Virgin Mary, Mother of God
Blessed are the peacemakers
for they shall be called children of God.
Christmas is coming, which can mean only one thing. Nicholas Kristof, pulitzer prize winning journalist for the New York Times, is going to interview a famous theologian or pastor and ask if he really has to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian.
I know, I know, you’re all waiting with bated breath to see who he’s going to interview this Christmas. It’s almost as exciting as Taylor Swift being named Time’s Person of the Year….or not. I did say “almost.”
Honestly, I’m not sure if people care about these things at all any more, but in all seriousness, have any of you ever read one of these interviews? Kristof has talked with everyone from Jim Wallis to Jimmy Carter, Tim Keller to Serene Jones.
He is always clear about the fact that he believes in the moral teachings of Jesus, he just doesn’t want to be saddled with any of the irrational parts of Jesus’ story. You know, minor details like his conception, his miracles, his resurrection, or his, um, divinity; the little stuff. He’d like to shelve all of that and just hang on to Jesus as a wise sage we can all learn from.
But what’s fascinating about these interviews, is that every theologian Kristof questions has different answers about the virgin birth and his status as a Christian, none of which, I have to assume, have ever fully satisfied him or he would have stopped asking about all of this by now.
And the very fact that he keeps asking year after year after year - not just about the virgin birth, but about whether or not he might be considered a Christian - makes me think that Kristof might want to believe more than he realizes. All of which got me wondering if the same might be said for some of you?
We are a church of believers, questioners, and questioning believers, after all. And that freedom to come as we are and find what we need in these sacred stories is something I deeply value. I often say that there are as many different ideas of what it means to be a Christian at First Churches as there are people at First Churches.
I can’t imagine ever standing up here and telling any one of you that you must believe in the virgin birth in order to be a Christian (or even that you need to be a Christian for that matter). But today I’d like to let you in on some information that might make you want to believe in the virgin birth and this whole Christianity thing, perhaps now more than ever.
That being said, I know it’s not an easy part of the story to swallow. Whenever people have asked me what I think, I’ve always said that Mary’s story is too beautiful not to be true. But that doesn’t mean that I myself haven’t wondered about its veracity.
I went to divinity school after all. I know there are scholars who believe that the gospel writers simply made up key parts of Jesus’ story after the fact so that the details would conform to the words of the Hebrew prophets;
prophets like Micah who wrote of a a ruler being born in the little town of Bethlehem
or Isaiah who foretold that a virgin would bear a son and call him Immanuel (Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14).
I know Jesus is hardly the first son of a god to be born of a virgin. Miraculous conceptions, divine-human relations, and heroes of old being regarded as children of the gods, were all common tropes back in ancient times. A remarkable number of them were even born on December 25th.
Making up a miraculous story about Jesus’ birth would not have caused doubts in the ancient mind so much as lent credence to the idea that Jesus was someone special.
As a woman, I know the idea of a virgin birth isn’t just miraculous or beautiful, it’s also problematic. I am deeply sensitized to the way Mary’s story has been misused to create impossible standards for women and promote unhealthy attitudes about purity and sexuality. (See everything written by Saint Jerome right through to the Barbie movie).
And like many of you, I don’t need this story to be factually true in order to be spiritually meaningful. I don’t read scripture with the same eye as I read the newspaper.
I don’t believe this story needs to be a forensic account of what actually happened on the evening of April 8 in the year 1BCE at approximately 7:15 pm on Arbor St in downtown Nazareth when the power of the Most High overshadowed Mary, in order for it to be a meaningful story that shapes my faith.
But, all that being said… if it is true…if the Holy Spirit did impregnate a poor Jewish girl in the middle of a little town no one had ever heard of in order to bring the messiah into the world, what a gloriously subversive story this would and could still be for you and me and the whole of creation, even now.
And so I want to invite you to suspend your disbelief long enough to take this story, if not literally, than at least very, very seriously. Because if we can do that, I think we might find within it the key to saving the world.
Let’s begin with Mary, a poor, unwed, teenager betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David. Remember all of those prophecies in the Hebrew Bible I mentioned a moment ago?
Well the most important ones all stress that the messiah will be a descendent of the house of King David, and so Luke goes to great pains to show that Joseph can trace his ancestry all the way back to David and beyond David all the way back to Adam.
Which is all well and good …except for the fact that Luke goes to equally great pains to stress that Mary is a virgin. And if Mary is a virgin than Joseph, for all his bonafides, is not the biological father of Jesus.
Joseph’s adoption of Jesus will provide a legal and spiritual connection to the house of David.
Joseph will bless, protect, and raise this child in the faith of his ancestor Abraham such that Jesus will grow up to be a blessing to the world - and all of that counts and all of that is important and I wish it went without saying that adoption is as viable a means of creating a family as any other….but it doesn’t, so I just said it.
However, having said that, if Jesus is born of a virgin, than we must also acknowledge as equally important the fact that Mary is his sole biological parent. Furthermore, Luke never mentions Mary’s mother or father.
She is, to quote the King James Version of the Magnificat, “of such low estate,” that Luke can’t trace her lineage back to anyone any more specific than Adam; meaning that she and Jesus are related in the broadest sense of the word not just to Joseph or David or Abraham, but to all of us.
Mary is such a nobody in this story that she can be claimed by anybody. She is such a nobody that she and Jesus can be claimed by everybody.
By virtue of his adoptive father, Jesus belongs to the house of David.
By virtue of his birth mother, Jesus belongs to the whole human family.
I don’t know about you, but the beauty of that takes my breath away. There is a universalism at work here that is actually particular to Judaism. Luke is reminding us that in the Jewish imagination we are all children of Adam and therefore all children of God.
This is so significant, because it was not so in the rest of the ancient world. We talked earlier about how virgin births and divine human relations, though still special, were not exactly rare back in the day. But what is important to note is that such divine parentage was typically reserved for the high and mighty.
Heroes such as Hercules and Perseus, wise men such as Pythagoras and Plato, Pharaohs like Osiris and Ra, and emperors like Julius and Augustus Caesar, all claimed to be sons of gods. But one look at how they used their power and you realize that something very different is going on with Mary and her son Jesus.
In the words of Brian McLaren, “The leaders of ancient empires typically presented themselves as divine-human hybrids …In them, the violent power of the gods was fused with the violent power of humans to create superhuman,” super violent heroes and kings who created “superpower nations” through domination and force.
But in Jesus’ origin story, the mythology of empire is turned inside out and upside down. Unlike Zeus and Leda, say, Luke tells us the story of a God who comes with power but not by force. The angel asks Mary if she is willing to co-create this baby with the power of the Most High, and the Most Hight waits for her consent. That right there…total game changer.
Together, Mary and the Holy Spirit bring forth “a child who will be known,” in the words of McLaren, “not for his violence but for his kindness.” With mutual love and honor Mary and the Most High produce, “a different kind of leader entirely—one who doesn’t rule with the masculine power of swords and spears, but with a mother’s sense of justice and compassion.”
Friends, this Jesus may be a divine human hybrid, but he is born to poverty rather than a palace. He may be the son of God, but he comes in peace not power, to serve not subjugate, to accept all rather than merely avenge his own.
“In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus,” says McLaren, “God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood.”
And so what we find here in the gospel of Luke, my friends, is an old familiar story with a whole new twist because this baby is born to a whole new purpose. This Jesus is not born of a virgin to be one more hero. He is born instead to become a savior.
Not another strong man come to beat his enemies into submission, but a gentle prophet who will teach us all to love our enemies as we would those closest to us.
A savior who will show us the way….another way to live and love that begins with the recognition that this son of God shares the same lineage as you and I, that you and I share the same lineage as this son of God, because we are all children of God and need to learn to love and live together as such. This baby comes with healing in his wings preaching good tidings for all people, the good tidings that regardless of birth, class, tribe, or religion, we are all one people.
“The doctrine of the virgin birth, (then),” says McLaren, “isn’t about bypassing sex … but about subverting violence” (“We Make the Road by Walking," by Brian Mclaren, p 68-70). Let that sink in for a moment.
“The doctrine of the virgin birth, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence:” the violence of patriarchy, the violence of empire, the violence of tribalism and retribution, violence we still engage in because when push comes to shove, far too many of us still believe that somehow only more violence can save us.
In my favorite interview of Kristof’s he talks to the evangelical author Phillip Yancey. He tells Yancey that he deeply admires Jesus’ teaching but is skeptical of the Virgin Birth, the miracles and the resurrection. “Am I a Christian,” he asks?
Yancey responds, “The church I grew up in would have an instant answer to that question. We thought we knew who was “in” and who was “out.”(But, he admits, “Jesus was more elusive, and his parables contain an element of surprise. I would rephrase the question and toss it back to you: Are you a Jesus follower? ( https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2019/12/23/nicholas-kristof-was-mary/).
Kristof ends the interview there, without his answer. But if you follow his writings you will see a theme emerge, a persistent concern for people on the margins, but particularly for women and children all around the world who are in danger or in need. Most recently he has written a number of articles on the situation in Gaza. Listen to his words from his most recent oped, written just 4 days ago and then maybe you can judge for yourself whether Kristof is a Christian.
Of Israel’s siege he writes:
I fear that inflicting mass casualties is a strategic error as well as a moral one; We should be particularly pained that children are dying from American bombs and missiles. I’m glad that Biden administration officials are finding their voice and speaking up to try to slow the killing, but I wish it hadn’t taken so long.
If Prime Minister …Netanyahu is wading into a quagmire, President Biden is doing Israel no favors by biting his tongue in public. He should speak up more forcefully on behalf of the children in whose deaths I fear we are complicit.
Look, it’s hard, (he concedes,) to have a conversation about the Middle East, because people quickly divide into sides. But the side we should be on is that of children dying pointlessly in Israel and Gaza alike without advancing anyone’s security.
The lives of Israeli, American and Palestinian children all have equal value, and we should act like it. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/06/opinion/gaza-israel-deaths.html
Bringing an end to violence so all of God’s children can live in peace.
That, my friends, is the truth at the heart of Mary’s story, the story of a virgin who gave birth to God’s child and called him Jesus. It is a truth Kristof believes in whether he’s made that connection or not. It is a truth I believe in and one I hope you can believe in too; the only truth I know of that can save the world. Amen