Text: Luke 1:26-55
Date: June 24, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Has that question ever been posed to you? Probably so, if you have hung around either Christians or atheists long enough. For better or worse, the Virgin Birth has become a sort of litmus test of the true believer.
As you may know, the story of Jesus’ conception and birth show up in two different variations in two of our four gospels, Matthew and Luke. The other gospels either don’t know or aren’t interested, and St. Paul doesn’t refer to a virgin birth in any of his writings. So why did the Virgin Birth become so prominent in theological discourse?
One reason it became so interesting to American Christians is that the Virgin Birth is named as one of the “Five Fundamentals” that were identified early in the conservative American Protestant movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. This movement came to be called the Fundamentalist movement based on their identification of these five fundamental beliefs. Here are the five Fundamentals:
1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
2. The deity of Jesus Christ
3. The virgin birth of Christ
4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth.
One of the fundamentalist websites I looked at that included this list along with scripture citations to prove each one says “There are five fundamentals of the faith which are essential for Christianity, and upon which we agree…And those who disagree with any of the above doctrines are not Christians at all. Rather, they are the true heretics.” (Not to put too fine a point on it.)
The fundamentalist movement in this country began as a reaction to the rise of science and particularly to the way some scholars were “turning…a scientific eye on the Scripture itself.” German scholars had begun to study the bible with the same critical tools used to uncover the origins and meanings of other ancient texts. Between that and the beginnings of acceptance of the theory of evolution, with a time of social upheaval thrown in, some Christians thought it necessary to mount a swift and sturdy defense of Christian faith, making it clear which were acceptable ideas and which were not.
My big book of Fundamentalisms Observed says the new fundamentalists were convinced that adaptation to the modern age was a mistake; they desperately wanted to restore the purity of the faith. “If Jesus was not a virgin-born worker of miracles who physically rose from the dead, then how could he be other than a hoax? If the Second Coming of Jesus was not imminent, wherein lay their hope? And if the Bible could not be trusted to report the history of Israel and the church, could it be trusted in matters of salvation? Their answer was a resounding condemnation of compromise and a clear affirmation of the orthodoxy they knew.”
The Virgin Birth landed in the middle of the list of fundamental beliefs. I’m giving you this background because I think it helps to understand why, of all things, the virginity of Mary seems to be such a weighty issue for many. It may be that our perception of its significance as a belief has to do as much with our cultural context–the opening salvos in our ongoing 150 year old American Culture War–as it has to do with the import of the concept or story itself. It became one of those notions by which Christians judged not only non-Christians but judged each other on whether they were true believers, which is of course shorthand for whether you were going to eternal bliss in heaven or eternal torture in hell.
This trajectory has led to what Marcus Borg has called “A Tale of Two Christianities.” He wrote, “We live in a time of a deeply divided Christianity. Unlike fifty or a hundred years ago, the divisions are not primarily denominational. Rather, the major division is between what I call “an earlier Christian paradigm” and “an emerging Christian paradigm,” between a belief-centered way of being Christian and a transformational-centered way of being Christian…There is also a large group of Christians in the middle of the spectrum undecided and uncertain about what is happening in the church, or combining elements of both visions, or in transition.” I find this a helpful analysis of the context in which we find ourselves exploring faith and doubt. It helps me understand my own gut-clenching reaction sometimes when I am asked about a matter of belief, since questions about belief so easily slide from inquiry to interrogation just because of where we are, our time and place of deep division. A simple question like “Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?” can feel like it’s backed up by an invisible line of bayonets.
In Borg’s “Tale of Two Christianities” I hew away from the belief-centered way of being Christian and toward the transformational-centered way of being Christian. For me, the yea or nay of whether I “believe” in the Virgin Birth isn’t all that interesting, and to declare belief or doubt barely scratches the surface of the power of the story and concept of incarnation. I don’t think Mary and Jesus need to be entirely exceptional in order to be fascinating, nor does their story have to be utterly singular in order to be transformational. Just the opposite, in fact! But that’s just me—if the virgin birth is an article of faith for you, you won’t find me trying to dissuade you or convince you otherwise. The question for Christian practitioners that I believe matters is how these stories shape our spirituality and our conduct.
Let me begin with the “Yes” of Mary as a key part of the story and the essence of how Mary is a model for disciples. Mary reminds us of the prophet Isaiah who responded to his call with the words “Here I am, send me.” Mary says to the angel Gabriel “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She is making space for God to work in her life, for God to work through her, in a way more dramatic than most—through assenting to a dangerous, outside-the-patriarchal-box pregnancy.
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson lifts up the often repeated theme of God’s self-limiting, self-restricting love in the Bible. In order for Creation to exist at all God had to make room for the non-divine to exist within the fullness of God. One of the beautiful lines of scripture that reminds us of dwelling within God’s life is in a sermon of Paul’s in Acts 17: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” Replace the “him” with a “her” and suddenly we have an image that reminds us of a babe in utero. “In her we live and move and have our being.” Johnson makes the connection between God’s self-limiting, self-restricting love and the common women’s experience of pregnancy. Women aren’t erased by pregnancy, but we do have to literally make room for another person within ourselves in order to bring new life to birth. We have to make choices that are not all about ME and what I enjoy in order to nurture a new life. God made space for us in Creation, and Mary made space for God when she assented to bearing Jesus.
Every pregnancy is risky, and it was especially so in the time of Mary when many women died in childbirth. Her “Yes” put her life on the line both in the riskiness of delivery and in facing the potentially lethal consequences of being pregnant before being married. This story, so often watercolored in pastel tones, reminds us of the tremendous courage it often takes to say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” when we are called by God. Saying Yes means coloring outside the lines. Elizabeth Johnson points out that Mary’s pregnancy “subverts patriarchy by replacing the usual male participation with ruah, the creative Spirit of God. As Sojourner Truth scolded clerics who opposed her for speaking in public: ‘Where your Christ come from, honey? Where your Christ come from? He come from God and a woman. Man ain’t had nothin’ to do with it!’ The unconventional woman and her child conceived outside the patriarchal family structure begin fulfillment of the divine promise.” Mary is “coloring outside the lines” following the lead of the Spirit that leads us into radical and risky freedom.
Mary is taking a chance, putting her trust into a scintillating assurance voiced by God’s messenger: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” This is another robust theme running through our faith tradition. Stories of women being barren and then becoming pregnant—such as Mary’s elder relative Elizabeth’s story—are often told as signs that nothing is impossible with God. Jesus picks up the theme when he is teaching about how difficult it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, comparing it to a camel going through the eye of the needle. In despair, the disciples ask “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus answers, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For all things are possible with God.” [Mark 10:27]
I have a little sign in my office reminding me of this scintillating promise, “All things are possible with God.” It was given to me by my dear friend Linda Crowe when I was installed as minister here, and it sits on my bookshelf catching my eye from time to time. It’s a promise I aspire to have faith in, although I don’t always believe it. I am sometimes tempted to believe that nothing will ever change while rich and powerful white men are steering the ship of state, that we are doomed by human greed to irreversible environmental destruction, and other gloomy things. Yet “All things are possible with God” remains a guardrail against crashing into the deep ravine of despair. Since I’ve been reading John Caputo’s theology in several books, I’ll bring in his idea about God who doesn’t “exist” so much as “insist.” He proposes the idea that humans bring the God of love into actual existence when we respond positively to the God outside human structures insisting on love, hospitality, and generosity. Borrowing this language, we could say that in Mary’s story one of the things God insists is that nothing is impossible when we make space for God in our lives. Therefore hope is indomitable.
Luke’s gospel tells us Mary sings a very hopeful, possibility-saturated song of elation after Spirit-filled Mary meets up with Spirit-filled Elizabeth. The song itself strongly resembles another song sung by a woman who had been barren but whose barrenness had been reversed by Yahweh, Hannah. It seems the Spirit has been accomplishing what seemed impossible for generations, and when people commune deeply with the Holy Spirit they dream big dreams. There are common themes of these Spirit-infused dreams in the Judeo-Christian tradition having to do with the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being raised up, the hungry being fed and the over-stuffed being sent away empty. Such things happen when God’s mercy is remembered and God’s servants make themselves available.
In theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s chapter in She Who Is on Jesus, she speaks of Jesus as a manifestation in time of Divine Love. “Through his [Jesus’] human history the Spirit who pervades the universe becomes concretely present in a small bit of it; Sophia [another name for Spirit] pitches her tent in the midst of the world…[and] dwells among the suffering people in a new way. In a word, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.” That’s an excellent way to speak of the Incarnation, drawing from what John’s gospel says about Jesus, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The literal Greek phrase used is tabernacled in the flesh, in other words, pitched a tent in human flesh.
We could spend the rest of our lives diving into the beauty and meaning of Jesus’ extraordinary incarnation of God’s loving spirit. But I believe it’s important that we not get so entranced with Jesus’ particular life that we miss the promise of the possibility of Spirit becoming concretely present in the small bit of creation that is us. Even before Jesus’ very distinctive incarnation of Spirit the restless Spirit was hovering over creation, from the first moment in time, finding ways to inspire hope, mercy, love, generosity, extravagant welcome among humans. There is a verse in the book of Wisdom about Sophia Spirit that expresses Spirit’s quest:
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. [Wisdom 7:27-28
This fits right in with an essential part of our Christian story, the recollection of this Holy Spirit being poured out over and into the community of faith after Jesus, dubbed the Body of Christ for the new era.
As we live our Christian story, we celebrate the notable Incarnation of Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth. And we open ourselves to that same Spirit that we might carry on the mission of Jesus Christ. One of the attractions of the story of Mary and Elizabeth, who made a little community of faith between them as they blessed one another, is the enticing potential of ordinary folk being filled with Spirit, giving birth to new possibilities. I’ll borrow some words from one of T.S. Eliot’s poems, which says “We must be still and still moving/ Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion…” I believe that when we are still enough to hear God’s insistence, when we make space for God in our crowded lives, we too may move into a more intense, further union and deeper communion with the Holy Spirit. The restless Spirit, always seeking to bring new life and new possibility into the world, may find a channel through us as Spirit found a way through Mary and Elizabeth. We not only celebrate Incarnation as it was exquisitely complete in Jesus, but we become part of the global community of Spirit-infused folk, what I’m calling the “Incar/Nation.”
The Incar/Nation is a global force, routing out oppressive powers, feeding the hungry, healing the wounded, binding up the brokenhearted. The Incar/Nation joins forces with God, giving birth to new possibilities, setting things right.
We’re going to celebrate both Jesus’ incarnation and the broader Incar/Nation as we sing a New Zealand Christmas carol. We’ve never sung it before because it’s a carol set in summertime. Seems like a fine time to re-welcome the Christ child in our summer season! Let’s celebrate Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And let’s make room even now for Spirit to dwell in us and move through us. I hope we’ll be singing with all our hearts as we get to the promises in the final verse: “Hope is the Jesus gift, love is the offering, everywhere, anywhere, here on the earth.”
 European-American Evangelistic Crusades P.O. Box 41001 Sacramento, CA 95841 • 888-708-3232 • www.eaec.org
 Fundamentalisms Observed Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 11
 Ibid. p. 14
 Borg, Marcus from Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
 Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse New York: Crossroad, 1992, p. 234
 Johnson, Elizabeth A. “Joining Us in the Communion of Saints” The Living Pulpit Volume 10 No. 4 October-December 2001 issue on Mary, p. 17
 Op cit. She Who Is p. 150