✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
A lot of your friends and neighbors and co-workers are agnostics. The word agnostic literally means “one who doesn't know.” They don’t know for sure what to believe when it comes to God and spiritual things or whether or not they will have eternal life or even if there is an eternal life. They’re undecided, open to considering various positions, but they don’t fully embrace or practice any particular belief. They see all the hundreds of religions in the world and say, “How do I know for sure which one is right?” Usually such people will end up concluding one of two things: They’ll say either that no religion is right; they’re all just myths made up to deal with life and maybe even to control people. Others, however, will conclude that all religions are right, or at least partially right; they all contain the truth and are just expressing themselves in different ways.
C.S. Lewis once addressed this situation by using the example of a hallway in a big house that led to many different rooms. You don’t live in the hallway, he said. You can wait in the hallway; the hallway gets you where you want to go. But you need to actually enter a particular room to live your life. Agnostics are those who try to live in the hallway. They can’t decide which religion, which room is the right one to enter. Persisting in that, though, is little more than spiritual laziness. Saying that you’re spiritual but not religious, staying in the hallway doesn’t take much effort. In the end, staying in the hallway is just the coward’s way; it may appear wise and thoughtful, but in truth it is fearful, frozen in uncertainty. And besides, no one who has ever actually taken the time to compare the claims of Christianity and those of other religions could ever conclude that all religions are basically the same.
What do we say to those with an agnostic perspective on life? To start with, it’s helpful for us to understand why there are so many religions in the world in the first place. The reason is that all people know by nature that God exists and that He is to be worshiped. It is written in Romans 1 that God’s existence is evident and known in what He has made. We have a built-in instinct about this that must be suppressed is someone is going to be non-religious. (And, of course, what generally happens is that they just become religious about something else. Atheists are often the most “religious” of all about espousing their viewpoint, aren’t they.) The Scriptures also say that the working of God’s law is written on our heart; in other words, everyone is created with a conscience, which tells us that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and that we’re accountable for that.
The problem is that our knowledge of God has been thoroughly corrupted by sin. It is darkened and twisted and broken. Therefore, human beings at various times and in various places have created false religions based on faulty knowledge of God and His will. In ignorance and foolishness they have made up gods that really are more a reflection of themselves, a god made in man’s image, just a higher version of themselves. Or instead of worshiping the Creator, they have worshiped the creation through idolatry or through giving homage to the supposed “spirits” of the trees or of animals or of their ancestors.
One helpful way to get at the truth, which religion is the right one, is to ask which religion is unique, different from the others. If there are a bunch that are more or less the same but one that is unique at its core, that is likely the one that is true. Christianity is that one; for if you take all the beliefs and all the spiritualities out there and boil them down to their basic elements, you’ll find that there are really only two religions: the religion of the Law and the religion of the Gospel.
The religion of the Law states that you must in some way reconcile yourself to God or find God by what you do. In order to make contact with God you must discover Him with the wisdom of your mind or experience Him with the feelings of your heart or make yourself acceptable to Him with the work of your hands. Once you’ve done that, then you supposedly enter into a connection with Him. The religion of the Law is focused on man and his goodness and what he does to bring himself to God. All false religions, from Islam to Judaism to Hinduism to the tribal spiritualities, are really only different versions of this single religion.
The religion of the Gospel, on the other hand, states that you are not able to find God or to reconcile yourself to Him by anything that you do. Instead, the religion of the Gospel proclaims that you are reconciled to God entirely through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus on the cross. Christ found you, He came into contact with you by sharing fully in your human life, and He did everything that was necessary to save you by taking your judgment on Himself. You are redeemed by His good works, His wisdom, His love–not because you have deserved it but because He is merciful and compassionate toward you. Trusting in Christ alone, you are put right with God. The religion of the Gospel is focused on the goodness of God and what He does to bring Himself to you to rescue and restore you.
The religion of the Law is very appealing, but it inevitably fails, whether you’re trying to get to God with your head or your heart or your hands. Your own intelligence and thinking can’t do it, for it is written, “How unsearchable are (God’s) judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33). “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Your own morality and good living can’t do it, for it is written in James 2, “Whoever keeps the whole Law, yet fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” And you can’t find God through your feelings and experiences, either. For your emotions are changing and uncertain, and your experiences can be misleading and deceiving. Jesus said the wise man builds his house on the rock, not on such shifting sands. And it is written that we walk by faith and not by sight or experience. (II Corinthians 5:7)
And so that’s why the new church year begins with the good news that the true God comes to you in the person of Jesus Christ. That is the glad announcement of Advent. “Behold, your King is coming to you; He is righteous and having salvation.”
Our God and Savior Jesus came into full contact with you in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary. For there He took on your humanity, your skin and bones, body and soul. He came to us and literally became one of us in order that He might unite us with Himself and make us holy. We didn’t find God, He found us in the infant in the manger. He entered into our earthly lives in order that we might enter with Him into His heavenly life.
And He did this in utter humility. In the Gospel, when Jesus enters into capital city of Jerusalem, He comes on a donkey colt. Even today’s politicians who are trying to identify with the common man still do it in such a way that exalts themselves, that makes them seem especially smart or cool or strong. Their attempts at humility are usually not so subtle attempts to glorify themselves. But not so with Jesus. He doesn’t come in the way of the kings of His day, with a strong display of a force to be reckoned with. He doesn’t come in the way of a candidate at a political convention with a sappy video to make Him seem likable. He comes in lowliness and meekness, on a borrowed animal. For He rides into Jerusalem not to receive honor for Himself but to give honor to us by His holy suffering and death. He comes to pour out His life for us so that we might get our life back.
That is why Christ rides on a beast of burden; He comes to bear the burden of the sin of the whole world. He carries that load to the cross where it is put to death in His body. This King’s glory is to wear a crown of thorns. For by His blood and sweat and agony, Jesus takes away the sin that once separated you from God. By His atoning sacrifice, you are reconciled to the heavenly Father. Through Jesus the warfare is over; peace with God is restored, the peace of sins forgiven, the calm certainty that you are held within the Father’s love. That’s why Christ is called in Jeremiah “The Lord our Righteousness.” For by His life and death and resurrection, He has become for you what you could not become yourselves. In Him you are declared righteous; in Him you are put right with our Father in heaven. There is no other God, there is no other religion like this, faith in a God of pure grace.
And just as Jesus came in meekness and humility in the past, so also He continues to come to you without pretense or fanfare. He is still meekly and humbly riding to you on the common baptismal waters, on the preached words of the Gospel, on the bread and wine of the Sacrament. Especially in Holy Communion, Jesus is carried along in lowly state, and He Himself brings to you His own precious body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. It is in the Lord’s Supper that the words of Scripture become very concrete: “Behold, your King is coming to you; He is righteous and having salvation.” And so we join in with the people who sang to our Lord on the road outside Jerusalem, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” Believe that Jesus enters into this place just as literally as He entered into Jerusalem. Receive your King who comes to you in love.
For the time is fast approaching when Jesus will no longer come in humility but in all His strength and majesty on the Last Day. He who rode on a lowly donkey will ride on clouds of light with power and great glory. He who was judged a criminal will come in judgment as Lord. He who taught with gentle persuasion about the kingdom of heaven will powerfully reveal those who received His teaching in simple faith and those who rejected it in unbelief, those who are given to share in the Kingdom and those who are cursed and cast out from it forever.
So let us cast aside any agnosticism and cowardice that remains in our hearts, let us get out of the hallway, and let us stake our lives entirely on the One riding on the donkey and live in Him, the One who comes to us to rescue us. God grant you penitent and believing hearts to receive this Jesus. For behold, your King is coming to you.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠