Monday, December 22, 2008

In Defense of Miracles: A Virgin Conceives

Sermon by Matt Kennedy (4th Sunday of Advent)
text: Luke 1:26-38

Monday, December 22, 2008

Download "In Defense of Miracles: A Virgin Conceives" in MP3 format

Our gospel reading begins the middle of an ongoing story. Luke tells us in verse 26 that the events occurred, “in the sixth month.” In the sixth month of what? In the sixth month of Elizabeth's, Mary's cousin, pregnancy. Luke links the announcement of Mary's conception to Elizabeth's pregnancy. Why is that? Who was Elizabeth's son? John the Baptist. John was the last prophet of the Old Covenant. His mission was to go before the messiah, the Christ, to prepare for his coming by calling the people of Israel to repentance. His conception six months earlier than Jesus' is a sign illustrating his mission. He is to go before Jesus.

But that's not the only link between Elizabeth's pregnancy and Mary's. The manner of their conception was also very similar. What was special about Elizabeth's conception of John? Elizabeth was barren. Even if she were not barren (1:7), her age made childbearing, naturally speaking, impossible(1:18). And yet we read in Luke 1:13-18 that God sent an angel...who was this angel? Gabriel, the same who was to visit Mary, to tell Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth would bear a son.

Elizabeth's conception was “natural” in the sense that she got pregnant in the normal way, but it was supernatural, it was miraculous, in the sense that God had to intervene to create the possibility of life where none existed before. John was a miracle baby. That is the most important link between Elizabeth's and Mary's pregnancy—both were the result of miraculous divine intervention.

Now when the bible speaks of miracles, some people, even some Christian people, start feeling uncomfortable. Seas do not part. Bread does not multiply. Water does not come out of rocks. Men do not calm storms. Dead men don't rise. Barren women past childbearing age do not conceive. Now when the bible speaks of miracles, some people, even some Christian people, start feeling uncomfortable. Seas do not part. Bread does not multiply. Water does not come out of rocks. Men do not calm storms. Dead men don't rise. Barren women past childbearing age do not conceive. How can modern people believe that the miracles recorded in scripture really happened?

If you're an atheist, then it is sensible to feel this way. Only God has the power to perform miracles and since you do not believe God exists, you cannot believe in miracles either. Perfectly logical. Wrong, but perfectly logical.

But there are many who agree that God exists and yet reject the possibility of miracles. A few years back Rabbi Kushner, wrote a book arguing that while God exists, and created the cosmos, and is perfectly good, the persistence of evil in the world means that God is unable to intervene in human affairs. Because if God does not put an end to evil when he has the power to do so then he cannot be called good. Since evil exists and is rising, God is feeble. There are no miracles, no divine interventions. He relies on us to make his world a better place. Many Christians share the rabbi's skepticism about miracles. Kushner provides a rational basis for it. But for many it's simply a case of disbelief. The calming of the seas, the resurrection, the virgin birth. It's just too much. Some of you might feel that way too.

If you accept that a creator God exists, it makes no sense to reject the possibility of miracles. Everything we see in the material universe exists because something else caused its existence. Babies, stars, cells, nothing pops into existence on its own. Everything that exists within the cosmos was caused by another thing. And nothing in the cosmos is eternal. It either had a beginning or has an end or both. Nothing in the universe has the power of self-existence.

The sum is no greater than its parts. If nothing within the cosmos has the power of self existence, it's irrational to believe that the cosmos as a whole is “self-existent”--that it just is and always has been or that it just popped into being. So the question becomes, how did it get here?

And the only reasonable explanation is that something self-existent, with the power of being, brought everything else into being. Whether through the big bang or what doesn't matter right now. Nothing comes out of nothing, so for anything to exist there has to be an eternal self-existent power source out there beyond time and space. You can call that thing whatever you want. We call him, God. Since the discovery of the big bang, many scientists, including, the once staunch atheist Anthony Flew, while rejecting the biblical accounts of creation, have come to accept the existence of some kind creator God because it is impossible to explain the existence of the cosmos without him.

But if you grant that God created, then you lose the rational basis for rejecting the possibility of miracles. If God, has the power to bring the universe into being out of nothing, then he has the power to intervene in the universe he's created. Creation ex-nihilo requires far more power than simply parting a sea or raising the dead.

So while you might still have an historical objection to Luke's account of Elizabeth's miraculous conception, you might argue that he got his facts wrong, but if you believe that God created, you've lost a scientific basis for rejecting it outright.

And there's really no historical case to be made either. There's simply no other credible primary source, no other historical record of John's conception, other than the New Testament. To argue that Luke got his facts wrong you've got to have another record from the time contesting what he wrote. There's nothing. So if you reject the miracle of Elizabeth's conception your doing it without any basis whatsoever in reason or in history.

Everything I've just said about Elizabeth's conception is also true about Mary's. Luke tells us that Jesus was conceived in Mary's womb without the benefit of Joseph or any other man.

Now if you watch the history channel or read a skeptical study of the gospels, you'll find lots of theories Mary's pregnancy. Some say that she was raped by a soldier. Others say she and Joseph had sex before they were married. Still others say that Mary was so wild that there's no way to know who the father was. All have one thing in common. They reject of the possibility of miracles. And that forces them to concoct some other explanation for Mary's pregnancy.

So you have learned men and women basing their careers on speculative guesses without a shred of evidence. People who chase UFOs and big foot have more credibility. They have eyewitness accounts and documentation. Skeptics about the virgin conception of Mary have nothing but blind, dogmatic, unbelief.

Having established that divine miraculous intervention is possible and that the gospels provide the only credible historical accounts of Jesus' conception, let's look more closely at the exchange between Mary and Gabriel beginning in Luke 1:30. We've already been told in verse 27 that Mary is a “virgin”. The Greek word is “parthenos” and the word means in Greek precisely what it means in English. A “parthenos” is someone who's not had sexual relations with a man. The point is made explicit in verse 34. Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a child. “And Mary said to the Angel, How will this be since I am a virgin?” Your text probably has the single word “virgin.” But “parthenos” is not used here. The Greek reads, “How will this be since I do not know a man.”

Mary knew lots of men. She was betrothed to Joseph. That phrase, “I do not know a man” used in this context means, I have not have sexual relations with a man”. She was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal was far more serious than engagement. It was a legal contract binding two people together. It was a binding promise, so sacred that it was considered adultery to cheat on your betrothed. You could be stoned for it. That, if you remember is the dilemma Joseph faced when he heard that Mary was pregnant. He thought she'd cheated on him until Gabriel appeared to him as well. But while you could not cheat on your betrothed it was considered fornication to have sex with your betrothed during the betrothal period. The biblical standard then as it is now, is that any sex before marriage or if you are married, beyond the marriage covenant, is displeasing to God and sinful.

So Mary, who is virtuous, saving herself for her marriage night, is confused. Is God telling her to break the biblical is she supposed to get pregnant? Listen to Gabriel in v. 35:
“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.” The power of the Most High, the power of the creator God is going to create again. God created the cosmos by the power of his word. He spoke and the world lept into existence. God created Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed life into by his Spirit. Now he creates Jesus, not from the ground, from the dust, but from Mary. Mary is Jesus mother. But his Father is God. Notice the “therefore” in this text, “Therefore” the child to be born will be called holy—the son of God. Jesus is fully God and fully human, but his humanity is specifically in view here. The question Mary asked was, how will I get pregnant, how will I a human mother, give birth to a baby without a man. And God's answer is that he will create a baby in the womb. God will cause th fertilization of her egg with human seed. Where does the seed come from? God creates the seed. The child is going to be “holy” because he is a new creation. God intervened in the process of human reproduction to create a human baby who is holy. Why? Why did he do this? For what purpose?

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.

God interrupted the natural transmission of the sin nature to make Jesus “holy” in the very same way Adam was holy. But where Adam failed Jesus would be victorious. Where Adam sinned. Jesus would be obedient so that all who are now, because of Adam, under the curse of sin and death can through faith in Jesus, come out from under the curse and be found not in Adam but in Jesus Christ. The name Jesus means, God saves. God intervenes in human history directly to reverse sin and death in the person of his human and divine son Jesus Christ.

Maybe you can see another link with John the baptist here? God intervened in Elizabeth to bring about a natural pregnancy in a barren woman. John the baptist was sent by God, after Israel had been barren of prophets for 400 years, he was sent to a dead people who were not bearing the fruit God had called them to bear. So God brings a true prophet from a barren woman as a sign that he was about to bring life to his barren people. But Jesus came not only to save Israel, but to save humanity, a race in which every baby born is by nature turned against him

It was not enough to have a normal pregnancy and a normal baby. God reforged humanity in Christ. Jesus was conceived as a true human without spot or blemish. God's not interested in reforming the world. He's not just interested in nagging you into being a better person. He's making all things new.

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