Wednesday, December 21, 2011

God's truthful word is the meat of our story

One unbelieving Presbyterian pastor is honest enough to declare his unbelief, “The virgin birth is fiction.” Others want to hang on to the beautiful story that might give others a moral parenthesis. No they don’t believe it but they make exceptional seasonal uses of it. Teresa Lockhart Stricklen, on the PCUSA blog Thinking Praying Living, writes a partly serious, partly funny, from a woman’s point of view, essay, “From Advent to Christmas.” She adds this towards the end of her text:

Now all of us who’ve been schooled know that these stories are more concerned with making theological points than historically accurate ones, which makes our job as preachers a bit more interesting.
And then Stricklen goes on to apply the theological points to contemporary lives. Pointing out that Jesus is the candle that God uses to make darkness light she writes:
This world is not just a broken mess we should despair over and nonchalantly let run its crooked course. There are Josephs and Marys who take God’s risks. There are shepherds who don’t run away terrified but want to go see for themselves what in the world God is up to, running the risk of good folks slamming the door in their faces. There are high and mighty Zechariahs who finally get it after being struck dumb for awhile. We know these people. They are us.
Jesus is portrayed as Light of Light and very God of God. Still, “risks” and “seeing what God is up to,” and “get it.” Without the reality and truthfulness of God’s story of his Son’s birth the out workings become so banal.

And Chris Glaser, on his blog, Progressive Christian Reflections writes about the birth of Christ, “Put yourself in the nativity story.” After explaining that most Catholics reject the social issues and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, but go to church for Christmas and Easter, Glaser states that is true of Protestants as well. He relates that to the “myth” of the nativity story, writing. “To me, myth is not a story that is untrue, but a story that carries a deeper truth that draws us in.”

So Glaser invites the reader into the story; asking, “Are you King Herod, fearful of losing power or privilege as God is doing a “new thing”? Or an Eastern sage enduring academic malaise, seeking a star of inspiration? A shepherd routinely going about your business when the skies seem to open up? A prophet crying in the wilderness?” He goes on, including Mary and Jesus, ending with these words:
Good to remember, at this time of year, that we hinder or help, blink or behold this nativity of God’s Word to us.
But notice something here. Truth is missing and so is worship. Reality becomes only metaphor and our lives lose the transcendence of God’s truthful purposes. Additionally, the concrete and practical go missing too. For instance, Zechariah, who by the way was not high and mighty, but disbelieving, with his wife, experienced the very real birth of an unexpected son. They experienced his late night cries, his tummy aches, his first word and first step. They experienced his strange behavior and powerful preaching as God’s grace mingled with reality in his life.

And king Herod afraid of a “new thing?” This is more than banal, this is evil. That question ignores not only the reality of the virgin birth, the songs of angels, the bright star; it ignores the ultimate evil, rejecting the true King who came to die for the sins of humanity. Herod knew, the scribes told him, the Scriptures foretold:
But as for you Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel, his goings forth are from long ago , from the days of eternity. (Micah 5: 2)
Herod did not reject a new thing; he rejected the Lord of glory. Herod did not reject a new thing he rejected God’s word and thought he could thwart it by killing the babies of Bethlehem. Ultimate evil doesn’t answer to make believe stories no matter how beautiful the stories are.

The truthful biblical story of the birth of Jesus which includes a virgin, a multitude of angels and a star, is the foundation for His perfect life, His death on the cross and His bodily resurrection. It is the foundation for lives lived in obedience and worshipful attendance to the wondrous King born in Bethlehem. God's truthful word is the meat of our story.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Viola. The people you quote nicely demonstrate that when you jettison the reality of God's intervention in human history through the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection, all you are left with is moralism. Thin gruel, indeed.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Dave Moody said...

hmm.. the messy, clumsy, embarrassing and scandalous particularity of the incarnation and (by extension) the cross. Its really hard to gloss over that and have the story make sense without doing significant violence to the integrity of the it all.

Apparently though, not hard enough for some to try...

Viola Larson said...

Dave & David,
Your extra words are just right-"the reality of God's intervention in human history" & "the messy, clumsy, embarrassing and scandalous particularity of the incarnation," Wow in some way those words are almost a tautology. God’s intervention is so very personal how can it be rejected so easily.

Craig said...

Does anyone else find the recent spate of "Jesus was homeless" or "Jesus was an illegal immigrant" illustrations problematic? In the past several years I've noticed an increase in this attempt to use the nativity story to address political issues increasing.

Viola Larson said...

Craig they are probably thinking of Matthew 25. And that is okay if it is meant in the sense that these are hurting people and when we help them we are helping Christ. But there are several clarifications that need to be made.

First off Calvin points out that Jesus in the chapter has already indicated who belongs to him. He isn’t saying you do these good works therefore I accept you-instead he is saying because you are mine you do these good works. He calls them sheep and better still they are blessed of his Father and given a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. (Verse 34)

But another thing some are using liberation theology when they say that. They are insisting that we learn about God and what he wants from the needy. It is the other way around; from the scriptures we learn that we are to care for the immigrant and the homeless-and we should be doing that. People have different views about how that should be done. I won’t talk about that here-it isn’t my subject- but we should be caring.

Greg Scandlen said...

This rejection of all things miraculous bewilders me. Surely a God who can create the heavens and the earth will have no trouble arranging a virgin birth. In rejecting the virgin birth, these people must also be rejecting the Creator. Yet somehow they think of themselves as Christian. Go figure.

Greg Scandlen
Waynesboro, PA

Craig said...


The problem I have is that they were in Bethlehem looking for the inn, not because they had no home, but becase they were required to go there from their home. As to the flight into Egypt, I guess I could buy refugee as a modern comparison, but not illegal immigrant.

I will say that if the comparisions are made as an illustration, I can understand, however I usually see tham made as an attempt to advance a political agenda.

Obviously I agree that what we do doesn't get us saved, but I see your point.

John McNeese said...

Note to the Presbyterian Fellowship: the Virgin Birth is a fundamental , an essential tenet.

Chris Enoch said...

When I was in seminary, one of my professors got the class discussing the virgin birth of Jesus. Some of the students dismissed the idea as archaic, others were struggling with being true to what Scripture says.

Finally, a wise older member of the class (not me)put it this way, "Any god worth his mettle could pull that one off."

I'll always remember that, and to this day sometimes I catch myself thinking that something may be too difficult to get done, even by God. Then I stop, take a breath, say a short prayer and reflect, "Any god worth his mettle could pull that one off." Indeed, and our God can. And did.

Have a blessed Christmas all!

Viola Larson said...

I have to agree; it bewilders me also. I sometimes wonder if they also reject the bodily resurrection and the second coming which are certainly more miraculous then a virgin birth.

Viola Larson said...

John, glad to see you hold to some essentials.

Viola Larson said...

Thanks Chris,

I love that statement, "Any god worth his mettle could pull that one off"; I will remember it.

If one were an atheist or of a different religion it would make sense to deny the virgin birth, but why should a Christian?

Have a merry & holy Christmas.

John McNeese said...

Good reply to me, Viola. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Viola Larson said...

Merry Christmas to you and your family too John.

Neil D. Cowling said...

Regarding Craig's worry about about increase in political rhetoric I am not bothered at all. If one would deem "illegal immigrant" inappropriate, how about "undocumented alien" which I think is probably accurate both now and historically since the Family was "alien" in Egypt and I doubt if Joseph had "papers." It is also accurate to say that they were political refugees, which is a political statement in itself as is the statement "Jesus is Lord." For if Jesus is Lord, then Herod, Obama, Snyder (I live in Michigan), Congress, and "the American people" surely are not "Lord" as well.

Neil D. Cowling said...

Loved Dave Moody's comment.

Viola Larson said...

So Neil,
Getting back to my subject: ) I take it you do believe in the virgin birth of Jesus?

Neil D. Cowling said...

On the thread summarized in Greg's comment, "In rejecting the virgin birth, these people must also be rejecting the Creator" I agree.

I have been taught in my thinking on this by Raymond Brown in his commentary on the infancy narratives, "The Birth of the Messiah." I have taken the "overshadowing" of the Holy Spirit as an allusion to the "brooding" or "hovering" of the spirit over the formlessness, the void, in Genesis 1. Brown says, "The begetting is not quasi-sexual as if God takes the place of a male principle in mating with Mary. There is more of a connotation of creativity.... Mary is a virgin who has not known man, and therefore the child is totally God's work--a new creation.... " If the prophetic Spirit filled John the Baptist from his mother's womb, the Spirit that comes upon Mary is closer to the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters before creation in Genesis 1:2. The earth was void and without form when that Spirit appeared; just so Mary's womb was a void until the Spirit God filled it with a child who was his Son." (p.314, 1st Edition, 1977)


Viola Larson said...

Thank you Neil, great quote.

Neil D. Cowling said...

More accurate to say that I believe in the Virginal Conception of Jesus. Virgin Birth might imply that Jesus did not pass through the birth canal. I believe that he did.

Neil D. Cowling said...

If I may add another note from my sermon last week in which I concluded:

"In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets. People who espouse spirituality forget that God has hit the streets.

"Politicians don’t want to hear that. Politicians would rather say that God has made a home in our hearts and would not do anything so messy as to occupy the streets.

"Those who espouse all sorts of spiritualities other than Christian spirituality along with atheists and agnostics look at that cryptic inscription in Nazareth, “The Word was made flesh here"* wonder with Mary who asked “How can this be?” Mary had a good reason for wondering “How can this be?” Her reason was “. . . since I am a virgin?”

"Mary was not naive about how babies are made. She knew how they were made and she also knew that she had not done anything to make a baby. To put it bluntly, she had not had sex. She was a virgin.

"Luke tells us how it could be. He spoke of “the Holy Spirit” and “the power of the Most High” and then in a phrase that takes us all the way back to the first lines of the first chapter of the first book of the bible he adds “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” which echoes the hovering of the Spirit at the moment of Creation. As the Spirit hovered over the emptiness, the formlessness, the void so now does “the Spirit, the power of the Most High” overshadow the emptiness, the void, of Mary’s uterus to bring about new Creation. This is the surprise of a new creation, the birth of God in human flesh.

"Still we wonder, “How can this be?” In one of our creeds we say, “I believe in God, the father almighty” and then we add “maker of heaven and earth.” If God could make “heaven and earth” cannot God make by his Word “flesh” there in that place, in that uterus and then be born and dwell among us on the streets. If we believe that God can, through his spoken word and overshadowing of the Spirit, make a universe, a world, the moon, the stars and all that is in them it is not so impossible to make a baby without the help of a man.

In Jesus Christ, God, born of the Virgin Mary, hit the streets and lived among us."

*The inscription I am referring to is found in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth which is in Latin: Verbum caro hic factum est.

The phrase "In Jesus Christ, God hit the streets" is an insight borrowed from Jim Wallis of Sojourners.


Viola Larson said...

I've never had someone put their sermon into my comment section, that is nice-thank you.

I do like Eugene Peterson's translation better than Wallis' "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood."

That has more of a sense of Jesus actually dwelling with people.

Neil said...

Wallis was not pretending to translate. He was making a hermeneutical move.

Viola Larson said...

Okay Neil,
I want to go back to your and Greg’s original comments about Joseph and Mary as immigrants, and Jesus as Lord. Yes in a certain context the faith statement “Jesus is Lord” is political, but it is political because it is first of all faith. Faith in the one who is both creator and redeemer. He is acknowledged by Christians as Lord because he died on the cross for them, transforming, forgiving, giving new life. That is something no other person, thing or entity can do. As a believer one, sometimes, runs up against those in power because there is a conflict between a relationship with Christ and an identity as a citizen of some state, or nation, or society. Culture fits in here also, the Christian is often called to live counter to culture-that is what is happening to many evangelicals today.

And since having Christ as Lord is so often counter to society it is important that we also have the written word along side the living Word. We don’t get our clues about how to be obedient to the King from culture or rulers, but from his word. I understand what Greg is saying. Too often people use the poor or the immigrant, the prisoner or the sick to push their own particular agenda and in the end hurt those they want to help. I understand what you are saying we need to do something about the social problems of our time. But we need to make sure it is not contrary to the word of God.

Greg Scandlen said...

Well, that was "Craig," not "Greg." But as long as we are on the subject, I posted this to a blog by Michael Horton on the subject of Two Kingdoms versus Cultural Transformation --

"Making the world a better place through politics and policy has long been my secular vocation. It is what I do for a living. But part of what has brought me to Christ is the realization that the world can never be healed. We may relieve some suffering at the margins but very often our efforts to reduce suffering in one place results in greater suffering someplace else – and too often we pat ourselves on the back for the good we’ve done while ignoring the damage we created.

"We humans don’t do Utopia very well. Scripture has taught me that only God can do Utopia. The world suffers because it is still the domain of Satan and Satan loves misery."

Greg Scandlen
Waynesboro, PA

Neil D. Cowling said...


You said, "I understand what you are saying we need to do something about the social problems of our time." The only problem is I never said that. Must have been some other "liberal." It wasn't me. I have no quarrel with doing something about social problems (Matthew 25 and passim through the Bible). I have little truck with "trying to make the world a better place" or other such utopian ideas.

Overall, your response begs the question: Why did the Romans kill Jesus if he was about being--theologically speaking--"transforming, forgiving, giving new life"? Even by Roman standards that was hardly worth the penalty of death or the persecutions that followed for the next 3 Centuries.

When Christians made the claim "Jesus is Lord" they knew it to be a direct political affront to Caesar who made the same claim about himself.


Viola Larson said...

Sorry about the name mix up. I don't believe in earthly utopias either but I do believe that we have to stand against some evils, like slavery and abortion.

The Romans were being political, the Christians were being Christians. To me that is as it always has been.

Barbara Long Red-Horse said...

It is odd what some who claim the name of Christ say. I think of Bishop Desmond Tutu's letter in support of the PCUSA change in ordination standards. He says in paraphrase 'there are those who will say the ones you now ordain are sinners.' I thought it was clear that all Christians are and acknowledge that we/they are sinners. Otherwise there is no need for Christ.

Barbara Long Red-Horse

Viola Larson said...

Yes, Barbara,

It is odd. But it happens too many times, me included.

Have a merry & holy Christmas.

Ron Scates said...

I don't usually respond to blogs,but Presbyweb led me to your blog of Wednesday regarding "God's truthful word.." and how you're rightly calling to task many pcusa folk who want to dodge the historical veracity of Biblical texts (particularly the Christmas texts) by psychologizing them,or treating them as theological metaphor,poetry,or whatever.Playing a hunch,I went to the website of the Unitarian church just blocks from my congregation,and listened to two Advent "sermons". Surprise ! Surprise ! This is exactly what they did with the Christmas story. I once heard Yale chaplain,William Sloane Coffin--after leaving the pcusa for the UCC--say that UCC stands for "Unitarians Considering Christ". Hmmmm.....I wonder what pcusa might soon stand for? Have a most blessed Christmas.

Viola Larson said...

A blessed Christmas to you too Ron.