Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 21, 2008

2008.12.21 “Our Favorite Story?”


“Our Favorite Story?”

Pastor David L. Haley

Luke 1: 26 – 38

December 21st, 2008

I know it’s one of the cardinal rules of public speaking never to follow children or animals, but what’s a pastor to do?  All I can say is, at least we didn’t have animals.

If there’s a story most of us never tire of hearing, it’s how we came to be.  For most of us, that’s our birth story.  For some of us, adoptive parents, it’s the story of how we became a family, or met for the first time. Children (and adults) never tire of hearing these stories.

In my own case, for example, it’s a funny one. I was the first child in my family, so, as is often the case, when my mother went into labor, everybody panicked.  My father was out working in the yard, and didn’t have a shirt on.  He asked my uncle, “Do you have a shirt I can borrow?”  “My uncle said, “Which one do you want?”  My Dad said, “That one you have on will be fine.” 

My father, my uncle and aunt and my mother all piled into the car to drive to the hospital.  They all sat in the front and put my mother in the back, afraid she was going to explode or something.  When they went walking into the hospital, my uncle still had his socks in his hand. It’s a wonder I made it, non-eventfully.  And that’s my story.

I’m sure many of you know your birth story as well, and never tire of hearing and telling it.

Perhaps this is why we love the birth story of Jesus, and never tire of hearing it and telling it, especially at Christmas.

And of all the ways of telling it, perhaps our favorite way is the way we did this morning, acted out by our children. Of course, it’s never perfect.  No matter how many times we’ve seen it, no two plays are exactly alike: angels with halos falling off, shepherds turning their staffs into machine guns to mow down the audience, innkeepers who invite the Holy Family in — rather than turning them away — thereby ruining the play.  In a nativity play I witnessed a few years ago, after the angels departed, one child was left sleeping on the stage. No adults slept through it, I’ll guarantee you.

Of course, there are some parts of our birth story we may not want to hear, like the part about how and when we conceived, leading to the inevitable conclusion, that, yes, our parents actually had sex (at least once).  (Too Much Information)

In a similar way, there are parts of Jesus’ birth story that the Gospels tiptoe around as well.

For example, in our gospel today we heard that part of the story, known as the Annunciation. Of how the angel Gabriel announced to Mary what was about to happen to her, and with her acceptance, it did. (What if she’d said, “I don’t think so.”)  There were many reasons the early Church felt they had to tell this story asexually, as they did: Greek body/spirit duality, Biblical prophecy, the ideal of chastity, even the notion of genetic sinfulness (so much so that they later extended it also to Mary).  Remember, such stories are less about science and history, than to make a point: even the circumstances of Jesus’ birth marked him as special. In the culture and religion of their time, this was their way of saying that.

It’s perhaps more embarrassing that the church’s discomfort with sexuality (of all kinds) still persists.

The classic Christmas pageant, Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, makes this point. When the pageant director, before the first rehearsal, tells the story of the birth of Jesus to the cast, which includes “the horrible Herdmans,” the worst children ever, who have never heard the story before, problems erupt:

The director begins, “Joseph and Mary, his espoused wife,

being great with child . . .”

“Pregnant!” yelled Ralph Herdman.

Well, that stirred things up. All the big kids began to giggle and all the little kids wanted to know what was so funny and mother had to hammer on the floor with a blackboard pointer. “That’s enough, Ralph” she said and went on with the story.

“I don’t think it’s very nice to say Mary was pregnant,” Alice

whispered to me.

“But she was,” I pointed out. In a way, I agreed with her. It sounded too ordinary. Anybody could be pregnant, “Great with child” sounded better for Mary.

“I’m not supposed to talk about people being pregnant.” Alice folded her hands in her lap . . . . “I’d better tell my mother.”

“Tell her what?”

“That your mother is talking about things like that in church.”

Through Christian art, they found ways of talking about things like that “in Church” and so the Annunciation has been portrayed in fascinating ways. For example, did you know that almost all paintings of the Annunciation contain a lily, symbolizing Mary’s purity and virginity?

Here are just two portrayals.  The first is by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (1489-90).  Note the lily!

This one, on the other hand, is by contemporary artist John Collier.  This Annunciation is set in suburbia, but the symbolism is traditional. Mary is reading from Isaiah about the Virgin who conceives and bears a son. The lily represents her purity, as she welcomes the angel Gabriel.

No matter how represented, perhaps what’s most fascinating about the story — whether told through text, art, or drama — is this: the faith-filled acceptance of Mary of her role in this divine/human drama.

It’s a story the Bible repeatedly tells. The pattern is not so much that of divine imposition as one in which God and Gabriel and all the heavens stand in breathless suspense, because all history, and the salvation of the world, now seems to hang on this one young woman’s answer.

When she speaks, these are profound words indeed for a girl thought to be, at most, a teenager: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Those words have resounded through the church now for 20 centuries, appealing to both men and women.

You realize of course, that as it was happening, no one – not Joseph, not Mary — understood the whole story.  It fact, as we learn from the text, it was frightening and perplexing and messy, with lots of loose ends – like that part about your fiance being pregnant without sex, at least with you, or when it’s time for the baby to be born, and you have to travel, and find no room in the Inn?  Surely, they might have said, as Teresa of Avila once did, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.” It was only after Luke tells the whole story, that we can look back and say, “Now it makes sense. Now I understand.”

In truth, that’s the way life still is: human and divine, planned and unpredictable, messy and sometimes not well thought through, even and especially for those who have God’s purposes in mind. The Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said “we understand life backwards; but unfortunately we have to live it forwards”.

I have trouble with people who look at these stories of Scripture and see God working so clearly, without ever understanding that the whole point of the story is that the Living God is still working, still in the same messy, “hold onto your hats” kind-of-way.  Blessed are those, who — in some moment of insight and clarity — are able to finally connect the dots. But as it’s happening, not so much.

Consider that, for many of us – it wasn’t that long ago when we were a child, on this stage or another, acting out the story.  It wasn’t that long ago when we were a teenager, worried about acne and whether our hair would fall out before we were 30 and whether we’d ever even have a date, much less have children of our own.  And now here we sit, watching our children, even our children’s children. Who would have known?

        Now we think, “What a life it has been!”  “How many twists and turns along the way?”  “How quickly it plays out.”  Were the turning points clear, like an angel announcing them to us? Or was it always messy and confused, kind of “made up” as you go? 

        And yet, in it, the will of God plays out.  Meister Eckhart, the greatest of medieval Christian mystics, once said, “Whatever is, must be the will of God. Because if it wasn’t the will of God, it wouldn’t exist, even for a second.”

        In another sermon he says: 

        “You should never pray for any transitory thing: but if you would pray for anything, you should pray for God’s will alone and nothing else, and then you get everything. If you pray for anything else, you will get nothing . . . You should seek nothing at all, neither knowledge nor understanding nor inwardness nor piety nor repose . . . but only God’s will. If you seek God’s will alone, whatever flows from that or is revealed by that you may take as a gift from God without ever looking or considering whether it is by nature or grace or where it comes from or in what guise. And you need only lead an ordinary Christian life without considering doing anything special.”

        Nothing special.  Birth and death, joy and sorrow, living and dying.  Our story, Mary’s story, and Jesus’ story.  All connected in the will of God.

        “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Amen.


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