From my Christmas Sermon
Many Christians see the virgin birth as literally true. I do not. I see it as a figure of speech used in those days to describe the greatness of a person. It is important, however, to recognize that I do not seek to change anyone’s mind. I seek only to share how I see the virgin birth. One of the things I treasure about our Wembley Downs Congregation is that we do not always agree.
“………. In the New Testament there are the parables of Jesus and parables about Jesus. The Christmas stories of shepherds and angels and a virgin birth are parables about Jesus. To claim that they are historic events is to miss the point completely and to distort the scriptures.
Take for example the story of the virgin birth.
Paul was the earliest of the Christian writers. He put pen to paper in the fifties and makes no mention of an extraordinary birth. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest and primary record of the Christian faith, was written in the seventies and has no Christmas stories. John’s gospel likewise has no birth stories. It is in Matthew and Luke, who wrote in the eighties and nineties, that we find the story of the virgin birth. In other words, the stories about wise men and a star, shepherds and angels and a virgin birth appeared about eighty years after the birth of Jesus and are not to be regarded as historical fact. . They were stories introduced into the Christian tradition late in the first century. For eighty years after the birth of Jesus they were of no importance to the followers of Jesus. The question we face is “What is their importance for us today?”
I would suggest that they are of great importance, not as historical stories of what happened in the year dot, but as parables and stories which are designed to hit home “like an arrow to the heart” – as A.M. Hunter describes the purpose of a parable. They are parables about Jesus.
Stories of a virgin birth were common in those days and ranged throughout the world, from Krishna in India to Horus in Egypt. The idea was particularly common in the Graeco-Roman world. The Greek God Dionysus was conceived by a bolt of lightning from Zeus, and Alexander the Great was said to be born of a virgin. More importantly, the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus who lived at the same time as Jesus was also believed to be born of a virgin, and the relevance here is of huge importance. Caesar Augustus’ titles included Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Saviour of the World”. There was, as has often been pointed out, an imperial theology in the Roman Empire. “You worship the Gods, you go to war, and with their assistance you are victorious”. The four elements of Roman theology were religion, war, victory, peace.
And into this world comes Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean peasant who calls into question the existing system and is called by his disciples , King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of God, Redeemer, Saviour of the world, Prince of Peace. Do you get it? Jesus of Nazareth constituted a new way of life, a new way of living vis a vis the existing way of life. And it was evidenced by the titles attributed to him. The claim to be conceived by God was part and parcel of the claim that he, not Caesar, was conceived by God , that he, not Caesar, was the Son of God, Prince of Peace, the Saviour of the World etc.
And here is the really staggering thing: it is still true today. The situation is the same! As Jim Wallis so strikingly puts it “The call to discipleship, the call to follow Jesus, demands a fundamental break with the dominant values and conformist patterns of the majority culture…..Christians must begin to understand that lives lived under the Lordship of Jesus will at this point in our history necessarily put us at odds with the leading assumptions of the cultural mainstream, the dominant institutions of political and economic power and the paralysing conformity of the church”.
That’s what Christmas is about! A new way of life found in Jesus of Nazareth – the way to fullness of life.
The virgin birth has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with politics and contemporary culture, both in the first century and the twenty first century! ……”