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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You Go Nowhere by Accident

desert_flower2

You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go,
God is sending you.
Wherever you are,
God has put you there.
God has a purpose
in your being there.
Christ lives in you
and has something
he wants to do
through you where you are.
Believe this and go in the
grace and love and
power of Jesus Christ.
— Rev. Richard Halverson

I love this benediction by the former U.S. Senate chaplain, Richard Halverson; I’ve been using it since it was introduced to me by Rev. E. Stanley Ott over a decade ago.  I would end every worship service at Westminster Presbyterian, Baytown, Texas, with the words; they were so much a part of our congregation that when I left the church for my next call, my going-away cake said, “you go nowhere by accident.”   Soon after I left the church, the new interim pastor came by my office wanting to talk about that benediction.  How could you possibly use those words?  The theology is all wrong, he said, and dangerous for the spiritual and emotional development of our members.  We need to assure people that God doesn’t cause the pain in their lives.  “You go nowhere by accident …” implies that God creates even the bad things that happen to good people.

We see the same tension in the Joseph story.  Does God cause those bad things to happen to Joseph?  It is all part of God’s master plan?  Is God a powerful manipulator of human lives?  Did God know Joseph’s brothers would traffic him to the Ishmaelite traders who would sell him to Potiphar’s house, where he would be accused of attempted rape and thrown in prison, which would lead to Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and leading Egypt through the boom and bust, all so that he could provide food for Jacob’s family during the famine?  Did God plan all of that?  Did Joseph really go nowhere by accident?  Didn’t he really go by human abuse and by assault?  This couldn’t have been God’s intention.

Joseph says pretty much the same to his brothers when they return to Egypt, in part, to appease their fear and guilt about what they had done to him:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping.  But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:5-7)

I cannot believe in a God who would cause that amount of pain in the life of Jacob’s favorite just so that one day he can save his family.  I cannot believe in that any more than I can believe that a person is stricken with cancer so that they can be a witness of goodness in the chemo lounge  God doesn’t intentionally heap riches and wealth on one and starvation and poverty on another just to make a point.  God doesn’t make bad things happen so that we can grow in faith, or be more creative, or meet the right people.  That understanding of God is mistaken; it’s premised on a hind-sighted logic that gives meaning to something after the fact.  It takes a truth … “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)” … and turns it around to imply that God caused those bad things to happen in the first place.  No, that is not the God I know and love.  God is more like the potter with the clay.  If things don’t turn out exactly the way it was imagined, then the potter uses the apparent imperfection or flaw to create something new, dramatic, functional and beautiful.

In Joseph’s case, God continues to act in the life of the boy, who was abused and stripped of all he was given (his name, his family, his home, his prized cloak, his freedom, his identity) yet continues to live faithfully.   In fact, God blesses Joseph so much, that he is a blessing not only to his own family, but to many nations.  Sound familiar?

When I say the words of the benediction, “you go nowhere by accident” I am not saying God has a master script that we’re all reciting in which God wants us to be in the cells of prison (literally or metaphorically); I am saying, instead, that God is so much a part of us that he is present even in the worst of times and the ugliest of places.  Even in those times and in those places, we are guided and shielded and blessed by the hand of goodness.  God can take the worst of conditions and still work in us in such a way that we can be a blessing to others.  Christ, who lives in us, wants to do something through us where we are.

Joseph realizes that it’s not his own ingenuity that saved his family, it was not his intellect or his good looks or his wealth … it was the work of God … the blessing of God working it out through him …  “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).”  This is the life of faith.  So everywhere we go, we go with the intentionality of God’s grace, God’s abundance, working in us, strengthening us, saving us, forgiving us …

What do you think of the idea that God didn’t have it all “planned” from the beginning, but that God works in and through us, even our flaws and sins?

Assignment 2 — God Builds a Nation

This week we’ll be reading the story of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Rachel, Leah up to the birth of Joseph.  That’s Chapter 2: God Build’s a Nation.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the references are: Genesis 12-13; 15-17; 21-22; 32-33; 35; Romans 4; and Hebrews 11.  Look for this week’s reflection on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory.