Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A long time ago in a Galilee far, far away...

John 1: 1-14; Matthew 2: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 3, 2016

            What’s the difference between a northern fairytale and a southern fairytale? A northern fairytale begins with “Once upon a time...” A southern fairytale begins with “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this…”

            In the beginning was the Story.  The Story was with God, and the Story was God.  All things came into being through this Story.  Without this Story not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4through this Story was life, and the life was the light of all people.  We are hard-wired for stories.  We crave a three-part narrative:  interesting, sympathetic, multi-faceted characters, a predicament or conflict of some sort ensues, and the struggle resolves in such a way that no one is the same as when the story started.  If someone made a business out of stories that would make us lose weight, lower our cholesterol, and help us live longer, we’d be half-tempted to buy into it.

As we listen to, or watch, or read a story, our brains mirror the tale as though we were living through the experience or the adventure.  Our brains are story processors.  Multiple areas in our brains light up when we hear a story well-told:  action, colors, senses, emotion, language, detail.  Stress chemicals and bonding hormones are released into the bloodstream, creating the tension, tears, laughter, and release that we feel as we follow the protagonist.  And that’s just our brains, not to mention our imaginations and the involvement of the human heart.  Even if we lead a life unlike the hero or the cast, stories allow us to transcend our differences and glean some sense of what it would be like to be a different person in a situation completely foreign to us.

How many of us are itching for tonight’s Downton Abbey episode and yet dreading that this is the last season?  Who’s been to see the new Star Wars movie?  If you have, how excited are you for the next one (which won’t be coming out until May 2017)?  And yet when was the last time we felt a similar excitement or anticipation about the Christmas story, or actually, stories?  Perhaps because we have heard these stories time and again they’ve lost their ability to recapture our imagination as they once did.  Nevertheless, we say that God is still speaking, and we would hope, especially through the stories of Christmas:   
A mysterious encounter between an angel and a young woman, the long journey, no room in the inn, a birth in shelter for animals, shepherds visited by God’s angel army, leaving their flocks to witness God’s good news; the second story taking place sometime after the birth, a paranoid king ordering the death of innocent boys, magi from the east following a bright star, bringing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh, dreams and messages from angels, another long journey, this time to escape death, and then the return home. 

It’s become one continuous story that we pull off the shelf every year to curl up and get cozy with, yet these stories were intended to not leave us the same as when we started.  Christmas is about being brave and hopeful.  Christmas is about the transformation of this world into a different kind of world: one in which the poor are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty; where unexpected heroes rise up and violence does not have the last word; and like our beloved Star Wars, empire and the way of evil go down, and the good and brave share their power and awaken it in others.

Someone suggested I ought to entitle this message “The Church Awakens”, and ain’t it the truth?  Human beings need stories that incite us to greatness, to action, and the Church already has a treasure of stories that can do this.  But a body that forgets how to tell its own story withers and dies. The Church no longer has the sole authority on the power of a great story that can change human lives.  And maybe that’s not so bad.  After all, the kingdom of God, the will toward wholeness, peace, and justice, resides within all of us.  So how do we tell and live out the Christmas story in our daily life?  We don’t have to look too closely to see not only our own story but the stories of others in the stories of Christmas:  Syrian refugees, Black Lives Matter, the oppression of the poor.  Where do we see the light of the world, that which stands against empire and fear, and move toward it?

Every time we approach this Table we embody, we enflesh the worst night of the Jesus story and our story.  The Table is the Empire Strikes Back of the Jesus story.  The Christmas stories are the beautiful, miraculous, earth-shattering prequels to the story of the Table.  And Easter is every time we walk away from this Table out into the world, ready to live the Jesus story in our lives.

Y’all ain’t gonna believe this, but the story isn’t over yet.  Are we still the same as when we first started?  The work of Christmas is begun.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


  1. Do you know the source of the image of the exhausted Mary and Joseph? I'm looking for that painting/sculpture/nativity set.

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  3. I found a better explanation than the previous direction I left:


    Thanks for reading!