‘All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
– Matthew 1
Seldom during Advent do Christians take the time to bother themselves with the lengthy genealogy of Jesus which Matthew provides at the beginning of the Gospels. The matter-of-fact list of names strikes the average reader as needless prologomena to the Gospel story proper. Readers anxious to get on with the meat of the story miss what Matthew might want us to know by telling us Jesus’ lineage in groups of fourteen.
Fourteen, in the Old Testament, is a perfect number- a number which represents completion. Readers in a hurry during the Christmas season risk failing to notice how in all of Matthew’s begats there are some names which shouldn’t be there if a traditional, legitimate genealogy is what Matthew has in mind: women’s names, for instance, and women of disreputable character and even Gentile women. So what is Matthew getting at by beginning things with Jesus’ family tree?
The question can’t be answered in isolation from what immediately precedes and proceeds the genealogy. Before the family tree, Matthew introduces the begats with the word ‘genesis’ which we translate as: ‘in the beginning.’ Sound familiar? It’s how the Hebrew Bible begins the creation story.
And then after the family tree, Matthew tells us how ‘Yeshua’ will be born of from a virgin; in other words, God will bring forth the Messiah ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) from a virgin’s womb. God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.
We affirm the virgin birth every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, yet often I wonder if its really more like lip service with which we treat the ancient doctrine. Regrettably, for many Christians the virgin birth is little more than a museum piece of Christian belief- an artifact that belonged to those who came before us.
The doctrine today strikes many as curious and weighted with superstitious suppositions, others as a ‘miracle story’ with little immediate relevance to the incarnation and still others as an embarrassing fragment of the faith that should be hidden away to make the faith more palatable to enlightened, modern minds.
For those who have no trouble affirming the virgin birth, the doctrine instead becomes a sort of litmus test upon which all of Christian belief rests. Regrettably, few ever give attention to what Matthew may have intended by linking the word ‘genesis’ to a list of begats and then following it with news of a most unusual birth.
The bible is the story of salvation but it starts with the story of creation which we call Genesis. The gospel is the story of salvation but it begins with a story of creation which Matthew calls “genesis.”
What that word “genesis” means is that the conception of Jesus is the beginning of all things. Not chronologically, maybe, but the conception of Jesus names God’s decision never to be except to be for us in Christ – and that decision is the beginning of all creation, of all life, of all salvation, of everything that matters.
And so we see that creation itself is a kind of virgin birth, because it was creation from nothing, and it was brought about by the Holy Spirit. And the virgin birth is a new creation, or perhaps even the original creation, because it too is brought about in some ways out of nothing, by the action of the Holy Spirit, although this time, gloriously, with a woman at the center of God’s action.
We have been brought out of nothing to be made for relationship with God, and God has made a home among us to unite our hearts with his.
Creation is a virgin birth. A virgin birth is creation.
All of this is Matthew’s way of telling us that Christmas, incarnation, is the beginning of God re-making creation, that what will unfold in Jesus’ life and be revealed by his teaching is God’s work to unwind Sin.
As you begin our week here, serving and welcoming strangers in to our hearts, I think holding on to what Christians profess about Jesus in the Virgin Birth couldn’t be more important. That Jesus comes to die for us isn’t Gospel here. Well, it’s not as Gospel as the news that Jesus is the beginning of God remaking his creation. That new creation is what we’re participating in here. Both in what we do for them and what they do in us.