+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have an ongoing joke in our household about my Christmas and Easter sermons always opening with some pop-culture reference to draw folks in, particularly those who are visiting and may be less accustomed to my ordinary homiletic style, which is didactic if you’re being charitable and pedantic if you’re not. Well, last week I looked back at the dozen or so Christmas sermons I’ve preached and I was shocked to realize that for the last couple of years I’ve forgone my popular perennial practice and launched right in to the theological meat, as it were, without recourse to the milk of some culturally resonant reference. So, naturally, I must reverse course this evening.
The new Star Wars film came out last week, and of course we’ve seen it and I won’t spoil it, but this reminded me of a couple of moments from previous films in the franchise. First, I thought of Master Yoda’s claim to the young Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” There are two problems with this one, though. I’ve used it in a sermon before; I’ll never forget because I tried to do it in Yoda’s voice and did not get the laugh response I had hoped for (or even a chuckle, if I recall correctly). Second, this is the exact opposite of the Christmas message. We are not luminous beings, we are crude matter, and it is for this precise reason that the Incarnation (God choosing to take on human flesh and redeem the material world) is such a miracle of God’s Grace!
So, instead, this year’s pop culture reference comes from one of the more recent films: The Force Awakens. The young protagonist, Rey, has come up hearing all these stories of science-fictional knights called Jedi and some mysterious spiritual principle called “the force” and she has just run into the dashing space pirate Han Solo who figured prominently in those old stories. When she admits to him that she thought all those stories were “just myths,” Solo (who was the skeptic in the older films) tells her “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light? Crazy thing is, it’s true. The Force, the Jedi — all of it. It’s all true.”
I was thinking about this because I read an article last week from a retired Anglican priest in Canada titled “It’s Our Nativity, Too.” The writer claims that the virgin birth, the angelic visitation and the guiding star couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us if it were historical fact, that the only way in which it had something to say to modern, scientific people is if it were myth: “true” in some sense as being a foundational, cultural narrative but not factually, historically true.
Setting aside the seemingly obvious claim that the Christmas story can be (in fact, is, if you ask me) both culturally constitutive and historically real, the larger problem is that this approach implicitly assumes that no “myth” is any better than any other objectively, and can only be judged by how it subjectively allows for individuals and communities to “make meaning” for themselves. In this sense the Christian scriptures and Babylonian creation stories and Greek mythology and, for that matter, the Star Wars Saga are all equivalent. I, for one, cannot go there.
This claim that the retired priest in question is making is neither new nor particularly interesting. This is, in fact, rather well-trod ground. Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung all said as much, though nota bene I just listed a religious historian a literary scholar and a psychoanalyst- not a theologian among them. I am reminded of a dear familyt friend of ours, whom I love and respect but with whom I vociferously disagree on this sort of thing. He’s an anthropologist (actually, a “folklorist”) and he’s an ordained minister in a mainline protestant denomination which I won’t identify so as to protect the innocent. Annie and I have over the years tried to develop strategies to figure out what he actually believes, because he makes it rather difficult, I think intentionally. Anyway, I finally got him to lift the veil a bit a couple of years ago, when in conversation I had dismissed a spurious story as “just a myth” and he responded by saying “you’re assuming myths can’t be true in the non-historical sense, which is what really matters.”
So, here, to quote Luther, I stand, and can do no other so help me God. I know that this is a topic on which some find me too old-fashioned or rigid, but I make no apologies. Talk of “true myths” and “communal myth-making” when it comes to the core tenets of the Christian faith is, I believe, an excuse not to do something which our Faith unequivocally calls us to do–namely, to believe the apparently unbelievable because we refuse to put a limit on God.
Does this mean we are called to be unquestioningly credulous about any claim in Scripture? By no means! If a literal six-day creation some six thousand years ago were reckoned a core doctrine, many of us would be in trouble; but this is not an interpretation which the Church has enjoined on the faithful; it’s not in the Creeds which define for us that which is theologically non-negotiable. Does it mean that doubt cannot be tolerated? By no means! There is a lot of daylight between the individual Christian struggling to believe and the one who knowingly promotes that which he knows to be contrary to the church’s teaching. It is a far piece, as they say, between (on the one hand) the genuine prayer “help thou mine unbelief” and (on the other) throwing it all in the bin.
But tonight we are called upon to affirm that which we have come to believe without hesitation or reservation: That Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin; that he was true God and true man, like us in every way but sin; that this divine condescension enabled the redemption of the world.
Why does this matter, one may well ask? Simply because the Gospel is not about the indomitability of the human spirit or our capacity to make meaning for ourselves through storytelling or even about nice things like being kind and humble and giving (as important as this moral element is). Rather, the Gospel reminds us that the human race is not indomitable; when we start thinking we are we quickly devolve into warring, genocidal, abusive creatures.
The Gospel is not merely a set of myths which has made meaning for our community. Rather, the Gospel reminds us that when we try to make our own meaning for ourselves (whether individually or collectively) we either naturally and inevitably begin to exclude others from whatever worldview we’ve assembled or else we find we cannot hold that worldview with any resolve, because it cannot be fundamentally more meaningful than any other.
The Gospel is not even about good reminders to be moral, because as hard as we try, we can never live up to the law of perfection which such a Gospel would entail; just try to be perfect sometime and see how that works out. I went to Walmart a few days before Christmas, and that was enough to remind me how greatly my will is still bound by sin.
At its heart, the Gospel is about the fact that for our fallen race to find justification, we could no longer rely on any of those things. We required help from a real, personal God whose plan all along was to take us to himself. The Gospel is about that same God seeing fit to become a particular human being at a particular point in history so as to redeem all of humanity, all of history, all of creation. I used the word “miracle” earlier to describe the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation, though this is too slight a word. A miracle is simply God choosing to break the laws of nature he had established in creation; and I have no doubt that he does do this. But what happens in Bethlehem and what happens on Calvary and the empty tomb and what happens on Pentecost fifty days later- all these things are more than miracles, more than God breaking the laws of nature. They are, rather, God’s progressive purpose to fundamentally change the order of creation. They are not sweet stories with good moral lessons; they are the collected account of the one thing God has been about and continues to be about- namely, redeeming the whole world beginning with the covenant with Abraham and finding its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah of God.
This work of redemption he has accomplished and is accomplishing and will accomplish not “in a manner of speaking” or “from a certain point of view” but in truth, in human history, at the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem, in his birth in the hearts of his faithful people, and in his glorious second coming to judge the world and establish his Kingdom.
This may seem like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Some myth. But, crazy thing is, it’s true. All of it. It’s all true. Thank God for that. Thank God that tonight the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.