2017 December Issue
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Sermon Ideas For Luke 1:26-38 Part 4

This lesson and its testimony of Jesus' virgin birth come with a good deal of baggage from Protestant life in the last two centuries. It has been an embarrassment for many in an age of science. What is more, the virgin birth of Christ is one of the five points of fundamentalist theology: a non-negotiable to be accepted literally without question on pain of eternal damnation. Some may hesitate before this lesson and all it brings with it. The temptation is to move in the opposite direction and avoid it. In skirting it, however, we concede too much; tacitly admitting that in addressing the virgin birth we are limited to speaking only of its biological possibility. Czech theologian Jan Milic Lochman warns that such false limitation misses the true center and underlying theological intention of the confession that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.1

The lection is given to us for Advent proclamation. As such it speaks of our existence between Christ's first and final comings. The context in which its themes appear in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed helps. "[F]or us and for our salvation [the Son of God] came down and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became a human being." The center and theological intention are salvation and incarnation. Confession of the miracle that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary attests to us the reality that salvation is from God and by means of God entering human history. That is the mystery for which we are preparing, turning to God to receive in memory and hope. The mystery does not depend upon the miracle. Arguing for or against fundamentalist theology approaches the whole matter backward. Let us attend briefly to three related facets of the lesson: Mary, the Holy Spirit, and judgment.

As did John the Baptizer, Mary stands between times. Karl Barth called Mary the personal climax to the Old Testament and the first person of the New. Her song remembers God's promise and anticipates the time of fulfillment that was beginning in her. She is a figure for the church's existence, and stands for humanity in receiving God.2 She is a sign of redemption, an exemplar of the faith the church and all believers ought to have. Luther commented that the conception of the incarnate Son of God was through Mary's ear. Donald Bloesch concludes similarly that Mary was the mother of God by faith before she was by blood.3 Thinking in this manner urges us once again not to dwell on biological possibility but on God's salvation in Jesus. When John's disciples later asked Jesus whether or not he were the one, Jesus did not reply, "What do you think? My mother was a virgin!" He pointed to the signs of salvation that they saw and heard and called for faith. (Lk 7:18-23) Salvation is to be received as Mary received it—in and by faith.

While the mystery does not depend upon the miracle, the miracle does testify to the mystery. This means that salvation is not the domain of intellectual assent to proper propositions or disembodied "spiritual" experience. Our confession that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary tells us that saving faith does not allow a division of the spiritual and the physical. By the Spirit God freely calls and enables physical creation to be servants and participants in the work of salvation. The biblical witness does not reveal a God who "saves souls" by divine fiat. God enters into earthly history in its physical, embodied beauty and messiness in order to finish the new creation. While never being an equal partner, creation—human and non-human—becomes participants in God's saving work by the Spirit. In the freedom of the Spirit, bread and wine, and the community gathered around them, become by faith for faith the Body of Christ. In Advent, we remember the supreme revelation of God's entrance into creation, and we await its fullness in hopeful anticipation, sustained by sacramental signs of the reality in the church's common life.

While standing as a personal sign of God's free saving entry into the life of creation, Mary is also a sign of the creaturely impossibility of salvation. The virgin birth is indeed a paradox. Virgins do not conceive children. It is not a natural possibility; neither are incarnation and salvation. This is judgment against claims that humanity has any ability in and of itself to be the servant of God and participant in the work of salvation. God comes into the world in utter freedom. There is nothing about creation that draws God in necessarily, nor even offers a point of contact that God must take. God freely comes to God's creatures not by meeting but by accommodating to creaturely capacity.

In dismissing human capacity, the confession of Jesus' conception by the Spirit and birth of Mary is special judgment against the creature historically most focused upon self reliance, strength, and ability—the human male, "Mr. Fix It" as Lochman calls him. Barth wrote that this confession is judgment upon the patriarchal course and interpretation of history. "[I]t is the male who must be set aside here, if a countersign [i.e. Mary] is to be set up as the sign of the incarnation of God."4 W.H. Auden stated it with poetic force in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. "You must learn now that masculinity, To Nature, is a non-essential luxury."5

The church lives in the time between the first and final comings of Christ and so in openness to God's continuing free work of salvation. In this openness, the church finds its own freedom to receive and participate in God's redemption through Christ. This openness is expressed with Mary, "Let it be according to your Word."

Philip E. Thompson

NOTES

1. Jan Milic Lochman, The Faith We Confess: An Ecumenical Dogmatics, trans. David Lewis (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 102.

2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1/2, trans. G.T. Thomsom and Harold Knight (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), p. 198.

3. Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 86.

4. Barth, pp.193-94; Lochman, p. 112.

5. W.H. Auden, Collected Longer Poems (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 152.