"What did you get for Christmas?"
"How will I ever pay for it all?"
"How can I ever get it all done?"
Some of them are not shallow at all. They are Christmas questions that arise in the Bible. "How can I know for sure?" - the question of Zechariah. "Where is He that is born?" - the question of the wise men. And this question, the question of Mary, "How can these things be?" (Luke 1:26-34).
An angel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear a Son who would reign over the house of Jacob forever and that His kingdom would never end. She responded with the question, "How can these things be?" She responded with the voice of innocence. She responded with the voice of wonder. She responded with the voice of worship.
What is so lovely as innocence? Is there anything more beautiful? What we see here is innocence. It is not naivete. There is a vast difference between the two!
Mary was not naive. She knew how babies come into the world. She knew that in her circumstance she was not a candidate to be a mother. She was not naive, but she was innocent.
Because innocence is so rare, some believe that it does not exist at all. Disillusioned, cynical people say there really is no such thing as innocence in a person grown up and, therefore, Mary could not be innocent. For my part, I go along with Luke and the Word of God.
This innocence is set in a world of evil. It was, after all, a real world, a very real world, into which Jesus came. It was a world where people were misunderstood and slandered, a world where people betrayed trust, a world of violence and bloodshed.
Have you ever heard the saying, "Christmas is for children?" If you are talking about our secular holiday, you may be right. If you re talking about Christmas in the Bible, then Christmas is decidedly not for children. Their ears are, we think, too tender to hear of such things as pregnancy and conception and virginity. Surely we would like to shield them from the sight when Herod's soldiers march down to Bethlehem and kill little babies right and left. Christmas for children? Not at all.
I'll tell you who Christmas is for. Christmas is for people who are coming into adult life and who need to know in advance that it is not going to be all happiness, but that there are going to be shadows along the path. Christmas is for people in mid-life for whom life has lost meaning and they're trying to make some sense out of it. They need direction. They need a pole star to go by. Christmas is for people in later life who need a hope to hang on to when they sometimes have nothing left but hope. Yes, Christmas is for every kind of person you can name but children!
In the Bible three things hang together: the innocence of Mary, the divinity of Jesus, and the deliverance of us sinners. Those three things are inseparable. Remove one and you have undermined the others: the innocence of Mary, the divinity of Jesus, the deliverance we need.
So, before the virgin birth of Jesus we all do well to show a bit of humility. We are, after all, continually revising and updating our knowledge. By all that we understand of aerodynamics, the bumblebee cannot fly. But nobody has told the bumblebee of this, so he continues to flit along just the same.
Some years ago a congressman from a western state was bragging about a certain kind of trout he had caught in the waters back home. It happened he was talking to a piscatorial expert. He said, "It's impossible. The kind of fish you describe cannot live in those waters. The temperature's wrong. The current's wrong. Everything's wrong. It's impossible for that species of fish to be in that location." When the congressman went home, he got out his rod and reel, went down to his favorite creek and caught one of them. He put it on ice and shipped it to the expert, who sent back the following telegram: "The science of a lifetime kicked to death by a fact."
When we come to the virgin birth of Jesus, it ought to be easier for people to believe today than ever before. A baby has been born in a test tube. We have now the means to produce a child by a virgin. Now, we still have to have a human father, but if God could create the universe, what problem is it to Him to create one tiny little cell to start the birth process of Jesus? Here is the voice of innocence, "How can these things be?"
Here is the voice of wonder. Every birth occasions in us a feeling of wonder, and every conception. We are told that a cell so tiny you cannot see it swims against the current, breaks through a wall, unites with another cell so tiny you cannot see it. And when the two have joined, they still are so tiny you cannot see them. Then you say, "That's going to be a person six feet tall and 180 pounds." I stand back in wonder and say, "How can these things be?" I know they are, but I express my wonder in the question: "How can these things be?"
That sense of wonder persists. Someday I'm going to ask a physician to thoughtfully consider how he would redesign the human body. Don't you think that would be interesting? I'd like to see what the suggestions might be - leave out the appendix, perhaps. It's interesting to think about. If your nose were not in the location it s in, you could never go out in the rain. If your ears were not where they are, where would you put your eyeglasses? Do you remember Homer and Jethro and the song, "I ve got tears in my ears from lying in my bed crying over you?" One verse says, "If you re not careful, you ll percolate yourself to death." If the human body were only slightly rearranged, we might be in a great deal of trouble from an unexpected source. So we wonder at the human body, at the way reproduction allows life to continue. "How can these things be?"
But Mary's sense of wonder was greater than any natural sense of wonder. There are a few interesting words that come up with regard to Mary. One is the word "wonder; the other is the word "ponder." When the angel came, it was wonder. When Jesus was astounding the teachers of the law while but a lad, she went home and pondered these things in her heart. No doubt the wondering and the pondering were with her all her life.
There is a famous sermon by James Stewart entitled, "Our Lost Sense of Wonder." In that sermon he keeps coming back to a little chorus, like the refrain of a song. "Wonder of wonders," he cries, "and every wonder true." We sing about it, "I Stand Amazed in the Presence of Jesus the Nazarene," and "Amazing Grace." We must never lose the sense of wonder in our religion. Someone has said that whenever holy things become commonplace, they cease to be holy.
We wonder that there is forgiveness in a world of vengeance; that love exists in a world of hate. Amidst all the ugliness of sin we still see the beauty of character. These things cause us to wonder. "How can these things be?" Ask it of grace. Ask it of forgiveness. Ask it of love. Ask it of answered prayer. Ask it of the divine presence in our lives. "How can these things be?" I know they are real. I have experienced them, and so have you, but our sense of wonder at them must never cease.
But just for a moment, let's turn that question upside down. If there is a positive sense of wonder at the presence of great virtue, there is also a negative sense of wonder when you see a Christless Christmas. You wonder why anybody bothers. Talk to people about the spirit of Christmas. One person will say, "Oh, you want a donation for the Salvation Army." Somebody else will say, "Oh, you re talking about Dickens Christmas Carol - the spirit of Christmas past, the spirit of Christmas present, and the spirit of Christmas future." For some, all they know about Christmas spirit are the spirits that come in a bottle. We look at all this distortion of Christmas and we cry out, "How can these things be?" How is it possible that our generation has taken the most stunning event of human history and degraded it so? We have robbed it of meaning and left it hollow and empty. "How can these things be?"
If this is the voice of innocence and wonder, it is also the voice of worship. There are five hymns in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke. One was written by Mary. We know two things about Mary. We know her character and her mind. She was very bright. In her veins flowed the blood of David; she was a poet like him. Listen to what she said: "He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats . . . and the rich he hath sent empty away." Interesting things to say about God, aren't they? Our hymns all talk about the positive things that He has done, but here is a great inspired hymn from Mary that tells us something equally important about God.
And this is a part of Christmas, too. "He scatters the proud. He brings down the rulers. He sends the rich away empty." There is a way in which Christ keeps turning the stream of life and making it run another way, Worship. Christmas leads inevitably to worship. It does so in the Bible. Shepherds, wise men, worship. It does so in our songs: "O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him." Two of our Christmas carols have the identically same chorus, "Come and worship, come and worship." "Joy to the world, the Savior reigns, let men their songs employ." These are all calls to worship.
Christmas, if it does nothing else, points to worship. Always God is being worshiped by someone, somewhere. We ought to put the book of Revelation into our thoughts at Christmas. There are about the throne four and twenty elders and those living creatures who night and day cry, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty." Always God is worshiped! The question is, "What is the quality of our worship?" And do we put ourselves among the worshipers? Christmas contributes to the quality of worship. At the heart of that worship is the question, "How can these things be?" We come to the gospel and we discover that the things that cannot be, are. The impossible becomes a reality. Things beyond our imagining have occurred
Take prayer. If I should tell you to write a letter to the President, for he is sure to read it himself, would you believe it? Would you believe that the eyes of the President would ever see the letter? The odds against that are astronomical! Suppose I tell you to call the President and give him a little advice. Do you think that you can talk to the President on the telephone today? Is there a person here who does not believe that he could talk to God today?
We readily accept the fact that God hears prayer. But if you were told for the very first time that the almighty God of Heaven and earth will listen to what you say, what would be your reaction? "How can these things be?"
If I were to tell you for the very first time that you may be buried with Christ in baptism and resurrected with Christ, you would say, "How can these things be?" Then we come about our little table, eat our little crumb of bread and drink our little sip of wine. You tell me that the eternal Christ is here, and eats and drinks with us. I cry out, "How can these things be?" I do not cry in disbelief, but in worship!
Mary said to the angel, "Be it unto me according to thy word." There's the missing element of worship. Submission. Something needs to happen to make Christmas real in your life. Vachel Lindsay wrote, "Except that Christ be born again tonight in the dreams of all men, saints and sons of shame, the world will never see his kingdom bright, Star of all hearts lead onward through the night." We talk about born-again Christians. Let's talk about a born-again Christ. In a totally different sense of the word, Christ must this season be born again in us.
When our daughter was very young, she said, "Daddy, why do we have Christmas?"
I said, "You know why we have Christmas."
"Oh yes," she said, "It's so Jesus can come."
I think she meant to say, "It s because Jesus has come," but what she said is absolutely accurate. We have Christmas so Jesus can come in us.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.