Child of the Holy Spirit
Matt 1.18-25, esp. v. 20: "Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."
There is holy mystery in the Christmas story. We rightly savor it at this season. One of the mysteries of Christmas is how Jesus came to be born.
Too often this subject zeroes in on the question: “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” Some of us will immediately answer, “Oh, yes!” Others will answer just as quickly, “Not at all.” Most folks in the middle hesitate a moment. Is this a matter of curiosity to explore OR a position we should be prepared to defend? I have found myself in both situations.
I want to think aloud with you today about how Jesus came to be conceived and then born. I want to think with you out loud about what it means that Jesus was born. And I especially want to think about the movement of God in the birth of the Christ Child.
I. So, what does it mean to Matthew when he writes:
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.".
Across the years of Christian history, the Church has read this passage and determined that this means that Jesus was born of a virgin mother named Mary.
The “Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church” which is one of the foundation documents of our United Methodist Church says this more fully, so I will share this with you:
Article-II: Jesus Christ: We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united. He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. As ministering Servant he lived, suffered and died on the cross. He was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be with the Father, from whence he shall return. He is the eternal Savior and Mediator, who intercedes for us, and by him all men will be judged (1).
This statement of doctrine says more than we can find in our short passage from the Christmas story. I include it because our doctrine about Jesus Christ is important. As we are delving into the details of this particular passage, we must not lose sight of the great doctrine of Jesus Christ to which it points. Keeping this in mind, let’s look more closely at this detail in the scripture before us.
If the full statement of doctrine had not yet been given, which of course it was not when Matthew wrote, what would it mean for Joseph to hear God’s angel say: “For the child conceived in [Mary, your wife,] is from the Holy Spirit”?
First, let us remember that Christian doctrine springs out of the work of God.
+God spoke and a world was created;
+God called and led Israel out of slavery into the Land of Promise.
+The Lord is my shepherd.
You might say it this way: the subject of every theological claim is “God.” The main focus in understanding Matthew’s statement is on the work of God through the Holy Spirit; Mary, like any one of us is servant and therefore second. We begin with the Holy Spirit at work in the conception of the Christ Child.
Second, the best place to begin our exploration is the Bible. Are there other occasions and other births where God intervened for the conception and birth of a child? Actually, there are several places where this occurred.
+Samson was born after his parents encountered God while they were in worship.
+Samuel was born to Hannah, who was barren until she poured out her desire for a child to God.
+Sarah was 90 years old and childless when God visited Abraham, who was 99, and promised them a child. Clearly, she was well beyond her child-bearing years.
+There is evidence that the popular literature of Jesus’ day told of God’s attention to the conception and birth of Moses.
+Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was also beyond her child-bearing years and became pregnant only after her husband Zechariah met God in the Temple.
There are two elements in these stories that we should keep in mind; one they share with the Christmas story; the other they do not.
1. The element these OT stories of miraculous birth do not share with the Christmas story is that these OT women were married, living with their husbands, and conceived in roughly the usual manner. I say, “roughly the usual manner,” because Sarah at 90 was not expected by anyone to have a child. Special circumstances attended each of these other births. The difference is that Matthew reports when Jesus was conceived, Mary and Joseph were not living together as husband and wife:
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child...
As Matthew says of Mary: “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” The biological details of how that conception took place by the Holy Spirit are not spelled out any more than they are spelled out in the OT stories of God’s intervention in the conception and birth of other children. While the ancients knew where babies come from, they knew nothing of the microscopic biology of conception. We must be careful lest we read our biological knowledge into the Biblical story. The words I just quoted from Matthew are, in fact, all that he reported about it.
2. What all of these stories have in common is the *intervention of God*. In every case, including the Christmas story, God intervened for the conception and birth of a child. That intervention varies from situation to situation.
Still, in every case, God’s intervention through the Holy Spirit promises a remarkable destiny for that child: Samson, Samuel, Isaac, Moses, John the Baptist, and finally Jesus. This will be a child who serves God in ways that bring God’s promises and blessings to humankind in ways not seen before. This is a child of destiny – whose destiny it will be to reveal the power and work of God in human history and human lives.
This is a destiny so great that Israel was called to come, to see, and to believe as they had never believed before these children of destiny:
– like the children of Isaac who came to understand themselves as a people of divine promise;
– like the Hebrew children who followed Moses to the Promised Land,
– like the kings who were led to build a nation with the guidance of the great prophet Samuel,
– like the people of Judea who came out to repent at the preaching of John the Baptist.
Every time God intervened to provide an exceptional birth, God called the child which was born to a tremendous destiny and purpose. Each of these children, conceived and born through the intervention of God, brought Israel to a new and richer understanding of God.//
This is the foundation for our understanding of Jesus’ birth as well. It was through the Holy Spirit that the child Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb. Matthew’s claim is that Jesus’ conception pointed to a distinct life, of course. And that distinction was only made stronger as Jesus
+began his ministry,
+taught with power,
+worked miracles that healed bodies and lives
+and revealed the presence of God.
That difference was only made stronger as Jesus
+broke the bread at the Last Supper,
+as he went to the cross,
+as he died there for the healing of the world,
+as he rose again from the dead on Easter.
We know Jesus was not just another prophet-in-Israel by telling the rest-of-the-story by which our hearts burn within us at the telling. Jesus was not just another great leader; Jesus was the living presence of God among us.
III. By telling Joseph that Jesus would be born by the power of the Holy Spirt, God began a new step in His presence and work among humankind. God was telling Joseph and everyone of us who celebrate Christmas, “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Can you see it?
It is only by faith that we can see, you know. Thus, the story of the birth of the Christ Child is a call to every one of us to believe: Do you believe that God was in Jesus? Do you believe that you must put your faith in Jesus if you would see God? The destiny of all humankind is made clear and set upon a new path by this child born to Mary and to Joseph. To believe is to join Jesus Christ in seeing and working for the vision of God among us.
Ann Weems caught this call to believe in her poem: “The Cross in the Manger” (2):
If there is no cross in the manger,
there is no Christmas.
If the Babe doesn’t become the Adult,
there is no Bethlehem star.
If there is no commitment in us,
there are no wise men searching.
If we offer no cup of cold water,
there is no gold, no frankincense, no myrrh.
If there is no praising God’s name,
there are no angels singing.
If there is no spirit of alleluia,
there are no shepherds watching.
If there is no standing up, no speaking out, no risk,
there is no Herod, no flight into Egypt.
If there is no room in our inn,
then “Merry Christmas” mocks the Christ Child,
and the Holy Family is just a holiday card,
and God will loathe our feasts and festivals.
For if there is no reconciliation,
we cannot call Christ “Prince of Peace”.
If there is no goodwill towards others,
it can all be packed away in boxes for another year.
If there is no forgiveness in us,
there is no cause for celebration.
If we cannot go even now unto Golgotha,
there is no Christmas in us.
If Christmas is not now,
If Christ is not born into the everyday present,
then what is all the noise about?
Now, we must return to the story of Mary. You see, when the power of Jesus’ birth is in the Holy Spirit, then Mary is allowed to begin this story as an ordinary young woman, called to be a servant of God. As such, she is just as we are: Standing before the greatness and power of God, we are just as surely called to be servants of God.
We began with the mystery of Christmas. Think about the mysterious possibility that Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, might enter our lives in such an immanent, intimate way. Think about the mysterious possibility that God might attend and watch with you and me at our most human moments. Think about the evidence in this that God is still moved with love for the world that we call home. If God would call on a young woman named Mary and a husband named Joseph, God might include us in His Christmas as well. Imagine!
1. “Article II–Jesus Christ,” “Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church,” The 2008 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, para. 103, p. 67.
2. Weems, Ann. “The Cross in the Manger,” Reaching for Rainbows.