In her book, Mixed Blessings, Barbara Brown Taylor relates the story of a young girl named Sharon, 5 years old, telling the Christmas story. "Then the baby was borned," she said, "And do you know who he was?" She whispered, reverently, "The baby was God." Then she leaped into the air, turned around, and dove into the sofa, covering her head with pillows. Barbara Brown Taylor says: "It was the only proper response to the good news of the incarnation, and those of us without pillows over our heads may wonder if we really heard it yet." (BBT, p. 51)
Today as we continue looking at the Apostle’s Creed, we begin delving into who Jesus was and is. In a very brief paragraph, even mostly in the same sentence, we speed through the birth, suffering, death and resurrection of the Christ. In today’s phrase, we affirm that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit but born of a human mother. For this most monumental birth, the birth of God into the world, there was no earthly father, except for Joseph who raised Jesus as if he were his son. And the baby was not born in a palace, but in a stable. He was not from a rich family but of a poor family. He was not born to a wise and famous queen, but to an unwed teenager. God entered the world as humbly as God asks us to be in our favorite verse from Micah 6.
Many people have trouble with the concept of the "virgin birth." We pastors have been asked, more than once, if one has to believe in the virgin birth in order to be a Christian. The short answer is no. But the long answer may help enlighten us.
The Greek word for virgin, parthenos, refers to someone who has had no sexual relations, usually a woman, though it can also refer to a man. The Hebrew word for virgin, as used in our Isaiah passage, means a young woman, a marriageable woman, and comes from the verb meaning to sever or to separate, signifying that the person is at the age for separating from parents to occur. Virgin women often dressed differently and distinctly to denote their status, as virgins were highly valued for their capacity to produce children. Virgins brought a better marriage price.
The prospective groom would give the young woman’s family "bride money" to be betrothed, but the marriage was not completed until after the marriage feast. Only after the feast could the couple live as husband and wife. Yet, if the groom died before the wedding, the bride was considered his widow. In the passage we read from Luke, the angel came to Mary to announce to her that she would bear the Son of God. She was not yet pregnant, but she would conceive, the messenger told her, and would bear the Son of God, to be named Jesus. In Matthew’s version of this announcement, Mary was found to be pregnant already, and the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to dismiss her, that the child was Emmanuel, meaning God is with us. In Luke’s version, Mary asked the angel how this could happen, and the answer was that the Holy Spirit would come over her, would "overshadow" her. This same word for "overshadow" is used at Jesus’ transfiguration, and in Acts, when Peter’s shadow fell on people and healed them. It is a word that denotes divine presence and power (Ringe, p. 32).
Catholic and other churches have made Mary almost as saintly as Jesus, declaring her to be the Mother of God, a woman without sin herself, who was always a virgin, and who was assumed into heaven. She is seen as the Mother of the Redeemer and the Mother of the human race, and is worthy of prayer and praise, a mediator between people and God.
Yet the virgin birth is not really about Mary. It is about Jesus. In this short phrase, "conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary," we affirm that Jesus was both God and human at the same time.
Many of you may know that there were many ways to regard Jesus at that time (and still are). Docetists could not comprehend of God actually stooping so low as to be fully human, so they claimed that God "seemed" to be, or appeared to be human in Jesus. Adoptionists believed that Jesus was just an ordinary man until his baptism, when God adopted him, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Appollonists thought Jesus was half God, half man. The Apostles’ Creed, and particularly the Nicene Creed, sought to set the record straight and keep these errant thoughts out of the church. For this purpose, the Nicene Creed greatly expanded the paragraph about Jesus, saying that Jesus was "the only Son of God, begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human." (Ecumenical Version of the Nicene Creed)
Note that only Luke and Matthew mention this virgin birth. This concept does not appear in any of the other New Testament books. Some scholars have proposed that this is because it was so commonly known that it did not need to be mentioned. Others suggest that it is not essential for Christian belief.
Indeed, we do not ask anyone to profess belief in the virgin birth when they join the church, though we do cite it in the creeds. The Officer Training class has been talking about the fact that when officers and pastors in the Presbyterian Church are ordained, one of the questions at ordination asks if we will "sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do…" (W.4.4003c of Book of Order). What are the essential tenets, the officers ask us. But no one has put that down in writing for us. Our interpretation, as pastors, is that we study the documents, as we do in seminaries and in our church’s Officer Training classes every summer, and we determine the essential beliefs that guide us, but that we are not bound by every word and every declaration. The confessions, just like the Scriptures, are open to interpretation as we all seek to understand who this God is that we worship and follow.
And the Bible and the confessions remind us that God loves us enough to stick with us, to keep trying to relate to us, the beings God creates. We are just like the Israelites, whom God freed from the awful tyranny of slavery in Egypt, yet when they wandered in the wilderness and towards the Promised Land, complained that they had better food and water in Egypt, and wanted to go back. We are just like the tribes in exile, living in the midst of people worshipping other gods, joining in their worship and different lifestyles, even when they do not go conform to the will of God. God could not get the message across to us with the Ten Commandments, or through the prophets, so God made a drastic decision, to come to earth and live among us as one of us, in order to show us how great God’s love is for us. God entered into humanity in a particular time and place, born of a woman as is any other child, living as a human as we do.
Barbara Brown Taylor interprets it this way:
[God says] "I have a new covenant in mind, harder for me but easy for you. From now on you do not have to come to where I am, however much I would like you to. I am so crazy in love with you that I will come all the way to where you are, to be flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone. I will do it all, and all you have to do is to believe me – that I love you the way you are, and that I love you to death." (BBT, p.50)
Jesus, born of a woman, but not of a man, shows us the depth of God’s love for us, over and over. This same God creates us all in God’s own image. Every one of us is created by God, loved by God. The letter to the Galatians tells us that "in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:26-28). We might dare to add: There is no longer black nor white, red nor yellow, Baptist nor Methodist, Jewish nor Presbyterian, heterosexual nor homosexual, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
When we say "conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary," we affirm that God loves us enough to be Emmanuel, God with us, and that God expects us to love one another with just such a fierce love.
I watched the news on Friday morning as they showed a young boy singing the national anthem at the NBA finals in San Antonio. He was 11 years old, and he sang so beautifully, and with such emotion, that I found I had tears running down my cheeks when he finished (and I do not usually get emotional over the national anthem). But then the commentator came on and said as soon as the anthem was over, racist remarks appeared on Twitter from within the stadium as well as from without, because this young man, Sebastian De La Cruz, looked to be of Latin American descent and was dressed in a handsome but modest mariachi outfit of gray and black. Some of the milder tweets said: "Who let this illegal alien sing our national anthem?" "Why is a foreigner singing the national anthem? I realize that’s San Antonio, but it’s not Mexico." "Is this the American national anthem or the Mexican hat dance? Get that little kid out of here." I wept again as I read these comments, and I wonder if God did too.
Our country, our world, is too divided. We speak, or tweet, or put on social media hateful words before we even think these days. We watch our elected officials do whatever they can to undermine the opposing political party, rather than to take care of the people of this country, for whom they were elected. God comes to be one with us to reconcile us to God, but we cannot even be reconciled to one another. I wonder what God come to be one with us would say or do with us now? Maybe we should be diving onto the sofa and hiding our head in pillows in awe. Perhaps we have once again failed to hear the message of love that comes from a God who cares enough to be one with us, and to even suffer and die for us – but, suffering, that’s next week’s sermon. Come back again next week, and we’ll talk more about what we mean when we profess these words.
Glory be to God. Amen.
Christian Doctrine, by Shirley C. Guthrie (WJKP, KY, 2994)
"I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed, by Alister McGrath (InterVarsity Press, IL, 1997)
Luke, by Sharon H. Ringe (WJKP, KY, 1995)
Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers by Donald K. McKim (Geneva Press, KY, 2003) (pp.31-32)
Mixed Blessings, by Barbara Brown Taylor