The Miracle of Christmas
The Miracle of Christmas
In Luke 11:3335, Jesus says, "Your eye is a lamp, lighting up your whole body. If you live in wide-eyed wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. Keep your eyes open, your lamp burning, so you don't get musty and murky. Keep your life as well-lighted as your best-lighted room" (The Message).
Albert Einstein said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is."
If I were to ask if you've ever experienced a miracle, I'm guessing that, depending on your definition, some of you would say "no." I beg to differ. By the end of this sermon, you will have inhaled and exhaled approximately 250 times. Because most of you don't give breathing a second thought, I want to help you consider the journey of an oxygen atom.
The journey begins when air passes through your nose, where unwanted dust and debris is filtered out. The average person moves about 440 cubic feet of air per day through the nose and trachea and into the lungs. The surface area of your lungs is 40 times greater than the surface area of your bodycompressed within the tiny space between your ribs. Once in the lungs, the oxygen atoms hitchhike with hemoglobin and travel throughout the entire human body via blood vessels. If those blood vessels were laid end to end they would be approximately 100,000 miles long. That means the blood vessels in your body could wrap around the equator four times. At the end of its journey, the oxygen atom enters individual cells, bonds with the food we eat, and releases energy.
In his article "The Miracle of Breath," James Robinson writes:
Webster's Dictionary defines a miracle as 'an extraordinary, unusual wonder or marvel.' Isn't a bloodstream 100,000 miles long, in a small body, an unusual wonder? Isn't the journey of an oxygen atom a true marvel? We don't need supernatural events to experience a miracle. All we need is breath. The human breath is sacred. Cherish your breathing: it is the miraculous gift of life.
Acts 17:25 says that God "gives all men life and breath." Job 34:1415 says that if God were to withdraw his breath from humankind, we would return to dust. The bottom line is this: every breath we take is miracle. The average person takes approximately 23,000 breaths per day. That means you experience about 23,000 miracles every day! We are surrounded by miracles, but we have a choice to make. We can live as if nothing is a miracle. Or we can live as if everything is. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."
The Christmas story is a miracle.
Every once in a while, I try to read a passage of Scripture from different perspectives. Let's look at the Christmas story from the perspective of the angels.
Throughout history, God uses angels to communicate special news. Let's call it the DAAthe Department of Angelic Announcements. They have made some pretty important announcements to some pretty important people, including prophets and priests and kings. They have announced life and death, victory and defeat, judgment and mercy. But the most important announcement in the history of humankind was when the angels were commissioned to announce the birth of God's Son.
I can imagine a strategy session in which the angels start brainstorming how they want to make this particular announcement. It seems like the most important announcement ought to be made to the most important people in the most important place at the most important time. So the angels come up with this plan to make the announcement at the Temple in Jerusalem. They decide to do it during one of the annual feasts when there will be thousands of Jewish pilgrims from all over Israel gathered in Jerusalem. They decide to let the priests in on it first.
They're feeling pretty good about their plan when God walks in the room and makes a few minor adjustments. Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem, he chooses a hillside outside Bethlehem. Instead of an annual feast, he chooses the nightshift. Instead of priests, he picks shepherds. The angels crumple their plans and throw them in the recycling bin.
We take the Christmas story for granted because we've heard it so many times, but God could have announced the birth of his Son any way he wanted. Why did God do it the way he did it? Max Lucado has an interesting take. He says:
Had the angel gone to theologians, they would have first consulted their commentaries. Had he gone to the elite, they would have looked around to see if anyone was watching. Had he gone to the successful, they would have first looked at their calendars. So he went to shepherdsMen who didn't have a reputation to protect or an ax to grind or a ladder to climb. Men who didn't know enough to tell God that angels don't sing to sheep and that messiahs aren't found wrapped in rags and sleeping in a feed trough.
We must cultivate a theology of mystery.
I find it fascinating that God didn't reveal himself to the religious leaders. I think you have to read the rest of the gospels to discover why, but let me give you my theory. I think the fundamental mistake the religious leaders made was trying to force God to fit in their religious boxes. Instead of being conformed to God's image, they tried to recreate God in their image. What they ended up with was "a God in a box." Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, and instead of celebrating the amazing miracles, the leaders plotted to kill him. Why? Because he didn't fit in their box.
In his book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey says there are two ways of looking at the world. "One takes the world apart, while the other seeks to connect and put together." He goes on to say, "We live in an age that excels at the first and falters at the second." Similarly, I think there two ways of approaching God. One approach takes God apart; I call it the theology of dissection. We make God manageable and measurable. We reduce God to a set of propositions or seal tight theologies or divine formulas. We fall into the trap of reductionism. I'm not suggesting that we don't put Scripture under the microscope. But if we aren't careful, we end up with a God in a box. Or in the words of A.W. Tozer, we end up with a God who can "never surprise us, never overwhelm us, never astonish us, never transcend us."
The religious leaders were reductionist theologians. Jesus said in Matthew 23:23, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spicesmint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the lawjustice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." They missed the forest for the trees. They were majoring in minors and minoring in majors. They tried to pigeonhole God, but God doesn't fit in nice, neat categories.
In contrast to the theology of dissection, my theological starting point is Isaiah 55:8, where the Lord says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." Astronomers have discovered galaxies 13.2 billion light years away. That means it takes light, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, more than twelve billion years to reach the outer edges of the heavens. God says that's about the distance between his thoughts and our thoughts; we underestimate God by 13.2 billion light years. Psalm 145:3 says, "There are no boundaries to His greatness; His greatness no one can fathom."
What I'm espousing is a theology of mystery. Saint Chrysostom said children exhibit an innate sensitivity to mystery, an observation he applied to the Christmas story:
Tell a child the story of Bethlehem, the vigil of the shepherds, the quest of the Magi, the song of the angels and the babe in the manger. He drinks it all in. An adult, similarly situated, opens a discussion on what he is pleased to call the doctrine of the Incarnation. Tell a child the story of the Cross; he accepts it avidly, finding no difficulty anywhere. Relate to an adult the same impressive facts, and he will ask learnedly for a theory of the Atonement.
What does that have to do with the shepherds? As Max Lucado says, God announced the birth to shepherds because they "didn't know enough to tell God that angels don't sing to sheep and that Messiahs aren't found wrapped in rags and sleeping in a feed trough." One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Mark Nepo: "Birds don't need ornithologists to fly." Neither does God need theologians to do miracles. Rather, God is looking for people who won't tell him what he can't dowho won't put him in little religious boxes. The shepherds took God at face value. When they heard the news, they embraced it with a simple childlike faith. Luke says they "hurried off" to see the child. Sometimes we miss the miracle because we analyze it to death.
A few years ago, I received an e-mail titled "Santa Claus: from an Engineer's Perspective," which illustrates the way we can analyze something to deathliterally.
The e-mail explains that there are approximately 378 million Christian children in the world, according to the Population Reference Bureau. With an average census rate of 3.5 children per household, one can assume there are 108 million homes, presuming there is at least one good child in each. Santa has about 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth if he travels east to west. That means he must make 967.7 visits per second. For each household with a good child, Santa has around 1/1000th of a second to park the sleigh, climb down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left for him, get back up the chimney, jump into the sleigh, and get on to the next house.
Assuming that each of these 108 million stops is evenly distributed around the earth, there is roughly 0.78 miles between households, giving Santa a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting bathroom stops. This means Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest manmade vehicle, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second, and a conventional reindeer can run at a maximum of 15 miles per hour.
The payload of the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium sized Lego set weighing around two pounds, the sleigh is carrying over 500,000 tons, not counting Santa. A conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that the flying reindeer could pull ten times the normal weight, the job couldn't be done with nine of themSanta would need 360,000 of them.
Six hundred thousand tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance that would heat up the reindeer in much the same way as a spacecraft re‑entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer would absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. In short, they would burst into flames instantaneously. The entire reindeer team would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second, or right about the time Santa reached the fifth house on his trip.
Not that it matters. Since Santa, as a result of accelerating from a dead stop to 650 miles per second in one-thousandth of a second, would be subjected to centrifugal forces of 17,500 g's. A 250 pound Santa would be pinned to the back of the sleigh by 4.3 million pounds of force, instantly crushing his bones and organs and reducing him to a quivering blob of pink goo. In other words, if Santa ever existed, he's dead now.
Albert Einstein said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed." I hope that you can re-experience the mystery of Christmasthe omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God of all Creation was born as a helpless little baby in Bethlehem.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "The Miracle of Christmas."
Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC, and author of Wild Goose Chase (Multnomah Books, 2008).