“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”!