Christmas is only two days away!
I don’t know about you, but this year Christmas seemed to come up on me even faster than before. At first I thought it was going to be a long wait since it seemed like the Christmas season started even BEFORE the end of October. I remember seeing Christmas candy in the stores before we even had Halloween. But life has kept me pretty busy over the past couple of months and so the time has flown by. And we talked about that last week as we’ve been sharing what to do during Advent. We talked about how God calls on us to keep busy during our time of waiting; that we’re supposed to do things that help us grow in faith. Because faith is like a muscle. When we don’t exercise it regularly, it can get weak and become useless. We also talked about our need to be patient during times of waiting because patience is a part of the character of God and in our patience we not only reflect God’s love but we grow closer to God as a result. Today, we’re going to wrap up our three part series on “Waiting” by talking about how to have faith when things seem unclear.
We grow up in a cynical world.
And it seems the older we get, the more cynical we become. Sometimes I long for the days when my perspective on life was innocent and unfiltered. It was so much easier to have faith in EVERYTHING and everybody. But little by little that innocence and that faith that comes so naturally, gets chipped away. We lose that naïveté which can be a good thing in some respects because it helps prepare us for the world we live in, but I can’t help but think that the world would be better off if we didn’t have to lose the clear and simple ways of looking at life the way we did when we were little. I went to Whitney High School when I was in 7th grade. Whitney was a combined junior high / high school so we had all of grades 7 through 12 going there, and during my first year, I remember someone coming up to me and saying, “Did you know the word ‘gullible’ isn’t even in the dictionary?” I just looked up at him with surprise. “Really?” I said and promptly found a dictionary to look it up. Who would’ve thought they would have left that word out when everybody knows it? But as we become less gullible we also become more hard-hearted; more wary of what people tell us.
Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for some people to believe in God.
Statistics tell us that adults who went to church as children are much more likely to be in church when they get older compared to kids who never went to church. Studies show that 61% of adults who went regularly as kids still attend today compared to only 22% of adults who didn’t go regularly as children. 61% versus 22%. Children are far more open to the idea of God than adults and have an easier time incorporating God into their lives and gaining strength from that relationship. Because as we get older, we become more cynical and it becomes harder to believe in the things we can’t see or touch. We become rooted in the material instead of the spiritual and our hearts become hardened. Whether that’s from watching television or watching our parents or from school kids who tell us “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary, we gain a more critical eye and at the same time a more cynical heart. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. It means that we have lost the ability to see and hear God even when God is the most active in our lives.
Jesus knew this. Most of his adult life was spent dealing with people who didn’t believe.
He even tells us in Matthew 13 that people don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear. And he wasn’t just talking about the Pharisees, the church elders, or the Sadducees although they were certainly the main antagonists in his life. There were thousands who were struggling to get an understanding of who he was and what he was trying to tell them. Even among his disciples, he had that problem and we hear about it in our reading this morning. If you have your Bibles, please turn to the Gospel of John, chapter 20, beginning with verse 24. John 20:24. Now when we come upon this reading, Jesus has just been resurrected. He’s seen Mary Magdelene and most of the apostles, but for some reason Thomas wasn’t there. I don’t know if he was out buying milk, baking some bread, buying a couple of goats or what, but Thomas wasn’t there. And that’s where we pick up the narrative. Thomas comes into the room just after Jesus has left and all the apostles are like, “You just missed him!” And this is what happens.
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may[a] believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands…I will not believe it.”
Sounds like something we would say, “Unless I see the marks in his hands…” And it’s hard to fault Thomas here. You can understand how tough that one must have been to swallow. In his head, he KNOWS Jesus is dead. We don’t know if Thomas was there when it happened, but lots of people saw it. No one doubted that Jesus died on the cross. They were in mourning over it. So when they tell Thomas that Jesus is alive, he’s must have been mad. That’s what I imagine he would have sounded like when he responded. Mad. Mad that the other followers would play such a cruel joke on him and mad they would take Jesus’ death so lightly. So he tells them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” But when Jesus comes back, he shows him exactly what he wants to see and he tells Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands…stop doubting and believe.” And then he says the most profound words of all. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That is the very definition of faith. The Bible tells us later in Hebrews 11:1 that faith “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith is being sure of what we hope for and CERTAIN of what we do not see.
But that can be hard for us sometimes – believing in things we cannot see.
Sometimes people take it to extremes. Have you heard the term “flat-earther”? It’s used for people who believe in outdated ideas, who can’t let go of their old preconception of things and hold on to the past. And it comes from this very real group of people called the Flat Earth Society who literally think that the earth is flat. They believe the Earth is shaped like a disc similar to a big Frisbee or a chocolate chip cookie and they think the edges are surrounded by a wall of ice that today we call Antarctica. Really. That’s what they believe. They think the edges of the world are surrounded by a wall of ice that today we call Antarctica. Never mind the mountain of evidence against them – the pictures, the theories, the scientific data, the observations of others. They believe all of it was either made up or built on faulty premises. They even think that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax written by Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Clarke heard about this, he wrote to NASA and said, “Dear Sir, on checking my records, I see that I have never received payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.” Funny as it is, this group has been around officially since 1956. And after over all of these years of evidence, these people still can’t accept the truth because it falls outside of the parameters of their experience. They haven’t yet learned that the reality of something doesn’t depend on our perception of it. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands…”
Just because we can’t see a thing, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Frances Church, the editor of the New York Sun back in the early 1900’s, had an answer for this that touches my heart and rings true. He was answering a letter from a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon who wrote to him explaining, “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so. Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” And Mr. Church responded with elegance as he wrote.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds… Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist… Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence… The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see… Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
The most real things in the world are those that we cannot see. How true that is. When we reflect on our lives we find that the most important things in life, the most valuable things are truly those we cannot see. Love, life, God. These are the things that are important. These are the things that make the world a very real place. And we can’t see them directly. We can only see them through our encounters with other people. But it doesn’t make them any less real. Can you really tell me the love I have for my wife, the love I have for my children, that any of that isn’t real just because I cannot touch it? Could anyone convince you that the love you feel for the people in your life is not real? No, of course not. Because it IS real. Just because we can’t see it with our eyes or touch it with our hands doesn’t take away the reality of its existence. Indeed, the things we CANNOT see are the most real things in the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.