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Telling a story can make all the difference in the world. I think of the two most profoundly jarring events of my lifetime, the Oklahoma City bombing and 9-11 and in both cases what was sought and generated and clung to almost immediately were the stories. Where were you? Who did you know? What happened to them? What happened to their families? How many times have you had a great book or movie, a song or poem move you to deep emotion? Story is what defines us and sets us apart. It’s what allows us to connect with each another, to see ourselves in someone else, to truly know and to be known. Stories are how we seek and make meaning.
This is why this story that we will tell over the next 4 weeks, in song and word, in image and action, is so powerful. It is the story of hope, born amidst crisis and turmoil, born in the unlikely, in the improbable, in the impossible. It is the story of Jesus, the one we call the Christ, and the mythic cast of characters around him that tie his story to a bigger story and that bigger story to us.
You might have heard me say a particular word just then – mythic. And I don’t want to just skip over that. I chose that word on purpose because the story of Jesus is mythic, not mythic as in false, but mythic as in something larger than reality, and much, much bigger than we can place into words. The preeminent scholar of myth, the late Jospeh Campbell, once said that “Myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths.” It was his obscure way of suggesting that our dream world is one in which we search for meaning from things we don’t expect to be logical, yet we sometimes don’t allow our storytelling the same freedoms. So we, especially we rational liberals, want the stories of Jesus to not reflect anything supernatural, like virgin births or resurrections or miracles. Myth doesn’t really care about all that, it’s trying to make a bigger point than whether something actually happened, like historicallyhappened in a way that a journalist with a camera could have captured.
This story, the story of Christmas, is a collection, really, just like almost all else in our scriptures. The most meaning-making stories in the Bible come in versions, there are twocreation stories in Genesis, the story of the exodus gets told several times, and there are 4 gospels which tell the story of Jesus – and those are just the gospels that made it into our canon. Christmas isn’t just one story, it is a multitude. So as we wait for Christmas, here in this season of Advent, we wait not just for one thing to unfold, but for many things to unfold. Advent is, after all, the season of waiting.
Waiting is a very spiritual exercise. You know how I know that? I don’t want to do it, that’s how. Patience, loving your enemies, trusting in something despite the evidence, hope in times of darkness, these are all things at which I have to labor, sometimes mightily. That’s why they are practices. You practice things you aren’t good at so you’ll get better at them. Thus far this hasn’t happened for me and waiting. I don’t like it. I don’t like lines, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like busy places, in part because I think that means I’m going to have to wait.
And yet, this is the core of my spiritual life as a pastor. I sit with people as they await the diagnosis, the outcome, the verdict. I wait with families for the baby to be born or the loved one to die. I wait with one half of a nervous wedding participant as the other half gets situated, and I wait with a grieving family as they prepare for that awkward walk down the aisle while others watch their grief laid out in public. I wait for answers that never come, for resolutions that don’t resolve and for solutions that never arrive.
I have spent the last few days waiting for my mom to die. I don’t intend for that to sound so harsh, but the reality is that her cancer was spreading rapidly and making her increasingly uncomfortable. It was time, and she knew it, too. I think she still knows it, though she has stopped verbalizing her communication. So we wait, we no other options. And I’m no better at it in my own life than I am with any of you. Waiting is still a practice, and I’m not sure that practice ever makes perfect in this case.
So, why wait? Why do we put ourselves through this? Well, in part because we have no choice. Life does not happen on our terms. Practicing the art of waiting helps put us in touch with the humility that a good spirituality awakens in us all. It helps us be in touch with the reality that we do not orchestrate the world, nor can we control it…though that might be news for some of you. It reinforces that we live most of our lives in the in-between. It gives us time to write our stories, to hear other people’s stories unfold and to seek God in the midst of all of it.
Rather than think of our Christmas stories as histories, I prefer to think of them as the in-between stories, the making of meaning in the midst of things we don’t understand or control. And what can be more human than that? For our stories not only help us make meaning, they also help us see possibility. After all, who, without storytelling, would imagine something like hope in a baby born to a family from the margins, on the lowest rung of the social ladder? This Christmas story helps us hope in the improbable and to know that God is the God of the marginalized and left behind, the ones that society calls unimportant. And that is a hopeful story.
Even today we hear a lesser known story, the ones that isn’t told as often. It’s the prequel, you might say, of the Jesus story, the miraculous birth of John the Baptist who is not “the one,” as we think of titles, but rather the one who points out the one. The names of the parents of John the Baptist, and Jesus for that matter, were arguably created from the imaginations of the Gospel authors working from the ancient Hebrew stories, the same passages we call scripture, for inspiration. The names were fabricated, they were borrowed, they were used because of the theological messages they conveyed. The writers knew that this story would be important and how it flowed would be important. They needed a John to show the way to Jesus, portraying him as kind of a wild man of a prophet perhaps on purpose. You have to look for God in the world, sometimes from unlikely places, to have an eye out, an expectation that God’s action is at work, for when we fail to look for God’s presence in the world we always fail to see it.
See, the amazing thing is not the miracle of pregnancy in the so-called “advanced” years of their lives, nor the striking mute of Zechariah, nor the remarkable scene of John kicking in his mother’s womb at the sight of Mary. The amazing thing is not that these stories get told again by Zechariah and Elizabeth, themselves surely aware that their own story was mimicking that of Hannah, that their son was foretold to be like Samuel, a forbearer of a messiah, and that they see in Mary the same story that Isaiah casts before his audience asserting hope coming to them in the form of a baby. The amazing thing is that as they reach into their own holy stories to find meaning in their lives that they are willing to let God’s story, trapped in ancient stories, to become their story. They find in what is happening to them now not the fulfillment of a prophecy, but rather the affirmation that God worked among us then and God is working among us now.
A good story makes us wait for that. If Murder on the Orient Expressjust told you the culprits on page two, or if Hamletneatly resolved in the first act, we’d scarcely remember them. The tension and complexity with which they are written mirror our lives, which don’t work out neatly and rarely get resolved…at least not in a single chapter.
As we head into this Advent season, there is a story I hope that we can hear, though it may seem hard to hear it. There is a voice in the wilderness calling to us, my friends, a voice telling us to prepare a highway for our God, a God who will level the rough places and raise the low places. Our work made fade, the old hymn sings, but the work of God – compassion and justice, generosity and love – that work will endure. We have much darkness before us right now, families separated at the border, children in tent cities with an unknown future ahead of them, violence, war, famine, terror and the heavy price of our industrialism that will come due soon, if it isn’t already. Yes, much darkness. But listen…can you hear the voice? It’s not Zechariah, he could not speak of it he was so incredulous…it’s not Elizabeth, she is in seclusion thinking people won’t understand…it’s John, from the side of a river, calling to us in John’s not-at-all subtle way, repent, which means to turn around. Stop the direction in which you are walking and hear the story, YOUR story, whispered from a God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine and loves this world enough to take on human form, our mythic story reads, to share in our lot, to bear our burdens and see creation through our eyes, giving us a chance to learn that we can hope our way through the life that God has given to us, to trust in holy waiting as a practice, a way of life…knowing that God is indeed with us, pleading for us in a shattered world, giving us loving arms to hold onto and bringing us peace again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.