This sermon is translated from German into English. You can find the original video here
Last Sunday was Santa Claus. Our children put their boots in front of the door, Jasmin and I too. And the next morning the boots were miraculously full. I don’t know which of you will put another boot in front of the door. And I hope you are not too disappointed now, and I am not depriving you of an illusion, otherwise please listen away if I tell you that it was not Santa Claus. As a small child I believed in Santa Claus coming until I found out at some point that these were really my parents. I don’t know if you have a certain tradition on Christmas Eve? For us, it used to be the case as a family that we came home from church service, then at some point a bell rang, and we were allowed into the living room. I still know that today: Then the tree shone in the gleam of lights, the gifts were under the tree. That was astonishment, an ah and an oh. Unfortunately, there was usually food beforehand, and then we had to recite poems and play something, read the Christmas story together and then, only then, were we allowed to take turns opening a present. As a small child I knew that Santa had heard my wishes and brought all these presents over. Until at some point I found out that they were my parents and that Santa Claus doesn’t even exist.
At Christmas, we sit in service, we hear the Christmas story. As children, we find it fascinating and believe in it until we get older and start to think, the Christmas story is like Santa Claus, a beautiful fairy tale, a nice story, everything just made up. And then we give up our faith in God. Did you do that too?
As a child you have some questions, and as an adult too, and then you get to hear: You have to believe that? Believing is just something like a nice story, sentimentalism. Especially at Christmas it is really difficult to get to the bottom of it, because there is so much kitsch built around Christmas that you can hardly get through to the main thing.
Two weeks ago we looked quickly at the whole story of God with us humans and saw that God is interested in us humans, that he loves us, and that this story of God contains an invitation for us humans to live in relationship with him. Last week we saw, using Mary, how God met her in turbulent times, gave her this invitation very personally to include her in his story with us humans, and how she said yes to God, although she did not have the whole plan knows. And that was a challenge for us to do the same. But Mary had the decisive advantage that she met an angel. And maybe you asked yourself, how can I get involved with God as a rationally thinking person? I have so many questions, do I have to put them all aside now?
Maybe you have heard the saying before or even thought yourself that as a Christian you have to give your mind to the cloakroom, and then you can go to church. The Bible says just the opposite: Good for the person who gains wisdom and the person who gains insight! Proverbs 3:13 So now watch carefully how you lead your life, not as unwise but as wise, and take advantage of the time, for the days are bad. Ephesians 5: 15-16
So it’s good to ask your questions, welcome. It is good to come to terms with faith, to think everything through before you get involved with God. Your faith needs a solid foundation and not just sentimentalism and nice stories. And that’s what this morning should be about.
Let’s take a look at the so-called Christmas story. There are two writers who tell us the story with different emphases: Matthew and Luke. Matthew was a follower of Jesus. He knew Jesus and Mary. And it doesn’t start with “Once upon a time” but with: Abraham had a son, who had a son, who had a son. He wants to show that Jesus was a real person who lived and was related to a lot of people. And then he goes on: And so Jesus Christ was born. And he delves into a lot of details. That’s how it happened. This is how Jesus was born.
Lukas is even better. He writes:
Many have already undertaken the task of drafting a report on the things that have happened in our midst and that we have learned from those who were there as eyewitnesses from the beginning and then became servants of the message of “God”. That is why I, too, after having carefully followed everything up to the beginning, thought it right to write down these events for you, dear Theophilus, in an orderly order, so that you can see how reliable everything is that you have been taught. During the time when Herod was king of Judea, there lived … (Luke 1: 1-5a)
Many have undertaken the task of preparing a report on what has happened among us. In other words, there are many who have tried to write this down because it’s just so awesome. So that is not 200 years later, but at this time, in our midst and which we learned from those who were there as eyewitnesses from the beginning. There were many eyewitnesses, people who actually lived and witnessed all of this. And while Luke was writing that, people could go over and say: Luke, who was an eyewitness, I can’t believe it, I want to question the people myself. That is why I, too, after carefully following everything up to the beginning, felt it was right to write these events down in orderly order. Luke was not a disciple of Jesus, he was a doctor, but he knew Mary, John, Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, and carefully followed the reports Why? so that you may see how reliable is all that you have been taught. None of this is a fairy tale that was embellished at some point. It is truth that actually happened in the story. Ok, we embellished it, but what Luke writes is true and reliable. That is why Luke anchors these events in history. When Herod was king … and later: when Augustus was emperor in Rome and Quirinius governor in Syria: these are clear dates. Once upon a time, in a country far before our time. The fact that Jesus was a historical person, that is, that he really lived, is no longer a subject of discussion in science today. This is just a small example for many who show that the Bible and its stories are much better documented than we always think.
In the Christmas story we are told of wise men who came from the Orient to worship the child in the manger. I already said last Sunday that they were probably astrologers, but very educated people who were rich, you can tell from the gifts they brought with them and probably even advised kings. How did the orphans know where they had to go? I became aware of this because in the last few weeks in the media, you may have read that too, there was talk of a rare constellation of stars, namely the great conjunction. The planets Jupiter and Saturn are so close together that they look like a big bright star. The phenomenon occurs roughly every 20 years, but the last time the planets were as close as this winter, according to calculations by Patrick Hartigan, Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Rice University, on March 4, 1226. Cuneiform inscriptions in the British Museum in London prove that this close conjunction took place 3 times in a year shortly before the birth of Jesus.
If you want to observe this constellation, you have to look west from December 16-21, where the two planets meet. The wise men came from the Orient, i.e. the East, they saw this star in the West and set off on their way. With them Saturn stood for the people of the Jews, Jupiter for a new king. But where exactly? It’s not like our cribs at home, where the star is right above the stable. So they ended up with King Herod in the capital, Jerusalem. He had no idea and instructed all his wise people: Find out where this new king should be born. And then they looked all over the place in ancient scriptures and finally came up with this answer: And they said to him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written through the prophet (Micah 5,1): “5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet (Micha 5,1): 6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. (Matthew 2,5-6)
So they found out from a very old book that this new king is to be born in Bethlehem. And that’s fascinating because this Micah was a prophet who lived over 700 years before Jesus was born and wrote it down. But the scientists at the time took that as a source to say that you have to go there. It’s crazy that that’s exactly what happened over 700 years later. And that’s exactly what we see in many places in the Old Testament where things were written down hundreds of years earlier by people who couldn’t have known. Based on the finds of the book Isaiah in Qumran in Israel, which were more than 1000 years older than all copies that were previously available, it was possible to show that these writings were not changed afterwards, but were almost exactly like the last existing copies. There is even a prophecy about the wise.
Now, that may have happened with the major conjunction, but it doesn’t have to be. It could also have been different. If God is so great that he created the whole universe, then it is easy for him to put a certain star there. And that’s so important because some people try to explain it all in some natural way. But with that we reach our limits. Because there are things that we cannot explain humanely. For example, how did Maria get pregnant without sleeping with a man? To this day I still have some questions that I can’t answer. And I think it’s important to know that our minds just aren’t enough to explain everything and understand how great God is. In 1 Corinthians 1:25 it says: What God has done is beyond human wisdom. It is even a sign that God must be much, much greater if we do not understand some things.
At the same time, if I go through my everyday life with a certain openness, then there are actually so many signs that God must exist. Go up a mountain, watch a sunset, look at all the details of the plants. In Rom. 1:20 we read:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead;
There are many scientists who believe in God because they say we research so much, but we always come up against limits, or in everything we research we see that there has to be a higher being, a Creator . All the physical and mathematical laws point to a legislator. And all design points to a designer. Albert Einstein said: In the incomprehensible universe a limitlessly superior reason reveals itself.
Personally, I still sometimes feel that I doubt all of this. Is everything really right about God? There are Christians, there are Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics. All claim the truth for themselves. When I see pictures of need and misery in our world when I pray and pray and nothing happens. Then I sometimes ask myself: God, is that really all right?
Like now, did I hear that right, you doubt? Doubts are not as bad as their reputation, because they have a protective function. They help me not just to believe everything, but to get to the bottom of things. But you can also block me. And then there are two things that help me. One is the experiences with God in my life that I recall. And there are quite a few.
The other is, and this may sound surprising, a look at the central event of the Christian faith, which is at the same time the most controversial, namely the resurrection of Jesus. Many people have correctly recognized and Paul already writes that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then that is all a nice belief, but then it is not true that Jesus died for our guilt, then that is not true, too we will be resurrected to eternal life, and then he was no more than an extraordinary person.
The scribes of that time, who saw all the miracles of Jesus, came to him and said: Prove to us that you are the Son of God. And Jesus tells them with a picture of the prophet Jonah: You will kill me, but on the third day I will rise from the dead. Matthew 12: 38-40. And that’s exactly how it happened. When Jesus rose from the dead, he did not give his disciples any indications, he showed himself to them, he talked to them, he even ate with them.
In Acts 1.3 says:To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God
And the frightened, discouraged and disaffected followers became people who radiated hope and were ready to even die for the news of the resurrection. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians that Jesus even appeared to 500 people at once. And then he adds: some have already died, but most are still alive. And in writing that, it was like a phone list to people back then. Here, if you don’t believe, you can ask them yourself.
Around Easter the same arguments against a resurrection of Jesus are brought out of the drawers again and again. The body was stolen. The disciples mixed up the grave. Jesus was only seemingly dead. The disciples only imagined his resurrection, and so on. If you think about it a little, all of these arguments can be refuted. There is an American journalist who was so annoyed that he said to himself, I will now refute all this nonsense with the resurrection once and for all. He has met with scientists, historians, doctors, theologians, and others to gather evidence. But the more he researched, the more he found that Jesus’ resurrection is a fact. He resisted it and didn’t want to admit it, but then he began to believe in God himself and is now leading a large church in America. He wrote a book, you can see it here, it’s easier to understand, even for teens and as a film. The Fall of Jesus by Lee Strobel. And if you say I want to get to the bottom of it, maybe this will be a good Christmas present for you. For me at any rate, whenever I have doubts, I look to the resurrection and realize, no, it is true with Jesus. He is the Son of God, all of this is not just a beautiful story.
Now what do we do with all of this? We have found it good to ask one’s questions and there are good reasons to believe that the story the Bible tells is true. And if you have any questions, ask them and go looking. Those who seek will find. Incidentally, says God himself.
But we have also seen that there is not an answer to all questions. And we can also use questions as a pretext to keep God away from us. Because if all of this is true, it has consequences. If all of this is true, then what Jesus says is also true. Namely, that there is life after death. That we are all on the wrong path without God. That we need redemption. That no one can come to God except through Jesus. And while some people consciously keep God away from themselves, and we have seen that God gives us free will to make our decisions, I believe that many have a subconscious fear at play:
What if I get involved with God? Can i trust him, Is he really good to me? We notice that there is a negative image of God that I talked about two weeks ago. The Bible paints a completely different picture of God for us: The Creator, who knows how our life will succeed. That sets us limits, but for our protection. Who would like to give us a full life. Who loves us. Who wants to stand by us. And and and. And it is actually good news that we do not need any religious pressure to perform in order to deserve heaven and in the end not to be sure whether it is enough, but that Jesus has already done everything, and he invites us to take on our guilt, to be forgiven with His Heavenly Father, and to be able to live in friendship with God.
Faith = intellect + trust There are things in life that you cannot grasp theoretically. You’ll never get right through it unless you try it out. Love for example. You can study anything about love. How that feels. What that means. Which chemical reactions are behind it? But what it is exactly, you will only find out when you love someone and take a step and start to live it. Then completely different horizons open up and you will understand love again in a completely different dimension, as you could theoretically never have grasped it before.
And it is the same with faith. God even describes faith as a love relationship between him and us and we with him. The apostle Peter says: “We believed and recognized that you are the Holy One of God” Joh. 6,69 So: We took steps of trust, we lived in this friendship with you, and that gave us a completely different dimension open for you. That’s how I experienced it myself. How God came to life in my life. And Peter, who knows what he is talking about. Because at the very beginning Jesus asks him to trust him. Jesus comes to the lake where Peter is fishing. Many people stand around him and to get a little breath and so that everyone can hear him, Jesus asks Peter of all people to take him out a little with his boat. And then Jesus tells people about God. And Peter listens. And when Jesus has finished and the crowd is slowly dissolving, Jesus says to Peter: Get out and throw out the nets. Petrus and his colleagues had not fished all night. Jesus had no idea about fishing and during the day it was extremely unlikely to catch anything at all. So all human experiences speak against it. But Peter listened to Jesus and now says to himself, ok, I’ll try. I have no idea whether that kind of thing: Well, if it doesn’t work, it was a good attempt – the attitude was, whether there was a bit of jitter about being seen as an idiot in front of colleagues afterwards, or whether he already trusted Jesus more. But he got involved with him. And the result was a catch like he had never made before. The colleagues had to come to the rescue, the whole boat was full. And then Peter really recognizes who Jesus is.
I would like to invite you this morning to symbolically put your empty boot in front of the door again. To take a step, to open yourself to God and to see whether he is not real and meets you. You don’t have to know all about Jesus to try it out. It doesn’t all have to make sense, as we saw with Peter. It may be your first time doing this. It can also be that God invites you to do that in an area of your life where you have lost faith in him.
Do you know where Jesus meets Peter? It happened at the end of an incredibly frustrating day. Where nothing works anymore. The moment they gave up hope! And maybe you feel the same way that you are at that point right now. In your marriage, with your health or other things. This is precisely where Jesus wants to meet you, but also when life is laughing at you from its beautiful side.
Get on your way, ask your questions and put your boot back in front of the door to get involved with it. Perhaps with a very simple prayer that you will pray for yourself during the next songs: Jesus, if you really exist and everything that I heard this morning is correct, then show yourself to me. Or even one step further that you tell him: Jesus, I will open my life to you. I accept your gift. Forgive my debts I want to live in friendship with you and get to know you more. Or by inviting him back into an area of life that you have closed to him. However you put it, God knows your heart, and He understands what you mean, and He will answer your prayer.