Christians ponder mystery of Jesus’ birth

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 21, 2002

&uot;I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live Š&uot; (John 11:25)

Two shopping days left till Christmas. Check the list. Wrap the gifts. Tie the bows.

In homes decked with lights and greenery, children anticipate Santa Claus.

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Shoppers &045; exhausted, irritated, confused &045; shuffle through aisles of department stores seemingly oblivious to the repetitive strains of &uot;I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas&uot; and &uot;I’ll Have a Blue Christmas Without You&uot; droning in the background.

Thaw the turkey. Press the tablecloth. Make the cornbread. Bake the pies. Š

Stop! Listen! &uot;Hark!&uot; the herald angels sing. &uot;Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace among men.&uot;

A baby is born in Bethlehem. A baby like no other &045; the way, the truth, the life, God’s gift, God become man.

&uot;How can it be,&uot; writes Delia Smith in &uot;A Feast for Advent.&uot;

&uot;How could almighty God actually become man &045; one of us? Yet we dare to believe it. This is our faith. This is the divine exchange, Jesus humbling himself to share in our humanity in order that we may share his divinity.&uot;

Christmas celebrates the birth some 2,000 years ago of Jesus Christ, a sacred day for those who believe. Professing

themselves Christians, believers struggle to keep the day and the season in perspective by attending church services, praying for guidance, giving to the needy and studying the Bible.

For others, the celebration is simply a festive time of the year centering on worldly themes. And for those of different faiths &045; well, there are different holy days important to their religions.

Perhaps more than in any period of modern history, skeptics abound who cast doubt on the divinity of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, cults associating themselves with Jesus form new interpretations of the Scriptures. Leaders of such groups instruct followers to develop their own &uot;Jesus consciousness,&uot; whatever ethical standards they choose to select for their lives.

How do Christians believing only in the Word presented in the Bible &045; no new canons, no deviations, no cult thinking &045; know they are right about Jesus Christ? Is there a simple answer for nagging doubt in the heart of a believer? Are there answers to quell the nonbeliever’s skepticism?

&uot;Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote. Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’&uot; (John 1:45-46)

Answering the questions of Christmas goes to the heart of the doubter’s quest. Ravi Zacharias in his book &uot;Jesus Among Other Gods&uot; tells the anecdote about television personality Larry King, who said Jesus Christ would be the

person he would interview if given an opportunity to choose only one throughout history. King went on to say that he would ask Jesus only one question, &uot;Are you indeed virgin born?&uot; The answer would &uot;explain history for me,&uot; King is reported to have said.

The Rev. Wayne Gray, pastor of First Baptist Church in Ferriday, La., put it this way:

&uot;It’s important to answer the questions of Christmas. Who came at Christmas? God came &045; in the form of Jesus Christ. Where did he come from? He came from eternity and entered time. He came from heaven to earth.&uot;

How did Jesus come? &uot;He came by the virgin birth. And that is important,&uot; Gray said.

Many religious scholars today argue that the virgin birth is not true and that it is not important because the Scriptures do not say one has to believe in the virgin birth in order to be a Christian.

&uot;It is true that Jesus never says you have to believe in the virgin birth. But the question goes to the credibility of the Scriptures,&uot; Gray said. &uot;If the virgin birth is not true, what other embellishments might there be?&uot;

Nowhere else, not even in mythology, is there a story comparable to that of Jesus. &uot;Jesus was completely human and completely divine, a natural human being but also God in man,&uot; Gray said. &uot;And there is theological importance in the virgin birth. Jesus is sinless, always the Christ &045; before, during his time on earth and still today.&uot;

Scholars go so far as to refute that Mary would have accompanied Joseph to Bethlehem for the census taking, arguing that only men were to be counted.

&uot;The Bible paints a very clear picture,&uot; Gray said. Mary and Joseph both were in awkward positions with their families &045; Mary for being pregnant before she and Joseph were married; Joseph, for taking her as his wife despite her condition.

&uot;Like Mary, Joseph had a supernatural experience,&uot; Gray said. Both understood the amazing circumstances in which they found themselves.

&uot;The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.’&uot; (Luke 1: 30-31)

&uot;Š an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’&uot; (Matthew 18: 20-21)

&uot;God provided for them,&uot; Gray said. &uot;The whole story from the aspect of faith fits together very neatly and very beautifully.&uot;

The humble setting of Jesus’ birth contrasts sharply with the impact he was to have on mankind. More than the birth of Jesus, a baby whose parents had to spend the night in a stable because all the inns were filled to capacity, it was the birth of a new age.

The story can seem simple &045; the star, the donkey, the stable, the tiny baby. Delia Smith cautions against romanticizing the story. &uot;First of all, I think that if we want to avoid the danger of romanticizing &045; and therefore diminishing &045; these familiar events, we must approach them from the utterly human perspective and always keep before us the dual theme that permeates: God and humanity, God-and-us. Only then can we see that the saving power of God is complemented by the capacity of the human race to respond to it and to claim it.&uot;

The Rev. David deVries, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Natchez, said the simplicity of the story can mask the harsh reality of the time and the monumental importance of God’s gift.

&uot;The story is simple, but you have to keep it in the context of the time,&uot; deVries said. &uot;There was military occupation, extreme poverty, difficult lives to live &045; people eked out a living.&uot;

The Savior’s birth speaks directly to man of God’s infinite love. &uot;God through this little baby throws us upside down to reflect on his love for us and for us to kind of wallow in it. This is the part of Christmas that I treasure.&uot;

Connecting the Christmas story to the Beatitudes, deVries said the hard teachings of Jesus &045; those charges hardest to follow &045; should rise before all Christians during the season celebrating his birth.

The Beatitudes are a good place to start, as they establish how Christians are to deal with the poor and the lost, he said.

Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount is described by many as the keynote address at the dawn of the new era Jesus came to establish.

&uot;Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.&uot; (Matthew 5: 3-10)

&uot;So much of what we do in our lives is contrary to the Gospels. There is a much higher vision of what we can be with God’s help. What is heavenly and what we continue to create in this world are far apart,&uot; deVries said.

&uot;God’s plan for our lives is so often 180 degrees from our idea of it. God calls us by a child &045; to peace, to a divine place, to innocence, purity and holiness, to a less barbaric way than the business of our everyday life.&uot;

The Rev. Dayna Goff, pastor at Grace United Methodist Church, concurs. &uot;God sent Christ as a way of connecting us with him. Christ came both as human and fully divine. We know God cares, and we can latch on to that hope, that light in every day life.&uot;

Goff said those who lead the Christian life offer encouragement to the downtrodden. &uot;We can be there feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, clothing people and providing homes for them. We may be the only

Bible some people ever read.&uot;

Despite the growth of Christianity around the world, many people have never heard of Christ, Goff said. &uot;It’s a strong indictment against our church that we don’t share our faith in ways that are viable &045; teaching it and living it out.&uot;

In &uot;A Feast for Advent,&uot; Delia Smith says, &uot;We should, like the shepherds, be humble enough to seek the Christ child and kneel before the manger with nothing to offer but the poverty of being human.&uot;

The busy work brought on by the Christmas season has diminished the sacredness of the holy time for too many, Goff said. &uot;We get caught up in the hustle and bustle and forget what the psalmist said &045; to ‘be still and know I am God’ &045; at this most holy time. We should be still and acknowledge the majesty and wonder of God in all creation.&uot;

Yes, but Š

&uot;What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?&uot; (John 2:18)

As in the time of Jesus’ life, questions persist today. So what signs do Christian theologians and other believers offer? Must they offer anything more than the Word, the Bible, the phenomenal growth of followers, the irrefutable godliness of the man named Jesus Christ?

For deVries, believing in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life comes easily. &uot;Faith is not something we get but something we are given if we are open to receive it. It is God working in us as we journey through life.&uot;

What’s more, there are not answers to every question we or others may ask. &uot;One of the sins of pride is wanting to have answers to everything. We can’t know all the answers.&uot;

Goff agreed. &uot;We acknowledge the mystery of our faith every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Communion,&uot; she said.

&uot;In some ways the stories can seem preposterous; but when you think about truth being stranger than fiction, it makes more sense.&uot;

The Gospel messages are filled with people who have witnessed to what they have seen. And the fact that all four Gospels &045; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John &045; are not exactly alike is further comfort that the accounts are real.

&uot;You can read the words. Christ is the Word. And the words are certainly powerful,&uot; Goff said. &uot;We know they are the truth; but if you are not living the truth, other people don’t see it.&uot;

Christians must live out their faith every day. &uot;There should be no separation between Sunday and what we do in our businesses, our homes and on the sports fields.&uot;

The Rev. Gray of Ferriday calls up the words of beloved Christian thinker C.S. Lewis.

&uot;Some admire Christ as a good teacher. But I agree with C.S. Lewis. He said Jesus was one of three things: the lord, a liar or a lunatic. If he is a liar or a lunatic, he can’t be a good role model or a wise teacher.

&uot;Jesus said he was the son of God, the savior of the world. I believe he is who he said he was. He is the Lord.&uot;

Not all questions have answers, Gray said. &uot;But not one thing have I found that would cause me to doubt God’s word or question Christianity. I believe man needs a savior to enter the presence of God. Christianity makes sense.&uot;