Since Christmas is a season that lasts twelve days (until Epiphany), I'll continue my series on Christmas stories for wanderers. This one was written with four particular friends in mind. All of them are highly intelligent, deeply articulate, and having once followed Christ are now agnostics of different sorts. Every time I am with one of them my faith is challenged to go deeper. I respect them greatly and their friendship is a gift to me. This is my attempt to have something worthy of their friendship and my own faith.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. (NLT)
Robert Robinson came from a poor family; his father died when Robert was a child and his mother sent him to London to learn barbering when he was a teenager. Instead he fell in with a gang and was involved in vandalism, looting and petty theft. They went to heckle a traveling evangelist, George Whitefield, who was preaching in the town square but Robert encountered the Lord Jesus and eventually accepted him as his Savior. He went on to become a renowned preacher and pastor, as well as a writer of extraordinary hymns and was well known throughout Europe. But late in his life he left the faith. We don’t know all the reasons why, we don’t know the circumstances, but the story is told that there came a day late in his life when he was traveling by stage coach, seated next to a woman who was humming the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it…”).
If nothing else, maybe simply to make conversation, she asked him: “Sir, do you know this song?”
To which he replied: “Know it? Madam I am the miserable man who wrote it and I would give a thousand lives to know the joy and peace that I knew then but I’ve lost it.”
Mr. Robinson died shortly thereafter.
Come Thou Fount is one of my favorite hymns and that story is one of the saddest—and I am afraid, all-too-familiar—ones I know.
Every year at Christmas time I become more aware of the wanderers in my life who have truly left home.
Friends and family members who once had a vibrant faith, but have now grown cynical of the simplicity of belief and hypocrisy of believers.
Students who came to Christ through my early ministry that decided to leave behind discipleship with their college years to instead seek more of the world as they make their way in the world.
Those folks that I run into here in town that not too long ago were taking vows of membership, being baptized, committing their lives to learn and grow and serve, who look at me sheepishly and try to explain that they are now so busy that they don’t really attend church any more.
Some of them left disillusioned by church that seemed little different than any other gathering of people. Some of them left disappointed in their pastor-friend who let them down or didn’t live up to their expectation. Some of them left despairing that prayers have gone unanswered or that life had taken a cruel turn.
And I find myself praying for them even more intently at this time of year. I pray that an old song will stir their hearts to long for their spiritual home with Christ. I pray that they might stumble into a church or hear a message on a web, or sit down at a Starbucks with someone who reminds them that they once knew and believed the unbelievable good news of the God who came to this world to seek and save the lost and if nothing else, they would whisper a prayer that would send them on a journey back into the community of faith and into the footsteps of Christ.
But part of the reason that I am aware of wanderers so much at Christmas time, is that for many of my friends the Christmas story is part of the very reason they state for wandering away. Somewhere amidst the disillusionment, the despair and the outright defiance is also a profound, and often respectable, intellectual disbelief.
And frankly, I understand this.
When I talk about Christian belief, I am not talking about blind leaps of faith, I am not talking about checking your mind at the door. I have a huge skeptic streak within me. For a number of years, my own philosophical motto was: “My heart cannot rejoice in what my mind rejects.” For me, seminary and Ph. D. work were part of my own spiritual journey to become convinced in my own mind of the truth of what had touched my heart. And I am far more open to scientific inquiry and critical thought than many evangelical Christians.
But this is so: Christmas begins with believing some things that are unbelievably true.
Now, when I say “begins”, I mean literally begins. Matthew 1:18 starts with the phrase “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The word “birth” here is literally the word “genesis”. It means that like the beginning of the world that was the work of the Spirit creating, Jesus’ genesis (birth, beginning) is the work of the Spirit, through a human partner with God. This is the new birth that ushers in the new epoch, the new era of God’s revelation, the new beginning of the new life that is available to us because of the Christmas miracle.
And that was as hard to believe then as it is today. So many of us who
struggle to believe think that we have a particularly modern problem.
We assume that everyone back then believed in virgin births and
resurrections and miracles so easily. That is just not so. And even
the Bible shows us that.
Okay. Pretend for a second that you are Joseph. Your fiancé whom you have not had sex with comes to you and tells you that she is pregnant. What do you do?
If you are the usual Jewish man of the first century, you disgrace her publicly. You shout loud and clear in the village square that you will not marry this woman, that you are keeping the dowry her father paid and that this woman and her illegitimate child should be cast out of ordinary society. That’s what was expected. It was brutal and clear. That is what was normally done. And sometimes the women even paid with her life. You have heard stories of what the Taliban does to so-called immoral women? That’s pretty much the same world view.
But Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man. He did not want to subject Mary to public disgrace or worse so he decided to “dismiss her quietly.” In other words, Matthew says that Joseph, for as good, upright, righteous, faithful, considerate, kind, thoughtful and virtuous he is—didn’t believe Mary either.
And then an angel steps in and verifies Mary’s story and for the first time, Joseph believes. An equally unbelievable moment, but a moment nonetheless that explains the otherwise unexplainable. Indeed, let me give you just a couple of other facts to consider:
First, Matthew and Luke are two separate accounts of the birth narrative that seem to draw from completely different sources. Matthew tells the story of the birth from Joseph’s perspective, Luke from Mary’s. But for all the differences between Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, the one thing they share is that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. That is the one fact that for which they are in absolute agreement. The Gospel accounts are very clear in asserting the Virgin Birth.
Second, if it were not true, there is also absolutely NO reason why the early church would have inserted that into the biblical account. There had been no expectation of a virgin birth and to assert it was to open the church to ridicule and Mary and Jesus to scorn. (As a matter of fact, John chapter 7 seems to imply that a pervasive rumor of the day was of Jesus’ illegitimate birth. There have been many who have suggested that the Virgin Birth story was made up to cover up this illegitimacy. Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire! That would be like using a story of aliens taking over your body as the excuse for cheating on a test.)
I could say more, but there was no compelling reason to assert the virgin birth—not even for the sake of asserting Jesus’ divine nature—unless it were true.
But the most important reason for asserting the Virgin Birth is not a historical reason at all (as credible as the evidence surprisingly turns out to be). The most important reason for believing the Virgin Birth is because of what it tells us about God.
The Virgin Birth means that God personally entered his creation. The God who brought the universe into being and allowed it unfold across the millenia, decided at one particular time to personally enter his creation and usher in a new revelation about himself. God did not choose a human being, imbue that person with his Spirit and stick him on the cross. God himself did the job. God did not just send a book, God himself saved us.
Christmas is about God doing what only God can do...
The virgin birth assures the full mystery of the incarnation. Divinity left behind the status and powers of being the Creator and became fully one of the creatures. God didn’t just walk a mile in our shoes; he felt the blisters on our feet. God didn’t just hang out on Earth for a time sampling strawberries and sticking his feet in the surf, he (in the words of Newsweek editor Kenneth Woodward) “felt the full burden of mortal existence.”
And it is that God who personally entered into creation, who is far more than a force, or an ethic, a philosophy or a projection of human ideals who is still here by his Spirit coming after every one of us who have wandered away from him.
Christmas is about God doing what only God can do...in the only way God will do it.
For a moment, I want to speak primarily to those of us who have a wanderer in our lives. We have a prodigal son or daughter, sister or brother or friend and we are the one waiting at home to see a glimpse of them on the horizon. We think of ourselves as walking alongside the shepherd who has lost the sheep and is beating the spiritual bushes, calling out a name or trying to find the right word that will cause a loved one to hear the voice of the true shepherd who is searching for them.
For us Christmas also inspires a struggle to believe. Christmas marks another year where a loved one who is wandering may still be in a far off land. You pray and hope and wish and do what you can and it doesn’t seem to make a difference. It’s hard to believe that God is still at work in your loved one’s life, that God will not let them go.
Can you believe that God is as personally involved in your loved one’s wandering as you are?
Can you believe that the same God who entered into creation to seek and save the lost loves your beloved wanderer as much as you do?
Can you trust that God is at work both through you and in spite of you? Can you believe that no matter how bleak it may look, no matter how hardened and disbelieving their hearts that the words of the angel to Mary back then are as true for you, today?
Can you believe: “For nothing is impossible with God.” Luke 1:37
Christmas is about God doing what only God can do in the only way God will do it…with infinite love, with painstaking patience and with completely undeserved mercy…
The story of the manger is the story of the God who slipped into this world almost unnoticed on that silent night holy night. The story of the incarnation is the story of a God who comes gently and lowly, who enters this world humbly and personally. No major fan fare, no irresistible miracle, no rearranging DNA to erase free will and compel belief.
C.S. Lewis said, “God cannot rape, he must woo.” He does not overwhelm, he invites.
Christmas is about God doing what only God can do in the only way God will do it…with infinite love, with painstaking patience and with completely undeserved mercy…through fallible but faithful people.
Through a willing, trusting person. Through one was no different than you or me, except for saying “ok, I will do whatever the Lord asks me to do.” Or as Luke puts it so much more poetically: “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”
And we who follow his example, must live in the same manner. We must be like waiting father, the shepherd looking for the lost sheep, the lady looking for a lost coin, the young girl who said yes to the call of God for the good of the world.
We must live in such a way that we, by our actions, witness to the unbelievable truth of the Christmas story.
When Billy Graham was a young evangelist, he was considered second fiddle to a man named Charles Templeton. Templeton was at the time perhaps the most famous and most highly regarded evangelist of the day. And while both Graham and Templeton spent time traveling the countryside proclaiming the gospel; unexpectedly Templeton’s path took a detour. While studying in graduate school, Templeton began to doubt the veracity of his Christian faith. Within a few decades he became a well-know skeptic, writing books that challenged both the Christian faith and the very existence of God.
When Lee Strobel wanted to write a book about the objections to the Christian faith, he decided to interview Templeton and take up the challenge of his objections. In the interview, while suffering from a fatal and debilitating illness, Templeton is still a passionate, intelligent man who has seen enough pain in the world and in his life to finally forsake the faith that he once proclaimed so persuasively. After telling a haunting story about children dying in the world because of drought, he looks at his interviewer and says, “There cannot be, in our world, a loving God. Cannot be.”
But Strobel asks him a final question: What do you think of Jesus?
Templeton says, somewhat surprisingly, that not only does he think that Jesus is a real historical figure, but that he was, in his opinion, “the greatest person who ever lived.” Templeton raced on in his description, “He was a moral genius…He was the…wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus… He had the highest moral standard, the greatest compassion of any human being in history…He is the most important person who ever lived.” Then Templeton paused, his voice cracking, “And If I may put it this way, I…miss…him.”
Miss him? Templeton had just laid out a devastating critique of everything that Jesus taught about himself and God, he doesn’t believe in him, but he really misses him in his life…
You know, I think that there are a lot of Charles Templeton’s in the world. People who have looked hard at the brokenness of the world or felt the pain of life and come to conclude that there is no way that Jesus can be the savior of the world, the one embodying a loving God, but still they long for something. They truly miss Jesus, but can’t fathom how to find their way back.
I even think there may be a Charles Templeton or two reading this. Or Maybe a Robert Robinson.
Maybe you have lost the joy and peace that you once knew, but he continues to tug at your hear. You miss Jesus, because his Spirit is still speaking to you. You long for the joy that you once knew because no matter how far you wander from Jesus, he never leaves you.
If you are let me assure you that God will not overwhelm you, but he will never stop wooing you. God will never stop waiting and watching, never stopping seeking you, never cease calling your name. And I guarantee that he is going to keep sending his Spirit through his people to find you. He is never going to let you go.
Nothing is impossible with God.
And if you can believe that unbelievable statement, you may finally be on the right road home.