazing!  But this is only the beginning!  For if you think that his birth and infancy were difficult, how much more were the devil’s temptations that he faced during his years in this world.  And yet he faced them and defeated them for you!  And if you think that his birth was humble and the circumstances awful, how much more was the humble and awful death he endured for your sin on the cross over three decades later.  And yet he went to the cross and died for you!  And if you think the whole story of his birth is stunning, how much more was the stunning defeat he accomplished over death on the day of his physical resurrection from the grave.  And that resurrection was a victory won for you!  But it all started today.  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” The Savior came into this world for real people — people like you.

Conclusion

Remember the atheist Christmas campaign I mentioned at the start of the sermon?  Well, as it turns out, a group of Christians developed their own response campaign.  The Center for Family Development came up with its ad campaign, purportedly quoting God and saying, “Why believe?  Because I created you and I love you, for goodness sake.”  On this Christmas Day, you can give an even more concise answer than that.  Why believe in God?  Because he came in real history you can check out, and he came as a real baby and human being who lived among us, and he came to rescue and redeem real people like you and me.  That’s rock solid reason for anyone to believe that “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Amen.


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