I know that a lot of people these days are fascinated to find out where they come from, who their ancestors were, even what their DNA reveals. You might have seen the adverts on TV encouraging you to treat a relative for Christmas to something called Ancestry.com. Perhaps you watch that TV programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ and maybe you’ve shed a tear or two as someone discovers the human story behind their own inheritance. Does it make a difference to know that Boris Johnson and David Cameron are 8th cousins – and both with royal relations? Or to know that Danny Dyer is descended from a medieval king? It’s fascinating that people often seem to come out of such a process of searching for their ancestors with a greater sense of knowing who they are.
Of course, there are always debates going on too about whether our lives now are determined by our genes – or whether it’s more about how we are brought up. But most of us live with a sense that our past has shaped us, even the past of our DNA. It always fascinating to see glimpses of a father in the son or the daughter – to see gestures and mannerisms and all manner of traits and quirks being repeated in the next generation. It’s fascinating to see how like his father is Hilary Benn or how like her mother was Liza Minnelli.
But part of the core message of the Christian faith is that we do not have to be determined by our past or even by our DNA or even by the ways we were brought up or by the ways our lives have gone wrong. The Christian faith says we can be born again – can be born new – can be a new creation. We are not enslaved to our past or our origins or our biology. We can be reborn. Even if we’ve been trodden in the dust of the deepest suffering– we can become once more like the virgin sand that no-one has yet stepped on or the snow that it still unmarked. We can be born again. There is redemption. And our faith says that this is because we belong to someone who was more than his DNA, more than his parentage, more than his ancestors, the one who kind of re-set humankind to a new beginning – Jesus. And this message is presented – even in a way that might look a little strange to us – in Matthew’s Gospel.
This Gospel begins with some amazing stories about Jesus’ genealogy, his parentage and birth, in stories that could be straight out of an episode of ‘Who do you think you are?’. Chapter one of Matthew’s Gospel could make a memorable edition. It gives us the genealogy of Joseph, the husband of Mary. But in this extraordinary genealogy, it’s the women who stand out. There’s Tamar – a woman whose story is such an extraordinary part of the story of Joseph that it gets left out of the Andrew Llyod Weber musical entirely and it’s definitely not a story you would want to tell the Sunday school if we had one (Genesis 38 – look it up later at home…). There’s Rahab, the sex worker, who let the spies into Jericho. Then there’s Bathsheba, who took her bath on the roof, and whose story exposed David as a voyeur and a killer. And then there’s Ruth, whose charms Naomi used to get a baby for herself. All these women were foreigners too, something not everyone in the Old Testament wanted to remember. It’s as though Matthew wants to say, ‘In this story of Joseph’s descent we can see the whole story of our people. Here are all the relatives we’d rather forget and all the reminders of how difficult the story of humankind has been. In a list of names, here is the story of how tragic and difficult and painful our story has been. Remember the slavery in Egypt, the journeys in the wilderness, the exile in Babylon (Matthew mentions that twice), and all the messes we’ve been in?’
But then he tells us that this genealogy is not really important after all. Jesus was not just from his ancestors. He came into the world through the Holy Spirit. If you made a programme about Jesus called ‘Who do you think you are?’ you might start with all those ancestors and all those strange stories of the struggle to be human, all those false starts and bumps in the genealogical road. But then you would have to say that he was somehow also something completely new, something the world hadn’t seen before, somehow more than a result of the genes or of his ancestors. He was somehow someone who came into the world in a new way, like a kind of re-booting of the gene pool of humankind, something, someone, new, more than anyone could have expected or predicted. I think that’s kind of what Matthew wanted to say.
God’s people had been trying to sort themselves for generations – everyone of those begats and begottens had done their best to make the world a place that God would love or in which people could flourish and thrive. But none of them had managed it. Not even Abraham, not even David, not Tamar, not Ruth. So, now God was doing something new, something different, something as yet unknown, a new ‘genesis’, a new beginning. And that was Jesus. We just couldn’t give birth to our own salvation, even with patriarchs and kings for ancestors – and so God did something new. Jesus was more than just more of the same, more than just another one in the line of humanity from Abraham on. He was a new beginning.
This is really what we call the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is about and this is why it made it into the creed right from the beginning. It’s not saying that sex is a bad or unholy thing. It’s not a naïve mythic fairy tale that we’d be best to forget. It’s not a stupid irrelevance that sophisticated Christians could discard. It’s a way of saying what is at the very heart of the Gospel – that God in Jesus was doing something radically new, not repeating the past, not just finding the best human being there could be under the circumstances, but recreating humankind and giving us a new beginning. Maybe this isn’t the way we might have chosen to describe it, maybe it seems a strange way to go about shaping a theology, but I think it was what Matthew wanted to tell us. He showed as clearly as he could, in words that he chose with infinite care, that he knew what Joseph’s story was and how it was kind of Jesus’ story too – but then he throws away the whole genealogy and says, ‘Do you know what? Jesus was not that story – he is a new story.’ His birth came out of nowhere – it was a virgin birth.
There was a story going round at one stage that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier, and Mary a victim of some disgraceful abuse. These things, tragically, happen. But the Virgin Birth says that perhaps it’s worth trusting and believing, that for once, those same old things weren’t what happened. For once, and like a miracle, God did something new, something that might start the whole adventure of being human from a different and new place. The reading from Matthew today says something like ‘This is the genesis of Jesus Christ’ – that’s the word in Greek – genesis. Which ought to give us a clue that this Matthew is saying, ‘we are going back to the beginning’ and even ‘you can go back to the beginning too’. This whole story was about God taking us all back to a new beginning.
But there’s yet another twist to this astonishing story. Once when I was reading the beginning of John’s Gospel, I suddenly realised that the Virgin Birth is there in that Gospel too… except that this Gospel writes about us being virgin born, us being born again. .. it says…. ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ We can be born again, we can make a new start, we can be more than our heritage, more than our genes. Who do we think we are? We are more than the children of our parents, we children of God, that’s who we are.
There are moments in any person’s life when we wish we could go back and start again… when we wish we could be, in the words of Madonna, ‘like a virgin’. Sometimes the world can seem very unforgiving of our mistakes. But the Gospel says that in Jesus God sent someone who was more than the sum of his past, more than the inheritance of his ancestors, more than his parents, more than his people. He was the beginning of a new humankind. He was like virgin snow – something beautiful, new, unbroken, whole. How different the world could be if all of us could somehow believe that the past does not have to hold us and define us, that the identities we’ve inherited don’t have to be what we always are, that the enmities of the past don’t have to remain ours, that we can let go of past sorrow and hurt and make a really new beginning. If who you are is defined in a new way, then you too can be new, virgin born, born of the Holy Spirit. That’s a great message for a new year…
Jesus’ followers knew that what counted about Jesus was not Joseph’s line – interesting though that was. He was and is ‘God with us’ – in a profoundly new way. He showed us that it matters not a jot who we are, or where we come from or what secrets we hide or what gene pool we come from – all that matters is that we can become God’s beloved children – and we can be born of God.
There is a saying that we often repeat – that ‘blood is thicker than water’ – and when we say that we tend to mean, I suppose, that the ties of blood, physical descent, DNA and the gene pool, that these ties are strong. And indeed they are. We are undoubtedly shaped by our inheritance and the ties of family are so important to us. At this time of the year we might feel that most acutely as we remember relatives, visit relatives, express our affection for each other and return ‘home’. We know where we come from in that sense – and it matters to us. But even more it matters where we are going and what God is creating in us. And God can create from people who walk in darkness a great light. God can create from tired and hopeless and old people new life. God can create from the wrinkled and the bruised and the ‘been round the block a few times’ virgins, angels, stars of light. And that’s why – if you are Christian – you don’t see an unredeemable sinner, you don’t see a hopeless case, you don’t see an old person nearing the end – you always see a new creation, a virgin born, an angel whose wings have not yet unfurled. We celebrate a virgin birth – the potential new birth of each one of us, of each community, of our nations and our world. We believe in the possibility of a truly new birth – because death has no dominion. Christianity celebrates birth – we have a natal star – and everything is always and ever new. We believe in virgin birth. Amen.