January 1, 2017 (Christmas 1)—The Feast of the Holy Name
When I was a boy, I loved the Boy Scout troop to which I belonged. To this day I think our scoutmaster, Mr. Ireland, an auto mechanic who also sang in the choir at the Methodist church that our family attended, was the greatest guy in the world. For twenty-five years he ran the greatest Boy Scout troop imaginable. It was my privilege to be part of that troop for almost eight years. I rose to the rank of Eagle Scout and then became a junior assistant scoutmaster. I cherish the memories I have of those happy days. But early on, I almost gave up and quit the troop. When I was a tenderfoot, one of the older boys, by which I mean a twelve year old, sent me on a fool’s errand. They didn’t want me to help with cooking dinner; so in order to get rid of me, they sent me out to find “a left-handed monkey wrench,” which they said they needed. ‘Where can I find that?” I asked. “I don’t’ know," he said, “Just ask around, someone always has one.” So I went around the camp asking for a left-handed monkey wrench, until it finally dawned on me that there was no such thing, I was being made fun of. After that, I felt so humiliated that I almost quit the scouts. But I didn’t quit; I got over it. Still I learned a lesson. Many times in life, people tell us things that aren’t true and we believe them, and so we waste a lot of time in life embracing false notions.
I suppose many people would equate preachers of the gospel with that boy who sent me on the fool’s errand. They feel we’re pulling the wool over their eyes by asking them to believe a message that can’t possibly be true. In the minds of many, the gospel of God becoming man incarnate—the divine nature assuming the fullness of human nature in order to redeem human nature and divinize it so that, in the words of Saint Peter, we might “become partakers of the divine nature” (2Pet.1.4)—is so fantastical that no sane person actually would be so gullible as to believe it. Right? I mean those who preach this tall tale don’t, themselves, believe it, do they?
I met a man once whose hobby, so to speak, was tracking down and interviewing people who had encountered space aliens. He had encountered a space alien once, he said, and that encounter changed his life. Furthermore, he said that he had documentary proof of space aliens, who, for some reason have taken a liking to Jacksonville, Florida. You smile at that. I smile at that. We both recognize that this man and others like him are delusional. But how different are they from people who believe that Jesus, a man from Galilee, was fully God? Aren’t people who are skeptical of the claims of the gospel as right to be skeptical of that gospel as we are today to doubt the sanity of those who insist that they have been assaulted by space aliens? What makes the one narrative sacred and the other ridiculous? Isn’t it just a matter of 'he said, she said'? So one man believes in Jesus, another believes in space aliens; aren’t they both essentially engaged in the same act of self-deception, of seeking escape in a story that dresses up this naked existentialist farce we call life in a glamorous romance? I ask you seriously, adult to adult: you don’t really take the gospel to be anything more serious than tales of space aliens, do you? I know that some of you are thinking: I’ve been to Roswell, New Mexico, I know there’s something in that warehouse that the government's keeping secret from us. If there’s something really there, Trump will bring it out and make a reality show of it; that will be great!
You know, there is a ”scientific” program called SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) that is ongoing. As I speak, some of the great minds of our age are busy searching the stars and listening to radios for evidence of intelligent life out there, somewhere on the edge of the universe. Many people who search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, like those who believe in space aliens and UFOs, have two things in common with those who preach the gospel. They believe that human intelligence did not cause itself, that there has to be a prior cause to intelligent human life beyond this planet. And two: many others think they are deluded for believing what they believe and that they are squandering their lives and talents to spend a lifetime searching for what amounts to a left-handed monkey wrench. Whether it’s a search for God or for space invaders, it’s a search for something that doesn’t actually exist beyond the borders of the minds of those who imagine it. Many will say that a belief in God, like a belief in UFOs, is akin to a belief in unicorns or the tooth fairy; a complete fantasy.
Before we dismiss the gospel as complete fantasy, let me make three points. If you don’t believe that intelligent human life has a provenance beyond this planet, then you believe that intelligent life formed randomly from the stuff of the earth; that carbon and magnesium and a couple of dozen other chemicals came together in just the right proportions in a pond, lightening struck it, and voilà! Several million years later you have Hamlet lamenting, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I.” Talk about science fiction, talk about fantasy. As one Nobel laureate put it, the chances that this universe, hospitable to human life, happened randomly are equal to the chances that a wind could blow through a junkyard and produce a fully assembled Boeing 747. There is no cult in the history of mankind more superstitious than that of the modern dogmatic secular atheist, who clings to the absurdist view of life despite all the evidence against it.
Which leads to the second point: I don’t criticize those who believe in extra-terrestrial intelligence. I also believe that there is a greater intelligence beyond the confines of this planet. But you’re not going to find it by looking through a telescope. The message of Christmas is one to which those who believe in such things should be receptive, because the Christmas message is that the greatest intelligence in the universe, that which conceived of the universe and formed it, the very source of life itself has revealed himself to us. We don’t have to search the stars for the answer to our question,” From where did intelligent life originate?” The magi who were led by a star to Bethlehem already did that. We know that an extra-terrestrial mind conceived the universe; because the author of life has revealed himself to us. The mind of God, that which was in the beginning, before there was time or a material universe—"the Eternal Word," Saint John called him—has come among us and spoken to us. Or, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it, ”In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world…upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb.1.1–3). The difference between those who search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and those who believe in Jesus Christ is that those who believe in Jesus Christ have already found what the others are vainly searching for.
Three: Unlike those who search for higher forms of intelligence in the universe or who document encounters with space aliens, the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t seek to prove anything. The gospel only seeks to give a faithful account to what happened in Galilee two–thousand years ago, to be an honest witness to a historic event. “You shall… be my witnesses” Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended by his own volition into heaven. That a man who just six weeks earlier had died in a public crucifixion, witnessed by the city of Jerusalem, could stand among his friends and talk to them before ascending into heaven from whence he had come thirty-three years earlier, is a tale taller than the wildest science fiction. Why should anyone believe this? The answer the church has made to a doubting world for twenty centuries is just this: believe the gospel because it’s true. God really did this.
“Did what?” you ask again incredulously. The Word, that is eternal God, became flesh and dwelt among us (John1.14). That’s what happened when Christ was born in Bethlehem. The task of the church is not to prove it. But to faithfully proclaim it. To tell generation after generation what happened, so that they will know who God is and where to find him.
But what if no one believes you because your story is so preposterous? It doesn’t matter. If it’s the truth, keep proclaiming it. The elect, those “who have ears to hear” as Jesus said, will hear and believe. As in the parable of the sower who just aimlessly throws the seeds wherever, God does the rest. And so it is with preaching the gospel. Our task as a church is to tell the story. God knows in whose heart the gospel will find a home.
God knew this was going to be the case, that people would roll their eyes and laugh in the face of the dogma of the incarnation, of a Virgin birth announced by angels, of a star over Bethlehem, of scriptures fulfilled, of that same child born of Mary rising from his grave by his own volition, thereby revealing his divine nature. God knew the world would laugh. He said through the prophets, “I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told” (Hab.1.5). Many have been told what Jesus accomplished on the cross, many don’t believe.
Saint John, who witnessed Jesus’s baptism, stood beside his mother at the foot of the cross, and three days later saw him alive, said of that revelation, “We beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father (John1.14). ”Moses longed to see the glory of God but it was denied him (Ex.33.18–23). What was denied to Moses, Christ privileged his apostles to see (John 1.18). Saint John would say again in his first letter: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you” (1John 1.1–3).
That is the Christmas message. Now we know. And there is only one follow-up question that matters: now that we know what happened, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to walk away, pretending that the Christmas story is the theological equivalent of science fiction fantasy? Or will we do the right thing? Respond in faith to God. Open your heart to receive his grace, the forgiveness of sins that he offers us in his Son Jesus Christ. Make it your New Year’s resolution to come to church to worship the Lord each Sunday and to do more to grow in knowledge and love of him. There’s always more to do. Why not, this year, come to the Bible Study? Give it a try. Or, as I suggested in the Christmas Eve sermon, read the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. No book does a better job of explaining why we believe in God and why we trust the Christmas story. We worship a wonderful God who really does love us. Make it your resolution to love him. Let us together make that resolution and keep it with daily, fervent prayer; and a year from now we will all look back as a church and say, “2017 was the best year ever; a year in which we all grew closer to God!”