A sermon delivered on Sunday December 21, 2014 at Trinity Anglican Church (Aurora, ON)
Texts: Luke 1:26-38; Revelation 21:1-6
Picture the scene: a group of close friends are gathered together over tea, talking about the recent happenings in their lives, discussing current events in their community, and sharing a joke or two. The atmosphere is relaxed and the conversation flows freely, ranging from topic to topic. The ebb and flow of lulls and silences in the discussion are comfortable because of the company that is being kept.
Then, one of the friends pipes up: “Did you hear about Miriam?”
Suddenly, the silence becomes uncomfortable; backs become tense; ears perked up. Everyone in the room knows about Miriam; she is the talk of the town.
It’s difficult to avoid being the subject of gossip in a small town.
It’s impossible to avoid being the subject of gossip when you are an unwed, pregnant teenager in a small town.
“Poor Yosef; he must be devastated”, adds another, to which the group of friends responds with nodding heads.
“The nerve of Miriam to go and get knocked-up. What a disgrace to her family. What a disgrace to our town!” The friends become more audible as they voice their agreement.
“And to think that she has the audacity to claim that her pregnancy is an act of Yahweh! Not only is that blasphemy, it is ludicrous! We all know that virgins don’t get pregnant by themselves – that’s impossible!”
The friends continue their conversation, guessing who the real father is and wondering what Joachim and Anne, Miriam’s parents, think of all this.
Although this is a fictional, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see that it is probably quite accurate, whether it took place 2000 years ago or 2 days ago. While unwed mothers are less of a scandal in our day, the notion that a virgin can become pregnant without intercourse or through reproductive technology is the stuff of sheer fantasy. It is utter nonsense. It is impossible.
The notion of the Virgin birth is scandalous. It offends our modern scientific sensibilities. This leads some conclude that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is an embarrassment to Christianity and should be omitted from the beliefs of the Church as an archaic and outdated beleif. The question “Do you believe in the Virgin Birth” is a way of separating the rational from the deluded, the enlightened from religious nuts.
So, do you believe in the Virgin Birth?
However, skepticism and unbelief of the Virgin Birth is not only a modern phenomenon.
Mary herself is incredulous about it. Listen again to her response to Gabriel: “How can this be since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1.34). In the original Greek, Mary’s response is “How can this be since I have known now man?” She means ‘know’ in the biblical sense. Like us, Mary knows exactly where babies come from; and it doesn’t involve a stork delivery service.
So, we have to be careful that we don’t make the chronologically arrogant and categorical mistake of assuming that ancient people, unlike we enlightened moderns, were more gullible and susceptible to nonsense and superstition.
Mary, the one whom God chose to bear his Son, has a hard time believing that this is possible. Until her belly began to swell and she felt that first kick, I suspect that she continued to struggle with believing the impossible, that she, a virgin, could be pregnant.
From the Gospel accounts, we know that even Jesus’ disciples had a hard time accepting and believing the many miracles Jesus performed; and they were eye-witnesses!
Mary is visited by a messenger from God – hardly a regular occurrence – and she still asks “How can this be?”
It is only when Gabriel reminds her that “nothing will be impossible with God” that Mary accepts what is about to happen: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1.38).
Let it be…according to your word.
These words sound familiar don’t they? They echo words spoken long ago, in the beginning.
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1.3).
Do you see what St. Luke is doing? In re-telling the story of the Annunciation, he is making a direct reference to the creation of the universe. But why?
Luke is making it clear that the child that Mary will bear will be the one to re-create the world.
Luke is saying, in and through Jesus, all things will be made new.
So, the Church’s confession that Jesus Christ “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” is not about ancient taboos around sex and purity or about worshipping Mary.
The Church’s confession of the Virgin Birth is about the identity of the baby in Mary’s womb.
He is the one who does not abhor human flesh, but loves that which he created so much that he became one of us.
He is Immanuel – God with us and for us; the man of sorrows and familiar with suffering (Isa. 53.3).
He is the one who bears God’s justice and restores the world.
The Virgin Birth matters because it is about the identity of the one with whom the baby was conceived: the God for whom nothing is impossible.
Through the Virgin birth, the origin and identity of Jesus Christ is made clear.
Through the Virgin Birth, God makes the purpose of the Incarnation clear: “for us and our salvation, [Jesus] came down from heaven”.
No wonder Mary is called the Theotokos – the God-bearer. No wonder Mary is held with such high regard in the Church.
We live in a cynical culture; when it comes to the miraculous, our default position is suspicion. We will only accept what is deemed possible.
However, if we subject the Virgin Birth to what is deemed humanly possible, the identity of Jesus Christ becomes impossible; the Christian faith collapses under the immense weight of the human limitations we place on the gospel; it collapses under the demand that we will accept it only on our terms on the rational calculus of the humanly possible.
If God is not the God who can do the impossible – conceiving a baby in a Virgin, feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, physically resurrecting the dead – then all the Church is left with is mere religion: empty ritual and tradition for its own sake and the barest moralism of encouraging people to ‘become better’.
However, if God is the God for whom all things are possible, then the seemingly impossible becomes irrelevant because all of our hope and trust is put in him. The miraculous becomes possible.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy to accept. I’m in seminary and its baffles my mind. However, regardless of our ability to comprehend the deep excesses of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, we are not expected to fully understand. After all, how can anyone rationally comprehend love? When we get caught up in debates about the Virgin Birth, we lose sight of the very one to whom the Virgin Birth points.
So, we are not expected to fully understand; we are called to worship. It is precisely in the worship of the one who was born of the Virgin that we learn to trust the God who does the humanly impossible.
Yes, we can reject the Virgin Birth on the grounds that it is not humanly possible.
However, we cannot reject the Virgin Birth on the grounds that it is divinely impossible.
We do not worship the God of the humanly possible; we worship the God who does the impossible because of his deep love for all he has created.
Advent, like pregnancy, is a time of waiting.
In Advent, we wait not only for the birth of Christ, but also for his second coming.
We live between Christmas and Christ’s coming again; between Creation and New Creation.
Living in the in-between can be difficult to say the least. We need only read the recent headlines to confirm this.
In a world where injustice is rampant, where children go hungry, where creation is destroyed for profit, where communities do not have access to fresh water, it is easy to become cynical and hopeless.
Nevertheless, the Church is called to be a community of hope in our broken world. Not ‘hope’ in terms of a feeling of general optimism, but hope that is as real and tangible as the baby in the manger 2000 years ago.
Therefore, our Advent-waiting is not passive; it is active.
God intends for the Church to be a foretaste of his new creation. After all, the Church is the body of Christ; we are his presence in a real and tangible way.
Like the Virgin Birth, the Church is conceived of the Holy Spirit. The fact that God would call a particular group of imperfect people to continue the ministry of his Son on earth is impossible. After all, we all know that the Church doesn’t have the best track record.
And yet, God entrusts us with the task of sharing the good news that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Church is able to fulfill this task insofar as we trust the God through whom all things are possible.
Therefore, we become involved in things like the water project, not to be able to pat ourselves on the back because we are good moral and religious people or as a form of penance for past atrocities, but because we know that in the act of helping people receive physical water, a necessity of life, we are also giving people a taste of the one who is Living Water, the source of all life.
We become involved in the water project because we are firmly established in our hope that God “will wipe every tear away from [our] eyes and that “death…mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21.4).
The Virgin Birth matters because it points to the cosmic redemption of all things in and through Jesus Christ.
Mary’s “let it be so” is the beginning of God’s making all things new for it was in her womb that Emmanuel, God’s love in the flesh, was conceived and born;
As we prepare for Christ’s coming, both as the baby in the manger and the one who will come again to quench all thirst, spiritually and physically, let us not focus on what is humanly possible, but on the God who does the impossible for us and for the salvation of the universe.
Let it be so!
Amen and Amen.