Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Thoughts

It is so easy to rush by without a thought of what Christmas really means to us. We see images of the manger scene with shepherds, wisemen, donkeys, sheep, etc. gathered around Joseph and Mary and Jesus sleeping as the angles sing “Silent Night.”

We sometimes pause long enough to ask, "What does this story mean?" We hear phrases like, “virgin birth” “incarnation” and “Immanuel”, but they so often loose their impact on our lives. I think the better question is, "Does this story really matter?"

In Matthew 1:18-23 we read about the fulfillment of a promise – God’s promise to us that he is going to show up. And we would know him because he would come by the way of impossibility – a virgin. God never forgets a promise and in our darkest hours he is there to remind us of them. Matthew did not want to be misinterpreted or misunderstood so he takes the name "Immanuel," not understood by the Gentiles, and tells us what it means: “God with us.”

The preposition "with" means more than "in company with." It means "together with," sharing with." It implies close fellowship. God is united with us. His power is our power. His ability is our ability. The Lord is with us. We sometimes use the phrase, “We are in this together”, or “I’m here for you.” A friend of mine, last year was diagnosed with cancer, and she went through chemotherapy. As we were corresponding, she told me that all the men in the office she worked at shaved their heads as a sign that they were with her. In a way, they took on the embarrassment of her loosing her hair upon them as well. It was very meaningful to her. It meant that her friends were with her through thick and thin.

The sentiment is expressed beautifully in the wedding vows: “Will you have this person to be your wedded husband/wife from this day forward, for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and in health, till death do us part?” This is the kind of relationship that the Father wants to have with us, except that it goes beyond death to eternal life.

John 1, verses 14 and 18 also bring some understanding to this. “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT-SE) “No one has ever seen God. But the one and only Son is himself God and is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (John 1:18 NLT-SE). Jesus stepped out of Heaven. I read this illustration years ago and no longer recall where:

"During the long war years a boy looked frequently at a picture of his daddy on the table. He had left when the boy was a young infant. After several years the boy had forgotten him as a person but he would often look at the picture and say, 'If only my father could step out of that picture and be real....'"

Some translations use the word “dwelt," which is the word for "set up a tent" in Greek. In other words, He made his tabernacle among us. The Israelites would certainly understand this concept as they reflect on the presence of the movable tabernacle representing God in their midst while they wondered in the wilderness for forty years.

In theological terms, this is called “incarnation” This word is a defining element of our theology and faith. It is foundation to our understanding of who Jesus is.
1. Jesus is fully human - with a body made of muscles and skin. He had nerves (felt cold and hot), needs, emotions (anger and sorrow), pain, happiness, joy, even death, not an angel, he was like us.
2. Jesus is fully divine - If we take away the deity of Christ, we destroy the whole structure of Christianity. That doctrine is built in. It is central. It is structural of the structure. He was not just another prophet, or just another nice guy, he is the Son of God! "If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”

Why does this matter to me?

First it means that the Father is revealed. We no longer have to be in the dark about God. He has gone beyond parchment and paper, dramas and videos. He has actually come and pitched his tent in our back yard and beckoned us to watch him and get to know him in the person of his Son Jesus. When you watch Jesus in action, you watch God in action. When you hear Jesus teach, you hear God teach. When you come to know what Jesus is like, you know what God is like.

Secondly it means that I can be saved. I love the verse in 1 Timothy 1:15 “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He did not come for trees or bright color packages or lights or presents or school presentations. The gift of God is all about a relationship – ours with Him. He is near.

This week I watched an interview with Stephen Curtis Chapman on Good Morning America. Last year his daughter was killed when her older brother backed into her in their parking lot. He was asked how he makes it during this holiday season, dealing with loss. What is your message? What sustains you? He said it’s the “message of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us. He came to say, you are not alone, I am with you and whatever you are going through, I will walk with you.”

This is why Christmas, the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, the Angelic message to the shepherds all matter: God is with us. Don’t rush by the manger during this season. Don’t get too busy, or think it’s just a cute little story with some shepherds and wise men. Pause to gaze inside. . .to consider and ponder. . .to bend the knee in worship. . .will find the true meaning of Christmas. This is God’s invitation to you.

And to those who receive this invitation, he gives you the right to be called Children of God.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Star of Bethlehem

The Star of Bethlehem is one of the best-known parts of the Christmas story. You will see this year Christmas cards with stars over Bethlehem or with the Camels and wise men. We will sing about it. The star will fill coloring books and house decorations. Many of us will put it on the top of our Christmas tree. The stained glass images of the star fill churches and cathedrals.

Some say it was a myth, created by the early church to convince people of the Messiah's birth. Many have tried to link the star to an actual astrological event. They turn the clock back on the night sky's appearance, to come up with some astrological events that might have been interpreted as this "Star of Wonder." There are many explanations on the web and they are fascinating to examine (I do wish I would have paid more attention in science class). Whatever it was, the sequence of events were enough that at least three astrologers go to Jerusalem and ask Herod: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.” For the wisemen, there were no questions about the significance of the star. Their question is, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? They do not ask, whether there were such a one born?

Here is the deal for me:
I don’t know if it was a nova, super nova, or a comet, meteor, nebulae, or planetary alignment. I don’t know if it was a shooting star (even that theory doesn’t make sense to me). I do know that it a miraculous sign. How do I know? The same way I know that Mary was a virgin and angels spoke to the shepherds and a blind man received his sight and Jesus rose from the dead – because “it is by faith that a righteous person has life.” It is by faith. It is because over my 48 years of experience I have found God’s Word to be reliable, accurate, and trustworthy. I don’t follow blindly without thinking, but I live my life by faith. My belief does not override the accuracy of this Word, neither does my experience does not trump the truth of this Word. It is true whether I believe it or not. But I HAVE FOUND OUT that God is God and I am not, and I can have a relationship with him. He did send his son to die for me and he has redeemed me and forgiven me of my sins. He has healed me. He has healed my daughter. He as protected me. And He has blessed me far beyond what I deserve.
I may not be smart enough to debate the existence of a Bethlehem star, but I am smart enough to know that I am nothing without Christ and I am nothing without a hope in a Savior.

To me, it is more than a crutch; it is total life support.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Virgin Birth - It Means Something!

It is so easy to let Christmas come and go so quickly that we no longer care about the story. We give a lot of thought to what we should give to others and some thought as to what we would like to receive, but little thought into the true message of Christmas. We give even less thought to the specific elements of the Christmas story outside of Children’s Christmas plays in local churches. The public schools are too afraid of the political backlash to mention Jesus’ birth; although, I do find it interesting that when their choirs sing, they include many classical Christian pieces, like Handle’s Messiah, the Magnificant, and other beautiful works of art.

One of the miracles of Christmas that we pass by without a thought is the virgin birth. If we do think of it, it is simply to mention it so that brings mystery and awe to the story, but it has little affect on our lives. We know it, but we don’t pay much attention to it.

We know that it was prophesied in Isaiah 7:14: “All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’)”. (NLT-SE).

The reason for the virgin birth is stated clearly, “This will be a sign.” This sign along with the other signs (the Bethlehem star, born in Bethlehem, the Angels speaking to Mary and Joseph, the Angelic host speaking to the shepherds, and the Angel speaking to Zecharaiah the priest) all speak to the validity of divine movements speaking to us. Like any sign, they say, “Pay attention!”

The virgin birth was a sign saying, you will know him because he will come by the way of impossibility – a virgin. However, the impossibility of this proposal rests solely in the human mind. With God nothing is impossible. Why should we think that the God who created the world, including humans, would find it difficult to have a virgin conceive?

Here are a few thoughts that might bring back some meaning this Christmas.

The virgin birth matters theologically.

If God was to truly walk among us, he could not have a human father, or he would be only man. There had to be more significance than the rest of us. To deny this miracle denies Jesus' existence before His birth. Jesus said of himself that He existed long before the Bethlehem birth. John 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning was the Word (referring to Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” To deny this miracle denies that Jesus is the Son of God.

To deny his virgin birth denies the validly of scripture. It also denies the union of God and man. He would have been only a human being, not a God-man. If we deny his virgin birth, we can also all other miracles he did.

To deny this miracle also denies all other miracles during life and finally his resurrection, thus destroys God’s plan of salvation, which makes Christianity just another religion.

According to Moody, there are three results that follow a virgin birth:

(1) The human nature of Christ came into existence. It was not a person who came into existence, for Christ as a Person existed from all eternity in His deity; however, the human nature of Christ had a beginning in Mary’s womb.

(2) The human nature of Christ was sinless. Although Christ had a fully human nature, it was not stained by sin. Although He was born of a human mother, the conception by the Holy Spirit guaranteed the sinlessness of Christ. This fact reveals why the doctrine of the virgin birth is so important; had Jesus had a human father He would have been no different from anyone else. The testimony to the sinlessness of Christ is evident as Christ claimed for Himself: “there is no unrighteousness in Him” (John 7:18). John the apostle declared, “in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).

(3) The human nature of Christ brought human limitations. Although Christ was sinless, the virgin birth resulted in a truly human nature. Christ was tired (John 4:6); He became thirsty (John 4:7); He slept (Matt. 8:24); He wept (John 11:35). He submitted to the voluntary limitations of humanity. [1]

The virgin birth matters historically.

Belief in the virgin birth is a central doctrine of Christian thought. The New Testament writers stated that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived and when He was born. There was no human father. He was the Child of God. The new creative act of God is seen in His bringing His Son into the world.

From Tyndale Bible Dictionary:

From the very beginning of the church, the doctrine of the virgin birth became the foundation of an exalted Christology. Some of the earliest church fathers stressed this more than any other event in Jesus’ life as proof of the incarnation and deity of Christ. Justin Martyr and Ignatius defended the virgin birth against opponents at the beginning of the second century, and even at that early date it appeared to be a fixed doctrine. In the debates of the next three centuries, the virgin birth became a prominent issue. Gnostics such as Marcion contended that Christ descended directly from heaven and so was never truly human. On the other hand, those groups that denied his deity, such as the Arians, also denied the virgin birth, stating that at his baptism Jesus was “adopted” as Son of God. The Council of Nicaea in ad 325 affirmed that Jesus was truly God, and then the Council of Chalcedon in ad 451 stated that Jesus was at the same time human and divine, a “hypostatic union” of the true natures. These were summarized in the Apostles’ Creed of the fifth century, which declares, “I believe in … Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” In most of the creeds the virgin birth is also connected to Jesus’ sinlessness, inasmuch as his incarnate, divine nature is the source of his sinlessness. [2]

The reality of the virgin birth impacts our understanding of the incarnation, which literally means, “in flesh”. Theologically, it is the doctrine that in Jesus of Nazareth God took on human flesh and became the God-man. Biblically, it expresses the mystery of Jesus’ identity. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NAS95).

Jesus is fully human - with a body made of muscles and skin. He had nerves (felt cold and hot), needs, emotions (anger and sorrow), pain, happiness, joy, even death, not an angel, he was like us.

Jesus is fully divine - If we take away the deity of Christ, we destroy the whole structure of Christianity. That doctrine is built in. It is central. It is structural of the structure. He was not just another prophet, or just another nice guy, he is the Son of God! "If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”

Jesus’ birth was the moment in time when God visibly provided a way for man to have a relationship with God.

To say that Jesus was only God rejects his humanity (docetism), and to say he was only human rejects his deity (adoptionism).

The virgin birth matters relationally.

It matters to me. It matters, because it means that Jesus is indeed Emmanuel: God with us. The word "with" is in the Greek is used in the strongest possible force. It does not mean "in company with," It means "together with," sharing with," It implies close fellowship. God is united with us. His power is our power. His ability is our ability. The Lord is with us.

Stephen Curtis Chapman was recently interviewed on Good Morning America. On May 21, 2008, 5-year-old Maria Sue Chapman was accidentally hit by Chapman's son, Will Franklin, after she ran into the path of his SUV in their driveway. Maria later died at a Nashville hospital. He was asked how he was doing and he used the “desperately hopeful” to describe him and his family. He as also asked how he is making it during this holiday season as he deals with the loss and what was his message, he said, “it’s the message of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us. God came to say, you are not alone, and I am with you. Wherever you are and whatever you are going through, I will walk with you.”

For over 40 years I have recognized “God with us.” Even during the times where I was not living in obedience, He was with me. Through the joys of church ministry, it was “God with us” that made the difference. “Through difficult seasons of life, it was “God with us” that sustained me. And He is still with me.

I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ. Without the virgin birth, I am left wondering if Jesus is who he says he is: The Way, The Truth, and The Life. Jesus is the One who accomplished the mission of salvation because He was the One in whom both full divinity and full humanity were present.

Don’t rush by the manger during this season. Don’t get too busy, or think it’s just a cute little story with some shepherds and wise men. The Babe in the manger is God’s invitation: “You will not come to me, so I will come to you. I will eat as one of you, sleep as one of you, even die as one of you, for I AM one of you. Will you see? Will you believe? Will you partner with me?”


[1]Enns, P. P. (1997, c1989). The Moody handbook of theology (262). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.

[2]Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale reference library (1287). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.