"The Annunciation" by Leonardo Da Vinci
A mother and her young son were driving home from church one Sunday and the mother asked her son, “What did you learn in Sunday School today?”
The young boy responded, “Well, Mom, today we learned about the time when Moses was leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt across the Red Sea. They got to the water and Moses knew his people couldn’t make it over. So, he asked some of his men if they would build a bridge over the Red Sea, and all the people of Israel walked over the bridge. But when the Egyptians got there, they had their tanks and guns and they just sank in the mud. So, Moses asked his air force to fly over and bomb the heck out of them and they wiped out all the Egyptians.”
“Is that really what they taught you in Sunday School this morning?”
“Well, not exactly. But if I told you what our teacher really said, you wouldn’t believe it!”
The story of the first Christmas is, like the parting of the Red Sea, an unbelievable story, humanly speaking. That’s because it is the story of a miracle. Perhaps no human being on earth understood that better than a young woman named Mary who lived 2000 years ago. Let’s look at her perspective on Christmas as it is written for us in Luke 1:26-38….
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
What is the miracle of Christmas? The answer is hinted at by five statements from the angel Gabriel that Luke records for us.
First, the angel tells Mary that she is to name the baby Jesus. As we saw last week, this is exactly what an angel of the Lord told Joseph in Matthew 1:21.
This points out something interesting. Some people say that these two accounts of the virgin birth were fabricated by the authors of the Gospels to emphasize Jesus’ uniqueness after the fact. However, I think it important to note, that one of the foremost New Testament scholars of the 20th century, Raymond Brown, said in his 500+ page book, The Birth of the Messiah, “I think that it is easier to explain the NT evidence by positing historical basis than by positing pure theological creation.”
Let’s think about this for a moment. If the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke had gotten together and each made up their stories in collusion, they probably would have worked out their tales so that both would be much more similar, and therefore, to some people, more believable. For example, Luke would not have told about an angelic announcement to Mary, and Matthew recount an angelic announcement to Joseph. Either they both would have included both announcements or they would have chosen to include one story or the other. Alternatively, if each author had fabricated the stories separately, there probably would have been greater discrepancies in the stories and not the obvious agreement that there is between Matthew’s account and Luke’s. As James Boice has written, “There are differences, but there is no mistaking the fact that we are dealing with the same story. There are the same characters: Mary, Joseph, and the baby. Moreover, they are the same people in both accounts and not merely the same names. Matthew’s Joseph is Luke’s Joseph, and Luke’s Mary is Matthew’s Mary. Again, the great event, the birth of Jesus Christ by miraculous means, is identical.” Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that these stories may not have been made up at all, but that they have a historical basis, that they are stories of true events passed down to the authors of Matthew and Luke from various sources. Again, as James Boice has written, “These accounts bear the kind of superficial differences but underlying unity you find when independent witnesses testify to an event.”
So, in both accounts we are told that the baby is to be named Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves.” As we saw last week, this was a common name to give to a Jewish child at that time in history; it is the same as the Hebrew name—Joshua. And the name points to this child as the future Savior. You will recall that the angel who spoke to Joseph said, “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
The second thing that Gabriel says to Mary is that “he (Jesus) will be great.” Now Gabriel also told Zechariah that the son born to him, namely John the Baptist, would be “great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:15) But Jesus’ greatness is seen in the lofty title that will be assigned to him which we will examine in a moment. This pronouncement must have struck Mary as remarkable, that her son would be great when she herself was of such humble origin. Most country girls in Palestine at that time were betrothed at thirteen and married at fourteen. Mary was betrothed to a carpenter who had probably been apprenticed by his father at his bar mitzvah. Now Joseph was likely to be about nineteen years old and he probably had his own business. But it is doubtful that it was much of a business. In most of Palestine there was little lumber. Some stately cedars grew in the powdery alkaline soil, but other than date palms and fig trees and some fruit orchards, it was bald, hilly country. Carpentry would have been a difficult trade by which to earn a living. Mary must have thought it remarkable that her son would be great when she and Joseph were so poor.
Next, the angel tells Mary why her son will be great. Jesus will be called the Son of “the Most High”. This title, “the Most High”, was only given to Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures. So, the angel was saying, in effect, that this baby was the very Son of God.
Then Gabriel tells Mary that the Lord God will give his son the throne of his father David. In other words, this child will be the Messiah. Furthermore, he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. Gabriel’s pronouncement is reminiscent of Isaiah 9:6-7. It is a political as well as a theological statement. Jesus is the true ruler of the world.
So, when we put all of this together, we see that the miracle of Christmas is that God became a human being. The miracle of Christmas, to put it in the language of the Gospel of John, is the miracle of the Incarnation….
One wintry day as a man was walking down the street, he noticed that someone had thrown a sheaf of grain out on the ground. A flock of hungry sparrows had monopolized it for an unscheduled feast. The man paused, then took a step in their direction. The birds became uneasy. Another step, and their nervousness increased. When he was almost upon them, the birds suddenly flew away, leaving their banquet unfinished. For a few moments, the man stood there reflecting on what had happened. Why had those sparrows scattered in flight? He had meant them no harm. Suddenly the thought came to him: it is yourself; you are too big. Then another question pressed upon his mind: how could he walk among those birds without frightening them by his size? Only if it were possible for him to become a sparrow and fly down among them.
The teaching of Christianity is that God wanted to make himself known to us. But he is so big that if he were to walk among us in all his glory, we would be frightened just as those sparrows were scared by the man. But God could do something that humans cannot do. The man could not become a sparrow, but God could become one of us and thus make himself known to us in a way we could understand. That is the big miracle of Christmas.
However, the grand miracle of Christmas that we call the Incarnation was, as Matthew and Luke record, achieved through the more specific, smaller miracle of the virgin conception. Three times in this one brief passage Mary is referred to, or refers to herself, as a virgin. There is no mistaking Luke’s point. Mary was a virgin, and the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb was miraculous, not only because it was the occasion of God becoming human, but also because the Son of God was conceived, not through the normal means, but by the Holy Spirit.
I think C. S. Lewis well described this event when he wrote in his book, Miracles, that “The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”
The question naturally arises: how did this miracle take place? Mary’s question to Gabriel was not, “How can this be?” but rather, “How will this be?” Mary’s question differed from Zechariah who, when told by Gabriel about the birth of his son, asked: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years?” (Luke 1:18) Zechariah doubted the veracity and authority of Gabriel’s report and thus was struck speechless until after John’s birth. Mary did not question the veracity or authority of Gabriel’s pronouncement; she simply wanted to know the mechanics of how she would become pregnant without having intercourse with a man.
Gabriel’s response was that the Holy Spirit would come upon and overshadow Mary. The angel did not explain the mechanics of how the Virgin Birth was to be accomplished except to say that this child would be the product of the Holy Spirit conceiving Jesus in Mary’s womb.
Again, I find C. S. Lewis helpful at this point. He writes: “The Virgin Birth is a doctrine plainly stated in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus had no physical father, and was not conceived as a result of sexual intercourse…. The exact details of such a miracle … are not part of the doctrine.” (Letters of C. S. Lewis, 232-233)
But why, you may ask, is this miracle important? Gabriel answers this question when he says to Mary, “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35c) Thus, the story of the virgin conception is important because it emphasizes Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.
Is it possible to have Christian faith without believing in the virgin conception? Certainly, it is. Paul knows nothing of the virgin conception, neither do Mark or John or any of the other documents of the New Testament.
However, there is something very fitting about the virgin conception as taught by Matthew and Luke. It fits with the tradition of miraculous births throughout Israel’s history. It fits with the work of the Holy Spirit taught throughout the New Testament. It fits with what Paul writes in Romans 5. In Romans 5:12 we read, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin … death spread to all because all have sinned…” Paul then presents Jesus as “the second Adam”. Jesus was the beginning of a new line of humanity. The virgin conception underscores this: Jesus did not inherit a sin nature from his human parents, but rather a perfect nature from his heavenly father. Because Jesus was a human being free of sin, he could live a perfect life in fulfillment of God’s law, and because he was divine he could pay for the sin of the whole world. As Paul puts it, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)
Another question commonly raised by people today is: how are we to explain the virgin birth? In other words: how can there be such a thing? This question is often asked because the dominant worldview in our day is naturalism. Naturalism denies that there is anything beyond nature, therefore there can be no miracles. But if you admit that there is a God, then the possibility of God intervening in nature, the possibility of miracles, exists. Miracles in general are a problem only to the naturalist, not to the super-naturalist worldview. As Gabriel says: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Personally, I could not have come to the point of having an adult Christian faith in the supernatural without the help of C. S. Lewis. Therefore, I find I must quote from him a third time this morning. Lewis writes of the Virgin Birth,
I can understand the man who denies miracles altogether: but what is one to make of people who will believe other miracles and “draw the line” at the Virgin Birth? Is it that for all their lip service to the laws of Nature there is only one natural process in which they really believe? Or is it that they think they see in this miracle a slur upon sexual intercourse (though they might just as well see in the feeding of the five thousand an insult to bakers) and that sexual intercourse is the one thing still venerated in this unvenerating age? In reality the miracle is no less, and no more surprising than any others…. No woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, without Him. But once, and for a special purpose, He dispensed with that long line which is His instrument: once His life-giving finger touched a woman without passing through the ages of interlocked events. Once the great glove of Nature was taken off His hand. His naked hand touched her. There was of course a unique reason for it. That time He was creating not simply a man but the Man who was to be Himself: was creating Man anew: was beginning, at this divine and human point, the New Creation of all things. The whole soiled and weary universe quivered at this direct injection of essential life—direct, uncontaminated, not drained through all the crowded history of Nature.
If this miracle of Christmas truly happened, it shows that no problem is too great for God’s power and no person is too small for his love. If the Lord chose to show his grace, his favor, to someone like Mary, then certainly he can show his grace to us. If the Lord can accomplish a virgin conception, then certainly there is no problem that we are facing today that is too great for his power.
Perhaps the most important question posed by this passage of Scripture is this: what is our response to the miracle of Christmas?
In one of his Christmas sermons, Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, theologian, and preacher from the thirteenth century speaks “of the virgin birth as something that happens within us. That is, the story of the virgin birth is the story of Christ being born within us through the union of the Spirit of God with our flesh. Ultimately, the story of Jesus’ birth is not just about the past but about the internal birth in us in the present.” (Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 186)
I hope our response to that birth of Jesus within us will be like that of Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”