Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Virgin Birth of Jesus

The Virgin Birth of Christ – sermon for Vine Street Baptist Church (Louisville, KY) – December 27, 2009

I have always loved Christmas. Growing up, I loved the lights, the Christmas tree, the time off school, and the presents. My dad’s parents almost always stayed with us over the holidays, which I loved too. Living in Edmonton, just east of the Canadian Rockies, I loved the deep snow we always had at Christmas – although I can’t say I enjoyed the -30 degree cold that often accompanied it! I loved hearing and singing Christmas carols. But I had no idea what they meant. I grew up in a strongly agnostic family. My parents never went to church, except for weddings and funerals. We never talked about God, nor about Jesus Christ and His birth which is celebrated at Christmas.

But we would sing and play the Christmas carols. Oh, would we ever! I have three older siblings; all four of us, along with my father, played the violin. The Anderson clan would make an annual trek to a senior’s home in town, and my mother would accompany us on the piano as we played an assortment of carols and other folk songs for residents of the senior’s home. Ever Christmas, my parents also hosted a musical Christmas party. Two dozen or so friends would be invited, almost all of whom played some type of instrument – we had a harp, a trombone, a trumpet, lots of violins, many singers, and as the years went on, a couple of flute players as well.
Yes, we loved Christmas music. I loved playing and singing those carols. When I hit high school, I started hosting caroling parties. A bunch of friends would come over, and we’d go throughout the neighborhood for hours on end, ringing doorbells and singing carols for the folks who would come to the door. We had a blast! The evening almost always ended with a marvelous snowball fight, followed by hot chocolate in my parents’ living room.

We loved the Christmas carols. We would sing (or play) Away in a Manger, What Child Is This?, Joy to the World!, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, even O Holy Night. But I never had a clue what any of it meant. To me, it was just thrilling music. I did not understand it. My parents did. But we never, ever, talked about the meaning of Christmas carols.

Then one year, when I was eighteen, I understood what all of these songs meant. I became a Christian in February of 1993. That April, I understood that Easter wasn’t about a bunny who brought you chocolates. Eight months later, I understood that Christmas wasn’t about a jolly old elf in a red suit who brought you gifts. I understood for the first time that Christmas carols are more than wonderful songs with uplifting melodies that cheer the heart. They were, in fact, songs of praise and worship, sung in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. Words cannot express how my heart soared that Christmas of 1993, the first year that I sung Christmas carols not just to enjoy the music and the camaraderie of friendship, but also to worship my newfound Savior and Lord, and to celebrate the incarnation of God Himself upon the earth. Oh, how my heart rejoiced as I sang all those old familiar carols with new appreciation for their meaning. “Silent Night, Holy Night; all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child; holy infant so tender and mild.” Ah – the Christ child, born of the virgin Mary, come into the world for our sake. “Joy to the World, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her King!” Christmas carols proclaim the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, who was born as a little baby. “O Little Town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie.” Born in Bethlehem, in a manger because there was no room for him. “Away in a Manger,” not a song about sheep and goats at all! The chorus of O Holy Night – “Fall on your knees, and hear the angel voices; O night divine, O night that Christ was born.” My favorite time of the year when I was a child became even more special and meaningful now that I knew what it was all about. And then I learned that the Bible, which I had begun reading with hunger and eagerness as a new Christian, told the story that the Christmas carols proclaim in song.

I want to look at the Christmas story, first from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 26-38; then from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, verses 18-25. As you read these passages, try to put yourself back in the place of hearing this as glorious good news, hearing it for the first time, and understanding the significance of the truth that God has sent His One and Only Son for our sake, to live and die and rise again to redeem us!

Luke, chapter 1, verses 26-38
26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
34"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
35The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[
c] the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God."
38"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

Matthew, chapter 1, verses 18-25
18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[
c] because he will save his people from their sins."
22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"[
d]—which means, "God with us."
24When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Both Luke and Matthew make mention of the special nature of the birth of Christ. Indeed, both unapologetically present the birth of Jesus as a miracle. Jesus is conceived not by the ordinary sexual union of husband and wife, but rather is conceived by the power of the holy spirit. I have not always been a Christian. I spent the first half of my life as a flaming atheist, hating the God that I did not believe in. If you had told me, when I was an atheist, that Jesus was born of a virgin, I would have laughed at you. After all, these kinds of things simply do not happen. I wasn’t born of a virgin. Neither were you. As soon as I was old enough to understand where babies come from, I understood that it takes two to tango. Babies aren’t born of virgins. A virgin birth smacks of miraculous divine intervention – and when I was a teenager, I didn’t believe in God, so believing in a divine miracle was simply out of the question.

Indeed, that is the response of many people today to the Christmas story. Although our society embraces the atmosphere and enjoyment of Christmas, it rejects the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus that underlies it. My own childhood reflects a dominant cultural celebration of Christmas. Enjoy the candles, the lights, the decorations, the gift-giving, the family gatherings, the music – but don’t talk about the birth of the Christ-child.

1 Corinthians 1:20-25 reads:
20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

The wisdom of our world has come to some rather significant conclusions which have a strong bearing upon our celebration of Christmas. Rudolf Bultmann, a German New Testament scholar in the mid-1900s, summarized these conclusions and their implications. He said, and I paraphrase:

“Modern man has evolved beyond the superstitious myths of the ancients. Educated, civilized moderns cannot accept stories of Jesus walking on water, healing the sick with a word, or being born of a virgin. Indeed, a man who turns on a light bulb cannot swallow the ancient myths of the Old and New Testaments. The biblical miracles are myths. They are not historical. They did not happen. They contain meaning and importance in their story. But they are not real events.”

In other words, according to Bultmann and many others, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is a nice story, which conveys meaning about the significance of Jesus. But it is just a story. A myth. Jesus is nice; Christmas is nice; but we cannot, as scientific people, believe all that stuff about Mary and Joseph, the Holy Spirit, a virgin conceiving, Bethlehem and Herod. Those who reject the virgin birth of Jesus would claim – modern science has disproved the Bible. Babies simply cannot be born of virgins. It can’t happen. It doesn’t happen. It never happened. The Bible is either wrong, or mythical. Take your pick.

How do we as Christians respond? When friends or family members reject, mock, or doubt the truth that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, what do we say? What do we do? First, I would suggest that we must grieve for and with them. As 2 Corinthians 3:14-16 suggests, a veil covers their hearts, and prevents them from comprehending the truth of Christmas. Someone who cannot or will not believe the Christmas story is missing out on the most important thing in life – a relationship with the living God who dwelt amongst us in the form of His Son, Jesus.

But I would suggest we can also go further than that. As followers of Jesus Christ, we can respond to those who reject the virgin birth of Christ with two profound truths: (1) While they claim they do not believe in miracles or virgin births, everyone believes in miracles and virgin births – they simply do not realize that they do. This is so counterintuitive that I’ll say it again: everyone believes in miracles and virgin births. (2) The virgin birth of Christ is only incredible from an atheistic worldview – if one believes in God, there is nothing unbelievable about it.

Let’s look at the first truth together for a minute. Everyone believe in miracles and virgin births. I can just see my face if someone had told me that when I was a 16-year-old atheist. “What?! You are accusing me of believing in miracles? NO!!! I don’t even believe in God! And I certainly don’t believe in virgin births!” Yes, an atheist will have steam coming out of his ears when you accuse him of believing in miracles. But let’s set that anger and passion aside for a minute. Try to envision the world from an atheist’s perspective, and see why this argument is true. An atheist believes in materialism, or naturalism – that is, there is only stuff. Material, physical stuff. There is no supernatural realm, no spirits, no divine beings, nothing like that. Carl Sagan summed it up best: “The universe is all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be.”

Let’s trace out the implications of that worldview. First, with regards to the origins of the universe; and second, with regards to the origins of life on earth.

(a) The universe was not always here. It had a beginning in time and space. As Christians, we naturally proclaim that God, who exists outside time and space, is the creator of the universe, including the space-time continuum. But if you’re an atheist, where did it come from? Many atheists (including Carl Sagan) will revert to calling the origins of the universe a “mystery,” but this is really a code word for a “miracle.” Atheists simply cannot explain what was behind the Big Bang and the origin of the universe. According to scientific models, there simply was nothing before the Big Bang. Nothing in time or space – indeed, no time or space at all! But, everyone knows that nothing can come from nothing. I can’t create something from nothing. I need something to make something. But the universe, it seems to have come from nothing. The universe, you could say, was born of a virgin. It had a miraculous origin.

(b) If you are an evolutionary atheist, where did human beings come from? We came from apes, right? That’s the story they tell, anyhow. And where did those apes come from? From earlier mammals, which came, perhaps, from reptiles, which came from fish, and so on. And if you trace it all the way back, there was, in their story, an original life-form, a single common ancestor from which all life on earth has evolved. But what, pray tell, gave birth to that life-form? Chemicals and energy. Life coming from non-life? But that simply doesn’t happen! That is a clinical definition of a miracle – something which naturally speaking does not and cannot occur, which has only occurred (to our knowledge) one time in one place. That’s a miracle.

Moving forward a little bit, the original single-celled organisms that atheists proclaim did not reproduce sexually. Rather, they replicated themselves – that is, they made copies. Whether they were legal copies or bootleg I don’t know. But eventually, so goes the atheist story, the replicators because sexual reproducers. BUT, and here’s the huge but, how did this happen? That first critter, let’s call it “Mary,” that somehow evolved so that its offspring would reproduce sexually rather than by making copies – how did that Mary produce offspring? Were her offspring the produce of natural sexual reproduction? No. Mary was the result, so the story goes, of copying. She had no “Mommy and Daddy”. Neither did her offspring, for that matter. Her children, let’s call them “Simeon” and “Anna” just for fun – they didn’t have a mommy and daddy either. They just had a mommy. But for Simeon and Anna to reproduce, they required sexual partners. What does that mean? That means that Simeon and Anna would have been the result of, you guessed it, a virgin birth. No daddy. Just a mommy. At some point in their evolutionary story, every atheist requires both a miraculous conception of new life on earth, as well as a miraculous virgin birth. That is, everyone believes in miracles and virgin births.

Everyone believes in miracles and virgin births. It’s just the source of the miracle and virgin birth that is different. For the atheist, it is random chance or mystery that causes the miracle or the virgin birth. For the Christian, it is the sovereign God of the universe that miraculously brings the universe into being, creates life on earth, and conceives the baby Jesus within the womb of the virgin Mary. Both the Christian and the atheist believe in miracles and virgin births. We simply have the good manners to admit that we do, and to point to the source of the miraculous! The atheist can do neither.

Let’s look briefly at the second truth we can share with those who doubt the virgin birth of Christ. Skeptics argue, as I would have done in high school, that the virgin birth is simply an incredible story. It’s unbelievable. And, I have to admit, if one shares their view of the world, it is. That is, if you are an atheist, then the virgin birth is inconceivable. It simply could not have happened to Jesus that way. However, the virgin birth is only unbelievable from that worldview. Buddhists and Hindus can accept the virgin birth of Christ. After all, many Buddhists argue that the Buddha had a miraculous birth too! I’m not saying that they do accept the virgin birth. Some do, some don’t. I am just pointing out that within their worldview, Buddhists and Hindus are perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility of a miraculous virgin birth. Not only that – did you know that Muslims actually do confess the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. That’s right, Muslims – who reject the divinity of Jesus, reject the atoning death of Jesus, and reject the glorious resurrection of Jesus – Muslims all believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and was born of the virgin Mary. It’s in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Scriptures. They disagree with us about almost everything essential to the Christian faith, but they share the belief in the virgin birth.

At Christmas of 1992, I would have laughed at the virgin birth of Christ, had I known it was taught in Christmas carols. By Christmas of 1993, I no longer doubted or mocked the virgin birth. Indeed, when I read the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke for the first time, there was not even a flicker of doubt in my heart or mind. Why? Because my entire worldview had changed. I used to believe there was no God. In the absence of God, the virgin birth is incredible, unbelievable. Now I had come to believe in God – the sovereign creator of the universe and everything within it. And I had come to believe that because there is a God, there is nothing incredible about Jesus’ miraculous virgin birth. The adjectives “incredible” and “unbelievable” no longer applied. Other adjectives took their place – amazing, awesome, inspiring, momentous, significant, tremendous, unique, unusual, wonderful. The birth of Jesus Christ is all of these things, but because I had come to know God personally, the virgin birth was neither incredible nor unbelievable. Notice Mary’s reaction to Gabriel when he announces that she will bear the Son of God, in Luke 1:34. How will this be, since I am a virgin? She knows this is unique. The response of Gabriel? The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. . . . For nothing is impossible with God. Mary acknowledges the human impossibility of a virgin birth. Gabriel affirms the divine possibility of the virgin birth. Nothing is impossible with God. God, who created time and space, came into time and space in the person of the baby Jesus. Having come to know God, I must say: the virgin birth is still miraculous, but it is not unbelievable. Yes, Virginia, there is a God. And because there is a God, the virgin birth is miraculous, but not incredible; awesome, but not unbelievable.

And so, as we bask in the glow of Christmas, rejoice in the birth of the Christ-child by the virgin Mary. Know that you are not alone in affirming miraculous virgin births – that even atheists, despite their protestations to the contrary, believe in miracles and virgin births if they think things through. And pray for those who do not believe. Pray for those who sing the carols and celebrate the holidays without embracing the one they are singing about. Do not look down upon them, or despise them. Grieve for them, pray for them, and share with them the joy that you find in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, your Savior and your Lord. And in the midst of the Christmas season, rejoice! And again I will say, rejoice! God has sent His Son into the world to redeem us and give us eternal life. Joy to the World! The Lord has come! Let earth receive her king! Hark! The herald angels sing – Glory to the newborn King!

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