Why Bother with the Virgin Birth?
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Sundays
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered 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 called holy—the Son of God. And behold, you’re relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:26–38)
Why do we still bother with this idea of the virgin birth? Isn’t it simply too far-fetched for a modern society? After all, many in the church suggest it is a doctrine we can do without. It’s just awkward, and better to dismiss it as a myth they suggest. It’s not in all four Gospels, they point out. Can’t be all that important. Why put the outsiders off? Just get rid of it.
And many have.
Tucked into this view, though, is an understanding that those who lived before us weren’t as ‘enlightened’ as we were. We now know better, is the assumption, and those who lived before were just not as intelligent. The old is out of date, simply because it is old. We are modern people, and are therefore correct! It’s what C S Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery”!
We would be naive if we thought that those who lived two thousand years ago were any less suspicious of virgin births than we are. They may not have had ultrasound, but they certainly knew what it took to create a baby. The virgin birth would have been just as much of a problem back then.
In fact, we might even find evidence of this within the New Testament itself. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is disputing with some Jews who are simply relying on their heritage for salvation. They are arguing they are “Abraham’s children” and so enjoy freedom in God. Jesus points out, in an increasingly heated exchange, that if they were truly Abraham’s children then they would act like Abraham!
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.” (John 8:39–40)
They snap back: “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.”” (John 8:41). “Not born of sexual immorality”. Did you catch the smear? No virgin birth here, just a woman who should have known better.
So why insist on the virgin birth? It’s difficult now, and was difficult then, Why is it important Joseph is not involved? Can’t we just get out the scissors and snip out all this awkwardness? A virgin birth is simply not possible.
And that is the point.
Jesus’ birth says something important - vital - about who he is. The fact that he was born of Mary demonstrates his human nature. Nothing controversial here. The fact that the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary to cause the conception demonstrates his divine nature. That is what is in view here, that is why the laws of nature - laws created by God - are tweaked. The church is not claiming that virgin births happen all over the place, but rather that in a specific place for a specific purpose one such birth took place.
This is what we are supposed to notice, and when we do we can then place Jesus’ birth into a wider context. Suddenly Isaiah 7:14 comes into view: “behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”. This name - Immanuel - becomes important: it means “God with us”. We begin to realise that more is going on in Jesus’ life, and he is no mere human messiah. He is truly God with us.
If we simply had that human messiah, then the the unfolding story would be entirely different. In Jesus we would have a great teacher, and a worker of marvels, but one who is flawed as we are. His death would be heroic, he would die a martyr, but then we could turn the page and get on with life. Jesus would be reduced to a wise sage.
If, however, the Gospels are correct and Jesus was born of a virgin. If the New Testament is right, and Jesus is fully divine as well as fully human. Well, everything changes. We truly have “God with us”. Jesus’ words take on a fresh and unquestionable authority. We have miracles and outbreaks of that divine nature, and we have God walking with us. More even than that, we have a cross which is full of hope, and a resurrection which shows us that the crucifixion was a beginning and not an end.
We have God coming to earth to take us back home.
That is why the Virgin Birth is important and something the cling to, even if it is off-putting. It shows us that we have a a baby born full of hope, and that God is here. We have a God who has not abandoned you. Not forgotten you. A God who has heard your calls, and has showed up.
Come, he says, come follow me. I will show you life. Walk with me.
Come home, I’ve prepared somewhere you. And for that, I will die.