Note from CM: Michael Spencer gave this sermon in the third week of Advent, 2006. In the light of yesterday’s post on the collapse of evangelicalism, I thought it timely. Michael explores the arrogance of many of us who wear the name “Christian,” and considers some of the criticisms we’ve received from one who shows a measure of arrogance himself: Sam Harris. But one thing he finds interesting is that Harris and others like him seem to grasp the “outrage” of the Gospel better than we do. When we lack this, we instead tend to become outraged at those who reject our message, wondering how they could miss something so obvious and wonderful.
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The Unlikely Outrage of the Gospel of Light
An Advent sermon by Michael Spencer
There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend an eternity in hell. An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse — and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.
- Sam Harris, Letters To A Christian Nation
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
- Isaiah 9:2
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. …And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
- John 1:9-18
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
- Philippians 4:4-9
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Christians in America have a preference for people like themselves. In this, we’re not unlike most human beings, but that’s exactly the problem. Most 4th graders would be able to give the correct answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” As obvious as the answer would be, most of us would still like to be surrounded with people from our tribe, culture, language group, income level and, of course, worldview.
Christians like to participate in the fantasy that ours is a Christian nation in what is becoming a Christian world. Muslims, atheists, occultists and others occupying the planet get the requisite dose of rhetoric saying we love our neighbors who are unlike us, but if we’re honest, especially about our evangelicalism, we’d have to admit a strong bias toward familiar surroundings and familiar people.
Those radically, fundamentally different from ourselves make us uneasy, as if we were somehow under attack from different cultures and beliefs. The sound of the culture war is the sound of Christians- largely- declaring that they are in some way at war with their neighbors. The rumblings of culture expansion and population shifts in Europe and the American southwest brings out a kind of paranoia in some Christians remarkably similar to what one might have heard from white South Africans in the waning days of apartheid.
I am blessed to live in one of the most diverse communities in America, a place where various races, cultures and religions live and work together in the pursuit of education. For those of us who are part of the Christian mission and identity of our school, the command to love our neighbor takes on flesh and blood every day as students from Muslim, Buddhist, Communist and secularist cultures come into our classrooms and lives.
It is not unusual to watch Christians at our school struggle with the feelings this kind of diversity creates. I might find myself surrounded by Koreans speaking their language, and I am assaulted by a temptation toward resentment that they aren’t speaking English. A table of inner-city African-Americans seem too loud and their hip-hop culture seems alien and disrespectful to me. The hostile questions of an atheistic student cross the invisible boundaries I’ve set up; boundaries that demand he not find my worldview oppressive or ridiculous.
These experiences are common enough that our school might lose a staff family each year primarily to the stress and strain of relating to those different from us. The familiar rhetoric of “I thought this was a Christian school” often comes along with that resignation, insisting that a “real” Christian school would, of course, be populated by Christians in agreement on everything from politics to worship music.
Sam Harris’s description of the arrogance of the Christian faith is the kind of bold atheism that rankles many Christians. Despite the Tom Paines of our history, our belief that we live in a Christian culture inclines us to believe that unbelievers should be, at least, humble. If they want to have their little meetings and make the occasional speech, we can handle it. But when they write confident New York Times bestsellers lecturing all of us as if the nation really belongs to the secularists, it makes us mad.
Harris, however, has a better grasp of the Gospel than most Christians. Evangelicals have almost totally lost the outrage that lies at the heart of the Gospel. We believe that everyone ought to believe what we believe because it’s obvious that its the truth. We have big churches, media stars and books explaining everything so persuasively that it shows just how stubborn and hostile unbelievers really are. If they would just listen to our pastor answer all the questions, it would make sense.
I find it particularly ironic that some of this arrogant condescension toward non-Christians comes from those most loudly committed to the Calvinistic doctrine of “total depravity,” and its affirmation that we are all spiritually dead apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In some corners, there’s an endless optimism that the right debate format could convince the most hostile apostate that the Gospel is true.
Harris has faith and arrogance of his own and his assessment of the Christian willingness to dispose others to hell for disagreement is a caricature (with plenty of historical support unfortunately), but he has more of a sense of the utter shock that is the Gospel announcement than most evangelical Christians. The message that God has taken an interest in this tiny world, and in any one of us, is beyond outrageous. It’s mind-boggingly incredible. It ought to stop usin our tracks in astonishment that we are claiming, continually, the absolutely unlikely and stupendously impossible.
Evangelicals have convinced themselves that the light shines in a room where it’s been patently obvious for a long time that we needed some light around here, and Christianity has the best bulb for the job. Scripture tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it.
We have convinced ourselves that every reasonable person is looking for a Savior, and that Jesus’ contemporaries should have been waiting for him with a welcoming committee. The Bible says the Word became flesh, came to his own, and no one wanted anything to do with him. In fact, the thought of God visiting this world is every bit as outrageous within the Christian story as it is outside of it.
Sam Harris is right to point out the unlikelihood that such a story is anything other than a delusional mythology. Our own Gospel tells us the same story: sin had created a chasm between God and his creatures that renders the likelihood of God having anything to do with us ridiculously comic. We ought to be laughing at it ourselves, because it simply shouldn’t be. It is amazing grace indeed.
If we appreciate the outrage of the Gospel, then we ought to understand that shouting it in the face of an unbelieving world is a particularly inappropriate response. Paul knew this, and in our newer testament reading, told the Philippians how to live in a world of unbelief: our lives should show the evidence that this incredible story is true, and the light that shines in the darkness should be visible in us.
The city of Philippi presented Christians with the opportunity to live out their story- the story of God incarnated in an executed Jewish rabbi- in the midst of the story of imperial Roman power and culture. Their calling was one of contrasts and community, very similar to our own. Look again at the Paul’s encouragements, and hear them in the context of living out the unlikely outrage of the gospel of Light.
“Rejoice in the Lord.” Joy is an irresistible quality in a dark world. No matter what produces it, the world is curious. Joy in God lies at the heart of the Gospel. It lies at the heart of Advent, of Christmas and of all Christian worship. If we mistake entertainment or pleasure for joy, we make a crucial error, for God means for the light to be not simply a contrast in what is seen, but in what is experienced.
“Let your gentleness be known to all.” Christians often make unbelievers think of arrogance rather than gentleness. It’s not unusual to hear gentleness lampooned by evangelicals as being overly tolerant. The world is cruel, but Christ is gentle, especially with sinners. Our culture war rhetoric and determination to fight for our “values” often sounds anything but gentle. We are called to go gentle into a night that isn’t good at all, but our failure to value the gentleness of Jesus has discredited our claims of knowing him throughout history and today.
Another nuance of the same word is “moderation.” We live in a culture of excess and live lives of culturally and religiously justified excess. Christians are deeply idolatrous of the success worship that runs our culture. We bizarrely believe that God guarantees and justifies our devotion to have the “best” of everything, American style. Do such deeply idolatrous values give evidence that the light has shown in our hearts to reveal the glory of God in the face of Jesus?
“Do not be anxious” is a command to lay aside the worries and anxieties of life and to trust in God. Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount that believing in the God of the Gospel deeply convinces us that “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” The Gospel does not produce the kind of anxiety that drives the culture war and the manipulation of Christians for political purposes. The Gospel produces prayer and worship to the God who sovereignly reigns in every circumstance.
The Gospel produces, Paul says, “the peace of God.” This peace passes understanding, which means, I believe, that we don’t spend vast amounts of time explaining it as if a lecture could outline God’s peace in a convincing way. This peace is a quality that belongs to the person of faith, and to the community of faith. It’s a fruit of the light that invaded the world at the nativity, and that comes to live in human beings who are vitally connected to Jesus.
Then Paul describes a litany of the good, the true, the beautiful, the excellent, the praiseworthy. Think on these things. Love these things. Create these things. Build lives and families and communities that value what the world distorts and despises. These wonderful evidences of the light of God are rare gifts in a vulgar world, and those who are children of God by faith value and treasure these gifts wherever they find them.
The good, the true and the beautiful are not, by the way, our exclusive property, and Christmas should remind us that the fingerprints of the God who made the world and redeems it in Christ are everywhere. The atheist has no sustainable reason to see a good gift anywhere- they are accidents of time, matter and chance, at best- or a reason to differentiate good from mediocre aside from the assertion of blatant preference. In Christ, we see a life full of the good, the true, the beautiful and all the other gifts of a gracious creator. We are privileged to put these gifts on display and to be grateful for them in worship and thankful use.
In other words, Paul reminded the Philippians that, as they lived beside and with those who did not share their faith, there was always the opportunity to show that those who live in darkness have seen a great light. We are a community that embodies the light of Christmas visiting a dark world.
We are never surprised that the darkness denies any light exists. Darkness is, in the Gospel, nothing if not self-justifying and exclusive. But darkness, no matter how many books it writes or speeches it makes, cannot dispel light, no matter how small the source or how meager the effect. Light illumines and reveals irresistibly and with continual wonder.
Our advent worship has been themed, as so many are, from the words of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
Such is the wonder of the incarnation that we can feel all the depths of the unbeliever’s skepticism, and thereby increase our wonder at what God has done at Bethlehem. But the Gospel asks us, and enables us, to become the actual community of that light. Jesus says we are light in the world, a community set upon a hill to say that not only has the light indiscriminately invaded our planet, but it has also come to dwell in human beings, and this- who we are, what we do- is in some way the evidence of that light.
It’s an intimidating kind of invitation. It’s much easier, in many ways, to talk about a culture war or a truth war than it is to talk about being a community of gentleness, peace, prayer and transformation. It’s much easier to be right, and outraged at those who disagree, than it is to take on the meaning of the Gospel in our own families and callings.
So I leave you this morning with the invitation to look kindly upon Sam Harris. In many ways, he sees remarkably clearly; more clearly than many muddled Christians. If this is not God’s story, if it is not the meaning of existence, if it isn’t the good news only possible because God himself told us the story, then we really have nothing. If you haven’t felt that, you need to feel it, and you need to let it take your breath away.
If, however, your life has convinced you that there is, at the center of existence, good news of great joy about the Word made flesh, then I plead with you to let such a message become a living revolution, an ongoing Christmas story. If Jesus is, not a madman or a character in a movie, but the creator walking among us to reconcile all our brokenness to himself, then let us live as if such a powerful, amazing story were the very fabric of our existence, and the powerful breath of our hope.