Scripture: Isaiah 43:18-21; 2 Corinthians 5: 17-18 Luke 1:26-35
Given that we are still within the twelve days of Christmas, and we won’t celebrate epiphany at Federated until next Sunday, I thought I’d give one more go to the topic of Jesus’ birth, which, by the way, ties in beautifully with the topic of New Years because Jesus is said to represent a whole new kind of humanity. Scripture calls him the second Adam, a “do-over,” if you will, on the first Adam who fell prey to sin and lead the world to its current fallen condition.
So, Dr. James Allen Frances in his essay “One Solitary Life” said this about Jesus:
“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself… While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race… And, (Frances continues.) I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned…have not affected the life of humanity upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.”
So on this ninth of the twelve days of Christmas, I ask you, what is it about this one, solitary life, whose birth we celebrated last week, that so captivates people? Why have people in these last two thousand years found Jesus so compelling. Why, as the writer Flannery O’Connor put it, is our culture somehow “Christ haunted” such that even people of other faiths or no faith are quick to offer their understanding of Jesus, often revealing that they have indeed thought plenty about it. We don’t even have to get very far into his life; his birth alone evokes questions, theories, whole theologies over which some of our theological ancestors were prepared to die.
Well, I’d like to look this morning, very briefly, at a few of the ways people have interpreted Jesus’ birth. Because people understand the birth stories, and from that base, the whole life of Jesus, in many different ways.
First, and probably the most common, and what we would call the orthodox and most prevalent understanding, is that Jesus was born of a literal, physical virgin and was divine in a unique way, being “one in substance with the father” as the orthodox creeds say. Further, this position believes that he took flesh at Christmas in order to grow up to teach and heal, to be sure, but ultimately that he came to die for our sins, to substitute for us and take on himself our due punishment.
A second take on Jesus’s birth is what theologian Marcus Borg advanced, interpreting Jesus’ birth stories more as metaphor, suggesting that the poetic, lofty language in Luke, chapter two, the story that we hear on Christmas Eve, was meant in more of a literary way, to indicate that Jesus was very special and that his birth and life should be taken very seriously. Borg would say that Jesus certainly grew up to reveal God’s spirit in a most potent way, but that a literal interpretation of the birth narratives and an understanding of Jesus as uniquely divine (as in God of God’s, light of lights, very God of very God, the creeds again) is not necessary to call one’s self a Christian.
A third take on the birth accounts comes from the theological orientation we call feminist theology. Here, we are told that the original definition for the word “virgin” included a second and equally strong meaning, besides the way we usually define the word. The second meaning of the word “virgin” is “belonging to one’s self” as opposed to belonging to one’s husband. In this interpretation, there is innuendo, at least, about Mary’s empowerment, strength, and wholeness, in and of herself. What a different way that would be to understand “gentle Mary, meek and mild.”
So now, (and you might have guessed this was coming,) I would like to suggest a fourth way, which is the way I have come to interpret Jesus’ birth, and his nature, really. And let me say it includes elements of all three of the theories I just mentioned. It also might sound a bit new-agey Fair warning. But if you find it that way and are offended by that, let’s talk, because I really do believe it to be Biblical and would be happy to try and persuade you that I am not a kook. (Well, I may be a kook, but I don’t think it’s over this matter.) The long and short of it is that I believe, with the orthodox writer CS Lewis, that Jesus represents something of a new phase in the evolutionary process. Lewis said, “Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea best if he takes it in connection with evolution…What is the next step, we might ask. When is the thing beyond the human going to appear? Well, if you care to talk in evolutionary terms, the Christian view is precisely that the next step has already appeared. And it is not a change from brainy people to brainier, nor muscled people to something physically stronger. It is a change that goes off in a totally different direction- a change from being creatures of God to being sons and daughters of God, and that the first instance appeared in Palestine two thousand years ago.”
Lewis goes on to argue that this evolutionary jump is primarily what we might call spiritual. Jesus is, as the epistles attest, the second Adam- a new version of humanity which is free from sin and evil, a new humanity, which, empowered by God and incarnate in us will someday create the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Lewis points out that the New Testament makes it clear that we are to grow up into the image and likeness of Christ, that this is really the whole purpose of life, which I take to mean that like Jesus, we are to grow up into the fullest, most whole, most love-based version of who God created us to be: people whose chief concerns, like Jesus’, are things like love and justice and wholeness, both in our personal lives and in the world as a whole. This is who I believe Jesus to be: the firstborn in a new evolution of the spirit, the soul. The firstborn among brethren as the scripture says it. And he had an aliveness so robust and whole and full of love, that in ways we probably just can’t understand, being near him often healed people, and not even death could ultimately defeat him.
One of my favorite writers, Eckhart Tolle, holds this view, saying Jesus, (along with some other, great spiritual teachers) came to reveal and teach a whole new kind of humanity, an evolved humanity that transcends over-identification with thought and ideology. And even more importantly, that he came to invite us to continue evolving in our own humanity. Tolle says the world as a whole is at a critical point where the human species must evolve or die. And here’s the thing: in this version, it really doesn’t matter if Jesus, one of the firstborn of the new humanity, was born of a literal virgin or if there were literal angels there, or a once in a lifetime star. (Parenthetically let me say that metaphysics being what they seem to be, and the universe being infinite, complex and surprising, I remain open to all those possibilities.) But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Because ( and here comes the crux of this sermon: ) what matters is not the the details of the manger, nor the paternal DNA of Jesus. What matters is that Christ, a whole new type of humanity, WAS born, and that we are called to birth that same quality of life, bit by bit, day by day, into the manger of OUR lives as well.
The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, in the 14th century, said it this way:
"We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place in Bethlehem but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”
Indeed, that is the real heart of the matter. Will you allow this new quality of life, this love-based life, this way of compassion and forgiveness, of justice and righteousness, this spiritual way of walking in the world, to be born, over and over, in the manger of your life?
The poet Sheldon VanAuken wrote this:
Did Jesus live? And did he really say
The burning words that banish mortal fear?
And are they true? Just this is central.
Here The Church must stand or fall. It’s Christ we weigh.
All else is off the point: the Flood, the Day
Of Eden, or the Virgin Birth – Have done!
The Question is, did God send us the Son
Incarnate crying Love! Love is the Way!
Between the probable and proved there yawns
A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,
Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,
Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns
Our only hope: to leap into the Love
That opens up the shuttered universe.