4th Sunday in Advent

by Crossings

VIRGIN BIRTH: WHO NEEDS IT?
Matthew 1:18-25
(Fourth Sunday in Advent)
analysis by Bob Bertram


18Now the birth of Jesus the messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the Prophet. 23″Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


DIAGNOSIS: Under-rating Our Problem

Step 1-Initial Diagnosis: Putting Problems Away Quietly
Jesus’ “virgin birth” (more exactly, his virginal conception) has become so controversial that many of us take Joseph’s way out: we don’t want to repudiate this problem pregnancy openly but, being “just,” we “put [it] away quietly” (v. 19). NOTE: Finding this story an embarrassment and yet wanting to side neither with the skeptics nor the biblicists-who are usually just two sides of the same coin — we prefer the course of silence, to the point perhaps of opting not to preach on this text even when it is appointed as the Gospel for the Day.

Step 2-Advanced Diagnosis: Afraid
Next, we move from Joseph’s overt, behavioral problem — what should he do? — to his internal problem ( the condition of his “heart”). The angle spots his condition as “fear” (v.20), the sort of fear which Matthew elsewhere identifies as unfaith. So afraid, so unbelieving was Joseph — as who wouldn’t be! — that he hadn’t even considered the third alternative the angel proposes (to take Mary home with him as his wife), let alone the angel’s preposterous explanation (the fetus had come from the Holy Spirit). See how fear, whatever else it does, restricts the unbeliever’s imagination. We too, find it almost impossible to imagine the angel’s third option. But because we’re afraid to? Here we thought it was because we were so rational. H-m-m.

Step 3-Final Diagnosis: Humbled to Death
Whatever might’ve caused Joseph to “fear” the angel’s command originally, what the angel says next really does give Joseph something to be afraid of. The reason for this virgin birth — and there is a reason, not just arbitrary biblical authority! — is that that’s how desperately doomed people are. That is what is necessary for people to be saved. To claim that Mary’s baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and by no man, wasn’t that already more than enough for poor Joseph to swallow, just at the level of biology? But no, biology is not the worst of it. He’s expected to believe that this whole virginal conception is necessary for people’s salvation, that’s how badly off they are. If the God-with-us is really going to be with us, fallen sinners, but still be God, then this “Emmanuel” dare not be the offspring of just another sinner. Indeed, that is exactly what this Emmanuel is coming to save sinners from, their sin (v. 21). So Joseph could no longer dismiss the virgin birth on merely biological grounds (though that is the level to which biblicists and skeptics alike often confine the problem). That evades the real issue. No, here Joseph was confronting a whole incredible, scandalous soteriology as well. Really, the angel’s announcement sounds like an insult not merely to Joseph’s intelligence but to his very self-worth. For the baby to be properly conceived, an outside Donor will have to be brought in, “the Holy Spirit,” since Joseph cannot be trusted to beget his own son. How humiliating! What he must have been tempted to tell the angel is not just, “Look, I know how babies are made,” but rather, “That desperate we are not, to need my paternity and my whole patriarchal ancestry-by passed. What are you, some kind of heavenly feminist?” The angel, in other words, gave Joseph far more to disbelieve than just “the virgin birth.” If he disbelieved at all, what he must’ve thought was, “Who needs it?” That is the question exactly — for everyone who, like Joseph, finds the virgin birth personally humiliating. Which it is.

PROGNOSIS: Raving For Our Solution

Step 4-Initial Prognosis: The Humbled “God-With-Us” (Emmanuel)
The solution commences at the very pit of our humiliation, not before, except that now the humiliation is no longer ours alone. Look who is now humbled in our place: “God with us.” That this God should ever have been an offspring in the first place, a divine offspring — “begotten” God, a “God [derived] from God,” a dependent deity — already seems very un-godlike. (Isn’t God the One on whom everything else depends, not Someone who himself depends on a Father-God?) That this Child-God should furthermore become a human infant with all the helplessness, the vulnerability that implies; that he should have to grow up under the stigma of having no human father; that he needed a step-father to provide some cover of respectability for himself and his mother-now, I ask, who is it who suffers the humiliation? Emmanuel does, and he does it for Joseph and for us, so that we might be exalted.

Step 5-Advanced Prognosis: The Miracle of Believing
Perhaps more remarkable is that Joseph believed this, so much so that he acted on that belief. In one of the Luther’s Christmas sermons he quotes Saint Bernard to the effect that the angel’s Annunciation to Mary entailed three miracles: that God becomes a human being, that he is born of a virgin, and that she is able to believe that. Of these three, the miracle which is most astonished Luther was the third. Equally astonishing is the faith of Joseph — but ours too, really.

Step 6- Final Prognosis: Bearing His Name
Finally, how does the Solution show up in the world of our overt behavior? Well, for example, this same humiliated and exalted Emmanuel adopts not only Joseph as his human father but also as his brothers and sisters. Witness how, quite publicly, we all carry his same family Name. And bearing his Name, we are quite likely to be asked someday, whether by skeptics or by biblicists, some nosy questions about his virgin birth. My suggestion is, Pursue their questions with them only if they are nosy enough. That is, are the questioners curious not just about the biological embarrassments of this problem pregnancy, whether it is scientifically plausible, but also about its soteriological embarrassments, whether it is something they themselves need in order to survive and flourish. If the questioners refuse to get that nosy, if they insist on under-asking the Mystery, then I would suggest telling them nicely, “Sorry, in that case it’s a family secret.”

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