Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Christmas Homily

Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve 2004

Text: 1 John 1:1-4
Title: This is the God in Whom We Trust

You've probably saw the reports a few years back—mostly on the internet—that the famous atheist Anthony Flew at age 81 (or so) now believes in God. The headlines would have you believe that Flew had some sort of conversion and is now a believer.

Remember Anthony Flew? For over 50 years he has been an icon of religious skepticism and a committed atheist.
In 1950 he wrote a short essay called "Theology and Falsification." And ironically this paper was presented to Oxford's Socratic Club, led by C.S. Lewis (until 1954). Dorothy Sayers was part of this club, too. The paper has had an enormous impact.

He began with a parable adopted from someone else: Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing both flowers and weeds. One explorer said, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagreed, "There is no gardener."

So they decided to pitch their tents and set a watch. But no gardener is ever seen. The first explorer says, "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.

Yet still the “believing” explorer is not convinced. "There is a gardener. But he is invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last his friend, the skeptical explorer despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"
The original claim that there is a gardener (an invisible deity that cares for the garden) has died the death of a thousand qualifications. The claim that there is a gardener (God) is not even meaningful.

There are, of course, a number of problems—philosophical, theological, and biblical—with this parable and what it supposedly proves. But this is not the time or place—Christmas Eve—to analyze something like this for every false assumption and error in logic.

But I should note that Flew to date has not retracted his rejection of an invisible Gardner deity. When Flew says he "believes in God" that's not what he means.'

So, does Anthony Flew now believe in God? Yes and no.

There are three problems with this statement "Anthony Flew believes in God.”

First, the verb "believes.

Second, the noun "god."

And third, just one small little detail—Flew denies that he has come to any kind of religious conviction about a supreme being.

1. What does it mean that Anthony Flew now “believes”?

Anthony Flew now "believes in God" means "Anthony Flew now thinks there is a god" (small "g"). No, he doesn't believe in God. Rather, he now is of the opinion that there may be some sort of deity. That's not the same thing as believing in God. Trusting in God.

But his “believing” clearly has no impact on his life or relationships.

For us Christians "believing in God" is not merely some private philosophical opinion or a religious sentiment.
Jesus birth was very public and his public life demanded change in the real world, not just in the hearts and minds of believers.

You are either for Jesus or against him. He said “follow me,” not simply “form an opinion about divinity.”

2. Then there’s this little word "god."

Whom do you refer to when you say "god'? The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or some generic supreme being. They are not the same.

We often say that people who think that some supreme being exists "believe in God" but that's not accurate. They think that a god exists. To “believe in God” is to trust in the living and true God, the Creator and Redeemer revealed in Jesus Christ.

Anthony Flew, however, says this: "I'm thinking of a god very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins. It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose." Would Flew ever think that God was a cosmic oriental despot if he took the time to carefully consider the significance of the incarnation of God the Son?

Modern man treats the substance of Christmas—the birth, the enfleshment of God himself—like they would a dead animal on the sidewalk—we walk carefully around it and try to avoid looking at or smelling it.

Christmas becomes a metaphor, a symbol for something happy, something sweet, something—let’s not define it too carefully or identify it too concretely—something nice to think about once a year.

Very interestingly this is admitted by the champion of religious relativism and pluralism in our generation, John Hick, the English religious philosopher. In his book, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Hick argues exactly this way. The title of his book says it all. He is happy to believe in the incarnation as a religious "idea," a metaphor of God's nearness to man. But he will have nothing to do with it as history, as an event in the real world, as something that actually happened. He wants nothing to do with the Christmas history as it is related in the Bible—God the Son begin born a human child to a virgin mother. We cannot believe that God actually became a man in Jesus Christ, Hick argues, because if we did that, we would have to accept that the Christian Faith is alone the truth about salvation and peace with God. We would have to accept Christianity's exclusive claim. We just can't do that, we can't believe that.

So it turns out –and everybody knows it—that there’s nothing but the shell left—colors, lights, the warmth of Christmas fires and cider, the smell of evergreen and cinnamon. But underneath nothing. Nothing at all.

Ultimately, when Christmas sentiments have freed themselves from the story of Christmas, then every man and woman must imagine his idea of Christmas. These days Christmas provides an opportunity for one’s own privatized religious feelings.
So year after year we have the same old tired “meaning” trotted out for us to “celebrate.” The "meaning of Christmas is giving" Yawn. The true meaning of the holiday season is enjoying family and friends and helping those who are less fortunate than we are. Sigh.

No, these do not explain the true meaning of Christmas. Rather, they summarize how we are to respond to the miracle of Christmas eve. How we are to live in the light of the real meaning of Christmas—the incarnation of God the Son.

But the focus of Christmas should not on us—some humanistic reduction of Christmas to religious sentiments or humanitarian concerns. These horizontal, social concerns are important, but they are not central, they arise because of the vertical.

(Make the sign of the cross): God reveals himself to us in Jesus, comes to us first and then we love one another, give to one another.

You forget the one and you will never truly have the other.

I would hope that even our littlest children know that believing in God means trusting in the One who came to live among us and die for us.

Christmas is the time we remember not an invisible Gardener, not a parable, but the true story of God's becoming man for us.
And the invisible God that is made know to us in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not a cosmic dictator or tyrant. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a divine community of love and service turned outward toward his creatures.

Believe in God, believe also in me, Jesus said.

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