Just Tell the Story

December 19, 2004



Just Tell the Story (Christmas 2004—12/19/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.

For a child has been born to us, a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

He will establish and uphold peace with justice and righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

The prophet Isaiah wrote those words eight centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born. For Christians, they have become one of the great prophetic visions we find fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We know the story so well it hardly needs to be told again, but tell it we must. It is the best advice potential preachers receive when they study preaching at seminary: just tell the story. Don’t get too cute. Don’t bog down over all those theological and philosophical problems surrounding the faith. Just tell the story.

This is not easy for a Congregational minister! Congregationalists are encouraged to bring the full measure of their mental faculties with them to worship. It is tempting this morning to tell you what the scholars say about the differences between the birth stories as found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke; and how I would enjoy, in true Congregational fashion, to ponder why it is that of the 27 books in the New Testament, only Matthew and Luke tell stories about the miraculous birth of Jesus.

But not this morning. Because there is one area of agreement between all 27 of those books that comprise the New Testament, namely that Jesus of Nazareth was a real-life flesh-and-blood person who, like every other human being who has ever lived, was born into this world from the womb of a woman. And however, wherever and whenever that birth occurred, the child that lay helplessly in the presence of Mary and Joseph was… the Son of God. Some view that fact as biological reality and others view it as spiritual metaphor, but either way, that’s our story. And it deserves to be told, again… and again.

The Son of God came into the world. Most of us had no problem at all with that story when we were children, but as we grew older we started having all sorts of questions. In fact, many of us had this secret little room in our minds where we hid all the little white lies our parents had told us over the years. Santa Claus wound up in there, along with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. And yes, a lot of us put Jesus in that same little room. You needn’t have mastered the intricate details of the birds and the bees to figure out that the odds of the baby Jesus having arrived in this world through a miraculous act of God was about the same as the odds of the jolly old elf from the north pole flying around the world in a single night on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

But when we got a little older, it occurred to us that God isn’t constrained by odds. The scientists tell us the universe itself is a billion-to-one shot. There was this amazingly timed and almost impossibly balanced string of events that allowed protons and neutrons to bind into the nucleus of atoms, and a similar string of unlikely and subtly timed events that eventually led to stars and planets and water and air and birds and giraffes and, perhaps most amazing of all, these thinking, caring, loving creatures called human beings, who look out upon this unspeakably vast and complex creation and try to make sense of things.
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It eventually occurs to some of us that God isn’t interested in our reasoned arguments about Jesus. And when that person—Jesus—becomes the center of our lives, we realize that the way he arrived in the world two thousand years ago isn’t nearly as important as the way he arrives in the world today. Jesus arrives in the world today not in a manger, not in Bethlehem, not in the presence of shepherds and wise men. Jesus arrives in the world today by coming into people’s hearts. And he gets there because people hear the story—the story that for two thousand years has passed from mother to child and from friend to friend and from the pages of the Bible to the eyes and ears of those willing to open their hearts and listen. Jesus arrives in our world because we tell the story.

It’s a great story. I think I’ll tell it!

Chapter One: God creates the world. This is an important chapter in our story. It is easy to look at the problems of the world and think the universe is not a very friendly place. We can find lots of beauty in nature, but as one of my seminary professors liked to say, the only thing you can learn about God by looking at nature is that big gods eat little gods. I’m not quite as cynical as my professor was, but we understand his point. This can be a pretty cruel world. And the minute we start admiring the beauty of some little bunny that is hopping along the fence row without a care in the world, we watch in horror as Mr. Cottontail becomes lunch for some larger mammal with sharper teeth.

But in spite of all the problems, Christians believe this universe is created. It is not a meaningless accident. And human beings are a special part of God’s creation, because we can reach out and shape this world with the same creative love that created the world in the first place. Jean Paul Sartre was wrong when he said a human being is a useless passion, an empty bubble on a sea of nothingness. No! We carry within us the very spirit that created the universe. We are not accidents. We are created.

And that ends chapter one of our story, and brings us to chapter two: the world goes astray. Christianity is an honest religion at its heart. It looks at the way human beings act, and it acknowledges that something has gone wrong. Some Christians read the Genesis story of Adam and Eve literally, thinking we would all be living in a virtual paradise had the historical figure Eve not convinced the historical figure Adam to take a bite of that apple. But even those of us who do not read that story as a historical account understand the truth in the story. Sometimes we human beings know what is right and do what is wrong.

Think about it. Adam and Eve only had one rule. They could do anything they wanted to do, say anything they wanted to say, they had it made. One rule! Don’t eat the fruit of that tree over there. It reminds me of a popular song when I was a child, called “Beans in My Ears.” The song went, “My mother said not to put beans in my ears, beans in my ears, beans in my ears…” Okay, this wasn’t one of the all time classics, but sure enough, the young child singing the song ends up sticking beans in his ears. And even at his very youthful age he realizes he never would have considered something as ridiculous as putting beans in his ears if his mother had not specifically told him to refrain from such activity.

And there we have it—human nature, found in both the third chapter of Genesis and in popular song. Once we know that something is forbidden, we want it more than ever. If you want to see this problem play out in the depths of a person’s soul, read the 7th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul looks deep inside himself and gets real confused trying to figure out why he keeps doing things that are wrong when he knows what’s right. He practically ends up diddling his lips.

But Paul finds an answer to his problem. And the answer to Paul’s problem is God’s answer for all the problems caused in chapter two of our story. Because it is important to understand that God, who creates the world in chapter one, still loves the world when it goes astray in chapter two. And so God writes the third and most important chapter of our story. Chapter Three: God saves the world.

This is my favorite part of the story, and it’s the part we need to tell again and again. Too many people in the church get all hung up on chapter two. They want to start the Christian story with the sinfulness of humanity. And to hear them talk, you would think they must be reading that same chapter over and over again.

It is important to begin with the first chapter where God creates the world. And then we are prepared for chapter two, where we take a few wrong turns as the universe unfolds before our eyes. But we don’t need to dwell there, because everything is okay again. God saves the world. There are several different titles for chapter three. God’s Son Arrives in the World. The Christ is Born. God Becomes Incarnate.

But we have a favorite name for chapter three. It’s called Christmas.

I think Luke tells the best Christmas story. We have discovered earlier in Luke’s account that a very perplexed Mary had been visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her she would give birth to the Son of the Most High. She was to name him Jesus, and his kingdom would last forever. And now, a pregnant Mary, who is still a virgin, travels with Joseph, her fiancé, to Bethlehem. It seems the Emperor Augustus ordered that a census be taken. People all over the Roman Empire were ordered to return to the city of their ancestors and register. Joseph was descended from King David, who lived a thousand years earlier, and he takes his pregnant fiancée with him from the town of Nazareth in northern Israel to the town of Bethlehem, known as the City of David.

Luke doesn’t tell us a great deal about the birth. Over the centuries we have filled in the blanks with our imaginations, but this is all Luke has to say about the birth of Jesus: While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.

Luke immediately shifts the scene to a nearby field where shepherds are tending their sheep. I’ve got to read this passage word for word—there is so much majesty, so much power, in Luke’s telling of the story:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!

I love that! And then, of course, the shepherds hurry into Bethlehem and find Mary and Joseph standing over the manger where they have placed Jesus. And the shepherds tell Mary and Joseph what they experienced in the fields. And the Christmas story ends as Luke writes, Mary pondered all these words and treasured them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

And that’s the end of chapter three of our story. So, let’s summarize the story up to this point. Chapter One: God creates the word. Chapter Two: the world goes astray. Chapter Three: Christmas. This morning we’re going to skip over chapter four, which is the story of the man Jesus became, complete with his teachings, and miraculous healings, and finally his tragic end at the cross—which God, in typical fashion and denying all odds, turns into something wonderful. Our story says that at the cross, Divine Love met humankind’s worst kind of death, and in the process conquered death itself. And that’s the end of the story, with the exception of the epilogue.

I like stories that have epilogues. That’s the short chapter at the end of the story where the author looks into the future and writes a few pages to tie up all the loose ends. And we’re living in the epilogue—you and me—we live out our days in the epilogue of the Christian story.

It’s strange, really. We’re in the story, but we know how it ends! God’s love conquers all. The same God who started the story in the first place sees to it that it ends well. In the epilogue, we live with faith, hope and love, with courage and conviction, unafraid of the perils we find in this world, knowing that God is ultimately in control, that God loves us, and that nothing can thwart the will of God forever.

It may sound a little anti-climactic, playing our roles only in the epilogue of the story. But we still have our roles to play, and in many ways, we are the modern day equivalent of the shepherds. Remember what the shepherds did at the end of chapter three? Luke writes, The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

They told the story! And what a story they told! I try to imagine the words they used, and I can’t. After you’ve experienced Jesus—after you’ve heard the story about Jesus, and searched for yourself, and then discovered him waiting for you in a manger in Bethlehem, or better yet, waiting for you right there in your own heart—you just can’t help but want to tell the story! Yes, the universe is no accident. We are created! Yes, we’ve taken some wrong turns, but God still loves us! Yes, through Jesus, God has taken care of all the problems!

I doubt if the shepherds went back to the fields and debated with their friends about the manner of Jesus birth, and the precise theological relationship between the Creator of the universe and Jesus of Nazareth.

But if they were stumped for words, that’s okay, because they had the words of the prophet Isaiah to fall back on. Maybe they said,

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.

For a child has been born to us, a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

He will establish and uphold peace with justice and righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

Peace. Justice. Righteousness. Forevermore. And if the storms of this world toss us about and we think this epilogue in which we find ourselves isn’t what it is supposed to be; if we look at this unpredictable world and say where is the peace? The justice? The righteousness? It’s there. It’s there in the story. It’s here. It’s here in the story. Because the peace and the joy that child in the manger brought to the shepherds is still here, living in our hearts, never more than a prayer away. And once we get our minds around that fact—once we get our hearts around that fact—every day of our lives is Christmas.