A few weeks after the death of my father-in-law, I found my seven-year-old son crying in bed. His grandmother had died the previous year, and he was taking it all very hard. “You know, Kyle,” I said, “When we die, we’ll get to see Grandma and Grandpa again in heaven.” With tears spilling down his face, Kyle cried, “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have that long!”
Ah, to be a child who believes so easily in good things, though perhaps saying things a little bit better would be nice, too.
As we were putting out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, I accidentally dropped one. “No problem,” I said, picking it up and dusting it off before placing it back on the plate. “You can’t do that,” argued my four-year-old. “Don’t worry. Santa will never know.” He shot me a look. “So he knows if I’ve been bad or good, but he doesn’t know the cookie fell on the floor?”
Are you smarter than a 5th grader? That’s the question the TV game show of the same name asks each program. Content is taken from elementary school textbooks, two from each grade level from first to fifth. Each correct answer increases the amount of money the player banks; a maximum cash prize of $1,000,000 can be won. Along the way, the player can be assisted by a “classmate”, one of five school-age cast members, in answering the questions. Notably, upon getting an answer incorrect or deciding to prematurely end the game, the contestant must state that he or she is “not smarter than a 5th grader.”
Two people have won the $1,000,000 prize: Kathy Cox, superintendent of public schools for the state of Georgia; and George Smoot, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics and professor at University of California, Berkeley. Many times the adults are not as smart, not nearly as smart as a 5th grader.
What I want to ask you tonight is a similar question: Are you smarter than a college sophomore? Are you wiser than I was as a college sophomore? That was the year I read a whole bunch of books that convinced to believe in nothing. After my sophomore year at college I became an atheist. I’m serious.
I read that year Sigmund Freud, and learned that religion is nothing more than a psychological illusion that is more or less based in the desire of the psyche to overthrow or kill a Father-figure.
I read Karl Marx and how religion is nothing more than an opiate for the masses because we concern ourselves with a little bread on a Communion table when we should be concerned with making sure there is enough bread on every table.
I read Friedrich Nietzsche who told me that that Christianity is nothing more than the attempt of the underclass to keep the elites and great people of the world from oppressing them by making them feel bad about their power.
By the time I was done, or by the time they were done with me, I had no more room for God in my life. There was nothing more that was real or possible than what I could see or touch.
And yet here I stand before you, a pastor and a preacher of the Gospel and a teacher of the Christian faith, who believes that the greatest event ever in our world was the birth of the baby Jesus to Mary and Joseph in a stable outside of Bethlehem, when the Word, who was with God and who was God, who was in the beginning with God, in whom was life and the light of all people, became flesh, was wrapped in bands of cloth, and lain in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.
This is the night that has the power to rescue us from ourselves. This is the night when a star reaches beyond its merely physical properties to shine on the one with the greatest spiritual qualities our world has ever known. This is the night when angels could no longer keep quiet and only sing their Alleluias to God but had to come to lonely and lowly shepherds and tell them first the good news of great joy for all the world.
How can this be? How can an atheist become a pastor? Well, because I am wiser than my sophomore self.
You know, they’re right, those three wise guys I read. All those things are true about religion and Christian faith. It is psychological; it has been used to keep people quiet; it is something that puts the brakes on greater injustice in our world. I don’t deny this.
But where they’re wrong was when they said Christian faith is nothing more than these things or characteristics. They were brilliant in thinking but nothing in their imagining. Their over reliance on their intelligence boxed in everything else possible under the sun and beyond the sun. It had almost done the same to me.
Don’t be fooled by people who no longer can imagine what might be. Don’t give in to a view that doesn’t trust anything but what can be pointed to. Wonders will never cease, unless you’re no longer wise enough to believe in them.
Mark Johnson tells the story of the year when he first learned what Christmas was all about. It was about 1970, he says, “when I was just a small boy. My father was in the navy at that time. We lived on a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, and dad was out to sea on an aircraft carrier.
He was often gone for many months at a time, and this year he would be gone for Christmas. He had been scheduled to return weeks before Christmas; instead his ship was delayed somewhere across the sea. Back then there was neither direct deposit nor computers to do payroll for the families of enlisted men. So what money we had was it, it was all we’d have until dad would return home and be able to receive his
This was a difficult, desperate year for my mother. She had six children and no money to buy Christmas presents. She sat up many nights in tears of worry, while she made little gifts out of scraps of material she had at home.
We didn’t even have enough to buy a Christmas tree for our home. With Christmas Eve upon us, my mother tried to make it the best as she could for us children. She made a Christmas tree out of lights on the living room wall, and told us the truth about what the morning was to bring.
Heartbroken, she dried her eyes and got us ready to go see Santa. That night was the navy’s yearly Christmas show, with presents for children. We turned on our “Christmas tree” and left to receive the only gifts we’d get that year. After the 90-minute program, we returned home.
When we opened the door my mother sat down and wept but this time from wonderment and joy.
The opened door displayed a Christmas straight from a Rockwell painting. We saw a large tree fully decorated, and a huge Christmas dinner on the table, complete with goodies and treats for us. The stockings we had hung with sadness in our hearts were now filled with toys and candy. Last but not least, under the tree were more presents than we had ever imagined.
Our joy was indescribable. We still don’t know how this came to pass. The doors and windows were locked tight; there was no way in. All of our friends were at the party. The only clue left was a single note on the little table by the door that read, “Have a very merry Christmas, Love Santa.”
Now stop yourself. Don’t think the answer. Just let the goodness, the wonder, of this “miracle” have its way with you—just for awhile, at least for tonight. There is more to it all than we can or will ever know, my sisters and brothers.
In one scene of the movie, Crazy, Stupid Love, there is the scene where the two main characters meet each other. One is a very suave, ladies’ man with killer pick-up lines and moves while the other is a very depressed, deflated recently separated husband who looks like he’s stuck back in the eighties. The total ladies’ man Ryan Gosling tells his new acquaintance some good news. He says, “I’m gonna help you rediscover your manhood. Do you have any idea, like, where you lost it?” And Carell with a look and tone of answering forthrightly says, “A strong case could be made for 1984.”
I wish we could all go back to that moment or those moments when you started to answer the question, “Will wonders ever cease?” with a yes. I wish we could go back in time, when we let something or someone take this away from our hearts, when we instead replaced it with the wrong ideas that faith wasn’t real, God wasn’t love, and Jesus doesn’t make much of a difference. They didn’t really have the answer. They didn’t really know the truth. These aren’t true.
Don’t let someone put your faith in a box. Unwrap yourself from a lack of imagination. Learn to believe again, to be young again of heart and hope, to reach beyond what you can merely see or touch. For that is where God slips into your life, between a star’s gracious, guiding light, angels singing you good news, shepherds believing and rejoicing, and a precious infant, the Word of Life, wrapped in love, lying in a manger, born of woman and of God, Jesus Christ, light of the world, savior. Amen.