“Let’s talk about sex” is great click-bait for a sermon blog.
But to be honest, the big S-E-X is staring at us, right in the face in today’s readings.
One thing I’ve been wondering:
Christmas time is the time of the year when we get the most visitors in church.
The most non-churched, de-churched, non-Christians and skeptics come to church in the next week.
And then they are here and they are presented with the statement:
a virgin gave birth. Hurray! (almost like a setup for a punchline)
A real stumbling block, in my opinion.
And we wonder why folks don’t take Christians seriously,
and dismiss our “blind faith” or us as fools or non-critical thinkers,
when the only time they come to church they are confronted with these quote “prehistoric” ideas, like the virgin birth, that are hard to reconcile with our modern scientific understandings.
Perhaps we can only hope that they might accept it as quaint, or grin and bear it for the sake of the nice music and the candlelight… and not ask too many questions.
Now the history of reproductive theory,
or of how humans understood sex and procreation to happen,
is actually quite interesting,
If we think about how people at the time of Jesus thought about procreation, it was very different from today.
The “ancient world had no concept that you needed male semen and a female ovum to form a fetus”.
It was “thought that the male contribution was some form of generative principle (that is, basically a philosophical construct), while the woman’s bodily fluids would provide all that was needed for the child’s physical body.”
Or in other words, they thought the father’s contribution was more symbolic, while the mother’s body did all the work.
It’s important to note that the best writer on the subject of biology in the ancient world was Aristotle, and he was a philosopher.
Supernatural birth stories in Hebrew Scripture were common, going back to the miraculous birth of Isaac.
And also in 1st century Roman world such birth miracle stories were common. Alexander the Great was said to have been conceived by a virgin birth, and the Roman Emperors themselves were considered to have a miraculous birth, and to be partly divine.And then there still was a lack of understanding about sex in general (esp. in mammals) for almost 1700 years.
It was only in the late 17th century that the theory of the female egg in mammals emerged, and in 1827 a mammalian egg was discovered for the first time (from a female dog) and in 1876 the fusion of a spermatozoa with an ova of a starfish was observed for the first time.
So relatively late in the 2000 years since Christ’s birth have w discovered actually how babies are made.
However the inconvenient issue of the virgin birth remains present in our Christian life:
the virgin birth comes up in the creeds,
in our hymns (like in our Hymn of the Day: Saviour of the Nations come, virgin’s son…it’s right there),
and closer to home there was a “heresy trial” of a pastor in our own Synod a few decades ago, where the non-belief in the virgin birth played a large role, as I recall.
But on the other hand, the Gospels of Mark and John make no mention of the virgin birth, neither do any of the other letters of Paul.
Matthew and Luke, while introducing the virgin birth in their first chapters, don’t allude to it at all further on.
Our first reading from Isaiah, which is quoted in Matthew, refers to a young woman conceiving (saying nothing of her virginity) in the original Hebrew, while only the Greek translation brings up virginity (the Greek being quoted by Matthew).
So even in the Bible, not much is made of the virgin birth of Jesus.
In the centuries after Jesus, as church fathers wrestled about doctrines and dogma (and let’s be honest: there were practically no church mothers, and that explains some of our hang-ups),
as church doctrine was being hammered out, they still didn’t think of a giant sperm coming down from the clouds:
the virgin birth was a philosophical construct; remember they thought the male contribution was in some form of principle of reproduction.
They needed to make sense of how Jesus had a Heavenly Father, and how Jesus could be human and at the same time divine, and how it was that Jesus was more special than other important figures of his time.
And so the virgin birth was accepted for a long time as proof of the divinity of Christ but started to be called into question in the Enlightenment, and continues to be a bone of contention for agnostics and Christians alike, and perhaps heated discussions around the Christmas dinner table with uncle Joe.
And what about you?
I would suspect that there are many of you who have your own reservations. Possibly most of you believe in the virgin birth to some degree, but might find it hard to believe or don’t quite understand it.
Or there are some of you who don’t care either way.
“But Pastor, what do you think?”, you may be wondering.
(Now nobody wants a heresy trial, least of all me, so I will be careful here…)
Well, I think when we talk about the virgin birth, we’re not talking about modern biology, but about theology (and here I’m on the same page with most Protestant thinkers, and even some Catholic ones)
(Not to discount miracles, of course).
But the virgin birth helps to explain the theory that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
How Christ is God-with-us, and the Word made flesh.
The virgin birth helps to explain why Christ did what he did, how he lived, died and rose, and how his story makes any sense.
And I think it’s important to remember that if you
don’t understand it: that’s OK.
If you don’t agree with it: that’s OK.
Once can take it seriously but not literally.
And I think the Lutheran concept of “Adiaphora” is helpful here: determining whether it is essential to salvation
or vitally important to the faith.
Some might say yes, but I say no.
It’s an example of something where our present knowledge is greater than 2000 years ago.
It’s an example of something we can use recent scientific discoveries (whether in the social or health or pure sciences) to evaluate.
And it’s OK as liberal Christians to criticize and reevaluate Biblical texts, while inspired by God, were written by fallible humans, humans who revisioned ideas and concepts of previous or even contemporaneous Biblical writers.
Now what point does the virgin birth serve, from a theological standpoint?
Matthew and Luke “use the divine conception to mark the moment when Jesus becomes Son of God” and this is different from the Gospel of Mark which dates it to Jesus’ baptism,
or Paul for whom the resurrection is the key proof of Jesus’s divine Sonship.
So in other words, Jesus is Son of God because he did not have a biological father, Joseph being more like a guardian than the sexual partner of Mary, or at least according to Matthew they waited until after Jesus was born to have sex (or presumably a few months after that).
Jesus is thus Son of God (through the Spirit), and also Son of David, (through the flesh, and the boring genealogy that we could have, but didn’t read from this morning in the very beginning of Matthew’s first chapter.)
Jesus is also Son of God because his coming fulfills prophecy, going way back to trusted persons in Israel’s history.
And we, like Joseph, are called and invited by messengers and angels to trust in the divine promise that this Jesus will be the one through whom God saves.
And we, like Joseph, are asked to rely on God through God-with-us, Emmanuel.
Jesus, Emmanuel who saves us from sin, whether it be individual, socio-political, or cosmic.
Jesus, Saviour of the Nations is present, saving us today:
Saving us from:
Fear of criticisms,
Fear of loneliness and disease,
Saving us today from the traps of consumerism and unbridled capitalism,
from ecological mayhem,
from addictions and
false abusive relationships,
and from sin and death.
And so, whether there was or there wasn’t sex, it doesn’t matter.
At the end of the day,
only that God cares so much that God wants to be close to us, to love us, to be with us and show us the better way. Amen.