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, 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”—which means, “God with us.” -Matthew 1:18-23 NIV
The Heart of the Apostles’ Creed
We looked last week at the affirmation in the Apostles’ Creed that states —
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
We explored the ideas that Jesus is God’s Christ — God’s messiah — and also God’s only Son. And, that as messiah and the unique Son of God, Jesus is Lord, and our Lord in particular. So we have looked at the confession of our belief in God; and our belief in His Son, Jesus Christ.
In the next five weeks we look at the life of Jesus. We begin today with the Christmas story, then followed by Holy Week, Easter, the Ascension, and the second-coming of Christ. In other words, we look at those elements which the early church considered the essentials in the story of Jesus.
These passages in the Creed about Jesus are like when we tell stories about our families. You’ve had that experience: gathered around the table at Thanksgiving, or around the tree at Christmas, a family member begins a “remember when” story. And as the story moves along, someone will interject, “Don’t forget to tell about the year the Christmas tree caught on fire” or some similar anecdote. What we’re saying when we say that is, “The family story isn’t complete if you leave this part out.”
That’s exactly what the Apostles’ Creed does — it says to us, “If you’re going to tell the story of Jesus, here are the essentials. You must include all of these events for the story of Jesus to be complete.”
Today we are at the first of those essential events when we say —
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…
Today is only September 13, so we’re early for Christmas, but that’s where this story begins. That is also where the Christian Year begins — with Advent, or looking for the coming of the Christ.
Because this story is familiar, we might think we know it. But what about the Christmas story without all the trimmings? Without the carols, and decorations, and Christmas trees, and gifts, and shopping, and all that goes with our version of the Christmas story. Because when we look at this part of Jesus’ story without all of our cultural and seasonal embellishments, it becomes something different altogether. Well, maybe not altogether, but certainly different from the way we usually imagine it.
Because today, and in this passage in the Apostles’ Creed, we’re not focused on the babe in a manger. No wisemen or shepherds or angels show up in the Apostles’ Creed either. We’re talking about Jesus, and to do that, we walk back to how the Messiah became Jesus, because that’s what happened. God became flesh and dwelt among us, as the scripture says. Immanuel, God with us.
This Is Not A Science Lesson
I have 7 books about the Apostles’ Creed. Seven. I bought them as resources for preparation for this series of messages, and they are all written by outstanding Christian writers and scholars. William Barclay, Wolfhart Pannenberg,Alister McGrath, Justo Gonzalez, Luke Timothy Johnson, J. I. Packer, and Roger Van Harn.
But in four out of seven books, the authors go to great lengths to explain why this business of the virgin birth of Jesus is not really necessary. The bottom line seems to be that this is a metaphor for what God has done before — providing a child to a previously childless woman.
Those who take this position cite the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and the extraodinary birth of Isaac in their old age. Sarah was 90, and Abraham was 100. But God had promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation, and all the while they had no children. But then Isaac is born in their old age, just as God promised.
Or the story of Hannah, who prayed earnestly for a son until finally she promised that if God would just give her a son, she would given him back to God. That’s the story of how Samuel came to this world, and came to the service of God as the one who would anoint King David king over Israel.
Or the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of John the Baptist. Advanced in years, and yet the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that Elizabeth will have a son, and they are to call his name John. Their John becomes John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet even though he makes his appearance on the pages of the New Testament. The forerunner of Jesus, the herald of the Messiah born to an old couple who had given up hope.
The only problem with the birth of Jesus being another example of God giving a baby to a woman who has not been able to have children is this — Mary was probably about 15. She wasn’t married, she had not been trying to have a baby, or even hoping for one. Certainly not at this time in her life.
So the idea that the “virgin birth” is a metaphor for God giving a child to a childless woman doesn’t fit.
I will agree that neither Matthew, nor Luke — the only Gospels where the story of Jesus’ birth are recorded — are trying to tell us “how” God did this. They’re just reporting facts, and Luke hints that Mary may have told him these things directly herself.
So, while Matthew and Luke’s accounts are not concerned with the “how” of the virgin birth of Jesus, they are concerned to tell the story. And it is clear that Mary has not been with a man, because in Luke’s version that is exactly what she says. Her response to the announcement of the angel that she will conceive and bear a son is — “How can this be, since I have not been with a man?” Even Mary is mystified at how this event can be possible.
Mary Is Not The Center of Attention Either
Not only is this not a scientific account of biological birth, it’s not a story about Mary, either. You know this part of the story — the angel appears to Mary, telling her that she will bear a son. The angel also appears to Joseph, her fiance, but we’ll get to Joseph later.
But it is at this point that sometimes we miss the point. In contemplating the mystery of God choosing Mary, our tendency is to think “Mary must have been a wonderful, devout girl for God to choose her.”
Our Roman Catholic friends take this approach. The teaching of the Roman Catholic church is that Mary was so special that not only was Jesus’ birth a virgin birth, but that Mary was also conceived and born supernaturally. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Church is not a doctrine about the birth of Jesus, but about the conception and virgin birth of Mary, making Mary a special person whom God chooses.
But, Mary was not chosen because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.
It is the choosing by God that makes Mary unique and special. Mary undoubtedly was a wonderful, conscientious girl. She expresses concern about the angel’s message because she knows those things do not happen — “How can this be?” she asks.
But with all her piety, and all her humility, and all her concern, Mary is not the center of the story. Our Catholic friends think she is. They believe that she is the Mother of God, a Co-Redemptrix with Jesus, and they believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, and her bodily assumption into heaven at her death.
I can understand how that doctrine developed. Early believers were looking for some way to explain why Mary was so special. But Mary is special because God chose her.
God has a long history of choosing very ordinary and unlikely people. God chose Moses, who had killed a man in anger, and who had difficulty speaking to stand before Pharaoh and demand that the nation of Israel be freed. Moses knew he was not special, and so he asked God, “When Pharaoh asks ‘Who sent you?’ what shall I say?” And God answered, “Tell him I AM has sent you.” God is the main player, the I AM behind Moses’ “I can’t.”
When God selects David, he’s the smallest of Jesse’s sons, not built like a warrior, but David becomes a giant killer in the service of God.
When God chooses a spokesman for the day of Pentecost, we’re really not surprised that God chooses outspoken Peter. Except that Peter had denied Christ 3-times, had run away from the crucifixion, had not believed the women who said Jesus was risen, and who was hiding in an secret location for fear of the Jews after Jesus ascension into heaven. But when the Holy Spirit filled him, Peter spoke boldly and 3,000 were saved.
God has a history of choosing the unlikely, the unwilling, the unskilled to do His work. Perhaps it is because God wants no doubt that in these divine-human partnerships, He is the senior partner.
Do you remember what it’s like to be chosen?
William Willimon is the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. Willimon now serves as bishop of the North Alabama conference of the United Methodist Church, and as you can imagine gets invited to speak at a lot of churches. Years ago, Willimon said he was invited to speak at an African-American congregation.
He said he got there a few minutes before 11 am, but the service really didn’t start until about a quarter past. They began with four choir anthems, several praise songs joined by the congregation, took two offerings, and sang some more. A little after noon, Willimon got up to preach. He delivered his sermon, and the pastor said, “Let me add just a few thoughts.” Those few thoughts lasted until one o’clock.
When the service finally ended, and they were standing in the parking lot, Willimon asked his friend, “Why do your people take so long to worship?”
His friend replied, “Why does worship take our folk so long? Well, I’ll explain it this way. Male unemployment is running about 20 percent in this neighborhood; young adult unemployment is higher. That means that when my people get on the street, everything they hear is, ‘You are nothing. You don’t have a big car or a great job. You are nobody.’
So I get them in here on a Sunday and, through the words of the hymns, the prayers, the sermon, the Scripture, I try to say, ‘That’s a lie. You are royalty. You are God’s own people. You were bought with a price.’ It takes me about two hours to get their heads straight.” — Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, by William Willimon, pgs. 72-73.
We’re special because God chose us, chose to be with us in the person of Jesus, chose to be “God with us.”
Being Chosen Demands Courage
But, being chosen by God demands courage. It sounds great when we tell the story — the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and when the time came, she gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jesus — “God is our salvation.”
But in reality, Mary must have been terrified. She was unmarried, she was young, she was in all probability poor. Her fiance was a carpenter, they were from Nazareth, a wretched place by the best of descriptions.
For her apparent infidelity, she could have been killed — stoned to death in public by her own family to avenge their honor. We get a glimpse of this later in Jesus’ ministry with the woman caught in adultery.
At the least, Joseph could have “divorced” her, which meant he could have broken the engagement, and sent her into hiding, away from prying eyes. For the rest of her life she would live a solitary life, an outcast, the subject of ridicule and gossip. We get a picture of that life from the woman at the well that Jesus talks with.
But instead, Mary embraces God’s call. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” – Luke 1:38 NRSV
Joseph also faces ridicule. His fiance will seem to all on-lookers as unfaithful to Joseph. The angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
God-with-us sounds like a wonderful idea, until we realize that God with us flies in the face of convention, and puts our own reputations at risk.
But isn’t that the point of God with us? God here on this earth he created. God present in our lives, walking the same streets we walk, eating the same food, drinking the same water, enduring the same hardships.
God-with-us means that nothing is the same, ever again.
As we said at the beginning of this series, the only thing we know about God is in His presence with us. And so God’s Holy Spirit hovers over the young, unmarried girl Mary. She is found with child, and is told to name the baby, Jesus. Matthew says all of this was to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had said some 700 years before —
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means, God with us.”
This Jesus, both God and man, both divine and human, is God with us. God with us to suffer and die for us. God with us to break the hold that death has on us. God with us to fight for His creation, to restore it to the glory intended. God with us to save us. God with us to heal us. God with us to teach us. God with us to plant in our hearts the ability to love, and the desire to do so as well.
We tell this story at Christmas, but it is the story for all time, all seasons, all people. For God came down to us, mysteriously, miraculously, incomprehensibly, to be with us, and to save us.