I want us to reflect on the heart of what might be called ‘the Christmas event’. By that I mean the nativity story. It’s very easy to write about in print because I don’t need any visuals – and that’s because you can visualize the scene so easily since it’s represented so often on Christmas cards. You know what I mean: the scene with the crib, with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds along with the cattle.
Yes, we can picture it easily enough, but I want to ask if you believe it, I mean really believe it. Did it actually happen the way it’s told us in the Bible, for example in the opening chapter of the Gospel by Matthew? Is it credible to believe in a child being conceived and born without a human father being involved? You’d not be alone if your reaction was: ‘Come on, you don’t really believe that, do you? Isn’t it just a comforting delusion to warm our winter evenings? It’s pure escapism – it’s got to be, hasn’t it? I mean people were simpletons back then. They didn’t properly understand where babies came from. This story must have grown out of superstition along with the misplaced trees and tinsel and the even more inappropriate reindeer!’
The same people would say to us ‘We’ve long since outgrown that stuff; get real – we’re modern thinkers of the 21st century: this is an age of reason. We live in a universe governed by science and the laws of Nature.’ Many people – especially humanists and the new atheists – get hot under the collar about the Christmas story, as it’s referred to. Some even take strong exception to it and splutter and fume against it. Others just take a fuzzy, patronizing view of the nativity story. ‘Yeah, the Bible says it happened, but there again … well it would say that, wouldn’t it … Still, don’t make a fuss, it’s nice for the kids. Can’t do any harm.’ But the new breed of atheists would say ‘Rubbish! We shouldn’t be telling lies to our kids. The facts are wrong, it’s utterly impossible.’ There again, of course they’d say that (after all it’s their belief). The question is: which side are you on?
Lots of people just avoid the issue altogether, and simply major on having a good time, possibly singing along to much-loved Christmas Carols. It’s such a nostalgic time, for we remember the Christmases of our childhood. It’s sentimentalism gone wild, unashamedly so, because there’s a kind of fairy-tale romance about the story. In other words, there’s a feel-good factor about all of this. We can make believe there’s going to be peace on earth and we’re going to have a prosperous new year – despite any recession. Ah, don’t use the R-word … don’t spoil it, don’t burst the bubble, let’s just enjoy the feel good factor a bit longer. Long live the make-believe! But wait a minute. Sentimentalism or scientific nonsense: are those the only choices on the menu this Christmas? No, they’re not! And, do you know what, I think Joseph can help us see that. Don’t we tend to forget about Joseph in all this? What was his take on it back then – in those simple times when people allegedly believed anything – no matter how unscientific it was?
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been 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.”
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:19-25)
When Joseph saw his fiancé was going to have a baby, he didn’t stroke his beard in wonder. He started filing for divorce! Now why on earth would a simpleton want to do that? Could it be because he already had a pretty good working knowledge of biology? Yeah, that was it. The laws of Nature dictate that a girl doesn’t ordinarily have a baby unless she’s been sleeping with a man. He knew that fact just as well as we do – and he knew it wasn’t him. So he drew what he thought was the obvious conclusion.
Do you get it? He didn’t buy the myth! His actions remove the argument for all this being irrational superstition. Good old Joseph. He was a cynic like the best of us!
He acted just exactly like modern sceptics do – with the difference being: he was a lot closer to the action than we are. And the point is: something changed his mind. In the end Joseph didn’t divorce Mary. Instead, he became a believer! Which helps me to see that faith doesn’t have to be a denial of biology or any other science for that matter. Joseph did not have blind faith. He first of all agreed with the usual science of child-birth, but was persuaded by the evidence to the contrary.
Our modern objections were already built into the original story, meaning Joseph’s faith wasn’t blind faith. His decision not to divorce Mary was as rational a decision as any that he, you or I have ever made. Without any doubt this was the biggest decision of this man’s life – and one he took with the greatest of care – when he’d every reason at first to come to the opposite conclusion. His final decision (not to divorce) was one for which he’d have needed – and did clearly receive – undeniable evidence that something – or Someone – had wonderfully stepped into the picture.
Joseph became a totally convinced believer in the identity of the child in the manger. Remember, he’d everything to lose if he was deluded. Until the day he died he had to put up with the town gossip wherever he went, with all its smirking innuendo. Joseph’s actions are a small, but significant, part of the reason why I’m not an atheist. I tell you, honestly, I’ve no interest in the sentimentalism of a feel-good Christmas. That doesn’t cut it for me. But I intend to have a level-headed celebration of how the one who wrote the laws of biology later re-wrote them when he was supernaturally born to be my saviour.
In fact, I’m not sure if I should say that he re-wrote the Laws of Nature at all. Let me share this illustration with you. A man one day put £20 British pounds in his bedside drawer. The next day he put another £20 pounds into the same drawer. Then on the third day he counts the money in the drawer and finds it amounts to only £15! How can that be? How is it possible that the laws of arithmetic have been broken? Ah, you say, they’ve not. The laws of arithmetic have not been broken but it seems as if the laws of England have been broken by some thief breaking in and stealing some of the money he’d deposited there. That thief wasn’t a prisoner to the laws of arithmetic when he stole the money. And I say to you, that neither was God a prisoner to the laws of Nature when he became a glorious intruder into our history!
This story of the origin of the child in the manger defines our search for the origin and meaning of life itself – and, if we let it, it also ends our search for the origin and meaning of life.
I believe God’s son entered into a simple home on earth so that I can go to a mansion in heaven (and by the way, so can you if you seriously believe in what it all led to some 33 years later). If we know where this baby came from, then we can know too where we’re going. I urge each of us to believe in a grown-up way that ‘God gave his one and only son.’ Like Joseph, you have now the biggest decision of your life to make.