Sermon for September 1st, 2019

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Luke 1:26-35 (NT page 56)

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

John 19:38-42 (NT page 114)

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

The Apostles’ Creed – I Believe in Jesus, Part II

The past few Sundays, we've been talking about the ancient Christian statement of belief known as the Apostles' Creed, and today, we come to the section that says:

I believe in Jesus Christ . . . "who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried."

As the father of three children, I like to think that I know a thing or two about conceiving and giving birth.

I've been through this process three times, after all.  However, whenever I say things like that, Amy gently corrects me and says, "YOU know a thing or two?" YOU gave birth to three children? 

She's right of course. My job was the easy one, but there is just a little bit of irony here, because I also remember that the first time I casually announced to a friend, “my wife is pregnant,” Amy gently corrected me and said, “No honey, we're pregnant. We're expecting. We're in this together. I didn't get this way by myself, you know?" And then fast forward nine months, and the "we" went right out the door. It was “I gave birth to this child.”

Conceived by the Holy Spirit

The Apostles' Creed, for better or worse, gives sole credit to the Holy Spirit for the "conception" of Jesus. To conceive in Greek is συλλαμβάνω (sullambano), a word which appears often in the the New Testament. Sometimes it translates as "to conceive." Other times, that same word is translated as "to arrest," or "to capture," "to take," or even "to help." It's certainly a flexible word, and so I think we should resist taking it too literally--especially in a modern scientific sense involving eggs and embryos, shared chromosomes, and other things that 1st century writers probably couldn't even "conceive" of yet.

Actually, that's the other meaning of "conceive" in English--to imagine or understand something--to "get it." And I like thinking of this line in that way: The idea, the plan, the concept (which also comes from "conceive) for this amazing individual came from God, through the work of the Spirit. We often think of "spirit" as the animating force behind our individuality, our personality. So it seems fitting that Jesus, this special person who had a special relationship with God, was imbued with God's essence, God's spirit.

Born of the Virgin Mary

But credit for the actual birth part, the hard labor, rightly goes to Jesus' mother, Mary. That, in itself, would be pretty unremarkable. Everyone who has ever lived has entered into the world (so far) by way of a mother. What makes Mary's story interesting is the assertion that she was a "virgin" a the time of Jesus' birth, that there was no earthly father, and that Jesus was not conceived in a conventional way.

Let me be honest, here. I'm pretty skeptical of that claim, at least when taken literally. So were plenty of people in the earliest decades of Christianity. The Greek Philosopher Celsus, writing in the second century, recounted rumors that Jesus was fathered by a Roman soldier named Pantera. There's no way to verify those rumors one way or another, but if this had been true, it's exactly the sort of scandalous thing Jesus' early followers would have wanted to omit from his story.

Equally likely is the possibility that the true father of Jesus was simply Mary's husband, Joseph, with whom she had many children. Joseph is referred to several times in the gospels as the father of Jesus, without qualification as "step-father" or "earthly father." None of the earliest Christian writings, like the letters of Paul, make any mention of a virgin birth, and the earliest gospel, Mark, also doesn't say anything about a virgin birth.

So where does that come from? That's easy enough. The first place it appears is the gospel of Matthew, who is constantly trying to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of ancient prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures. In telling the story of Jesus' birth, he quotes from Isaiah 7:14, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the עַלְמָה (almah) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. What's an עַלְמָה? In Hebrew, it means "young girl." Later, the book of Isaiah gets translated into Greek, and that word becomes παρθένος, which means...young girl. Hundreds of years pass, however, and the word evolves to mean, more specifically, a young girl who has never engaged in sexual intercourse--a "virgin."

Matthew, when writing his gospel, only has access to the Greek version, and to the meaning of the word in his time. So in order for Jesus to be the fulfilment of that particular prophecy, Matthew's Jesus has to be born of a virgin. Luke, writing after Matthew, uses Matthew as his source and expands the story, as you can see in today's scripture reading. But remember that both Matthew and Luke are writing decades after the time of Jesus, and their purpose is not to be historically, scientifically accurate in the way we might want today. Matthew's purpose is to connect Jesus to the Hebrew scriptures. Luke's purpose is to tell an epic story pitting his main character, Jesus, as the rival and superior to the best heroes in Greek and Roman mythology, many of whom were, in legend, born of a human mother and fathered by one of the gods.

So what do we, those of us who are skeptical, do with this line? Should we drop it out of the creed altogether? Do we remain silent when we get to that part of the creed on Sunday mornings? No. And I'll say more about Mary later. For now, I think we're intelligent and flexible enough to understand the word "virgin" in its original Hebrew sense as simply a "young woman."

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

I believe in Jesus Christ . . . "who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried."

Jesus suffered. To me, that's one of the most meaningful assertions in the entire Creed. Because we suffer too. I'm immediately suspicious of any church, any pastor, any Christian community that promises constant health, wealth and happiness to its members. Yes, we all hope for those things, and we believe that God (in some sense) wants what is best for us. But the reality is, sometimes things go south. People we love suffer, for no seemingly good reason. Sometimes they succumb to that suffering, and they die, long before we think they should. Our comfort and consolation is not in believing that God will prevent this from happening to us. Our consolation and comfort is in knowing there's nothing we can experience that God has not already painfully, brutally experienced before us. Our savior knows and understands our suffering, our pain, completely, and so we never walk through it alone.

Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. Apart from Jesus himself, the only two names specifically mentioned in the Creed are those of Mary and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who presided over the trial and execution of Jesus. These two names have been repeated countless times by Christians saying this Creed in every time, place, and language. And these two people couldn't be more different.

Pilate was in a position of the highest authority, a position of privilege and influence and wealth in the most powerful government in the world at the time. Mary, by contrast was a young peasant girl in a defeated and occupied country, in a culture where women had little or no power, even over their own lives. God chose Mary to give Jesus life, and God chose Pontius Pilate to end it. Both had their role to play, and both are remembered by history for that role. Chances are that both would have been surprised at how they are remembered.

This part of the creed is a reminder that you, too, might be surprised at how your role plays out, and how you are remembered when you are gone. But every day you live, every time you say the creed, no matter what your station in life is, no matter your wealth or your privilege or lack still have the opportunity to do things in this world that nurture and give life to others, rather than things that harm, devalue, or take it away.

Was Crucified, Died and Was Buried

The creed tells us that Jesus was Crucified, died, and was buried. I'm going to tackle these three things slightly out of order, starting with burial. Our scripture passage from John 19 describes the process by which Jesus was buried. It's a reminder that ceremony and ritual are an important part of what we do as communities. Our traditions may have changed and evolved through the years, but the love and care with which we mark the end of a life is just as important as the way we mark its beginning, and both of these observances spring from our participation in a lifelong community of faith.

Jesus was crucified. We forget this today, but to the original Christians, the cross was not a cute, pious symbol fit for jewelry, tattoos, or church steeples. It was a symbol of brutal violence, torture, political subjugation--a shameful death fit for criminals. And yet, the earliest Christians took this symbol of suffering and shame, and turned it into something beautiful, something meaningful. As followers of Jesus, that's what we do. We take something meant to hurt, and we turn it into a reminder that we should help. We take something meant to terrorize, and we turn it into a reminder to hope. We take shame, and we turn it into love. We take death, and we turn it into life.

Jesus died. That seems like an odd place to end today's sermon. Why not go just a few more words into the Apostles' Creed and get to the good part, the resurrection? Why stop here? We all know what's coming, right? And so often, we like to rush to that happy ending, skipping over the dark parts we don't like. But that cheapens our faith, because there cannot be a resurrection without a death. We cannot have new life without letting the old life go. Death is a part of our human experience, just like birth, and rebirth.

Jesus died. Sometimes, its okay to dwell there for awhile, to face death and come to terms with it. Or as Psalm 23 puts it, to walk in the valley of the shadow of death--not necessarily knowing how long, or how far we will walk, or even where that shadowy valley will ultimately leads--but knowing that we do not walk through it alone.