First Lesson: Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Responsive Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1: 3-14
Gospel Lesson: John 1: 1-18
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”- John 1:1
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
When I was at Luther Seminary, I took a class where the goal was to help us articulate our beliefs about Jesus. The professor of this course proceeded to announce that he didn’t believe the story of the Virgin Birth. He continued to try to explain the Virgin Birth story a few different ways. He believed that the scriptures possess this story merely to indicate that Jesus’ birth was unique. He believed that one didn’t have to believe in the Virgin Birth as a matter of salvation. He believed that we can’t minimize Joseph’s role in Jesus’ life as a Jesus’ father.
My radar immediately went off after he said these words. I can’t explain my visceral reaction. Someone questioning the Virgin Birth was not the first time during college or seminary that I heard the teachings of the historic Church questioned. I honestly believe that was set me off was an innate understanding that we can't separate the Virgin Birth from the uniqueness of Jesus’ being. How Jesus was not merely a man, how in the words of our Gospel lesson for today the Word became flesh and dwelt among us1. The Virgin Birth is the means by which the one who was present at the creation of the world assumes human form.
So I proceeded to write a paper trying to set out why I needed to prove my professor wrong. Any student going for a grade knows this is a terrible idea.
I get the paper back; this is a long paper (longer than any sermon). As I read the paper, the Professor’s response was unusual. The Professor would respond to every point of argument that I made on this paper in depth in red ink. The side margins of the paper contain hundreds of words of red ink. The back of the pages possess nothing but red ink. My essay produced other essays in response.
I get my professor’s angle. He attended Harvard. He wanted to be taken seriously as an intellectual when he attended cocktail parties. Serious thinkers don’t hold to such impossible events as the Virgin Birth.
What I say about the topic this morning is the Virgin Birth is that we must always defend it. Apart from the Resurrection there is arguably no more critical belief in the entire Christian faith. One can quibble with how we can interpret certain Bible verses? One can debate the relationship between religion and science? The discussion over the Virgin Birth touches on the question of whether “Jesus is really God?”
So how would I respond to my Professor’s arguments about the Virgin Birth?
Argument A: The Virgin Birth merely meant to show that Jesus was special.
Special in what way, I don’t get. If Jesus comes into the world like every other human being born before and after him, then he is really not special in any unique way. The specialness of Jesus comes from the Virgin Birth. Jesus could have come to Earth as a fully formed adult, but then he would not be one of us, if he lived a life without diapers. Jesus could have been born as billions of people before or after him as a byproduct of the normal birds and bees, yet this doesn’t make him God.
Argument B: Belief in the Virgin Birth is not necessary for salvation.
The Professor was right, yet wrong at the same time. The Professor was right that because of sin, none of us is ever able to believe rightly. We don’t want to claim that we are the only true church or pure church. I will freely admit that there are beliefs I hold that might be proven wrong at the gates of Heaven. Saying something is unnecessary for salvation shouldn’t cause us to just casually dismiss it.
Grace says that we will not always believe rightly; grace does not give us carte blanche permission to dismiss Biblical ideas that do not mesh with our “world views”. We must also state that the Virgin Birth has been a part of the faith of the church since its earliest days.
A while back, the Jehovah Witnesses stop by me house. They proceed to tell me for 20 minutes how all Christian churches have been led astray over the years. My response to all this ranting was to ask them about the Holy Spirit? What I said is “Why would the Holy Spirit abandon his church to damnation?” The Jehovah Witnesses were not arguing with me on this day; they were rather arguing against the Holy Spirit when they denounce all Christian churches as holding false beliefs. Since the Church does not belong to us, we will never have permission to assume ownership casually over it.
Argument C: We can’t minimize the importance of a Father within Jesus’ life.
A number of years ago, Basketball player Shaquille O’ Neal made rap music on the side. Shaquille O’ Neal never knew his father. Shaq’s dad had been imprisoned for drug possession when Shaq was an infant. Shaq’s mom marries a guy named Phil. Phil raises Shaq. The biological father wants no role in Shaq’s life until seeing him dominate in a high school all star game. Shaq gets mad; Shaq eventually writes a rap about how Phil is his father, because his biological didn’t bother2.
We should not assume fatherhood in such black and white terms. Joseph had a significant role in Jesus’ life because he was placed in such a role. Joseph’s role is no different then the important role that Phil enters into in Shaq’s life despite providing nothing to Shaq’s conception. Joseph was not a typical father, as there are plenty of non-typical fathers out there. Fatherhood is not merely about a father’s role in conception. Fatherhood is rather about the role that a father plays in influencing their children, no matter how fathers enter into these lives. Understanding Joseph in this way seems to be a much more meaningful understanding of the role of Joseph than purely thinking about it in terms of his role in the conception.
Blogger Nadia Bolz-Weber made a good point in regards to this whole Virgin Birth that “Christians must admit that our faith is going to sound preposterous to those who don’t believe3?” This guy rose from the dead after three days seriously? We will always fight a losing battle when we engage with people who try to make the Virgin Birth a matter of biological probability. Yes, we know that children do not get made without sperm. We admit that science questions only lead to science answers4.
Instead, what we believe is that the Virgin Birth is a unique act of God coming into our world. The thing about the Virgin Birth is that we cannot separate it from the mystery of how God could ever come into our world; we cannot and will not ever be able to explain this. We merely say how a Virgin Birth happens is God’s doing, and not for us to know ultimately.
Our Gospel lesson today is the beginning of the Gospel of John5. John’s Gospel doesn’t begin with the tale of the Virgin Birth. Instead what John’s Gospel communicates in its beginning is that Jesus’ birth was not his beginning. Jesus has been here since the beginning of time itself.
Our lesson ties in the Virgin Birth with the story of creation. To understand our lesson for today from John 1 think in terms of what we do know about Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden, how they fell into sin, eating some rotten fruit. The whole of creation falls apart after that.
One of the most popular Christian funerals hymns that we all know is “In the Garden”. People like this romantic image of the Kingdom of Heaven being compared to a garden.
What you maybe don’t know is the whole meaning behind the famous scene from Luke 23 where Jesus talks to the Thief on the Cross to mouth his famous words ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise6”.
Paradise comes from the Persian word for “garden”. If you think of what Jesus is saying as ‘Today you shall be with me in the “garden’, what Jesus is saying “the Thief” shall be with him on the day of humanity’s restoration. Jesus is referring to the day that sin and death shall be wiped from the face of the earth forever.
How this ties into the Virgin Birth is the Virgin Birth’s purpose is God saying that although sin came into this world, I am going to reverse it by bringing forth forgiveness. The Virgin Birth is God taking a do-over for the sake of a fallen world7.
As we talk about the Virgin Birth, I should also make brief mention of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is the idea that Mary’s birth comes as a result of a virgin mother. The Immaculate Conception says that Mary’s birth came without sin. I think the problem with Mary being born of a virgin is that it probably requires her mother Saint Anne also experience birth from a virgin, and so and so on until the beginning of time.
My intention is not to bad-mouth Catholic devotion to Mary. I believe that we should honor Mary as we do all other mothers. Mary was called forth by God with a particular, unique purpose. The issue with the Immaculate Conception is that it makes Mary almost more God-like than human. Mary’s unique from all women because of her role in Jesus’ life; Mary is not unique from all women because she possesses any additional super-powers in child-bearing that other women do not own8.
During the Virgin Birth debate period that took place during my second year of Seminary. There was a lawyer in this class named Roger. Roger wasn’t just a run of the mill lawyer though. Roger would frequently appear on the Twin Cities “best lawyers” lists. Roger knew how to frame an argument and also how to respond to an argument. Roger would take the opportunity to denigrate the Virgin Birth at every chance he got.
I remember asking Roger the lawyer one day the following question “If you believe that there is a God up there who created the Heavens and the Earth? Why don’t you believe that this God is capable of intervening in his creation as he sees necessary even in the form of a Virgin Birth?”
Roger sits there for a couple moments thinking; when Roger finally admits that he had no counterpoint to the argument?
This breaks down the whole question of the Virgin Birth of whether our faith possess a God worth following that can resolve the problems of sin in our daily life? The Virgin Birth is a debate over whether our God is a worthless being?
The reason that the Virgin Birth is so essential to defining the Christian religion is because Christianity centers on the issues of life and death or death and resurrection. If we believe that Jesus couldn’t have come into this life in miraculous fashion then why should we possess any confidence that Jesus could overcome death in extraordinary fashion?
A God that cannot intervene in Life and Death we should abandon. Take miracles away from Christianity then Christianity is merely a system of moral beliefs from people who might know or not know about what they are talking. Christianity then is just one of many options claiming to have discovered the truth on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.
The Virgin Birth illustrates that Christianity centers upon God coming down to Earth for the sake of our own salvation. God doesn’t do his part, and then we do ours. God did it all for our sake upon a cross. We are merely mortal, we march towards death like the sheep before the slaughter9, yet the Lamb of God came forth to this earth to die and rise again. The Virgin Birth shows that there is a way forward for even if it might seem to be biologically impossible. Christianity is a religion of miracles; it’s a religion that claims that this life is not always going to be how we see it today. Amen
1 John 1:14
2 “Biological Didn’t Bother” rapped by Shaq in 1994 can be found on You Tube.
3 Bolz-Weber, Nadia. “The Virgin Birth: Fact, Fiction, or Truth?”. Sarcastic Lutheran: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner&Saint. Patheos. 17.Dec.2014. Web. Dec.24.2014
4 M. James Sawyer.“The Virgin Birth: Why It is Important”. Parchment and Pen: Credo House Blog. 12. Dec.2011. Web. Dec.24.2014
5 John 1:1-18
6 Luke 23:43
7 M. James Sawyer.“The Virgin Birth: Why It is Important”.
8 Bolz-Weber’s article provides excellent commentary also on the Immaculate Conception.
9 Romans 8:36