Christmas Hope: Hope for the Skeptic

Good Morning and welcome to Journey Church.  My name is Phil Human and I’m one of the pastors here today.  I’d like to extend a special welcome to anyone who might be here for the very first time.  We don’t know what kind of background you have – but wherever you might be on your spiritual journey – we want you to know you are welcome here.

When we put our services together – we try to imagine that every one in the room has never been to church before, otherwise people who show up for the first time might feel like everyone knows what’s going on but me!  And so if today is your first Sunday in a church we’re honored to be the church you came to and we hope we succeed in making what we talk about as easy to understand as possible.

We like to say that Journey is a church for people who are skeptical of the whole Jesus thing.  And this morning, if that sounds like you, then you are in luck because today we’re going to read about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and see her progression of faith.

We will read the book of Luke chapter 1.  And we will see Mary progress through four different stages of belief.   She starts by being troubled by what she is hearing about Jesus.  And she ends the journey with overflowing joy.

If you were to open up your bible to the table of contents you’ll see the bible is broken into two major sections – the Old Testament and the New.  The OT deals with everything from the creation of the world and God’s interaction with his chosen people, Israel.

The NT begins with the birth of Jesus and ends in Revelation with the end of the world.  In the NT there are only four books that detail the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus – the first four.  Matthew Mark Luke and John, and we call them the Gospels.  And of the four, only two give details about the birth of Jesus.  Matthew and Luke.

Today we are reading from the book of Luke – chapter 1.  Let’s start reading and we will take a closer look at Mary as she progresses through her four stages of Belief.

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”

29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

So let’s take a look at Mary’s four stages of belief.

Four Stages of Mary’s spiritual journey.

  1. Troubled.

First – Verse 29 says that Mary was confused and disturbed by what she was being asked to believe.

At this point in Mary’s life things appeared to on track.  She was young – people married in their mid teens in their time and culture – and she was engaged to a great guy.  As far as plotting her life’s course, everything seemed to be normal, right?

But then something happens and she learns about something that – if true – will change her life forever.  This new information will without a doubt turn her life upside down.  She knows her life will never be the same from this point forward.  And so she is understandably, confused and disturbed.  She’s troubled.

Now listen, can we for a moment stop and appreciate the human-ness of Mary right here.  She responds completely rationally.  She is responding no different than you or I would.  She is frightened, confused, and disturbed.  And the word – ‘think’ – means ponder.  She is pondering – she is applying rational thought to this entire deal.

How would you have responded differently?  Whatever you think of the Bible, when you study it you will walk away realizing that these people respond in much the same way you would had you been in their shoes.  Mary is afraid, confused and troubled – trying to think about what is happening to her.

Now here’ the deal.  At Christmastime we like to get super sentimental.  We imagine snow gently falling, and silent night, and hot chocolate and family.  And kids opening presents.

And all of that is great.  But the reality is this.  If Christmas is true – if what Luke and Matthew tell us is true – that we – you and I – were in such a desperate situation spiritually speaking, that the only thing that could save us was God himself becoming a human being in order that he might take our place – and die for us on the cross?

If the claims of Christmas are true then it ought to trouble anyone in this room who has yet to believe it.  Because it might mean that everything you once thought was true about life is wrong.

It might mean that everything you were taught by your friends or parents was wrong.  Or worse – they were right!

The claims of Christianity are shocking.  And if it’s true then everything changes, right?

Question:  Are you in this first stage of belief?  Well – if you are then kudo’s to you for even being here.  Because it means that you are at least willing to hear the story – you are willing, I assume, to listen to the answer.  Mary didn’t run for the exit when she heard the message – and neither are you.  And it takes a lot of guts to give yourself permission to examine your cherished beliefs – to give yourself permission to think differently about reality.

Let’s move on – how does Mary respond?  Let’s see the next stage.

34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 

Mary’s second stage of belief?  2. Sincere skepticism.

What is Skepticism?  It’s a disposition of doubt.  Mary is doubting that what she is hearing could be true – but her skepticism is sincere.  In other words – she isn’t using her doubts as an excuse not to believe.  She has sincere questions that need to be answered.

And her doubts are well founded.  How can I be pregnant, if I’ve never been with a man?  She understands the birds and the bees.  And she knows that if she is a virgin, then she isn’t going to become pregnant.  Right?

I don’t know what doubt might be keeping you from believing, but I think Mary’s wins.  She had much better reason for doubt than you might have.  The angel says- you are Pregnant!  And Mary says – I don’t think that’s how it works!

But she is sincere – she has questions and is listening for the answer.

I will tell you that I think skepticism is very important. It might surprise you to hear that I think the bible promotes skepticism.

When Jesus shows up on the scene and begins to preach to people, the first word he uses is the Greek word – it’s Meta – Noya – Meta – change – like metamorphous.  Change your shape – Meta Noya – means change your thinking.

Jesus first words to us comes in the form of a challenge really – are you willing to change the way you think about reality?  Are you willing?  Because most people aren’t.

Including people who claim to be skeptical – by nature.  How many of you would claim to be skeptical by nature?  You dream of living in Missouri – the “Show me” state.  That’s you.

Okay – here’s the danger for people like us.  People who are skeptical are often really good at being skeptical about other people’s claims but we hesitiate to apply our skepticism toward our own.

I was on a website this week that is devoted to skeptics.  The person who wrote it claims to be a professional skeptic.  And to his credit the person who wrote it is honest enough to admit the inherent problem.

“The most ardent skeptics enjoy their skepticism as long as it does not encroach upon their own cherished beliefs.”

Jesus shows up and begins his sermons by saying – in essence – what I am about to tell you is going to blow your mind.  Jesus begins his semrons – I am about to tell you something that will completely change the way you live your life – and this news I bring you?  It’s good news – it’s good news – but it will require a willingness to release your current view of how the universe operates.  It might require that you relinquish your previously held views of God – if you had one at all.

But the news is good.  There is a God.  He is both great and near.  You are no accident.  You are more loved than you ever dreamed possible.   There is an alternative Kingdom available to whosoever wants to enter it.  Into a Kingdom run by a loving God who promises to tend to you.  Entrance into this Kingdom of God is wildly available through faith in Jesus.

And then Jesus lived his life and preached his message and healed the sick and raised the dead and he himself died on a cross and was raised to life three days later and his supporters died horrific deaths because they told people about this reality.  And he became the most influential figure in human history and he is now next you and he asks – what is your verdict?

Question:  Are you in this stage?  Sincerely Skeptical?  Question:  Are you in this stage?  Sincerely Skeptical?

It’s okay to be skeptical.  But please don’t be insincerely skeptical.  In other words, I have my doubts and I am going to put exactly no effort into trying to have them answered.

Some people use their skepticism as an excuse not to have to change.  But Mary had doubts – she asked the questions, she heard the answers and she made a decision.

Now – here’s something one of you might be thinking.  Maybe you are thinking – you know what would change my mind?  The Angel Gabriel appearing to me – when that happens I will believe.

But let me take a brief excursion here and talk about a guy named Zechariah – a guy who’s story appears just before Mary’s in Luke 1.  Zechariah was a priest, and one day he is in the temple lighting the incense in the temple and he’s all alone in there and suddenly an angel shows up and says to him.

“Zechariah – the Lord has heard your prayers regarding your desire to have a child.  And God is going to answer your prayers – and you will have a son and he will be the precursor to the Messiah.  You will name him John and He will bring many people back to God.  It’s going to be something special.”

An angel shows up – what does Zechariah say?  He says – How can I be certain of this?  I’m older and my wife is older and – give me a sign that what you say will come to fruition.  And I love the answer…   Verse 19  The angel answered, and I can’t help but think that Gabriel looks like Samuel L Jackson – “I’m Gabriel!  I stand in the presence of God, Sucka!”  I’m standing right here in front of you!

People often say – God, just give me a sign, and then they get that sign and they say, “How about one more.”  All through Jesus’ life he was surrounded by people demanding signs.  And after seeing one with their own eyes they say – do another one.

At some point, like Zechariah, you’ve got the proof you need.  It’s time to make a decision.

Mary has progressed beyond the confusion – she has her answers, and now comes the third stage.  3. She surrenders.  “I am the Lord’s servant.  May everything you’ve said about me come true.”

Let’s not get too sentimental about this moment.  She wasn’t filled with joy at this point.  There is a sober acceptance that her life is going to be forever changed and significantly more difficult.

She understands what will happen.  No one will believe that she became pregnant by God?  She must surely assume at this point she will lose her fiancé Joseph.  She does not know that Joseph would also be visited by an angel.  So here she surrenders her dreams of a wedding and in return is certain that she will be disgraced in her family and community.  She will raise a son on her own – and then as now a single mom raising children lives on the edge of poverty.

And yet – she submits.  She gives up her right to determine her own life.

And friends, following Jesus is nothing short of that. Making a decision to follow Jesus is nothing short of a life changing decision that needs to be weighed out and entered into soberly.

Jesus didn’t come to be your personal assistant in life.  He comes as the King.  And following Him means we willingly submit to his governance of our life.  And that’s no small thing.

Question:  Are you ready to surrender your life to God?

Have you heard enough?  Seen enough?  Has God shown himself to you – stirred in your heart and brought you to a place where you are ready to surrender to Him?

Notice that this isn’t an overly emotional moment.  Mary doesn’t burst into song here glorifying her God – that will happen later – the joy will come later.  At the moment is the stark reality that everything in her world is going to be different.  She has relinquished control to God.

If you have ever read the books Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, you should.  Buy them as a Christmas present and read them to your kids.  The author, C.S. Lewis is one of the most influential followers of Jesus in the past hundred years.

But he started out as a skeptic.  His mother passed away when he was 8.  He was sent to a boarding school by his overwhelmed father.  He went and fought in World War 1 and saw most of his friends killed.  He later went to Oxford an avowed Atheist.

But He was intellectually honest enough to allow his worldview to be challenged.  And soon he found himself in long conversations with other students of faith – including such brilliant people as J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer of the Lord of the Rings.

Over time, Lewis came to the sobering conclusion – that Jesus must have been who he claimed to be.  And he writes that he became the most reluctant convert in history.

There wasn’t any emotional release – he wasn’t walking on clouds.  There wasn’t any sentimentality involved.  He simply concluded that Jesus was either a megalomaniac the kind of like the world has seen – (I mean, Jesus allowed people to worship him) – or he was in fact God in the flesh, who came to save the world from their sins.

And so – Lewis made a decision.  Like Mary – the joy would come later.

This is the fourth stage of Mary’s journey.  Joy.

In what I think of as being a very tender and kind thing to do – the Angel tells Mary – listen – you should go and see your cousin Mary – I visited her once too – she will understand.  She will believe you!

And so Mary left on the journey to her Cousin Elizabeth’s house.  And Elizabeth, upon seeing Mary, having had a word from the Lord, apparently, declares to Mary,

42 Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed. 

45 You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”

Later on a man named Paul would write to a church in Rome and explain to them how salvation works, so to speak.  And he writes one sentence that sums it all up.  You are saved by Grace through faith in Jesus.  Paul is famous for it, but Elizabeth says it first.

When you come to the place where you think highly enough of Jesus to trust him with your life…  you too will cross over that line of faith and be blessed in the right now Kingdom of Heaven.

And then comes joy.

46 Mary responded,

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
47     How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

Are you ready today?  Then right now where you are, as I pray – express to God your willingness to surrender.  Use Mary’s words.  I am your servant.  I submit to your leadership in my life.

And you will have received the Christmas gift that Jesus came to earth to deliver.  The gift of salvation and the gift of a new reality.