|CHRISTMAS SALE: White Christmas
December 27, 1998
Garrison Keillor was correct when he said, "You can become a Christian by going to church just about as easily as you can become an automobile by sleeping in a garage." There is more to being a Christian than presence and ritual, showing up and singing. There is certainly more to it than celebrating a seasonal holiday named for Christianity’s founder. Going to church doesn’t make one a Christian.
Perhaps you are nodding in agreement and telling yourself, "Yes, Christianity is a lifestyle that extends throughout the year. It is love and kindness on a deliberate, regular basis. It is telling the truth and paying one’s debts. It is keeping promises. It is moral purity that honors a holy God." As much as I would affirm all these behaviors as appropriate to Christianity, this common notion of being a Christian is off-target as well. Some of the kindest, most truthful, and morally upright people I know are not Christians — and would not claim to be.
One is a Christian only if he or she embraces certain things as true, confesses those things publicly, and trusts them as the basis for life now and hope hereafter. Being a Christian certainly involves more than simply giving mental assent to biblical doctrines, but there are certain doctrines that are foundational to everything else that is the Christian religion.
Now I will be the first to admit that the statement I have just made can sound sterile and cold. Like saying that "marriage is a lifelong exclusive covenantal commitment between a man and woman that serves as the foundation for family life," definitions can leave you feeling quite flat. Marriage is love and sex, babies and birthdays, mealtimes and graduations, vacations and tenderness. Ah, but it is the covenantal commitment that legitimates all these events before God and under civil law. And this is the significant point with which I begin this post-Christmas sermon about a "White Christmas."
Only if it is true does Christmas mean anything. The trees, carols, and gifts most of us enjoy are parts of a fun holiday. We enjoy the full tables and family visits. We benefit not only from the sales but from the spirit of the season. But Christmas ultimately is rooted in a story of God’s loving activity on our behalf in history. If the historical claims are false, what "meaning" is there in that story? It is not presented, after all, as a myth or once-upon-a-time story, but as history. More than that, the authority for taking the story seriously is claimed to lie in its historicity.
"Important If True"
One of the most challenging pieces I read around the Christmas season this year came from George F. Will. On the day before Christmas, he wrote this in his syndicated newspaper column:
A sardonic British skeptic of the late 19th century suggested that three words should be carved in stone over all church doors: "Important if true." On Christmas Eve, at the end of the rarely stately and always arduous march that Americans make each year to the happiest holiday, it sometimes seems that they are supposed to celebrate Christmas as though they have agreed to forget what supposedly it means. There are several reasons why forgetting, actual or make-believe, is not altogether unfortunate. First, some people really have forgotten, or never knew, or never cared about Christmas's religious dimension but they can still enjoy, and benefit from, the seasonal upsurge of nonsectarian goodwill. Second, many Americans are of faiths that assert Christianity is mistaken about what occurred in Palestine 1,998 years ago, and in the 33 or so years thereafter.1
This is another of those instances in which a "secular" writer gets closer to the truth of a spiritual topic than many preachers and theologians can. Last year I was one of six persons assembled in an interview room by a local newspaper for an interview on the meaning of Christmas. All six of us were involved at the time in either local-church ministry or the academic training of people for such ministry. I was the only one present who believed in the historicity of the Christmas story — from virgin birth to shepherds’ visit to Wise Men following a heavenly light.
When the formal interview was finished, one of the professors turned to me and began to explain — rather condescendingly I might add! — that myth as a literary category simply means "poetic" or "symbolic" and how an ahistorical event could nonetheless have theological significance. I endured it with as much patience and restraint as I could and finally said, "I’ve been to school to and have read the same books you did. It is simply that I credit the Four Gospels with more authority than their modern critics and reinterpreters who appear to have as their goal ‘making God in their own image’ rather than honoring him as God."
The New Testament claims that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, Immanuel, God among us. John wrote of him: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Peter confessed him to be "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Thomas made this affirmation of deity to the Risen Christ: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). And Paul wrote this of Jesus: "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col. 2:9).
The Four Gospels affirm that God was incarnate in Jesus, and two (i.e., Matthew and Luke) give details of his miraculous conception and birth. It is all the more interesting to realize that one of the writers most interested in Jesus’ birth (i.e., Luke) was a physician whose training and experience would have inclined him to deny the possibility of a virginal conception. Careful historian that we now know Luke to have been, he investigated the matter thoroughly and affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth was born to a young woman who was virgin.
Some people are naive enough to think that the doctrine of Jesus’ deity is of marginal importance and that the Christian religion can survive without it. Thus they deny the historicity of his birth to a virgin, dismiss the bodily resurrection, and distinguish the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith." One of those books I read while still in graduate school was a collection of essays by seven British theologians who presented the view
. . . that Jesus was (as he is presented in Acts 2:21) ‘a man approved by God’ for a special role within the divine purpose, and that the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us.2
If Jesus is not God, then he bore false witness about himself. If Jesus is not God, then the Bible is unreliable and presents a system of religion founded on error rather than on truth. If Jesus is not God, then he was either a deceiver or self-deceived; and in either case, Christ, if he is not divine, is not even a good person! The Bible teaches and I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the incomparable Son of God.
To quote the conclusion of George Will’s article:
For weeks many harried people have been feeling (in P. G. Wodehouse's words) that Christmas has us by the throat. Almost, but not quite, lost amid the commerce and clatter is the astonishing idea of which John Betjeman wrote:
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this simple Truth compare —
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Important — very important — if true.3
Christianity’s Worst Enemies?
Sometimes I wonder if Christianity’s worst enemies are the theologians and preachers who work to undermine the truth-claims of Scripture. Why anyone would undertake such a work "from the inside" is beyond my ability to fathom. Yet it is rather commonplace. How ironic that at a time when more physicists, microbiologists, historians, and philosophers are publishing things supportive to faith than ever in the past half century, the headline-making theologians are debasing it with their cynical subversions of foundational Christian doctrines!
Take John Shelby Spong as a celebrated case in point. In the last decade, this American bishop of more than twenty years wrote Living in Sin in 1988 and called for the church to recognize same-sex marriage and homosexual ordination. In 1991 he followed with Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and advanced the theory that perhaps Paul’s "thorn in the flesh" was his internal conflict as a "deeply repressed, self-rejecting gay man." Then, in Born of a Woman (1992), he "raised the possibility" that the doctrine of the virgin birth was created to cover up Jesus’ illegitimacy and that Jesus may have married Mary Magdalene.
His latest offering in 1998 tells us that the biblical world-view is no longer tenable. We must, therefore, abandon supernaturalism and the straightforward reading of Scripture. If we choose to worship at all, we may worship only "the Ground of Being" who is "the transcending reality present in the very heart of life" and who is "not concrete or specific." Whew! And some of us were about to praise the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!
Here is the one section of Bishop Spong’s book with which I can emphatically agree:
Those who think that Christianity consists of a supernatural deity who invades the world periodically, who works through a virgin birth, a physical resuscitation, and a cosmic ascension, will find all that I say a threat to their faith. Those who believe that creeds are literally true, Bibles are inerrant . . . will call this heresy.4
The Christian Gospel is really very simple: God made us, loves us, and will not — in spite of our sinfulness — leave us to the horrible fate we deserve. He pursues us. He wants us to be saved. He came among us as Jesus of Nazareth and paid the debt we owed because of sin. Now he invites us to belong to him by grace.
Is this witness true? If not, the story does not need reinterpretation but abandonment. If it is not true, let it be rejected. If it is true, however, it is important — the most important message in the world. If it is true, God deserves our faith, our obedience, our service, our worship, our all!
Because It Is True
Because the Gospel is true, the Christmas story must be told so as to affirm its unique status at this time of the year. It must not get lost among the tales and yarns — innocent as they are! — that we tell our children about imaginary beings.
For some of you, I must ask indulgence to read a piece I wrote for my children and the children of this church a dozen or fifteen years ago. It has been reprinted several times in our church bulletin and at least once in The Tennessean. Although written to children, it is really to us adults about handling this Christmas season. Since many of you are new with us within the last year or two, I thought it might be worthwhile to share it in this setting. It is a takeoff on the famous editorial by Francis P. Church that originally appeared in The New York Sun on September 21, 1897.
There are many things you are discovering as you grow up. One of them has to do with all the fantasies we adults have invented for your entertainment. Bugs Bunny is on TV every Saturday. The Easter Bunny brings colored eggs in the spring. Frosty the Snowman comes to life and plays with children. And Santa Claus comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve to bring your presents.
We mean no harm with our tales. Sometimes, though, we may go overboard and try to convince you they are real. We blur the line between pretend and the real world. Of course bunnies can't talk or lay colored eggs. No, snowmen don't really come alive. And a man in a red suit doesn't bring you presents that have been made by elves at the North Pole.
What bothers me right now, Virginia, is the thought that what most of us call The Christmas Story might be caught up in your little mind with all the other make-believe things you are coming to recognize as unreal. I would hate for you to push Baby Jesus out of your world along with Bugs, the Easter Bunny, Frosty, and Santa. The story of Jesus is very different. It is true.
We don't know the exact date of his birth. December 25 was chosen centuries ago when some Christians wanted to turn a festival to the sun into a holy day to Jesus. It's as good as any other day we might choose, and I doubt Jesus would be upset with anyone for honoring his birth on any day of the year.
It happened almost 2,000 years ago. In a little town called Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary heard the first cries of a tiny baby. He was more than "precious" or "special." He was the Son of God. Angels and shepherds worshiped him that night. Later people like Anna, Simeon, and the Wise Men paid their homage. Many of us worship him still.
I want you to understand why baby Jesus was born, Virginia. He came to show us how much God loves us and wants us to live with him in heaven someday.
Jesus grew up and became a man who loved everyone, helped all who would accept his help, and changed many lives. He was God among us, and I want you to believe on him and make him the center of your whole life.
It isn’t just another make-believe story. It really happened. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Baby Jesus!
I agree with the British skeptic quoted earlier by George Will. The things taught in Christian churches are "Important if true" — and otherwise irrelevant and a waste of precious time. I have no interest in repeating the charming story of a baby, shepherds, and Wise Men as foundational spiritual truth unless the story is true. Because I do believe it is true, I can only give myself to telling and retelling it with all the passion I can muster. It is history with theological content. It is setting into motion the purpose of God from eternity past to reconcile men to himself through one who is both God and man. "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all men — the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle — I am telling the truth, I am not lying — and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles" (1 Tim. 2:5-7).
For me, then, a "white Christmas" is not so much a snow-covered December 25 as it is the prospect of using the Christmas season as an opportunity for recounting the story of God’s love for and pursuit of those creatures he originally made in his own image. It is inviting people to come to the Christ of history for salvation through the Incarnation and Atonement he effected. It is an appeal for weary, discouraged, despairing souls to come in the defilement of their sins to be cleansed by the blood of Christ.
When King Edward VII was still the Prince of Wales, he went to visit a country nobleman. The little daughter of his host soon climbed up on his knee and quickly charmed the prince by her sweet spirit. As they made conversation, in her childlike way she inquired, "Do you like riddles?" "Yes," he replied with a smile. "Please, sir, can you tell me what is whiter than snow?"
Unprepared for such a strange remark, the royal visitor looked confused and finally gave up. The little girl seemed surprised at his confusion and gave him the answer that had apparently been taught her by this riddle in her home. "O Prince, I'm sorry," she said, "but every soul washed in Jesus' blood should know that he's been made 'whiter than snow'!"
Indeed, the promise of the Lord is this: "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more" (Isa. 43:25). And one of the biblical metaphors for divine pardon is the pristine beauty of fallen snow. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isa. 1:18b). It was King David who prayed: "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow" (Psa. 51:7).
The offer from God’s highest heaven via Bethlehem’s manger has arrived at the door of your heart today: God’s gift of salvation in Christ can be received today, and you can be washed whiter than snow in the blood of the Lamb of God.
1George F. Will, "The Happiest Holiday," The Washington Post, 24 December 1998, p. A17.
2John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), p. ix.
3Will, "Happiest Holiday," p. A17.
4John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), pp. 226-227.
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