A Christmas Creed: God In His Mother’s Arms
The story of Christmas as told by Matthew in his Gospel. The first chapter, beginning at the 18th verse. This is the Word of God: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother, Mary, had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit, and her husband, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Immanuel, which means God with us.'”
“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took his wife, but he knew her not until she had born a Son, and he called His name Jesus.” Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, oh, God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I think it is true to say that the story of the first Christmas has inspired some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, but then it seems to me that it is only the poet’s sensitive heart, only the poet’s soaring language which can begin to capture the glory and the magnificence of that moment. One poet, for example, paints the picture like this, “God, in His mother’s arms, a baby in a byre, asleep as those sleep who find their heart’s desire.” That’s the poet’s way of saying what we affirm together every time we stand and say the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
Today, I want us to try, if we can, to wrap and our minds and our hearts around those last two phrases, “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” and that first thing that I would wish to say to you is this: I do not know how it happened.
You see, the Creed does not tell us how it happened. The Creed simply says that it happened.
“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” It tells us what happened. It does not tell us how it happened, and need I say to you that the matter has been vigorously debated for centuries. For you see, there are those in the Church who claim Christ as Lord, who believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, and there are those in the Church who claim Jesus Christ as Lord, who do not believe that He was virgin-born, and I suppose that when you take a look at all of the facts involved, it’s easy to understand how this divergence of opinion could exist.
For you see, those who believe Christ to be virgin-born are very quick to say that two of the Gospel writers declare it to be so, and that is true, two of them do, but those who do not believe that Christ is virgin-born are equally quick to point out that the other two Gospel writers do not mention the virgin birth. They do not refer to it even indirectly, and that also is quite true. Those who believe He was virgin-born say, “Well, you know, the prophet Isaiah, he prophesied the whole thing, and he did it in perfect detail,” and that he did. But those who do not believe He was virgin-born, “Well, Paul, the greatest theologian the world and the Church has ever seen, Paul never speaks of the virgin birth, not a single word,” and that he did not. There are those in the Church who regard the doctrine of the virgin birth as being the single most important doctrine in all of the Christian faith. As a matter of fact, I remember a man who was on the pulpit committee in the church which I served first in my years in the ministry, and I remember that he said to me that he didn’t care what I believed or didn’t about Jesus Christ, about the Church, and about the Christian faith as long as I believed in the virgin birth.
And there are others in the Church who seem determined to belittle or even dismiss the doctrine. In fact, they seem to believe that those early Christians were somehow so ignorant, so unsophisticated that anything that they say with regards to the birth of Jesus must be regarded as nothing more than just flights of foolish fancy.
Let’s acknowledge the fact that both extremes are equally absurd, and let’s also acknowledge that fact that it is a tragedy that something as simply beautiful as the birth of Jesus Christ could become a wedge driven between believers in the Body of Christ. It is a tragedy, and therefore, do not expect me to stand in this pulpit this day and set off some kind of divisive debate about the doctrine. I will not do it. I will not be baited into fighting about something as beautiful and as mysterious and as inspiring as the picture of God in His Mother’s arms.
Make no mistake, I believe the doctrine. I believe in the virgin birth. I believe it with all my heart. I would even go so far as to say that I would be willing to stake my life on its truth. I believe it. I believe that, yes, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. I believe that, yes, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. I believe that, but I do not believe it because of any theory or any argument or any evidence or any theology which you might want to parade before me. I believe it simply because Jesus is who He says He is.
For me, the proof of the virgin birth is the life of Jesus. The proof is in the living for when you look at the life of Jesus, if you look at it with any honesty and objectivity at all, you have to see in it either one who was consumed by insanity or one who was what He claimed to be, God in human form. There are those who say that His life was simply too good to be true. I say His life was too good not to be true. Many have called Him a great Man. Far, far more, including me, have called Him, “My Lord and my God.” It is in His living that we find all the proof we ever need, for I tell you, truly, I have tried in my own life – consciously, deliberately, I have tried, for all I’m worth, to live the life that Jesus lived, and I have failed miserably. No one has ever lived like Jesus lived, no one, and when you look at His life, well, you have only two choices: either you write the whole thing off as nothing but a myth out of the fabric of somebody’s imagination, or you bow down and worship Him.
And I’ll tell you, to try to write the life of Jesus off as just a myth, you know what that is? That’s trying to use one miracle to answer another. For I ask you, who could ever, on the face of this earth – who could ever dream up a life like the life of Jesus Christ? It was Ernest Renan who said, “It would take a Jesus to invent a Jesus.” Yes, my friends, the proof for me is in the living. The Apostles’ Creed does not tell us how it happened. It just says it happened. And I do not know how it happened, but I believe it did, and when I look at the purity of the life of Jesus, I have no alternative but to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”
The second thing that I would say to you is this: I do not know how it happened, and I do not even know when it happened.
“Ho,” you say, “that’s ridiculous. I can tell you when it happened. It happened some time between midnight and dawn early on December the 25th, 1,985 years ago.” No, no that’s not when it happened at all. You see, we know that King Herod the Great died in the year 4 B.C., and we know that King Herod lived for at least a year after the birth of Jesus, and that would put the birth of Jesus, then, sometime during the year 5 B.C., and so you see, this is not actually 1985 A.D. This is actually 1990 A.D. Why the discrepancy? Well, you won’t believe it. The calendar that we use was established in the 6th century by a man named Dionysius the Little, and Dionysius the Little, in establishing that calendar, set the date of the birth of Jesus according to the date of the founding of the city of Rome, and he wrote down the wrong number. He made the most catastrophic mathematical error in all of history, and our calendar has been five years off ever since.
We do not even know what season Jesus was born in. “Oh,” you say, “well, find out when the census occurred. That will give you the answer.” Well, there was a census. It occurred in 5 BC, but that census took a full seven months to complete, overlapping three different seasons. Oh, well, some say, “Well, what about the star? Yes, find out when the star was shining. That will give you the answer.” It’s been studied. Astronomers tell us that there was an astronomical phenomenon that occurred in the year 5 BC, but it appeared in the sky from September through March. “Well,” some say, “you know how it says in the Bible that the shepherds were out in the fields at night with their flocks? Research that a bit. That ought to give you a clue.” Well, it’s true that in portions of Palestine, the shepherds are out in the fields with their flocks at night only during certain portions of the year, but in Judea, where Bethlehem is, the shepherds are out in the fields at night all the year round. We do not even know when it happened.
Do you know why we celebrate it on December the 25th? The Romans again. The Roman had a feast day. It was called the feast of the invincible sun. It was a day that they set aside, and it was to be on the winter solstice, the day when the sun stopped its journey into the cold and instead then began its journey toward the spring. On the winter solstice, the Romans would celebrate the feast of the invincible sun, that the sun could not be stopped by the winter. Well, now, you know as well as I do that the winter solstice is on December the 21st, but the Romans made a mistake. That’s right, they missed it. They set the date of the winter solstice as December the 25th, and they had on that date the feast of the invincible sun. Well, in the 4th century, the Christians came together, and they decided that they would have their own feast of the invincible sun, but they would spell it not S-U-N but S-O-N, the feast of God’s invincible Son, and what could be more appropriate that to remember the warmth and the power and the life that Jesus Christ brought into the coldness of the world at the very time when the sun begins its inevitable march toward the springtime? That’s why we celebrate it on December the 25th. I think it’s a good choice.
Something happened. Something unusual happened on the battlefield during the First World War, 1914, the battlefield at Flanders. The British and the Germans were engaged in terrible combat. The fighting had been fierce. It had been costly for both sides, many, many wounded, many, many killed, and the troops from both sides at the front lines were huddled down in their trenches in fear. It was bitter cold. They were miserable. They were separated from each other by just 70 yards of earth known as No Man’s Land, and the misery of the moment was compounded by the calendar. It was Christmas Eve, and when the darkness fell on that Christmas Eve in 1914, for some reason – no one seems to know why – but for some reason, suddenly, the firing stopped, and it was quiet, a long, eerie, scary kind of quiet.
And then suddenly, suddenly, the silence by broken by the sound of soft voices singing, German voices singing “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” English voices singing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” and then to the astonishment of everyone, suddenly, one of the young German soldier boys crawled up out of his trench and stepped out onto No Man’s Land, and he held up in his hand a little tree, and he’d affixed candles to the tree, and the candles were lit, and he walked out right into the midst of No Man’s Land, and he cried out in broken English, “Merry Christmas,” and with that, the trenches simply emptied out as soldiers from both sides came rushing out into that No Man’s Land, and they began to talk with one another, and they began to embrace, and they began to exchange small gifts in the name of Christ, food rations and candy and little ID bracelets, and then they began to sing once more, song after song after song, each in his own language until at last, the hills around them echoed with the sound of the carols of Christmas.
They resolved together that they would spend Christmas Day visiting with one another and burying their dead, and that’s what they did, so that then, when the darkness began to fall on Christmas Night, they once again moved back to their trenches and hunkered down ready for the war to begin once more, and sure enough, it began. The great artillery cannon began to explode, but do you know what happened? Not a single soldier in those trenches, not a single one on either side, not a single one could put a finger to the trigger. Not a one could fire a shot. They couldn’t do it, and they had to be transferred, every last one of them on both sides. They had to be transferred back to the rear lines, and other soldiers who would fight were sent in to the trenches at the front lines.
Now, I know that’s just one little incident in the midst of an otherwise terrible war, and I wouldn’t think of making more of it than I should, but I want to ask you something. Doesn’t it suggest to you that, yes, in the end, love is stronger than hate? Light is stronger than darkness? Good and God are stronger than evil? It was just a moment, just a brief moment, just a brief moment of warmth in the midst of the world’s coldness, just a brief flicker of starlight in the midst of the world’s darkness, but it was a moment, my friends, which declared what is ultimately true that God’s invincible Son will melt the coldness in every human heart. So I don’t know when it happened, and somehow, it doesn’t seem very important to me. I think it’s good that we celebrate on December the 25th our feast of God’s invincible Son, but there is one thing more.
I do not know how it happened. I do not know when it happened. But at least I do know why it happened.
John said, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever liveth and believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved,” and Paul said, “In this is love. That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s why it happened.
There is an old legend about Jesus when He was a young boy. I know it’s just a legend, but maybe there is, about it, something of the truth. It’s a legend, but it says that when Jesus was a young boy, He had a garden, and in that garden, He grew beautiful roses, and He would take the roses when they bloomed, and He would plait them together and weave a garland, and the garland was to be worn in the hair. And the legend says that once Jesus asked some other children to come and play in that garden with Him and to enjoy the garlands, and the children came, and as some children are sometimes, those children became rather mischievous and rambunctious, and they began to rush through the garden, and they began to snap the blossoms from the stems and throw them on the ground so that when they were finished, the whole garden was stripped and bare. And then again, as some children will do sometime, those children turned to Jesus, and they said to the young Jesus, “Now, how will you make your garlands now?” and Jesus said, “You’ve forgotten you left the thorns.”
“O, sing a song of Bethlehem, of shepherds watching there, and of the news that came to them from angels in the air. O, sing a song of Calvary, it’s glory and dismay, of Him who hung upon that tree and took our sins away.” That’s why it happened.
So I invite you to come this Christmas to the lovely little stable at Bethlehem, lovely not because of what’s on the outside but lovely because of who is on the inside. I invite you this Christmas to see Jesus Christ conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. I invite you this Christmas to look at God in His Mother’s arms.
I have to warn you about something. You have to come quietly. You can’t push your way in. You can’t force your way in. You can’t argue your way in. You can’t even purchase your way in. You must come humbly. You must come on your knees. You must come, saying with the poet, “What can I give Him poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I’d give Him a lamb. If I were a wise man, I’d do my part, but what I can, I give Him. I give Him my heart.”
Let us pray. Oh, gracious Lord, in all the glory of Christmas, let us see the infant child and know that He is You and that in Him, we have our hope, and that through Him, You loved us enough to die for us.