For some time now, my church, Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lindsborg, Kansas, has asked lay people to supply the message on Sunday mornings while we look for a full-time pastor. Today was my turn. Below is the message I spoke.
Today, I come to you with Peace in my heart and with good intentions. I hope my words will help, rather than hinder your spiritual growth. And I hope to do this in less than 10-12 minutes. But, I’m just a music teacher. So, no promises.
I worked for a couple of years at a Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma. I had taken some time off from church work when a friend of mine approached me saying, “you really need to take a look at this position.” He was leaving the area and the position paid quite a bit. I wasn’t all that interested but I gave it a chance. Having grown up Methodist and Lutheran it was a shock to me when I arrived for church on the Sunday before Christmas to hear a sermon on Jesus’ resurrection. You see, many Southern Baptist Churches, including the one at which I worked do not follow a church year. I don’t think it is too much an exaggeration to say that sermons and scripture for each week are based on whatever the pastor is feeling at the time. Maybe it’s the adult ADD in me, but I personally find it helpful to have the structure of church seasons on which to contemplate things in a specific order. So, when I was asked to speak here and given the choice of dates I immediately chose the one closest to Christmas. I mean, who can mess that up, right. Well, time went by and I was busy with concerts, finals, and parties. This past week I finally got down to reading through the scripture for the day and knew I was in trouble. You see, I spent the past week trying to figure out how to talk for 10 minutes on the virgin birth.
I recently spent time on the road recruiting for Bethany in western Kansas. So, on my three-hour drive back from Garden City I decided to Google “sermons on the virgin birth.” You may be surprised to hear this, but it seems that the people who are most motivated to upload audio of their sermons on this topic are also highly opinionated. But, it’s three hours on the road, so I had time to listen. What I gleaned from some of these sermons is that one side believes I am going straight to hell without passing “Go” if I do not believe explicitly that Jesus was literally the product of the Holy Spirit and Mary. On the contrary, those on the other side of the argument often hold the belief, held by many current theologians and biblical scholars, that believing Mary was literally a virgin at Jesus’ birth is not necessary. One argument on that side is that the myth of a virgin birth was a common story in that timeframe, so it was used as symbolism to represent the fact that Jesus was truly God’s son and no other human, meaning Joseph, could have played a literal part in his birth. Yikes!
I spent quite a bit of time trying to discern my own beliefs on the subject. I asked people around me. I read commentaries online. I listened to sermons. I looked to the Bible and read a number of different translations. I even looked outside Christianity. For example, would it surprise you to know that the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, depicts Jesus as being born of a virgin? Specifically, the account in Surah (Chapter) 19 of the Quarn is very similar to the account in the Gospel of Luke.
What I found was that believers on both sides of the argument seem to be absolutely convinced they are correct. One side tends to openly chastise the listener/reader for not agreeing with their case and casting them as sinners for simply questioning. However, the other side of the argument makes up for the lack of open chastisement with a nice side dish of passive aggressive condescension toward those who hold the differing belief. Interestingly, both sides typically sit in pews at the same churches and recite the Apostle’s Creed on a weekly basis, pledging that they believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
In short, this entire process brought back painful memories of the past election. Memories of people on different sides absolutely convinced they were correct and that their candidate was the only possible solution to the problems that ail us. Everyone else was wrong!
It was at this point I realized something. I’m just a music teacher. Yes, of course I am an educated individual, capable of critical thinking and formulating my own beliefs. I am also a fallible human being. I do not have all the answers.
A red herring can be described as a device used in debate to mislead, not always deliberately, the other side and take the attention away from the true point. I began thinking, is it possible I am missing the point here? I am so caught up in my worry that I won’t have all the answers to give my fellow congregants that I am overlooking the bigger picture that Jesus Christ was born to save us from ourselves. Whether it happened in a stable with Donkeys and Wise Men on Dec. 25 really doesn’t matter in the bigger picture.
I am reminded of a cartoon I saw recently (see the bottom of this post). It depicts what must be a Sunday School class. The teacher is pointing to a chalkboard on which there is a family tree type drawing, starting in 1 AD and with many, many lines that presumably depict the offshoots of each major religion and denominations within. Take a moment to think about just our little Lutheran family tree and the offshoots involved. A quick Google search indicated at least 50 varying denominations who call themselves Lutheran. You don’t even want to see the Baptists’ version. Back to the cartoon. . . The teacher is pointing to one of the tiny lines all the way to the right, at the end of the family tree and saying, “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.” And, one of the children responds, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.”
The one thing I feel confident doing from this pulpit is to look each of you directly in the eye and say, “you don’t know.” We don’t know. Please do search for answers and understanding. Please do hold your beliefs and fight for them. Please never stop questioning. But please also understand that in the end you really don’t know. None of us have all the answers. Only God holds that privilege. Don’t allow red herrings to dictate your lives. Instead, remember that that God is Love.
We are nearing the 102nd anniversary of an extraordinary event when, in 1914, soldiers on each side of World War I, the war to end all wars, unofficially called a Christmas truce up and down the line on the western front. It is said that in some spots soldiers actually crossed lines, exchanged prisoners, played games, and even sang carols. Many of these young men would die only days or weeks later at the hands of those with whom they had broken bread on Christmas. I submit that their concerns were much bigger than the quibbles we have in our everyday lives. Yet, they were able to set them aside, albeit briefly, to show humanity to their fellow man.
So, friends, I have a proposition. I invite you to take time at your holiday gatherings with family and friends to proactively set aside any red herrings you have with those around you. I invite you to instead look at the bigger picture and celebrate the fact that the reason you’re even celebrating right now is the fact that Jesus Christ was born to be our savior, whether or not it actually literally happened on Dec. 25 in a manger with donkeys and wise men. Then again, I’m just a music teacher. I could be wrong.