Exploring the Apostles Creed
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Part 4: ‘...Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary ...'

by Rev. Robert Griffith
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“I'll give you something to believe,” the Queen said, “I'm just 101, five months and a day.”
“I can't believe that,” said Alice.
“Can't you?” said the Queen in a pitying tone. “Try again. Draw a long breath and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughs, “There's no use trying,” she said, “One can't believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “Why, when I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

If you haven't heard that before, it's from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the little sequel to Alice in Wonderland. I read that because I think a lot of Christians in the Church today think about the virgin birth like this. It's a bit like trying to believe an impossible thing. If you can't do it, just shut your eyes and try a bit harder. Take a deep breath, you can do it. Is that what we're doing when we confess in the Creed that the Lord Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary? Are we just trying to believe six impossible things before breakfast? I have met a number of people who say that. I mean, this is one of those parts of the Creed which I think people find the hardest to come to terms with. So how are we meant to make sense of this line in the Creed? You might be glad to know this is nothing new, this struggle has been with us since ancient times. One of the things that critics of Christianity have drawn attention to is this strange belief that Jesus Christ was born of a woman who was a virgin – but is it that strange really?
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I think the main trouble is that we tend to take this idea of the virgin birth and separate it and put it over here and sort of look at it in isolation and think that it’s a bit odd and we don't know what to do with it. Let me illustrate it this way. Imagine if you found a guitar string out in the middle of nowhere. Imagine picking it up and thinking, gee, that's a bit thick for flossing your teeth with  - that must have been someone who had really big teeth, that must be how you use this. Or picking it up and thinking, that's just too short for a leash for walking my dog, it must have been someone with a very small dog who used this as a leash. Or maybe this is something people used to use to tie their horses up with. But it just seems to thin. No, perhaps it's for lacing my shoes with but it's just too stiff. To understand what the guitar string is, you have to see what it's for in its own context. When you take it and stare at it all by itself, you can very easily miss the point of what it's actually there for.
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I think the story of the virgin birth of Jesus is a lot like that. If we just stare at it as a kind of a bizarre miracle story, then we might end up like Alice and say, “One can't believe impossible things.” Or we might take a big leap of faith and say, “Okay, I believe it's a miracle story.” But I think in both of those cases, we'd still be missing the point, we'd still be missing the whole context of this story of the virgin birth. The way to see what the guitar string for is to see a complete guitar with all its strings and strum it. Then it makes perfect sense. Similarly, we can only really see what the virgin birth story is about if we look at the whole story of Scripture.
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Just imagine that someone came to you who had never heard of the Bible, and they asked you, what's the Bible about? There would be many ways you could answer that question but I think one good answer would be, “Well, the Bible is the story of a long chain of miraculous childbirth.” Have you ever thought about the Bible like that? The main thing that's going on in the Bible is pregnancy and childbirth. The story of Israel begins, as you know, with the story of an old couple, Abraham and Sarah, who can't have children. But God promises them. “I'm going to make you the parents of a huge family. One day your family will be more numerous than the stars in the sky.” There's only one problem - Sarah can't have children – she is barren and very old. In fact, when Sarah first hears this promise, she laughs at the thought that an old woman like her would have a child. What a funny thing to suggest. Of course when they actually have the child that God promised, she laughs again with joy and calls the baby Isaac, which mean laughter.
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So Israel's history begins with a promise of the impossible. God could have chosen someone much younger and more fertile – or someone who already had a big family. But God singles out a couple of senior citizens who cannot have children and says you're going to be the parents of a great family and through your family, the whole world will be blessed one day. Israel begins at that moment of incredulity. Just imagine Sarah's startled, disbelieving joy when she realizes that at nearly 100 years of age she's pregnant. Israel’s story begins with that joy. That sense of wonder and expectancy was the next great turning point in Israel’s journey. But then they end up in captivity in Egypt.
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Once again, God is there for the next turning point in Israel's story. There is yet another miraculous birth. In the case of Moses, it's not actually a miraculous birth but his whole infancy is a kind of cluster of miracles. He's born biologically there's no miracle there. But then the baby is set adrift on a river in a basket and then in astonishing circumstances, he is rescued and adopted by a member of the royal household in Egypt. Then by another astonishing circumstance, this Egyptian princess appoints the biological mother of Moses to be his nanny and to raise him. His whole infancy is a miracle. Then, of course, Moses is front and centre in many more great miracles to come when God redeems Israel from captivity.
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At the next great turning point in Israel’s story, when Israel has become a people in their own right, with their own place, they are constantly threatened by war. God raises up judges to protect and defend and to fight for Israel. The greatest of these judges, you know, is the guy who's never cut his hair. Samson is also born to a woman who cannot conceive. The angel of the Lord comes to her and says, “You will conceive, and your child will be dedicated to God and he will be a saviour for God's people.”So Samson, this great hero at this turning point of Israel's history, when the promise to Israel could have been snuffed out by all of these wars, Samson is born miraculously to a barren woman, to deliver God’s people.
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The next great chapter in Israel’s story is the appearance on the scene of the prophets and the kings and who is the first of these great prophets? It's Samuel, and yes, you guessed it, Samuel is also born to a woman who can't conceive. You can read the wonderful story of Hannah in the opening chapter of 1 Samuel. Hannah is weeping in the temple because she's so bitterly sad. The only thing she's ever wanted is a child but she can’t have one. The priest comes in and tells her off for coming to church drunk, and she has to explain, “I'm not drunk, I'm just so full of grief. I'm so sad.” He sends her away and says, “Well, your prayer will be answered.” As if to say, “Just don't come in and disgrace yourself like this again, go and you'll have a baby.” So she does just that and her baby is dedicated to God and becomes the great prophet Samuel, who ends up being the one who appoints Israel's first king – Saul.
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At each of these great turning points in Israel's history, the way God delivers Israel, the way God fulfils His promise to Israel is through a miraculous pregnancy and a miraculous birth. Then later in Israel's history, in times of exile when Israel has been taken away into a foreign land, the prophet Isaiah wants to reassure Israel that God's promise is still true and that He is going to come through for them. It's as if the grandest thing he can think of is the picture of a miraculous birth. And so the Prophet says in chapter 54:

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord. Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.” (Isaiah 54:1-3)

What a wonderful picture of God's promise as Israel herself is portrayed as a sad, barren woman living in a small tent, with just room for one. The Prophet says it's time to spread the stakes out, stretch out the curtains, do some alterations to your home, make it bigger, because a big family is coming! Rejoice and burst into song - you who have never given birth. And Israel would have recognized that as the characteristic way that God has always come through for Israel from the beginning. In fact, God's whole promise for Israel is tied to biological birth. The promise God gave to Abraham is, “I'm going to give you a big family, and they are going to be blessed, and they will flood the whole creation with blessing.” So the promise has to depend on childbirth and this promise continues throughout their whole history by childbirth.
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Have you seen the 2006 film Children of Men? The film is based on a P.D. James novel. It's terrific, exciting, dystopian and it really brings home the importance of childbirth to the human race. It's a futuristic movie. It is set in 2027 and when human infertility has left society on the verge of extinction. It is never explained in the movie, but 18 years beforehand, all over the world on a certain date, all women stopped conceiving, and there were no more children. So it’s not long before the world is plunged into chaos, because this is a world with no future. It's a riveting movie. There are scenes where you see the empty playground, and the swings, just moving in the wind and the weeds growing up around. All the schools are empty and there is no hope. Soon there'll be no more young people anywhere in the world. Then in this movie of completely unexplained circumstances, suddenly there is one girl who falls pregnant. All of a sudden, she is the most precious and most wonderful thing on the earth.
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I have a feeling that ancient Israel would have understood that movie better than most of us. There was nothing more horrible for ancient Israel than the thought of no more children. God's promise to this nation comes through the delivery of children. Well, by the time you get to the New Testament, the very first thing you read about is another one of these miraculous births. In Luke's account, it starts with Elizabeth. By the time we get to Elizabeth, this is starting to sound like a record running on repeat! We find yet another woman who can't conceive – then the angel comes and tells her she'll will fall pregnant and her child will be a prophet who will prepare the way for the Saviour, the Lord. While Elizabeth is pregnant, her cousin Mary, also gets a visit from an angel of the Lord who says: 

“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”  ( Luke 1:30-33 )

Now of course the miracle here is not that Mary is barren and cannot have children. It is that she is an unmarried virgin and her pregnancy is the work of the Spirit of God. Now if we think of the virgin birth story as this one weird miracle story in isolation, then we might struggle to believe it or know where it fits. But the reason we confess the virgin birth in the Creed is because it is really a synopsis or summation of the whole Bible. The miracle of the virgin birth is almost to be expected.-

This is one of those places in the Creed, where we are reminded that the Christian faith is not some new religion that just appears when Jesus' followers begin to believe in Him. Our faith has deep roots in the all stories of Israel. Our faith is rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures. And the Saviour that we believe in is a Saviour who was recognizable to Israel. If you want to put it like this, the story of the virgin birth, the story of Jesus coming into the world miraculously, is exactly the kind of story that an Israelite person would have recognized and accepted. Clearly this was not a new thing, but the next chapter in what God had been doing since the beginning of the world. So when we confess that we believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, we are saying that we believe that this Jesus we are confessing as Lord is Israel's Messiah, Israel's Lord, He's the one Who comes bringing the salvation that was promised all those years ago to Israel. However there's another point of connection with the Old Testament Scriptures. In the Creed, we confess that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. Do you remember how the Bible begins in Genesis?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
( Genesis 1:1-2 )

The Spirit of God is maternally brooding over creation, like a hen might be brooding over her eggs waiting for them to hatch. The Spirit is brooding, hovering as a fertile creative life over the unformed mass of creation. And then all of a sudden, life begins to spring forth and wherever creation is talked about in the Old Testament, it's described as the work of God's breath, God's Spirit, it's the same word in the Old Testament. God breathes spirit into creation. When God takes the first human being, and like a sculptor, creates the body of Adam out of the mud - it's inert, it's lifeless, it's a nice sculpture, it looks good, but it can't do anything, it can't sing or dance. So then God leans down and breathes spirit, breathes life into His creation. Now Adam becomes a living being. It's this Spirit, which is God's own creative life in creation. Then in the New Testament, when the New Testament witnesses tell us that the Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin, that the Spirit rested upon Jesus in the womb, that the Spirit brought Jesus into being, we're getting a picture of the creation happening all over again.
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I am sure you remember how the prophet Ezekiel spoke of a valley full of dry bones, where one day God would come and breathe, and all the bones would take on flesh and live. So here is Jesus brought into being by the creative breath of God's Spirit. One of the great third century Christian writers Hippolytus said, “It's as if, in the womb of the Virgin, God was recreating the first formed Adam, making Adam all over again.” In fact, that's exactly the way the New Testament understands Jesus. The first Adam was the head of a human family, and that Adam led us all into death and now in the womb of this virgin, God makes Adam again, the Spirit comes again and here is a second Adam, a new head of the human family who is going to lead us into eternal life, freedom and joy.
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The metaphor the early Christians loved most of all, when they talked about Jesus as the one who is human, but also divine, born of a woman, but also conceived by the Holy Spirit, the image that they found most helpful was that of putting iron into a fire. Have you ever seen this done where you put some metal into the fire. If you leave it there long enough, it will become the same colour as the fire, it will glow red. Many early Christian texts speak this way - that Jesus is like a lump of iron placed into the fire. He is completely, perfectly, fully human, nothing but iron. He is also completely, perfectly fire, nothing but God's presence, nothing but spirit, nothing but life. Jesus is so permeated by the Divine Presence, that as a human being, He is hot with divine life. He's born of a woman, He is conceived by the Holy Spirit. He's fully iron - He's fully fire. That same spirit, that same fire that permeates the being of Jesus in Luke's account is always flashing out and igniting other people.
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I love this birth story in Luke’s account. When Mary greets her cousin, they're both pregnant - one with John the Baptist, one with the Saviour Jesus. And Mary calls out a greeting to Elizabeth and when the baby in Elizabeth's womb hears the greeting the yet-to-be-born John the Baptist leaps for joy and is full of the Holy Spirit. As one of the Church Fathers said, when Mary greeted Elizabeth, Jesus greeted John and John leapt and was glad and rejoiced. That's the same spirit, the same fire that permeates the very being of Jesus - reaching out.
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There's another story in Luke's Gospel where a woman just touches the clothes of Jesus. The Lord doesn't even know she's there, but as soon as she touches His clothes, that fire flashes out and heals her of  a lifelong ailment. That's the Spirit, Who when the body of Jesus lies dead in the ground, brings Him to life again. Death can't keep its hold on Him because He's so alive with God's life. God has breathed such breath into Jesus, that death can't hold him and He rises from the dead. It's the same Spirit who came on the day of Pentecost. The same fire that animates Jesus life flashes out, and the whole company of Jesus disciples have tongues of fire resting on their head and they are all filled with the same Spirit Who hovered over creation; the same Spirit who brought children from barren women and old men; the same Spirit who miraculously impregnated a virgin to bring us the Saviour of the whole World.
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In the Genesis story, the inert, lifeless form of Adam becomes a wonderful living being because of God's breath, God's creative spirit. In the womb of Mary, God's creative spirit brings forth the new man, the beginning of a new human family. Then, on the day of Pentecost, this inert, lifeless, scared company of followers sitting around praying, waiting, wondering what to do - suddenly stand up straight, full of the Spirit, full of such life, that death itself no longer holds any terrors for them. They become the fearless witnesses of the risen Christ.
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The same Spirit who rested on Jesus in His mother's womb is the one who rests upon us today. As we gather, the Spirit of life, the Creator Spirit now permeates us so that wherever we go, that fire can flash out and spread to all the world. The virgin birth is a miracle indeed, but it stands in a very long line of life-giving miracles of God and today – you are one of those miracles. To God be the glory!

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FEEDBACK: robert@gunnedahbaptist.org.au
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