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Judging by the length of the season and the visibility of the signs and celebrations, one would think that Christmas was the center of the Christian faith or even the essence of the faith. Yet there is no Christian sacrament that refers back to the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. Baptism re-presents the death and burial of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist makes present the body and blood of the Lord. Paul does not use the special manner of the Jesus’ birth to make a theological point; nor do John, Peter, James, or the writer of Hebrews. The sermons in Acts never mention it. The New Testament focuses overwhelmingly on the death and resurrection of Christ as the saving events. Even Matthew and Luke place the central emphasis on Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. So, as we celebrate Christmas—if you do—we would do well to remember this:
The birth of Jesus would be of no more significance than the birth of any other human being had not God validated his claims and reversed the court’s verdict of blasphemy and sedition by raising him from the dead. We probably would never have heard of him. And if we had heard of him, he would be just one more Jewish prophet martyred for preaching against injustice, one more apocalyptic fanatic deluded into thinking God would come to his rescue if he acted with enough faith. Indeed we gentiles would probably never have heard of the Jews or the Hebrew Bible; for the Jews became a world historical people only because of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Old Testament is the Old Testament because of the existence of the New Testament. And the New Testament exists because Jesus was raised.
Apart from the resurrection, the miracle of the virgin birth loses its significance as a sign of the incarnation of God. Isaac’s birth was a miracle and so were those of other prophets. And Isaac did not become the savior of the world. Islam teaches the virginal conception of the “prophet” Jesus but denies that Jesus is the incarnation of God. Ironically, Islam, which denies that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, can teach that Jesus was born of a virgin only because Jesus was raised from the dead. Otherwise the story would never have been told in Arabia.
At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into the world, but we must remember that that Advent was hidden and ambiguous, as was the true meaning of the life and death of Jesus, until the resurrection. We know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the union of God and man, very God and very man only because, contrary to all expectations, God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. If God had not raised him from the dead, he would not be the Son of God or the Savior of the world, even if he had been born of the Virgin Mary. And we would not be celebrating Christmas.
If Christ had not be raised, this Christmas would be just another winter solstice, and we would be would be celebrating the birth of the New Year rather than the birth of the Savior.
We see lots of things on Facebook: pictures of families at holiday dinners, vacation selfies, and nature scenes. We see videos of pet adventures, talking heads, and wild animals. We receive birthday and anniversary notices. And we wade through lots of advertisements! But we also encounter lots of heated political, moral, and theological rhetoric. This rhetoric sometimes involves outrage, name calling, labeling, and hyperbole—all in the name of truth, reason, justice, Jesus, the kingdom of God, and all we hold dear. There is no need for me to give examples. You know.
But the one thing I’ve never seen is a reply to a FB post that reads like this:
“Before reading your argument I held strongly to an opposing view. But your cool, careful reasoning and your fair—even generous—representation of those with whom you differ has convinced me that I was mistaken and that the view you espouse is the correct one.”
I wonder…is there any place in our culture where cool, patient reason reigns? Where there is enough humility before the truth to let it speak while we all listen? Where we leave final judgment to God?
How can disciples of Jesus avoid becoming like those we despise? Perhaps the first question we ought to ask is where our spite comes from.
How can we speak with those with whom we disagree? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves first about the character of the force that drives our urge to speak.
What if we thought of persuasion this way: you listen to others until they hit upon the truth?
We often hear human idealism expressed in phrases like these: “I want to make the world a better place,” “I want to change the world,” or “I want to make a difference.” As noble and lofty as these expressions sound, they do not rise to the level of a Christian understanding of life. Not that our labor to improve living conditions or to advance science or to save the planet or promote social justice is of no value at all. It can be. But not in the humanistic way it is usually understood.
I want my life and work to make lasting difference. I am passionate about it! But I have come to realize that no matter hard I try I cannot accomplish this goal apart from one condition over which I have no control. The little word “lasting” in the phrase “to make a lasting difference” is all important. Who cares about making a difference that does not last! Who gets excited about making a temporary difference? But it is not within my power to make “a lasting” difference.
And here is why: One day—only God knows when—I’m going to die. Hence, nothing I do that presupposes that I am alive can have lasting value. Fame, pleasure, money, and professional success matter only if you are alive to enjoy them. They have no relevance beyond that point. One day—God alone knows when—the last person on earth who knew me will die. Nothing I accomplish that presupposes someone will remember it has value beyond that date.
One day—God knows when—the last remaining copy of anything I’ve written and every mention of my name will be destroyed. No one alive will have heard of me. Hence nothing I do for the purpose of being remembered by a living human being has lasting value. One day, given the natural course of things—God alone knows when—the last human being in the whole universe will draw her or his last breath. Hence nothing I can do that presupposes the continuing existence of human family possesses everlasting significance.
One day—only God knows when—our home Earth will be engulfed by our expanding Sun as it turns into a red giant. All remaining plants, animals, and even bacteria will be roasted in temperatures of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees. One day—God alone knows when—all the stars will die, the universe will be the same temperature in every place, so that nothing can happen. What then will become of all I have done?
If there is no God or anything like God, if there is no eternal mental or spiritual reality and mindless matter is the only thing that lasts forever, then neither our lives nor those we love have any lasting significance. Beauty, meaning, love and every quality or experience that makes life enjoyable is just a passing phase of the material world. Human beings are freaks and flukes of nature. Our wretchedness and greatness, our suffering and joy reveal nothing about the meaning of reality. Our lives will pass and there is no one to remember them. The work we have done to save the planet, to advance medical science, and to promote social justice will be forever lost.
My hope that I can do some lasting good, the driving force of my life, rests solely in my belief that there is a God who lives eternally and knows, understands, and remembers who I am, what I have suffered, and what I have done. My hope is that God does not wish to live forever without me, without you. I believe that by helping others on their journey toward God and by faithfully doing what God has assigned me to do I can do something lasting, even everlasting, something well worth my time. My life simply does not make sense to me otherwise.
Hence our labor to improve living conditions, to patch roofs, to advance science, to share a cup of cold water, to save the planet or promote social justice can be of lasting value…if God assigns it to be done, if we do it in service to Christ, and if God remembers it. Otherwise it will make no difference in the end.