A sermon preached yesterday – March 15th – in a continuing series on the Apostles’ Creed.
After a two week hiatus we come back today to the Apostles’ Creed – we continue our series of reflections on the faith we confess. Through this series we have been reminded that the Apostles’ Creed is more than just a statement of right belief. The creed is also a statement of our fundamental human trust. Every human life is built on trust. And the creed helps us as a community of faith to give voice to our most basic trust God – in the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This morning we are back into the second section of the creed – in which we give expression to our fundamental trust in Jesus – in this particular person – our faith in the one who is God’s Son, who is Lord, who is the anointed one.
And today we come to additional words that are used to describe Jesus. Here they are:
conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
What are we to make of these two statements? What do they mean? What is the creed helping us to say when we stand together with one voice and declare that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit – that he was born of the Virgin Mary.
Well it may seem strange to hear it, but this morning I would say that these two statements of the creed can best be understood by thinking about the word ‘Yes’.
Now, what does it mean to say ‘Yes’ to something? Well, of course there are all kinds of situations in which we might use the word ‘yes’ – many of them very ordinary.
Would you like some HP sauce with your steak – yes I would, thank you.
Did you pick up the milk on your way home today – yes I did.
To say yes is to affirm something, to agree with something, is to accept something. Yes I agree. Yes I believe that. Yes I will go there. These are everyday uses of the word ‘yes’.
But there is another way that we can think about this word. We might also think about the word ‘yes’ in terms of a deep and personal embrace of another person. In which we say ‘yes’ to them. Let me offer a couple of examples to explain what I mean.
In December of 1997 I travelled to a small country in West Africa called The Gambia. I went there to visit a young woman I knew by the name of Becky – to spend some time with her. We spent five weeks together travelling and visiting with various people. And during that time I asked her an important question – I asked whether she would marry me. To my relief and joy she said – Yes.
And what is the meaning of that yes – that yes to a marriage proposal, a ‘yes’ that is reaffirmed in the marriage ceremony. This yes, in fact, is an embrace of life with the other person. It is a yes that says – I will be with you, I will love you, I will be a companion to you. When a person gives voice to this particular ‘yes’ it is to say that our lives will, in a fundamental sense, be shared. This yes is an embrace of the other and of life with him or her.
Another example – think of a young child who tragically loses her parents – perhaps they are killed in a car accident. This child in some sense ends up alone in the world. But then through a complex and difficult process, this child comes to be adopted. Through promises given, another man and woman become father and mother to this child. In the process of adopting this child, we might say, the adoptive parents offer a ‘yes’ to that child. It is a ‘yes’ that says we will love you, we will protect you, we will provide for you, and we will do our best to give you a future. The new parents say ‘yes’ to the child.
So the yes we are speaking of is a relational yes. It is the embrace of another person in which lives become deeply and meaningfully intertwined.
Now what I want to suggest is that the words we are thinking about from the Apostles’ Creed this morning point to a twofold yes of this kind.
On the one hand it is a yes from God to the human. God says yes to the human.
On the other hand it is a yes from the human to God. The human says yes to God.
But how is this the case? How is it that these words of the creed point to this twofold yes? Well, here we have to look a the specific words of the creed – first, ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’.
This morning we read those familiar words from Luke’s Gospel, in which the angel Gabriel visits Mary and declares her to be the favoured one. She is to have a child, and she is to give the child the name Jesus – for this one will save his people. But of course the news that she will have a child surprises and astonishes the young Mary. And she replies to the angel. “But how can this be, since I have not known a man.” The angel offers this astonishing reply to her question: “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 the Son of God.”
With these words from Luke’s Gospel we are brought to the realization that this is not going to be an ordinary child. This child in fact traces his origins directly to the Holy Spirit. As the Catechism of the Presbyterian Church says, “God became a human being without the agency of a father.” It is through the Spirit.
Now the text doesn’t get into the mechanics of the thing – there is no consideration of the anatomical or physiological questions that arise here. There is simply an affirmation – the conception of this child, the beginnings of this child, owes to the power and movement of the Holy Spirit in relation to Mary.
We realize that there are those who will object to this possibility. They will argue: “You can’t have a baby without sexual intercourse between a man and a woman.” They will therefore suggest that we must interpret this piece of narrative figuratively – it’s just symbolic language. But we could point out that those who object to this miraculous conception are generally also those who would object to any supernatural reality or activity. If a person is a materialist who thinks that the material of this world and its processes are all there is, then of course he or she would object to this story of a miraculous birth. The existence of God is ruled out, the miracles of Jesus are ruled out and the miraculous conception is ruled out.
But on the other hand, if you trust that there is more to life, more to existence, than just the material world around us and its processe; if you believe that there is a God who is alive and is at work in the world, who interacts with the world, who engages with the world, then belief in the miraculous conception of this child won’t be particularly problematic. We know and have experienced the God who is alive and at work in our world. A God of power and grace, a God who creates the world, who acts for this world, and who acts for his people. This is the God who comes by the Holy Spirit to give life and being to the child Jesus. This we confess. This we trust.
What we find then, is that the phrase ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ is actually a statement of Jesus’ divinity. This child has divine origins – he takes his beginning, has his beginning, in the movement of God by the Holy Spirit……
This is no usual child….this is no usual conception……He is the divine one.
Now if the first phrase we are considering is a statement of the divine origins of Jesus, then the second phrase we look at is a statement of the human origins of Jesus.
conceived by the Holy Spirit (divine origin)…. born of the virgin Mary (human origin)
So we affirm Jesus’ miraculous conception – this conception bypasses the normal path of procreation. Nevertheless, Mary remains the mother of this Jesus. Jesus is born of this young woman – he is born in a rush of blood and water as every other child is born. Jesus owes his life and being to this Mary. He is conceived in her womb, he traces his origin to her. Mary is astonished by what the angel has to say to her, but this is her reply: Here I am, the servant of the Lord. And offering this reply she becomes central to the whole narrative of God with us – she accepts her calling, and becomes mother to Jesus.
So again: If the first phrase ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ points to the divine origins of Jesus, then the second phrase ‘born of the virgin Mary’ points to the human origins of Jesus. What we have in these words of the Apostles’ Creed, then, is an affirmation of an idea that is later formulated in this way: that Jesus, as mysterious as it may sound, is fully God and fully human.
Now we can come back to that word ‘Yes’. Now we come back to the twofold ‘yes’ of which I spoke.
First of all, God says Yes to the human.
That Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit reminds us that this is God become human. That Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit reminds us that God has here taken on the human experience. If Jesus was not conceived by the Holy Spirit, if Jesus does not come from God, if Jesus is not God with us, then God remains at a distance from the human. But God has embraced human life – life in time, life in space, life in human community. In the person of Jesus, in his conception by the Holy Spirit, God says yes to the human and to the human experience.
Humans had turned their backs on God – we had lived as if we didn’t need God. We had lived with an utter confidence that we do it ourselves, with the conviction that we were really pretty good people after all. We don’t particularly need God. We turned our back on the one who created us. And look at the world we have made. By his grace God continues to bring goodness and love into our world and our relationships – but look at the world we have made – where violence and animosity and selfishness and environmental degradation seem to be the order of the day. We turned our back on God. In a profound sense we said No to God.
But in Jesus God nevertheless says Yes to the human. God says yes to us. God says: I will not be God without you. I will only be God with you. God says a resounding yes to the human – and God’s yes to us is so decisive that it makes all the difference for our lives, our world, our future. We do not now live without God. In Jesus God is now with us in a decisive way. God says yes to us, to the human.
And then there is the second yes. For in Jesus not only does God say yes to the human, but in Jesus the human also turns around and says yes to God.
Mary, of course, says yes to God in her willing service, her willing motherhood to Jesus. But more decisive is the yes that Jesus says to God. Jesus, born of Mary, gives himself unreservedly to the way and will of God. Jesus lives as humans are intended to live. Jesus obeys the heavenly Father as humans were intended to obey the heavenly father. Jesus says yes to God in a way that we had proven incapable of saying yes to God. We so often want to say yes to ourselves, or yes to own ideas, or yes to our own families, or yes to our own careers, or yes to our own futures – to the neglect of God. But Jesus said yes to the heavenly Father in a decisive way – he reached out to the poor, he prayed to his heavenly father, he gave his life in sacrificial love – he said in full consistency to God – not my will but yours be done.
The great wonder and mystery of our faith, is that Jesus has acted with us and for us. His yes to God has become our yes to God.
At the heart of our faith, at the heart of New Testament faith, is the conviction that we are united to the living Jesus Christ in a powerful spiritual bond. And being united with him means that our lives are touched by this twofold yes. As we are united to Jesus Christ – as we trust him with our lives, as we see him for who he is, as we are bound to him in love – our lives are touched by that twofold yes.
In Jesus, God says yes to us. God embraces us.
In Jesus, God says I won’t be God without you.
And in Jesus we are set free to say yes to God – to give our lives in service to him.
Let me change focus somewhat as we come to a conclusion this morning. It seems to me that there is often a peculiar collusion between minister and congregation. The congregation often feels the need to be given some sense of what they should do – I need something practical out of the sermon. And on the other hand, the minister often feels compelled to give the congregation something practical to do in his or her sermon. On both sides there is often a feeling that if there isn’t something to do, then perhaps its really a bit of a waste of time.
But my feeling is this creates a problem. In fact, we often become so busy doing that we have forgotten who we are. Of course there comes a time for action – and I would say there even come for activism. But if we don’t know who we are, then all of our action, and our activism in the world, will often end up like a chasing after the wind. We must live out of our identity, we must root our action in who we are. But sometimes that means stopping and dwelling for a moment on who we are – meditating on our identity. In some sense that’s what this sermon series on the Creed is all about.
I believe in Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit (he is the divine one), who was born of Virgin Mary (he is the human one).
As we believe this Jesus, as we trust this Jesus, we are united to him. And in that moment we see how our lives are touched by a two fold yes.
God’s profound yes to us – God will only be God with us.
Our free and loving yes to God.
That’s who we are. This twofold ‘yes’ defines us.