Month: September 2009

Foolproof evangelism program needs no budget or training

“Here’s a foolproof evangelism program that requires no budget, no training, and can be implemented immediately.”  That’s the way I introduced one of my seminars at The Billy Graham School of Evangelism last week.  Participants suspected there was some kind of catch, but showed up anyway.  Sure enough, there was some kind of catch.

But the catch is a good one — this program of evangelism comes from the words of Jesus, is not optional, and has eternal consequences.  Plus, it needs no budget, no training, and can be implemented immediately.  And, church size has nothing to do with its success or impact.  Any church can do it, and every church should.

What is it?  Doing good.  Helping others.  Showing we care.  The care of souls.  Social gospel.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s found in Matthew 25:31-46.  Here’s part of it:

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Jesus continues by saying that those who did not do this “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”  Sounds pretty important to me.  Everybody can do this, and small churches can do it just as well as megachurches, maybe even better.

So, that’s it.  Doing good.  Helping others.  Meeting needs.  Because when you do you are doing it unto Jesus himself.  That’s the catch.

Crucifixion: Everything you wanted to know and more

If you think you know everything you need to about crucifixion and the cross, think again.  I’m preaching a 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed, and this past Sunday we arrived at the phrase about Jesus —

“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”

So, of course, my sermon was on the crucifixion, and I used the text of I Corinthians 2:1-2, where Paul says when he arrived in Corinth he was determined to “know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Which is a very strange statement when you really think about it, which I did.

Thinking about the crucifxion and the cross led me to Martin Hengel’s small book titled, Crucifixion In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Which is an incredibly long title for such a short book of 90 pages.  But Hengel, who died this year, packs more than you’d ever want to know about crucifixion and its significance into this brief work.  Hengel was Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, and specialized in second-temple Judaism.

He traces the use of crucifixion from its invention by the Persians to its adoption by the Romans, who continued to describe it as barbaric.  Roman literature considered the mention of this form of execution as too coarse for public sensibilities, and little was preserved in the more refined works of Graeco-Roman authors.

When crucifixion is mentioned in ancient references, the descriptions are more horrific than even the depiction in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which was rated R because of the brutally violent acts shown.  Did you know, for instance, that….

  • Dead people, as well as the living, could be crucified?
  • Crucifixion was one of three forms of capital punishment preferred by the Roman empire.  The other two were burning and being torn apart by wild animals.  Sometimes crucifixion was combined with one or both of the other methods.
  • The largest number of crucifixions known at one time was over 500.
  • Bodies were often left on the crosses to decompose and be consumed by wild animals and vultures.
  • Jews were “scandalized” by the cross and crucifixions because of Deuteronomy 21 — anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.
  • However, some in Judea liked the Roman system of justice because common robbers were crucified, and roving bands of robbers were a problem for rural Judeans.
  • Early Christians were ridiculed for following a common criminal who had met his death by being stripped naked and hung on a cross.
  • To wish someone a “cross” was to insult and curse them.
  • Crucifixion was reserved for common criminals, and slaves who had attempted escape.  The execution of slaves takes on new meaning when you read Philippians 2:5-11, where Jesus is said to have taken on the form of a “servant” which usually mean a slave.

Okay, enough of that or I’ll have all 90 pages summarized right here.  But the most enlightening chapter, which is also the last, was Hengel’s explanation of the Jews inability to believe Jesus was the Messiah.  Add this book to your reference library.  Disclaimer: You can get yours the way I got mine — buy it for yourself.

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:
I Believe In Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

I Corinthians 2:1-2

1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The Cross in Today’s World

We have come today to the third statement out of six about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed.  Here’s what we have affirmed so far:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,

And today we sum up our belief in the passion of the Christ — his suffering, crucifxion, death, burial, and descent into hell during the three days his body was in the grave.  We believe in Jesus Christ, who…

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

You may remember Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of The Christ, which hit movie theaters in 2004.  Because of the controversial nature of the film, Gibson distributed it himself, turning a $30-million investment into the highest grossing English language film ever, and the most profitable R-rated film in the United States.  The movie was rated R for its horrific and graphic violence, done mostly to the character of Jesus himself.

But despite the film’s success in America, Christians in the United States have a very different view of the cross of Jesus Christ.  We wear delicate crosses made of precious gold and silver around our necks, and dangling from our ears.  Hip hop artists wear gigantic caricatures of the cross dangling from outlandish chains, and pop artists like Madonna use the cross as a background prop in their music videos.

The cross itself has become the international symbol of the Christian religion, and of the humanitarian organization, The Red Cross.  It is an iconic symbol, but for much of the Christian community, the cross is strangely absent in our worship, devotion, or Bible study.  Seeker-sensitive churches intentionally leave all the signs and symbols of Christianity, which might be confusing to non-Christians, out of their buildings, including the cross.

As those who came from the Radical Reformer stream of the Protestant Reformation, we Baptists were offended by the crucifixes of our Roman Catholic friends, which graphically depict the Christ in agony on the cross.  Our theological position is that Christ is no longer on the cross, but is risen; therefore, Jesus should not be depicted as the suffering Christ, but as the risen Christ.

So opposed were the radical reformers to the crucifix, and the statuary and iconography of Roman and Orthodox churches, that they banned all images and statues of religious figures, including Jesus, as a form of idol worship.  Church buildings were constructed simply, and called meeting houses, to avoid the confusion with the Catholic church buildings from which they were separating themselves.

Rather than a high altar with a crucifix above it, the pulpit took center stage in the meeting houses of these radical reformers. Catholic churches were constructed with a center aisle so that worshippers entering the sanctuary could have an unobstructed view of the altar and the crucified Christ hanging above or behind it.  Baptist meeting houses were intentionally constructed without a center aisle, in contrast to the Roman Catholic church buildings.  Even in our architecture, our theology finds physical expression in the ways we configure and appoint our spaces for worship.

What About The Cross in the New Testament Church?

Paul explains his time with the fledgling church at Corinth in this way —

1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Why did Paul make a statement like this — “…to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Why not Jesus Christ and his miracles?  Surely Paul would want to tell these non-Jewish believers about the miracles of Christ.

Why not Jesus Christ and his ethical teaching?  In the brutal world of the Roman empire, where power dominated, and military power held an iron grip on the civilized world, why not tell the Corinthians about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and loving your neighbor as yourself?

Why not Jesus Christ and him risen?  The resurrection is the hinge-pin of the story of Jesus, for if we leave Jesus on the cross or in the tomb, his story becomes the sad story of another failed revolutionary, a Don Quixote figure tilting at the windmills of the Roman empire’s strength.

But Paul says, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Leon Morris, in his massive volume titled, The Cross in the New Testament, begins his introduction with these words:

“This is principally a book about the cross, since in the New Testament salvation centres [sic] on the cross.”  He goes on to say, “The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith.  Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.”

The gospel writers are not in agreement on all the details of the life of Christ.  Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that describe the conception and birth of Jesus.  So, even the event in the Apostles’ Creed that we examined last week — “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary” — is not included in two out of four of the Gospel accounts.

The gospel writers include different miracles, different parables, and different events in the life of Jesus.  Even those dramatic times of healing, feeding the five thousand, raising the dead, and walking on water are not included in all four of the Gospel accounts.

But when it comes to the cross, each of the Gospels includes the story of the cross and the crucifxion of Jesus.

Why did the apostles consider the cross central to the story of Jesus, and why are we so ambivalent about the cross today?

The History of the Cross

Why is it then, that in our 21st century sophistication, we’re so uncomfortable with the cross?  I grew up singing hymns like The Old Rugged Cross, At the Cross, Lead Me To Calvary, Power in the Blood, Nothing But The Blood of Jesus, and Are You Washed in the Blood, and other old-time hymns which reminded the singers of the cross, and the shed blood of Christ. But, today’s praise songs seldom refer to the cross or its result, the bruised body and shed blood of Jesus.  We sing about he awesome God, the glory of God, the wonder of God, the friendship of Jesus, and the majesty of heaven — anything but the cross and the blood.  The history and setting of the punishment known as crucifixion will help us understand some of the difficulty we have with it.

Paul introduced the centrality of the cross in the first chapter of I Corinthians with these words —

22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  — I Cor 22-25 NIV

Corinth was an outpost of the Roman empire.  It was an immoral, corrupt city even by the standards of the first century.  The reputation of Corinth was so bad, that to be called a “Corinthian” was to be insulted and slandered.  Corinth was home to the temple of Aphrodite, where over 1,000 temple prostitutes performed the rituals of the temple.  It was a wild and wooly town, but Paul visits there, Aquila and Priscilla, and plants a church.

Upon Paul’s departure, the Corinthians quickly stray both theologically and morally.  We know more about worship in the Corinthian church than any other church in the New Testament because the Corinthians were doing just about everything wrong in worship that they could do.  They were trying to out-do one another in the practice of their spiritual gifts — speaking in tongues, interrupting each other with prophecies, shouting out words of supernatural knowledge, and letting worship degenerate into a frenzy of one-upmanship.  Even when taking the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians turned communion into a drunken, gluttonous affair.  The well-to-do brought their own food, which they refused to share with those who had none.  In short, they were a train wreck of a church.

Paul’s letter calls them back to the center, and he reminds them that when he came to Corinth, he preached the cross of Christ.  That was his central message.

If they were such an immoral people, why not the ethical teaching of Jesus?  The Corinthians knew the great philosophers.  They knew the arguments for a kind of detached morality, even in the midst of their immorality.  They lived in the shadow of one of the great temples of the civilized world, the temple to Aphrodite.  A simple appeal to “live better” would have been totally lost on them.

But, if they wouldn’t listen to the call to live life according to God’s instruction found in the Ten Commandments and in the teaching of Jesus, what about the miracles of Jesus?  Surely, they would be impressed with those?  But Roman culture had its own mystical experiences.  The oracles, mystical figures who seemed to speak the words of the gods themselves, were located throughout the Roman world.  The most famous was the oracle at Delphi, but others existed as well.  Demon-possession, magic, the dark arts, and other forms of the supernatural were as common in the first century as they are in our world today.  Just as Pharaoh’s sorcerers and wisemen counterfeited the miraculous staff of Aaron with their own, the magicians and pagan practicioners of the first century also practiced the equivalent of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Ecstatic speech, foretelling the future, speaking as the voice of a god, healing, and other dark practices were well-known in the ancient world.

But the cross of Christ was the center for the Corinthian church, and for the Christian faith Paul knew.  Why?  And why did Paul refer to the cross as foolishness, and in another passage as a stumbling block or scandal to the Jews?

From the Roman perspective, crucifixion as capital punishment was borrowed from the Persians and others.  Crucifixion was reserved for criminals, rebels, slaves and the lower-class.  Seldom were Roman citizens or the upperclass foreigners executed by crucifxion.  Slaves and robbers particularly were crucified as a deterrent to those who might either try to escape their masters, or steal from others.

Crucifixion was gruesome business.  It was one of three methods of capital punishment used in the empire.  Crucifixion, being torn to death by wild beasts, and burning were the three methods of capital punishments.  Being torn by wild beasts required a public festival and an arena, so that was more difficult and involved.   But anyone could be crucified at anytime, and in a variety of methods.

Sometimes the stake was a single straight piece of wood.  At other times, cross pieces were used either in the form of a “T” with the crosspiece on top, or in the form most familiar to us — two pieces of wood that intersected with space above the victim’s head for some type of placard identifying his or her crime.  Limbs were either lashed to the cross, or fastened with nails.  Flogging and torture most often preceded the actual crucifxion, and the condemned was required to carry his cross, if able, to the public place of execution.

Public humiliation was as much as part of the punishment as was the victim’s actual death.  Stripped totally naked, the nude body was beaten, nailed to the cross, and lifted up for all to see as they passed by.  Jeers and taunts would greet those who had been robbers particularly, because the rural Judeans were often victimized by roving bands of robbers and criminals.

Bodies were often left on crosses to decompose, or be picked apart by wild animals and birds of prey.  The denial of burial was a further humiliation, particularly to the Jews.

As if all of that were not enough, the Jews had a special aversion to crucifxion and wooden crosses because of Deuteronomy 21 —

22 If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, 23 you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The Jews had a special aversion to crucifixion and crosses because they equated it with the Old Testament curse of being hung on a tree.  So, the offense of the cross, the scandal of the cross, the revulsion of the cross is that the Jews could not imagine that the Messiah of God, the Anointed One, would ever be hung on a tree. How could he, for anyone hung on a tree was cursed by God.  It becomes impossible for Jews to reconcile Jesus’ manner of death with his claim to Messiahship.

What of the Cross For Us Today?

But we are just as scandalized by the cross, just as offended by the gore, the brutality, the blood, and the stench.  Just as offended by the nakedness of Jesus, the taunts of the bystanders, the ridicule of the placard over Jesus head saying, “This is the King of the Jews.”  Like passing a bad car wreck on the highway, we don’t like the cross, and we turn our eyes from it as quickly as we can, and move on to other more pleasant aspects of our faith.

I have done that myself because the cross and Jesus’ death on it seems so barbaric, so crude, so primitive, and so messy.  My sensibilities are offended, and my sophistication and education rail against this as the central story of Jesus.  I like the Sermon on the Mount, or the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus, or even the resurrection of Christ himself as the central story of our faith.  But, none of those are, nor can they be.

We do not follow just an ethical teacher who gave us startling instructions on how we are to treat our neighbors.  We do not follow a mystic who could somehow gather the forces of the unseen world to make blind eyes sees, lame legs walk, and diseased bodies whole.  We do not follow a rebel, or an insurrectonist, as some would have us believe, who only sought to overthrow the unjust systems of society.

No, we follow the crucified Son of God.  And, Jesus himself was well-aware of the horror, the humiliation, and the inhumanity of the cross.  And yet, all the gospel writers tell us that at the end of his ministry, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, not for the praise of Palm Sunday, but for his death on the cross.

Mythology is full of stories of gods who were punished. Prometheus was nailed between two rocks in the ancient fable of the anger of Zeus. But Prometheus was freed and resumed his place in the pantheon of Roman gods.  Even in the popular literature of the day, the equivalent of our pulp novels, the hero of the story could be threatened with crucifixion, but just in the nick of time always escaped it.

But in Jesus, we have God who dies.  Jurgen Moltmann calls him “the crucifed God” — a story unlike any that has ever been told in literature or fable.  Gods don’t die, and certainly are not killed by mere mortals.  But in Jesus, God dies.  God provides a sacrifice for Himself of his only Son, who is himself God.  It is an event so radical, so impossible, so unlikely that those who think they know the One, True God best, cannot get past it.

In the cross, Jesus identifies with the slaves caught seeking freedom.  At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus takes the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of his own hometown, Nazareth.  He unrolls the scroll and reads from Isaiah 61 —

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners

Freedom for the captives, the slaves, can only be bought with a price.  Release from darkness for the prisoners can only come from the one who holds the keys.  By the way, and we don’t have time to dig deeply into this, the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed —

He descended into hell

is meant to reflect Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.”  Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:18 — “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

Scholars disagree on exactly what that verse means, but I believe it means Jesus did what he said he would do, what he proclaimed his mission to be — to release from darkness those imprisoned, even if they’re imprisoned in world of the dead.  That is what Jesus meant when he said “the gates of hell” will not prevail, will not stand, against the onslaught of the Kingdom of God.

Paul, in my favorite passage about Jesus says —

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

It’s all there in these seven verses —

  • Jesus willingly choosing to set aside all that is rightfully his;
  • Jesus taking the nature of a servant, a slave;
  • Jesus making himself nothing, becoming a human being;
  • Jesus humbling himself in obedience to God:
  • Jesus obedience even extends to his death on a cross — the worst, most heinous death one could die;
  • But Jesus being exalted to the highest place;
  • And Jesus being given a name above all names;
  • That at the name of Jesus every knee bows — every angel knee in heaven, every human knee on earth, every demonic knee in hell — every knee bows regardless of location or previous allegiance;
  • And every tongue belonging to the hosts of heaven, the citizens of earth, and the condemned to hell, confesses that Jesus The Messiah is Lord;
  • And God the Father is glorified.

Mel Gibson, who was both producer and director of The Passion of the Christ, used his own hands in the camera close-up of the Roman centurion nailing Jesus to the cross.  Gibson did that he said, because, “It was me that put Him on the cross. It was my sins [that put Jesus there].” — Wikipedia

But that’s not right.  Our sins did not put Jesus on the cross.  He put himself there.  He walked straight to Jerusalem knowing the death that awaited him.  He put himself on the cross to die for us, for the world, and for God’s creation.  He put himself on the cross to say to the slaves both living and dead, “I know your suffering, I endured your pain, I took your place.”

He put himself on the cross to suffer for us, to share our sorrow, our despair, our misfortune.  He put himself on the cross as though he were the people of God, the Temple and the sacrifice — as though he were the last hope of a sacrificial system that no longer worked.

He put himself on the cross as the Lamb led to the slaughter, as the scapegoat, as the fulfillment and final chapter in the broken religious imagination of God’s people.

Jesus put himself on the cross so that we would not be hung there.  He put himself on the cross so that we would not be abandoned by God as he was.  He put himself on the cross as example and embodiment of God’s love.

No, we did not put Jesus on the cross, and neither did the Jews or the Romans.  Jesus put himself there, suffered unspeakable torture, endured the ridicule of Romans and Jews alike, humiliated between two thieves.  His last act of redemption was to save a condemned thief, and ask his Father to forgive those who did not know what they were doing.

We need the cross.  Without it we are doomed.  Without it the incarnation is meaningless.  Without the cross we do not see the love of God, the suffering of God, and the sacrifice of God.  All for us.  All because of our sin.  All because we couldn’t do it for ourselves.  For even our death would not have brought us into fellowship with God, nor paid the penalty for our sin.

We need the cross, the scandal of our intellect, the offense to our sensibilities, the foolishness of preaching.  We need the cross because it stands at the center of Jesus’ story.  If all we know of theology and the Bible is that Jesus died for us on an old rugged cross, then we know enough.

Paul said, “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

When a right-wing death squad broke into the living quarters of Jesuit priests in San Salvador in 1989, they killed six priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.  Father Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the university, was one of the priests killed.  The killers then drug the bodies of their murdered victims back into the house.  As they did so, they bumped into a bookcase, knocking a book to the floor.

When their bodies were found the next morning, lying in a pool of innocent blood was the fallen book — Jurgen Moltmann’s book titled The Crucified God.  Thousands around the world wept for those slain.  And I am sure God must have wept that day, too, for He knew the suffering and death of the cross.

I’m at The Cove this week

photo1I’m back at The Cove this week leading conferences for the Billy Graham School of Evangelism.  Yesterday we covered “Keys to Thriving in the Smaller Church.”  About 150 pastors, spouses, and church leaders attended the back-t0-back sessions and offered great stories from their own small churches.

Today I’m leading a second session on “Using Social Media in Outreach” at 11:45 am.  The first one went well yesterday, and all the techie stuff worked, unlike last May when we had “technical difficulties beyond our control.”

This afternoon, I’ll wrap-up with two more back-to-back sessions on “Outreach Ideas to Help Your Church Change Your Community.”  I’ll tell the story of what our church has been doing, plus the stories of other smaller congregations that are doing some amazing things in ministry. Later this week I’ll post the powerpoints to both the church seminars.

The Cove nestles into the unspoiled vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, NC.  The Billy Graham School of Evangelism offers pastors and church leaders inspiration, information, and lots of free resources.  If you haven’t been, check out the Schools for next year.  You’ll be glad you came!

Sermon: I Believe in God With Us

This is the fourth in a 13-week series using the Apostles’ Creed as the outline for examining the great teaching, or doctrines, of the Christian faith.

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed – Part 4

I Believe in God With Us
Matthew 1:18-23
18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”  -Matthew 1:18-23 NIV

The Heart of the Apostles’ Creed

We looked last week at the affirmation in the Apostles’ Creed that states —

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

We explored the ideas that Jesus is God’s Christ — God’s messiah — and also God’s only Son.  And, that as messiah and the unique Son of God, Jesus is Lord, and our Lord in particular.  So we have looked at the confession of our belief in God; and our belief in His Son, Jesus Christ.

In the next five weeks we look at the life of Jesus.  We begin today with the Christmas story, then followed by Holy Week,  Easter, the Ascension, and the second-coming of Christ.  In other words, we look at those elements which the early church considered the essentials in the story of Jesus.

These passages in the Creed about Jesus are like when we tell stories about our families.  You’ve had that experience: gathered around the table at Thanksgiving, or around the tree at Christmas, a family member begins a “remember when” story.  And as the story moves along, someone will interject, “Don’t forget to tell about the year the Christmas tree caught on fire” or some similar anecdote.  What we’re saying when we say that is, “The family story isn’t complete if you leave this part out.”

That’s exactly what the Apostles’ Creed does — it says to us, “If you’re going to tell the story of Jesus, here are the essentials.  You must include all of these events for the story of Jesus to be complete.”

Today we are at the first of those essential events when we say —

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…

Today is only September 13, so we’re early for Christmas, but that’s where this story begins.  That is also where the Christian Year begins — with Advent, or looking for the coming of the Christ.

Because this story is familiar, we might think we know it.  But what about the Christmas story without all the trimmings?  Without the carols, and decorations, and Christmas trees, and gifts, and shopping, and all that goes with our version of the Christmas story.  Because when we look at this part of Jesus’ story without all of our cultural and seasonal embellishments, it becomes something different altogether.  Well, maybe not altogether, but certainly different from the way we usually imagine it.

Because today, and in this passage in the Apostles’ Creed, we’re not focused on the babe in a manger.  No wisemen or shepherds or angels show up in the Apostles’ Creed either.  We’re talking about Jesus, and to do that, we walk back to how the Messiah became Jesus, because that’s what happened.  God became flesh and dwelt among us, as the scripture says.  Immanuel, God with us.

This Is Not A Science Lesson

I have 7 books about the Apostles’ Creed.  Seven.  I bought them as resources for preparation for this series of messages, and they are all written by outstanding Christian writers and scholars.  William Barclay, Wolfhart Pannenberg,Alister McGrath, Justo Gonzalez, Luke Timothy Johnson, J. I. Packer, and Roger Van Harn.

But in four out of seven books, the authors go to great lengths to explain why this business of the virgin birth of Jesus is not really necessary.  The bottom line seems to be that this is a metaphor for what God has done before — providing a child to a previously childless woman.

Those who take this position cite the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and the extraodinary birth of Isaac in their old age.  Sarah was 90, and Abraham was 100.  But God had promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation, and all the while they had no children.  But then Isaac is born in their old age, just as God promised.

Or the story of Hannah, who prayed earnestly for a son until finally she promised that if God would just give her a son, she would given him back to God.  That’s the story of how Samuel came to this world, and came to the service of God as the one who would anoint King David king over Israel.

Or the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of John the Baptist.  Advanced in years, and yet the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that Elizabeth will have a son, and they are to call his name John.  Their John becomes John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet even though he makes his appearance on the pages of the New Testament.  The forerunner of Jesus, the herald of the Messiah born to an old couple who had given up hope.

The only problem with the birth of Jesus being another example of God giving a baby to a woman who has not been able to have children is this — Mary was probably about 15.  She wasn’t married, she had not been trying to have a baby, or even hoping for one.  Certainly not at this time in her life.

So the idea that the “virgin birth” is a metaphor for God giving a child to a childless woman doesn’t fit.

I will agree that neither Matthew, nor Luke — the only Gospels where the story of Jesus’ birth are recorded — are trying to tell us “how” God did this.  They’re just reporting facts, and Luke hints that Mary may have told him these things directly herself.

So, while Matthew and Luke’s accounts are not concerned with the “how” of the virgin birth of Jesus, they are concerned to tell the story.  And it is clear that Mary has not been with a man, because in Luke’s version that is exactly what she says.  Her response to the announcement of the angel that she will conceive and bear a son is — “How can this be, since I have not been with a man?”  Even Mary is mystified at how this event can be possible.

Mary Is Not The Center of Attention Either

Not only is this not a scientific account of biological birth, it’s not a story about Mary, either.  You know this part of the story — the angel appears to Mary, telling her that she will bear a son.  The angel also appears to Joseph, her fiance, but we’ll get to Joseph later.

But it is at this point that sometimes we miss the point.  In contemplating the mystery of God choosing Mary, our tendency is to think “Mary must have been a wonderful, devout girl for God to choose her.”

Our Roman Catholic friends take this approach.  The teaching of the Roman Catholic church is that Mary was so special that not only was Jesus’ birth a virgin birth, but that Mary was also conceived and born supernaturally.  The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Church is not a doctrine about the birth of Jesus, but about the conception and virgin birth of Mary, making Mary a special person whom God chooses.

But, Mary was not chosen because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.

It is the choosing by God that makes Mary unique and special.  Mary undoubtedly was a wonderful, conscientious girl.  She expresses concern about the angel’s message because she knows those things do not happen — “How can this be?”  she asks.

But with all her piety, and all her humility, and all her concern, Mary is not the center of the story.  Our Catholic friends think she is.  They believe that she is the Mother of God, a Co-Redemptrix with Jesus, and they believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, and her bodily assumption into heaven at her death.

I can understand how that doctrine developed.  Early believers were looking for some way to explain why Mary was so special.  But Mary is special because God chose her.

God has a long history of choosing very ordinary and unlikely people.  God chose Moses, who had killed a man in anger, and who had difficulty speaking to stand before Pharaoh and demand that the nation of Israel be freed.  Moses knew he was not special, and so he asked God, “When Pharaoh asks ‘Who sent you?’ what shall I say?”  And God answered, “Tell him I AM has sent you.”  God is the main player, the I AM behind Moses’ “I can’t.”

When God selects David, he’s the smallest of Jesse’s sons, not built like a warrior, but David becomes a giant killer in the service of God.

When God chooses a spokesman for the day of Pentecost, we’re really not surprised that God chooses outspoken Peter.  Except that Peter had denied Christ 3-times, had run away from the crucifixion, had not believed the women who said Jesus was risen, and who was hiding in an secret location for fear of the Jews after Jesus ascension into heaven.  But when the Holy Spirit filled him, Peter spoke boldly and 3,000 were saved.

God has a history of choosing the unlikely, the unwilling, the unskilled to do His work.  Perhaps it is because God wants no doubt that in these divine-human partnerships, He is the senior partner.

Do you remember what it’s like to be chosen?

William Willimon is the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.  Willimon now serves as bishop of the North Alabama conference of the United Methodist Church, and as you can imagine gets invited to speak at a lot of churches.  Years ago, Willimon said he was invited to speak at an African-American congregation.

He said he got there a few minutes before 11 am, but the service really didn’t start until about a quarter past.  They began with four choir anthems, several praise songs joined by the congregation, took two offerings, and sang some more.  A little after noon, Willimon got up to preach.  He delivered his sermon, and the pastor said, “Let me add just a few thoughts.”  Those few thoughts lasted until one o’clock.

When the service finally ended, and they were standing in the parking lot, Willimon asked his friend, “Why do your people take so long to worship?”

His friend replied, “Why does worship take our folk so long?  Well, I’ll explain it this way.  Male unemployment is running about 20 percent in this neighborhood; young adult unemployment is higher.  That means that when my people get on the street, everything they hear is, ‘You are nothing.  You don’t have a big car or a great job.  You are nobody.’

So I get them in here on a Sunday and, through the words of the hymns, the prayers, the sermon, the Scripture, I try to say, ‘That’s a lie.  You are royalty.  You are God’s own people.  You were bought with a price.’ It takes me about two hours to get their heads straight.”  — Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, by William Willimon, pgs. 72-73.

We’re special because God chose us, chose to be with us in the person of Jesus, chose to be “God with us.”

Being Chosen Demands Courage

But, being chosen by God demands courage.  It sounds great when we tell the story — the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and when the time came, she gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jesus — “God is our salvation.”

But in reality, Mary must have been terrified.  She was unmarried, she was young, she was in all probability poor.  Her fiance was a carpenter, they were from Nazareth, a wretched place by the best of descriptions.

For her apparent infidelity, she could have been killed — stoned to death in public by her own family to avenge their honor.  We get a glimpse of this later in Jesus’ ministry with the woman caught in adultery.

At the least, Joseph could have “divorced” her, which meant he could have broken the engagement, and sent her into hiding, away from prying eyes.  For the rest of her life she would live a solitary life, an outcast, the subject of ridicule and gossip.  We get a picture of that life from the woman at the well that Jesus talks with.

But instead, Mary embraces God’s call.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  – Luke 1:38 NRSV

Joseph also faces ridicule.  His fiance will seem to all on-lookers as unfaithful to Joseph.  The angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

God-with-us sounds like a wonderful idea, until we realize that God with us flies in the face of convention, and puts our own reputations at risk.

But isn’t that the point of God with us?  God here on this earth he created.  God present in our lives, walking the same streets we walk, eating the same food, drinking the same water, enduring the same hardships.

God-with-us means that nothing is the same, ever again.

As we said at the beginning of this series, the only thing we know about God is in His presence with us.  And so God’s Holy Spirit hovers over the young, unmarried girl Mary.  She is found with child, and is told to name the baby, Jesus.  Matthew says all of this was to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had said some 700 years before —

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means, God with us.”

This Jesus, both God and man, both divine and human, is God with us.  God with us to suffer and die for us.  God with us to break the hold that death has on us. God with us to fight for His creation, to restore it to the glory intended.  God with us to save us.  God with us to heal us. God with us to teach us.  God with us to plant in our hearts the ability to love, and the desire to do so as well.

We tell this story at Christmas, but it is the story for all time, all seasons, all people.  For God came down to us, mysteriously, miraculously, incomprehensibly, to be with us, and to save us.

Shame on Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson, R-SC, shouting "You lie!" during President Obama's speech.
Joe Wilson, R-SC, shouting "You lie!" during President Obama's speech.

Shame on U. S. Congressman Joe Wilson, R-SC, for his outburst during President Obama’s address on health care to a joint session of Congress.  Multiple media channels are reporting that Joe Wilson is the person who yelled, “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech tonight.  Regardless of ideology or opinion, the President of the United States, whomever he or she may be, deserves the respect of the American people, and certainly deserves a civil reception in the halls of Congress.

The battle over ideas in this country has degenerated into a name-calling, fear-mongering contest.  There was a time in America when elected leaders debated with civility and respect, staking out their positions with compelling arguments.  But today’s political climate fosters a battle to the death with rational thought cast aside for the 30-second soundbite.  We can do better than this.  In that spirit, John McCain tonight called on Joe Wilson to apologize to the President of the United States.

As pastors and church leaders, as Christians in an increasing post-Christian culture, we have the opportunity to model respect, civility, and good citizenship for our congregation and community.  Let’s have a healthy debate on all the issues.  Let’s be firm and frank, let’s challenge each other’s  positions with facts and passion.  But, let us also make sure that in the end we emerge from any debate with our character strengthened, our insights broadened, and our heritage enriched.

Southern Baptists have been embarrassed by the likes of Wiley Drake, who brazenly bragged about praying “imprecatory prayer” that President Obama would die.  Another irrational pastor, Steven Anderson, is featured on YouTube advocating the death of the president.  This must end in America, and most certainly must end in America’s churches.  Freedom of speech and religion is predicated on responsibility, not rancor.

The sorry display of disrespect we witnessed tonight could be a turning point for us all.  Join me in condemning the actions of the Joe Wilsons of the world who had rather inflame than inform, who had rather destroy than discuss, who had rather tear-down than build up.

Paul admonished young Timothy with these words, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1-3 NIV

UPDATE: In an amazingly quick turn-around, and after blistering condemnation from Republicans and Democrats, Rep. Joe Wilson issued an apology to the President tonight, according to thehill.com.