“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him, ‘Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us’.” Matthew 1:23
In the 1980s, there was graffiti on a Belfast wall:
“For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.
For those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.”
The point that was being made was that if you believed in whatever cause it was that was being supported by the writer of the graffiti, then you didn’t need any explanation of why and what you believed. If you didn’t believe in the cause, then no amount of explaining would be of any use.
The Christian faith might be expressed in those terms. It can be reasonable and rational, it can have many arguments for the existence of God, it can develop wonderfully complex theologies, but there comes a point when people have to make a leap of faith. There comes a point when, if to be Christian, people have to say that, “this is what I believe because this is what I believe.”
Reading the story of Jesus in church each week and sooner or later, if people are thinking at all, they have to say to themselves, “what is this story about? Do I believe this?” It is not possible to read the Gospel story and not to have these questions. Jesus is a great teacher, he is a marvellous philosopher, he is an excellent psychologist, but he is not primarily any of these. He comes as one claiming to be the Son of God, he comes as one who performs miracles, he comes as one whose life was a series of miracles.
There are many parts of Jesus’ life where no rational, scientific, worldly explanation is possible. The virgin birth, the miracles in the course of his ministry, the resurrection, the ascension – no explanation is possible for those who do not believe these things. To remain in the church but not to believe is illogical. If these things are not true, then Jesus was a liar and a cheat and the whole of the Christian faith is built on lies and deceit.
The Gospel reading this morning relates the story of the virgin birth. If people do not believe this to be true, then what else do they discount? What else do they say has been made up? Being blunt, if there are chunks of the story that have been made up, then one would have to doubt the integrity of the whole story.
Christianity is not a religion of compromise or fudging, the claims made are too radical. At its very heart the Christian faith is about the supernatural and the miraculous.
People need to understand where it is they are coming from, what it is that they believe, if they are to understand where atheist writers like Richard Dawkins completely missed the point. Dawkins’ mistake was to try to make faith fit into the limits of human reason. It doesn’t work, faith by its very nature means a leap into the unknown. He approaches the Christian story from his scientific viewpoint and believes that because the Gospel cannot be proved scientifically, it is therefore not true.
Christian faith cannot be proved, or disproved, scientifically. It is not scientific, whatever some of the Christian fundamentalists say. There is no rational way of explaining how God takes on human flesh, of how Jesus performs miracles, of how Jesus rises from the dead. These are not things one can explain in human, rational terms.
Most people read these stories and accept that there are things beyond the power of human understanding, they have no explanation, but they accept by faith that these things are true because their personal experience of God leads them to believe in their hearts they are true. A contemporary atheist comes to these same stories, stories which cannot be explained and conclude that if they cannot be explained then they must be untrue.
At the very heart of the whole debate there is one simple question: do people believe in miracles? If they believe in miracles, if they believe that God does things beyond all human understanding, then all things are possible.
If people believe in miracles, then no explanation is necessary for the great events of Jesus’ life and the great deeds he performed.
If people don’t believe in miracles, then no explanation is possible for the life and ministry of Jesus.