What are your favorite stories? The ones you would re-read or re-watch, the ones you love to hear for yourself again and to tell others about? The ones you can tell by heart?
One of my favorite stories – and definitely movies- is The Princess Bride, written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner. It is a story that has spawned quotes (“Inconceivable!” “As you wish!” “My name is Enigo Montoya…” “Mahwage”), that weaves together a daring rescue, revenge, a love story, humor, sword fighting, and Andre the Giant. It’s a story about the happy ever after, and the work that it takes to get there. And it has one of the best scores ever in cinema!
But the part of the story that isn’t always remembered is the framework of how we get the story. The movie actually opens with a small boy (played by Fred Savage) playing video games, home sick, and feeling pretty puny. But the boy’s grandpa shows up with his favorite book, and the one he once read to the boy’s father, and he delights in getting to share it with his grandson, who is…
The boy thinks he knows exactly how this story is going to work. He cringes at the kissing scenes, he worries that it will be boring or stupid or unexciting. In fact, he’d initially rather stay alone, sick, and huddled under the covers than embrace the book. It’s a book! Not a movie, or a video game, and he is sure it won’t excite him.
Unfortunately, we act like that; we expect that we’ve got the Bible figured out. That we know what the stories will look like and sound like because, let’s face it, most of us have heard them before. Seriously, another Christmas? Another set of Advent sermons? Same Mary and Joseph, same manger, same shepherds. Blah, blah, blah.
But this story isn’t like any other stories. We saw last week how the prophets announced Jesus’ coming thousands of years before he arrived; we recognize that based on what Jesus said as an adult that came true through his death and resurrection that the details played out as they said they would.
This story, the intersection between God’s kingdom and the earthly world of the grind that we live in, this story of Immanuel, “God with us,” is different. And we need to recognize, like the boy does in Princess Bride, that what we recognize in retrospect is something wildly different than what we might have expected, and certainly what Mary and Joseph expected.
In our Scripture today, from Luke 1:25-38, Mary is touched by an angel. Well, maybe not touched but rather approached. She’s a teenager, engaged but not yet living with her fiancee, and the angel Gabriel shows up and informs her: ““Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Now, it says she’s ‘troubled,’ by what he says but not that there’s an angel standing in front of her.
Seriously. It’s not like God was sending out the angels to make announcements when it was going to rain or snow. The angels only showed up when it was specific and spectacular, miraculous. [It would be interesting to have angels announce the weather forecast because then the weather predictions would actually stand a chance of being right!]
The angel continues, after telling Mary not to be afraid, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” This is fantastic news, we know, but to Mary, she doesn’t yet know why or how it will play out. At this point in the story, she’s just been told there’s a plan for her unborn baby that God knows about, and that the angel proceeds to explain to her how she’ll get pregnant when she is unmarried. She knows that her son is to follow in the family lineage to be a ruler, a kingdom, a leader. That’s still not the same thing as Mary knowing her son is God or what power his life will have.
But the angel isn’t done yet. He’s got another stop to make in our progression of birth announcements.
From Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph is minding his own business, putting in the final touches on a single life, of running a carpentry business. Did he really expect to have anything other than a quiet marriage arranged by his dear old mum and dad? Did he ever set out to be the earthly father of the Jewish Messiah, of the coming of God to earth, of a savior of the world?
One hardly thinks so.
Somehow though, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows they haven’t been together yet. He thinks divorcing her quietly, because their engagement was the equivalent of our marriage, would be the most honorable thing to do. He doesn’t want her to be embarrassed even though he must’ve been uncomfortable himself, having learned from someone else that Mary was pregnant in the first place!
But our angel appears again. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Suddenly, Joseph has been read in on what the point of the story is. What he expected and what he’d experienced before have been pushed aside for something greater, some reality that is higher and deeper and fuller than anything he ever imagined.
Joseph has been told that his adoptive son will “save the people from their sins.” Joseph gets the preview, the game-changing, life-affirming, God-is-with-us-and-this-will-work-out point thirty-three years before most of the rest of the world will even witness what happens. And why does he believe this?
Because an angel of the Lord is standing there, hovering there, however the angel works –it’s there. And Joseph (and Mary) know that they’ve experienced something miraculous, something powerful, something unexpected.
I wonder if we can recognize that. If we can peel back the expectations of our stories of Christmas. A baby, animals, a manger, shepherds, wise men, and see how dramatic and different this is.
I think that if we could really get Christmas, that it would change how we see church, and how we understand our lives of faith. I think that if we could see how amazing this story would’ve been to Mary and Joseph, who had no knowledge of Jesus’ walking on water or rising from dead, and what it would mean if we could wrestle with it further.
God invited Mary and Joseph to participate in a grand story, a story woven out of Eden, out of Egypt, out of occupation and out of struggle. He sent his heavenly messengers to announce these ‘breaking developments’ so that there would be no mistaking that what was happening here was divine and miraculous. God wanted Mary and Joseph to recognize that they were part of something greater, something wildly participatory outside of their normal expectations.
Those are stories of heroes, of knights and dragons, of space and great galactic battles, of underdogs beating unbalanced swarms of enemies, those were the stories I loved growing up (and still do) because I would imagine myself in them. And this story, this coming of Jesus, is God’s invitation, sent via by miraculous birth, to invite Mary, Joseph, and ultimately us, into the story.
God wanted to welcome them in and show them that Christmas was God’s way of breaking through all of the things that held them back. Through the hard times, and the anxiety, and the fear, and the isolation, and the need for purpose. God was breaking through to say, “I am here. You matter because I love you. And you can bring this good news to others.”
I believe that’s the same message that God whispers today, in the wind blowing through our souls, in the Christmas bells that ring in front of Walmart and on church wreaths, in the voices of children expressing their wonder and in old souls sharing their favorite Christmas memories.
That God is here. In the midst of the Fergusons and recessions, in the middle of our muddling through work and relationships, in the celebrations of family time and the thrill of buying presents for each other, in the spirit of Christmas that lifts us to generosity and goodness and love. Inside our church and out wandering the streets with some homeless soul. God is here. Immanuel.
I believe that we matter not because we have the right jobs or right connections or right amount of money in our checking accounts. I believe that we matter not because of our age or our skin color or our sexual orientation or our years spent in church. I believe that we matter not because of our usefulness or our education or our status in the community. I believe we matter because God breathed life into us when he created humankind and made us in the image of God; I believe we matter because God created us to be in relationship with him, for his glory, and because he loved us so much that he would send his son, a member of the Trinity, to earth to live with us, to be with us, to show us how to love, and to die on the cross for our sins.
And I believe that this story of God’s great love, introduced in the form of the baby Jesus, is a story that is so spectacular, that we’re supposed to share. We’re supposed to share this story like the angels, who announced what was coming, that first Advent. Jesus has come- he has lived and has died and has risen again. But the good news of Advent is that Jesus is coming again, that the kingdom of heaven is a here and a not yet. That the sorrows of this world, the uncertainty of our lives, will be peeled back by the blinding heavenly light of Jesus.
Mary and Joseph were occupied inhabitants of their own homeland, who were waiting for some glimmer of how the Messiah would come to save God’s people. But it wasn’t just a war fought between armies, or a battle over land that the Messiah came to fight. No, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, came to liberate humanity from its bondage to sin and death, from selfishness and moral decay, from evil and mean spiritedness. Jesus came to flip the script of the story on its head, and to say with authority, “God is here. You are loved. Share the good news.”
The radical, miraculous nature of a virgin birth is exotic enough, but the Christmas story exceeds BB guns, leg lamps, and the birth itself because it’s tied to Easter.
God’s great gift was resurrection, and forgiveness of sins. God’s great gift is just part of the story- now it’s up to you to help write your chapter.