Our confession of Jesus as God’s Son provides the firm foundation for our faith.
It was either a bold gesture of courage or an act of supreme foolishness. The occasion was the state funeral of Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union.
For days and nights, the mourners had been filing by his open casket in solemn procession. First ordinary citizens, then party functionaries, then generals, ambassadors and members of the Politburo and finally heads of state of foreign lands. All had come to pay their respects to a man, whom, if not widely loved, had been widely feared.
Last of all came Brezhnev’s widow. An honor guard of elite soldiers in full dress uniform stepped crisply forward. They stood at attention, ready to ceremonially close the casket. The eyes of all were upon Madame Brezhnev as she stood in silent reflection.
The widow made as if to move on, and the soldiers reached out to close the coffin lid — but at the last possible moment, Madame Brezhnev darted back and did an extraordinary thing: She made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.
There in the citadel of official state atheism, the wife of the man who had run that godless bureaucracy said in effect to all the world that she hoped he was wrong. It was possibly one of the most daring — and profound — acts of civil disobedience ever committed.
All this took place nearly two thousand years after an itinerant Galilean rabbi staggered down a Jerusalem Street, the weight of a cross upon his back. That the sign of the cross — the instrument of Jesus’ torture and execution — would be traced by the widow of a head of state upon her husband’s chest, many miles and centuries removed, is eloquent testimony to the enduring influence of this man Jesus Christ: to his life and death and resurrection.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary ....” Here in the church, we say those words with some regularity. Much of the time we give them little thought. It’s a matter of rote repetition.
To utter those words in suburban America, in an ordinary congregation, demands no great reservoir of courage. It’s what our society had long expected nearly everyone to believe. While in recent years the number of “none” in America — not female members of a religious order, but those who declare no religious affiliation — has been rising, still, there’s very little risk involved in making a public profession of faith.
Yet, despite our sometimes-mechanical recitation, a confession of faith about Jesus Christ — echoing his own words in John 14:6 when he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life” — is one of the most profound and powerful statements any human being can utter.
“No one comes to the Father except through me,” says Jesus, and he is the mediator: the one who stands between us and God. He is “Son of God,” the creed says, and that means many things, especially that the chief advantage of knowing the son is knowing the Father.
Some of you may have been wondering about today’s sermon title. “What does “fulcrum” have to do with all this, after all?
The older children and youth among us know full well what a fulcrum is. They’ve studied it in science class. Grown-ups may have to think back, recalling their long-ago physics classes.
We all know what a lever is — a long board or pole that can be used to move a heavy object. To work properly, a lever must be placed across some object on which it can pivot. That object is the fulcrum. You stick the short end of the lever beyond the fulcrum under the weight to be moved, while you hold the long end in your hands.
One of the most famous things ever said about levers — and fulcrums — was uttered by the Greek scientist Archimedes. “Give me but one firm spot on which to stand,” he declared, “and I will move the world.”
That firm spot is where the fulcrum goes. Without a fulcrum, a lever isn’t good for much at all. It’s like a violin without a bow or a bat without a ball.
Jesus Christ is the fulcrum of our faith. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” says the prophet Isaiah1 — words the church has always applied to Christ. Surely his shoulders, strong enough to bear a cross, are strong enough to bear any burden we can stretch across them. Surely, he is that patch of solid ground on which we stand, when all else around us seems to be swirling chaos. Surely, he is the place where we can engage our levers, so we too can move the earth!
It’s one thing to confess faith in “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Lots of people do that, even those who aren’t Christian. They affirm it — or something very much like it — as a matter of philosophical principle.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, was quite sure there is a god. He named that God, rather coldly and clinically, the “Unmoved Mover.” Aristotle observed that, in this world, things are in motion; there must have been someone long ago, he reasoned, who gave the universe a kick-start, who started all that motion going.
Yet, that’s not the sort of God we know through Jesus Christ: an abstract philosophical concept. The God to whom Jesus introduces us is a personal God — God the Father. This is the God “who so loved the world that he gave his only son.”2 This is the God whom Jesus addresses as “Abba” — an Aramaic word whose closest English translation is “Daddy.” This is the God to whom Jesus prays in agony in the garden, saying, “Abba, Father, ... for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”3
There once was a group of Bible translators who were working with an isolated tribe, deep in the jungles of New Guinea. They were sitting around one day, sharing with tribe members the first part of their translation: the genealogy of Jesus, from the beginning of Matthew. It wasn’t exactly the most thrilling passage of scripture, they thought to themselves; but if they were going to do a complete job of translation, that was where to start.
Just then the translators looked up and noticed something strange. Every member of the little band was sitting up, hanging on every word they spoke: “... Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”4
One of the village elders signaled his desire to speak. “Do you mean to say,” he asked, “that this Jesus you have been telling us about was a real person?”
How about that? To us, the details of Jesus’ genealogy — the dreaded “begats” — are all but irrelevant. But to that primitive tribe, a people of oral tradition, they are central to the faith!
Some have called this aspect of the gospel “the scandal of particularity.” God may be the Unmoved Mover, as Aristotle sees it — but in Jesus Christ, God steps down from the realm of abstraction and gets particular. Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
That’s the point of that famous phrase out of the Creed — a little phrase, by the way, that has caused some Christians concern. Many are those who have repeated these words and imagined their chief point to be a miracle, a supernatural biological event. Many are the Christians who have read these words, as a matter of biology — and who, in all honesty, have found them difficult to believe.
Yet, to the early church, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth would have been incidental. As those early Christians repeated the phrase, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” they would have put far more stress on the word “conceived” than on the words “Holy Spirit,” far more on the word “Mary” than on the word “Virgin.”
That’s because — like those elders of the New Guinea tribe — the first Christians would have seen the most amazing thing about Jesus to be his real, historical existence. It was more amazing to them that Jesus, Son of God, was human than that he was divine. A divine God they could handle; gods are supposed to be divine. It’s this human thing that’s so remarkable, that’s such a scandal.
When we affirm that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” the most important thing we’re saying is that Jesus is utterly unique, and utterly particular. Once we make that faith-claim, God the Son is no longer a god of the philosophers, an airy abstraction, an Unmoved Mover. No, he’s a man who walked the dusty roads of Galilee, who broke crusty bread and drank sweet wine — a man who, after his resurrection, could challenge Thomas to place his finger in the wounds in his hands and in his side — to not be faithless, but to believe.
To confess that Jesus is God’s only Son, our Lord — and then to make that claim to uniqueness, that he is “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” — is to do more than ruminate about philosophy. It is to place ourselves in the position of having to decide, one way or the other, for him or against him — not so much to decide between competing medical theories of his birth, but to decide whether we are ready to stake our lives on him.
Are you ready to do that today?
1 Isaiah 53:4 (ESV).
2 John 3:16.
3 Mark 14:36.
4 Matthew 1:15-16.