Sunday, January 24, 2021

Spirit Power and Virgin Womb (Sermon 3 on the Apostles' Creed)

If you've been with us lately, you know we've been learning our confession, the Apostles' Creed, the faith of the church. We've confessed that we “believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,” and not only that, but we also “believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Jesus is the Divine Son who always existed, eternally, in God's very own heart, in his inner life. He's the Word who was in the beginning, the Word who was with God the Father, the Word who himself always was God the Son, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made. He always was the Son of God. He always was the Word of God. The world itself was created through this Word; the world itself was patterned after this Son. Down through human history, all generation and all sonship was modeled on the Son's relationship to God his Father, and in particular, God adopted many into a reflection of the Divine Son's Sonship – hence, Adam was called a son of God, Israel was called a son of God, David and his heirs were called sons of God. And into this nation, God commissioned prophets, to whom the Word appeared, conveying the message of his God and Father.

But in our confession, we say that this unique Son of God, the one who is the Eternal Word, is named 'Jesus.' It should jar us a little bit, because the name 'Jesus' is a human name. It's a Hebrew name, Yehoshua; it's adapted into Aramaic, Yeshua; it's transliterated into Greek, Iesous, and Latin, Iesus, and finally English, Jesus. But on all accounts, it's a human name, in a language like we speak – a name carried, in one form or another, by others. So the question today is, how does a Divine Son come to carry around a human name?

See, as the Apostle John says, “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). And this Word had to be made flesh. He needed to smuggle the indestructible life of God into the heart of the human condition, so that God the Son could act representatively on our behalf. He needed to receive the fullness of human nature so that he could rescue the fullness of human nature. He would need to become one of us, though sinless.

Through the prophets long ago, the Word had promised that he'd come into the world. The Word told so many prophets hints and teases about the coming Messiah, whom the Word himself would in fact be. But how was Israel's Messiah to be born? In the days of the old covenant, the mothers of patriarchs and judges and prophets sometimes had to give birth miraculously – for they had been barren women, ashamed in their culture of their childlessness, and God had intervened to open their wombs, to heal their infertility, so that they with their husbands could conceive children who would go on to do great things. But the Messiah needed to stand out above all patriarchs, above all judges, above all prophets. So must his birth. It would have to be a sign, a way of giving people fair warning to watch this child, this Messiah, to see God at work in ways greater than what he did among patriarchs and judges and prophets. His birth would have to involve a miracle outshining the mere healing of infertility. Something more impressive would need to be done.

And so a sign was promised. The Word declared through Isaiah that, as a greater sign by far, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” a son whose very identity would be the accomplishment and proof of God's presence with us at last (Isaiah 7:14). This son, then, in order to be conceived, would overcome far greater obstacles than an infertile womb helped by the way of nature. This son would be conceived in a way nature could not help, could not achieve – not merely impeded by infertility, but rendered naturally inconceivable. The Messiah would be conceived without the involvement of any human father at all, as attested by his mother's remaining a virgin. In this way, not only would his birth outshine all patriarchs and judges and prophets, but every human creature whatsoever. And this would allow a perfect symmetry between time and eternity. The same one born in eternity from a Heavenly Father with no mother would be the very same one born in history from an earthly mother with no father. That is how the Word would become flesh and dwell among us.

In the Apostles' Creed, we announce that we “believe in Jesus Christ, [God's] only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The Nicene Creed is even more specific and detailed, saying: “For us humans and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and, by the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became human.” The Gospels flesh out the story even more than these summaries.

It starts with the great and glorious angel Gabriel, who spends most of his time in God's immediate presence, standing before the Maker of all (Luke 1:19) – the same Angel Gabriel who interpreted the apocalyptic visions of Daniel (Daniel 8-9). This great angel Gabriel was sent down from heaven to a place called Nazareth, a town with a name reflecting the Hebrew word for 'branch,' netzer, as in the long-awaited 'Branch,' or Messiah, who would grow from the family tree of David (e.g., Jeremiah 23:5). Nazareth had been settled in the region known as Galilee, which was the very place where the Word had prophesied through Isaiah that a great light would appear when the awaited Child would come: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish... In the latter time, he has made glorious... Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light... for to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:1-2, 6).

There, in Galilee, in Nazareth, the angel Gabriel touched down from heaven to earth. And there he encountered the woman God had foreknown and chosen since the foundation of the world: a young Jewish maiden by the name of Mary, who was still a virgin although she was lawfully betrothed to King David's lawful heir Joseph (Luke 1:26-27). Now, this was in the days when the Davidides no longer held political power. God's people had centuries before come under the power of the Babylonians in exile; then restored from exile under the rule of Persia; then subjected to Alexander the Great and his Greeks; then temporarily throwing off the Greek yoke and ruling themselves under the Hasmonean Dynasty which was descended from the priests instead of the kings; then being seized under the control of the Roman Republic, which had since become the Roman Empire. Mary lived in the days when Julius Caesar's nephew and adopted son, who called himself Augustus, ruled; and Augustus allowed Mary's land to be held for him by a client-king named Herod, an Edomite who married one of the Hasmonean princesses. Herod, by this time, was coming to be increasingly depressed and paranoid. It cast a pall of gloom over the land. But then Gabriel arrived. And Mary didn't flinch (Luke 1:29-30).

And when Gabriel met Mary, he told her to rejoice, told her she's drenched in God's grace already, told her that the Lord is with her (Luke 1:28), like he was with Gideon (Judges 6:12) and David (2 Samuel 7:3). In the Bible, telling somebody, “The LORD is with you” was a good indicator that they were being chosen to undertake a very risky mission for God. Told that her mission is to bear a child, Mary doesn't doubt (the way some did), but she does have questions about the details (Luke 1:34). And she's told she's going to pick up all sorts of threads from the Old Testament. Eve was told she'd have a Seed who'd crush the serpent's head (Genesis 3:15). Great mothers in Israel had their wombs miraculously opened, like the matriarchs Sarah (Genesis 17:15-21; 18:9-15; 21:1-7), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Leah (Genesis 29:31-35), and Rachel (Genesis 30:21-24), and the mother of Samson (Judges 13) and Hannah the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1—2:10). Mary was to be the “virgin daughter of Zion” who scorns the mighty kings of the nations (Isaiah 37:22). “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD (Zechariah 2:10). The LORD would indeed dwell in Mary's midst! She was chosen to be the material means of the LORD entering humanity. The son to be conceived miraculously in Mary was already the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:31-32). To this explanation, the Virgin Mary responds with complete and perfect submission to God's will (Luke 1:38), reversing the disobedience of the first Eve.

And in the moment Mary says, “Let it be to me according to your word,” that's when it happens. Gabriel had told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). We'll learn more about the Holy Spirit later, but it's worth remembering that in the beginning, this Spirit of God 'hovered' or 'brooded' over the formless waters of the virgin earth so as to bring forth the dawning life of the first creation (Genesis 1:2); and now, the same Spirit hovers and broods over Mary's virgin womb to bring forth the dawning life of a whole new creation: the irruption of God into human existence. Somehow, within Mary's body, the fullness of God seizes upon a single ovum. Somehow, the Spirit multiplies the molecules in Mary's body to construct a full set of distinct human DNA. Somehow, the Spirit also grants a complete human soul. And somehow, simultaneously, that human nature – body and soul – is, from its very beginning, united as a single person with the eternal Word of God: the Divine Son through whom and for whom the universe was made. The Eternal One is conceived in human history! All of this is a mystery that leaves us in stunned silence.

In that first glimmer of life, in the instant before Gabriel flies off unseen, the incarnation of God has taken place. Our friend St. Irenaeus, explaining the church's rule of faith, says that, “because of his surpassing love toward his creation,” the Son of God “condescended to be born of the Virgin, he himself uniting man through himself to God” (Against Heresies 3.4.2). The church would later want to get more detailed about what happened, and would say that the Son of God was begotten twice: first, in eternity past, he was begotten from God the Father without any need for a mother, as the Divine Son of God; and then, at this instant in human history, he was again begotten from the Virgin Mary with no need for a father, as the perfect Son of Man. He is therefore “truly God” and “truly man, of a rational soul and body.” He's consubstantial with the Father when it comes to being divine, but also consubstantial with us when it comes to being human. He's one person in two natures, which aren't blended together, mixed up, or turned into each other. Instead, full divinity and full humanity are kept intact, preserved in a personal union, so that there's one person, Jesus the Christ, who is both fully God and fully man. That's what happened in that remarkable instant in Mary's womb when the Word became flesh.

And from that moment on, as Luke tells Mary's story, he draws implicit parallels between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. Months pass, and Bethlehem is at last the scene where the great secret of God's personal invasion in human flesh, human blood, human bone, human skin, and human soul is announced to the world. Having been conceived by the Holy Spirit's action, the Son of God is born from the Virgin Mary, receiving the purity of humanity from her, fresher than Eden's breeze. All that was made true of her was always to glorify him!

There are lots of reasons why it matters. Jesus dignifies the created world, because his incarnation brings God into it. Being made of matter isn't bad. Walking around in a body isn't bad. Your body is not bad in itself, and even when it isn't working well, you shouldn't be too eager to get rid of it. You were meant to have a body; it's just that its condition was supposed to be better. But bodies are good, and matter is good, and the physical world is good – and Jesus is proof, because in him, God chooses to claim and keep a body, a material body, a human body. Creation is still beautiful, and so are you.

And yet the birth of Jesus is also a proclamation of how serious the human situation really is. The fact that God was born into the likeness of our sinful flesh is an announcement that we're beyond our own ability to fix. Too often, we assume that people are basically good, just misled or confused – as if all we needed were an improved environment and improved education, and then we'd rise to our proper moral greatness. Better environment can be good. Better education can be good. But if that's all we needed, then the Law of Moses would have been enough, and the witness of all the prophets would have been enough, and then the whole world could have been just fine without Jesus – without God having to step into our shoes and get his hands dirty. But there he is, in our shoes. There he is, hands dirty with the world. He did it because the entire human race was, morally and spiritually, thrashing in a ditch with a broken back, unable to rise up. Sure, briefly we'd roll over and glimpse the open sky, but the next spasm of our frayed moral nerves would have us face-down in the mud all over again. All our striving, all our own power, has moved us inches at best – and elevated us not at all. We need someone to climb down to us, throw us over his shoulder, and carry us where we're just too damaged to walk ourselves. No mere human, born of two human parents, stained with the filth of Adam and infected with the crippling condition of sin, could lift the rest of us. It would take an Omnipotent Man, wearing our skin, touching us with hands like our own. The birth of Jesus, commencing the drastic treatment, shows us what strong help we need.

In so doing, Jesus is a new beginning to the human race. He's the Last Adam, the start of a new creation. When the first Adam was made, he was the father of all humanity, the prime example of humanity, and representative leader of all who'd follow him. (No wonder: his name just means 'Human.') Jesus, in coming to be the Last Adam, is the founder and prime example and representative leader of a whole new humanity, a fresh start to the human race. Old organizing boundaries break down in him (Galatians 3:28). Jesus starts humanity anew under his leadership and in his shape, to “create in himself one new man in place of the two” (Ephesians 2:15). He had to overwrite what had gotten corrupted, like someone sitting for a new portrait after the first is wrecked. It's just like Charles Wesley helps us sing in the old hymn: “Adam's likeness now efface, stamp thine image in its place; Second Adam from above, reinstate us in thy love.”

In starting humanity over, Jesus heals what it means to be human. Ancient Christians had a saying about how “that which is not assumed is not healed” – meaning, if you say there's anything about being human that Jesus didn't take up, then you're saying he didn't heal that part. But he took it all – human identity, human body, human mind, human heart, human soul – and brings it into healing contact with God himself. Jesus is a Savior for the whole human from all our kinds of corruption.

What's more, Jesus' birth to Mary is God's way of honoring his age-old commitments to Israel. The Word didn't become flesh through Assyrian parents or Babylonian parents, not through Greek or Roman parents. It wasn't in the heart of Africa or the banks of the Ganges or on Plymouth Rock. It was in Galilee, to a Hebrew woman. It validates Israel's legacy – all the covenants, all the pledges. “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). That should help the rest of us pluck ourselves out of our national pride to see something bigger: help from outside.

And his miraculous conception and birth preserve the complementarity of his life without stain. He has two births: a heavenly with no mother (only God the Father), an earthly with no father (only Mary the mother). It not only makes clear who Jesus is, it ensures he can be a clean slate: to write his life over our sullied conscience is to write sinless humanity, unstained humanity, over all the stains of our sin, and to offer us hope of rising above the passions that beset us in life.

Jesus' birth dignifies women, because God himself chose to reside inside a woman's body, to be embedded in a woman's uterine lining, to be tethered to a woman by an umbilical cord, to derive all his physical substance from a woman, to exchange blood with a woman, leave his own residual cells in a woman, be nursed on a woman's milk and carried in her arms – and so he declared 'woman' to be great and majestic. Those of our neighbors who assume that Christianity is anti-woman have not thought this through. It isn't for no reason that early pagan neighbors mocked the first Christians for appealing too much to women! It's because the gospel has always dignified women greatly – just as the man Christ Jesus dignifies men, too.

In the same way, his life in the womb dignifies all the unborn. The Divine Son didn't just enter the human scene at the moment of birth. He became a zygote. There was once a one-celled human who was fully God. All the unborn are made in the image of this Lord who was a zygote, an embryo, a fetus. Their human dignity and inviolability from abortive violence is secured publicly from all time, which is why the spread of abortion is so intolerable to believers, and should be witnessed against in the name of justice for the dignity of all.

What's more, by being born of a human woman, God the Son could live a truly human life. He had real hunger, real thirst, real aches and pains, real sweat and real tears, and all the rest. Therefore, we can have a Great High Priest who sinlessly understands all the challenges we face (Hebrews 4:15), and who sets a perfect example for us to follow in leading a human life well. To follow Jesus is to succeed as a human, because he became the perfect human himself, succeeding at humanity in a fully human way.

And finally, Jesus was conceived and born this way to be a flawless bridge between God and creation, between God and humanity. He's on both sides of the great divide of Creator and creation now. As God, he can represent God to us, but do it with a familiar face we can see, familiar hands we can hold, familiar heartbeat we can feel. As a man like us, he can represent us to God – he can be the one human with power to stand tall in the very heart of heaven, the one being in the universe who can act perfectly for the universe – and for each of us, as our eligible representative. This sets the stage for every saving thing he will do, as we'll learn more next week. For now, enough to celebrate Jesus, born of God the Father before all ages, born now also – out of love for you and me – from the Virgin Mary; Jesus, God incarnate and man divine; Jesus, the healing of everything we are! Glory to God in the highest! Praise be to the God who became one of us! Amen and amen.

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