Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Yesterday, we toured a few of the other medically-impossible births in world religions. But the thing that sets Jesus’ birth apart from other legends, be they Jewish, Egyptian or Hindu, is not his mother or his deity. It’s his obscurity. While Mithras and Horus claim to be humans without natural fathers, Jesus claimed to be God himself, the result of a crisis pregnancy: the triune God taking on human flesh, the prince of heaven born to an unwed peasant, the King of Kings swaddled in a feed trough. Jesus’ virgin birth story claims more divinity for himself and more humility for his circumstances. After all, which is harder to believe in — an emperor god with riches and power or a bastard God in obscurity and squalor?
This is the unexpected beauty of the incarnation. No self-respecting ancient deity would condescend to be born in a barn. The stories about Vishnu and Isis involved palaces and mountain peaks. But the Christian God insists on identifying with the lowly, not the powerful.
Author Andy McQuitty writes,
The idea of God coming down to earth and relating to people is not unusual in ancient religions. The Greek and Roman pantheons were full of self-centered, impetuous, and impulsive gods who loved to come among men and wreak havoc. Ancient mythology assumes that the gods come down. What makes Christianity absolutely unique is that our God not only came down, he bent down when he came down. That’s the meaning of Christmas — God, not in majesty, but in a manger.
He doesn’t just identify with everyman to win popular appeal; he befriends the outcast, the foreigner and the awkward, and in the process he loses popularity. From his bastard birth, to his friendship with traitors, to his criminal’s death, Jesus seems bent on eschewing acclaim and reaching out to the marginalized.
Author Tim Keller writes,
It is hard for us to understand how revolutionary this was in the ancient world. Sri Lankan scholar Vinoth Rmachandra calls this “scandalous justice.” He writes that in virtually all the ancient cultures of the world, the power of the gods was channeled through and identified with the elites of society, the kings, priests, and military captains, not the outcasts. To oppose the leaders of society, then, was to oppose the gods. “But here, in Israel’s rival vision,” it is not high-ranking males but “the orphan, the widow, and the stranger” with whom Yahweh takes his stand. His power is exercised in history for their empowerment.” So, from ancient times, the God of the Bible stood out from the gods of all other religions as a God on the side of the powerless, and of justice for the poor.
Jesus didn’t just step out of his heavenly throne room for a diplomat’s tour of our earthly carnage. He didn’t drive by in his motorcade or shake hands and kiss babies. He didn’t establish a new politic to show us how a good king should rule. He established a new paradigm and a new way to be human. He lived in poverty and uncertainty. He touched the leper and wept with the grieving. He endured insults and innuendo, scorn and scourge, taunts and torture.
Jesus’ birth did not happen in a royal castle or state-of-the-art medical facility. It happened in a barn in a backwater town to an unwed teenager from a blue-collar family.
Jesus’ birth was not heralded by palace paiges with brass trumpets. It was announced to poor shepherds by a chorus that no one would believe when they told them.
In these ways and others, Jesus’ birth was a reflection of his compassionate character and a foretaste of things to come.
It’s not hard to believe that an uneducated tradesman from a rural village grew up to become a religious iconoclast; that has happened before. It’s not unique to Christians to believe in a leader born of a virgin; other faiths claim the same miracle. But Christianity insists on combining all the unlikeliness to declare one, most impossible birth story: a virgin had a baby, and that baby was God. Here, in the virgin birth, is a microcosm of the unbelievable nature of the Christian story: it’s hard to believe when impossible things happen.