It's nice when you're preaching to be able to get up and say words to the effect 'what I'm about to say might change your life' or 'our topic tonight is the probably the most important thing I've ever spoken about' or 'you need to hear this because your life depends on it'. Nice might not be the quite the right word… but I think you know what I mean…
And the same is true for when you're listening to a sermon isn't it? You want to know that it's going to be worth your while paying attention; you want to feel like you might just find out something important, something weighty, or that you might get some new information or insight that's going to change your life. We certainly don't want to settle down at this point in the service expecting the sermon to be dull and boring and irrelevant. (and no sniggering at the back – even if that is what you expect!)
So tonight as we start it looks like we might have a bit of a problem. Because tonight our topic is the virgin birth, and it really does seem like the virgin birth has very little to say to us doesn't it?
Now for precision sake I should say the topic is a bit broader than the virgin birth – to be precise the line in the Apostle's creed is:
'He was conceived of power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary'.
Now that just doesn't rank highly among the most important doctrines does it? I suspect that for a lot of us this might be the very first sermon we've ever heard on the virgin birth.
Why is that – well we – if I can use the royal we – we Christians that is, modern western Christians in particular– think of the virgin birth as a bit like our appendix – that is as some sort of evolutionary left over – it might have had some purpose back in the mists of time, at the birth of Christianity, but we've moved on now and as far as we can see it does absolutely nothing. For most of us most of the time we can ignore it and it doesn't do us any harm; but for some of us it might go bad and cause problems – and if it goes bad the best thing to do is to whip it out. Since it doesn't do anything anyway, there's no harm done.
And to be frank about it in the modern era it seems that the virgin birth has gone bad like a burst appendix – in a modern scientific age no one can believe in a virgin birth – it just comes across as so much superstitious nonsense; and since it does nothing anyway we might as well simply cut it out. Since it doesn't seem to serve any purpose anyway we can just do without it. I think a lot of us have done that implicitly – we never talk or think about it, if it wasn't in the Apostle's Creed we probably wouldn't ever have thought about it except perhaps when we read it at Christmas. Maybe you've done that.
But many go further and deny it explicitly.
Here's two examples. First David Jenkins, the Bishop ofDurhamfrom 1984 to 1994. While he was bishop elect – after his appointment, before he was installed he went on national TV and said this:
[The virgin birth, I'm pretty clear, is a story told after the event in order to express and symbolise a faith that this Jesus was a unique event from God, you see, so it's different from the other miracles in my view and I mean, if I might be allowed to say so,] I wouldn't put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if he wanted but I very much doubt if he would, because it seems contrary to the way in which he deals with persons and brings his wonders out of natural personal relationships.
David Jenkins, Bishop elect, Durham Diocese, Credo (chanel 4) 29th April 1984
I wouldn't put it past God – I'm sure he could manage it if he wanted to – but I don't think it happened. Jenkins maintains to this day that he is orthodox in his belief – we can simply cut the virgin birth out, no harm done.
Slightly more subtly Rob Bell says in Velvet Elvis that he believes in the virgin birth, but that it wouldn't really matter if he found out that it wasn't true – it might well be true, but it's so unimportant that even if he found out it was false it wouldn't make any difference to his faith – you can just cut it out, won't make a lick of difference
Well if that's true there's not much point preaching about it is there? But that's got to make us think… if it's that unimportant, what's it doing in the Apostle's Creed? As we've heard the Apostle's Creed sums up what the early church thought were the really important things, the things we need to believe to call ourselves Christians… the things that are non negotiable, the things that form the irreducible core, the absolute minimum we need to know and understand to be in step with the Apostles. So right back at the beginning it wasn't considered take it or leave it, it was considered essential.
What's going on here? I want to argue tonight – I want to show you – that the creed is right and we modern or post modern or post-post modern or whatever we call ourselves today – we're the ones out of step with Historical Christianity. The virgin birth is not a relic of some evolutionary past, it's not a useless doctrine – it's a sign pointing to essential truths, and we need to hold on to it or we risk losing the truth.
So there are three points I want to make:
1) Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin defends the historical reliability of the NT.
2) Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary points to Jesus dual nature – fully God and fully man.
3) Abandon conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary and abandon Christianity
Point One the Creed protects the Historical Reliability of the Gospels
So first the NT clearly teaches that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Sprit and born of the Virgin Mary – it may appear to be only a little detail, but if we start abandoning the details we quickly discover that the whole thing slips through our fingers.
You've heard the reading, but have a look at it again with me - Luke 1.26:
26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you." 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end." 34 "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
Mary's called a virgin three times, a bit repetitious isn't it? Luke's labouring the point, it's just a detail, but Luke wants us to notice it – it's clearly there, if we call it into question we must question the reliability of all that Luke wrote. And look, Mary owns it too – look at verse 34 - Mary says how is that going to happen - I'm a virgin?!? You doesn't have to be scientist to know that a virgin birth is impossible – Mary knew it and so have all of Luke's readers from the very beginning.
And it's not just taught in Luke, Matthew agrees but shows us the story from Joseph's angle – flick over with me to Matt 1:18 (page 681):
18 This 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. 19 Because 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.
Funnily enough Mary's fiancé was also a sceptic. Read on:
20 But 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.21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfil 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."
Is this possible? Flick back to Luke look at how the Angel explained things to Mary – verse 35:
35 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. 36 Even 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. 37 For nothing is impossible with God."
How can this be possible – well because we believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth – if God created the universe he can surely create new life outside of the normal means of reproduction. And it's all the more plausible in the light of the other miraculous birth stories that we read in the Bible – Mary's own aunt who was old and barren is well advanced in a miraculous pregnancy. God has done this before – think Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in the old age, think Samuel to barren Hannah… God has often intervened at key times in the birth of key people to signify something special is happening in his plan. If that is the case for Abraham and Sarah, for John the Baptist and for Samuel, how much more would we expect the birth of the Messiah to be out of the ordinary?
The virgin birth is just as much history as the resurrection or any other of Jesus miracles. The reason we doubt them is that we doubt God's existence or power to do miracles, take away that objection and the other objections to the virgin birth as history are easily dealt with.
So at this level of history what do we lose if we get rid of the virgin birth – we say that the New Testament documents are not reliable at the level of the details, and that means that they're not reliable at all.
Let me illustrate like this:
Zoe and I have a flat that we rent out and we've just had tenants move out so we had to find some new ones. We had a man apply to rent it who had moved from overseas, had no references, no money stashed away, and no job. He simply said trust me, I will be able to pay, you can trust me, you can trust me. He sent me his CV to prove that he would be a good for the money – and on his email he says 'please disregard the address, I just made that up so that I could get a job'. Trust me trust me – but don't look closely at the details they're not true. Would you rent to him? All I know for sure about him is that he makes stuff up to get what he wants. Has he lied to me about just to get a place to live? And it's just like that if we decide we can lift the virgin birth out of the NT – we're saying you can trust this, but don't look too closely at the details – they're all made up. But of course you can't trust that, if it's true it needs to be true all the way down, every detail has to be true. We can't go cutting all the supernatural bits out of the New Testament and still say we're Christians. That's why the creed asserts we believe in the virgin birth.
But there is more to it than that – the creed says we need to believe in the virgin birth for more reason than just to defend the historicity of the New Testament.
The virgin birth is significant as a sign, pointing to the nature of Jesus and his work on earth.
So what does it mean, why is it significant that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary?
Point Two Conceived by the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary points to Jesus dual nature – fully God and fully man.
We see this in Luke 1:35
35 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.
It is because of the Spirit's involvement that the son will be called the son of the most high. In Isaiah 7.14 we see the same thing:
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
The virgin birth is here called a sign, an indicator, a pointer. And look what it points to - the son is given the name Immanuel, which means God with us. The virgin birth is a sign alerting us to the fact that Jesus is no ordinary boy, he was conceived by the Holy Spirit so that he could be no less than God with us. This is a major step up from the way that God was withIsraelin the Old Testament – living among them in a tent or a temple. In Jesus, God is among us; absolutely with us, one of us, inseparable from us.
The incarnation is perhaps the most remarkable miracle of all – I spoke a few weeks ago of how Jesus debased himself to save us – made himself lower and lower and lower, as see in Philippians chapter two – He didn't grasp equality with God but made himself man, servant man, and died, even death on the cross, ie. Under God's curse…). Jesus life is one big exercise in making himself less, and the biggest step in that descent is the first, far and away the biggest step to go from creator to creature. We need to get this right – the incarnation is Not the central pivot of our salvation – the crux is the cross, that's why we use 'crux' for the central point – crux is latin for 'cross', the crucial – there it is again – the crucial point is the crux, the cross; but the incarnation is the biggest step towards it. Jesus was a man like us – born of a woman, he was conceived and grew in the womb, born, fed and grew. Hebrews says he was like us in every way – except for one, he was without sin. So Jesus is a man just like us, fully human. And that's just as well because He needed to be if he was going to make atonement for us. The price for sin is death, our death, human death. Through the OT there were various sacrifices that were given to cleanse consciences and to pay for sin – to make atonement. But these sacrifices couldn't ultimately pay for sin because they were not human. If I sin and I deserve to die killing a goat or a sheep or even a bull doesn't quite cut it does it? Hebrews says the same thing – Hebrews 10.4 it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin' – those sacrifices reminded of sin and revealed the penalty, but it remained for a true sacrifice that could truly take away sin. Jesus needed to be fully man to make that sacrifice for us.
But Jesus was also fully God – and he needed to be fully God in order for his one sacrifice to be enough to be for all people. See if one perfect man dies for another he pays the price for one sinful man. That's right isn't it – he's paid the debt that one man owes. If I was sentenced to death for a capital crime and someone offered to take my place and the law allowed it they might be able to do so. But if all of us were sentenced to death for separate capital crimes would the courts allow us all to go free if just one innocent person stood in for all of us? Of course not. But Jesus is worth more than any of us, he's worth more than all of us put together, he's our creator. That's why his one sacrifice is sufficient to pay the debt for all of us.
So the virgin birth is a sign – but what sort of a sign is it? I can think of at least two sorts of signs in the bible – one is like the signs at the botanic gardens that let you know what you're looking at – you know they've got the regular name, say Lilly of the Valley, and the latin name Convallaria majalis and so on. That sort of sign tells you what the thing is, but it doesn't make it that thing – so if you mixed the signs up people would be confused, but the plants wouldn't change their nature. That's one type of sign, it simply points to the thing and indicates what it is.
In the bible there is another class of sign that points to the thing, but that also achieves the thing – the classic is Jesus' death. We can gather together a whole lot of OT evidence that says that the Messiah, the saviour, had to die. So Jesus death is a sign that he is indeed the Messiah. But it's more than a sign isn't it – because it is by this death that Jesus achieves the work of the Messiah – he cannot save us without dying for us. So the death is a sign, but it is not like the sign at the botanic gardens, it actually achieve the thing that it's pointing towards – it is through this that Jesus does the work of the Messiah.
So what sort of sign is the Virgin Birth – or to put it another way – did Jesus need to be born of a virgin in order to be fully God and fully man, did he need to be born of a virgin in order to be without sin.
And the answer is we don't really know. The Roman Catholic church asserts that it is the second type of sign – there could be no sex involved because sex is somehow dirty, there could be no man involved because that would pass on original sin. But then if Mary was sinful that would also pass on original sin, so Mary must be sinless, and then she must have stayed sinless for it all to work, so she is perpetually a virgin – and before you know it Mary Co-saves us with Jesus. The problem is we don't have the logic worked out for us in the bible. It simply doesn't say what the internal logic of Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary is (we have many OT passages that explain how Jesus death saves us – we're going to be working our way through some of them in the new year – but we don't have a lot of passages that explain the logic of a Virgin Birth). What's more we can say very clearly that Mary is not sinless, so removing Adam from the equation does not remove Jesus from connection with sin at conception and as he develops in the womb. Nor is there anything unclear or dirty about sex – it's a good gift from God for strengthening a marriage bond, and it was in the world before the fall. And we know that Mary did not remain perpetually a virgin. Matt 1.25 says that Joseph and Mary refrained from having sex until after Jesus was born. Not forever, just until after Jesus was born. Jesus had brothers and sisters – there were not conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin – they were born in the natural way. There is simply no call for the claims that the Roman Catholic church makes for Mary – she is a sinner just like the rest of us in need of a saviour just like the rest of us. It may be that Jesus could have been fully man and fully God and have been born in the usual way – maybe, but the point is that he wasn't, there's no point speculating on the logic if the Bible doesn't give it to us – it can easily lead us into all sorts of silly superstition about Mary as we see in Roman Catholic doctrine.
So whether necessary for Jesus to be both God and man, or purely a sign of the great magnitude of what was happening, this is a sign. So, going back to the analogy I made at the beginning – it turns out that the virgin birth is not so much an appendix that we can do without – an internal organ that's never seen and would not be missed if it was taken out. In fact that analogy is all wrong in every sense. It's not a hidden internal organ at all. It's more like the nose on our face – or the combination of all our facial features – it's on the outside, completely obvious and un-missable. Our facial features reveal our ancestry – I have an old photo of my dad with long side burns and bushy hair and he looks just like me. And mum and dad sent over an old baby photo of me the other day that looks distinctly like my son Laurie now. We show the family resemblance, no getting away from it. What we look like doesn't make us who we are, but it reveals it, an external sign of our hiddenDNA, our genetic make up. Virgin birth is like that, a sign that points to Jesus ancestry, his unique make up as both God and Man, born of a woman, but not of an earthly father, of a heavenly father.
So my last point is very simple –
If we abandon Conceived by the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary we abandon Christianity.
I mentioned two guys at the beginning who called the virgin birth into question – Bishop David Jenkins and Rob Bell. It shouldn't surprise you to know that David Jenkins, while claiming to hold to historic Christianity also called into question the resurrection – just a conjuring trick with bones he called it. And what's more he has abandoned the morality of the Bible too – in 2005 he conducted a ceremony of blessing for a same sex couple – a vicar and his male partner – just across the river inSt Thomas' Haymarket.
And last year Rob Bell caused a massive stir by saying that he's still a Christian, but he doesn't think that hell is real, or maybe it is real, but he doesn't think that anyone will go there, or that maybe people will go there, but they will be able to change their minds and get out so in the end no one will stay there forever, in some way some how everyone will end up in heaven.
It shouldn't surprise us at all, because they've already abandoned orthodox Christian faith when they said they believe in the virgin birth, or didn't think it mattered whether it actually happened or not.
See there's another sort of sign that comes to mind – a warning sign. Take away a light house and you don't remove the dangerous rocks. The captain of the Costa Concordia may not have believed his charts that there were rocks ahead, but he still ran aground. Take away the warning sign and the danger remains.
A sign, but not just like a label on a tree in the botanic gardens more like a light house – the sort of sign that you really need to pay attention to, the sort of sign that points to a reality that you need to shape your life around. Take the sign away and the reality remains, but now it's hidden and it's going to cause innumerable ship wrecks. Lose the light house and you will have Costa Concordia every week. Lose the historical realities and you will have people ship wrecking their faith consistently. That's why God gave us the signs
So the creed reminds us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. In doing so it guards the historical reality of the New Testament – every detail is important, that's why they were recorded for us, as it was written so it happened. Jesus Holy Spirit conception and Virgin Birth point us to dual nature – fully God and fully man. And the sign is important – give up on it and we quickly find ourselves drifting away from orthodox biblical Christianity. So we declare: I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Holy Spirit'.