In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
“Is God really real?”
Kind of an odd question to ask, I guess, on Christmas Eve …
But … “Is God really real?”
That’s the question that was posed to me by a teenager in a congregation I served once, more than two decades ago. And I’ve never forgotten her question, because …
Well, because it shook me up so badly! It wasn’t a question I expected to hear, especially from her. You see, her family was very active in the church. She was very active in the church! In fact, she was one of the most enthusiastic members of a very active group of high school kids in my congregation.
And here she was, asking me: “Is God really real?”
What she meant, I discovered—what she was really asking—was this: “Is God a real Person?”
Is God a real Person—someone who thinks and feels and acts—or is God just a metaphor, a figure of speech, a way of describing our highest ideals, our best intentions?
And as I listened to my young friend, I became less shocked and more saddened. Saddened, because I realized just how easy it is for someone to grow up in a Christian community without ever encountering the Living God. Without ever understanding—perhaps, even, without ever being told—that God is not only a real Person, but is a Person with whom you can have a real relationship.
Yet, the reason we celebrate Christmas is precisely because God wanted to be in relationship with us. Christmas is all about what the Church calls “the doctrine of the Incarnation.”
Christmas is about God coming to earth, and taking on human flesh, and living and breathing and moving in this world as one of us … all so that we could see that he was, and is, real. Maybe part of the reason God did that was because people have always had trouble believing that he was real—or couldn’t see him as he really was.
If you read the Old Testament—especially the prophets—you’ll realize that God’s people seemed always to be forgetting about him. Over and over again, they began to act as if God was not real; and so they began to act wickedly, or to worship other gods. Over and over again, they had to be reminded of who God really was.
We human beings are slow learners. In fact—truth to tell—we’re kind of dull … at least, when it comes to matters of the spirit.
God gave us instructions to follow—rules, laws, commandments—not to spoil our fun, but to keep us from destroying ourselves. Which is what sin does. It destroys us. Sin is spiritual disease, and—left unchecked—it is always deadly.
But we could never follow the rules, or the laws, or the commandments, well enough. We kept messing up, and we kept getting sicker. Death became our ruler. Not even our best attempts at religion made things any better. Humanity just kept drifting further and further away from God. Further away from his righteousness. Further away from his love.
It was as if—never having seen God—we could not imagine what he was like, or what he wanted from us. Or what he wanted for us. Maybe, we couldn’t even make ourselves believe that he was real.
So, there was only one thing to do. God had to come, personally, to find us, to speak to us, to show us who he really is. To show us that he is really real!
That’s what Christmas is about. It’s about a God who loved us so much that he came to us in the person of his own Son, so that we could see him, and touch him, and listen to him. So that those who knew him best could write about him, and record his teaching, and leave us a testimony that, yes, “He really is real!”
As we’ve walked together through the season of Advent, as we’ve heard the familiar accounts of Scripture about Jesus’ birth, I hope we’ve gotten the message. I hope you all know—and believe—that these Bible stories are not fairy tales, or fancies, or clever metaphors—or anything other than what they really are.
Because what they really are is truth. And the truth is this:
“… God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior.” *
Jesus did not come to condemn us. He came to rescue us. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He came to save us—save us from our sins, save us from our sicknesses, our selfishness, our cruelty, our loneliness, and our lostness. He came to heal broken hearts, and raise up the lowly and the downtrodden. He came to give us hope. He came to make the world right again, one person at a time.
We call all of that stuff salvation. It’s about making us and the entire Creation healthy and whole—not just for today, but for eternity.
We know that evil is real. It’s as real as our own heartache, our own guilt, our own regret. It’s as real as the pain of cancer, or the relentless gnawing of hunger. Only a real God can fix things like that. And only a loving God would care to try. But we are fortunate, because not only is our God absolutely real, but his love is absolutely real, too.
And, if you’ll let him … if you’ll invite him into your life—if you’ll let his love into your life—then your life will not only be changed; it will last forever. You will live forever, surrounded by God’s love—and you will know, without a doubt, that God is love.
That’s kind of what I told my young friend, all those years ago. And I think that, at first, it sounded as strange to her as maybe it sounds strange to you, right now. But not long after our conversation, she took a step of faith. She decided to believe that God was real. And then she decided to trust in this God, whom she had decided to believe was real.
And later, she told me that decision had made all the difference. “Today,” she said, “I don’t just believe that God is real; I know he is!”
Hearing all of this, you may still be skeptical. You may be asking yourself, “How can I know that any of this is true?”
I can only tell you this: faith is a gift. But it is a gift which will be given if you sincerely ask for it. So, if you’ve always wanted this gift, but you’ve never asked for it, perhaps now would be a good time.
All I’m asking you to do is consider it … and remember, our Lord is always listening.
Lord Jesus, deep in our hearts, we know you’re real—and deep in our hearts, we know we need you. We need the love you offer. We need the salvation you bring. We’ve tried to fix ourselves, but we can’t do it. We need you to come into our lives. Heal us, Lord. Comfort us. Pardon and restore us, one person at a time. Bring us closer to yourself, one person at a time. For your name’s sake. Amen.
* John 3:16-17 (Good News Translation Copyright © 1992 by American Bible Society)