Advent 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 18th December

Isaiah 7.10-15; Matthew 1.18-25

During this new church year, we will be reading, on Sunday mornings, through the Gospel of Matthew. Today we heard Matthew’s sparse telling of the birth of Christ – no annunciation, or shepherds, or choirs of angels for him. Before we return to that story, a quote from an introduction to Matthew’s Gospel that A.N. Wilson wrote about 20 years ago for the Pocket Canons edition. It’s a lengthy quote – but worth it, I hope you will agree. A. N. Wilson writes:

You are holding in your hands a tiny book which has changed more human lives than The Communist Manifesto or Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: a book which has shaped whole civilizations: a book which, for many people, has been not a gospel but The Gospel.

And you are bound to ask, because you are born out of time in a post-Christian age, into a world of newspapers and investigative reporting and science – ‘Is it true?’

Did a Virgin really conceive and give birth to a boy-child in Bethlehem? Did wise men, guided by a star, come to worship him? Did he grow up to be able to walk on water, to perform miracles, to found the Church, to rise from the dead?

Stop, stop. Don’t ask. They are all questions which seem reasonable enough, but they will lead you into the most pointless, arid negativism. Your educated, scientific, modem mind will decide that no one ever walked on water; no Virgin ever conceived; that corpses do not come to life. And by rejecting this Gospel, you will reject one of the most disturbing and extraordinary books ever written; not, as you might think, on intelligent grounds, but because you (and I, alas) are too hemmed in by our imaginative limitations to see the sort of things this book is doing.

Before you apply to it the supposedly rational tests which you would apply to a newspaper report or a television documentary, imagine the chapters which describe the trial and Crucifixion of Christ set to music in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Consider the millions of people who, for the last 1900 years have recited the prayer which begins ‘Our Father’. Think of the old women in Stalin’s Russia, when the men were too cowardly to profess their loyalty to the Church, who stubbornly continued to chant the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount in defiance of the KGB. ‘Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.’

This is a book, not of easily-dismissed fairy tales but of power and passion; more arresting, disturbing and truthful than most reading-matter which you could buy for the price of a magazine on a station bookstall or in the paperback store. This is the Gospel of Christ, in all its terribleness, its wonder, its awe-inspiring truth and its self-contradictions.

A. N. Wilson is on to something very important, in his normal trenchant style. To return to this morning’s gospel reading, it is undoubtedly the case that it is the ‘mechanics’ of the birth described there that trouble many people. I have had countless conversations about stumbling over the line ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ from the Nicene Creed that we will shortly say. Why that line in particular causes people difficulties, I’m never sure – there is plenty else, it would seem to me, that should give us at least pause for thought – and maybe that is at least part of the point of the creed. But undoubtedly that is a bit that causes many difficulties. It points toward the ‘supernatural’ events that surround the birth – the angel visiting and speaking to Mary; it seems to make claims about the suspension of the normal laws of nature – laws that science has to greater and greater extent revealed to us. That’s not how God acts, we protest, to suspend the laws of nature. Or at least we don’t see any evidence of it elsewhere, where such intervention might be very welcome. And perhaps above all, in the role of the Holy Spirit, and the exaltation of Mary’s virginity, Jesus’ humanity is thrown into doubt. The Virgin birth  makes him fundamentally different to us, whereas the heart of the Christmas message is that Jesus is one of us, one with us.

Now these are questions that in many ways I share, and I never want to disparage honest questioning. But, following A N Wilson, I worry that our imaginative limitations are blinding us to something vital and important. To truths that are bigger, and more vital, and life-giving, than those revealed by science and the narrowing of our conception of truth to facts.

Matthew is telling his story of Jesus’ birth in a context where Jesus’ humanity is not in doubt; rather it is the claims about his divinity that Matthew is advancing. Luke and Matthew, in presenting Nativity stories, are wanting to say, from the outset, that there is something about this human life which discloses, enacts, God’s purposes in the world. Here is someone in whom God was and is encountered. The birth stories make that claim in dramatic fashion – set the template for what is to come. The gospel writers are in no doubt that Jesus was a human being: they are witnesses, or at least know first-hand witnesses to that humanity. What they are wanting to assert is the divinity that was and is met in and through him, and that makes claims upon us.

From the beginning of its proclamation of the Good News of Christ, Christianity seeks to witness to both the humanity and divinity of Christ. So the birth is, of course, a biological event in history. Christmas is about a baby born, the Word become flesh. The virgin birth is a way of speaking about a dazzling, extraordinary yet biological happening that has overturned the world.

But the biological event described in Matthew and Luke does not stand as a bald medical claim. That is not the question that the gospel writers are interested in. In putting together his account, Matthew draws on the story from Isaiah that we heard as our first reading. A child is given to King Ahaz as a notice that the present world should neither be feared, nor overly trusted, for the known world is not permanent. By the time this child is eating curds and honey, and is learning good from evil, Isaiah tells the king, the landscape of the world will have completely changed. It is not to be treasured or relied upon.

For Matthew, the birth of Jesus is another such moment; this is a birth that will change everything for ever. And the season of Advent is about entering into that challenge thrown down to King Ahaz – standing under the judgement of God to imagine what in the landscape of this world will change in two years because God is God. What threats that we imagine to be overwhelming will dissipate? What evil that we think permanent will be overcome? What chances for responding to God’s call and love and justice will be taken — or missed? The whole passage is a prophetic reminder to King Ahaz and to us that the present world is not locked into predictable patterns, of either safety or continuing fragmentation. Faith is about the belief that the world is open, the future not determined and fixed; the world is open and on the move, precisely because God is God. The Virgin birth is not presented to be simply a source of fascination but a sign of that ability of God to be God and build a different future. For as the name of the child – Immanuel, God with us – anticipates, the earth has become the place of God’s presence.

Faith in God who creates a new future for us and with us, is what Matthew proclaims in his nativity story. The question it poses for us on the brink of Christmas is not whether we believe in the biological impossibility of it, but whether we stand with Mary in sensing God’s purposes and responding, ‘Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.’ Or whether we stand with Joseph in heeding the surprising voice of an angel and graciously enabling God’s new thing to come to pass. The birth we celebrate at Christmas is not simply an event that happened, for us to believe in or not. It is an event with a future. It is a sign of God’s ability to open new ways and establish fresh vocations in us. To express faith in the virgin birth is about living lives as odd and unacceptable to prevailing reason and cynicism as any biological miracles.

For the first birth was a sign to King Ahaz that the world was shifting; Christ’s birth in Matthew’s telling will be a threat to King Herod; and every Christmas should rattle all our settled ways of thinking and acting. For this is God’s good news, and the exploding of our imaginative limitations.  God is now with us. And we have yet to learn to take that fully into account. Amen.