I am a preacher, and I enjoy it. I enjoy Advent and Christmas preaching most of all. Here’s the first sermon in an Advent series called “Christmas for Beginners.” If you use it, give me credit and Santa will take note.
Christmas doesn’t begin in Bethlehem. All you have to do is pick up the Bible and see how far into the story the birth of Jesus occurs to know that the beginning is elsewhere. But where? Where does it begin?
Bethlehem is where God’s story intersects our story. Phillips Brooks said it well in O Little Town of Bethlehem: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” What meets us in Bethlehem? The first candle of advent: the hope candle. And where there is hope, there is the backside of hope. Fear. Our hopes and fears about life and death are met by God in the manger in Bethlehem. God comes to us, but the story began long before that night.
I have called this series Christmas for Beginners with two purposes. One is to invite you to start over, and hear the Gospel again. We all need to be beginners with the Gospel. Not experts or those who are no longer moved and drawn by the story, but beginners who keep the excitement of the adventure in our search for meaning in life.
American novelist Walker Percy put it this way: “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Just because we are believers doesn’t mean we aren’t searchers. The hunger for meaning and hope is an everyday quest. All of us gathered as believers this morning need to come again and again to Bethlehem, and be amazed again and again by what it all means.
The second reason for this series is to think about how we would present the Christmas Gospel to someone who doesn’t share our faith. I’m not talking about how to “convert” someone, but how to talk about something that many people already understand enough to sing along with our songs and even show up at church occasionally. The Christmas story is a wonderful way to share the Gospel, and the best stories and songs of Christmas are joyful evangels. The angels shared it with shepherds. The wise men came looking for someone who could tell them what had happened. I’m just foolish enough to believe that over your back yard fence, or next to you at work, or in your own family is someone who is a “beginner,” and that you are given the joy of pointing them toward Bethlehem.
So should we start with the gospels? Our unbelieving friends don’t necessarily think we should believe the Bible, but they will agree with us that the Bible is a fascinating story. Christmas is a Bible story, and we need to go to the gospels at least long enough to get started.
Matthew, Luke and Mark all have different beginnings. None of them begin with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew begins with the announcement of the birth of Jesus to Joseph, his earthly father. Luke begins with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, and the announcement of the birth of a savior to a young, just engaged girl named Mary. Mark has no birth story at all, and begins with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
But all these Gospels also tell us that the story began long before those events. All three of the Gospels point us back into the Old Testament. Mark begins with the voice of the Old Covenant prophet Isaiah 40:3-5 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The story of Christmas begins hundreds of years before in the prophecies of a coming visit by God himself.
Matthew’s gospel has a family tree for Jesus in chapter one, and that family tree goes all the way back to Genesis 12: God’s covenant promises to Abraham, the man of faith. “…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” What was that blessing? Was it the baby born in Bethlehem? Was it the man on the cross, and the man who rose from the dead? Yes!
Luke’s gospel has another family tree, and this one goes all the way back to Adam, the first man. Did you know that the Bible calls Jesus the second Adam? The trouble that Adam and Eve got us into, Jesus reverses. He “reverses the curse,” just like God promised in Genesis 3:16 when he told Adam and Eve that the seed of the woman would crush the seed of the serpent. Jesus is the “serpent crusher,” not only in defeating the temptations of Satan, but in giving us victory over death.
So all these gospels point us back into the Bible’s older testament, and remind us that Christmas begins with the story of a God who has been at work in history for a very long time, rescuing and saving lost people; making them into God’s people, and new people.
Of course, there is another gospel, and it is the gospel I want us to think most about this morning. It is the last gospel, the gospel of John. John skips the birth of Jesus, and begins with the baptism of Jesus and the calling of the first disciples. Before that beginning, however, there are 18 extraordinary verses that take us back to the very beginning of the Christmas story. Let’s read John 1:1-18, and listen for the beginning of Christmas, a long way from Bethlehem.
(Scripture reading: John 1:1-18)
Where does Christmas begin? It begins with God.
Do you believe in God? Most people do, at least in some way. But let’s be honest: most of the time our belief is a mixture of belief and unbelief. Unbelievers aren’t always sure there isn’t a God, and believers certainly aren’t without their doubts and questions. We all stop and wonder. We hope there is a God, but we aren’t sure. We think about God at birth and as death approaches. We think of God when good and bad happens. We think of God when we want something and when we regret something else. We are believers, but very few of us have stopped and really walked through the basic questions of what we believe.
Does God exist? What is he like? Does he know about me? Does he care about my life? These are the questions that begin the Christmas story. These are the hopes and fears that meet us in the first advent candle, and in the stable of Bethlehem.
Before I go on, I want to say a word about honesty. Honesty about the question of God is something I respect. A fellow wrote me a few days ago and sent me an 81 page story of his conversion to atheism. For years he belonged to a church that emphasized miracles and intense experience. He tried and pretended and tried and pretended. It was a phony and he knew it. He hated himself. Finally…he quit. He gave it up. He couldn’t pretend anymore.
I told him….GOOD. You did the right thing. And he did. Honesty is good….and if that honesty brings you to a place of being an unbeliever, you are on the road to a more certain faith. It is healthier to be spiritually honest than to pretend and hate yourself.
Some of us need to hear that when we are faced with an honest unbeliever. It’s not a bad thing. A lot of them become Christians, like C.S. Lewis and many others. Encourage those honest seekers, friends. Invite to come and listen. We won’t harass them. I promise.
1. Does God Exist? John starts with the most important question. He doesn’t have a sophisticated proof or engage in philosophical arguments. He simply says “Yes. There is a God.”
And that’s very reasonable. There are only two options on God: Yes and No. Either the universe is eternal, or it was created by God. No one is crazy or bad for believing either option.
You can look at the world and be convinced that God is real, and the next day you can look at the same world and say, “There must not be a God. How could the world be this way if there were a God?”
Christians shouldn’t argue about God with those who don’t believe. They should simply say, “Yes. There is a God, and this is the story that begins with that God. Let’s see where it takes us and how it winds up.”
I’ll say it again. A person doesn’t have to believe anything to hear the Christian story or to hear our answers to life’s questions. If we will tell our story and then live out that story in front of unbelievers, God promises it will be a light in the darkness and a city on a hill. Don’t set out to convert people. Do what John is doing: Just tell the story. Then live the story you tell.
2. What is God like?
This is such an important question. Can we just all think of God as we wish and be confident that we are right? That’s the “postmodern” solution to the God question: everyone is right because no one can be wrong!
I like the model of Ravi Zacharias in his recent books depicting conversations between Jesus and other religious leaders. Ravi reminds me that truth is exclusive, and we as Christians must believe that. But truth isn’t disrespectful of the journey and beliefs of others. We can talk about things that matter, and Jesus always shines when placed beside any other way of thinking about God.
So we have all these options. Jesus. Allah. Buddha. Polytheism. Earth worship. What do Christians believe God is like? (Outline and brief explanation of each)
A. God is personal. (explain)
B. God is intra-personal (The Trinity is crucial)
C. God is inter-personal (explain)
D. God is creator
E. God is a communicator
F. God wants us to know him- He is a self-revealing God.
God is a knowable God. A personal God. A God who cares about us. That’s the beginning of the Christmas story. It’s a story about what God is like.
I don’t know anyone who can hear about this and not agree with the next sentence: If there is a God like this, and we are estranged/cut off from him by our sins, then a lot has been explained about our world and what’s wrong with us. If God is like this, and we were made by him, for him, with relationship with him in mind, then it is no wonder that we are empty, alienated and lost.
But it’s also good news. God is there and he is reaching out to all of us. Christmas isn’t just an event. It’s God doing something to restore, repair and reclaim what was there at the beginning.
3. How does this God make himself known?
Now this is a very important question, and I have two objections that I want to answer. I think the answers might be helpful not only for our questions, but especially for our unbelieving friends who find it impossible to believe the Christian message that Jesus is the way God makes himself known.
A. The first objection says that God should make himself known to us in a way that removes all doubt and really leaves us no choice but to believe. In other words, God should present himself to us in such a way that there really is no discussion of God’s existence or nature.
This really makes a great deal of sense. If you are a Christian, don’t run from this objection….because it is exactly what the Bible describes in Genesis 2-3. In Genesis 2-3 God made himself known to human beings in an absolutely doubt-free, evidence-filled manner. No one in the garden of Eden doubted that God existed, or that he was good. The atheist’s insistence that God must prove himself has already been tried— with disastrous results.
So what happened? Adam and Eve declared their independence from God. They rebelled against him, and declared themselves sufficient without God. Of course, the Bible tells us that this forever changed the relationship between God and human beings. We changed for the worse, and what was once a paradise became planet earth as we experience it today.
This brings up something very important. The message of Christmas is that we don’t need evidence for the mind to be convinced. No, our great need is to receive the love of God that we refused in the beginning, and that we continue refusing today. Our great need is to be reconciled, and it should be obvious to all of us that it is God who will have to bridge the chasm between us. We simply don’t have the resources or even the desire to be reconciled to God.
B. The other objection is similar. Why doesn’t God appear to each one of us personally, in a form that we can understand and relate to? Why doesn’t God just come to each person in a personal revelation so that we can all see him and understand him? Again, this makes a lot of sense and I respect anyone with this objection. What is the Christian response?
If we were unchanged by out estrangement from God, this might be the way to go, but the Bible tells us that our alienation from God has produced an effect that makes this option impossible. We now take what we know of God and remake God into our own image. In Christian language, we are idolaters. We manufacture Gods that suit us and approve of us.
If God appeared to each one of us individually, the result would be a chaotic clash of contradictions, as each person took what God revealed and reshaped it for our own purposes. I would insist that God was like me, and you would insist that God is like you. God would become an expression of our own depravity. (We can see this in how humans take what God has revealed about himself in Jesus, and twisted it for our own purposes.)
So consider what the Christian story says: God became a person. One person. One person in history. One of us. All he had to show us, tell us and do for us, he did in this one life. In this one incarnation. The Bible tells us how God took thousands of years to prepare us for this visit, teaching us the things we would need to know in order to understand this divine visitation.
And now the real irony. With the obvious beauty of this plan, and with all the preparation of one people to understand God’s visit and all it would mean for the world, Jesus came to his own and his own did not receive him. We killed him. We crucified that child who was born in Bethlehem. As surely as Herod killed the children out of fear he would lose his kingdom, we crucified Jesus rather than give up our “kingdoms.”
But the irony is even greater, because the Gospel tells us that dying for us is exactly what we needed most. It is exactly what bridged the chasm, and restored our fellowship with God. When Jesus lived a perfect life, died in our place and rose from the dead, he repaired and remade the world. He rescued us. He began the renewal of all creation. He reversed the curse by becoming a curse for us. His death is the door through which we walk into a whole new world, a world without sin and it’s affects, and a world of eternal joy.
What is the beginning of the Christmas story? It is in God. A personal God. A God who reveals himself. A God who within himself of love and light. A God who made us, and loves us even though we don’t love him. A God who came into our world as a tiny child in Bethlehem. The hopes and fears of all the years were met in Bethlehem that night as God himself stepped into the story he was writing, and made his story our story.
How do we know that Jesus is that visitor? Well…that is another sermon in this series. But I will give you a clue. At the other end of the church calendar is another important day: Easter. The Resurrection of Jesus. If that event really happened, then there is no doubt who Jesus is and what he came to do.
Christmas is where God stands before everyone of us, and puts on the human flesh so we can see him. So we can hear him. So we can know that we are loved, forgiven and accepted. In that body he took from Mary’s flesh, he became the crucified God, and he became our savior. All he asks of you is that you believe this story, and that it become your story. That’s faith. Giving all you know of yourself to all you know of God. You won’t do that perfectly, and you won’t even do it without God’s help, but it is all he asks of you: believe. Believe and become part of the family God is creating in and through his son Jesus Christ.
Next week we will talk about the Virgin Birth, another very unbelievable part of the Christmas story. We will learn about the Trinity, and what we mean when we say that baby born on Christmas was the Son of God.
Charles Wesley was a great poet of the church, and thousands of his lyrics have become songs of the church. On December 18, 1707- his birthday- he wrote this advent poem.
Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
He laid his glory by,
He wrapped him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days he here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s name.
Unsearchable the love
That has the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Or men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.
He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see his glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.
He brings together- in himself, and because of God’s love- the widest of all extremes. If God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, then what remains for us to do? Believe in Christmas. Rejoice in Christmas. Trust in the Christ-Child who is the Crucified man and the risen Lord.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met- in Jesus, in our world- on that night. That is the beginning of Christmas, and it all began in eternity, long ago, when God loved you in Jesus, and sent his son for you.