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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Stepping up in 2014

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It’s customary to do some reflection on our lives as we come to the end of one year and the beginning of another.  Some make resolutions … whether they’re kept for a week or a lifetime.  It’s also time to think about our spiritual well-being as we head into a new year.  If you’ve been with us for APC The Story since September, it’s time to get back into the groove of reading, reflecting and participating in discussion.  Perhaps a New Year’s resolution could be to comment and/or post on the blog more often.  If you haven’t been reading along … now is a good time to join in weekly reading of The Story.

We will be returning with Chapter 13: The King Who Had It All.  There are a number of ways to participate in the community both online and in real life :-).  Pick and choose which work best in your reading and study and interaction with others.  First, read chapter 13 before Sunday, January 5.  Then …

  • attend the Sunday School Class at Allentown Presbyterian Church at 9:30 am
  • attend worship at 8:30 or 11:00 am and hear a sermon related to the chapter (sermons will be also be posted on this blog as available)
  • attend an evening discussion group on Monday at 7:00 pm at the church
  • read the blog posts here beginning on Monday mornings
  • comment on the posts or pose your own questions about the chapter
  • join the discussion on Facebook’s group APC The Story here
  • tweet comments as you read, attend classes or worship, or just think about the reading each week. #apcthestory

Please consider asking your friends to join us, as well …

What “The Story” ISN’T

“The Story” is an attempt to make the Bible more accessible to a wider audience. Most people are afraid that reading the Bible is an impossible challenge for “real” people — only theologians and pastors can (or even should) attempt such a herculean task. While I certainly don’t believe that, there are certainly very real obstacles to the average person succeeding. Among them (as I see it)

  • There is a lot of discontinuity. The story line is broken up into chapters which jump back and forth chronologically.
  • Some passages, especially early in the Old Testament, are very repetitive lists of information, which are difficult to work through
  • The “wisdom literature” chapters, while some of the most beautiful poetry, don’t do anything to move the story forward, and can get the reader bogged down
  • And, of course, it’s very long

“The Story” tries to work around these issues

  • The content is arranged chronologically, so that the reader encounters events in the order in which they happen
  • Those portions of the text which don’t move the story forward are skipped completely. That includes the wisdom literature
  • The content is reduced to 31 chapters, each of a “readable” length to make sure that the reader doesn’t feel they’re getting in too deep

From what I’ve seen so far, the editors of “The Story” have succeeded in their goal of making the Bible more accessible. However, I think it’s important to be aware of the cost of that accessibility. I have only read the first chapter thus far, but I’m already aware of what I feel are significant omissions. For instance, in the story of Noah, there is no mention of what happens after Noah and his family leave the ark, when Noah gets drunk and passes out. While I understand why this may have been left out, I think it’s important to realize that there may be significant nuances that we lose in the “Reader’s Digest” condensed version.

That’s not to say I don’t find value in reading “The Story.” I do. I only wanted to make sure that we understand the limitations of what we’re doing.

My hope is that, as we move through this time together, our discussions can and will bring in some of those nuances that the editors of “The Story” had to leave out.

God’s Story/Your Story

Community of JesusI attended the daily prayer service at the Church of the Transfiguration at Community of Jesus in Cape Cod this summer.  The members of the Benedictine community sang the order of the day using Gregorian Chant amidst the worship space that had been designed to tell “the story.”  Outside the Church, the gathering space before the large wooden doors represents the time before “the fall;” it is creation in all of its fullness.  Inside we walk through a nave that is surrounded by mosaic murals and paintings representing the stories of scripture.  The focal point above the chancel is the triumphant kingdom, the realm of the glorified Christ.  We heard from our docent, the next day, that each piece of glass in the mosaic, each bird represented in the tree of life, each stone and each brush stroke also has a story.  And on top of that, each person sitting there, or whoever sat there, or will ever sit here has a story … we are all interconnected.

The book, The Story, is meant to highlight the “upper story” of God in Christ, the meta-narrative, the over-arching story of salvation in the Judeo-Christian heritage.  The parts of the Bible that were chosen to be a part of this particular narrative were chosen so that the larger story could be told in an accessible format, similar to a novel.  Even the novel, you know, has stories within stories … each one adding something important to the overall theme, story-arch, purpose, of the book.

While most of the words are taken directly from the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, you will notice there are spaces between some paragraphs.  The spaces are there to let us know that some of the original text (often quite a bit of the original text) has been removed in order to keep the story moving.  At other times, you’ll notice some text in italics; these are sentences added by the editors to help the reader fill in the major storyline as the chapters move forward.

Every time scripture is redacted or a particular “lectionary” (readings) are chosen, there is bias.  In fact, one can argue, the very fact that these particular ancient texts have been included in the sacred writings  we know as the Bible and others have been excluded from the canon, is an interpretation.  The canonization process is considered by the Christian Church to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit even as the writing of the texts themselves were.  The redaction of the texts in this publication of The Story, while no doubt influenced by the Spirit, is still the work of human beings and influenced by their own theological priorities and perspectives.

So don’t make the mistake of thinking The Story IS the Bible.  It is not.  It is, however, a trailer, a “Reader’s Digest” version, a teaser, a beginning … As we read the The Story, together, we can grab the bigness of the story in way we miss by reading one verse at a time.  We will have opportunity, here and in other groups, to question, reflect, and delve deeper both in the upper stories, the lower stories and in our stories.

Just as the Church of the Transfiguration is literally an artistic story within story, so it is with the Christian story.  Beneath the over-arching story of the deliverance of the people of Israel, for instance, is the story of Joseph, the story of Moses, the story of the exodus, etc.  Beneath the meta-narrative of the history of salvation is the story of creation, the story of exile, the story of Jesus’ birth, life and resurrection, the story of the early church.  And beneath and within and around all of those stories is the story of you and me.

Our story is both formed and informed by the larger stories of our family, our friends, our heritage, our nation, our people … but as Christians, our story is ultimately formed, informed, and transformed by work of God … in the lives of God’s people, in the life and resurrection of Jesus, and in our own lives.

I’m looking forward to reading The Story with you.  This week we’ll begin with “Chapter 1: The Beginning of Life as We Know It.”  Look for our initial reflection on Chapter 1, which will be published on this blog Monday morning, September 16.  In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

  • What do you think of this concept of upper story and lower story?
  • What questions or comments do you have about our journey together?
  • What questions do you start out with as you anticipate reading the Bible in this way over the next few months?

Ready, Set, Go!

You’ll see the first “real” introductory post on this blog tomorrow morning … and it will invite you to start reading chapter 1.  We also are asking you to invite others to join our conversation.  There are a few ways to make that happen.

  1. Share this site with others on your blog, your Facebook profile, your twitter feed, etc.
  2. Tweet your thoughts as you’re reading and use the hashtag #apcthestory
  3. If you’re in the Allentown, NJ, area … come join us at church on Sunday mornings or Monday evenings for IRL conversation
  4. Ask your friends to join you in reading The Story
  5. Post a comment to this blogpost … introducing yourself and letting us know you’re here.

Intro from the Pastor

the-storyBeginning in September APC will begin the extraordinary adventure of reading the narrative of the Bible together in one year.  “The Story” is an edited version of the Bible which allows the major narrative sweep and theme of the biblical narrative to emerge. Divided into 31 easy to read chapters, it is the actual text of the Bible with certain sections edited or summarized so that the reader can follow the storyline of God’s relationship with His people from creation through Moses, David, and eventually to the Messiah-Jesus and the beginning of the church.  If you have ever wanted to read the Bible, or have wondered what the Bible is all about, this is your chance to read and learn “The Story.”

I cannot encourage you strongly enough to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.  Reading the Bible is the most significant way to come to know God. As Presbyterians we believe that the Bible is the “unique and authoritative witness” to God.  Simply put, we cannot know who God is apart from the Bible.

It is also the way we come to know ourselves.  Christians are at their core people of the Book.  The biblical narrative informs us of where we came from and who we are.    By knowing our story we come to understand our identity and the extraordinary love that our God has for us.  Our story gives us our identity as the called people of God who have been given a special commission to continue the work of God in the world today.

We want to encourage families to read and know the story together.  We will be presenting the same stories in all of our Sunday classes from children through adults.  In addition we will renew the practice of an intergenerational opening of Sunday School with all ages hearing a part of the that week’s story before departing for our own classes.  This will allow conversation about that week’s readings to be part of your life at home as well as when we gather.

In addition to our Sunday morning classes, there will be a Monday night class taught by Sarah Tunall for those who cannot make Sunday morning or would prefer an evening time slot.

We will kick-off “The Story” on September 8 as we return to our two service format. Copies of “The Story” are available at the church.  Please plan to make this the central part of your spiritual journey this year.  Let’s read and learn our story together!

Pastor Stephen

copied from the Allentown Presbyterian Church website

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