“The Nativity… as Story and as History”
a sermon based upon Luke 1:26-33
Can you believe it? An angel (Gabriel) was sent from God to the village of Nazareth in Galilee to let the Virgin Mary know that she had “found favor with God.” That’s something!
The messenger angel said that Mary would “conceive in her womb and bear a son”, and that she would call his name “Jesus”. The angel reassured her that Jesus would be “great!” In fact, he would be called “The Son of the Most High” [El El-yon!] That has, in fact, been true!! Furthermore, the Lord God intended to give to her son (Jesus) the Throne of David, “and he will reign over the house of Jacob (that is, over the nation of Israel) forever.” And “of his kingdom, there will be no end!” (!)
My, oh my! What an awesome promise for this young girl to receive. (!) What an adventure was about to begin for her, and for her betrothed fiancé, Joseph… and for the whole world!
There is so much magic in the Christmas story -- so many unexpected surprises, colorful characters, and miraculous events -- that our more rational, historical, literal, even scientific skepticism tends to dismiss as mere “legend”, such that many people have removed the Nativity Story from its real-world context in order to make it something of a more “spiritual” (or even “mythological”) experience.
I mean, get real… Donkeys don’t really think about giving Mary a ride, or cattle offering their feed-trough for a bed!
I doubt that sheep actually perceive of their wool as having provided a blanket for baby Jesus. Doves, cooing in the rafters, would be natural in a stable setting, but were they really singing a “lullaby” to the baby Jesus? That’s literature, poetry, legend. Most folks wouldn’t call it “history” – only a “story”.
Let me say right up front that I agree there are profound “spiritual” insights in the Christmas Story; and that there are several “mythological” truths (archetypes, quests) revealed in its telling. However, there’s also a lot of “history” in its story! In fact, I’d say much of Western Civilization’s HISTORY is His story.
Well, you might ask, is it “history”, then, or is it “a story”? And I would say, yes! Not either… or; but both… and!
I see the Bible as a profoundly “historical” book. (I interpret it that way… taking it seriously.) I often say in my Bible Study classes: “quote it the way the poet wrote it.” While others insist that the Bible is a collection of legends and stories more than it is “history”, that’s because they tend to define “history” quite narrowly -- as an accurate account of past events.
Frankly, with all the inconsistencies and contradictions that even a cursory reading of the Bible provides, it’s obvious that the facts are not always “accurately” related. (!) There is a lot of theological “spin” going on in that library of 66 books that we call “the Bible”. (That’s true of the four Gospels, too.)
However, my use of the word “history” is different.
I consider history to be a sequential account of meaningful events that locates them in relation to one another, and to a beginning in the past. (!) Let me say that again. History is a sequential account of meaningful events that locates them in relation to one another, and to a presumed beginning.
If the history one is reading does not report an “end”, then at least it points directions into the future… suggesting possibilities for the future (based on these former events).
History locates the present in relation to the researched and reported past… indicating “where we are now” along the continuum of action (& events) that have been outlined for us in that “history”… and it suggests a course of action for the future!
The best of historical writing – such as the musical “Hamilton” (or “1776”), or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals” (which became Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” starring Daniel Day Lewis) – doesn’t just report the facts of olden days, but helps determine the meaning of contemporary events… as well as the calling of individuals to action.
Our past has shaped the present, and it is now our opportunity -- no, our responsibility -- to use the present to shape a better future. History can help us to do that effectively. Ignorance of “relevant history” is a liability if you have to make a decision. It is said that “people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” I think the Bible is profoundly “historical”.
So, if you will grant me the definition that “history” is “a sequential account of meaningful events that locates them in relation to one another, and to a presumed beginning”… then every history is (at best) a “take” on events – a “spin” on actual memories and whatever evidence is available.
You see, we decide which events are “meaningful” -- which facts are “relevant” -- and we put the accounts together “in a sequence” so as to show how they are related one to another. The fingerprints of the historian inevitably appear in every literal document… even what is considered “ob-jective” history is actually “subjective” in its re-telling.
History may include elements that are imaginative, and perhaps purely invented – such as George Washington’s famous confession, “I cannot tell a lie”, regarding chopping down a cherry tree… which historians now tell us didn’t happen!
Of course, it will be ineffective as “history” if the stories we are being told have so little resonance with our “lived” reality that they fail to convince! These “meaningful events” selected by the historian must be relevant to us… or we won’t care! (!)
I’ve never been out on a fishing boat, for example, but I think I know more about “whaling” in New England from reading Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” than from watching the Nature Channel. I know more about life in Wyoming from C. J. Box’s “Joe Pickett” novels than from actually visiting the state. I have learned more Navajo lore from Tony Hillerman’s “Joe Leaphorn” novels than from my many visits to Arizona.
In this week’s Christian Century magazine (Dec. 18, 2019, vol. 136, No. 26, page 35) Harvard Divinity School’s Stephanie Paulsell writes of Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and essayist who died in August, saying that Morrison
“illuminates the history of this country as few writers have.
“Her richly imagined explorations of black life in the United States from the Middle Passage [of slave-trade] to the present day etch the past into the imaginations of her readers in deeply human detail. If we are ever able to face up to that past as a country, we will have Toni Morrison, in part, to thank.
“Morrison grounds her profound understanding of our history in the lives of characters who must contend with the weight of that history and in her fine-grained attention to their ordinary moments.”
Elements that are invented (or imagined) mix in with actual experiences (personal memories & the best evidence available) to provide us with “history” -- a sequential account of meaningful events that locates them in relation to one another and to a presumed beginning, pointing us in a direction.
The biblical authors – from the time of King David (when writing was first invented) 1,000 years before Christ… right up through the Epistles and Gospels of our New Testament – differ from other religious “legends” not so much in their degree of accuracy, as in their attempt to integrate all these stories from the past into a single narrative. They want to give us a “history”!
For Christians, the story-line runs from the Creation of the Universe by God “in the beginning”, to the coming of the Christ: Jesus, the Man of Nazareth, our Lord and Savior. That’s the overarching “plot” of the Bible, from a Christian perspective. (!)
The story (or history) begins when God, the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, makes the human being (male and female) “in the image of God”… and bestows “dominion” on our species to continue God’s creation on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the basic anthropology that underscores our theology. That every human being is “imagio dei” (the image of God) is the essential Christian story of the “origin” of humankind.
The God, who made everything from the first burst of light energy 14 billion light years ago (“E=mc2” and all that…) -- everything physical & chemical, material & biological that has evolved is a gift from God (we did not earn it nor deserve it!) God has made you & me & all other people in God’s own image and likeness. (Genesis 1:26-27) And bestows “dominion” on humanity to continue God’s creation on earth as it is in heaven.
Those are our “marching orders” from Day One!
We human beings are intended to be “collaborators” with God – “co-creators”, one might say. As the “image of God” in human form, we are tasked to care for what God has made. We are to be “stewards” (care-takers) of the earth, the air, the water… … living things, plant & animal. According to the Bible, we human beings have been empowered by God to make a difference for the Good and for the flourishing of life on Earth. That’s God’s over-arching plan for our species! (Wow!)
Well, according to the Bible, things broke down from that Divine Plan almost from the get-go! Already in Eden there was disobedience, blaming, shaming, fear of God; outside the Garden, things got even worse! The offspring of Adam & Eve perpetrated violence & murder. Horticultural farming gave way to urbanization, hierarchal religion, centralized power, and rampant immorality. This “dominion” thing was out-of-control!
God’s first attempt to stem the tide of sin & evil was very simple: wash it all away… and start over! Noah’s family was selected to box up the animals in an Ark and hang in there until the Great Flood was over. It was a horribly destructive solution to the problem of human sin! And, as it turns out, the new Adam & Eve (Noah’s family) were no better than the others before them! The Great Flood did not fix the problem of sin… so God promised never to do that again! The “Rainbow Covenant” God made with Noah was for all time & all creatures…including us!
So, when “sin” once again became rampant in human history, and social evil again overwhelmed the cities and the empires of old, God tried something else -- a different approach.
God’s next idea -- of raising a godly family to be “role models of faith” (Abraham & Sarah and the “children of Israel” to serve as a source of “blessing” to the other nations) -- failed.
Third, giving explicit Laws to be obeyed (the Torah, or Ten Commandments, from Moses) failed. Finally, even putting a good-faith king like David on the throne in Jerusalem failed!
What should God do now, to fix the problems of human sin & social corruption? Well, as history progressed, the moral & political anarchy of Judea was abruptly and unexpectedly straightened out by the coming of the Roman Empire.
Caesar Augustus imposed “Pax Romana” -- the peace of Rome -- by military conquest. (!) The Romans placed Herod the Great to rule over the province of Judea. For the next 40 years Herod ruled Israel, Samaria, and Galilee as “the King of the Jews” -- even though he was an Arab from Idumea, not a Jew at all!
Into this history of political oppression and national confusion, the Lord God comes up with yet another possible solution to the problem of human sin & social evil – the decision to send God’s own self into the flow of humanity, to show us “first hand” how things could be… How life should be lived.
God sends the messenger Gabriel to let Mary know that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son, whom she will name “Jesus” (which means “deliverer” or “Savior” in Hebrew). Mary’s baby boy would become “great”, says Gabriel, and would be called “The Son of the Most High”. Furthermore, the Lord God intends to give to Jesus the Throne of David, where “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end!” This Jesus will show us the way to God! Jesus will get us back in tune with “the Will of God” as it had been intended in Eden. “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” Jesus comes to save us all!
This whole History is HIS story, after all. Amen.