Tonight we’ve read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Luke, the man whom the gospel was named after, was Greek Gentile (or non-jewish), who was trained as a doctor. He was a friend to the ailing Apostle Paul and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys to help him with his consistent health issues. Luke was a very intelligent, detail-oriented man, a diligent physician, and a passionate follower of Jesus who was led by God to write an account of the life of Jesus Christ about 40 years after His death and resurrection.
Let me take a minute to read the very first part of the Gospel of Luke because it gives us a good idea of why he wrote what he did. He says,
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)
So the backstory goes like this: Theophilus was most likely a wealthy, Roman patron who learned some things about Jesus through some preachers and oral traditions but wanted someone to do some research into how accurate the stories were. The name of this small-town, Jewish, carpenter who had walked on water, raised the dead, fed thousands, and who had died on a Roman Cross only to be seen by hundreds of witnesses to have come back to life three days later, must have been quite a fascinating story. And to hear that He claimed to be the Creator of the Universe come in flesh, the Messiah of the Jewish people and the Saviour of the world was worth checking out.
But, like many of us, he probably had his doubts, so he found a trustworthy, non-Jewish, non-apostolic, non-eyewitness, unbiased man, to go and do some research – and Luke fit the description. Maybe Luke was his own doctor, we don’t know. What we do know is that Theophilus trusted Luke to set about going throughout the Jewish and Roman world to gather witnesses and write down what people had seen and heard.
Luke states his mission right up front. He says that even though others had undertaken to write about Jesus (by this time the Gospel of Mark had already been written), His plan was to gather the data he had learned over the years, and record it in an orderly way so that Theopholis, and all those who would read his gospel after, would be able to “have certainty concerning the things [they had] been taught”.
We sometimes assume that people from a long time ago were silly, superstitious and far more gullible than we are today, but that’s simply not true. CS Lewis calls that “chronological snobbery”. They were as intelligent as we are. The first century people knew how extreme Jesus’ claims were and they weren’t about to believe it until they could get some “certainty”.
What would give them that? Well, Luke would talk to the “eyewitnesses”. He says that he had “followed all things closely”, which is also translated, “invested everything from the beginning”.
Now, Luke was no dummy. He didn’t grow up in a Christian or a Jewish home, but a Greek one. The Greeks looked down on Jews as backward and strange. Plus Luke was a doctor, used to making decisions about what to do with a patient based on the evidence of their symptoms. He wasn’t about to give up his heritage and convert to Christianity because of a few fantastical stories.
Also, around this time, the barbaric and insane Emperor Nero had already been in power and had set about destroying Christianity through torture and murder. It was likely that by the time of his writing, Luke had already known of the many who had been killed, and may have even witnessed the brutal death of his good friend Paul.
It was one thing for those who had seen Jesus face to face, had talked to Him, to face martyrdom. But Luke, Theopholis, and the Romans he was writing to, hadn’t seen any of what Jesus had done first hand, and to claim to be a Christian in those days was no light thing. If someone claimed belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died on a cross and then rose again to prove He was Saviour of the World, they had better be sure. A lot of people’s lives – including Luke’s – rode on the accuracy of his research.
So, He visited the witnesses and wrote what they saw and heard – and we’re not just talking about the Apostles. It’s very likely he talked to Mary, Jesus’ mother and some of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and heard first-hand how His birth came about. He could have talked to Lazarus, the man Jesus rose from the dead, and of course to many of the hundreds of witnesses around Jerusalem and scattered throughout countries beyond, who had actually seen Jesus’ miracles, witnessed His death, and had then spoken to Him after His resurrection.
Distrust of Certainty
Luke’s mission was to give Theophilus and the rest of his readers, including us, “certainty”. That’s not a popular word these days. People don’t really like “certainty” because it sounds too dogmatic. We live in an age where we distrust almost everything – the news, the weatherman, our facebook feeds, and even the supposed truth-checkers. We’ve seen too much corruption, and our hearts hardened towards anyone who claims to be certain of anything.
We much prefer saying, “no one can know the truth” or “you believe what you believe and I’ll believe what I believe and we’ll both say we’re right.” I actually hear that quite a bit. I heard it at a coffee shop just a couple days ago. One barista was a Christian, the other was an Atheist. As I sat waiting for my friend, who was late to arrive, I listened as they debated Trump vs Hillary, then Trudeau vs Harper, and then moved from politics to religion. As they disagreed, one kept reminding the other that this might not be the best conversation at work, but the other was relentless. At one point I came out for a refill on my coffee and the Christian barista looked at me and said, “If you want to talk about religion, this guy is a pastor!”. I almost got swept into the fray, but ended up being quickly dismissed with “Ugh, church people. He probably doesn’t even believe in evolution.”
Before I could answer, the other barista chimed in with, “Yes, yes, but we can all believe whatever we want to believe, right?” And the atheist responded like a good Canadian, “Well, of course.” And, since it wasn’t really the right time or place, I slunk away back to my table.
I’m not sure what it is about this coffee shop, but many times I’m there I face little interruptions like this. A few weeks ago as I sat across from someone else who looked me right in the eye and said, “You don’t actually believe that the Spirit of God impregnated a virgin, do you?” I replied, “Yes, I actually do.” and received back something like, “Well, there’s your problem…” And about a week ago someone interrupted a conversation I was having and thanked me for talking about the Bible.
No one is really neutral on the subject of Jesus, and there are a lot of people who think Christians are crazy for believing this stuff. I get it. Jesus made some huge claims. That’s why people try to say these events are mythological or symbolic, or stolen from other, ancient cultures. There’s no way that someone could be born of a virgin, live a perfect life, fulfill hundreds of prophecies written over centuries, be stabbed through the heart and pronounced dead, sit in a cold tomb for three days, and then join his friends for lunch and a Bible study soon after! That’s got to be made up!
But that’s kind of the point isn’t it? There is no one like Jesus. Not before or since. That’s why it was so critical for Luke to get it right, because believing this wasn’t just a choice – it was the difference between life and death. Following a myth that causes people to stop hiring you, refuse to sell goods to you, gets you kicked out of your family, and makes you a target of the government, isn’t worth it. The only reason anyone would believe it would be if it’s true.
For Christians, this is the most important truth in the universe, and we stake our lives, our reputations, and our eternities on it. We believe that there is a God, the Father almighty, who created heaven and earth. We believe gave humanity the free will to choose to obey Him or not, and that we chose to go our own way, incurring the penalty of the curse, physical and spiritual death. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, written by trustworthy men that were carried along by the Holy Spirit to ensure it would be exactly what God wanted to say, and that it tells us of how God has worked through all of human history to bring about His plan to deliver us from the consequences of sin.
We believe that the Bible was written not only to tell us about God and ourselves, but to tell us what the Saviour would be like. For centuries before Jesus’ birth God told us what to look out for. Jesus fulfilled over 300 historical prophecies. The odds of anyone doing that are astronomical.
Christians believe that the stories the Bible tells about Jesus are historically true because they were confirmed by eyewitnesses, and through diligent scholarship we are sure that the words in today’s Bible are nearly identical to the words written by the original authors.
We believe that Jesus was truly conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under a real man named Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and three days later, really did rise from the dead, making a way for all who would believe in Him to be free from the curse of death and hell.
We believe that the baby we celebrate at Christmas is the judge of all mankind and everyone will stand before Him to make an account of their lives. And that everyone, everywhere will one day bow their knee – so we choose to do it now.
We believe that God alone can forgive our sins, and only does it because of our faith in in Jesus. And that one day, because Jesus proved He could do it first, He will raise us all from the dead to live with Him forever.
Many of us come here tonight not just out of tradition, to sing songs and hear old stories that bring us nostalgic comfort, but because we believe the story of Christmas and are thankful for God sending His Son to be born in such a humble way so we might be saved through Him.
As we sit in these shadows and see the light of the Christ candle, we see an image of the light of the world who has pierced the darkness, and offers to exchange the darkness of our hearts for the light of His life.
I pray with all my heart that you would, like Luke, investigate the claims of Jesus Christ and come to believe in Him too – and that if you do believe it, that you would take time in the next few days to reaffirm your faith and recommit your lives to Him.