Fact not fiction - Luke 1:1-28

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 7th September 2003.

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There is an old Chinese proverb which runs: if you want to know what water is like don’t ask a fish. The point being that sometimes we can be so familiar with things that we don’t really appreciate their significance. And you know it is like that with Christianity and the West. We have been so used to over millennia of Christianity that the profound impact of Jesus Christ on every aspect of our culture from government to science, from literature to education is simply lost on us. Merely as a historical figure Jesus towers above his nearest competitors. Napoleon Bonapart once said this of him: ‘Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me. Between him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible terms of comparison. He is truly a being by himself.. I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ, or anything which can approach the gospel.’ His impact cannot be overestimated, why even our calendar reflects his coming- distinguishing AD from BC. But from a purely human point of view his monumental impact on the world is very difficult to account for. In his own lifetime he was highly dismissive of the power and glory merchants of his day. Given his homeless lifestyle, he would be harassed and moved on by today’s police if he lived in Europe. Given his teenage mother’s lack of a wedding ring, he would be an automatic candidate for abortion if conceived in Britain. And given his ancestry, he would certainly have been pinned with a yellow star and shipped to the nearest death camp had he lived in Germany in the 1930’s. Would you not agree that to any natural enquiring mind some sort of explanation is required? How do you account for this man? Where does he come from? What was he like? What did he do which so changed the world? Well, within a generation of the lifetime of Jesus one well educated medical doctor, whose name was Luke, decided to find out the answers to those questions for himself. He acknowledges in v 2 that others have engaged in similar research projects, folk who collected together accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus by talking to people who were actually there- eyewitnesses-the best witnesses of all. There was no need to ‘sex up’ these accounts to use that awful spin word , because the accounts were so captivating they didn’t need any embellishment. So in 1:3 Luke says that he set himself the task to, ‘carefully investigate everything from the beginning.’ And that is what he has done- the word akribeia ‘investigate’, means to sift out, to scrutinize, to subject to a thorough investigation, like a doctor carrying out all the tests necessary to diagnose an illness. And at the end of it all he has written an ‘orderly account’ , that doesn’t mean that everything has been put down in strict chronological order, but rather the material has been put together in an orderly way to produce a work which has a definite pattern, which flows and makes sense. Just as a doctor doesn’t merely carry out a medical examination as a matter of academic interest, but does them so that the patient can be cured, so Luke is concerned that we should realise that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has provided the cure for our greatest ills.

So let’s begin by taking a look at the origin of this extraordinary person in Luke 1: 26ff- the story of the Virgin birth, or to be more accurate the virginal conception.

Now right at the outset let me try and dispel a widespread idea which received some notoriety through a former Bishop of Durham, namely, that all such talk of a ‘Virgin Birth’ is nothing more than a myth. You see, the idea of ‘myth’ by definition undercuts the belief that there is an actual historical event involved.Sure,there may be a historical character,but later accretions have been added to what is otherwise a familiar event and turned into something fantastic.Well, the Bible is certainly aware of myths and acknowledges them in other religions-2 Tim 4 for instance.But Luke 1 hardly falls into such a category.For one thing,myths do have the appearance of the exaggerated.So there were Greek myths telling of gods coming to earth and having sexual intercourse with women.But that is not what we have here. What is so striking about Luke’s account is how discrete it is,how subtle and restrained is the telling of the story.No detailed explanation is given as to the ‘how’ the miracle occurred , except that Mary will be ‘overshadowed by the Most High’ a distinctly OT not Greek term.But the miracle itself is not described. Secondly, throughout Jesus life there was always suspicion surrounding his birth.In Mark’s account at one point people say isn't this ‘Mary’s ‘son,which in a patriarchal culture was the most appalling insult. Three centuries later in the Jewish writing called the Talmud,it was rumored that Jesus was the illegitimate offspring of a Roman soldier called Pantera,which was may be a play on the Greek word parthenos,meaning virgin. So there does seem some historical basis for these rumours, as we say ‘there is no smoke without fire.’ Well, here it is-the Virgin birth. As one NT scholar Dr. John Robinson points out, ‘The first and indisputable fact about Jesus’ birth is that it occurred out of wedlock.The only choice open to us is between a virgin birth and an illegitimate birth.’And because he didn’t believe in miracles Robinson opted for the latter. But, if Jesus is who he claimed to be and whose life backed up those claims- the God who became man, then a unique origin of a unique individual makes perfect sense. So why not let the story speak for itself? And this morning I want us to ask two question regarding this unique conception of this unique individual; ‘What does it guarantee?’ and ‘Why does it matter?’

First of all, what does the virgin birth guarantee?

Just look at v 35, ‘The angel answered Mary , "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.’

The first thing the Virgin birth ensures is that Jesus is truly sinless. The angel describes him as ‘the holy one’ and this state of being holy ,morally undefiled, separate and distinct- is the result of the miraculous conception which is to take place in this poor Jewish teenager. Now Christians have always argued about what is called ‘original sin’. Some ask whether we are naturally wired up so we have a tendency towards evil ,maybe it is programmed as part of our genetic code which is with us from birth. Well, it certainly is true that you do not have to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching even the smallest infant to do wrong ,it does come quite naturally as some of you parents know only too well. Or is it, as some argue, a kind of communal guilt which we incur as a result of our solidarity with the human race. As GK Chesterton once put it: ‘Not only are we are all in the same boat, but we are all sea sick.’ It seems to me that the evidence is that it is both. We have a fallen nature and we are a fallen race. But one thing the Bible is quite clear about, and that is that you and I are sinners from birth, our personal history of rebellion can be traced right back to the moment we were conceived. That is why we are morally helpless and why we need a Saviour. We are sinful in God’s sight even before we choose to sin, just as a cracked vase from the factory is flawed even before we buy it. We enter the world as damaged goods. Only one person of the human race has ever been free of that universal spiritual contamination and that is -Jesus of Nazareth. By virtue of his unique birth the angel says he is ‘ holy’, unlike any other human ever born .Here we have the divine blueprint for humanity, what man and woman were intended to be in God’s sight and it is beautiful.

But secondly, this unique conception guarantees that Jesus is truly divine- he was the ‘Son of God.’Now of course others in the Bible are referred to as ‘sons of God’-Adam,Israel,King David,even Christians in the NT .But here there is a unique meaning attached, for in v 32 the angel says he shall be ‘called the Son of the Most High.’ The link here is causal,by virtue of this overshadowing by the Holy Spirit,this person was also to have a divine as well as a human nature.Luke is not using the language of adoption,but the language of beggetting.Its not as if here we have a normal human feotus developing and by some act of divine decree whereby God simply declares this baby into his Son. He is saying that taking an ovum of Mary, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, a divine embryo is implanted in her womb. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary.’. 100% divine and 100% human even when there was only one cell in the womb of his mother. Now let us try and get our minds around this for a moment friends and then tell me that Christianity is just like all the other religions, that Jesus is not worthy of our worship and utter devotion such that if needs be we will sacrifice everything for him. Listen to these words of the 4th century theologian , Athanasius ,as he speaks of the Second person of the Trinity, the Word-God the Son: ‘The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well.. At one and the same time-this wonder-as Man he was living a human life, and as Word he was sustaining the life of the Universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.’ Do you know what that means? It means that the little feotus embedded in the wall of that young girl’s uterus was at the same time sustaining the sun and the other 100 billion stars which make up the Milky way galaxy together with the other 100 billion galaxies dispersed throughout the universe. It means that the one who later lay in the wooden manger was the one whose genius and power brought into being the mighty cedars of which that little box was made. It means that as a young man pinned helplessly to a cross it was only by his sovereign will as King of the Universe that those nails remained in place tearing at his flesh. Now tell me, is the Jesus you say you worship this magnificent? Is he the glorious being whose presence fills the whole cosmos, so he is there at the birth of a supernova in some remote corner of the galaxy ,transcending space and time while inhabiting space and time in a dusty, despised corner of the Roman Empire? That’s what this doctrine means. Of course it defies our tiny minds because this is something beyond our comprehension, the fault lies with our lack of imagination not the doctrine.

But thirdly,this passage guarantees that Jesus was truly human- one of us.Has it ever crossed your mind that God the Son could have arrived in our world in all sorts of other ways?Maybe beaming down from heaven like some extraterrestrial in Star Trek. Why choose this method, so messy, so base? Well, to ensure his humanity. You see, one of the things that makes us human is our family history. We all have a family tree and each family tree is connected with all other family trees in the world so giving solidarity to what is called the human race. Without an ancestry you are not human. What is more, what makes us the persons we are is not just the specific combination of genes, or our upbringing in the home ,but as research increasingly suggests, what happens to us while we are developing in the womb-that shapes our character too. So if God is to become human, if he is going to really share our pains, our stresses , and our joys, then he must become human from the very point we all become human-at conception. Now you may ask :what is the point? If what we read here is true then what possible reason could there be for God to undergo this divine mutation in taking to himself human flesh, entering human existence?

Well, it is here that we begin to hear the very heartbeat of God, what it is that moves him to his very depths to go to such extreme lengths such that the angels must have been drawn back in horror and disgust when they found out, that the one whom they had been worshipping for millennia in the unsullied glory of heaven should undergo such a grotesque change in his being and enter the Virgin’s womb. They must have felt like crying out: ‘Why God? Why?’ Here is why? Three reasons.

First, it means that God saves us-that is why in v 31 this baby is to be given the name ‘Jesus’ which means ‘the Lord saves’ Let me put it negatively, if Jesus is not God in our humanity, then God has not come to us-so let us call off Christmas. What is more God has not born our guilt on the cross-so let’s call off Good Friday,. Even more than that- God has not spoken his final word to us, so let’s tear up the Bible. That is why liberal Christianity is so weak and anodyne it leaves us with this pale faced teacher wandering around Palestine preaching peace and love ,like some forlorn Hippie- but what we do not have is what the Luke gives - God getting bloody and dirty and sweaty dying for our sins. God had to become man if he was to pay the penalty for our sin. How could God who is Spirit, suffer for the sins of man who is flesh? How could God take upon himself human suffering and the penalty for sin in human experience without entering our physiology and psychology? It was a human penalty he had to bear and therefore it was a human nature he had to acquire. No crib, then no cross. So let us not be embarrassed about the Virgin birth for it underscores the heartrending truth that it is God who saves.

However, by becoming human there is another implication for our planet and its people which is breathtaking .For it means that there is now a human being on the throne of the universe.In the place of supreme and central significance of all creation there is a man,a member of, and the head of, the human race.Science has taught us hasn’t it? how huge this universe is and partly as a consequence we feel so small, devoid of significance in a vast, swirling cosmos.But because of Jesus,his birth,life and redeeming work we discover our true destiny. For if you go to the spiritual heart of this universe and you will find a man.You go to the place where angels bow who never fell and you will find a man. You go to the very centre of the manifestation of the invisible God and you will find a man- whose true human nature mediates the pulsating glory of God into all eternity.

And this brings us to the third reason why the virgin birth matters so much.For not only do we have a God who saves us,but we have a God who can sympathise with us.You see,when God entered into our human existence some 2000 years ago he shared our life in all its grime. Here was a baby with dirty nappies, an adolescent with sexual drives, a man weary and in pain and finally a dying man amongst dying men dying for men. You know in my pastoral experience I find people wondering how they can relate to God who seems so distant and how such a God can relate to them? Of course the god of Islam can’t ,the god of New Age can’t, but the God of the Christian faith can. There used to be a famous saying about the medical profession: ‘Only the wounded physician can heal.’ Isn’t it true that we can relate better to someone who has shared our problems, who has been through what we are going through and has come out the other end? Well, that is what this is all about. God sympathising with us by becoming one of us. Could I ask: Do you sometimes feel lonely and neglected? Well, so did Jesus. Do you feel misunderstood- shunned by family and friends-so did Jesus. Do you feel scared, depressed, eaten up with anxiety about what the future might hold? So did Jesus. God has felt the adrenaline rushing through his veins. He has known the joy as well as the disappointments friendships can bring. But most of all- most of all- he has known the crippling burden sin and guilt wreaks upon the human soul as he died to take away your sin and mine. So don’t ever say that God doesn’t understand or cares-he cares this much to become one of us.

And one person who discovered this for herself was Bessie Ship who was spending Christmas in an American prison and Bessie was dying of AIDS.She went along to a Christmas service in the jail and afterwards she said to the man leading the service that she so wanted to know Jesus.There and then she gave her life to Christ in prayer. Going home as a new Christian was a new experience for her .She was immedaitely drawn into a church and was nurtured in the faith as she went to a Bible study group.Just three weeks after she had been released she contracted pneumonia.In hospital a Christian minister visited her and she whispered to him,’ These have been the happiest days of my life to know Jesus loves me,and that you do too.’Two days later she died.She went to meet the Saviour she had accepted on Christmas day in a cold prison cell. When God came to earth,he wasn’t born in warm palace,but a dirty stable which reeked of animal dung and urine. And you know what?By his Spirit he still comes to us,wherever we are, whoever we are.Not just to inhabit dark and cold buildings, but dark and lost hearts. Let us pray.

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