Sermon text: Luke 1:26-38
The following is my original manuscript.
This past Friday was an important day for my kids: We celebrated my daughter Elisa’s 11th birthday, and while she was having a birthday party with her friends, I introduced my two boys to the wonderful world of Star Trek. We watched the most recent movie, and we all loved it. Star Trek was an important part of my childhood, and I’m happy I could introduce my kids to it.
Years ago, when I was in my 20s, I was struggling a little with my Christian faith. And I actually saw a Star Trek: Next Generation episode that helped me. Maybe it will help you. In this episode, the Enterprise comes into contact with a remote planet on which some Klingon families have been stranded for several generations—cut off from Klingon culture and civilization. When the Enterprise rescues these families, Lt. Worf, the proud Klingon who serves on the Enterprise, takes it upon himself to teach these Klingon children the culture and values of his home planet—including Klingon religion.
Worf is reading a passage from ancient Klingon scripture to some children, words that are supernatural, miraculous, and hard to explain scientifically. One skeptical child challenges Worf: “Did that really happen? Is that really true?” And Worf responds: “I have studied [these scriptures] all my life, and I find new truths in them every day.” I like that: events described in the Bible can be true, whether or not they happened exactly the way they’re described.
And when it comes to the truth of the virgin birth I think many Christians have adopted this position. “Well, I have a hard time believing that Mary got pregnant without a human father, but the deeper truth is that Jesus is both fully human and fully God, and the virgin birth is a way of describing how.” I’m sympathetic with the point of view—the truth that Jesus is fully human and fully God is more important than the question of how Jesus became fully human and fully God. While I’m sympathetic with this point of view, I ultimately reject it.
In New York City last week, an atheist organization made national headlines by putting up a billboard over Lincoln Tunnel with a picture of a manger scene and the words, “You know it’s a myth… Celebrate reason this season.” Well… I’m a pretty smart guy, and I don’t know that it’s a myth. But while we’re on the subject of myths and reason, let’s be reasonable and talk about a couple of important myths related to the viewpoint that the virgin birth is a myth.
Myth #1: People who lived two-thousand years ago were really dumb and gullible, and today we modern people know better. This is the premise of so much skepticism that has arisen in the past 400 years of the modern scientific era—and it’s a lie. Just because people in antiquity didn’t know about X and Y chromosomes—guess what? They did know how babies were made. They did not readily believe that anyone could make babies without both a mother and a father. Even if they believed in a god or many gods, they wouldn’t easily swallow the idea that supernatural beings would cause a virgin to get pregnant.
So for the early Church—including Luke the evangelist—to include this story of a virgin birth did not help the church make a case for the truth of the gospel. To the wider world, a virgin birth would have been difficult to believe back then. Why do Luke and Matthew include it? Because they believed that it happened, and they wanted to be as truthful as possible.
Myth #2: Belief in the virgin birth emerged long after the resurrection and the start of the church. After all, Mark’s gospel is the earliest gospel, and there is no virgin birth story there. Matthew and Luke added it later. But this can’t be true. Here’s why: Thirty or forty years elapsed before the gospels were written down. Why did it take so long to write them down? Because this was an oral culture, not a literate culture. Fewer than 5 percent of the population could read. The spoken word carried far more weight than the the written word. It only becomes necessary to write the gospels down when the apostles and other eyewitnesses start dying off—at which point the church needed to preserve their words.
In the time between the resurrection and the gospels being written, many disciples carefully memorized and re-told the stories. And if at any point they got the details wrong, apostles and eyewitnesses to the events would correct them. The point is that all the stories in the gospels existed decades before they were written down—in the same form we have them in the Bible.
Matthew and Luke were only written five or 10 years after Mark, but that’s not nearly enough time for a new story about a virgin birth to be introduced into the tradition. Besides, while Mark doesn’t have a Christmas story, there is a curious reference in Mark 6 to Jesus’ being described as the “son of Mary.” Back then, people didn’t refer to men as being the son of a mother. That’s highly unusual—except that Mark likely knows that Jesus was born of a virgin. There is a similar reference in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Finally, consider this: we know from Luke’s sequel to his gospel, the Book of Acts, that Mary the mother of Jesus was with the disciples at the founding of the church. Her son James, the brother of Jesus, was also a leader of the church. It’s likely that there were other members of Jesus’ family in the church—all of whom certainly would have heard the story of the virgin birth and could have said, “No, no… It didn’t happen that way.” But that didn’t happen.
The reason the Christmas story is in Matthew and Luke is because Mary, along with members of Jesus’ family, believed that it happened. Maybe Mary was deluded or maybe she was lying, but we have to weigh that possibility against everything else we know about Jesus and about his resurrection: The resurrection rests on a firm historical foundation. We can’t prove it, any more than we can prove any one-time, non-repeatable event. We can’t prove that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but historians believe that he did based on evidence. The resurrection is the same way. If we believe in the resurrection, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe in the virgin birth.
Besides, is it really so hard to believe? If you believe that God created time, space, and matter—the universe and everything in it—is really so hard to go one step further and believe that God our Father enabled Mary to bring the Messiah and Son of God into the world without a human father? God is the Creator. We don’t live in a self-contained, hermetically sealed universe—that’s a myth of modern science. The universe is open, sustained, and acted upon by God.
None of this proves the virgin birth, obviously. There’s no getting around faith. If you’re skeptical of the virgin birth, that’s O.K. We saw last week in the case of Zechariah that doubting does not prevent God from doing great things in our lives. But I hope I’ve given you permission to be skeptical of your skepticism.
Besides, what are you having a harder time with? The fact that God worked this miracle in Mary’s life—or what this miracle means for our lives?
See, on Christmas Day, we can sing along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And we can follow the shepherds to that barn, where we’ll find the little Lord Jesus—no crying he makes—wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. We can play our drum for him, pah-rum-pum-pum-pum. We can follow the star with the wise men to Bethlehem, where we’ll present to Jesus our gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When we accept Christ as Savior and Lord, we can visit him in the barn with the shepherds; we can visit him in the temple with Simeon and Anna; we can visit him in his home with the wise men—but after we pay our respects, and give him our gifts, we can leave him there and get on with the rest of our lives.
Notice that when Mary, the first disciple of Jesus, accepts Christ as Savior and Lord, she has no such luxury!
Mothers, you understand this, right? Do you remember that moment when you first found out you were pregnant? Was it was simultaneously the most joyful news imaginable—but also the most awesome, frightening, and humbling news imaginable? “I have this new life growing inside me now—this life that’s literally a part of me for nine months, and will forever be a part of my life in a different way after that. And for the next nine months, every decision I make, I make with this child in mind.—not just the big decisions, but hourly and moment-by-moment decisions. If I get sick, I can’t take this particular medicine because it might hurt the child. If I’m feeling drowsy, I have to think twice before having that second cup of coffee. Alcohol is probably out of the question. This child affects the foods that I eat, how much I exercise, how much rest I get.
“This child affects the dreams I have for my life. He affects my career, my free time, what I do with my finances, my travel schedule, my vacation plans—every aspect of my life. There’s no decision that I can make now that will not have a bearing on my relationship to this precious new life within me. This child is all-consuming. And if I’m not ready to be a mother now, I better get ready, because it’s happening, ready or not! I’m in it for the long haul.”
And although I don’t have first-hand experience being pregnant, as a father I do know that after the child is born, that feeling of incredible, never-ending, all-consuming responsibility doesn’t change that much.
When Mary became the very first disciple of Jesus Christ, this is what following Jesus meant for her. Jesus was a permanent part of her. She didn’t have the luxury of giving Jesus a little bit of her free time, a little bit of her money, a little bit of her social life, a little bit of her job, a little bit of her education, a little bit of her gifts and talents: Jesus asked for everything.
What is Jesus asking of you… and me?
The challenge of Jesus’ miraculous conception and virgin birth is not primarily believing it. It’s living our lives like we believe it. It’s following Jesus by responding the way Mary responds: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Could we leave this sanctuary at the end of the service with these words in our hearts? Could we start the day tomorrow—and the day after that, and the day after that—with these words on our lips? Could we make all of our important decisions with these words in our minds?
If you’re willing to accept that challenge, will you say these words with me:
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
[Invite congregation to respond with those words.]