Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Sermon: Manger Mystery: Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin?
N.T. Wright writes this story: Once upon a time a powerful dictator ruled his country with an iron will. Every aspect of life was efficient and rational in his kingdom. Except for one thing: the water supply. In his land there were thousands of springs of water that bubbled up into fountains or just little lakes in the middle of towns, roads, and cities. Sometimes this was very useful, or as the ruler might say, efficient. But oftentimes it was a pain. Sometimes the springs got polluted, and often they squirted up to damage roads, ruin fields, and flood houses.
So after much pondering the dictator decided on a very sensible policy. The whole country was paved over with concrete so thick that no spring of water could ever penetrate. It was the Hoover Dam of engineering–only horizontal. With unregulated springs under control, the water was piped to everyone just as they needed, no more, no less. People praised the dictator saying, Our Great Leader is so efficient that water comes only through faucets!
A generation passed. All seemed well until the concrete began to crack and the springs that had been bubbling and sparkling beneath could no longer be contained. In what was a cross between a volcano and an earthquake geysers began to shoot up. The muddy water flooded shops and homes and fields. Roads were torn up and bridges collapsed. Even though it was a disaster, others were delighted that they could access water without going through The System.
N.T. Wright says that “we in the Western world are the citizens of that country.” The dictator is the materialist philosophy that has shaped our thought over the last few centuries. And the springs are what we call, “spirituality”—the hidden springs that continue to bubble up in human hearts and societies that no amount of concrete can tamp down. From 1780 until about 1980 religion had been confined by thick concrete barriers into private, not public, reservoirs. A concrete wall barricaded private religious opinion from the secular public domain. The materialistic worldview kept miracles like the virgin birth underground. But today stuff’s bubbling up.
And so a debate has ensued about funny superstitions like the virgin birth, between those who believe mainly, or only, in the five senses—the cement pourers–and those who believe in spontaneous, surprising springs of spirituality—the springers. Does God break into daily life?
You can understand the cement pourers, can’t you? I mean if I asked all virgins to raise their hands, please don’t, and then asked how many of you are with child, the elders might scold me at our next meeting. Of course! you say. So many will say, What I dislike most about Christianity is that it takes such wild leaps of faith that have no basis in logic. Superstition! Like Professor Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus Interrupted. He gave up the Christianity of his youth because the more he studied, the more ridiculous it seemed. He explains away things like the virgin birth as a story that grows from one region to another like a game of telephone tag. What ends with virgin birth started with something like born in Virginia. Scholars like him point out that other religions of the day had parallel stories of gods having babies with humans.
Now non-believers aren’t the only folks who try to cement over the supernatural. Bible commentator William Barclay points out that only three passages in the Bible refer to the possibility. Since the Bible says so little about it, his opinion is that we’re not required to accept it in the “literal and physical sense.” It’s not so much that Jesus was born of a virgin, but that his father is the Holy Spirit. With God as father and Mary as mother Jesus is the God-man.
But the springers—those who believe that God bursts into history in unique ways—see it differently. Catholic scholar Raymond Brown believes that the presence of mother Mary and Jesus’ brother James in the early church probably would have weeded out legendary stories. These scholars also point out that the virgin birth is not parallel to the ancient stories of gods having sex with women. Two things are different: 1) the pagan stories result in a mermaid god; i.e., half human and half god, whereas the early church confessed Jesus as very God and very man, or 100% God and 100% man. 2) the pagan myths don’t even try to pretend that they are a part of history; e.g., dates or places, whereas Jesus is given a date, place and time. Read Luke 1.
I am basically a springer. Why? I remember walking down the sidewalk of 13th street in Holland, MI at 10 PM 25 years ago with my wife and friend Terry. We had just seen the play Agnus of God and Natsuko talked about how hard it was for her to believe in the virgin birth. I had tried to persuade her before, but Terry changed her mind. He said, Natsuko, it all boils down to whether you believe that God is involved in our lives. For if God has come to us in Jesus, couldn’t God be born of a virgin Mary? Yes, it’s whether you see a world of Spirit fountains, or just a sidewalked world. Life is full of possibility if God bursts forth like a fountain.
For example, I have seen God meet us these last two weeks in the number of people who are stepping up to keep us singing Glooooria in excelsis deo this Christmas. Ed and Judy Staats will be our Interim Music Administrators, Lauren Fox will be our Interim Accompanist, a few directors have volunteered, and we may already have more names than we can accommodate on a new Search Committee. Besides all of that, many of you have been remembering to pray daily for God’s plan here this past week. Each of you is a bubbling spring—the fountains of God!
Yet another example is an email that someone forwarded to me this week regarding a Drexel college senior’s final film making project, entitled Providence. Just the title implies springs. Let me quote from his email:
“Providence” is an endearing story about the significant events that happen to a boy named Joseph at certain stages of his life. To Joseph these major events are under his control. Yet, as the audience watches, it becomes clear that the outcome of these events have been swayed in a certain direction due to the hidden actions God has intended upon Joseph’s life. My film is in major need of donations. If you have a moment visit my website: www.providencethefilm.com The funds collected through this website will go towards the rental of lenses, food, transportation, and all the other various expenses associated with a short independent film.
Mike is a springer. You may want to help his story bubble up. And if you are a springer too, that is, someone who believes God breaks into history, then virgins can give birth. Amen.
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