Third Sunday of Advent: Joy
Sunday, December 17, 2017
The December issue of National Geographic arrived a few weeks ago. The cover is the very famous work entitled “Head of Chris” painted by Rembrandt in the 1640’s. Ah, we see what Geographic is doing. It’s December, Christmas is coming, this is a magazine committed to popularizing culture, nature, and scientific discovery, and so, why not apply scientific sensibility to a world-wide cultural phenomenon, the religion behind Christmas. Why not take a scrutinizing look at the people who follow and worship Jesus, the man the baby in the manger grew up to become?
The caption on the cover confirms the intent. It says “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals about His Life.” Do you catch all the implications within this simple sentence? We just sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” We think that the baby Jesus grows up to become the “Lord Jesus.” We proclaim it, we sing it, we pray it, and we insist it is the truth of all truths. But is this a legend, a story first century Jews made up as a part of a series of ecstatic prayer experiences? Is the Lord Jesus not actually the real Jesus? See the questions raised by that caption under Rembrandt’s painting on the cover of National Geographic?
With the question before us, where do we go? Where do we turn to find out the truth about “the real Jesus?” Do we turn to the internet? You can sit and down type it into Google. In case you wondered, Google took less than half a second to produce 33 million hits in response to this question. Good luck sorting through all those sites, all of them based on someone’s agenda. Where else could we go for help with this? You might call Heather or me or Beth, Phil, or Angel for that matter. Or Hong or Dina or Greg Meyers. We all have seminary degrees. Or, if you’re feeling intrepid, you may skip the professionally trained clergy and go straight to the Bible yourself. Anyone who is literate can read the divinely inspired accounts and form their own understanding of “the real Jesus.”
National Geographic goes in a different direction. Again, the words on the cover: “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals about His Life.” Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.”[i] It is a science, one that works hand-in-hand with its sister discipline, history, which is also practiced as an emotionally detached academic discipline. National Geographic thinks that the science of archaeology will give us more fact-based truth about the historical figure of Jesus than anything we might find in biased accounts like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, written from a faith perspective. When a historian or archaeologist declares that faith and miracles and the supernatural are all fantasy and the only things that are real are the facts science can establish, it has the potential to suck the joy right out of Christianity for me.
I love National Geographic, a magazine that comes from a worldview that stands on scientific discovery and proof as the only standard for what is real. The author of “The Real Jesus” article, Kristin Romey, appreciates what science can say, and also appreciates the limits on scientific inquiry. There is no way the science of historical research can prove or disprove that an angel spoke to Mary and that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. National Geographic tends to default to the view that the virgin birth would have been legend, not something that actually happened. Science has no category for something that occurs outside of scientifically established natural laws.
When archaeology and history are practiced as sciences, what they can do is give as accurate a picture as possible about what human life and human society was like in the past – in this case the late first century BC and the first half of the first century A.D. The article in National Geographic does a thorough job of showing how scientists have over and over verified that much of what we find in the four gospels is historically solid. The cities reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were where those gospel-writers said they were. Kristen Romey shows that based on what history can prove, Matthew and his three Gospel-writing peers got the facts right. First century Israel was mostly likely the way they described it when Jesus was born, when he lived, and was crucified.
If you’re tempted to say, “Oh, I didn’t need science to tell me that,” allow me to push back just a bit. As followers of Jesus, we should all be enthusiastic supporters of S.T.E.A.M – science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. No, we don’t need science for salvation. However, Jesus commands us to love the Lord with all our mind. Our church has many members who stretch their minds to the limit in their work, scientific research. As a worshiping community, we need to foster an environment in which our students are encouraged to excel in science whether it is elementary school or a PhD program or anywhere in between. We need to bless our members who are scientists and also are Jesus’ disciples. Their work can be an offering to God and they should glorify Him by committing to excellence in their work.
Science matters because there are things that can be proved. For instance, if an ossuary, a bone box, was discovered, and it was proven to contain the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, our faith would be shattered. We stand on the belief – a belief we insist is incontrovertible fact – that Jesus rose from the grave. So, if we found what we know to be his grave, it better empty. Or, our faith crumples.
However, there are realities for which science cannot account. Researchers can say what life was like in first century Nazareth, but they can’t prove or disprove that Jesus performed miracles there. They can’t determine whether or not an angels appeared to shepherds in Bethlehem or spoke in Joseph’s dreams. The author of the National Geographic piece was very fair on this point. She traveled all over Israel – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Capernaum. She met Christ followers from every country you can imagine. From all over the globe, people traveled to worship Jesus on the ground where he actually walked.
At the end of her article Kristin Romey writes, “To sincere believers, the scholars’ quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence. That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions [and] irreconcilable facts. But for true believers, their faith in the life, death, and Resurrection of the son of God will be evidence enough” (p.68). I appreciate her recognition of the both/and quality of the Jesus story. There’s the Jesus who existed in history, and the Jesus who transcends and fulfills history. They are one and the same and this Jesus is the subject of our worship.
Christmas time sees us entering into a special season of worship. The scientific study of Jesus gives us a framework to talk about the story in a post-enlightenment age. But we need miracles because we need more than just what modern man’s technology can provide. We don’t just need cures; we need hope. We don’t just need life to be made easier; we need life to matter. We don’t just need a few days off to rest and visit family; we need worship that reminds us we are transformed, a people made new in Christ. The way Christmas has come to a place of importance for my own family helps me see why it is so important.
Our kids sit around the computer with my wife Candy, and together, they play a simulation that includes a graphic with green and red wrapped presents, an old-time village decorated in Christmas lights, Christmas-related games, and a repeating track of delightful Christmas music in the background. Beginning on December 1 and going all the way to the 25th, there is something new every day as they click on the globe icon. Around the time supper is ending and the time for homework is nearing, I say, “Kids, it’s time for the globe,” and they assemble on the sofa and get the computer ready. Every year.
In darkness of the early morning, at this time, as we are rousing, getting breakfast, school lunches made, getting ready to catch the bus that comes at 7:05, I tell one of the kids, “plug the Christmas tree lights in.”
In this season, when we are driving home from a basketball practice or a gymnastics class or Wednesday night youth group, from the back seat I hear, “Dad, can we drive through the neighborhood and look at the lights?” I say, “Yes.” We do this several times, pause to see how our neighbors have decorated to celebrate the season. Every year.
The pilgrimage to the theater to see the Nutcracker. Decorating homemade cookies, little trees, stars, and Santa Claus’s. I need this.
Four or Five years ago, I had a nasty head cold that ran all through December. I grumbled and growled. I wanted nothing to do with Christmas songs or lights on houses or drives through our neighborhood. Sometime around December 27th or 28th, my wife said, “You were a real grouch this Christmas.” She was right. That has stuck with me. I don’t want to be that. I need the joy of the season both from our faith and from our cultural ways of celebrating and living that faith. I need that joy.
I think most people do. We spend Advent anticipating his birth as we relive the story, anticipating new things he will do in our lives in the coming year, and waiting with anxious patience for his return at the fulfillment of history, when history ends and God’s kingdom is fully ushered in. John captures this spirit of longing, waiting, and uncertain in chapter 16 of his gospel.
There, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his coming crucifixion and then resurrection and then ascension. They don’t understand much of what he says, but they have the words, and after he is raised from death, and after they see him ascend in clouds and the Holy Spirit fills each one of them, they remember and understand in a new light.
“You will have pain,” he tells them. “But your pain will turn into joy.” Jesus’ words recall the prophet Isaiah who says, “The Lord gives beauty for ashes, gladness in place of grief” (61:3, my paraphrase). This is what God does. Our sin produces pain and death, and draws us away from God. God, through the death and resurrection of Christ, defeats death, removes our sin, and gives us blessing. Our pain turns to joy.
Jesus continues in John 16:22, “You have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Grab a hold of this promise he made to 12. Claim it for yourself. These words are in the Bible, handed down to the church, to us, for us. God, in the risen Christ, in the present Holy Spirit, takes your pain, give you joy, and protects it, so that you have joy unending, joy that cannot be ripped from you.
And finally Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive; I have said these things my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (16:24; 15:11).
Based on the assessment of all the available evidence, researchers have determined that Luke, John, and the other gospel writers give an accurate picture of first century Israel. In terms of verified reporting, John can be trusted. We know our own stories, how much we need the joy that is promised in the Bible, in the story of Jesus. That Jesus himself said we can ask and God will give divine, unending, life-changing joy. Why don’t we ask him to do that?
I don’t know the specific challenges that block your path in life right now, but I suggest, we end our time with prayer. Ask God to be with you as we sit together in the Advent season and you face whatever it is you face in your life. Ask God to sit with you. And, ask God to fill your heart with Jesus’ love, so that you can know without a doubt that His joy is in you, and your joy is complete. This is something beyond explanation, something only God can give. And he wants to. So ask God in right now.