Yesterday’s exploration of third line of the Apostles’ Creed — Conceived By The Holy Spirit, Born Of The Virgin Mary —
jumped off of four simple words from Luke 3:23:
So it was thought.
I was first alerted to the significance of those four words in a though-provoking blog post from one of the area’s best-known pastors. So when it came time to develop a sermon dealing with the virgin conception and delivery of Jesus, that phrase would not let me go.
And voila!, a sermon that simultaneously celebrates Luke’s genius as an author and God’s brilliance as a creator and conceiver.
I was backed yesterday by some incredible worship leading from our band and choir, so it was hard not to preach with some enthusiasm.
Anyway, here’s a rough manuscript of the message itself, complete with a (relatively) full complement of graphics and a less-than-collegial shout out to one of our retired United Methodist bishops from the North Central Jurisdiction.
A few weeks ago, during the series Journey Of Stones, I had a message based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke (like today). And during that sermon a very bright 8 year old girl took notes in a stream-of-consciousness but very accurate way, and afterwards mom and dad gave me a copy. Here it is:
And check out what she heard me say (more than once): Luke is a genius. Which meant and means that even if you don’t believe the content of his story about Jesus, you have to appreciate the way he tells it. He’s not some sort of sappy, corny devo writer; he is a literary genius, the kind of guy who packs all kinds of meaning in the land between the commas. And we see his brilliance yet again – maybe more powerfully than ever – in today’s verse, 3:23: He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph.
So it was thought. Now: that looks like a throwaway line, a line I had never paid attn. to until a fellow preacher showed it to me. AND it is especially easy to overlook because it comes at the beginning of one of the most dreaded of biblical creations: a genealogy. You know, begat him who begat her who begat him and we just want to skip right over it and get back to words we can pronounce rather than names we can’t, right? Well, skip this gem of a phrase at your own peril. “The son, so it was thought, of Joseph,” So it was a commonly held view during Jesus’ lifetime and then again 20 years later when Luke wrote that Jesus was a normal guy born the regular way. He came from an apparently normal family (though there were whispers), had a regular job, did seem to have a bright glow about his face, but in all other respects he looked to be just another hard working Jewish carpenter in a long line of hard working Jewish carpenters. One more on the list. So it was thought. People thought Joseph was his biological father in the way everyone else has a biological father and what Luke is saying with his little aside is that people were badly, sadly, underestimating Jesus. It takes a little bit of sarcasm, a hint of in-your-face, but that’s what he’s doing: they didn’t think enough of Jesus.
People continue to underestimate him, don’t they? The so it was thought of Luke 3 has become the so it is thought of 2013. So it is thought he’s a great teacher. So it is thought he is a swell guy. So it is thought he is one religious option among many. So it is thought that he is a guru. So it is thought he is a major inconvenience on what you want to do. So it is thought that he is a Family Values Republican. So it is thought that he is a Peace Loving, Gun Outlawing Democrat. And maybe . . . one of these descriptions is the extent to which you have thought of him. And I simply want to suggest that all the folks in history – from Luke’s day up through a couple of generations ago — who have misinterpreted or underestimated Jesus, those who have been the “thinkers” in the “so it was thought” have gone to the grave. And stayed there. The same kind of grave from which he rose. That’s all I want to suggest. Luke is a genius and in a slightly off-hand but thoroughly sarcastic comment he delivers a devastating blow to anyone, anywhere, at any time who would underestimate Jesus. Typical Luke; he brings it home brilliantly.
Because I don’t want you to fall into the trap of Conventional Wisdom; I don’t want you to settle for being one of the “so it was thought” crowd. Luke’s line here is his subtle yet defiant way of saying it may have been thought but all them thinkers was wrong! Take a look at Luke 1:34-35:
“‘How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.'”
See that? The Holy Spirit “hovers” or “overshadows” Mary in the same way he did with the waters at the Creation (Genesis 1:2) and in a marvelous act of re-creation he conceives Jesus. Not Joseph. Not normal. Not scalable or repeatable. Spirit creates in Genesis 1 and when the world is thoroughly messed up, the Spirit recreates in a virgin’s womb in Luke 1. Now: how does this work biologically? I DON’T KNOW!! But I believe it in large part because we are surrounded by centuries of people much closer to these events than we are, people who believed it to the point of death. Going back to those very first Xns who read these events not as allegory or myth or fairy tale but as reality-stretching, mind-bending truth. And isn’t it interesting . . . Luke devotes more space and energy to the Virgin Conception of Jesus than any other gospel writer . . . AND HE WAS A DOCTOR! (Probably not an ob-gyn, but still!) So he knew how these things work. Or in the case of Jesus, how they didn’t work. And Luke’s genius is a large part of the reason why the Creed say, He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. “So it was thought”? Hardly. So it IS SAID.
Now you might think talking about this in church is like preaching to the choir (though I’ve preached to some choirs who didn’t believe a word I said), but not so fast. See, staring the early 20thCentury, some church leaders (even Methodist!) became too sophisticated to believe that Jesus had a supernatural conception anymore and began to teach that in bible colleges, seminaries, and churches. They began to regard this belief as optional and this part of the creed as poetry.
Even one of our own bishops – in this case the former Methodist leader for Illinois – said this: “To treat this myth as historic fact is to do an injustice to its intended purpose and to run the risk of idolatry itself . . .”
So church leadership declaring that reciting this portion of the creed as history and not poetry runs the risk of idolatry. Well. When church leaders become part of the “so it was thought” crowd, you’ve got some serious problems..
Can I tell you what happens to the faith if that bishop is right and Jesus was conceived the “normal” way? It’s like this:
Something vital is missing, right? The whole thing loses its coherence and beauty! That’s what happens! The whole faith that brings us here is compromised. Here’s why, and it’s not complicated but it is significant: if Jesus was conceived the same way as all of us – IOW if the answer to the “whose your daddy?” question is Joseph – then what did he inherit? The same thing all of us inherited from our parents! The sin nature. And if he had a sin nature, it is inevitable that he sinned. And if he sinned then his death on the cross does NOTHING for us and our sins; it was simply the consequence of his own. If he wasn’t sinless he couldn’t be our sin bearer. So the Jesus story – from these beginnings to the future end – all connects together and if we discard THAT (The Virgin Birth) we almost of necessity discard THIS
One has no real meaning without the other.
And again, this all matters because church leaders themselves became the “so it was thought-ers.” And when they did, they dragged chunks of the church down with them into that morass of underestimating Jesus! Reinterpreting his purpose on earth to be a role model or political activist or wise teacher rather than the spotless Lamb of God. May. It. Never. Be.
So I just pray that kind of sloppy thinking and dangerous underestimating never happens here because you know what? Jesus is more than you think. So it was thought? Hardly. REFRAIN Whatever wrong opinions of or wrong doctrines about Jesus exist in the world don’t change one iota who he really is. Our confusions will never change the fact that he rose from the same grave that his underestimators occupy, that he is the A & O, the Hope Of Glory, the Risen King; and that he is all and is in all. The best, most elevated thinking we can ever come up with about all that . . . and he is still more on top of it. REFRAIN
And think of it! It all started in the womb! As cells!
Whatever you call that – an embryo, a fetus, zygotes – hey! how about a baby! – when that was inside Mary, he was God. Think of it! God allowed himself to be walled in a womb. Unfathomable! I told you Jesus is more than you can think! But, moms, imagine when Mary first felt Jesus kick . . . God had begun to grow inside her belly. Incomprehensible. And yet we’re invited to believe in what is more than we can understand. Because for God to be consistent, for God to identify with us at every level of our being, he had to go throw all that earthy, visceral, fleshly experience of being born. And nursing. And diapers. And growing up. He experienced all we experience so he could identify with it. That’s born of the Virgin Mary.
Yet for him to redeem all he experienced, for him to purchase us from our sin, the conception had to be supernatural; free of sin. Not that married sex is sin. It’s not! (Can I hear an amen to that?) But it does pass on the sin gene we all have. The Holy Spirit is the way around all that. Conceived by the Holy Spirit gives us a Jesus who is 100 % man and 100 % God at the same time. Can I explain that? Nope. Do I believe it? Yep. REFRAIN.
And in that “more than you think” Jesus is a master at holding opposites together. Think of the line: conceived by the HS, born of the Virgin Mary. We’ve said it so often and with such monotone voices that we overlook how jarring it is: virgin conceives. Virgins can’t conceive! Everyone who is or has been a parent of teenagers knows exactly what I’m saying! But Jesus holds those impossibilities, those opposites together. It’s not the last time. Babies aren’t kings. This one was. Masters don’t serve. This one did. Saviors don’t die. This one did. Sinners can’t get saved. Now we can. All opposites. And when Jesus is in charge they get held together – in the same way that the Virgin Birth holds the great truths of the faith together.
And there’s one other opposite here: peasants can’t be prophets. The only two human names mentioned in the Creed are Pontius Pilate and Mary. Just two. And Mary here is a 15 year old peasant girl and has to suffer the indignity of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy which by law was supposed to result in her death! And her carpenter fiancé has to endure the snickers of everyone in town. And yet that’s who God uses to carry him for nine months in preparation for his entrance into the world. He carried them as they carried him. Jesus is more than you think and so he’ll do more than you expect.
Listen to how Frederick Buecher says it:
Once we have seen God in a stable, we can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. If the holiness and the awful power & majesty of God were present in the birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.
You know what all that means? When you declare I believe in Jesus Christ . . . conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary you are declaring that you believe in a God who chooses the unlikeliest of people to do the most unexpected of things. People like you. That when you are sold out to the Jesus about whom you cannot think high enough he’ll do this crazy thing of allowing someone like YOU – couch potato, hothead, addict, philanderer, or wallflower – to carry him to folks around you.
So it was thought? No way. So he is. And so you are. A carrier of Jesus. REFRAIN.