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We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Virgin Birth?

Luke 1: 26-38

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Dec. 18, 2011

O God, in the birth of Jesus you come among us embodied in human flesh to bless and to love. Come now and be among us today. Empower us with new understanding of your coming in Jesus, the perfect love.  Amen.

When I was young, my mother used to tell me about a dream she had when I was conceived.  In her dream, she saw a big golden dragon ascending to the sky from the sea at dawn.  The next morning, she knew she was going to have a boy.  This is what we call, in Korean, a “Tae Mong,” a conception dream.  People in Korea still believe that the conception of a baby is made known through an unusual dream usually by the mother, yet sometimes the father or other relative of the family.  When they see mythical creatures like a dragon or a phoenix or an exotic flower in their dreams, they begin to talk about who is going to have a baby in their families.  When they see something powerful like a dragon, they predict that it is going to be a boy; when they see something beautiful like flowers or birds, it is going to be a girl. 

While reading today’s passage from Luke, known as the Annunciation, I was reminded of Korean conception dreams.  “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary." “Round yon virgin mother and child."  We say and sing these words in church. Once a year we even blast the words of the carol over loudspeakers in shopping malls.  Some passers-by may shake their heads in amusement or amazement over this “primitive mythology."  Some Christians, especially theologians and preachers, sometimes fight bitterly over it.  But what does it mean? Why all the fuss?

The doctrine of the virgin birth is certainly of great importance in the history of Christendom. Much ink has been spilled about the meaning of the virgin birth.  But it should be pointed out that the story of Jesus' birth is recorded only in Matthew and Luke which were written almost half a century after Jesus died. It is not mentioned at all in Mark or John. Paul never mentions it in any of his letters, some of which were written much earlier than any of the four Gospels; nor do any of the other New Testament writings. Does this not indicate that many of the first Christians, including Paul himself, could be real Christians without talking about, perhaps without even knowing about the story of Jesus' miraculous birth?

My mother’s conception dream made me feel great.  I felt I was special; I was not born by accident; I was born, surrounded by a mystery associated with an ancient myth; I felt like I was born into this world with a certain purpose or plan.  As I grew up, I knew what this was all about.  Its point was clear: I was assured I was a valued human being.  In fact, it offered me great confidence in who I was and helped me a great deal go through my troubled adolescence. 

We are not sure if Mary told her boy about the story of Angel Gabriel’s visit when he was conceived.   If so, there is no doubt that, like me, as he grew up, the child Jesus must have appreciated it.  I never asked my mother, “Did you really have that dream?  Didn’t you just make it up for me?” Whether she actually dreamed it or not did not matter.  What mattered most was that her dream meant a lot to me.  Likewise, the child Jesus would never have asked, “Mom, did it really happen?”  Obviously, that would be the wrong question.  Like about many other miracle stories or parables in the bible, it is important for us to ask good questions today, like, “What is the point of the story?  What are the writers of the Gospel trying to say through the story of the virgin birth?   What does that mean to us today?”

I found an interesting comment on the virgin birth from one of the commentaries.  Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the last century, has noted that the exclusion of a human father in Jesus' miraculous birth tells us something about ourselves as well as about God. Human history has usually been the story of human males, the story of the power and accomplishments of statesmen, warriors, explorers, entrepreneurs, philosophers and so on. But now in the most important event of all history the mighty male is excluded! It is a woman who is the agent of God's work in the world.

The birth stories of Jesus tell us that he was born as a real flesh-and-blood human being just like us.  Jesus was born as we all are. He was once a helpless baby who had to be fed, whose diapers had to be changed, who had to develop and mature slowly.  His birth stories emphasize that he came into the world in the same way every other human being does. He did not just appear out of nowhere like a ghost, a "heavenly body," or an alien from outer space.  It insists in Jesus' real humanity by putting his birth in line with other marks of real human existence: born, suffered, died and was buried.

Jesus was born into a real world.  The Christmas story is anything but the sentimental, harmless, once-a-year occasion for a "Christmas spirit" that lasts only a few days before we return to the "facts" of the "real world." Christmas is the story of God’s coming into the real world where we live all year long—a world where there is political unrest and injustice, poverty, hatred, jealousy, and both the fear and the longing that things could be different.

Jesus was a Jew.  He was a Jewish human being.  He was one of that group of people who, from the first century to the present, have been laughed at and joked about, excluded and persecuted and slaughtered in the millions, sometimes by people who called themselves Christians. Although the New Testament shows no interest in what Jesus looked like, we may be sure that he was not the blond, blue-eyed, pink-complexioned figure of much Western religious art and Hollywood productions. Men of the Near East look neither like Anglo-Saxons with long hair nor like All-American boys.

Belief in the doctrine of the virgin birth does not make or prove Jesus to be the Saviour or the Messiah.  Even if it could be proven that his mother was a virgin, that would only prove that his birth was a medical anomaly.  We Christians do not believe in Jesus because he was born of a virgin.  On the contrary, because we have already come to believe that he is the Christ, we listen to the stories of his miraculous birth.  The movement is from faith in Jesus to the virgin birth, not vice versa.  Faith comes by seeing, hearing and experiencing what he does.  We come to recognize Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us, not first of all by speculating about the meaning of birth, but by listening to the story of his life after his birth.

Jesus lived always in perfect love for God and other people.  His friends and associates were not the good church people of his day. They were his enemies, not because he rejected them but because they rejected him. His friends were political revolutionaries like the Zealots, dishonest business people who were also traitors to their nation like the tax collectors, tragic women like the woman caught in adultery, social outcasts like the Samaritans. He did not minister to well people who did not need a doctor but to sick people who did.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent and we lit the candle of love.  In fact, we began to celebrate today’s theme, Love, a week earlier.  Last Sunday afternoon, some of us joined me in visiting several members who had not been able to come to church because of illness or age.  In their homes and institutions, we were happy to share our stories and memories of our church.  Certainly, it was time to share the love we have learned from Jesus, the one who lived in love for other people.  Before sharing bread and wine during the Communion, we read together Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, one of today’s passages and remembered God’s love in Jesus’ coming among us as a baby.

  I would like to close my sermon with a prayer from the Communion service.  Let us pray.

            God of Advent, we thank you for being with us here.
            We anticipate your coming among us.
            May we join Mary in singing joyfully of your love and care.
            May our spirits rejoice in your coming among us as an infant lying in a manger.
            God of Love, we give you thanks and praise for your gift of love.
            You bring creation to birth and send prophets to awaken us to your Advent among us.
            We thank you for those who, like Mary, have the strength and courage to give birth to
            your love in the world, for those who, like the shepherds, dare to seek out the child of
            We praise you that your everlasting light is shown to us in womb and tomb, in cradle
            and cross, in tenderness and compassion.
            For Jesus Christ, in whom you gather the hopes and fears of all the years, we praise
            you, joining with all your people of every time and place, and with angels and
            archangels who proclaim the holy birth:
            Praise be to God, the Source of Love; Praise be to Christ, Love Incarnate;
            Praise be to the Spirit, Love’s power. Amen.

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