The Three Hidden Scandals (12/8/02)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
People love a good scandal, especially when religion is involved. Oh, we pretend we’re shocked and disgusted when we learn that some televangelist has been doing unholy things in cheap motel rooms with women of ill repute; or when we read that a public religious figure has spent the money he raised for orphanages on caviar and jet airplanes; or when we hear that some local minister has run off with the church organist. We’re so disgusted by all of these things that we just can’t stop talking about them. And we can’t wait to find somebody who hasn’t heard the story, so we can tell them each and every sordid little detail of the scandal as we understand it.
Well, this is nothing new. The Bible is filled with scandals of various sorts, but there is one that we tend to play down in the modern church. There is one particular scandal that Christian history has made into a great triumph for the person who would have been the subject of shaking fingers and wagging tongues. The scandal would have begun, according to the Gospel of Luke, when Mary learned that the Son of God was destined to come forth from her womb. Listen to the story:
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” …Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
That, of course, is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Unfortunately, the depth of this story is usually lost as people bicker with one another over whether or not there really was a virgin birth. That’s what most people view as the significance of Gabriel’s visit with Mary. It is the hour when the impossible happened, and Mary became pregnant through a miraculous act of God.
Let’s set that question aside quickly. I’m happy to say that as Congregationalists, we have no shortage of opinions on the subject of the virgin birth. For many of us, it is an important tenet of our faith. For others of us, it is a stumbling block that has actually hindered our attempts to develop an honest relationship with God. Allow me to give my personal view, for what it’s worth, and then we’ll move on to what I believe are more important matters.
If the virgin birth is important to you, you should feel free to believe it with all your heart. You are in the distinguished company of St. Matthew and St. Luke, both of whom found the virgin birth important enough to give it a central place in their stories of Jesus. If the idea of a virgin birth causes you more harm than good in your faith journey, unshoulder any guilt you have felt over your doubts, because you are in the equally distinguished company of St. John and St. Paul, who devoted their lives to proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, and never even mentioned the notion of a virgin birth. In fact, of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, all of which claim Jesus is the Son of God, only two—Matthew and Luke—mention the virgin birth.
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For me, I tell you with all sincerity, I simply do not know. I admit that when I wrestle with this idea, it often makes more sense to me for God to have sent his Son into the world in a natural and uneventful way. Probably just as astonishing as a miraculous birth is the idea that the Christ would be born to a poor, young, unmarried woman, in an unimportant backwater of a country, in a town of little significance, at a time in history when news of this event could not be relayed via mass-communication, but only by word of mouth.
However, I recognized a long time ago that God is God and Gary Cox is Gary Cox, and one could spend an eternity pointing out the differences between the two. And in this beautiful and mysterious universe, I would never say that it is beyond God’s power to bring the Christ into this world in a miraculous fashion. Since the Bible seems undecided about the truth of this matter, I am comfortable remaining undecided myself. I will say that in the overall scheme of things, I doubt if one’s stance on this issue is of overriding importance to God. I don’t think belief, or lack of belief, in the virgin birth, is the litmus test by which one does or does not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Once we put that issue behind us, we can examine this story in new ways. First, let’s look at what it would have meant to Mary for her to be in God’s favor, as the story tells us she is. The angel tells her she is going to be pregnant, out of wedlock, and will bear a child that will be a religious leader.
This may sound like great news in retrospect, but let’s put ourselves in Mary’s shoes. This was a major scandal. To become pregnant out of wedlock was not taken lightly by the culture in which she lived. In fact, once her fiancé—Joseph—realized that she had become pregnant, and that he was not the father, it would have been his responsibility to report her crime to the authorities. She would then have been stoned to death.
Now, let’s give that matter a little thought, because few people realize the type of death sentence that was. Being stoned to death was the slowest and most painful manner of capital punishment, with the possible exception of crucifixion. When a person was stoned to death, the crowds gathered and literally threw rocks at the victim for however long it took for that person to stop breathing. Death came slowly, and was caused by the bleeding—external cuts and internal bruises—of hundreds and hundreds of wounds.
Mary would have been quite aware of this. So when the angel says to her, in effect, “You are about to become pregnant out of wedlock,” you have to know that her first instinct was not to leap up and down for joy. She probably imagines herself trying to explain to her fiancé, and her mother, and her father, to his mother, and his father, that she is completely innocent in all of this. She is, in the words of the angel, a “favored one” of God. It’s really as if the angel is saying, “Congratulations, Mary! You are going to be completely humiliated, and then die a slow and torturous death.”
Of course, in retrospect, we know how the story turns out. She raises the child who would indeed become the one we call the Son of God. And though we now reflect back on that story positively, we should keep in mind that as God’s favored one, she suffered even more than she would have from stoning, when she saw her beloved son Jesus hanging from the cross.
I said we missed the important part of this story when we argue over the biological mechanics of Mary’s conception. The scandal of her pregnancy weighs on the story, but if we dig beneath that scandal we discover three hidden scandals—scandals in the eyes of the first century world, and perhaps scandals in our eyes today.
The first of the three hidden scandals is the revelation of what it might mean to be favored by God. I think there are many people in the world today who believe being favored, or blessed, by God, means having the life most of us in the modern world strive for. God’s blessing surely brings forth “the good life,” right? Good health, lots of money, a beautiful home, the respect of the people of the community.
This story clearly indicates that prosperity, respect and creature comforts are not the essence of God’s blessing. Remember, Mary was blessed by living in poverty, having a child out of wedlock, and seeing her son grow up to be executed as a criminal. And that is the first of the three hidden scandals of the story—that being favored by God does not necessarily mean that one is going to have an easy and happy life.
The second scandal of this story is the fact that God chooses to bring his son into the world—to do the greatest of all his works–through people who are ordinary. Why didn’t God send the angel Gabriel to the Roman Emperor and his wife? There must be a million places and times more likely than first century Palestine for such a once-in-creation event to occur. And as for Mary and Joseph, there is simply nothing special about these people. They are surely uneducated. There is no indication they were literate. They didn’t have any land or any money. These were nobodies…in the eyes of everybody except God.
This reason this forms the second hidden scandal of the story is simple: for those of us in the modern world, it is humbling to think that if God were to bring Jesus into the world today, he would most likely be born into circumstances similar to those he found himself in the first time. He would be poor, his mother and father would live in a politically unimportant place—perhaps some little known country in Asia or Africa; and he would end up being killed for speaking out about the world’s injustice.
And while that notion certainly scandalizes us—especially people like me who spend a lot more time talking about Jesus than acting like Jesus—the third hidden scandal of this story is really the ultimate scandal. It is the fact that through Jesus Christ, God chose to enter this depraved world, with its obscene violence and rampant corruption. And that’s the scandal that really matters. Even in the face of all our selfish impulses and bad intentions, God refuses to give up on us. God refuses to allow the world to spin out of control without at least showing us a way through. And that’s what Jesus is. Jesus is a way through life, a way through the world.
Mary’s story is scandalous in many ways, because it takes all our preconceptions and turns them upside down. Being blessed does not mean living what most people call the good life. God uses the least among us for the most important purposes. And God loves us enough to take a chance on us.
Of course, the story loses much of its power if we decide Jesus was a great teacher, but not the Son of God. When we think about Jesus being the Son of God, and coming into this world for our benefit, what does that mean? Okay, I know we’re a theologically liberal church, and we don’t spend too much time insisting that Jesus is a different sort of creature from you and me—that there was something inherent in his nature which made him more than a mere human being. But we’re missing out on a pretty important way of thinking about Christianity if we insist Jesus was just some peasant who turned out to be a really good teacher.
I find most of the formulas and creeds that try to explain in black and white how it is that Jesus is the Son of God to be a waste of ink. Still, the mystery of God is way too much for me to ever get my mind around, and I find comfort in thinking that I can learn about God’s nature by looking at Jesus. God’s nature is reflected in Jesus. I believe that, even if I refuse to make any grand theological statements explaining exactly why that is so.
Now, if you were to tell most people in the ancient world that God was about to make an appearance; for that matter, if you told people in the modern world that God was about to make an appearance, what would they expect to see? Let’s make a checklist of the characteristics people might expect:
First, God would be supernatural—something undeniably above and beyond the natural order of things. Second, God would be powerful. I mean, God would arrive in some manner that would make an atomic explosion look like a firecracker. Third, there would be no doubt that what people were seeing was God. And it would be something everybody would know not to fool around with. You know—flames shooting out of his eyes, majestic swords swinging to and fro in his hands, a body of light stretching from east to west and from the earth to the stars…
The three main criteria, then, for an appearance of God, would be that the appearance would be supernatural, powerful, and undeniable. But according to our faith; according to Christianity; according to Christmas; God showed up as a baby. Forget the mechanics of that—just think of it as a symbol if nothing else. God chose a baby as a way of revealing the divine nature to human beings.
Well, that can’t be right. No way. Remember the criteria for knowing it is God’s appearance: supernatural, powerful, and undeniable. Supernatural? There’s nothing more natural, more human than a baby. Powerful? A baby has to be the least powerful thing in the world, at least according to the way we usually think about power. And undeniable? My goodness, the idea that God would show up as a baby is more preposterous than undeniable.
It amazes me when I hear people say that Christianity is boring. If people think our faith is boring, then I fault the way it has been presented. Because it is anything but boring. Remember, myths and symbols are the tools of religion. When we take our poetry—our religious images—and try to turn them into hard, dry, factual doctrines, we damage our faith. Religion is not God. Religion is the way we human beings try to think about God. When we insist our religion is all about hard facts and rigid truths, then we take a giant step away from God, because what we have done is started worshipping our religion, instead of worshipping God through our religion.
Consider the basic tenets of the Christian faith:
God became incarnate; that is, God was perfectly reflected in a human being. That human being was conceived out of wedlock, and was born as helpless as any other baby, in a poor country to impoverished and uneducated parents. The child grew into a man who lived what we can only call a perfect life. Unlike every other person who has ever lived, he never brought any sort of evil into the world with his words or actions. And both the religious community and the political community hated him for speaking the truth. And they conspired to kill him, and they murdered him in the most painful and humiliating of ways. And from the cross he forgave the people who killed him, revealing a love that could only belong to God. And after his death, he was spiritually resurrected, returning to be at one with the God whose nature he so perfectly reflected. And in that process, God’s love overcame all evil—even death itself—not for Jesus alone, but for all of us.
Say what you want. There is nothing boring about that story.