Not Just Tinsel
Notice our Christmas trees. Nary a strand of tinsel on any of them. Not all of you have tinsel on your trees at home. That's okay. A Christmas tree is still a Christmas tree without the tinsel. Tinsel is an extra, a nicety not a necessity, an add on not a component part.
The Virgin Birth is becoming just tinsel. The world may sing, "Round yon virgin mother and child," but only a fraction believes it. Stores ring with "offspring of a virgin's womb," but not many shoppers know or care what that means. And while millions will gather Christmas Eve singing "to be born of a virgin He doth not despise," millions more do despise the idea that a virgin gave birth. To them the Virgin Birth is just tinsel on the Christmas story.
Regarding the Virgin Birth as just tinsel has a long history. Only 170 years after the birth of Jesus some denied it, but they weren't considered Christians. That has changed. In the early 1900s, leaders from within the church began to teach that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth was "religiously valueless." Disagreement over the Virgin birth is what first split American Christianity into liberal and conservative. The conservatives taught the Virgin birth was necessary. The liberals taught it was just tinsel.
The attacks on this doctrine haven't changed over the years. Some say, it's a pious story made up at the time because it was popular then to say famous people were born of virgins. Julius Caesar, born 100 years before Jesus, and Alexander the Great, born 300 years before Jesus, were both said to be born of virgins (Christology, Scaer, 35). A virgin birth is tinsel, just a way to dress Jesus up to make Him more attractive. Another way it's denied is saying the church made up the story because Jesus' birth was embarrassing. Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier, or Joseph, or an unknown man. The Virgin Birth is tinsel put on to hide imperfections. Finally the doctrine is denied today by saying it wasn't a miracle. Since artificial insemination can cause a virgin to conceive today, a virgin birth is just tinsel; it isn't really special; it just appears to be.
Why do I tell you all this? Because you're going to be confronted with it if you haven't already. You'll hear this from scholars, theologians, and famous pastors who are very intelligent, erudite, dynamic and convincing. You'll think poor, backward Pastor Harris didn't have the education to know about these new teachings. He didn't know about the latest scholarship of Dr. Marcus Borg or Dr. John Spong.
Borg said, "To me, as to many Bible scholars, the birth stories seem to be symbolic narratives and not historical reports. I am one of those Christians who does not believe in the Virgin Birth.Yet I find these stories to be powerful and truthful, and I have no difficulty preaching sermons on them" ("The First Christmas," Bible Review, December 1992). Spong describes himself as a "Bible-believing Christian." In his book Born of a Woman he writes that the Virgin Birth has been used as a weapon to oppress women. Not only wasn't Mary a virgin but she may have conceived through rape. These are 1990s deniers of the Virgin Birth, but already in 1953 William Barclay said, "The church does not insist we believe in this doctrine (Luke, 12).
The world runs after men like these, and we're setting up our kids to run right along with them. We're not teaching our kids in the home that Jesus was born of a virgin. Sure we confess that each Sunday in the creeds, but if we don't teach them at home, they won't learn it. I know; it's embarrassing to talk about such things. Start when your kids are toddlers and there is no embarrassment. "But it's too difficult to explain," you say. Sure it is; who can explain a miracle? You don't explain miracles. You teach them. Teach kids that Jesus had no human father. Mary got a baby in the tummy by the power of the Holy Spirit. She didn't get pregnant like other women do, but by a miracle the Son of God came into her belly.
The Virgin Birth isn't just tinsel. You cannot leave this out of the story. You can leave out Rudolph, trees, stockings, mistletoe, even the Big Red One and still have Christmas but not the Virgin Birth. If you leave out the Virgin Birth either God or Man is left out of the manger, and unless both are there, there is no salvation there either.
If the Second Person of the Holy Trinity didn't come into this world through a virgin's womb, then the Son of God didn't become the Son of Man. Then He only took on human form. He looked like a man, talked like a man, but so do angels when they take on human form, and they aren't really human beings.
If Jesus wasn't really human, then He couldn't really take our place under God's Laws. The Laws of God don't apply to God Himself; whatever God wants to do is lawful. The Law didn't need to be fulfilled by God but by man. If Jesus wasn't really human, then He wasn't really subject to the Law of God. It didn't really apply to Him, so He couldn't have kept it in our place. Without a virgin birth God's Law is still on your back, and it must be kept perfectly by you before you can go to heaven.
The same is true for the punishments the Law demands for breaking it. If God didn't really take on flesh and blood in a virgin's womb, how could He suffer and die for sins? Apart from the Virgin Mary's womb God can't suffer and die. God is immune to these because God is life itself. If God could suddenly suffer and die then He would cease to be God no less than if He ceased to be omniscient or omnipotent. So if God didn't become a real human through a virgin's womb, God couldn't really suffer and die for sins. He could only appear to suffer and die. But if there wasn't real suffering and dying in our place, then we still face both to pay for our sins.
There is no less of a problem if you deny the Virgin Birth by saying that Jesus had a human father. Then Jesus can't be God. If Jesus had a human father, then He was born after the likeness of fallen Adam as all men are. All so born are sinners in need of salvation. If Jesus had a human father, He too needed saving and could save no one Himself.
Even if Jesus was a perfect man through a miracle of God's grace, it still wouldn't be enough. A perfect man could have taken our place under the Law, but in order to be keep the Law perfectly, He needed to be God. In Eden we saw that perfect man and woman were no match for the Devil. He easily defeated them even in their perfection. Jesus had to be more than a man in order to keep the Law perfectly in the face of demonic temptation. He had to be God.
If Jesus was not God what could His blood shed on the cross cleanse or pay for? An ordinary man's blood cleans nothing. And what about His suffering and death? Plenty of people suffer and die everyday. All that suffering and dying doesn't pay for anyone sins or satisfy God's wrath even a little. If it was not God's blood shed on Calvary, if it wasn't God suffering and dying there in the Person of Jesus, then your sins, my sins, the world's sins are still laying exposed and stinking to high heaven. If it was not God who died at Calvary for sin, then God is still angry because of our sins and you and I still have to die because of them.
Finally, if there was no Virgin Birth, there are no Sacraments either. If the Virgin Birth is just tinsel, the Sacraments are just tinsel too. Then there is no point in bringing babies to Baptism or ourselves to Absolution or the Lord's Supper. We can't continue to say to babies, "Receive the sign of the holy cross both upon the head and upon the heart in token that you have been redeemed by Christ the crucified." If the Virgin Mary didn't carry God in her womb, then God was not in there redeeming little babies, and Baptism couldn't be for them because salvation isn't. As an early church father said, "For that which He has not assumed He has not redeemed" (Gregory of Nazianzen, Epistle CI, NPNF, 440).
God, however, was there. "What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit," the angel told Joseph. She conceived by the Holy Spirit coming upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her, Gabriel told Mary. That means form zygote, to blastocyst, to embryo, to fetus, Jesus, the God-Man, was bearing our sinfulness, redeeming our little ones. Right then and there in the womb Jesus started. We bring our newborn babies to Baptism confident that salvation belongs to them.
And if a virgin didn't conceive God in flesh and blood in her womb, what power could there be in Absolution? Without God really becoming man no word of man would be the Word of God (Worship in the Name of Jesus, 142). But with the Word of God becoming Man, the words of men are empowered to be the Words of God so much so that Jesus can promise whatever your words forgive on earth is forgiven before God in heaven.
Communion also depends on a virgin birth. If God didn't really take on flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary, what could He be giving us today? Not His Body, not His Blood, not the forgiveness He won with them either. But God did become incarnate by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. God was made Man, and this Man who is God gives to us men the very same Body and Blood He got through the Virgin Mary. God prepared a Body for Him through Mary's womb. A Body and Blood that could be given, shed, ate and drank.
The Virgin Birth is not just tinsel; it's the very Tree. There is no Christmas without it. The word Christmas is a contraction of the words Christ and Mass, an ancient name for Communion. As we saw, you can't have a real Communion with God's flesh and blood apart from the Virgin Birth, so you can't really have Christmas. Where's the reason for sinners to put up special trees let alone decorate them with tinsel? Without a virgin birth, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a first century Jew who died long ago. But the Virgin Birth means Christmas is a celebration of Immanuel, of God with us, in flesh and blood forever. Put up the tree, bring out the tinsel, and let's celebrate Christ-mass. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday in Advent (20131222); Matthew 1: 18-25