The Christmas Season is here. Have you noticed yet? It’s kind of hard to miss it isn’t it? Santa peddling his wares on television. Parties sprouting up like tender shoots in the spring. Packages being bought. Cards being sent. Trees decorated with tinsel, bows, beautiful ornaments, and lights, and carols being sung throughout the land. There are wonderful things that take place at this time of the year. Things like toys being gathered for children who would otherwise not experience the joy of receiving a gift on Christmas morn and meals being planned for those in need of food for Christmas. Christmas is a wonderful time for our nation to experience the joy of giving.

I’m sad to say that we preachers are prone to point out the evils of the season while missing the beauty of Christmas. Preachers stand in their pulpits and say, “Look at the extravagance exerted simply to give folks what they don’t need. Look at the stress brought about by rushing up and down mall halls trying to find a toy or a shirt that will be sold in a garage sale in the near distant future. Christmas has become decadent and depraved, devoid of any semblance of the sacredness of the day!” I don’t want to stand with those preachers this morning. I give gifts to those I love at Christmas. I enjoy decorating the tree and looking at Christmas lights. My concern this morning is not about Christmas lights or giving gifts, my concern is that so many have stopped believing in the majesty of Christmas.

This past week I was stringing cranberries and popcorn with Connie and the boys when I heard a song that struck a cord in my heart. It really wasn’t a song at all, but instead, it was Jimmy Dean answering a letter from a little girl. The little girl was very disturbed because some of her friends were saying that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. She was mortified that her friends would hold such a belief so she was writing to Jimmy Dean to ask him if there really is such a person as Santa. I thought about the song as I listened to it over and over again. I share the concern of the little girl in a way. Many are saying that they don’t believe any more and it rips my heart out just like it does little Patricia.

Little Patricia’s fears of her friends not believing any more have been confirmed this past week by a Gallup Poll which was released on the first Sunday of Advent. A random telephone interview was conducted with 1,006 adults. Those interviewed were asked, “What makes Christmas important for you?” 33% of the people polled said the birth of Jesus was what makes Christmas important. 44% of the people polled said family time is what makes Christmas important. The poll is very disturbing to me. It’s not that “time with family” is bad, as a matter of fact it is very good, but the meaning of Christmas is not time with family any more than the meaning of the 4th of July is fireworks and Bar BQ. Christmas has a definitive meaning and significance. Some may say, “Well, the poll was conducted with no regard to people’s religious convictions.” You are so observant. Mr. Gallup asked the respondents about their religious convictions. Those who identified themselves as Christians responded differently than others: 37% of Christians said the one thing that was most important about Christmas was the birth of Jesus – slightly more than one in three. Not only was there a difference in the way believers and non-believers responded, but there was also a difference in the generations. 26% of those in the age group 18-34 said Jesus’ birth was most important, while 39% of those age 65 or older said Jesus’ birth was most important. William Willimon, the Chaplain at Duke University said, in response to the poll, “The studies show we really don’t know why we are singing ‘Joy To The World.'” (David Briggs, AP Writer, The Daily Record. San Marcos, TX, December 1, 1996, p.2C.)

The poll goes to show that we won’t let a little religion get in the way of a really big holiday. It reminds me of the story of the ladies that were walking down the street in Chicago looking in store windows trying to find Christmas presents for their family members when one of the ladies saw a nativity scene in the front window of a department store. The lady turned to her friend and said, “Would you look at that. The church is even trying to get a piece of Christmas.”

As I said earlier, I am not concerned with us spending time with our family putting up lights on the tree and buying one another presents – what concerns me is that Jesus has been forgotten or denied, not just at Christmas, but throughout the entire year.

At Christmas every year there are those who try to say that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus, that Christmas is simply a national holiday or a winter solstice celebration. At this time every year, the skeptics speak up with their arguments as to how Jesus, if He ever did exist, was certainly no Savior sent from God. This is no new phenomenon, but the voices keep rising up and we keep going about our business never stopping to answer the critics.

This morning I want us take a look at two different battle fronts that are being waged, and I want us to look at the evidence. The question is, “Is Jesus the reason for the season?” The first battle which has been waged by the skeptics is the lack of creditable evidence for the existence of Jesus. The skeptics today say that you can’t really know whether or not there was such a person as Jesus because all we have to confirm His existence is the Bible, and we all know that you can’t trust the biblical writers because they were all biased. Way back in 1927, Bertrand Russell wrote, “Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one.” — Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian”, 1927.

I read an article this past week on the internet by a man named Marshall J. Gauvin who is working to see that Jesus is removed from Christmas. He writes in his article entitled, “Did Jesus Really Live?”

Not only has the divinity of Christ been given up, but his existence as a man is being more and more seriously questioned. Some of the ablest scholars of the world deny that he ever lived at all. A commanding literature dealing with the inquiry, intense in its seriousness and profound and thorough in its research, is growing up in all countries, and spreading the conviction that Christ is a myth. The question is one of tremendous importance. For the Freethinker, as well as for the Christian, it is of the weightiest significance. The Christian religion has been and is a mighty fact in the world. For good or for ill, it has absorbed for many centuries the best energies of mankind. It has stayed the march of civilization, and made martyrs of some of the noblest men and women of the race: and it is to-day the greatest enemy of knowledge, of freedom, of social and industrial improvement, and of the genuine brotherhood of mankind. The progressive forces of the world are at war with this Asiatic superstition, and this war will continue until the triumph of truth and freedom is complete. The question, “Did Jesus Christ Really Live?” goes to the very root of the conflict between reason and faith; and upon its determination depends, to some degree, the decision as to whether religion or humanity shall rule the world. (Marshall J. Gauvin)

Are the skeptics right when they assert that the existence of Jesus is up for grabs? Let’s take a look. The first evidence I want us to look at are those who were not Christians in the ancient world, but who wrote about Jesus. There was a man named Pliny who lived from 61 A.D. – 113 A.D. Pliny was an experienced administrator and governor of the province of Bithynia, south of the Black Sea. About 110 A.D. he wrote to the Emperor Trajan concerning the troublesome Christians and how he should handle them. Trajan wanted to know more about them, so Pliny interrogated them and wrote,

They maintained, however, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves to an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary and harmless food.

Pliny’s comments are the earliest extrabiblical description of what the Christians believed and how they lived. They recited words affirming their belief that Christ was a god. Pliny was not a Christian and yet his words confirm those words found written half a century earlier in 1 Peter. In 60 A.D. Peter had reminded the believers at Bithynia that, “Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21 NIV) Pliny confirms that the early Christians prayed to Jesus as a god.

Another person who confirms the existence of Jesus is Tacitus, the governor of the province of Asia. Tacitus lived from 55 A.D. – 120 A.D. In his Annals of Imperial Rome, Tacitus wrote about how Nero had diverted the blame for the burning of three fourths of Rome away from himself and to the Christians. Tacitus writes,

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the one of the procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a deadly superstitution, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who confessed; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson, as of hatred of the human race.

In one sentence Tacitus confirms three things about Jesus: 1) The public career of Jesus ocurred in the time of the Emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1). 2) Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor when Jesus died (Matthew 27:2). 3) Jesus was executed as a criminal (Luke 23:2).

Lastly, I want to look to the most creditable and famous of all Jewish historians, Josephus. Josephus was an aristocratic Pharisee who was born in 37 A.D. His writings are accepted without question today, accept when he writes of Jesus. In the early nineties Josephus wrote, The Antiquities, in which he states,

(The high priest Annas) convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law were offended at this.

Josephus confirms that Jesus was called “the Christ” which we read in Acts 2:36 and also that James was the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19).

There is much more evidence that we will not take the time to go through during this study, but it is easy to see that we can look outside the Bible for evidence of the existence of Jesus.

One of the arguments set forth by the skeptics is that the writers of the Bible can’t be trusted because their writings are too far removed from the actual time that Jesus lived. The Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Thessalonians in 50 A.D., just a mere 17 years after the death of Jesus. The Book of Revelation was the last book of the New Testament written and its date is set at 90 A.D. All of the book of the New Testament were written 60 years of the death of Jesus!

It is amazing how the unbelieving world will accept without question other historical works from the ancient world written with a much larger gap of time as long as they are not written about Jesus. An example of what I am referring to is the biography of Alexander the Great. Alexander died in 323 B.C., but his major historian, a man named Arrian, wrote of Alexander’s life in 130 A.D. – 450 years removed from the time of Alexander!!

Another interesting fact which needs to be made known is the number of early manuscripts of the New Testament which we have collected. There are more than five thousand early copies of the New Testament, or fragments of the New Testament, written in Greek which have been found by archeologists. This does not include the copies of the New Testament translated into Coptic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and the like. Christianity spread very fast early on and with the expansion of the Gospel, the early Church would copy the letters into the language of the people so they could have access to the Word of God.

One of the greatest finds occurred in 1844 by Count Tischendorf at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai. What is today called Codex Sinaiticus is a complete fourth century copy of the entire New Testament. With such profound evidence the unbelieving world continues to question the existence of Jesus.

It is not a matter of lack of evidence, but an unwillingness to believe. I mentioned Josephus earlier and his writings which are accepted world-wide. What is not often shared is that Josphesus wrote his Jewish Wars, one of his greatest works recalling the war of 66-70 A.D. between the Romans and the Jews. The work is a Greek manuscript based on an Aramaic first draft written about the same time as the Gospels. There are only nine complete copies available to us today, the oldest of which is a fifth century Latin translation. The remaining eight Greek manuscripts, of which only two are regarded as superior texts, are from the tenth century and later. Scholars are so sure of Josephus even though such little evidence remains, why can’t they be so sure of Jesus who is testified to over and over again in thousands of manuscripts?

There is a second war being waged, this one by those who will admit that a man named Jesus lived. These skeptics say that the first century was full of so-called Messiahs and that the name Jesus was as common as George or Tom today. Jesus may have lived, but so what? He may have been a reformer, but reformers have lived in every age. Marshall Gauvin writes,

The Jews were looking for a Messiah, a successful political leader, who would restore the independence of their nation. Josephus tells us of many men who posed as Messiahs, who obtained a following among the people, and who were put to death by the Romans for political reasons. One of these Messiahs, or Christs, a Samaritan prophet, was executed under Pontius Pilate; and so great was the indignation of the Jews that Pilate had to be recalled by the Roman government. The name “Jesus” was as common among the Jews as is William or George with us. In the writings of Josephus, we find accounts of a number of Jesuses. One was Jesus, the son of Sapphias, the founder of a seditious band of mariners; another was Jesus, the captain of the robbers whose followers fled when they heard of his arrest; still another Jesus was a monomaniac who for seven years went about Jerusalem, crying, “Woe, woe, woe unto Jerusalem!” who was bruised and beaten many times, but offered no resistance; and who was finally killed with a stone at the siege of Jerusalem.

It is amazing how the skeptics use the evidence of “false Messiahs” to say that Jesus could not have been the real deal. That is like saying that because there are counterfeit $100 bills that there are no such thing as genuine $100 bills or that because there are “quack” doctors that there are no quality doctors. The Bible acknowledges the presence of false Messiahs in the first century. In Acts 5, we read of some Christians being brought before the Sanhedrin to stand trial. After they gave their defense we read,

When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. {34} But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. {35} Then he addressed them: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. {36} Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. {37} After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. {38} Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. {39} But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” {40} His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. (Acts 5:33-40 NIV)

There were many men named Jesus in the first century and there were some false Messiahs, but it is best to heed the words of Gamaliel, “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Tell me, can you name one false messiah from the first century? You may can come up with the name David Koresh or Jim Jones, but you can’t come up with one name of someone claiming to be God from even one hundred years ago. Their efforts were of human origin and they have been forgotten. What about Jesus of Nazareth? His followers number more than 2 billion today, and the number is growing!

The last argument cast by the skeptic is that we need to move beyond the superstitions of the past and get on with the real problems of men and women who are struggling for survival today. There are real problems being faced by countless millions of folks around the world and having some sort of fixation on the “pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by” just will not cut it. I read another skeptic this past week who said,

The Jesus Christ of the Gospels could not possibly have been a real person. He is a combination of impossible elements. There may have lived in Palestine, nineteen centuries ago, a man whose name was Jesus, who went about doing good, who was followed by admiring associates, and who in the end met a violent death. But of this possible person, not a line was written when he lived, and of his life and character the world of to-day knows absolutely nothing. This Jesus, if he lived, was a man; and if he was a reformer, he was but one of many that have lived and died in every age of the world. When the world shall have learned that the Christ of the Gospels is a myth, that Christianity is untrue, it will turn its attention from the religious fictions of the past to the vital problems of to-day, and endeavor to solve them for the improvement of the well-being of the real men and women whom we know, and whom we ought to help and love.

I love the phrase, “When the world shall have learned that the Christ of the Gospels is a myth, that Christianity is untrue, it will turn its attention from the religious fictions of the past to the vital problems of to-day, and endeavor to solve them for the improvement of the well-being of the real men and women whom we know, and whom we ought to help and love.” Let me ask you this morning, “Who is addressing the problems of the hurting people of the world?” Whose name do you see written on the side of hospitals around our community? Whose name do you see written across the front of orphanages around the world? Who is sending food to the starving, medicine to the ailing, and clothes to the naked? The followers of Jesus, when they are following as they should, are walking where the world is hurting and bringing hope and healing.

I’ve thought about the song of Jimmy Dean as he addressed the concern of little Patricia who wrote to him. I’m concerned that many aren’t believing any more and I want more than anything else for the critics to be answered so that folks can know that there is reason to believe. I took the time this past week to rewrite Jimmy Dean’s song.

A couple of weeks back I received a letter from a little girl with an air of urgency about it, that well, it certainly required an answer. Her letter said,

Dear Mr. Dean,

Some of my friends say that He really doesn’t exist. Mr. Dean does

He or doesn’t He really exist?

Signed,
Patricia

Well, first Patricia, I’d like to tell you that your little friends are wrong. You see “hon” they don’t believe in things unless they can see them. And that’s kind of foolish. There are so many things in life that you can’t see or you can’t touch and He is one of them, but He exists as sure as love and devotion and beauty and joy exist. What a sorry world this would be if He didn’t really exist. Do me a favor Patricia, you do your best to help your friends find the faith in their hearts to believe in Him. Without that faith they aren’t getting nearly the kick out of life that they should. Another thing, they are not putting half as much back into life as they should either. You see little one, this old world needs the faith of children. Without the faith of children that eternal light, that light that burns only in the heart of the young would go out.

Now as you grow up Patricia, you’ll figure out more and more that the things that you believe in your heart are more important than the things you can figure out with your head. And “hon,” He is a very real thing. Oh, I know that nobody alive today has ever seen Him, but that doesn’t prove a thing. You can’t see the love of your mom or dad, but you know very well that it’s there. I’ll tell you what Patricia, let’s do this: You imagine that there is a huge door, and behind that door are all of the unseen wonders of the world. Now strength alone won’t break down that door. In fact, a charging army won’t break down that door. A small bit of faith is the key to that door. If you’ve got that faith Patricia, that big door will swing open and you’ll behold the most beautiful things in life. Jesus lives behind that door of faith Patricia. So, why don’t you do this – You try to help your friends understand and you can tell them this – Jesus lives forever, and thank goodness He does. One thousand years from now, ten times ten thousand years from now, He will go right on living in the hearts of children throughout the world. Saying that He doesn’t exist? That’s like saying there will be no more hope, no more wishes, no more dreams. Little one, I’ve done the best I can to explain it, but I’ll tell you this, no matter what anyone says, Patricia – There is a Savior!!

I know the arguments of the skeptics, but I want you to know that I still believe! I know that many have forgotten that Jesus is the reason for this Christmas season, but I want you to know that I still believe! I know that Christmas bells and holly have become more evident signs of Christmas than a manger and a crying baby, but I want you to know that I still believe! I know folks are saying that they don’t believe any more, but I want you to know that I still believe! Not only do I still believe, but it is my heart’s desire that you believe as well. I want this to be the Christmas that you climb up in the Father’s lap and come to know the joys and love of Christmas. Yes Patricia, there are many today that no longer believe, but let me tell you, there really is a Savior!

I Still Believe!
Matthew 1:18-21