Virgin Birth Lk 1
“The Virgin Birth”
[This sermon is OK in outline, but the detail needs to be thought through a little more. MA 17-1-05]
what the critics say
In a recent poll conducted by Newsweek Magazine 1009 adults were asked about Christ and His birth. If Jesus had never born, people believed there would be:
63% - less charity
61% - less kindness
59% - less personal happiness
58% - less tolerance
47% - more war (16% say less, 26% say the same)
38% - less religious divisions (21% say more, 26% say the same)
Another interesting question was, “What do people believe about the birth of Christ? “ Of the 1009 respondents,
67% - believe that the entire story of Christmas is historically accurate (including the virgin birth)
24% - believe the story of Christmas is a theological invention (a story invented by the early church)
These results suggest that most people believe that the gospel writers got it right – that the Christmas story found in the Bible is historically accurate. They may not consider it a life-changing story – but most people seem to believe the story is true. Even so, in the popular press the story about Jesus’ birth is up for grabs - especially the virgin birth. "I don't want to be too simplistic, but our faith is somewhat childlike," says the Rev. H. B. London, a vice president of James Dobson's Focus on the Family organization. “Though other people may question the historical validity of the virgin birth, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we don't". It’s a weak response. London’s prepared to have “a head in the sand” approach – the naïve acceptance of a child – even it means exchanging faith for facts.
It only gets worse. John Shelby Spong is an Episcopalian bishop who has written much, and most unfortunately a best selling book called, “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism”. On page 215 he writes, “Am I suggesting that these stories of the virgin birth (i.e. the ones from Matthew and Luke) are not literally true? The answer is simple and direct, ‘Yes’. Of course, these narratives are not literally true. Stars do not wander, angels do not sing, virgins do not give birth, magi do not travel to a distant land to present gifts to a baby, and shepherds do not go in search of a newborn saviour….The virgin birth of the New Testament is not literally true”.
It’s important we recognise that in our postmodern world the Bible is under attack, and the aggressors are not just predictably from this world, but also from within the church. And so the words of 1 Jn 2:19 ring true, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us”. I think this is true of John Shelby Song and many other commentators - the Bible is a public document and it’s a big world out there – the scrutiny is intense.
These days I’m a little relunctant to call myself a “fundamentalist” as it suggests I’m stupid, ignorant and irrational. It also tends to aligns me with Islamic extremists – and anyone else sympathetic with terrorism. But I am happy to align myself with the Gospel writers and I’m happy to believe their historic accounts of the life of Jesus. Spong mightn’t know any reputable Bible scholar who accepts the fact of the virgin birth – but I do – evangelical scholarship accounts for itself very well, thankyou very much!
Now we haven’t time tonight to respond to those who criticise the birth stories - but it would be foolish not to admit that the guild of secular and liberal Bible scholars have set the modern agenda for Bible reading. But the reporting of the virgin birth as history can be defended – if this is a troublesome area for you then we’d love to continue the conversation with you afterwards.
What the Bible says
Let’s move into the Bible recognising its true character as the Word of God. We see in Luke 1 that an angel appears to Mary and says to her in Luke 1:30, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The 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 the Son of God”.
Mary is surprised – she cannot bear a child because she is still a virgin. The response is that the Holy Spirit will, as the NIV translates, “overshadow” her. The Spirit “overshadowing” situations is nothing new in the Bible. The coming of the Spirit upon Mary compares with the descending of the glory of the Lord upon the tabernacle in Ex. 40:35. The psalms also remind us that when God “overshadows” his people he moves to protect them – Ps 91:4 for example. The glory of God descending upon his people – YHWH protecting his people - Mary overshadowed with the Holy Spirit in a wonderful act of re-creation. God’s powerful presence will rest upon Mary, so that she will bear a child who will be the Son of God – the Son of the Most High.
So why is the virgin birth important to us?
salvation comes from the Lord
Firstly, it reminds us that salvation comes from the Lord. We see this in verses 31 and 32. The name Jesus means, “God saves”. Then there’s the reference to Jesus having the throne David. In 2 Sam. 7 God promises King David that that he will raise up an offspring whose kingdom will be eternal. 2 Sam. 7:13, “He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son”. The writer to the Hebrews applies “I will be his father, and he will be my son” to Jesus. Jesus will reign over the house of David forever. Jesus is a King whose rule will never end.
This King Jesus will be called the Son of the Most High – the Son of God – the one who Mary will later say is “my Saviour” – interesting that Mary needs a Saviour! Notice that when Luke mentions the virgin the birth, his emphasis is upon God rather than Mary. And so Jesus is not the high point of human evolution, but the intervention of a transcendent God into human history.
Salvation comes from the Lord. The child to be born is the Son of God – the one who saves – the King in David’s line who will rule forever. Remember back in Genesis 3 the serpent is cursed. God says, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. God promises that the seed of the woman will ultimately destroy the serpent. And so God raises up a victorious seed – it is his doing – the virgin birth reminds us that we cannot save ourselves – God must marvelously intervene to produce the seed who saves – salvation never comes through human effort but must be the work of God himself.
Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. Look please at Jn 1:12, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”.
To deny the virgin birth is to deny the possibility of salvation. It’s a great relief to know that salvation comes from the Lord – that God acts supernaturally in my life and your life so that by faith we may belong to the household of God.
In 2002 Denise Banderman was a youth ministry student at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri. The day came for the class to sit their final exam. When Denise and her fellow students opened their papers they were astonished to find every answer filled in. At the bottom of the page was a message that read: "This is the end of the exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced ... grace."
The course lecturer, Dr. Hufty, spoke to the students about the exam. He said, "Some things you learn from lectures, some things you learn from research, but some things you can only learn from experience. You've just experienced grace. One hundred years from now, if you know Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour, your name will be written down in a book, and you will have had nothing to do with writing it there. That will be the ultimate grace experience”.
Do not underestimate the grace of God in your life. Live as people under grace, free from the condemnation of sin, living each day focused on walking and talking with the Lord. Lives of thanksgiving - our Creator acts to save us – the virgin birth - the Son of God – our rebirth and redemption in Christ. Gal. 4:4-5, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons”. If this world is to have any sort of future worth speaking about – then we cannot do it ourselves. Ours is the way of death – but God acts intrusively in history – God acts intrusively in our lives to prepare us for heaven – this Christ, born of woman, is the only hope for all mankind.
I reckon those students were pretty happy to know they passed the exam before the even sat the paper. They needed to study – to work hard – that goes without saying. But their success was always in the hands of the one who set the paper. And likewise for us - continue to be holy – continue to live as members of God’s family – this must be done and it’s a delight to respond in thanksgiving to our King. As sons and daughters in Christ we are called to holiness - and so we work in unison with the Holy Spirit to shed remnants of sin in our lives. Yet we have the sure and certain knowledge that we are in His hands, and nothing can undo the miracle of salvation in our lives. We are recipients of grace. As the apostle says, “neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
the fusion of the divine with humanity
Salvation is from the Lord – and its only possible because as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary there was a fusion of the divine with humanity – the fusion of two natures into one person. Jesus fully God and fully man. Theologians have a great time with this idea and if you do John MacClean’s theology course next year you can learn all about the many discussions on this topic – an unintentional plug for John’s course!
For the moment, let’s settle on the fact that whatever the mechanism – the virgin birth means no less than Jesus being fully God and fully man. The Bible teaches both as fact. Jesus fully God, it can’t be plainer that John 10:30 when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one”. The Jews understood and they picked up stones so they could stone him to death. And the humanity of Jesus – the genealogies – Luke 3 traces Jesus back to Adam – but not a descendant of Adam in the same sought of way that we are because of the virgin birth. Luke puts it like this in 3:23, “Jesus was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph”. For this reason Jesus, in his humanity doesn’t act like a descendant of Adam although he is in the line of Adam. He is uncorrupted - Jesus acts like a new Adam – a new Father for humanity.
Jesus – fully God, “the Son of God”; fully human, “the Son of Man”.
If Jesus were not God then his sacrifice on the cross would not account for his own sin, let alone ours. But Jesus was spotless – without fault – perfect. A priest atones for his own sin and then offers sacrifices for the sins of others – and the priests did this time and time again because their sacrifice was never enough. The people kept sinning – the sacrifices kept coming – blood was continuing poured onto the altar – the need for sacrifice never went away.
Now listen to the writer to the Hebrews 7:26, speaking about Jesus, “Such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once and for all when he offered himself”.
Alexander III was Tsar of Russia from 1881-1894. His was a terrible, harsh rule, and in particular he persecuted the Jewish population. But his wife, Maria Fedorovna, was known for her generosity to those in need. On one occasion her husband had signed an order sending a prisoner to life in exile. It simply read, "Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia." Maria changed that prisoners life by moving the comma in her husband's order. She altered it to "Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia."
That’s your life and mine. Once it read, “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Hell”. Now my life reads, “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Hell”. Christ – the virgin birth – fully God and fully man - the perfect sacrifice – the perfect victor over death.
Friends, live as forgiven people! Understand that your burden before God has been removed – you are free to love God – free to love one another. Free to be free! Since Jesus was fully human it is us He represented on the cross. He died for us because he was one of us – the perfect substitute – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
We started by talking tonight about the virgin birth and we’ve ended up at the cross. That’s the way it should be – from the cradle to the cross – that’s my theme this Christmas – from the cradle to the cross. The virgin birth assures us that God is acting – may our lives assure God that we are loving Him.