Sunday, 30 December 2018

The One True God?

From time to time, I lead small groups on tours of the British Museum,
          focusing particularly on artefacts that are relevant to Biblical Studies.

It started many years ago,
          when I used to bring groups down from my university classes in Cardiff,
and I’ve done a few since coming to London,
          including a group from our Tuesday lunch earlier this year.

It’s always good fun,
          and there’s a surprisingly large amount of material in there
          that’s relevant to helping us understand the Bible.

One of the objects I always try and point out is a small baked clay cylinder,
          a bit like a large toilet roll tube, and covered in tiny writing.

It’s known as the Cyrus Cylinder,
          and it’s one of the great treasures of the Museum.

It was discovered in 1879,
          but actually dates from the 6th century BCE,
and spent the intervening millennia buried in the ground in Babylon,
          in modern day Iraq.

It returned to the Near East a few years back, in 2012,
          on a four month loan to Iran, and was displayed in Tehran.
During this time, nearly a quarter of a million people came to view it,
          and it has been described, intriguingly,
          as “the first charter of human rights

So what is it that is so special about this little clay object,
          that’s about the size of a bottle of wine?

Well, the cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform
          with an account by Cyrus, the king of Persia,
detailing his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC
          and of his capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.

This takes us right into the final years of the Israelite exile to Babylon,
          which begun under king Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE
          and ended under Cyrus’s own rule in 539 BCE.

If you were around for my sermon a few weeks ago
          on the Massacre of the Innocents,
you may remember that we traced the events of the start of the exile,
          as first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians
          conquered the country of Israel.

Well, the Cyrus cylinder takes us to the end of the exile,
          and it also takes us right into the time of the prophet
          who wrote text of our Old Testament reading.

The cylinder is, in effect, something like a cross
          between a piece of propaganda, and a historical document.

It describes the good things that King Cyrus has done
          for the inhabitants of Babylon who he has just conquered.

One of the things it talks about
          is how Cyrus has returned a number of images of foreign gods,
which Nabonidus and other Babylonian kings had collected together in Babylon,
          back to their proper temples in their own countries.

There is a certain irony here,
          because the Cyrus cylinder is itself an object displaced from its land of origin,
          and there are those who are calling for it to be permanently restored to Iran.

And yet it famously contains the story
          of how Cyrus returned revered objects from his time
          back to their land of origin.

The cylinder also tells
          how Cyrus arranged for the restoration of foreign temples,
          and of how he organized the return to their homelands
                   of a number of people groups who had been held in exile in Babylonia.

Although the Jews aren’t mentioned by name on the cylinder,
          their return to Palestine following their years of exile in Babylon
          was certainly part of this policy enacted by Cyrus.

One of the fascinating things about the cylinder, is that in it,
          Cyrus claims to have achieved his victory over the Babylonian king Nabonidus
          with the aid of the Babylonian god, Marduk.

Cyrus, of course, wasn’t Babylonian, he was Persian,
          but he claimed that the Babylonian god Marduk was fighting on his side,
          against the Babylonian king.

So here we have a Persian king,
          who would have grown up worshipping gods
          drawn from the pre-Zoroastrian pantheon,
                   including Mithras who later became so popular with the Romans.

But when he conquers Babylon,
          he claims in the Cyrus Cylinder that he did it
                   with the help of none other than Marduk,
                   the god of Babylon itself.

One of the things about the ancient pantheon
          was that each tribe, or country, had their own gods.

So it kind-of makes perfect sense for Cyrus to claim Marduk’s support
          when he becomes the ruler of Babylon,
because his Persian gods are still in Persia,
          and if he is to rule in Babylonia,
          he will need to do so with the approval of the Babylonian god.

By the same token,
          there’s not a lot of point keeping the gods from Mesopotamia in Babylon,
they might as well go back to their own temples
          in their countries of origin,
and so Cyrus sends the captured gods back home,
          with grants to rebuild their local temples.

The story of the rebuilding of the Jewish temple
          that we find in the book of Ezra
          clearly fits into this story at this point.

But our Old Testament reading for this morning
          isn’t from quite that far into the future.

The Jewish prophet of Isaiah 45
          is writing in the final years of the Israelite exile,
at the time when Cyrus of Persia was growing in strength,
          and was starting to pose a threat
          to the previously unassailable Babylonian empire.

And Isaiah hails Cyrus, not as an agent of the Persian gods,
          nor as an agent of Marduk,
                   but as an agent of none other than Yahweh himself.

The way Isaiah 45 puts it,
          Cyrus is Yahweh’s anointed one,
                   he is Yahweh’s messiah,
coming to bring release and freedom for the people of the Lord,
          to overthrow the evil powers of the Babylonian empire,
          to bring release the captives
          so that they can return to the promised land.

Just as Cyrus claimed Marduk’s support in conquering Babylon,
          so Isaiah ascribed Cyrus’s actions
          to his God Yahweh!

You might start to suspect
          that history is written by the winners,
who spin their stories to claim whatever God they can
          to justify the outcome of their endeavours.
But maybe that’s too cynical.

However, this idea that a non-Israelite
          might be the servant of Israel’s God
has found an interesting parallel
          in religious responses to President Trump.

Following Trump’s announcement earlier this year
          that the US embassy in Israel would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,
the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked,
          “I want to tell you that the Jewish people have a long memory,
                   so we remember the proclamation of the great king, Cyrus the Great,
                   Persian king 2,500 years ago.
          He proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon
                   could come back and rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem.”[1]

Netanyahu’s suggestion that Trump may be compared to Cyrus
          because of his specific policies affecting Israel
          gives his analogy a unique twist.

But American evangelicals have been comparing Trump to Cyrus
          since he first started to stand for the presidency.
They argue that just as Cyrus,
          scarcely a devotee of the God of Israel, served as God’s agent
          by authorizing Jewish exiles in Babylon
                   to return to the Promised Land
                   and to rebuild the temple,
          so the narcissistic and morally flawed Trump
                   can advance the causes of the evangelical community,
                   and by extension, the country.

If you are wondering how Christians can overlook Trump’s moral failures
          and still support him,
here is a strong theological rationale.

And if you’re wondering how Christians
          can offer uncritical support to the Israeli occupation of Palestine,
here is a strong ideological rationale.

In both these scenarios, as in so much else in public theology,
          pragmatism wins and the ends justifies the means.

But back to the sixth century BCE

One of the implications of Jewish monotheism
          was that other gods have no validity.

Whereas the polytheistic Cyrus
          could happily adopt a policy of when in Babylon,
                   do as the Babylonians do,
          the Jews didn’t have this option.

Their perspective was that if good happens, it happens because of Yahweh,
          even if those doing the good
          think they’re doing it the name of Marduk.

Now, we might have a conversation
          about whether we think God ever actually wills
                   warfare and wholesale destruction,
          but that’s a conversation for another day.

As far as the prophet of Isaiah 45 is concerned,
          anything that threatens to break the stranglehold of Babylon
                   is unambiguously a good thing,
          and so he welcomes Cyrus as Yahweh’s anointed.

The proclamation of the Lord as the one and only God,
          the one who created the heavens and the earth,
          the one besides whom there is no other,
leads the prophet to an interesting place, theologically,
          which is the recognition that God is at work beyond Israel,
bringing his purposes to fruition
          even through people who do not yet know him by name.

Earlier this year I participated in one of those Facebook challenges,
          of posting the covers of the ten books
          that have had the most influence on me.
A couple of mine were by C.S. Lewis,
          and one was The Last Battle, the apocalypse from the Narnia series.

In The Last Battle, the follower of the eagle-headed god Tash,
          (a clearly Assyrian deity, by the way),
finds himself confronted with Aslan.
The Tash worshipper says to Aslan:

‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but a servant of Tash’

but Aslan answers,

‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash,
          I account as service done to me.’

The Tash worshipper continues the story:

‘Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding,
          I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said,
          Lord, is it then true … that thou and Tash are one?
The Lion growled so that the earth shook … and said, It is false.
          Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites,
                   I take to me the services which thou hast done to him.
For I and he are of such different kinds
          that no service which is vile can be done to me,
and none which is not vile can be done to him.’

Now, this is not unproblematic, because within the world of Narnia,
          the Calormenes who worship Tash
have a strong similarity to a stereotypical caricature
          of Arab Muslims in our world.

The Catholic theologian Paul F Ford has commented that
"C. S. Lewis was a man of his time and socioeconomic class.
Like many English men of this era, Lewis was unconsciously
          but regrettably unsympathetic to things and people Middle Eastern.
Thus he sometimes engages in exaggerated stereotyping
          in contrasting things Narnian and things Calormene.
He intends this in a broadly comic way, almost vaudevillian.
          But in our post-September 11, 2001, world, he would, I am sure,
          want to reconsider this insensitivity."[2]

Whereas outspoken atheist critic and novelist Philip Pullman
          has called the Chronicles of Narnia "blatantly racist"

So we must tread with care,
          because I would not for one moment want to suggest
          that Allah and Yahweh are opposites.
Quite the opposite in fact;
          the objects of worship in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity
          seem to me to have far more in common than otherwise.

But I would also be avoiding the issue,
          if I wrote off the significance for me as a young Christian
coming to realise that service offered
          in the name of a differently understood and differently named God
          might be counted as service by the God I worshipped.

And, of course, it occurred to me that maybe the corollary is also true;
          What if my faithful service to my God
                    were similarly welcomed by the God
                    of those who worship their god differently to me?

Well, this is the insight of Isaiah 45.
          The actions of Cyrus committed in the name of Marduk
                   are accepted by Yahweh,
          because the Lord of Israel is the Lord of the whole earth,
                   and nothing that is good can be anything other
                             than acceptable to him,
         regardless of who does it,
                   or in whose name it is done.

And so the prophet of Israel proclaims
          that God is continually at work in the world,
overthrowing chaos and bringing order to the land,
          just as he called ‘order’ on the chaos of the deep
          when calling creation itself into being.

The chapter ends with a proclamation to all people,
          in all nations, to the ends of the earth,
that they should turn to the Lord and be saved,
          and the prophet has the Lord himself speak,
in language later echoed by St Paul in his letter to the Romans (14.11):
          The Lord says: "To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear."

For Paul, it’s not Yahweh to whom every knee shall bow:
          it’s Jesus Christ himself who commands the worship of every knee,
          the allegiance of every tongue.

The testimony of the New Testament
          is that it is Jesus, not Cyrus,
                   or any other modern-day, Cyrus-like figure,
          who is the Lord’s anointed,
the messiah sent by God to bring freedom to those in captivity,
          and release to those who are oppressed.

We see this in the story of the wise men coming to worship Jesus.

Wise men from the east, from Persia, from the country of Cyrus.
          Probably Zoroastrian philosophers,
                   the heirs of the pantheon worshipped by Cyrus.

And they come to worship Jesus,
          led by a system of astrology very alien to us,
                   and condemned in the Old Testament,
          yet they come anyway,
and their adoration of the Christ-child is acceptable
          and their gifts are received by mother of God.

And we see the same thing in the story of Paul in the Areopagus in Athens,
          who proclaims Jesus as the one already being worshipped
          by the Athenians as their ‘unknown god’.

In fact, we have this story immortalised in this building
          in one of our stained glass windows,
as the founder of the church built into the architecture
          a commitment to proclaiming God
                   in the midst of a city where God is at work,
          but where many who live there don’t know it and can’t see it.

Paul says that the worship offered to the unknown god,
          by those who also worshipped the Athenian gods of Rome and Greece,
was, at least as far he was concerned,
          acceptable to Jesus.

All of which, I want to suggest,
          raises some interesting questions for those of us
who seek to witness to Jesus Christ
          in the midst of a pluralistic world.

What is our approach to be,
          towards those who currently worship other gods?

On what basis might we seek to proclaim our belief
          that there is only one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Does our belief in one God of all the earth rule out the possibility
          that others might know and worship the true God
in ways that seem very alien,
          or even unacceptable, to us?

What do we think we mean
          when we speak of the mission of God to the world?

Can we learn to see that God is at work
          in the world beyond our boundaries and borders,
drawing all things and all people to himself;
          and that we and those like us
          are only a part of God’s loving intent for all that exists?

What do we think we’re doing
          when we engage in evangelism?

What if we think of the sharing of the good news of Jesus
          as being less about saving people
          from other forms or religion, agnosticism and atheism,
and instead as being more about inviting people
          to hear the good news of a God of love
who enters into human affairs and lives
          to bring a new world of peace and justice into being?

I’m not sure the answers to these questions
          are quite as clear-cut as we would sometimes like them to be,
and I think that the witness of scripture
          is that we may need to be very careful
          before we start to condemn those who we do not understand.

The testimony of the Prophet of Isaiah 45
          is that spiritual world is not made up of a good god and a bad god,
                   competing for worship.
There are not lots of gods,
          presiding over different territories.

Rather, there is only one God,
          and he is the Lord of the whole earth.
All that is good is acceptable to him,
          and all that is evil is abhorrent to him
          and comes under his judgment.

And it is this one God who comes to his people in Jesus,
          to bring liberation, freedom, and good news.

And it is the one God who sends the spirit of Jesus
          into the world to draw the nations to himself,
          to the ends of the earth.

And it is this one God that we worship,
          in wilful defiance of all other claims to our allegiance.



Sunday, 23 December 2018

Is a virgin birth inconceivable?

A Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
23 December 2018

Luke 1.26-35 
Matthew 1.18-25 

There is a wonderful scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian,
            where Brian’s mother has been trying to convince the crowd
                        that has gathered outside their house
            that Brian is not, in fact, the son of God.

She utters the immortal lines,
            which you can say along with me if you like,
            ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’.

And then something interesting happens,
            one of the men in the crowd says to her,
‘Excuse me, are you a virgin?’
            Brian’s mother replies, in a scandalised voice,
            ‘I BEG YOUR PARDON???!!!’.

The man goes on, ‘Well, if it’s not a personal question, are you a virgin?’
            Brian’s mother answers,
            ‘“If it’s not a personal question?” How much more personal can you get???’
                        and tells him, and the crowd, in no uncertain terms to go away.

As the window on the house bangs shut,
            the crowd start to mutter, ‘Bet she is’.
And so the story of Brian’s virgin birth begins.

It’s a genuinely funny scene from a brilliant film,
            and it raises some questions for us to consider this morning.

Firstly, it raises the question of the origin
            of the virgin birth stories that are told about Jesus,
and as we conclude our anti-lectionary series, at least for now,
            in which we have been tackling from the pulpit
            some issues not normally preached on in church,
we’ll be spending some time today
            thinking about the virgin birth stories in the gospels.

But secondly, the Python film raises the question of gender.

You see, Brian’s mother is played by Terry Jones,
            doing a humorous squeaky girl’s voice.
And as I come to speak on this topic
            I am very aware that there are big problems
                        with men speaking about, and for, women,
            particularly on issues as sensitive as sex and childbirth.

For example, is it OK for me to discuss, publicly,
            questions about the virginity of a teenage girl?
Even if that girl is Mary the mother of Jesus?

Well, I stand in a long line of men who have done precisely that
            over the last two thousand years,
starting with the two men who wrote the two gospels
            in which the virgin birth traditions are found.

And it is uncomfortable, to say the least,
            to reflect that many of the issues we will be considering
            are issues that have emerged from the minds of men.

So as we turn to these passages,
            we will need to recognise that part of the problem before us
                        is a long tradition of male-dominated readings
                        of Mary’s life, sex life, and sexuality.

And so, to the topic of today’s sermon:
            ‘Is a virgin birth inconceivable?’

In the interest of showing my working,
            I’d like to say how helpful I’ve found a couple of books in preparing this week.

Firstly, Kyle Roberts ‘A Complicated Pregnancy:
            Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why it Matters’,
and secondly Andrew Lincoln, ‘Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus’.
            I commend both of these if you’d like to do some further reading.

Those of you who were here for my sermon on ‘Do miracles happen?’
            won’t be surprised to know that I bring an interest in science and logic
            to the question of the miraculous conception of Jesus.

And here’s the thing: at a scientific level,
            humans don’t have virginal conceptions.
Some animals do - some insects, amphibians, and weirdly, sharks -
            have the ability for a mother to become spontaneously pregnant,
            with the offspring being comprised entirely of DNA from the mother.
But this has never been observed in humans.

But let’s suppose that Jesus was, miraculously,
            the first and only human example of this happening,
he would have been comprised entirely of DNA from Mary,
            which would have meant that he had to have been female,
            because the male Y chromosome is not carried in women.

That is, unless Mary was a hermaphrodite,
            which while not impossible, is extremely unlikely,
particularly as there are no recorded cases
            of a human hermaphrodite having both types of functioning gonadal tissue.

So, in short, I don’t think there’s a ‘natural’ explanation
            for the story of Jesus’ virgin birth.
Either this is a miracle that violates the laws of nature, a
            s David Hume the eighteenth century philosopher defined ‘miracle’;
or it didn’t actually happen.

So, was Jesus born of a virgin?
            Let’s consider the biblical evidence.

The story of the virginity of Mary is found only in two books in the Bible:
            the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
There is no mention of it in Mark or John,
            and Paul seems entirely unaware of it in his writings.

In fact, in the Pauline letters,
            which are some of the earliest documents we have in the New Testament,
Paul makes four references to the parentage of Jesus,
            and in each case seems to assume
            that Jesus was born by natural processes.

So in Galatians 3.16, he speaks of Jesus as the ‘seed’ of Abraham,
            which infers descent through the male line.

In Galatians 4.4-5 Paul says that Jesus was God’s son,
            born of a woman under the law,
making no mention of her virginity
            even though it would have helped his argument to do so.

In Romans, he speaks of Jesus as the son of God
            descended from David according to the flesh
            and declared to be the son of God with power according to the spirit (Rom 1.3-4),

and 2 Timothy 2.8 again says
            that Jesus is a descendent of David.

I recognise that we must be wary of arguments from silence,
            but Paul’s silence on this issue is surely not insignificant.

In Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four gospels,
            and written some years after Paul’s death,
there is no infancy narrative at all:
            Jesus just appears in the wilderness as an adult to be baptised by John.

We do, however, get a glimpse of Jesus’ mother and his brothers
            in a couple of places in Mark.

In chapter 3.31-35 Jesus seems to disown them,
            and in 6.3 people take offence at Jesus and belittle him,
saying, ‘is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary
            and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon,
            and are not his sisters here with us?’

Matthew, probably the next gospel to be written after Mark,
            introduces a short infancy narrative, which we had read to us earlier,
where the main point seems to be
            that God has broken into the world in a new way
            to bring the long awaited salvation for Israel.

Matthew, typically, ties this back in with the Old Testament,
            by quoting Isaiah 7.14, ‘Look, the young woman is with child
                        and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’
            Which Matthew tells us means ‘God with us’.

Interestingly, a bit later in his gospel, in chapter 13.54-56,
            Matthew repeats Mark’s story about people taking offence at Jesus
            and naming his mother, brothers and sisters.

It’s quite likely that Matthew just copied this directly from Mark’s gospel,
            which scholars think he had in front of him
            as he wrote his version of the story of Jesus.

John’s gospel does its own, mystical version of the incarnation,
            telling us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (1.14),
and saying that all who believe in Jesus’ name
            can receive the power from God to become children of God.
Again, no mention of a virgin birth.

And so we’re down to just our two passages
            from Matthew and Luke’s gospels.

And actually there is a debate to be had here
            about whether they describe a virgin birth, or a virginal conception.

You might think this is splitting hairs,
            but trust me, a lot of ink has been spilled on this one.

From as early as the second century,
            the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity has been ‘a thing’.

Origen, the early church father,
            went so far as to suggest that Jesus’ siblings were actually his half-siblings
            because he believed that Mary remained a virgin until her death.

You may not have heard of it before,
            but Mary’s Perpetual Virginity has been the dominant view
                        of the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox church,
                        and some protestant traditions including Martin Luther,
                                    Thomas Cranmer, and John Wesley!

The idea here is that Mary not only conceived Jesus miraculously,
            but also gave him birth miraculously,
            thus preserving her virginity.

By this understanding, Jesus did not have a ‘normal’ birth,
            but was miraculously removed from Mary’s womb
                        when the time came for him to be born.
You kind of get the impression that she could have done it with her legs crossed.

This might all seem like a tangent,
            but it actually speaks quite strongly
about traditional Christian attitudes
            towards sex, sexual purity, virginity, and sex outside of marriage.

Even to this day, many Christians are obsessed
            with what goes where, and when, and with whom.
From debates around same sex marriage,
            to singleness and celibacy, to divorce and remarriage,
I sometimes get the impression
            that the church is more concerned about sex
            than it is about ‘justice, mercy and faith’, as Jesus put it (Mt. 23.23).

Within patriarchal Christianity,
            virginity has often been seen as a valuable ‘product’,
                        to be preserved and traded,
            as fathers give their so-called ‘respectable’ daughters to their husbands,
                        along with an appropriate dowry as an assurance of good faith.

And consecrated virginity has become an ideal,
            with celibate priests, monks, nuns and sisters
            being held up as the paragon of the spiritual life.

The dominant view has been that those who have sullied themselves with sex,
            even sex within marriage,
            are not suited for the most holy orders.
The pathway to holiness has historically been virginity,
            and no-one has been more virginal or holy than Mary.

I note that in the church more recently, there has been a shift on this,
            with a married clergy leading to an idealised form of family life,
while those who are child-free, child-less, unmarried, or divorced
            being regarded as in some way secondary.

And all of this comes to us from a Christian tradition
            obsessed with sex as sinful,
to be accommodated within marriage for the procreation of children,
            but definitely not the kind of thing a nice girl like the Blessed Virgin Mary
                        would ever get up to,
            even if she did have to bear a child.

Part of this traditional squeamishness about mixing sex and religion
            is to do with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin,
the idea that sin passes down the generations through sexual reproduction,
            from Adam to the present day.

The logic runs that if Jesus is to be born sinless,
            then there has to have been a break with the inherited sinfulness of man,
and so if he is born of a virgin, with no earthly father,
            he is spared the inheritance of original sin on his father’s side.

But, for Jesus to be truly free of original sin,
            he also has to be free of it on his mother’s side too,
and so the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary emerged,
            which is the belief that Mary’s mother
            was also a virgin at the time of Mary’s birth,
having herself experienced a miraculous conception.

Whilst this belief goes back to the church fathers,
            Pope Pius IX decaled it to be an infallible truth
            for the Roman Catholic church in 1854.

You may not have realised it, but if you visit a church
            called something like ‘The Immaculate Conception’,
they’re not actually talking about the conception of Jesus,
            but his mother…

Anyway, we have some decisions to begin to make here.

Does it matter to us if Mary is perpetually virginal,
            or is it OK from our point of view that Jesus was born in the normal way,
                        through the birth canal,
            and that Mary went on to have sex with her husband
                        and give birth to further children.

If we’re OK with that, we’ve already disregarded
            some key aspects of the virgin birth
            as far as historical orthodox Christianity is concerned.

Also, does it matter to us if Mary was herself conceived miraculously,
            with her mother being a virgin when she gave birth to Mary?

Because if we’re OK with that, we’re disagreeing with an infallible statement
            of the Pope on a core doctrine of the virgin birth.

Also, do we accept or reject the idea of original sin?
            Are children born sinful because of Adam,
                        or are sins what we learn to do as we learn to rebel against the God
                        who makes each one of us in our mother’s womb?

If we accept Original sin, we should probably start baptising babies again,
            just in case they die in a state of damnation,
but if we reject it, we are rejecting an essential aspect
            of Augustine’s theology of the virgin birth.

Anyway, moving on…

Medical science has revealed some wonderful things,
            not least amongst them an understanding
            of how human reproduction works at both a practical and a genetic level.

The discovery of DNA, and the notion of X and Y Chromosomes determining gender,
            have revolutionised processes such fertility treatment.

However, at the time of the birth of Jesus, people were not so enlightened.
            They thought that the woman’s body already contained within it
                        all that was necessary for a new life to begin.
            The role of the male in the process was simply to ‘activate’ the pregnancy,
                        to trigger the process.

So, stories such as we find in Matthew and Luke’s gospels,
            which suggest that a woman becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit,
are simply suggesting that the Spirit of God
            provides the spark to activate the process,
            instead of a man doing it.
It’s still a miracle, but from their point of view,
            it wouldn’t have been seen as a biological contradiction.

Early theologians saw the Virgin birth as the mechanism for full incarnation,
            it was the process by which God became fully human.
They didn’t see it as a biological problem
            which makes Jesus less than human.

It would simply not have occurred to Matthew and Luke
            that the logic of the incarnation of God in the flesh of Jesus
            might be undermined by the idea of a virginal conception.

And here we have a problem.

The incarnation is the belief that God became fully human in Jesus.
            But a modern understanding of human reproduction
                        puts a miraculous conception in conflict
                        with the idea of Jesus being fully human.
            If half his DNA came from God, then is he fully human?
                        And if he’s half-God half-man,
                                    rather than fully-God and fully-man,
                        we are in the difficult territory of some of the heresies
                                    addressed by the early church.

The council of Chalcedon in 451 considered two of these heresies,
            known as Docetism and Adoptionism.
Docetism was the belief that Jesus was fully God,
            but not truly human;
and Adoptionism was the belief that Jesus was fully human,
            but not truly God.

Docetism taught that Jesus as a kind of phantasm, or projection, of God.
            He looked human, but in his true essence he was all God.
            A bit like a kind of souped up version of Princess Leia’s hologram in Star Wars.
                        Indistinguishable from reality, but still not really real.

Adoptionism on the other hand taught that Jesus was fully human,
            and that he was adopted by God at some point in his life,
            either at conception, or birth, or at his baptism.
In this way, Jesus is more like a specially chosen human
            than he is God incarnate in human flesh.

Both of these views had their origins in platonic dualism,
            which was a pre-Christian idea from Greek philosophy,
that everything has two natures -
            a physical nature, the substance,
            and a non-physical nature, the shadow.

The Council of Chalcedon asserted that Jesus was
            both fully God and fully human, both at the same time,
and so rejected the dualism of Docetism and Adoptionism,
            and orthodox Christianity ever since has held to this line.

The language of the virgin birth proved helpful at this point,
            and has continued to do so until more recent times,
in articulating this understanding
            of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus.

However, I want to ask the question this morning
            of whether it remains helpful language for us to continue to use?
What do we think is going on when read those two passages from scripture
            that describe the virgin birth?

Let’s try a thought experiment.

What if Jesus was Joseph and Mary’s son,
            conceived in the normal way between husband and wife?

What difference does it make?

Certainly, it makes no difference to any of Paul’s writings,
            nor does it make any difference to Mark’s gospel or John’s gospel.
It actually makes no difference to the rest of Luke and Matthew’s gospels
            once we get past the first couple of chapters.
It makes no difference to the Book of Revelation, or to Hebrews,
            or the other non-Pauline epistles.

It starts to make a difference to the early creeds,
            as they sought ways of articulating their understanding
            that Jesus was the son of God.

It makes a difference to the Council of Chalcedon’s negotiation
            of the pull towards Docetism or Adoptionism.

It makes a difference to the doctrine of Original Sin,
            and to the Doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary,
            and to the Doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary,
but we’ve already established
            that these don’t matter so much to us Baptists.

And I would just note that we don’t say the creed in our tradition either.

It might start to make a difference to the way we think about sex,
            and sexuality, and singleness, and celibacy, and love and marriage,
            which might not be a bad thing.

It might challenge those who have a literal reading of the Bible,
            and for whom taking any part of the biblical story
            as metaphorical or poetic is a problem.
But again, some of us might think that not such a bad thing.

It might not be so far-fetched to see the traditions about the Virgin birth as stories
            that came into circulation in the decades after Jesus’ earthly life,
partly at least in response to similar stories
            from the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman mythologies,
and partly in response to scandalous speculation about his early years,
            and that these traditions were taken by Matthew and Luke,
            and incorporated into their versions of the life of Jesus.

So, let’s assume for a moment that Jesus was Joseph and Mary’s son,
            conceived in the normal way between husband and wife.

What then is this story of the virgin birth trying to tell us?
            Do we just throw it out, or do we learn to read it differently?
Can we move from a literal to a literary reading
            of these opening chapters from Matthew and Luke’s gospels.

I would suggest that there is great narrative beauty,
            symbolic power, and theological meaning to be found here.

These stories challenge us to think deeply
            about what it means for God to be renewing humanity from within humanity.
They challenge us to see in the person of the baby Jesus
            the action of God in initiating the in-breaking of a new world, a new creation,
with implications not just for individual salvation or personal spiritual renewal,
            but for the transformation of the world politically and economically,
            as those who are oppressed find liberation
                        through the life, death, and resurrection
                        of the child who is God lying in a manger.

The story of a young woman, chosen by God ahead of all male agency,
            to bring to birth the transformation of the world for good,
has the potential to be hugely liberating for women
            in any time and circumstance of oppression or subjugation.

We are invited to hear Mary’s song again,
            with its challenge to the rich and the powerful,
            and its promises of new hope to the poor and the homeless.

We are invited to allow Mary to interpret the significance of her own child to us,
            rather than simply allowing the voices of men
to overlay the miracle of the incarnation
            with speculation about the state of her virginity.

So whilst I would not argue that we should disregard the language of the virgin birth,
            I think we need to know what we mean, and what we don’t mean,
            when we use it in our songs and our liturgies.
It roots us in our historical theological community
            and takes us back to the early centuries of Christian theology.

So, similarly, with the council of Chalcedon
            I would want to continue to assert
            that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
And I do this because divinity and humanity
            are not the same order of thing,
            competing for space in the body of a baby.
The integrity of humanity is not violated
            when divinity makes its home there.

Rather, this is Jesus, God with us,
            in the midst of life, and death,
            and rejoicing, and suffering.
This is Immanuel. God with us.
            This is the baby in the manger,
                        the baby in Mary,
            the son of God, and the son of Man.