Monday, November 21, 2005

Christmas Meditation 2005: The Virgin Birth

The Virgin Birth

Richard Longenecker, noted NT scholar made this intriguing comment:

“Even without taking high-school biology, Joseph knew where babies come from. Yet he believed Mary’s story”

Should we?

Why shouldn’t we?

United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague, who denies the Virgin Birth, Christ's divinity, the Atonement, and the Resurrection, has been charged with heresy—and acquitted!

It is easy to understand why the Bishop was acquitted.

Surely no thinking, reasonable, 21st century person will believe such myths. After all how many of you still believe in Santa Claus, or The Easter Bunny? How many of you still believe that storks still deliver babies to families through the chimney?

The natural assumption had to be this:

Mary had a child out of wedlock.

She had an illegitimate baby.

Telling everybody she was a virgin must be a spin on something that has gone wrong terribly.

After all come on! Whoever heard of a virgin giving birth to a baby?

Isn’t it reasonable for the Jews, Joseph and Mary’s neighbours to doubt?

How does Luke and the bible deal with such questions and doubts among us then and today?

The bible if we study it carefully does not give dogmatic replies like the ones below:

"Why believe in the Virgin Birth?"

"Because the bible say so. Do not question the bible. Just believe whatever it says and proclaims!"

Instead, what the bible teaches, what it proclaims, what it asserts still require faith, but it is reasonable faith.

Allow me to elaborate why it is reasonable to believe in the Virgin Birth.

To do that we need to look back at four previous impossible births recorded in scriptures:

1. Abraham and Sarah and Issac

Gen 1127The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. (Milcah and her sister Iscah were daughters of Nahor’s brother Haran.) 30 But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children.

Gen 1715 Then God said to Abraham, “Regarding Sarai, your wife—her name will no longer be Sarai. From now on her name will be Sarah. 16 And I will bless her and give you a son from her! Yes, I will bless her richly, and she will become the mother of many nations. Kings of nations will be among her descendants.”

17 Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. “How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?” (This is impossible. How can this be?)18 So Abraham said to God, “May Ishmael live under your special blessing!”19 But God replied, “No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac,* and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant.

2. Rachel and Jacob

Gen 301 When Rachel saw that she wasn’t having any children for Jacob, she became jealous of her sister. She pleaded with Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”2 Then Jacob became furious with Rachel. “Am I God?” he asked. “He’s the one who has kept you from having children!” (This is impossible for me to accomplish)

22Then God remembered Rachel’s plight and answered her prayers by enabling her to have children. 23 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. “God has removed my disgrace,” she said. 24 And she named him Joseph, for she said, “May the Lord add yet another son to my family.”

3. Manoah, his unnamed wife and the birth of Samson

Judges 131 Again the Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord handed them over to the Philistines, who oppressed them for forty years.2 In those days a man named Manoah from the tribe of Dan lived in the town of Zorah. His wife was unable to become pregnant, and they had no children. 3 The angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah’s wife and said, “Even though you have been unable to have children, you will soon become pregnant and give birth to a son.

4. Elkanah and Hannah and Samuel

1 Sam 12 Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah did not….10 Hannah was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord. 11 And she made this vow: “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, if you will look upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours for his entire lifetime, and as a sign that he has been dedicated to the Lord, his hair will never be cut.”12 As she was praying to the Lord, Eli watched her. 13 Seeing her lips moving but hearing no sound, he thought she had been drinking. 14 “Must you come here drunk?” he demanded. “Throw away your wine!”15 “Oh no, sir!” she replied. “I haven’t been drinking wine or anything stronger. But I am very discouraged, and I was pouring out my heart to the Lord. 16 Don’t think I am a wicked woman! For I have been praying out of great anguish and sorrow.”17 “In that case,” Eli said, “go in peace! May the God of Israel grant the request you have asked of him.”18 “Oh, thank you, sir!” she exclaimed. Then she went back and began to eat again, and she was no longer sad. Samuel’s Birth and Dedication19 The entire family got up early the next morning and went to worship the Lord once more. Then they returned home to Ramah. When Elkanah slept with Hannah, the Lord remembered her plea, 20 and in due time she gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel,* for she said, “I asked the Lord for him

5. Elizabeth, Zechariah and John the Baptist

Lk 15 When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. 6 Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7 They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.8 One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. 9 As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. 10 While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.11 While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. 12 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. 13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. 14 You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.16 And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. 17 He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,* and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”

(This is impossible. How can this be?)19 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

The angel Gabriel struck Zechariah deaf and dumb[1]. Being deaf and dumb cuts us off from community, from relationships, from social events. Cocooned in a portable cell of silence for nine months, Zechariah had much time to think, to meditate to pray. When he next opened up his mouth to speak, Luke tells us, “ he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied[2].

Lk 1.34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

(This is impossible. How can this be?) 35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.*”

Eugene Peterson observed that “The work of God in the conception and birth of Jesus through Mary is continuous with these five previous “impossible births, but it is also different. In the mothers ranging from Sarah to Elizabeth, a barren womb was the impossible condition to overcome. But in Mary the impossible condition is virginity.”

These five birth stories take the so called natural processes of reproduction, conception, pregnancy, and birth, and reveal God working in impossible conditions, barrenness and virginity, to bring forth life.

Luke deliberating put the birth of John the Baptist and that of Jesus’ so close together, with the two stories in so many ways a parallel to one another – to help us finally draw the conclusion that nothing is impossible with God (Lk 1.37)

Hence it is not unreasonable for godly Jews, including Joseph and Mary’s neighbours to believe in the Virgin Birth.

Important lessons from the Virgin Birth:

  • It was completely the initiative of God – at a time of his choosing, he appointed a godly woman and choose her to give birth to a saviour, who is none other than the Son of God- here there is no yearning for or expectation of a child. Conception and birth for Mary is the surprise of creation ( Peterson, p 56)
  • the doctrine of the Virgin Birth completely excludes the role of man in the procreation of the incarnate Christ, a sign of God's judgment against all efforts to achieve salvation by human initiative and self-actualization. (Longenecker) If you look the pivotal moments in the life of Jesus – birth, death, resurrection – there is nothing that we can do, or take credit for. It is done for us. We can play no part in the birth of Jesus. Neither could we die in Jesus’ place – it is a death, a sacrifice that only a sinless, perfect man could give. It is beyond our power to raise the dead to life.
  • that God's great gift to humanity is given entirely by grace. In becoming flesh, God did not delegate. He did not send a surrogate. He came himself.
  • Nothing is impossible with God. As an old OMF saint once shared. If we are assured that what we do is of the Lord, things will seemed impossible at first. Later it would seemed difficult. Finally it would be done!

What should be our response.

Let Mary’s response be a model for all true Christians. As Luther put it, the greatest miracle was not that Mary conceived, but that she believed.

She said ‘yes’ to God.

"Let it be unto me according to thy word,"

Thus anticipating that of her Son in Gethsemane, "Not my will, but Thine be done."

In so doing she is saying ‘no’ to herself.

What did she long for as a young woman?

A man to woo her, to love her, to have children and to build a home with.

Now, pregnant, unmarried, a virgin, she is saying goodbye to all her dreams.

What is it that you have trouble saying ‘no’ to this morning?

Remember this is what is preventing you from saying ‘yes’ to God this morning.

  • Non Christian boyfriend or girlfriend?
  • Unwilling to let go resentment, give up our rights
  • Inner life – thought life, habits, relationships,
  • Jealousy, envy, covetousness, anger, bitterness
  • Laziness, lack of discipline
  • Indulging in what we want to do instead of what we ought to do
  • self righteousness – I am so right and you are so wrong
  • self deception
  • the list goes on. What is God saying to you now, today?

But it is also:

Saying yes, to the shepherd who is willing to fend off lions, the bear and the wolf

Saying yes to the shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for us

Saying yes to the shepherd who for us and never against us

Saying ‘yes’ to life and life in all its abundance, richness and fullness.

Saying ‘yes’ to a saviour for which ‘nothing is impossible’.

Do you believe this?

Remember. In order to say ‘yes’ to all this, we must be able and willing to say ‘no’.

When we are willing to say ‘no’, then all the yes that are in Christ are ours!

Isn’t that glorious?

Would you be willing to do that today?

[1] Lk 1.62 So they asked (Zechariah), communicating to him by making gestures

[2] Lk 1. 67-80, the Benedictus, One of three great prayers in Lk. The other is the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) and the third is ‘Nunc dimittis’, "Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord", the prayer of Simeon.


Uncle Gan said...

Dear Pastor,

Allow me to congratulate you on your successful implementation of your blog space. It gives us a chance to read the transcript of your Sunday sermons (if we are less lazy :-)) and a chance to discuss and interact with your thoughts and your sharing.

Take care

Kah Soon

Jack The LOT{B}R said...

Ps. Tony,

Reasonable faith, i love that word. But it intrigues me to see how you explain A myth by quoting FIVE others. At the end of your entry, all I have gotten was an implicit,

"Why believe in the Virgin Birth?"
"Because the bible say so. Do not question the bible. Just believe whatever it says and proclaims!"

The evangelists obviously have a good treasure trove of myths to pick from to superimpose into Jesus' life. It's not difficult to imagine Jesus' followers trying to shut the gossiping public by spinning the story of a miracle birth out of the OT stories. At least the majorly uneducated Jews, who are of course very much well-taught in the Jewish scriptures, will buy such tall tale.

Just thinking out loud. :)


* Why not allow anonymous comments? My Pastor might excom me if he finds out I wrote this comment. :) But it's bona fide, i assure you. I took NT Theology under Ps. Philip Koh...he's the culprit ..hehehe...