A sermon by Margaret Hall
One of the benefits of the abuse hurled at religious beliefs, especially the torrent released by Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, is the opportunity it gives the holders of those beliefs – to think more clearly about what we believe, why we believe it and whether believing it is making any difference to how we live – how we come through situations that might otherwise sink us.
One belief we don’t often talk about is nevertheless part of the creed many of us repeat every Sunday. I admit I give it very little thought, except perhaps when Christmas looms. The Apostles’ Creed reminds us of the Christmas story, by describing Jesus as ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ and ‘born of the virgin Mary’.
Each year as we wander through shops filled with the strains of Silent night, we might wonder, ‘Is a virgin giving birth just the weirdest part of a myth, that no modern person actually believes? Or is it possible that that’s what happened?’
Matthew and Luke, the Gospel-writers who tell us how Jesus was born, both quote the words of God’s messenger Gabriel that Jesus was conceived by God’s power. When Mary questioned how she could have a child when she was still a virgin, Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
When Joseph was thinking of breaking off his engagement, having discovered his fiancée was pregnant, Gabriel said to him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Did such a conception take place?
Since that’s not provable by any scientific means, we do what we do with everything in the past – we look, if we can, at what people were saying at the time – the story those who were around were sticking to.
Some might say, ‘But you can’t believe Matthew and Luke. They had an agenda – getting people to think Jesus was unique.’ Yet to say the accounts of his life were written by people who believed in him, in order to get others to believe in him, is not to say that the events they described didn’t happen. The writers clearly expected them to be taken as things that happened, at times and in places people knew about – they were writing about a person who’d lived and died within recent memory. In fact, they were merely recording what had been well-circulated already – passed on in the oral tradition people relied on, and were used to using accurately.
By sticking to the story that Mary became pregnant by God’s power, Matthew and Luke risked being accused of borrowing from pagan myths. In the ancient world there were plenty of stories of heroes who were conceived by the intervention of a god. If Matthew and Luke weren’t convinced Mary was telling the truth, why risk being accused of copying pagans? – something Jewish people would hate to be seen doing.
No doubt there were always people who suspected such stories were cover-ups for births that were in fact illegitimate. John records in his account a suggestion from the crowds that Jesus’s mother had been less than chaste before her marriage – it seems that even during Jesus’ lifetime the story of his strange conception was out there. If Matthew and Luke weren’t convinced Mary’s story was true, why subject her to such suspicions?
But there was another risk in relating the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s main point, from Gabriel’s announcement to Mary to the shepherds running off to see the baby, was that he would be both Saviour and Lord – God with us. Spreading that message was dangerous for subjects of the Roman Emperor, who claimed for himself divine status and absolute lordship. It’s safe to say that those who passed on the explosive details of Jesus’ birth did so only because they really believed they were true.
Some people might say the first Christians thought of Mary as a virgin because in those days people were prepared to believe pretty well anything. Nowadays we know better. Some even suggest that people back then didn’t really understand how women got pregnant.
Mary and Joseph certainly knew. When Mary was told she’d have a son, she said, “How will this happen? I’m still a virgin. “ When Joseph found out she was pregnant, it was a problem for him, only because he knew exactly how pregnancies begin. The ancients would have assumed, as we would, that a pregnant woman who claimed she’d never been with a man was lying.
But the wonder is not that the God who created the universe can do what we deem to be impossible. It’s that a young woman would respond to Gabriel’s announcement as Mary did: “Let it be to me as you have said.”
Shortly after Gabriel delivered his message, Mary set off on the long journey from Nazareth to Judea, to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was also pregnant unexpectedly. Together they celebrated what was to happen. In their culture, song and dance were the normal ways to celebrate, and Mary sang a song, still sung today. It was largely made up of snatches of all the old songs about God’s power to keep his promise to save his people from oppression.
Mary’s song hints at what she and her people were living through at the time God’s power came upon her – Roman soldiers everywhere, marching along the roads, forcing passers-by at the point of a sword to carry their packs, lounging at the tax-booths, which the cruel and rapacious Herod had set up to collect taxes, for the Emperor and for himself. If soldiers then were like armed men now who roam at will, women and girls setting out on their errands would have been only too well aware how vulnerable they were.
So Gabriel’s appearance to tell Mary that God in his mercy was present and active, unexpectedly and powerfully, brought from her an outburst of praise, which finds its echo in the hearts of everyone who’s ever suffered at the hands of others:
God’s mercy extends to those who fear him. With his arm he’s performed mighty deeds. He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts, bringing down rulers from their thrones and lifting up the humble.
God was powerfully at work to right the world’s wrongs, astoundingly through Mary. By that same power he brought her through what followed – the disgrace of being thought promiscuous; the anxiety when Jesus was twelve of not knowing for days where he was; the hurt she might have felt when as a young adult he seemed to infer she was interfering; her horror when she thought he was losing his mind; her fears as she realized the authorities were closing in on him; and her unspeakable agony as she watched him hanging from a Roman cross.
God’s power at work in Mary brought her through to the joy of being forever with Jesus, as her risen Lord.
Mary conceiving Jesus while still a virgin is simply one part of the whole story of God’s power at work in his world. God was at work in Abraham when he believed he should leave his home without knowing where he was going – an extraordinary faith in extraordinary promises – a faith passed down to the descendants Abraham had given up on having.
God was powerfully at work in Joseph, to raise him from a slave in an Egyptian prison to be second only to the Pharaoh. God’s power was overshadowing the baby Moses, when he saved him from certain death, restored him to his mother for his first years, provided him with the education of an Egyptian prince, and enabled him to demand the Pharaoh set free all his Israelite slaves.
And so on and so on, through the unfolding story of God’s rescue, of a world that can’t rescue itself. That story reached its climax in the child who was not only conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, but who grew up to be the man who suffered under Pontius Pilate, who died and was buried and who on the third day rose from the dead. Through the whole package of Jesus’ conception and birth, his life and death and resurrection and ascension, God powerfully established a new order, under which suffering humanity is set free from its bondage to sin and death.
While we wait for that new order to be fully established, the all-powerful God is still with us, to see us through our present struggles – all the more so when we feel helpless.
Young William Wilberforce was discouraged one night in the early 1790s, after another defeat in his ten- year battle against the slave trade. Tired and frustrated, he opened his Bible and began to leaf through it. A piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. It was a letter written by John Wesley shortly before his death. Wilberforce read it again: “Unless the divine power has raised you up… I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise of opposing the abominable practice of slavery, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might.”
Wilberforce’s ultimate success tells us God was working powerfully to achieve his purpose.
We might live smaller lives, but we all face tough situations. Our part, like Mary’s, is to believe that God is at work, to praise him for his faithfulness, persevere in prayer, and wait patiently for his will to be done. For all the things that seem impossible to us, we’re to trust in him with all our heart, not leaning on our own understanding, but in all our ways acknowledging him, so that he may direct our paths.
Each year as Christmas comes round, we sing that line from Silent Night, ‘Round yon virgin, mother and child’. Or we enjoy the Negro spiritual, Da virgin Mary had a baby boy. All the much-loved carols tell the same story – about the God who’s powerfully at work, often in the most unexpected ways, to fulfill his good purposes for the world he loves. The coming of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, opened the way for that world to be restored, to the glory God gave it when he put it all in place.
Christ by highest heav’n adored –
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell –
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”