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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Character Building Experience

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High above Texas in June 1996, Air Force One hit some unexpected turbulence and the president and other passengers of the specially equipped 747 felt like they were free falling for a few seconds. Food, computers, and people were flying through the air. When the plane settled again into a relatively stable position, then President Bill Clinton said, “that sure was a character-builder.”

I remember that story, because I found myself quoting the President when stuff happened in our lives that were tough … especially to my elementary aged daughter as she faced new challenges in life: moving to a new state, living through the death of a grandparent, her Cairne Terrier puppy found dead on the side of our driveway after having been hit by a car, falling off some playground equipment and chipping a tooth, walking to and from school … all of these were “character-building” experiences. Building character is, after all, the ultimate goal of affective parenting. I mean, the kind of character building that breeds strength and trust and confidence in a child, and continues to breed wisdom and integrity throughout adulthood. Experiences that are the most difficult and painful, and that show off our limitations build the greatest character. Leo Buscaglia said, “We seem to gain wisdom more readily through our failures than through our successes.”

I was struck by the words of Moses to the people in the beginning of Chapter 5, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” This is a prophetic statement: People of Israel, we will have character building times ahead … No need to be afraid, because god is doing this to shape you into better God-fearing followers of the Lord. Not exactly comforting words … but true nonetheless.

We’ve seen God “testing his people” before. Though, to me, it seems like such a cruel and insecure thing to do … like a wife “testing” how much she is loved by her husband … It can be manipulative and self serving. I don’t like this testing nature of God. God seems adolescent. God is “jealous”. God is angry and hurt.

This week, though, I’m most struck by the mutuality of the testing. It’s like the battle of the wills between a parent and a toddler. My friend’s two year old is in the process of welcoming a new baby sister into the family; she is very unsure about this relationship … Is it trustworthy? Is the baby going to be here forever? Do mom and dad still love me? Are the rules still the same?
And, at the same time, the postpartum mom is also struggling … The stress and strain of a strong willed child can drive anyone crazy. Add the tantrums of a toddler, sleepdeprivity, hormonal ups and downs, etc. These are trying times, we say, or character building experiences, or defining moments in the life and identity of a new family unit. And eventually we adapt as better parents, more mature and disciplined children.

God and Moses and the People of Israel are having some trying times since they left Egypt. God decides it’s time to talk to the people. Moses talks with God. God gives some guidance, a covenant of behavior, so to speak … if we all agree, we’ll get along so much better … God sees the actions, doubts, demands, anger, hurt and feelings of abandonment of the people and gets so angry he wants to destroy every last one of them … begin the covenant all over again, this time through Moses. (By the way, do you see the allusions to the flood … Forty days and nights … The destruction of the people?) but Moses sits down and reasons with God … Don’t kill them! Remember Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? You made a promise!

God relents. And Moses starts the trek down the mountain. He hears the partying below … It sounds like my house sometimes did when we were away and the college-aged friends were house-sitting. That’s not the sounds of war or trouble … No, it’s Guitar-Hero on full volume, or the screaming of pool volleyball, or the drunken singing of “Hotel California!” And, now, Moses is the one filled with anger! Was it shame? Was it also abandonment? Certainly it was the realization that his brother Aaron was unable to lead these people.

Moses doesn’t “pardon” the party-ers; There are consequences … but not an annihilation. 3,000 were killed that day … Blood was shed, words were shared … Now god steps in … I have a new covenant … A new beginning … A new normal. It was a character building experience. But we’ve gained some wisdom now … some understanding … The Law.

What’s in a name?

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When choosing a name for our daughter, we wanted something pleasing to the ear, a clearly feminine yet strong name, something with a meaning that was “big enough” and “good”, a name with some family heritage was preferred, but, most importantly, it would have to have the ability to grow as she grew … We chose the name Kathryn.

There are studies about names and how certain names conjure certain personality types. It’s unclear how much the name we give our children shape who they are. But, names do have a huge influence. There was a time when our daughter was just Katie, then Katiebailey as if it were one name (to distinguish her from the other Katie’s around); in middle school her friends called her Kbit (another story), her teachers called her Kathryn, and, now, she introduces herself as Kate. This past summer she married … and her name changed again … Now it feels weird the ask Siri to call Kate Farmer instead of KatieBailey.

We have already run across a few name changes in our reading of The Story … Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Jacob became Israel. Each name says something about their transformation, their life … Who they are and who they belong to.

A few years ago (2006) the General Assembly of the PCUSA received a study on the Trinity which was highly controversial. It was controversial, in part, because of the names it suggested to refer to God, the three in one … All of the names and images were Biblically based. On the way out of the assembly hall just after the vote, I overheard an elder say that we could NOT use any name for God other than the one God chose for himself … referring to the traditional trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What?!?

First, names are generally NOT things we choose for ourselves … Most of us have been named by our parents, our nicknames have come to us through a person or group of people. The names Father, Son and Holy Spirit were not names God chose, but names the Church gave to God. Secondly, and more apropos to our reading this week … when Moses specifically asks God his name, God resists being labeled … I am who I am, or I am as I will be. He describes himself … I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … God identifies himself as one of us, but refuses to be limited, defined by the distinction.

Yet, Moses pushes back … How am I going to go to the people of Israel or Pharaoh and say some God said release the slaves? I need a name … I need some way to say which god you are … who you are … We need clarification here.  I can imagine Moses saying to himself: he better have a strong sounding name, a warrior name, a no nonsense name. But God, gives no such name. God’s name lies outside of connotation, or strength, or expectation or definition. God’s name IS. That’s all. And my mind goes right back to chapter one: Let there BE, and there WAS. Moses keeps pushing, and God gives him a name … I AM. Tell them I AM sent you.

The I AM encompasses I WAS and I WILL BE. Can you hear the Gloria Patri ringing now, “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be …”. Both stable and dynamic … always more than we imagine. It’s our smallness that wants to “get a handle” on God. But God is always outside our boxes, our names, and our understanding … Always one of us, one with us, one beyond us.

What names do you often use for God? What other images for God do you like?

Why do you think God resists being named? How do names empower us or limit us?