Sunrise at Bethlehem
December 19, 2008
“Many Beliefs, Many Paths to Heaven?”
The headline from a recent USA Today article told of new research from the Pew Foundation suggesting that most Americans would answer yes to that question.
Most American religious believers, including most Christians, say eternal life is not exclusively for those who accept Christ as their savior, a new survey finds.
Of the 65% of people who held this open view of heaven’s gates, 80% named at least one non-Christian group – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists or people with no religion at all – who may also be saved, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
This should not surprise us because the survey only confirms that Americans are a tolerant bunch when it comes to religion. We like our religion, we hope to go to heaven, we’re not totally sure who’s going to go there, and we’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt to people of other faiths. Mostly the survey proves what we’ve long known, which is that American churchgoers are really nice people who aren’t into the details of theology, especially the part about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
It’s always a difficult thing to say that someone you know and love is going to hell. In fact, it is almost an unbearable thought. No matter what hell is in reality, the Bible uses images of darkness, weeping, torment and unending fire to tell us that it is a place of conscious eternal suffering, the end result of a life lived for self instead of for God. For the truly selfish person (and we are all truly selfish by nature), hell is where you are utterly, finally and completely abandoned by God. I can only assume that hell is worse than whatever we have imagined because the images used are so terrible. The famed evangelist D. L. Moody was sometimes criticized for being overly emotional and too plainspoken in his preaching. One fairly liberal minister who did not believe in hell nonetheless approved of Moody’s preaching. How could that be? “Mr. Moody never preached about hell without tears.” That strikes me as the right biblical balance.
Americans are a tolerant bunch when it comes to religion.
Why Grace is Hard to Accept
Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, not only because he explicitly said so in John 14:6 (“No one comes to the Father except through me”), but also because he is the very embodiment of the grace of God. At the heart of what we believe stands the doctrine of grace.
Pause for a moment on that last one. In what sense is grace “counterintuitive”? The word refers to something that goes against what we would normally expect to be true, i.e. “You must go north first in order to go south later” or “Having fun is hard work.” For a long time I’ve felt that grace is the hardest doctrine to accept. We fight against it because it runs against the grain of everything we instinctively believe. Graces forces us to confront two very difficult truths:
1) There is nothing we can do to contribute to our own salvation.
2) If God doesn’t save us, we will never be saved.
Basically grace says, “You’re a hopeless mess” and “Only God can help you now.” And in our natural state we would rather do anything than admit those two things.
Which is why, finally, we will never accept the notion of grace unless God opens our eyes to see the truth about ourselves.
We need grace in order to receive grace!
We need grace in order to receive grace!
Tim Keller on Christmas
I ran across this quote from Tim Keller in Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, a compilation of Christmas writings by various authors.
Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who admit how weak they are.
“Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else.” That might make a good banner to hang over the front door of every church. At least it would serve up a dollop of humility every time we passed under the banner. Those of us who believe in Jesus aren’t any better than anyone else, sometimes we seem like we’re worse than a lot of people, but that’s not the point.
God came down to us.
That’s the point.
We didn’t go up to him because ever since Babel, we’ve been building our towers to heaven and they keep on collapsing. I received a note from a friend who does tax planning. He remarked how people are getting back to basics this year. So many of us come to the end of 2008 just barely hanging on. If you were in the market heavily this year, you’re net worth has probably taken a big hit. Maybe you’ve lost your job or you’re worried that it might happen soon. I think for many people this will be a different sort of Christmas, one that is less materialistic and more family-centered. Certainly people are thinking more about the future and wondering what tomorrow will bring. Speaking of the recent economic and political scandals that have become intertwined, Peggy Noonan offers this telling observation:
All this has hastened and added to the real decline in faith-the collapse in faith-the past few years in our institutions. Not only in Wall Street but in our entire economy, and in government. And of course there’s Blago. But the disturbing thing there is that it seems to have inspired more mirth than anger. Did any of your friends say they were truly shocked? Mine either.
The reigning ethos seems to be every man for himself.
“Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else.”
“Every man for himself.” Where have we heard that before? That’s a paraphrase of the last verse of the book of Judges, one of the darkest periods in Israel’s history. We like to say that “God helps those who help themselves,” but the opposite is more nearly true. If Christmas means anything, it teaches us that God helps those who admit they can’t help themselves.
Merry Christmas! We’re so helpless that God sent a baby-a baby!–to help us out of the mess we’re in. If you’re not smiling, you should be because this is what it’s about.
A few days ago I started thinking about a title for Christ that appears in Luke 1:78. The King James version says “the dayspring from on high has visited us.” A check in the dictionary reveals that “dayspring” is a synonym for “dawn” or “sunrise.” It means the break of day, that moment when the first rays of the sun appear on the eastern horizon. If you have ever done any camping, or if you have been outside all night, if you have been caught in the darkness, you know long those last few hours can be. At 3 AM it seems as if morning will never come. And the same at 3:30 AM and 4:00 AM and 4:30 AM. But when 5:00 AM comes, you know that if you can only wait a little longer, the sun will finally begin to peek over the edge of the earth, and little shafts of light will pierce the darkness.
That’s what the coming of Christ is like. He is the “dayspring” who brings the light into the darkness. Other translations use different expressions:
“The rising sun will come to us from heaven” (NIV).
“God’s sunrise will break in upon us” (MSG).
“A new day from heaven will dawn upon us” (NCV).
The NLT uses the beautiful phrase “the morning light from heaven.”
Here is the whole passage from Luke 1:78-79.
The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.
What does the coming of Christ mean to us?
We’re so helpless that God sent a baby-a baby!–to help us out of the mess we’re in.
1. It is Light to those who are in darkness.
“The rising sun will come to us from heaven” (78).
It happens that I am writing this in the middle of the night. I just glanced at the clock and saw that it reads 1:46 AM. It is an unusual thing for me to be up at this hour, but for various reasons I could not sleep so here I am, writing while most of the world around me is asleep. Outside there is deep darkness and it happens that tonight a heavy fog has descended around us. But quiet as it may be, in a few hours the light will come, the sun will rise, the darkness will disappear, and the fog will lift. If you have ever worked the “graveyard shift” from 11 PM-7 AM, you know how long the night can be. If you have stayed up with a sick child, if you have waited for a loved one to come home, if you have stayed awake worrying about the future, if the cares of life have stolen your sleep, then you know how long the night can last. The last few hours before sunrise seem to go on forever.
When the light shines, we see everything differently.
When the light shines, our problems don’t seem so large.
When the light shines, we have courage to keep on going.
Christ is the light!
He has come into this world and nothing can ever be the same again. One writer notes that “there are a great many dark places in our life, but there is no darker place than our sins.” We all have those “dark places,” and we don’t know what to do about them. The wisest philosophers and the most illiterate peasants have no answer for the problem of sin. But when Christ shines his light, he doesn’t merely condemn us, he says, “Come to me. Believe in me. Trust in me,” and when we do, our sins are forgiven forever.
While reading about the life of famed 19th-century minister T. De Witt Talmage, I ran across this statement he made near the end of his life:
The Bible says God will forgive 490 times. At your first cry He will bend down from his throne to the depths of your degradation. Put your face to the sunrise.”
“Put your face to the sunrise.” Could words more clearly capture the Christmas invitation?
2. It is Pardon to those condemned to death.
“To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death” (79).
It must be obvious to everyone that the world is not as it should be. This is not the world that God made because that world was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). What can we say about our world except that it is “very messed up”? There is no darkness like the darkness of not knowing how to get out of the trouble you are in. I met a man who has learned this from hard experience. For years he struggled with a serious alcohol problem. It impacted every part of his life and damaged every relationship. The turning point came, as it so often does, when those nearest to him would not, could not, live with him anymore. A terrible crisis came, he hit rock bottom, and by the grace of God, he looked up and realized that Christ was his only hope. That led to some very difficult choices, and a course of treatment and counseling that continues to this day. He has not, he told me, finished all of the 12 Steps and perhaps would not for a long time. But if you ask him, he would give thanks to people who loved him enough not to let him go on, and he would say, “It was the Lord who changed me. Without him, I would still be drinking and destroying my family.”
“Put your face to the sunrise.”
I think that’s what Tim Keller was driving at when he said that Christmas means the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because you’re not, I’m not, we’re not. We’re all in the same boat, and apart from the grace of God, we’re all going down together. It is a big advance spiritually to be able to say, “I am a sinner too.” As long as we pretend we’re okay, or as long as we blame others, or as long as we make excuses for our bad behavior, we are still living in the darkness of denial.
If you ever visit the Holy Land, one of the sites you will visit is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built over the reputed spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. To get to the church, you first walk across a broad plaza and then come to a very small entrance. In fact, it’s so small that you have to duck down low to get inside. The entrance is deliberately made low because several centuries ago the local bigshots liked to ride their horses right into the sanctuary. The priests felt that was inappropriate so they lowered the entrance to force the great men to dismount before entering the church.
The same is true of salvation. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to get off your high horse. Until you do, you’ll never be saved.
3. It is Guidance to those who have lost their way.
“To guide our feet into the path of peace” (79).
I received an email from a friend whose husband died a few years ago. Left alone to raise her children, she has persevered against all odds and struggled to keep her family together and to keep her faith strong. I would say that she has done a magnificent job but it has not been easy. Not long ago she faced a debilitating health issue that threatened to set her aside for a period of time. She spoke of the lack of energy she felt and the times of discouragement. Then she told what the Lord had done for her:
The special blessings and gifts that I see God provide each day fill me with joy. While this has been hard, and I’ve had to put myself on the bench from my normal responsibilities, I’ve seen how God had moved the body to minister to me. I do not feel alone. Isn’t that wonderful? One of the hardest times for me, since ________has been gone has been to face illnesses without him because it makes me feel vulnerable as to my ability to care for my family. So, God gave me a three to six month illness that causes me to daily see his provision and sufficiency to provide. He turned my fear upside down and provided joy.
If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to get off your high horse.
When we think of guidance, we tend to focus on the decisions of life. Should I get married? Is this the right job for me? Does God want me to be a missionary? Which college should I attend? But the sort of guidance Christ provides goes far beyond a celestial career counseling program. He guides us through the darkest moments of life, taking us by the hand, giving us strength to face the most difficult circumstances, and even giving us joy when we would otherwise build a condo in the Valley of Despair. The peace Jesus brings is the famed “peace that passes all understanding,” which means that the believer has something the world doesn’t have, can’t buy, can’t duplicate, and can never take away.
I just noticed a phrase that made me smile. “He turned my fear upside down.” I love that! That’s what happens when Christ comes into a life and makes it his own. Joy, someone said, is the flag flown from the castle of the heart when the King is in residence there. My friend, having lost her husband (though she will surely see him again), having faced many challenges, and even now dealing with physical weakness, has discovered supernatural joy. There is only one explanation.
Christ has guided her feet in the path of peace.
So this is what Christ’s coming means to us . . .
This is the difference that Jesus Christ makes.
-When he comes into a life, the shadows flee away.
-When he comes in, the guilt of our sin is removed and we are set free.
-When he comes in, despair disappears for our feet have found the path of peace.
Behold the Sun!
When De Witt Talmage preached on this passage, he told the following story:
I have read that near the North Pole, the night lasting for months and months, when the people expect the day is about to dawn, some messengers go up on the highest point to watch; and when they see the first streak of day they put on their brightest possible apparel, and embrace each other and cry, “Behold the sun!” and the cry goes through all the land, “Behold the sun!”
On the first Christmas morning the sun began to shine in Bethlehem. And from that sunrise, the light still shines 2000 years later. The light from the manger has encircled the world, setting free those who sat in darkness and giving hope to those who could not find their way home.
On the first Christmas morning the sun began to shine in Bethlehem.
“Behold the sun!”
“Behold the Son!”
Has the light of Christ ever shined into your heart or are you still in the darkness? No question is more important. What is your answer?
My final word to you is this. Christmas is only a few days away. It strikes me that we have a wonderful opportunity to set our hearts right. Christmas is not about snow and candy canes and stockings by the chimney. Christmas is about the transcendent truth that God has at last visited his people. All the rest is window dressing.
Good news! The Visitor from heaven is here at last. Will you drop everything and welcome him into your heart? Or are you too busy this year to be bothered with Jesus?
Good news! The light of heaven has come to earth. Will you open your eyes to see it?
Good news! Bethlehem’s Babe is the light of the world. Will you let him turn your fear upside down?
The familiar words of Phillips Brooks are a delight at this point:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
So he does! May that be your experience this Christmas season.