Of Unicorns and Christmas
When you think unicorn, you think a horse with a horn. That's not so. A unicorn is supposedly formed from the parts of several animals. It has the head of a goat, the body of a horse, the tail of a lion, the legs of a wild ox, and a golden horn on its forehead. The unicorn historically has been considered a Christian symbol for this reason. The only way to capture a unicorn was for a virgin to sit in the woods. A unicorn would come and lay its head on her lap, and then you could capture it. The virgin stood for the Virgin Mary. Christ is the unicorn. The unicorn is a symbol of the Virgin Birth of Christ, and that's why it has to do with Christmas and our text.
No more than we get unicorns do we get the Virgin Birth. Joseph sure didn't get it. Once Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, you can bet that Mary told him exactly what the angel told her in Luke 1: "The Holy Spirit came upon me, and the power of the Most High overshadowed me. So the Holy One to be born from me will be called the Son of God." But Joseph wasn't buying it. He knew of only one way for a woman to get pregnant, so he was going to divorce her as the law said, but he would do it secretly not demanding the death penalty or insisting on his right to keep her dowry or a refund of the money he paid to her father.
Other people scorned Jesus for His Virgin Birth. It's not by accident that only in the hometown of Mary and Joseph, Nazareth, is Jesus referred to as "Mary's Son" and "Joseph's Son." If you don't think they said this dripping with irony, scorn, and accusation, then you've never been around a small community where a girl turns up pregnant out of wedlock. "Yeah, a child from the Holy Spirit. The power of the most high came over her, right!"
The scandal of the Virgin Birth continues today. To some Jesus is the son of a Roman soldier. To others Jesus is the real son of Joseph. But strangely it hasn't happened as Thomas Jefferson predicted. "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." That hasn't happened except with clergy. A Harris Poll in 2003 found that 93% of Christians and 77% of all adults believe in the Virgin Birth. But a 1998 poll of 7,441 Protestant ministers found that 19% of Lutherans didn't believe in the Virgin Birth, 34% of American Baptists, 44% of Episcopalians, 49% of Presbyterians, and 60% of Methodist clergymen did not believe in the Virgin Birth. (www.religioustolerance.org/virgin_b7.htm)
It takes a miracle to believe in the Virgin Birth. God sent both Mary and Joseph an angel to bring them the faith, and by Scripture He sends an angel to us. To Mary and Joseph and now to us, the angel explains that Mary will become pregnant from the Holy Spirit. In the same way the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters at creation, so He overshadowed Mary at the beginning of God's New Creation. As from the primordial, formless void of darkness, the Holy Spirit was able to bring forth form, content, and light, so from a fallen, sinful Mary the Holy Spirit brought forth a perfect, holy Man. Can't get your head around that? I can't, but then I can't get my head around how bees can get sweet honey from bitter pollen.
The fact that I can't get my head around something doesn't have anything to do with whether God really said or did something. If God only said and did what I could understand or comprehend, then He wouldn't be much of a God, would He? And our short little text hammers home what God said and did in the case of Mary. Our text says 1) Mary was pregnant "before they came together." 2) "What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." And 3) "Joseph had no union with her until she gave birth." Is there any clearer way Scripture could convey to us that Jesus was born of a virgin?
You educated types are saying: Well Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were said to have been born of virgins (Scaer, Christology, 35.) The Hun, Zingis, was said to be born of a virgin as well (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 503). However, four millennia before any of these, God promised that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. Children were normally called seed of the man. 500 years before Alexander Isaiah prophesied that the virgin would conceive. Rather than the other virgin births "proving" that Jesus' was a myth too, you should see them as confirming His. We'll see in our Genesis study that world wide creation and flood accounts confirm the Bible's. It's easier to see how they all have a common truth at their core rather than falsehood springing up independently all over the world.
On our own, we no more get the Virgin Birth than we get unicorns. So the Lord sends an angel to us to reveal it, and those saved believe it. There is no way you can be a Christian and deny the Virgin Birth for if you deny the Virgin Birth you make Jesus just another man. Even if you make Him a perfect man, perfect Adam was not able to keep the Law perfectly. See how quickly he fell in Eden. And even if an ordinary born Jesus could keep the Law perfectly, the suffering and death of a man wouldn't be enough to pay for the sins of the world. Unless Jesus' blood is that of God it stains not cleanses. Besides, if human blood could appease God's wrath then a man's dying would satisfy it and no one would go to hell because their sins would be paid for by their death.
It's through the Virgin Birth that salvation from your sins and sinfulness comes. God could not take our place under the Law. Can you see why? Whatever God does is lawful. God is like a king in his own country. Whatever a king does is lawful. A monarchy is not the rule of Law but the rule of a king. So to take your place under God's Law, God the Son was placed by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin's womb.
As a Man Jesus was obligated to keep all 10 Commandments, and He did. Jesus wasn't consumed by worry like you are; He didn't use the name of God as an interjection like you do; He held both the preaching and teaching of God's Word as sacred and gladly heard and learned it unlike you. He obeyed and honored authority; loved His neighbor as Himself; and didn't indulge in the sexual lusting you do. Jesus never stole, lied, or lusted after anything. And Jesus did this as a Man, in your place, for your sake.
You know if you start making on time payments of a debt, you're current from then on, but that says nothing about your past debts. You owe the Bank of Heaven payment for your sins. You are in arrears so far that foreclosure is inevitable. Because you don't see your account in collections now, you might think the debt is forgotten. Or worse you think since there is no bill collector at your door you can live in your pet sins but not be racking up anymore debt. If not before, then on your deathbed you will be handed a bill for all your sins. Those you thought were small and forgot and those you thought large and never really forgot will all be there.
You die with your sin debt unpaid and you will pay for eternity. Only the Virgin Born Jesus can stop that from happening. As true Man, Jesus had the currency, your flesh and blood, to pay on your debt. As true God, Jesus had sufficient "money" to pay off not only your debt but what the whole world owed. So when the Devil, your own conscience, and others come bill collecting now, you can point to the cross where the final payment for your sins was made; you can point to the empty Easter grave as proof that God accepted Jesus life and death as payment in full for your sins.
But there's more. In a Virgin Born Jesus God is Immanuel, God is with us. Matthew opens His Gospel with this comfort and closes with it as well. The resurrected Jesus tells us, the redeemed, the saved, the going to heaven crowd, "I am with you always even to end of the ages." "In your Baptism I cover you like a coat. In your Absolution My forgiveness sends away your sins. In Communion My Body and Blood is in your body and blood, and you can't get anymore with a person than that."
I admit believing in the Virgin Birth is as silly in our age as believing in unicorns. But then believing that Baptismal water creates a new man is silly; and how silly is it to believe that words from a man's mouth actually forgive sins before God in heaven? And isn't it silly to sing to the Bread and Wine on the altar "Christ the Lamb of God have mercy on us?" But don't stop there. It is silly to believe angels are real; there's a personal Devil; or that God created the universe in six days. Just go down the Apostle's Creed; unbelief scorns not just conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary but risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, sitting on the right hand of God, and coming again to judge the living and the dead.
If you don't confess the first two: conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, it doesn't matter if you believe the last four or not. If Jesus wasn't Virgin Born, He can't be God with you in your flesh and blood, and if God didn't take on your flesh and blood there can be no forgiveness of your sins. Without the forgiveness of your sins, there's still a resurrection of all the dead but it's not to life everlasting. The Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saint, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting all hinge on God the Son taking on a Body in the flesh and blood line of the first Adam. Apart from being conceived and born of a virgin in that line, it could not have been done.
In the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, the unicorn and Alice meet. The unicorn says, "Well now that we've seen each other, if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you." Jesus, a unicorn in Christian art, doesn't need you to believe in Him, but you need Him to believe in your salvation. He did, so much so, that He took on your flesh and blood, your debt, and your death in the Virgin's womb in order to be God with us even there and from then on. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Advent (20101219); Matthew 1: 18-25