Christmas Eve Service, 2005

December 24, 2005



Christmas Eve Service, 2005

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

There are many ways to think about the man whose birth, two-thousand years ago, has brought us to this place on this cold December night. For many, Jesus of Nazareth was an extraordinary man whose charisma and teachings, bolstered by some remarkably devoted followers, gave birth to a religion based on the greatest moral teachings the world has ever known. Those who think of Jesus in this way tend to center their faith on the teachings of Jesus.

For others, Jesus of Nazareth was something more than this. These Christians believe that the essence of Christianity lies in the atonement, holding that God acted decisively through the death of Jesus Christ. This group of centers its faith on the Cross, and on the resurrection.

I identify with both of these first two groups, although it is with a third group of Christians I feel the most affinity, and it is the theology of this third group on which my personal faith finds its strongest anchor. This group centers its faith on the incarnation. And for those of us in this particular group, Christmas is the most wonderful and joyous time of the year.

What the incarnation means, of course, is that in some mysterious way, we can understand God by looking at Jesus. It means that the mystery of God, which no human mind can grasp, has been revealed to us in a way the human mind can grasp. It means that unexplainably, serious and reverent reflection on that little baby, born so long ago and so far away, and on the man that baby became, can tell us more about God than any amount of philosophical brainstorming or grand theological dissertations.
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Plato said that all we can know for certain is that we know nothing for certain. I found this truth revealed in a respected journal of theology devoted to an intriguing conversation taking place among scientists and theologians. Ultimately, the great minds of our day have concluded that whatever the universe is–whatever this thing is that we are all living in–the key to understanding what it is all about lies in coming to an understanding of time.

Time is the key, both to the movements of the physical world, and to life itself. And guess what. The greatest minds in the world–scientists, physicists, and theologians–haven’t a clue what time is. The essence and structure of time are hotly debated, but all sides in the debate admit that their best guesses are nothing more than just that–guesses. I can almost hear Plato’s voice echoing across the ages, and saying, “I told ya so.”

The fact is, you and I are specs of consciousness hurtling through space on a tiny rock we call the earth. And while we may be tempted to spend our precious and fleeting moments of life measuring and weighing the wonders we discover on this beautiful planet, and pretending we both understand and are in control of our lives, we are squarely within a mystery that is so grand, so stunning in its vastness and complexity, that if we truly think about it for even a moment we are driven to our knees in wonder and awe.

And it is in this state of wonder and awe that the child’s birth which we celebrate this night assumes its full meaning. I suppose it would make sense for God to enter this world with great fanfare. There should be the quaking of mountains, magnificent and horrifying tidal waves, and a physical form on which we could scarcely gaze without blinding ourselves.

But those of us who believe in the incarnation think God took us completely by surprise. God came into the world as a helpless baby. And that baby grew into a man who, rather than leaving those who met him trembling with fear, loved and forgave everybody, even his enemies, even the very people who tortured and killed him.

I have just a few beliefs which I treasure far beyond the often cumbersome doctrines which have attached themselves to Christianity. Primary among my cherished beliefs is this: Before God created the universe, God’s redemptive love was present. Before a single being was created with the freedom to move away from God’s perfection, God’s redemptive love was in place, ready to heal, to redeem, to forgive. Some form of this redemptive love is found in most religions.

In this place of worship where we strive for head and heart to be equal partners in faith, I confess it is my head which has reached the conclusion God’s redemptive love was present before creation. It is a reasonable idea. But here is where my heart takes over. I believe that somehow, unexplainably, that love became incarnate. That love came to be perfectly reflected in a human being. And that love is the person we call Jesus of Nazareth. That is my heart talking. That is my faith talking. Don’t ask me to give a reasonable explanation of why I feel this way, because I can’t. Don’t ask me to explain exactly how it is that Jesus is the incarnation. I can’t.

In the Bible we find two stories about the birth of Jesus, one in Matthew and the other in Luke. Both of them claim Jesus was born of a virgin. As you all know, it seems clear that most of the New Testament authors, including those with the highest views of Jesus as the Christ–John and Paul–didn’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin, evidenced by the fact they spent their lives attempting to convince people Jesus was the Son of God, yet never mentioned a virgin birth.

People frequently ask me what I believe on the subject, and they often don’t care for my response. I tell them the truth. I don’t know. Remember our old friend Plato–it’s hard to know anything if we’re honest with ourselves. And not only don’t I know, I honestly don’t believe it matters one way of the other.

As we hurtle through space on this delicately balanced spec of dust called Earth, we are meant to develop a relationship with God. I believe the best way to develop a relationship with God is through Jesus. So I tell you, if believing Jesus was born of a virgin helps you in your faith journey, then believe it with all your heart. You are in the distinguished company of the Apostle Matthew and the Apostle Luke. And if the idea of a virgin birth is a stumbling block in your faith journey, then take comfort in the fact that you have lots of company in the Bible. The fact is, God brought the incarnation into the world however God wanted to, and one’s belief or lack of belief in the virgin birth will not result in God withholding the redemptive love of Christ.

Of course, I know what the scholars say about the stories of the birth of Jesus. They’re just fables. Wild stories which appeared a couple of generations after his death. One story has a star appearing overhead to reveal the birthplace of Jesus, the other story has Jesus born in a manger. One story has wise men traveling from the east, and the other has shepherds tending their flocks. One story has gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and the other story has angels singing from the heavens. And somehow, our yard decorations have managed to combine the two versions of Jesus’ birth into a single story.

I know this congregation pretty well, just as you know me. We are usually such a rational bunch. But tonight…tonight, let’s give ourselves permission to be children. After all, Jesus told his disciples that they would not see the kingdom of heaven unless they became like children. Tonight, let’s think back to those heavenly days when we were children.

I know there are those whose childhoods were not filled with love, but I hope that even those who were not blessed with loving parents can muster a fond memory when looking back on their childhood Christmases. Let’s drift back to the first time we heard The Night Before Christmas read in hushed tones by a loved one, the fragrance of hot chocolate and fresh pine filling the room. Drift back and see the lights playing on the shiny Christmas tree ornaments in a way that can only be described as magical. Drift back to a time when all was well with the world, and every person in the world seemed to waltz across the snow, as the music of Christmas filled every corner of creation, and there was a loving joy in the eyes of every man, woman and child, and a “Have a Merry Christmas” on their lips.

Let’s drift back to the magic of the Christmas season in those simpler days, back to a time when we thought of the baby Jesus as he lay in that manger, and we knew he was something special–something amazing.

Because we need some of that simple awe back in our lives. Jesus is something special–something amazing. We know, because in this very room, and all over the world this very evening, perfectly intelligent and rational human beings are taking a short pause from the frantic mad dash we make through life, to contemplate the birth of a baby two-thousand years ago.

Maybe it’s because deep in our hearts, we know how limited we are deep in our minds. I mean, we don’t even know–not even our best and brightest know–what time is. So let’s be thankful for this wondrous evening, when the world puts on its brakes for a short while, and we are permitted to be children again.

Go ahead. Just tonight, be a child again. And as you ponder the mystery of that amazing birth, if you want to envision a guiding star, and angels singing from the heavens, and wise men with gold and frankincense and myrrh, and shepherds, all gathered around the manger, that’s okay. It’s a little childlike. But that’s the idea.

God bless you all, and Merry Christmas.