A Virgin Gives Birth: Can You Believe It?

Scepticism about the virgin birth of Jesus is nothing new. In fact it goes way back, and if you were to consider where it all started you would have to go back further than the so-called “enlightenment” with its disliking of miracles to, well, Mary; “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 NRSV). The next sceptic? Yep, you guessed it, Joseph who requires the visit of an angel to help overcome his scepticism. So scepticism is neither new, nor unnatural. But should we be sceptical? And in today’s highly sophisticated society can we still hold to the virgin birth as true? let’s take a look.

I disliked history so much in high school that I didn’t take it as soon as I couldn’t sign up for it. It seemed boring to me, all those dates and people and places. I was more interested in a different kind of date. Fast forward to university and suddenly history came alive for me (along with dating but that is a matter of history). No longer were we told what happened, instead we were given the ancient source materials, like Herodotus and Thucydides, along with the differing opinions of the expert historians and we were told to figure out what really happened for ourselves. In reading the ancient works you very quickly discover that it is best to discount the miraculous if you are to reconstruct what was really happening. This is “good” historical method and very necessary in weeding out the superstitious from the real. After all, we don’t normally experience miracles, so why would we think that the peoples of ancient Greece and elsewhere did too? So should we have this same approach to the Bible and hence “weed out” the miracles? If that is our method then the baby Jesus will soon be thrown out with the bathwater, or least the idea of his being born of a virgin. After all, virgin births never happen do they?

But is it proper to conclude that all miracles in ancient works are legend only including those in the Bible? Consider if you were to follow me on my motorcycle (by which I mean that I am riding it, not you! – and we’ll consider my previous 123hp motorcycle, not my current 13hp motorcycle). You would discover that I normally ride at around 90 km/hr, which is hardly speeding given that the speedometer is optimistic. Sometimes I will do 100, and occasionally 120 on a 400-series highway. You might, based on your experience and observations conclude that motorcycles will not travel more than 120. But that would be incorrect. They can go faster, I choose not to. Just because we do not often see miracles does not mean God can not grant them, it just means he chooses not to. Our knowledge of the universe is closer to someone tracking me on my motorcycle than someone who knows motorcycles well – it really isn’t as much as we like to think! Mary’s scepticism, likely based on her knowledge of the universe, is met with the angel’s reminder that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). If you believe in God, miracles including the virgin birth become a very real possibility. If our Lord can create the universe from nothing he can create a child from whatever he wants. Of course if you don’t believe God exists, the virgin birth will still be considered impossible by you. But how convincing is your argument that God does not exist? To declare the virgin birth is impossible is to take upon yourself the burden of proof. If you are agnostic, then like the believer, the possibility of a virgin birth should still be considered. But just because it is possible, does that make it probable? For the historian, possibility alone will not be convincing.

A sceptic might say that even though a virgin birth is possible with God’s help, it is not likely to happen anyway. And why should we accept the miracles found in the New Testament as legitimate, but not the miracles from other ancient works? If a woman came to you claiming a virgin conception would you believe her? Probably not. Why not? Because of the context, there is usually no reason to consider such a claim to be legitimate. Similarly the miracle claims from ancient works don’t give us much reason to believe. However, it is the context of the virgin birth of Jesus that opens it up to being much more than a mere possibility. And it is the context of Jesus that make all his miracles more than a mere possibility. Why?

Consider the context of the virgin birth. During Advent we considered Israel’s hopes and dreams, and God’s promises for the future. There was an expectation that God would break through for Israel in a significant way. God did this and more through Jesus: His life and teaching were unique in all history, his accomplishment of reconciliation on the cross is unique, his resurrection is unique, his influence and impact were and still are unique. With Jesus being such a unique figure in history, and with his unique fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, we can expect that his birth would be unique also. Yes, virgins never give birth and if we hear such claims we ought to be sceptical. But with Jesus, such a miracle is unique, only making sense if it happens once in history, and indeed making sense that once: The virgin birth is not a puzzling and random miracle, but rather a sensible piece that fits perfectly in the context of God’s purposes. The skeptic may walk away with a sense of “it can’t have happened this way.” But in the eyes of the Christian: “of course it had to happen this way.” A virgin gives birth: can you believe it? Yes, it is a reasonable truth not to mention a most wonderful truth worth celebrating everyday, never-mind just Christmas day!

My family and I trust you are enjoying Christmas, and wish you a Happy New Year!

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“The Matrix” and “Welcome to the Real the World”

“Welcome to the real world.” These are the first words Neo hears upon his “birth” into the real world in the movie “The Matrix.” He has assumed, along with every one else that he had been living in the real world all along, but the truth was much darker and quite horrifying. Every one was  alive, yes, but not living. Instead human beings were being “grown” as an energy supply for the machines that had taken over the world. The machines fed signals into the brains of the humans to make them think they were really living in a real world. As Morpheus tells Neo,

The Matrix  . . .is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. . . . That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

Things are not as they seem and there is need for a hero, in this case the messiah-like man Neo, to rescue humanity from its bondage, but first he must realise his. Neo’s ultimate “reality check” is his “birth” of sorts. For the machines this event would be described more as being aborted from his womb-like cocoon, but being rescued by those who know the truth he is literally born into a new world, the real world. And the real world is not pretty;

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. . . .  most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Christmas is a reality check. A saviour is born to us, but if that is true, then the truth is that we, like those stuck in the Matrix, are in bondage. The Saviour was born because a saviour is needed. This is unwelcome news for many, a bitter pill to swallow. And the birth of Jesus was a bitter pill for Herod, so much so in fact that the Christmas story is accompanied by the murder of all the children two years and under in Bethlehem in an attempt to delete the upstart king (see Matthew 2:13-18). Reality was that Herod is not the king, Jesus is. And many flounder in this same reality check today: we are not king, Jesus is. We are not fine, we have a sin problem whether we are aware of it or not. Welcome to the real world. Thankfully the unwelcome news of the reality of our sin comes along with the Good News:  “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour  who is the Messiah, the Lord”  (Luke 2:11 NRSV) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV)

Every day and up to ten times a day my middle son goes through a reality check. Being a Type 1 diabetic he must prick his finger, draw some blood and check his glucose levels. If they are high, he must get insulin, if they they are low, he must get sugar. These are constant checks-on-reality and there is no room for interpretation, no making up what you would like to be true, and as much room for Post-modern waffling as there was room in the inn that first Christmas. Each blood check is a reality check and based upon that reality a decision must be made. Insulin, sugar, or sit content with a good reading, a decision must be made. Mary and Joseph decided to go with God in what He was doing in their midst. The shepherds decided to see this thing that had happened. The Magi decided to look for this new king. Herod decided to get rid of him. Welcome to the real world where there is sin and salvation. What will you do?

“May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favour”

“May the odds be ever in your favour,” a common refrain from the movie The Hunger Games. You are not too far into the movie before you realise that if you are from District 12 or any of the other outlying districts, the odds will never be in your favour. The austerity, danger, and sadness that marks the opening scenes from District 12 stand in stark contrast to the wealth, splendor, and joy of the city. That the odds certainly are not in the favour of the two tributes from District 12 is made clear by their mentor, Haymitch: “Embrace the probability of your imminent death, and know in your heart that there’s nothing I can do to save you.”

The movie, and the book I suspect, cause us to reflect upon issues of power and privilege. The odds being in your favour depend highly on the odds of your being being born into a place of privilege, and the odds that the privileged will exploit the less than privileged are pretty high. We see this played out throughout the world with some children born into the very real possibility of starving to death while war-lords and Westerners alike take care of their own. As one U2 song puts it “Where you were born, should not decide, whether you live or whether you die.” The odds are not in the favour of a great many. But we even see this played out in a food-rich land like Canada. Some children are born into a stable and loving home, for others the odds are not in their favour that they will grow up without being abused, bullied or abandoned by those with power over them. We do not get to decide the situation into which we are born. Obviously something has got to change – but it isn’t birthplace. As The Hunger Games roll on you realize that there is need for a great reversal, for the Primrose Everdeens of District 12 to be lifted up and the President Snows of the city to be brought down. It isn’t a change of birthplace that is needed, but a change in people. This is an Advent yearning which Mary speaks about while expecting Jesus:

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. Luke 1:50-55 NIV

Mary was born into a time and place where the odds are not exactly in her favour. She is a Jewish girl born into a Roman world and her land may as well be renamed District 12, a land and people to be exploited and kept under control by force. But there is hope for there is a promised Messiah. Mary upon discovering that she is carrying this Messiah reflects on how she herself is the first example of this coming reversal. What are the odds that the King of kings should be born to Mary who is anything but a princess in a palace, or a person of privilege?

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Luke 1:46-49 NIV

And so the greatest change in all history starts with a change that was hardly noticed on the world stage. A young woman, who would never make the news, gives birth in poor circumstances. This is hardly newsworthy, and in a world of crazy people making crazy claims neither is her claim to virginity. Yet the news is broadcast – to shepherds – who of course are the last people to trust in religious matters or any other matter for that matter, with no degrees or credentials, and ceremonially “unclean” to boot. No, if one wanted to broadcast this great news, one should go to the High Priest, or to Herod’s palace, or better yet, Caesar’s. But there were no angel choirs found there. And no army would storm those palaces to bring freedom – instead the so-called King of the Jews would be crucified like any other rebel. His death, like his birth being hardly newsworthy. But He rose from the dead, a reversal had begun, people will be changed, and his birth became best news ever. What are the odds this reversal begun in Jesus will touch touch our lives? With a whole lotta grace from God and from us a trust in Him, the odds are forever in our favour.