The Birth of Jesus Foretold
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
I want to begin this morning with a reading from one of our finest theologians: Dr. Seuss. I hope you will listen carefully to this excerpt, which I read to you from my very own copy of On Beyond Zebra, because it contains a concept which is key to my message this morning:
Said Conrad Cornelius O’Donnell O’Dell,
My very young friend who was learning to spell,
“The A is for Ape and
The B is for Bear,
The C is for Camel and
The H is for Hare,
The M is for Mouse and
The R is for Rat,
I know all the 26 letters like that.
Through Z is for Zebra,
I know them all well,”
Said Conrad Cornelius O’Donnell O’Dell.
“So now I know everything anyone knows,
From beginning to end, from the start to the close,
Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”
Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more,
A letter he had never dreamed of before.
And I said, “You can stop if you want with a Z,
Because most people stop with a Z,
But not me.
In the places I go,
There are things that I see
That I could never spell if I stopped with a Z.
I’m telling you this because you’re one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends.
My alphabet starts with this letter called ‘Yuz.’
It’s the letter I use to spell ‘Yuzzamatuz.’
You’ll be sort of surprised what there is to be found
Once you go beyond Z and start poking around.
So on beyond Zebra, explore like Columbus.
Discover new letters,
Like ‘Whum’ is for ‘Whumbus,’
My high-spouting whale who lives high on a hill,
And who never comes down until it’s time to refill.
So on beyond Zebra, its time you were shown
That you really don’t know all there is to be known.”
This morning let’s go On Beyond Zebra, because it is there that we find Christmas. On the first Christmas, God added a new letter to our alphabet in the virgin birth. And we need that letter so we can spell Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” So if you’re looking for Christmas this morning, join me on a journey On Beyond Zebra!
Now what exactly does Dr. Seuss mean by “Beyond Zebra”? I think he means that just as you and I use the same 26 letters of the alphabet over and over, albeit in different combinations, to spell words, in life we also tend to work within the limits of the same general categories of experience, classifying every person and thing we encounter according to those known categories. We have a category in our head called “dog” and we quickly classify the instances of dogs we see in the world into that category. We have some mental categories for which we have seen no instances in the real world – Big Foot, unicorns, Mrs. Santa Claus. Fairy tales are flights into fantasy for which we have delightful images but no instances. Somehow our minds are able to deal with imaginary categories for which we have no real examples. But oh friends, what really shatters us is when we encounter an instance for which we have no category. That’s “On Beyond Zebra” territory: when we have an experience and no tidy place to file it in our minds.
A friend of mine told me that she was driving along in her car with her teenaged daughter one day, when they came to a red light. As the car pulled to a stop, they looked out the window. Lo and behold! There on one corner stood a mother hen with her litter of baby chicks. At the exact instant the light turned green, the mama hen proceeded to cross – with the light – in the crosswalk – with her baby chicks following in a neat line behind her! My friend’s teenaged daughter watched in silence, then turned to her mother and said, “This is not normal.” It was a “Beyond Zebra” experience – an instance without a category to explain it.
The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ was like that. It too was an instance without a category.
The relationship of Jesus’ parents started out predictably enough – your classic “boy meets girl” story. Maybe the young carpenter carved “Joe loves Mary” in the wood of a tree to celebrate their love. They were engaged, and that magical time began when a young couple cannot wait to be united in marriage. I remember that during my own engagement to my wife Becky, I kept losing my keys. I would drive to the store and stand in the aisle trying to remember what I was there for in the first place. I was no earthly good to anyone because my head was in the clouds. I imagine Joseph mooning around the carpentry shop, so distracted that he kept hitting his thumb as he tried to hammer nails. He must have had such wonderful dreams of happiness to come. But then “it” happened. The first Christmas “gift” – Mary’s pregnancy – was unexpected and unwanted by Joseph.
After the bombshell dropped that would disrupt his life, the emotion Joseph was feeling was fear. The angel said, “Joseph, do not be afraid.” Joseph wanted to believe Mary, but he was afraid . . .
Joseph’s response was essentially human: we human beings fear the unknown. We’re terrified of going beyond zebra. And our fear keeps us from exploring new frontiers and growing in our life with God. In ancient times, before the entire earth had been explored and navigated, there were mapmakers – cartographers – who used the instruments and the knowledge available to them to map the known world. Some did rather well. But they all engaged in a common practice. When they reached the limits of their knowledge – and their worlds were rather small back then – they would mark any undocumented areas on their maps with these words: “Beyond this there be dragons!” When I look at one of those maps today, I say, “No, out there’s Hawaii, and Tahiti . . . “
The ancients assumed that any place beyond the known world must be a place of danger and death. And they didn’t mean death by natural causes, but a ghastly, grisly death after being eaten by dragons. It is important to notice, as Earl Nightengale has pointed out, that the mapmakers were not stating their objective assessment of the unknown. They didn’t write: “What lies beyond here is unknown.” They had no legitimate reason to assume the unknown was disastrous. They could just as logically have written “Beyond here lies something beautiful or wonderful.” But no, they wrote, “Beyond this there be dragons.”
Our secular society has that same terror of the mysteries of Christmas.
Have you ever noticed how terrified the secular world is of the baby Jesus? I find something howlingly funny in the ACLU’s attempts to squelch Christmas. The ACLU has its good qualities, but can you think of anything more absurd than the fact that we have a holiday on our federal calendar called Christmas, which requires young people to be let out of school, yet the meaning of this holiday cannot be discussed in school? If that isn’t absurd to the point of hilarity, I don’t know what is. In comparison, schools prepare for the Martin Luther King national holiday next month by including the study of King’s life and impact in their curricula. Never mind that Jesus has had more influence on the secular world than any other human who ever lived; schools would rather semi-educate our children. Even today, society’s rulers are still terrified of the little baby Jesus.
As with the innkeeper, there is “no room” for One who doesn’t fit neatly into our preconceived notions of reality. Rather than let the mystery of Christ’s birth stand as what it is, many in our society call out the dragons. They rush to dismiss the virgin birth as superstition, “foolishness made up by primitive people who didn’t understand the laws of nature.” When I hear someone say that, I always laugh and answer, “Yeah, right, Joseph didn’t understand the laws of nature . . . is that why he ‘resolved to divorce Mary quietly’? If Joseph could believe in the virgin birth, why can’t you?”
Let’s talk about these so-called “laws of nature.” Recent breakthroughs in physics have swept aside the old Newtonian worldview with its immutable laws of nature. Today’s scientists are finding that when you trace actions back to their source, you discover randomness. At the heart of the atom is a series of random processes. Space and time are found to be a series of blips. Now I don’t begin to understand all that, but apparently what we experience as perfectly predictable natural laws are really more like probabilities. If you throw a rubber ball against a brick wall, the probability that the ball will bounce back is much higher than that the ball will penetrate the wall and go through it. But the probability of the ball going through the wall is not zero. That probability is so small we would have to spend several times the lifespan of the universe throwing the ball at the wall before it would be likely to go through. Yet the point is: reality is more open-ended than we ever dreamed. Miracles are not as outlandish or “impossible” in terms of natural law as once thought. Science and religion may actually be using the same vocabulary. More and more polls show that people believe in miracles.
So with today’s science supporting the plausibility of the virgin birth, what is proved?
The answer, my friend, is: not a thing! And we need to remember that. You can be convinced of the virgin birth down to the bottom of your socks and not be a Christian. The virgin birth is nothing but a signpost pointing the way toward becoming a Christian. To find Christmas you not only have to go on beyond zebra, you’ve got to go on beyond a simple belief in the virgin birth. You have to personally embrace the message the angel gave to Mary in
The incarnation of God in human flesh is the miracle at the heart of Christmas.
After all, who is this baby? Paul tells us in
This baby was the one who in the beginning said, “Bang!” and sent the galaxies spinning through space. How can his birth be easily explained by predictable laws of cause and effect? We can no more grasp the totality of this Baby with our minds than we can catch the Milky Way in a thimble.
And believe it or not, that is why the commercialization of Christmas doesn’t bother me so much anymore. All the bizarre excesses, the mall Santas (I once took a job as one while working my way through seminary) and canned carols over the loudspeaker, the plastic elves and silver glitter Christmas trees, the kitschy velvet bows and 10-foot high candy canes – some people find them depressing, but I have learned to think of them differently. The magnitude of what God did at Christmas ought to have us going to outlandish lengths in our hopeless attempts to capture the wonder of it all. We are “the visited planet.” We have met “the infinite infant,” whom we worship as Lord, whose teaching we live by, who lives within us through his resurrection – and whom every day we follow, revere and obey.
Now we reach a point in considering the meaning of Christmas when we must go even further beyond Zebra. We must go where even many in the church fear to tread. We must acknowledge that in Christ, God willingly entered into our human weakness. In the church, we accept Jesus’ deity – it’s his humanity that makes us nervous. So we commit the heresy of viewing the Incarnation the way we look at the telephone booth in a Superman movie. We see Jesus as a Clark Kent figure, who merely disguised himself as a mild-mannered carpenter while he went around saving people. All the while he was actually a superhuman who probably floated rather than walked, more like an angel come to earth than a man.
No, friends, Jesus was that carpenter. He was a man, a human being. He felt real hurts and cried real tears. He experienced the same emotional ups and downs that we do. His friends disappointed him. When he was cut, he bled. When he was tired, he slept. When he no longer had a heartbeat, he died.
He, who was very God of very God, became very man of very man, because only as a real human could he be the savior we need.
Tom Tewell, pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, has been a friend of mine since seminary. Tom tells of an event at his church’s midnight Christmas Eve service one year. As Tom walked into the sanctuary, he noticed church member Jim seated in the eleventh row. Jim was a recovering alcoholic who was six months sober, and this was his first Christmas since his family had left him because of his alcoholism. A family of four sat down two rows in front of Jim. Seeing that family in front of him laughing and hugging one another at Christmas Eve service crushed Jim. The feelings that overwhelmed him were more than he could handle – he had to have a drink. As he came out the center aisle toward the narthex, he ran into Tom, who asked: “Jim, where are you going?” “Oh, I’m just going out for a Scotch,” was the reply.
All of Tom’s alarms went off; he knew Jim was a recovering alcoholic. He said, “Jim, you can’t do that. Is your sponsor somewhere around?” Jim answered, “It’s Christmas Eve, Tom. My sponsor is in Minnesota. There’s nobody who can help me. I just came to church to try to find some hope, and I ended up sitting behind this family. If I had my life together, I’d be here with my wife and kids too.”
Tom took Jim into the robing room to talk with a couple of other pastors. It was time for the service to start, and Tom was due in the sanctuary. He had no idea how to deal with this situation, so he prayed, saying, “O God, help me somehow to bring hope to Jim tonight.” Tom went out and greeted the congregation with the usual niceties, then a thought occurred to him. He said, “I have one final announcement. If anyone here tonight is a friend of Bill Wilson [Bill Wilson was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and members of AA often refer to themselves as friends of Bill W.] – and if you are, you’ll know it – would you please step out of the sanctuary for a moment and meet me in the robing room?”
From all over the sanctuary, women, men, and college students rose and made their way out. Tom says, “And there while I was preaching in the sanctuary about incarnation, Word was becoming flesh in the robing room.” Because Jesus was a real human who lived a real life and faced real temptations, he can give us strength to live for him in the real world. So much does God want to share life with you, He came crawling to you on his hands and knees as a baby.
As Charles Wesley wrote: “Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man . . . ” Incomprehensible, but available to you . . . if you’ll step on beyond zebra.
Victor D. Pentz is Senior Minister of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA.