Open Act 2: the Birth of Jesus

Open Act 2: the Birth of Jesus

What do you say about a story so familiar? Where do you start when nearly every phrase of this chapter has been the text for Christmas sermons, or written in fancy script on Christmas cards, or memorized by a third grader for the congregational Christmas pageant … or for those who prefer another pop-culture reference … the phrases recited by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas?”

I could use this as an opportunity to discuss the Christmas myths … talk about what’s historically accurate and what isn’t, share the Greek and Roman influences on our stories, illumine the three very different gospel accounts of the birth narrative and how we’ve merged the details into one seamless script. We could discuss the character of Mary and her reaction to the presence of Gabriel, or her honor of being the “handmaiden of The Lord” in the midst of the shame of an unwed pregnancy. We could look into the character of Joseph and how he discerns his dreams and lives in a more than righteous, more than “decently and in order”, but a loving, risky and compassionate way.

We could come at the story from the point of view of the shepherds, or the magi, fleshing out the meaning of the story for the peasants or the people of other lands. We could focus on the baby, born amidst the animals, wrapped in rags, and resting in a feed sty. Or the not-yet-bar-mitzvahed tween who, after having been a refugee in Egypt, seeks to learn about his own people’s heritage and faith in the temple, instead of being on the road again with his parents, brothers and sisters, and the whole caravan.

Today, though, I’m struck by the expectation of a people … It’s like we’re at the performance of a Broadway musical. Act 1 came to a close. We were in the lobby (or the rest room) for the last 15 minutes eavesdropping on other show-goers’ comments about the lighting, the acting, the singing, the story. Some of us strayed outside the realm of the theater for a bit … We returned text messages, answered an email or two, listened to voicemail, or updated our Facebook status. We may have had a glass of wine, or an overpriced handful of mixed nuts. But now we are ready … ready for the lights to dim, and the spotlight to illumine the conductor of the pit orchestra. It’s time. Act 1 was good, really good … But we expect something more in Act 2 … Something more delightful, more tear-jerking, more profound. We sit attentively, listening, and the music starts …

As the music starts, we hear the allusions to the first 21 chapters of the story. This act begins with words that are reminiscent of creation itself, “in the beginning …” Hear it? “In the beginning was The Word.” … “Let there be light.” … “The light shines over the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And then the narration of Moses and the Law: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Remember? Moses met God on the mountain and in the tabernacle, but he was the only one to see God face to face.

We meet the young girl, Mary, who upon learning she is to be mother of Christ, asks “how is that to be?” It’s not quite the snarky laughter of Sarah who claimed to be too old to be pregnant, but the sweet naïveté of a child claiming she is too young. And then, while she’s “sent away” to her aunt’s home in another city, Mary sings the song of Hannah.

Joseph is the father of Jesus, the son of Jacob … Sound familiar? And he, too, is a dreamer. God speaks to him, gives him direction through his dreams. The dreams lead the holy family to Egypt … not as slaves, but as refugees.

The angels appear in the night sky to shepherds … Shepherds like Joseph’s brothers, like Esau and Jacob, like King David … And the magi come from far off lands to bring homage to the boy-king, just like people came from far and wide to Joseph in Egypt during the famine a couple thousand years earlier.

Herod is out to kill any young king, so he gives an order that all young boys will be killed … Do you remember how Moses was saved from infanticide? And the lover of musicals will hear the Egyptian motif played softly by the strings beneath the poetry of Act 2, scene 1 …

Clearly the birth of Jesus isn’t the beginning of the story. It is the opening of Act 2. And, just like an overture to the second act of a musical will include reprises of the melodies and allusions to the plot points of the first act, this chapter is filled with memories of what had come before — now in a new light. What’s coming in this act? We sit on the edge of our seats knowing and hoping Act 2 is not just more of the same, now we listen with awe and anticipation for the climax of the story. We’re not disappointed. Chapter 22 a not just another king story, it’s not just another prophet story or priest story … it’s the Messianic story, that not only points to the words of God in the Law and the writings, but reveals The Word of God in the flesh.

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Crying in Church?

Crying in Church?

“There are tissues in the pews now.” That’s what one elder said was the biggest change our congregation had been through during the previous couple of years.  We had been doing some work as a church in “turn-around;” in attempting to shift from a declining congregation to a growing congregation, we made changes.  “Before we didn’t need tissues in the pews,” she said, “now we do.”  You see, we knew that turnaround would only happen as part of a spiritual awakening.  We encouraged authenticity in worship, we preached from the heart and not just the head, we shared music and art and drama that expressed our real faith … and now, it wasn’t an unusual thing to see people cry in worship.

Sometimes, when we are confronted with the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship, we cry.   It can happen when we are prayed for, when we take communion, when we sing an especially inspirational hymn, when we share in a time of mourning or a time of joy.  I believe crying is a side effect of the softening of our hearts … and it’s necessary to “understand” and internalize both the limitations of our humanness the fullness of the grace of God.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:9 NIV)

The people tried their best.  They were holding on to a remnant of faith and tradition and identity as the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They had an inkling of what God expected of them, but they didn’t understand.  When Ezra, the religious scholar and priest, returned to Jerusalem, he found good people, but people who were not “pure” in their following of the Law.  They did not understand the Law.  And so, after they banded together as a people and rebuilt the temple, after they stepped out in courage to rebuild a safe place … then … only then, Ezra and Nehemiah call them together to read the Word of God.

They don’t come in with words of judgement, they tell them they are sinners, or that they are falling short of God’s demands, or that God will bring havoc on them.  No, Ezra and Nehemiah work to build community first, to create a safe place, and they invite the people to hear the Word, to take it in and let it speak to them.  When the Word is understood, though, the people weep. They know they have not been 100% faithful. For the people of Jerusalem, it was about the purity of the people and their eclecticism of other gods and other cultures.  If there is one thing that’s clear throughout the first testament, it’s that God is the one and only god.  Nothing should spoil that.

1743688_700622096626597_1908591635_nWe try our best, but we still fall short.  Maybe we didn’t know.  Or we understood it in a different way.  Perhaps, we didn’t realize we were causing our children (or our parents) such heartache.  We never thought about how our words or our actions were being heard by people of color.  We prefer not to think about how we participate in a culture of violence or poverty.  We never understood our consumerism or wealth as worshipping other gods.  We never meant to exclude people from our congregation, we just wanted to preach the truth.

When we are confronted with the Truth, though, we are also comforted by the God of Grace … a God who never gives up on us.  That’s the word Nehemiah has for the people … no need to mourn, no need to weep, no need to sit in shame, guilt, or self-pity, no need to fear.  Let’s just get to work and do what we can to change it.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV)

Repentance … turning around … changing.  It’s what the Word of God is constantly calling us to.  And in the process we are loved, we are claimed, we are comforted, we are given safe passage, we are “home”.  Our strength for change is in knowing that we are God’s people. This is the Day the Lord Has Made.

May our churches provide a safe place to hear the Word of God, that we may need tissues in the pews … so our hearts are softened, we understand God’s word for our lives, and we are changed … and go out in joy and feasting and generosity.

It’s All About Relationship

fishing with grandpa

The other day a pastor came into the office and shared the story of going fishing with his grandson.  He spoke about how many fish they caught, how he enjoyed the time together, how the young one was already talking about the size of his catch in real fisherman-speak, and how the grandson wanted to stay with his fish from from ocean to supper.   The pastor had been fishing for decades.  It was a spiritual discipline.  It was relaxation and restfulness.  It was refreshment and re-creation.  “It’s something we can do together that helps him calm and focus.”  What was most impressive to me, was the way he shared the attentiveness of the young boy as he filleted the fish and prepared dinner.  How the child watched with pride and how the grandfather taught responsibility.  “We never take a fish we don’t eat, there is always respect for the life it gave.”  The love and pride of this grandfather filled the room as he spoke.

The reading this week, Chapter 1, “Creation: The Beginning of Life as We Know It”, strikes me as a story of relationship and responsibility.

If you hang around me much, you’ll hear me say over and over and over again, “It’s all about relationship.”  Whether I’m talking about conflict in a church, the structure of the presbytery, the newest war in the middle east, or the growth of the Christian faith, I will always stress the impact of our relationship with one another and our relationship to God.  The creation story is just that … a story of relationship.  It is not a story of “how” so much as a story of “who?” “why?” and “for what purpose?”

“In the beginning God created.” This is the point of it all, isn’t it?  That God is the one who calls the world, the whole universe, humankind, and you and me into being.  And in all that, creation is begun with relationship: light and dark, heavens and earth, land and water, night and day, plant and animal, male and female, God and Human.  Our very existence is one based on togetherness and connectivity.  Our chief purpose is to glorify God, to receive the gift of creation, to grow in partnership — that is, to be fruitful and multiply, and we are given responsibility for “everything that has the breath of life in it.”  Relationship and Responsibility.

The story of Adam and Eve is the core of our relationship … God creates Adam and gives him all of creation; but God sees that it is not enough, so God creates Eve … companionship, partnership … “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  We are not meant to be alone.  At this point, though, God puts a limit on us … out of love, out of caring.  We were created with an innocence, an ignorance of how the world can be.  Ahhhhh, like any parent or grandparent, how we long to keep our children from danger — from pain, shame, guilt, failure, consequence, evil.  Don’t we all want to shield our children from the pain of the nightly news?  Don’t we want to protect them from war, floods, fire and abuse?  In the beginning, God protects our innocence, by offering one rule.

We were, however, created in the image of God, with the very breath of God and constantly desire to be like God.  So when the Serpent tells us that IF we eat the fruit of knowledge, we will KNOW as God knows … we are consumed with desire, curiosity, and self-confidence.  It’s hard for me to see this as much different than the natural, human desire of a child to be like Mommy or Daddy.  We want to be a grown-up; we see more, and we want more … often more than we are ready for.  And so, Adam and Eve, eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  And they become aware of more than they ever dreamed … the nakedness, the guilt, the pain, the horror, the banishment, the longing, the work, the brokenness of life.

I don’t think God punishes Adam and Eve for mis-behaving.  I think God is genuinely disappointed that his prized creation now has to experience what God already knows … that evil exists, that there is a pain in “knowing”.  God continues to protect his children by sending them from the garden where life in this new knowledge would be unbearable for their human spirit.  God guards the entrance to this place of immortality and gifts the woman and the man with a way to protect their new vulnerability … clothes to cover them and strengthen them in the new world.

With knowledge comes responsibility.  There is a crazy comfort in ignorance, I suppose.  But while God created us as innocents, we weren’t created to be ignorant.  As we care for each other, we learn.  As we learn, we grow.  As we grow, we realize how limited we really are; fear, jealousy, anger, greed, and hostility develop.  We also forget … that our primal and continual relationship is with God … that we are created to glorify God and to live in God’s goodness.  So we have the stories of Cain and Abel (and the Tower of Babel, though it’s not included in The Story) … leading us to God’s utter disgrace at what his creatures have become … so disconnected from him, so disconnected from each other.

Even in God’s disgrace, though, love and care win out.  God is moved by Noah and his family.  God enters into a Covenant … The footnote defines covenant as a “… promise between two parties” that is “intended to be unbreakable.”  After the flood, the destruction, and the salvation of Noah and his family, God promises, “never again.”  And the relationship between God and humanity grows to one of even greater mutuality, even greater responsibility … as we’ll see in the next chapters.

Discussion Questions:

  • What stood out to you in this first chapter?
  • I have an intentional “Grace-filled” bias in my re-telling of the story.   Others see more of the “fear” of God or the “wrath” of God.  What is your understanding of the nature of God?
  • What do you think when you hear that God has gifted us with responsibility for creation and for our relationships with each other?