This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 12, 2010.
[This sermon steps away from the Book of Ephesians, to focus on the birth of Jesus, but it goes along with the rest of the sermons and so I chose to include it. Pastor Grabill seems a bit tired today, and rather congested. His delivery is slower and less energetic than previous weeks, for the most part. The recording begins in mid-sentence, but from previous sermons, I figure he begins as follows. Let’s turn to the book of Isaiah], in the Old Testament, chapter 7, and then we’re going to read from Matthew 1 as well, Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1. It’s a message about miracles. Let’s stand together as we look together to God’s Word. Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and will call Him Immanuel. Then in Matthew 1, verse 23 we read this: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
[Prayer] Lord, we thank You that You are with us today. You are always with us, whether we perceive You or not. We thank You for Your everabiding presence, especially grateful for the times that we sense You so very strongly. I pray, Lord, this will be one of those times. I pray that as Your Word goes forth, that we will receive it with gladness of heart, that it will find good soil. Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, speak to my heart, change my life, in Jesus’ Name. Amen, amen. You may be seated.
I don’t have a long message today. It’s a message about miracles, as I said. Someone said to me here recently, he said, “Paul, I don’t want to demean Christ’s birth, but Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.” And I thought about that. Well, Thanksgiving’s about family and food, and those are good things. It’s kind of quasi-religious. You know, some people are giving thanks to God, many people–and maybe not the same God that we serve, the Triune God–but it’s kind of quasi-religious, and it’s very American. Some nations have Thanksgiving but different dates, [so] it’s not a universal holiday. It’s a good holiday, it really is. But I think the best holidays are the holidays about Jesus.
Actually, I was thinking, I started to wonder about Thanksgiving. Is it about just the food? I was thinking, it came to my mind, the seven deadly sins. [According to literature and common belief, the seven deadly sins are lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy and pride. Solomon provides a different list of seven sins in Proverbs 6:16-19: There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.] Okay, if Thanksgiving is about gluttony, maybe Valentine’s is about lust. July Fourth is about pride. Is Christmas about greed? I was just going down the list of seven deadly sins. Do we have a holiday for each of them? I don’t know.
But I love holidays about Jesus. And as important as Christmas is, they didn’t even mention Resurrection Day [referring back to the person who chose Thanksgiving Day as his or her favorite]. That’s central to our faith, because if Jesus did not rise from the dead, the Bible says, our faith is in vain [I Corinthians 15:14]. So the Resurrection is central to our faith, but maybe the incarnation is the greatest miracle.
Now it’s prophesied by Isaiah and I want to look at this passage through two lenses: unbelievers and believers. An unbeliever says: “No, because. . .” and a believer says: “Yes, but. . .” often. “No, because. . .” or “Yes, but. . .” [Let’s address] “No, because. . .” A lot of sceptics, including this community [a college town, home to Penn State University], look at the virgin birth and say, “No way! No way, because this is not the natural order of things.” Now, you may be surprised to know that there are, in nature, there have been virgin births from time to time of female mammals who have given birth to a child where they did not have contact with a male. But the offspring is always female. But to have a male offspring of a virgin conception and birth is an incredible miracle. And some people say, “I just can’t bring myself to believe that.” Well, you know what?–going back to the Resurrection—if God can raise Jesus from the dead and Jesus ascended into Heaven, the rest of it, I can believe it very easily. Either miracles happen or they don’t happen.
And some people spend their whole lives trying to quash anything that speaks of the supernatural or the miraculous or any phenomena they can’t explain. And they say, “Well, maybe I can’t explain it right now but science will eventually explain it.” And what kind of argument is that? You know, there’s hundreds, thousands, millions of unexplained phenomena and you point to that and say, “Okay, explain that”, and they say, “Well, I don’t have an explanation but I’ll explain it someday.” It’s like someone saying, “I believe everything in the universe can fit into a shoebox.” And you say, “Well, my car can’t fit into a shoebox.” And they say, “Someday, we’ll figure out a way to fit a car into a shoebox, so I believe everything in the world will fit into a shoebox.” That’s what some scientists [say], the position they take when they will not accept anything outside of the so-called laws of science that we have. There is a natural order, and we’ll come back to that in a minute. And so, they choose not to believe. They choose not to believe.
But the virgin birth is very important to our faith, because if Jesus was not born of a virgin, then how does He get to be God? You with me? If he was born in the natural way, conceived I should say, in the natural way, then how does He get to be God? At what point and how does He join the Trinity? But we believe Jesus always existed—the Word of God, part of the Triune God—always existed and came God in the flesh and dwelt among us.
So the unbeliever says, “No, because it doesn’t fit into my experience. No, it doesn’t fit into my norms. No, it doesn’t fit into what I believe are rigid laws of the universe, even though I don’t have complete knowledge in my finite knowledge. No, I will not accept that God could have done that.” And yet, it is a core belief of our faith.
So the skeptic says, “No, because…” but the believer, sometimes, struggles even more because even though the unbeliever dismisses, the believer sometimes gets frustrated, and the believer says, “Yes, but. . .” How does the believer say, “Yes, but. . .”? Well, the believer says, “Okay, yes, I believe the miracles of the Bible. I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, but, but I can’t explain why the rest of this or that in my life is not being handled by God the way I think He should handle it. Therefore, I don’t believe.” Or, “I’m mad at God, mad at God.”
I think the closer we get to miracles in the Bible, the more we can identify with them and understand that those people in the Bible faced the same stuff that we face today. They did. You know, when you look at something 2000 years away, and you read the Christmas story, and oh yeah, wonderful bells and choirs of angels and all that, and we romanticize it. But let’s go back 2000 years. So Mary is told by the angel, and so is Joseph told, that the Holy Spirit will come, there’s going to be a miracle. She’s going to have a child grow inside of her and when she gives birth, He will be the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel. He’s that even before birth, of course. But she will give birth to the Messiah, and more than that, Immanuel, God with us.
So she’s pregnant, and we’ve talked before, years past, about the whole family situation, dealing with that, and her friends and all that, and the baby is growing. And then comes this tax decree that they have to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now the distance is about 70 to 80 miles, as the crow flies. But nobody would go directly through Samaria, which would be a straight line, so they probably had to go about 100 miles or more. And what would be, if you were just walking by yourself, maybe a couple days, probably turned out to be the greater part of a week. And so Joseph has to go to Bethlehem, which he may have never been there in his life. His family roots are there; that’s why he has to go there to be taxed. As much as I hate April 15th [the deadline for filing income tax information in the USA], at least it’s just a matter of putting a stamp on. I don’t have to walk to Pittsburgh or something to do it. [Pittsburgh is about 150 miles from State College, PA.]
So imagine this. They set out–let’s say she’s on a donkey, that only makes sense–the two of them, and are they getting rooms each night where they stop? I don’t know. Maybe they’re just sleeping out in the cold. She’s nine months pregnant and I calculated that he probably walked at least 100,000 steps on this journey. 100,000 steps. Do you think he stubbed his toe at least once or twice in 100,000 steps? And Joseph’s probably thinking, “What in the world? God, where are You in this? [shouting] God, where are You in this? What? I mean, if we had to go to Bethlehem, couldn’t you do a miracle to get us there?” You with me? [back to speaking as Joseph]”This is part of Your plan?” And here’s the problem for believers. Much of our life is lived out in normality. And we would like—particularly as Pentecostals and Charismatics—we’d like everything to be a miracle. But much of life is in the natural. So here, Joseph and Mary, honored as they are by God, have to walk maybe 100 miles to get to Bethlehem. So Joseph did, I’m sure, what I did this week. He went on GoogleMaps and typed in Nazareth and Bethlehem, and he discovered that, [like] my discovery this week, it said, “Cannot provide a map at this time for you, or directions.” [I am not sure what trip he was planning.] So, did he hit the computer, kick the computer, when he did that? They set out, making their way, and here they go, hour after hour, a dangerous journey. They have to have some kind of money with them to buy food or to get a room or whatever once they get to Bethlehem. So you are concerned about robbers, and here they are, day one, day two, day three. Think of your worst family vacation ever, worst family vacation ever, and it is far better than the journey that Joseph and Mary had to go to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. What kind of plan is this?
And so, through this cold, probably challenging journey, after several days, maybe the better part of a week–and just imagine you have to walk to Johnstown or Pittsburgh–at what point are you saying, “God, what is going on here?” They finally get there, and there is no room in the inn. Now, what kind of God could not foresee their need for a room? You with me? I mean, and Joseph may be thinking, “Do I want to serve this God, a God that could cause Mary to be with child miraculously, but can’t provide a room for us?” What’s wrong with this picture? Can you see Joseph, begging with the innkeeper, for a room, and the innkeeper is saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And Joseph is saying, “Can’t you see my wife is about to give birth?” And the innkeeper say, “I’m sorry. It’s not my fault.” And Joseph says, “It’s not my fault either.” [He and the congregation chuckle.]
I gotta confess something to you. I hate confessions. [spoken with a hint of sarcasm] How many just love to confess something that’s negative about yourself? I hate confessions. We’re coming back from Cuba [a trip he and his wife Arline took in November] and we’re flying standby. That was the cheapest way to go. And we can’t get a seat from Miami to Atlanta, because Atlanta would have taken us either to Detroit and back to State College, or possibly Harrisburg. Someone could have picked us up. So the only seats that are available are to Minneapolis, so we fly from sunny Miami to Minneapolis, which is having their first major snowstorm, and very cold. And we land in Minneapolis, and you know, we’re trying to make our way home. So we hadn’t planned to be there, so I go on Hotwire—Hotwire is one of these last-minute car or hotel or flight, whatever, you can get a hotel sometimes half off, if they have an empty room, so on Hotwire they had a three or three and a half star hotel for under a hundred bucks—70, 80, 90 dollars, I’m not sure exactly—and so that’s good, I hit it and it comes out it’s a Hilton, and it’s near the airport, and that sounds good. Okay, so at least—I mean, we’re tired and we’d gotten up early, we’d had a long week. I had mentioned to you before the Vietnam vet was in charge and we were tired, and we get in, and I called them as soon as we land, and I say, “You have a shuttle.” They say, “Yes, we have a shuttle. Look for such-and-such a shuttle.” And so we go down and I’m not feeling well, and I had to go to the restroom, and we’re waiting, we’re waiting, we’re waiting, no shuttle. And they describe the color and the big H that would be on it and everything, and so, finally, it must have been 40, 45 minutes, and it’s getting later and later at night. I don’t know how late it was but I’m thinking, I can see we have to get up early in the morning to get back to State College, and the number of hours of sleep shrinking and shrinking again, yet again, and I was hoping for a good night’s rest.
So finally the shuttle gets there. It’s the right color, it has the letter on it. We get in the shuttle and he says, “You’re going to the Airport Hilton, such-and-such a road, and such-and-such a number, and it sounded like what was on the receipt that we got, and we get to the hotel and dumb me, I went to get the luggage, and all the smart people ran for the counter inside, the registration counter, figuring they can get their luggage later, so we’re last in line, and they have three lines, and they have two regular lines, and then they have one for the Hilton Honors people. Years ago I had gotten a Hilton Honors card, but the problem was there was more people in that line than there was in the other two lines. So I guess everybody, they had given them to everybody. So here I am last in line, and Arline is sitting there, I’m last in line, and I’m trying to figure—you know how it is–which line’s the shortest. Okay, over here? No, over here, go in this. Finally, we’re the last and it takes about—you know, everybody’s asking questions like, “Are the drapes purple?” I don’t know.
Finally, it’s takes another, maybe, half hour or so, I finally get to the front of the line, and I present my invoice and she says, “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re at the wrong Airport Hilton. We’re at Airport Hilton West and you want Airport Hilton East.” And I said, “Well, they said the van was yellow.” “Yeah, they’re the same color. They look the same, but if you’d read the little lettering on the side, you would have noticed that this was not exactly the same as that one. And the number of the road was off just a little bit.” It was like 1030, 1040, something like that. And we had had such a wonderful week in Cuba, and I just got upset. I was upset! And I said, “Can’t we just stay here tonight?”
She said, “No, the two Hiltons are owned by separate people, separate franchises, and they have no business relationship between them.”
I said, “Can’t we just stay here and they send you a check tomorrow?”
“Well, how do we get there?”
[She said] “Well, if you wait, maybe our shuttle will take you, but if not, you may have to get a taxi.”
It’s later and later in the evening, and I just got upset. And I hadn’t gotten upset about anything for so long, maybe just a little irritated, but not upset. I got really upset, and then I got upset at myself for being upset. [Congregation laughs.] “This is just wrong for you to be upset. What happened? You just had a glorious week in Cuba. You were praying for people and wonderful things were happening, and here you are upset.” I thought of Joseph. I wonder how Joseph handled the news of no room in the inn. And it’s one thing to be upset at the innkeeper. The innkeeper has a finite number of rooms; they’re all full. It’s not his fault. But how did Joseph feel toward God at that point? “God, You on vacation this week?”
So here they go to a cave and I’ve been there, a place where Jerome, actually, a couple of centuries later was there for months on end, just stayed there as he translated the Bible into the Vulgate and it might be where it was. [Several sites in Bethlehem claim to be the birthplace of Jesus, all with compelling reasons.] There they are in the cave, and Mary gives birth. Now, I’ve never given birth—is that a shock to anybody? [he chuckles]—but I’ve been there. And I remember when we were going through the classes, the breathing classes, for Rob, before we had our first child. And they were saying, you know, “Breathe,” and they were saying to the women, “You’ll feel a little pressure, you’ll feel a little pressure.” Well, when I saw Arline, it looked like more than a little pressure. And Mary, do you think that Mary only had three minutes of labor? For the first child, I think–Arline had 18 hours of labor. Did she [Mary] have eight hours labor, ten hours labor? I’m sure you women have thought about this. Us men don’t normally think about that. And what’s she thinking? This is not a Caesarean, miraculous birth. She’s giving birth naturally, no mid-wife that we know of, nobody there. How’d it feel? Well, we’d like to think that God smoothed it out but there’s no record that He smoothed anything else out for them. What is this? You with me? Have you ever felt that way? “God, what is this? [voice raised] I know You had Your hand in it. I know that You touched me. I know that You visited me nine months ago, but what is this?”
[voice lower now] So there they are. And God did not forget them. Angels appeared out with the shepherds. Shepherds come, stinky shepherds, into a stinky cave, and they come. And it’s like angels came, said, “The Messiah’s being born here. We came, here we are.” Wonderful! And they have this wonderful time, and Mary’s saying, “You didn’t stop and bring any Pampers [clearly, you can hear the women in the audience laugh], or anything with you? You know? A basin of warm water would be nice.” There is no record that they helped them in any way. So they had confirmation, kind of like the prophetic words today [often during the worship time at this church, someone will speak a prophetic word over the congregation], confirmation that God was with them. Immanuel, God with us. God was with them! But if God is with us, why isn’t He doing more? You with me? Am I the only one that’s ever thought this? “It’s nice to have the confirmation, God, but, boy, a little help would be nice.”
You know, the Wise Men, you’re thinking about them. They show up, probably days, weeks, maybe months later, almost certainly not that night, and they show up with gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold is really helpful. The other two, you know, maybe not so much. And they’re going to need that when they go to Egypt. So there is not a record of a whole lot of God smoothing this out. This is not an easy road, and yet, we celebrate it as one of the greatest miracles of all time.
So why doesn’t God make it easy? Well, we can come up with answers like, “He’s developing our character, our patience.” I really don’t want my character and patience developed, I mean, in my flesh. How ‘bout anybody else? [with that hint of sarcasm again] How many of you wake up in the morning and say, “God, I hope You develop my character and my patience today?” Actually, I’d like to have a nice life with the character and patience I presently have. [Congregation laughs.] You know, and we come up with other things, but some of this is a mystery because God is God and we’re not. And so He says, “Trust Me, trust Me.”
Well, if I’m Joseph, I didn’t get a room. If I’m Mary and I’m going through labor, “Trust Me” seems like a whole lot to ask. And yet they do. They do. Now get this, before I wrap up. Get this. There is no record of any miracle from the time she conceives Jesus until the time He begins His ministry at age 30, the wedding of Cana [John 2], 30 years, no miracle. 30 years. Now there’s lots of miracles after that, in the early church, lots of miracles, and miracles should be part and parcel of what we experience, of what we ask for. I’m not saying we shouldn’t expect miracles. I’m not saying that at all. The Holy Spirit has come, and that makes all the difference. Greater works shall you do because I go to the Father [John 14:12]. But think about Mary, 30 years, no miracles, just living life. Just living life. Could you go 30 years trusting God with nothing unusual happening, after that one big thing for Mary—wow! Virgin birth, gave birth to a son, without knowing a man. And then 30 years.
So for many of us, it’s not the “No, because. . .”, it’s the “Yes, but. . .yes, I believe but, but God, what are You doing?” And really the only answer is to keep seeking Him. That’s what Jesus told us to do. That’s what we’ve been told recently to do. I’m going to ask the worship team to come. Would you stand with me please today? I know we’ve had people come forward for prayer [already in this service]. I know we’ve had extended worship today, but if you need a miracle or confirmation that God is at work, I encourage you to come today. I’m going to ask the pastors to come, and elders to come, and just move about, and lay hands on people. We’re going to seek the God, the God that came in the flesh, the God that came, born of a virgin, the Jesus who rose from the dead and ascended to the Father, the Jesus Who loves us today, the Jesus Who’s coming again! [voice raised] He’s the one that we seek. He is our Lord and Master, and we can always trust Him [voice lowered now], for He is good. It’s His character to be good. If you need a miracle today, I encourage you to come and just seek Him as the worship team leads us.
[Prayer] Father, we’re seeking You. We’re trusting You today. Lord, it’s so easy to celebrate a miracle 2000 years ago. Lord, we live in a day that we need You. We need You now in so many ways. So many people here that are hurting. They’re in need of a touch, an intervention from You. And Lord, at the times that we’re just living life normal, we’ll trust in You. But Lord, we want Your touch. We want Your intervention. We want You! We desperately seek You. Bless each one today, Lord, as we seek after You.
If you have to go, God bless you and give you a great day. But I encourage you to come and seek after the Lord today. If you need a miracle in this house today, we’re going to seek after Him. God bless you today. [The service ended with “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes, composed 2001.]