Eucharist Sermon - 19 December 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2–5a; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–45
The Revd Canon Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology
'Believing the Virgin Birth'

The idea that God’s saving power comes from unlikely and unpromising quarters is something of a refrain in the Bible. In the first Book of Samuel, for example, we learn that the one who would become Israel’s greatest king, David, was—because of his youth—entirely overlooked as a candidate for God’s royal anointing until the prophet Samuel insisted upon seeing him (I Sam. 16.11).

Here in our first reading the prophet Micah foretells that the Messiah—he who is anointed to save God’s people—will come from one of Israel’s least significant communities: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel …. He will stand in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5.2).

In the Gospel according to John, when Jesus’ disciple Philip tells Nathaniel that he has found the Messiah, one Jesus who comes from Nazareth, Nathaniel responds, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1.46).

And in this morning’s Gospel reading from Luke, we learn that the Messiah will emerge, not just from an inconsiderable person or place, but from a pregnant virgin. Not merely surprising, but incredible!

Since we are due to celebrate the Virgin Birth in a week’s time, we ought to give some thought to whether it is credible and how we can we believe in it.

I for one rank my Christian beliefs in a hierarchy—as I suspect most Christians do. At the top of the list are those beliefs that are most existentially significant, those that bear most directly on human existence and its anxieties and its struggles and its hopes. And that seems to me wholly appropriate theologically. After all, the God in whom Christians believe is characterized as one who would save us—he is ‘Redeemer’; he is ‘Saviour’. That is why we believe in Him. So, at the top of my list of Christian beliefs comes the Resurrection, and then the Incarnation. The Virgin Birth comes somewhere further down, because its bearing on the human predicament, its relevance to human salvation, is indirect.

I’m disposed to believe in the Virgin Birth because I believe in the Incarnation of God. The story of the Virgin Birth tells us that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was also the taking on of human flesh by the Son of God. It tells us that Jesus of Nazareth was also God-in-the-flesh, not just another prophet. For Jesus was born, not just of a human mother, but also of God’s Spirit.

So, before we address the question of whether or not the Virgin Birth is credible, we should consider why the Incarnation of God matters. It matters, I think, because of what it tells us about the nature of God’s love. It tells us that God doesn’t love at a safe arm’s length. He doesn’t love at a patronizing distance. He doesn’t love with one eye fixed on his own dignity. He loves with a single-mindedness that isn’t distracted by anxiety over his own vulnerability. Therefore, he draws alongside us, meets us on our own territory, rubs shoulders with us, looks us in the eye. And with his unselfconscious presence he dignifies us. By coming down, he raises us up.

That’s why the Incarnation matters: it tells us that the Maker and Ruler of All Things really is with us. It tells us that he really loves us.

I imagine that you have heard of Princess Diana. You might remember, or have been told, how deeply and widely she was adored by complete strangers. Indeed, the extent of her appeal was extraordinary and requires an explanation. One plausible explanation, I think, was that her life told a secular version of the story of the Incarnation. For here was one from on high, who did not count royalty a thing to be grasped, who suffered as ordinary mortals do, and who came incognito under cover of darkness to accompany and comfort the diseased and the dying—specifically, AIDS patients.

It’s a very moving story. It’s moving because it demonstrates a love that is strong enough to expose itself and make itself vulnerable. But suppose that Princess Di hadn’t visited the AIDS patients herself. Suppose that she’d sent her butler instead. We wouldn’t be half so impressed. Indeed, we probably wouldn’t be impressed at all. For the story to have its attractive power, it’s vital that the one from on high should put her own money, so to speak, where her mouth is. It’s vital that she should love enough to put herself on the line.

As with Princess Di, so with almighty God. The Incarnation is the embodiment of a love that cares so much for the beloved that it cares not a whit about its own status, about protecting its own dignity, about how rubbing shoulders with the unclean might tarnish its own shine. That’s why the Incarnation matters. St Paul captures the point in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Philippians, where he writes of Jesus that, “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2.5-7).

For those of us who are acutely aware of our own sin, aware of what in our lives we’ve squandered, aware of what it’s like to be Prodigal Sons and Daughters—for those of us it’s very good news to learn that the One to whom we’re accountable isn’t sniffy about being in the company of the unclean, nor is he ruffled by being in the presence of the compromised.

It’s very good news to learn that the One who will judge us prefers not to stand above us wagging his finger, exploiting our sense of guilt in order to puff up his own self-esteem.

It’s very good news to learn that when judgement comes, as it shall, it will be moved by compassion that intends to heal us and make us whole.

That’s the good news—that’s the Gospel—which makes the Incarnation of God matter.

If the Incarnation matters, then so does the Virgin Birth, since the latter offers an account of how the Incarnation came to be. So, the Virgin Birth is significant, indirectly. But is it credible? Is it believable that a virgin should give birth to a child?

Well, if I didn’t believe in God, and if I thought that the cosmos was ruled by iron laws of nature that cannot be broken, then the story of the Virgin Birth would be incredible.

But I don’t see the cosmos as ruled by inviolable laws. The so-called laws of nature don’t tell us what ought to be, nor do they tell us what must be. They merely describe the way that things behave under normal conditions. Under unusual conditions, extra-ordinary things can happen. And since I believe in God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, I believe in a supernatural power that can cause unusual conditions.

So, I don’t find the Virgin Birth to be beyond the bounds of divine possibility or, therefore, beyond belief.

I believe in the Virgin Birth because, with God, all things are possible—and because, by taking on human flesh, God shows that he really is with us.