Engaging a Skeptical World with the Good News of Christmas
December 18, 2016 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: ENGAGING A SKEPTICAL WORLD WITH THE GOOD NEWS OF CHRISTMAS
Topic: Christmas Passage: Matthew 1:18–1:25
Grace Community Church
Dec. 18, 2016
Engaging a Skeptical World with the Good News of Christmas
Christmas is, of course, a time that Christians cherish as a time to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is also a time that marketers cherish as they try to convince the public that their product is the perfect Christmas gift. Everywhere we go commercials bombard us with the message that Christmas won't be Christmas if you don't buy their product. From chocolate dipped strawberries to home security systems to RFID wallets (I didn't even know there was such a thing) to having a new Lexus with a big red bow in your driveway - commercials tell us these are the things that will make our Christmas a Merry one.
But commercials and marketing approaches have changed over the years and it's amusing to go back in time and see what marketers once tried to say make great gifts. Here are some real ads about things that once made the perfect Christmas gift, but aren't such great ideas anymore.
Get your loved one a scale for Christmas
Give your wife an ironing board and watch her face light up
Wives, here's an idea: 20 boxes of Lucky Strikes cigarettes- payback for the ironing board
We laugh because we look at these things through different eyes today. Times change. Values change. Things that were once in style go out of style. What's not funny is that for many people, the Christmas story itself no longer fits with the Christmas season. It's out of date, it's gone out of style, it's something people used to believe, but sophisticated people don't buy into it anymore. It's still in style to talk about peace on earth and good will towards men, but when you get to the massive, central claims that the Bible makes about the birth of Jesus, claims that are contained in this passage: that Jesus was born of a virgin, that Jesus was God incarnate, that Jesus came to save the world from sin - it's really not in style to believe such things anymore.
Even a lot of mainline churches have decided that if they're going to remain relevant in a changing world, they need to abandon a literal interpretation of the miraculous claims in the Bible. The virgin birth isn't to be taken literally, Jesus wasn't really divine, these were myths invented by the disciples to elevate Jesus' status. Many individuals who once professed faith in Christ also find themselves reevaluating whether it is really necessary to believe in these things to be a Christian. With beliefs that look as relevant to our culture as these old ads look, beliefs that are mocked and ridiculed as ignorant, unscientific, and no longer credible, the pressure to let go of these central tenets of the Christian faith has gotten pretty strong.
This morning, one week away from Christmas Sunday, I want to affirm that Grace Community Church not only holds to the literal interpretation of these miraculous events surrounding the birth of Jesus, but we believe these miraculous claims are to be cherished and guarded as central and necessary to a true understanding of who Jesus is and what he came to do. Specifically we affirm and cherish the truth of the virgin birth, the Incarnation, and that Jesus came to save us from our sin.
But I think that Christmas is also the perfect time to affirm, not only what we believe, but how God wants us to engage with and communicate with a world that does not believe what we believe. We don't want to go to the extreme of changing or adjusting the message in order to make it more marketable to the world. But we also don't want to be defensive and angry at the skepticism around us. God doesn't want us to market Christmas to a doubting world, but He does want us to engage respectfully, graciously, and intelligently in order that with the help of the Lord we might convince and reach those who struggle with honest doubts with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Title: Engaging a Skeptical World with the Good News of Christmas
Let's take a brief look at three tenets, not to prove they are true, because we can't do that. But let's address the notion that they are unscientific and ridiculous and that you have to check your brain at the door to believe in them. Let's begin with the virgin birth.
The virgin birth
For that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Vs. 20
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son…vs. 23
Of all the miracles in the Bible, the virgin birth is the hardest for a lot of people to believe. Maybe people in ancient civilizations could believe that kind of stuff could happen, but c'mon we know better now. A friend was once visiting C.S. Lewis in his office one day and as they were talking they could hear Christmas carolers outside the window singing a carol that referenced the virgin birth. The friend said to CS Lewis, “Isn’t it good that we now know better than they did.” Lewis asked, “what do you mean?” “Well, isn’t it good that we now know more than they did.” he replied. Lewis answered, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain what you mean.” “Well, isn’t it good that we now know that virgins don’t have babies.” CS Lewis looked at him and said with amazement, “Don’t you think they knew that? That's the whole point!”
That is the whole point. They knew how babies were conceived back then. Joseph was heartbroken because the only conclusion he could come to was that Mary had cheated on him. Being a kind man, he had decided to divorce her quietly when an angel appeared to him and told him that the impossible had happened: the child in Mary wasn't the product of unfaithfulness, he was the product of a miracle. The Holy Spirit had come upon Mary and the child inside of her would be the Son of God.
So for those who think the virgin birth is a scientific impossibility - you're right! That's the whole point! For someone to say "I don't believe the virgin birth happened because it's impossible", while it's an opinion they're entitled to, it isn't an argument against the virgin birth because miracles are, by definition, impossible. The question isn't, is it possible? The question is, is there a God who does the impossible, a God who set up all the laws of nature that governs creation and Who is able to, when He chooses to do so, countermand the laws of nature and do the miraculous?
Many people today believe that the universe is a closed system - there is nothing outside of it or beyond it and no laws that are higher than the laws of nature. Therefore any claim that something outside of and greater than nature interrupted the laws of nature is rejected by them out of hand. The Bible teaches us about a God who sits outside of all creation and is sovereign over all creation and to whom all of creation answers, including the laws of nature, and this God has the power to do whatever He pleases, including miracles. Neither position can be proven, scientifically or otherwise, so both positions are based on faith. I can't prove there is a God, and you can't prove there isn't. It really comes down to faith.
But that doesn't mean it has to be a blind faith. There is a tightly woven logic to the necessity of the virgin birth. The Bible tells us that the fallen genetic code (known as sin) is, in some way, passed on through Adam. Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned… Rom. 5:12
And so at the very beginning, immediately after the Fall, as God curses the serpent, He foretells that Someone would come who would destroy the serpent. But that Someone wouldn't come from the seed of man. Listen to Gen. 3:15:
I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”
This is a promise that One would come who would deal a fatal blow to the serpent (the devil) and be wounded in the process. On the cross Jesus destroyed the works of the enemy, and was wounded by the enemy. Death wasn't fatal because Jesus would rise from the dead. But this Promised One would come from Eve's seed, not Adam's seed. This verse is intriguing when you look at how the rest of the Bible speaks of the generations of mankind coming from the man's seed. The virgin birth is predicted in the earliest moments after the fall. And then, hundreds of years before Jesus' birth the prophet Isaiah again predicted that God would give a sign and that sign would that a virgin would conceive and the son she gave birth to would be called Immanuel, which means God with us.
If Jesus had been born of the seed of an earthly father, the fallen genetic code would have been passed onto him and he would simply be another person in the continuous chain of fallen human history. But Jesus broke the chain! He was not born of any earthly father, no sinful genetic code was passed on to him, and so he was able to be and do what no one in history has been able to be and do: be completely untainted with sin, and live sinlessly. The virgin birth isn't some random event or myth invented after the fact by the disciples, it is a tightly woven logical necessity in the story of redemption, and was predicted at the very beginning of history.
God became a Man (Incarnation)
And they shall call his name "Immanuel" (which means, God with us). vs. 23
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. Luke 1:32
If you want to market the Christmas message in such a way that it will appeal to a much wider audience, don't say that Jesus was the Son of God. Say that Jesus was a good teacher, a great prophet, a good man - maybe the best who ever lived - who taught us how to live in love. Very few people would have a problem with that.
But to say that Jesus is God? That God became a man? That seems impossible to believe. To some it reminds them of one of those myths that ancient civilizations came up with where gods become men and men become gods. Some assert with a knowing look that the Jesus is God concept was invented by his disciples to elevate Jesus to deity status. They point out that throughout civilization people have been inventing myths to explain what they couldn't explain, and often in those myths gods came down looking like men, and once in a while heroes like Hercules attained god stature. For decades higher criticism seminaries have been teaching that the NT is full of myths and therefore not reliable history.
The famous author C.S. Lewis was once an agnostic professor and a recognized expert of mythological texts. He studied myths far more comprehensively than most people ever do, and as he began to read the Bible he was astounded at what he encountered, particularly in the Gospels - the story of Jesus' life. It was so obviously different than the myths that he had read and he began to challenge theologians who were promoting the idea that the Gospels are myths, saying that it was obvious these theologians had not read many myths. He explained that he was a long time scholar of mythological literature and he knew how myths sounded and felt. "The Gospel story", he said, "is not myth!"
The concept of the Incarnation is hard to believe, impossible to understand, and controversial to consider. But that doesn't make it untrue. Whenever Jesus asserted his divinity, the religious experts became infuriated. They were offended to the point of wanting to kill him because he claimed to be God. And if Jesus wasn't God, then it's the religious experts who are the hero's of the gospels. Their behind-closed-doors plotting to kill Jesus was spot on, because, as CS Lewis put it, Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or a demon for claiming to be God, if he wasn't.
But Jesus seems the opposite of a liar, lunatic, or demon. If God were to become a man, it stands to reason that he would be a man like no other, he would do things that no other man had ever done and he would affect history like no other person who ever lived. Anyone who has honestly read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' teaching and life and miracles and death and resurrection, and has looked at the immeasurable impact he has had on human history can't deny there has never been another life like his.
We can't fully understand the concept of God becoming a man, but we can see that there is a beautiful thread of logic that runs through it. The God who created us loves us so much that He Himself came to earth to save us from our desperate plight. Because Jesus was born of the seed of Mary, he was fully man. Because he was born of the seed of the Holy Spirit, he was fully God. Jesus came to show us God, who He is and what He is like. He said to Philip, "when you have seen me you have seen the Father." No difference. Jesus is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, come to earth as a baby in all the humble weakness of a baby in order to identify with us and in order to save us. God Himself came to be with us as one of us in order to save us because He loves us. If you gut the Christmas story of the Incarnation then you have destroyed the beauty and glory of the gospel and you are left with the birth of another man who is, ultimately, like every other man. And the evidence clearly tells us that Jesus was not like every other man. He is the only man who ever lived who could claim to be God and it not seem laughable, but rather it seems true.
Jesus came to save the world from sin
You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Vs. 21
I think the problem a lot of people have with this isn't so much a problem of believing it possible, but being offended that anyone would think it necessary. Sin isn't a real popular word or concept these days. A lot of people don't think they need to be saved. Helped, maybe. A hand up, sometimes. But if I need to be saved it means that something is drastically wrong with me and I'm in extreme danger, and that's not a popular idea anymore.
And yet, any intellectually honest person has to admit that something is drastically wrong with this world and with all of us. There's a lot of good but something is seriously wrong. To deny that we live in a dark world would have to ignore an immeasurable amount of suffering and evil and corruption and brokenness. All you need to do is look at some of the pictures of frightened and desperate children trapped in Aleppo, many of whom will be tortured and killed and you know there is so much darkness in this world. Then consider that that is in the pursuit of genocide - to kill off an entire race of people - and that genocide has been attempted by other peoples in other places, and that's just one mind-blowing example of a deep, deep darkness that hangs over this world.
The Bible calls that darkness sin. We need to be saved from the sin inside us that tears our lives and relationships apart, we need to be saved from the sin that surrounds us from the outside, and we need to be saved from the day we stand before God's throne of judgment and answer for our sin.
Jesus came to save us from our sin by dying on the cross to pay the punishment that we deserve. Jesus was born to die. And God raised him from the dead as a demonstration that Jesus succeeded! That's another miracle that many people reject, but it is a hope like no other, especially in the cold, cruel face of death. Virgin birth, God become a man, Jesus coming to save the world. These are massive truth claims that the Bible asserts. Jesus really didn't care much about being stylish, or sophisticated, or up to date with the newest trends and fads. He cared about truth. Truth isn't determined by popular vote or cultural trends, and it doesn't go out of style. Truth will endure long after fads and trends of thinking fade away.
In the late 19th century a Republican politician named Robert Ingersoll declared himself an enemy of Christianity. He held God in contempt, calling him an eternal fiend, and predicted that the masses would reject Christianity now that education was no longer exclusively in the hands of religious institutions. He wrote: “Now that religion’s monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see those evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are.”
And yet, here we are 130 years later and Christianity is still vigorous and strong and many intelligent and well educated people believe it with all their hearts. It's not going away and as believers, we need not fear or be ashamed of our faith, nor think that we are somehow backwards and ignorant for holding to it.
And so, Grace, this morning we affirm our beliefs in the beautiful and miraculous claims of the Christmas message. This Christmas we reflect on and celebrate the birth of our Savior and give thanks to God for His love and mercy to us. And we also affirm that God calls us to engage with our doubting friends, co-workers, and family, not to argue with them, never to disrespect their opinions and beliefs, but to be a witness for the reality of Christ in our lives and by the grace of God, to help them come to know the good news of great joy that is Jesus Christ for themselves. It is a message that never goes out of style and that never loses its power. Let's pray.