Luke 1:26 – In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,
27 – to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28 – The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
30 – But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.
31 – You will be with child and give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus.
32 – He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David,
33 – and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.”
34 – “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 – 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.
36 – Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.
37 – For nothing is impossible with God.”
38 – “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Luke 2:1 – In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
2 – (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
3 – And everyone went to his own town to register.
4 – So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
5 – He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a Child.
6 – While they were there, the time came for the Baby to be born,
7 – and she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
This morning I want to borrow an idea from Victor Penz and begin my sermon by reading a portion of the writings of one of the truly great minds in theology, Dr.Theodore Seuss Geisel.
I’m referring to his excellent book entitled, On Beyond Zebra. I want to read a portion because I think it’s a great way to introduce the theme of this message. Here goes:
Said Conrad Cornelius O’Donnell O’Dell,
…my very young friend who was learning to spell,
‘The A is for Ape, the B is for Bear,
the C is for Camel, the H is for Hair,
the M is for Mouse, the R is for Rat
I know all twenty-six letters like that.
Through to Z is for Zebra, I know them all well,’
said Conrad Cornelius O’Donnell O’Dell.
‘Now I know everything anyone knows
from beginning to end, from the start to the close,
because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.’
Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor…
when I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more.
A letter he had never dreamed of before.
And I said, ‘You can stop if you want with the Z,
and most people stop with the Z, but not me.
In the places I go, there are things that I see
that I never could spell if I stopped with a Z.
‘I’m telling you this ‘cause you’re one of my friends,
my alphabet starts where your alphabet ends.
My alphabet starts with this letter called yezz,
it’s the letter I use to spell yezzametezz.
You’ll be sort of surprised what there is to be found,
once you go beyond Z and start poking around.
So on beyond zebra explore like Columbus,
discover new letters like wum, which is for wumbus,
…my high-spouting whale who lives high on a hill
and who never comes down till it’s time to refill.
So on beyond Z, it’s high time you were shown
that you really don’t know all there is to be known.’
If you want to hear the rest of Dr. Seuss’ book, see me afterward. I’ll be happy to arrange a private reading. But—back to my point. What exactly is the brilliant Dr. Seuss talking about here? What does he mean when he speaks of going “beyond Zebra?” I think the answer is fairly obvious to even to the children who love Dr. Seuss’ books—but in case you missed it—he’s saying that—just as we have been given 26 letters in the alphabet with which to spell our WORDS—we also have certain “mental categories” that we’ve developed through the years. And we use these categories to neatly file away the EXPERIENCES of life. For example, if we see a four-footed animal that is on a leash and barks—we know that is a dog. We’ve seen dogs before—we have a category for dogs. That’s a dog. But sometimes we experience something that doesn’t fit into one of our categories—that’s the principle Seuss is getting at. When this happens…when something occurs that we’ve never experienced before that’s “beyond Zebra.”
Here’s an example—true story. A woman was driving down the street and came to a stop light.
She looked over on the street corner and saw a mother hen and her baby chicks, just standing there as if waiting for something. Then it happened. The light changed from green to red…and as you can see in this picture, when the crosswalk signal changed as well, encouraging pedestrians to cross, the mother hen jumped off the curb and walked across the street staying within the crosswalk, and those baby chickens followed along right behind her. This woman said that as they watched this happen, her daughter turned to her and said, “This is not normal.” And it wasn’t. It was “beyond zebra.” It was an experience without a category.
I bring this all up because the birth of Jesus Christ was like that. It was something without a category. Of course, that’s not how it STARTED OUT—at least for Mary and Joseph. No—at first it was just your classic “1st century Jewish boy meets 1st century Jewish girl love story.” I mean, Joseph loved Mary and the feeling was mutual. He spoke to her father—the engagement was sealed and I imagine he immediately began to build the house where they would live. Over the months I bet they spent lots of time together talking about their future. Perhaps they walked through the house Joseph was building and discussed the floor plan and how they would use each room….things like that. But then it happened. With no warning or change of behavior one day Mary suddenly turned up pregnant and with that shocking bit of news, Joseph’s world came crashing down. Mary tried to explain what had happened, and Joseph yearned to believe her, but there was no way that even a heart full of love could dispel all the nagging suspicions that were in his mind. Sure—Mary SAID she was still a virgin. I’m sure she told Joseph the whole story about the Angel’s visit. But to him—and the rest of the people in Nazareth, what Mary was saying was just beyond belief. They’d never seen anything like that before. It was an experience without a category. It was “beyond zebra.”
And—over the centuries, Joseph isn’t the only one who has had doubts about Mary’s claim that the child within her was conceived while she was a virgin. Many people have thought—and many people still think—Mary made the whole thing up to cover her indiscretion. They say the virgin birth is nothing more than foolishness….a fairy tale made up by foolish people. There are even some who claim to be Christ-followers who say they believe in other miracles recorded in the Bible but not this one. In their minds this miracle is not only unbelievable but unimportant.
And—before we go any further let me state that I know it’s “beyond zebra” — but I believe in the virgin birth. I believe it happened just as Mary said. I bring this up today because if you look at the lyrics of the Christmas carol we sang a moment ago—Silent Night—you can see that it affirms the virgin birth. Now of course, the Bible tells us that there are OTHER times when God brought children into the world in amazing ways.
- He created Adam without a father OR mother, forming Him from the dust of the ground. He made Eve from Adam’s rib.
- God miraculously brought children to the ELDERLY—women like Sarah in the Old Testament and Elizabeth in the New—women who were decades past menopause.
- He also healed the wombs of BARREN women like Rebekah and Rachel and the mother of Samson…enabling them to give birth.
So according to the Bible, making miraculous births possible is nothing new to God. But the birth of Jesus was something absolutely unique—for He was born of a VIRGIN. God had NEVER done that before—nor has He done so since. Jesus’ conception was absolutely unique in that it came about through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, using Mary as His vessel to accomplish God’s eternal plan. As David Jeremiah puts it, “[Jesus] is in no way a product of the natural union of a human father and mother. Instead He is the eternal person of the Lord Himself, the INFINITE One Who created the universe taking on the LIMITED form of a human being.”
This morning I want us to remind ourselves exactly WHY the virgin birth important—why it is vital for us to embrace the truth of the words in that first verse that we sang a moment ago—where it says that on that first Christmas night it was in the arms of a young virgin that the new born Christ child slept in heavenly peace.
(1) The first reason a belief in the virgin birth is important is because the BIBLE clearly TEACHES that this is how it happened.
In other words this is a belief—a doctrine—that is founded in the authority of the Scriptures. And when I say “founded,” I mean it because from the very beginning God’s Word teaches that Jesus would be born in this unique WAY. For example, do you remember way back in the book of Genesis where it tells about the punishment Adam and Eve and the serpent received for disobeying God? In Genesis 3:15 God said to satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and HER SEED….He will crush your head and you will strike His heel.” Now, every other time the Bible speaks of someone’s offspring as “seed,” it is referring to the MALE seed, or semen. Only here in Genesis 3 does Scripture ever speak of the seed of a WOMAN—and that’s an indication of something unprecedented—something “beyond Zebra.” This is the only time in history that a woman had a seed within her that did not originate from a human man so to call it “something SPECIAL” is an understatement!
The last part of that verse in Genesis 3 tells us MORE about this seed of a woman. First, when it says that satan struck at Jesus’ “heel…” it’s referring to the CROSS…but in the prior phrase it refers to Jesus’ victorious resurrection—where He “crushed satan’s head”—that first Easter Sunday morning when He totally defeated him.
But Genesis 3 isn’t the only Old Testament text that speaks of Jesus’ virgin birth. Jeremiah 31:22 hints at it as well by saying, “The Lord has created a new thing in the earth—a ‘BEYOND ZEBRA thing’—a woman will encompass a man.” The prophet Isaiah 7:14 clarifies this “woman encompassing a man” deal by saying, “A virgin shall conceive and bare a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, ‘God with us.’” Now, the word we translate here in Isaiah as “virgin” is the Hebrew word, “almah” and some liberal scholars say this does not refer to a virgin birth because this particular Hebrew word CAN be translated either as “virgin” or “young woman.” And indeed it can—which means this is one of those times when the correct translation depends on the CONTEXT. So, look at the context here in Isaiah 7. Verse 14 begins, “The Lord Himself will give you a SIGN: [and here’s the sign] the ‘alma’ will be with child…” Now, let me ask you—would it be a special “sign” for a YOUNG WOMAN to be with child? Of course not. That happens all the time on this planet—which greatly pleases the manufacturers of Pampers and Huggies. No—with this context we can see that Isaiah is saying the thing that will make this pregnancy something “beyond zebra” —the thing that will make it a “sign” that God is up to something—is that a VIRGIN would conceive! So, in this context we can be certain that in this case, “alma” must be translated this way. Plus, when Matthew’s gospel quotes this prophecy from Isaiah he uses the Greek word “parthenos” —and that word can ONLY be translated as “virgin.”
Here are some additional texts that tell about this unique WAY Jesus was born.
- In both the genealogy in Luke and the one in Matthew it says that Jesus was born of a virgin.
- And the Apostle Paul also referred to the virgin birth in Galatians 4:4 where he said, “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, BORN OF A WOMAN.”
I like what the late W. A. Criswell once said about this. Some one asked him, “Dr. Criswell, if an unwed mother were to tell you that her child was conceived by the Spirit without an earthly father, would you believer her?” Criswell replied, “Yes—if the birth of that child was foretold thousands of years before—and if when the Child was born the angels sang and the star of promise stood over the place where the Infant lay—and if when the Child were grown He had power over the wind and the waves and over disease and death—and if when He was slain, the third day He was raised from the dead—and if when He ascended to heaven His disciples through the centuries were numbered by the millions and increasing millions.”
So—God’s written Word very clearly states that Jesus was the Son of God—not man. Over and over again it says that Jesus was born of a virgin. This means that if we deny that Jesus was born in this WAY — if we say, “That’s way too ‘beyond zebra’ for me!” — we are denying the authority of the Bible. And if we deny it’s authority at this point, we are likely to make the mistake of denying it at other pivotal points as well.
Listen—to BECOME the person God wants you to be—you must embrace the authority of His written Word. All maturing Christians must be people of The Book. The Bible—not our fickle feelings—not our ever-changing experience—not our limited intellect—not our desire to have beliefs that fit in with the mind set of this fallen world….no…THE BIBLE…God’s written Word…is our sole source of authority in faith and life, so to deny something that it clearly teaches is both foolish—and sinful.
Here’s a second reason a belief in the virgin birth is important.
(2) It is foundational for our understanding of the nature of JESUS Himself.
You see, some “theologians” say that Jesus was Joseph’s or some other man’s physical son…and that some time in His life—for example at His baptism—He suddenly “became” the Christ. They say that, at that moment God “adopted” Him as His Son. Well, the virgin birth refutes this false teaching because it shows that there was never even a moment in the human life of Jesus Christ, going back to the very instant of His conception, when He was not the Son of God. Jesus was the God-man from the BEGINNING—and as such was also sinless in thought, word, and deed from the beginning. Verse 3 of Silent Night proclaims this foundational truth when it says, “Jesus Lord—AT THY BIRTH!” He was always God—always Lord! The virgin birth affirms the fact that even though Jesus lived among us as a fully HUMAN individual—He was also fully DIVINE—a pre-existing, ETERNAL being. As John 1:2 says, “He existed in the beginning with God.” Jesus has always existed and always will. He was—from the beginning—God in human flesh.
Dr. Luke, who no-doubt investigated this by interviewing people who were around when Jesus was born—including Mary herself—Dr. Luke affirms this fact—and he does so from the beginning of his account of the Christmas story. Remember? He started by informing us that Caesar Augustus was ruler of the entire Roman world at that time. And in this little historical note, I think Luke was telling us about the divinity of the baby Who was laid in that manger. You see Octavian—Julius Caesar’s great-nephew—was the FIRST Caesar to be called “Augustus” —a title given him by the Roman senate.“Augustus” means “holy” or “revered,” and up to that time it was a title reserved exclusively for the gods. It was under Augustus’ rule that strides were taken toward making the Caesars gods to be worshiped. In fact, at about the same time Luke was writing his Gospel, some of the Creek cities in Asia Minor adopted Caesar’s birthday, September 23, as the first day of the New year, and in so doing hailed him as “savior.” Historian John Buchan records that when Caesar Augustus died, men actually “Comforted themselves, reflecting that Augustus was a god, and that gods do not die.”
So—when Jesus was born, in Augustus Caesar, the world believed it had at its helm a “god” and “savior.” And Luke, the historian wants us to see that in this pagan setting, the REAL Savior was born. He wanted us to see that the baby Mary carried in her womb was NOT a Caesar—a man who would BECOME a god, but something far greater….something truly beyond Zebra…that Baby was the TRUE God, Who had become a man.
Let me quickly point out two wonderful IMPLICATIONS of this fact.
A. First, since in Jesus God became a man—this means man could now see more clearly what God was really like.
I’m saying that in Jesus, for the first time, God became SEE-ABLE—TOUCHABLE. Before the coming of Christ mankind struggled to understand and relate to God because He was—and still IS—infinitely above us. As God Himself said in Isaiah 55:8, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways…as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Remember? Moses couldn’t look at God’s face without dying—so God let him look at His back as He passed by. And even then Moses’ face glowed for days such that he had to wear a veil to avoid blinding the other Hebrews. But in Jesus, God became approachable and seeable and touchable. He became one of us. And because He did, we could finally relate to Him and begin to fathom His love for us.
George Buttrick, former chaplain at Harvard writes that students would frequently come to his office and ask, “You’re the chaplain?” When he said he was they would then state emphatically, “I don’t believe in God!” Butrick would reply, “Sit down and tell me the kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” And when they did he would tell them about Jesus, and in so doing he would give them a correct understanding of the nature of God.
This was wise for Buttrick to do because Jesus is the VISIBLE expression of the INVISIBLE. He is God expressing Himself in language that we can understand. As someone once put it, “At Bethlehem, Jesus became what WE are so we could begin to understand what HE is.” So, if you’ve ever felt like God was far away and mysterious….if you have ever desired to know Him but didn’t know where to begin, then let me urge you to begin by looking at Jesus. Get a New Testament and read the gospels—especially the words that are printed in red—for they are literally Jesus’ own words. Examine Jesus and you WILL find God—the God Who descended to your level that first Christmas night—the Creator of the universe Who wants nothing more than to pursue a love relationship with you.
B. But this fact that in Jesus God became man has ANOTHER implication. It assures US that God knows what our day-to-day lives are like.
You see, in Jesus God literally walked a mile in our shoes. He became one of us—so WE know He can sympathize with our weaknesses…identify with our struggles. Did you know if you have two pianos in the same room and play a note on one of them, that same note will quietly respond in the other—even though it was not touched by another person’s hand? It will! This is called “sympathetic resonance.” Well, in a similar sense, Jesus’ instrument—His body—was like ours in every way except that He had no sin. And because it is the same, we can know that when a “chord” is struck in the weakness of our human flesh, it resonates in His! Let me put it this way. There is NO NOTE of our human experience that does not play in Christ’s heart as well. He was indeed tempted in EVERY way that we are, yet without sin. So, it is just as Hebrews 4:15 says, “We do not have a high priest Who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Since Jesus was God in the flesh from the very BEGINNING—it means He literally experienced everything we experienced. He has an unequaled capacity for sympathy and it goes far beyond intellectual understanding. I mean, Jesus does not just IMAGINE how His children feel because He actually FELT it. If you’ve ever been through a hard time:—fear—hunger—loneliness—fatigue—pain—and thought, “poor me…no one understands!” YOU ARE WRONG. Jesus does! And the virgin birth assures us of this fact.
(3) Here’s one more reason the virgin birth is important. It is necessary for our SALVATION.
You see, if Jesus been conceived by NATURAL means, with Joseph or anyone else as His father, He would not have been the Son of GOD and therefore would not have been able to be the true SAVIOR of sinners like you and me. I mean, only someone PERFECT could offer His life as a sacrifice for humanity and God alone is holy and perfect so God alone can atone for man’s sin.
On the other hand God is a spirit and a spirit cannot die. So, the only possible solution then would be for God to become a man retaining His purity and perfection—and only through the miracle of the virgin birth would this be possible. Let me put it this way: to be our Savior, Jesus would have to be holy at His BIRTH—not become holy through His actions and choices, which is actually a contradiction. You see to BE holy—you have to ALWAYS be holy. It’s a “one-strike you’re out” kind of thing. Plus—only as God in the flesh would Jesus have had the power to say “NO” to sin every moment of His life. Only in this way could He be the absolutely pure spotless Lamb of God. SO, to be our Savior—JESUS HAD TO BE GOD! As someone once put it: “Some say He was just a good teacher…but good teachers don’t claim to be God. Some say He was merely a good example…but good examples don’t mingle with prostitutes and sinners.
Some say He was a madman…but madmen don’t speak the way He spoke. Some say He was a crazed fanatic, but crazed fanatics don’t draw children to themselves or attract men of intellect like Paul or Luke to be their followers. Some say He was a religious phony…but phonies don’t rise from the dead. Some say He was only a phantom…but phantoms can’t give their flesh and blood to be crucified. Some say He was only a myth…but myths don’t set the calendar for history.”
Jesus has been called the ideal man, an example of love, the highest model of religion, the foremost pattern of virtue, the greatest of all men, and the finest teacher who ever lived. All of those descriptions capture elements of His character, but they all fall short of the full truth.
The apostle Thomas expressed it perfectly when he saw Jesus after the resurrection, and exclaimed, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28) —because that is Who Jesus is!
So to summarize, if we deny the virgin birth, we are denying that Jesus is God’s Son…
…and in so doing we have denied the very essence of Christianity.
Everything else the Bible teaches about Christ DOES hinge on this truth that we celebrate at Christmas—Jesus is God in human flesh. And, for Jesus to be God, He must be BORN of God.
Joseph a man, and Mary, a woman, cannot produce God. God cannot be born into this world by natural human processes. There’s no way He could be God apart from being CONCEIVED by God. As Oswald Chambers puts it, “Jesus was born INTO the world, but not FROM it.”
So the Virgin Birth of the Christ is indeed a foundational truth.
To throw it out as unnecessary is to reject Christ’s deity, the accuracy and authority of Scripture, and a host of other related doctrines that are the heart of our Christian faith. This is what makes Him the long awaited Messiah, the Savior of the world! You may remember that during one of his broadcasts LARRY KING was asked, “If you had a chance to interview anybody throughout history, whom would you choose above all others?” He said he would choose Jesus Christ and he said he picked Jesus because he would like to ask Him this question: “Are you virgin born?” King explained by saying, “The positive answer to that question would explain history to me.” You see, even King—someone who is not a Christian—knows that if this great miracle was true, then Christ would have to be all He claimed to be—and Larry King is right.
I know he’s kind of dropped off the radar since his failed bid for the presidency a few years back but I imagine most of you know that long before his career in politics….Senator John McCain was a POW in North Vietnam during the war. Well, on Christmas Eve in 1971, the POWs in McCain’s prison held a worship service. They began with the Lord’s Prayer and then sang Christmas carols. McCain, who had been appointed a chaplain for the group, read a portion of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke between each hymn. The men were nervous at first. You see, a year earlier the guards had burst in on their secret worship service. The three Americans who had been leading it were dragged out to solitary confinement for 11 months in 3×5-foot cells. Still, the prisoners wanted to sing this night, and so they began: “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant….” They sang barely above a whisper, their eyes glancing anxiously at the barred windows. Huddled below a naked light bulb, they appeared to be a rather sorry congregation. Several shook from fevers. Some were permanently stooped as a result of torture. Others leaned on makeshift crutches. But they kept singing “O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem! Come and behold Him, born the King of angels…” The prisoners grew bolder. Their voices lifted a little higher until they filled the cell with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
When they started to sing “Silent Night,” tears rolled down their unshaven faces. As they sang with feeling the final refrain, “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace,” they realized that a transformation had taken place. McCain said, “We had forgotten our wounds, our hunger, our pain. We raised prayers of thanks for the Christ Child, for our families and homes…There was an absolutely exquisite feeling that our burdens had been lifted.”
The reason McCain and his fellow POW’s felt that way is because only GOD can lift our burdens. Only GOD can give us a peace that passes understanding. Only God can be WITH US—no matter where we are or what we are going through. And all this was only possible because Jesus was born of a virgin that first Christmas night.
Now—stay with me in the “beyond zebra zone” for a few more minutes because I want to point to another truth for which we have no category and it is this. The eyes of the one True Eternal God are fixed on you and me in this time and place right now. He waits for us to respond to the truth of His Word in this very moment. For some reason, God Almighty—Holy—Eternal—Self-sufficient—Sovereign—for some reason the thing He wants most is for sinners like you and me to come into relationship with Him. That’s the most “beyond zebra” thing ever! Why would the HOLY, OMNIPOTENT GOD want to have anything to do with weak sinners like us? I don’t know…but it’s still true.
So, as we sing, search your heart. How is God inviting you to respond? If you’re not a Christ-follower, I believe that right now you are feeling a tug…you KNOW you need God. You know you need His forgiveness and You know He wants that too. Respond to that “knowing!” Admit your sin to God. Ask for His forgiveness. Ask Him to lead you through life. Ask Him to empower you to do His will. And then walk an aisle and share that decision with me or Bobby or Kevin. Come ask to join our church…come ask to be baptized. But come as God leads.