Christmas is a depressing time for many people, punctuated by greater emotional stress and more acts of violence than any other time of the year. For some, Christmas is a little more than an excuse to get drunk, to party, to visit the relatives, to get something, to give a little, to take time off work, to spend money, to overeat, and perhaps to indulge in other excesses.
But for people who have chosen to put their trust in, and follow Jesus, Christmas is a time to remember the depth of God’s love and compassion, and to celebrate the uniqueness and glory of humanity, and above all to treasure the wonderful surprise wrapped in ‘swaddling clothes’ by a loving mother: Jesus Christ, God in a cowshed, our Saviour.
DID IT REALLY HAPPEN?
The Apostles’ Creed affirms: ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary’. This is one of the most audacious claims of the Bible, and certainly one of the most distinguishing marks of Christianity: God became a man. God was born in Bethlehem. It should come as no surprise to those who know something of church history that the Bible’s claims about the birth of Jesus have led to a whole series of fantastic stories and theories about his nature. As far back as the first century the Docetists taught that Jesus was a kind of phantom, with no real body. In the 4th century, the Apollinarians held that Jesus had a human body but not a spirit. More recently, Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian science, taught that Jesus was ‘incorporeal’ – in other words, his body was not a body (which does seem to be stretching things a bit!)
But the Biblical record that has come down to us from the Apostles Matthew and Luke, and the Apostle’s Creed, which summarises the central beliefs of the Christian church, affirms a belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was conceived by Holy Spirit power, and was born of a young virgin Jewish woman, Mary, in the town of Bethlehem.
Now a large number of people today, including many Christians find it very difficult to reconcile the virgin birth of Jesus with their view of how the world works. But none of the main arguments against the virgin birth hold water. Let’s look at three.
First, they say the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are witnesses against the fact of the virgin birth, since they trace the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph, the husband of Mary. But Joseph was Jesus’ legal father, and the apostles were simply establishing proof of Jesus’ legal claim to be the Messiah through his descent from David. And as we saw two weeks ago, if they were making it up then they couldn’t have done a better job!
Second, some people point to what they see as a wealth of virgin-birth parallels in pagan mythology, and suggest that the biblical account is based on them. But, while there are many stories similar to Jesus’ birth, none is a true parallel: usually the thought is of a physical union between a deity and a woman, resulting in the birth of a child, In Matthew and Luke we don’t have a sexual union between God and Mary, but a unique, divine act of creation.
Third, in the back of many people’s minds (especially those born early in the twentieth century) is the assumption that miracles just do not happen, and since the virgin birth of Jesus was so obviously a miracle, it could not have happened. but if we believe that God created heaven and earth, then I think we can also believe that God could bring about the birth of a very special person in a unique and miraculous manner.
To deny that the virgin birth was possible, or that it happened, is inconsistent with what we know of the almighty power and unsurpassed wisdom of God, and indeed the historical reliability of the virgin birth cannot now be proven or disproved.
A DOCTOR’S PERSPECTIVE
Let’s look, then, at what Luke, a medical doctor, says about the birth of this special child. The first thing we find is an angel coming from God to fill Mary in on the details! Imagine that (1: 26)! Like the prophets long ago, Mary was God’s chosen way to bring his plan to completion. She would have a son, and call his name Jesus (meaning Saviour); he would be a great man, the Son of the Most High, retaking the throne of David, and reigning over Israel in an eternal kingdom.
Now I can imagine Mary wondering if someone had spiked her last drink! A teenage girl pregnant by the Holy Spirit with the king if Israel? Try telling mum that! But it was true, and Mary finally accepted the angel’s strange news, and agreed to be God’s servant.
And so Mary fell pregnant, and carried the child to full term. One evening, while she and Joseph were passing through Bethlehem, the child was born: diety was incarnated; God had come near. Not as a burning flash of light, or as an unapproachable conqueror, but as a powerless child; as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter.
There was no silk, no ivory, no hype, no party, no paid midwives, certainly no medical equipment or regulated atmosphere or identity tag. His first view of light on this planet with human eyes was through the holes in the wall of Bethlehem’s cowshed. There was no silver spoon in his mouth, no media crush, no TV cameras and no exclusive interviews. The only people around were a bunch of shepherds who ranked near the bottom of the social scale. There lay God-in-human-flesh, tender, vulnerable, dependent, while devils wondered and rich politicians plotted his death.
What does the virgin birth of Jesus mean to us? It means many things to us all, but I want to highlight four. First, we should note that it frees women from insignificance. It was not Joseph, or Herod the King, or the High Priest who found favour with God – but teenage Mary! That is part of the Christmas mesage: God frees people from unjust stereotypes.
Second, in a world where we crave answers and explanations, and where the opinion makes like everything ‘cut and dried’, the virgin birth points to the mystery of the personal union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. We can’t explain it biologically, but we affirm its truth, because we accept that this was God’s unique way of bringing his salvation to humankind.
Third, the virgin birth marks a new beginning in the history of God’s creation: when he came in person and voluntarily became part of that history. Never before or since has God intervened in world history in such an amazing way. While he remained what he always had been, Jesus also became what he had created!
Finally, the virgin birth affirms that Jesus was truly human; he shared every aspect of our humanity, which enables him now to understand our struggles and temptations, and to bear our burdens, as the writer to the Hebrews explains.
But wait-there’s more!
On a slight hillock beside the River Bure, in Norfolk, there once stood a magnificent Benedictine Abbey, St Benet’s, towering over the surrounding marshes and countryside, surrounded by the living quarters and offices of a great monastic centre, all built in durable stone and brick, and the pride of those who built it and lived in it.
Today, the monastery has all but disappeared; a few lumps of broken stonework and a gatehouse are all that remain. But on the highest peace of ground, where once the Abbey’s high altar stood, there is now a tall, plain wooden cross. It stands out against the empty sky, an eloquent reminder to all who pass by the love that does not collapse and fall into ruin – the love of Jesus.
The universal symbol of Christianity is not a manger, or a throne, or a temple, or a dove, or a flame, or even a fish, but a cross. In the cross of Jesus Christ we see the purpose for which he came to Bethlehem. In the corss God demonstrates with unmistakable clarity the depth of his love for you and me.
This Christmas, let us affirm the biblical truth of the virgin birth of Jesus, and understand why it happened, and choose to worship him with our whole heart and mind and body and spirit.
Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’: will you by faith journey to the manger this Christmas, will you smell, feel and touch the holiness of God in a tiny babe, will you like freshly baked bread hungrily feed your souls with Immanuel, the Mothers Pride of the Mary’s world. A virgin birth like no other.
Pastor David 18th December 2011