Gospel Storytelling

tim_lowry_1_mariposa_2015We’ve got a big storytelling festival coming up at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on the weekend of January 27-29.  It’s called the “Hearts Afire” Festival, and it’s going to be amazing, featuring some of the best storytellers in America (like Tim Lowry, above).  But it’s also a good analogy for what happens when you pick up the Bible and begin to read.

For example:

There’s a kind of storytelling festival going on in the first four books of the New Testament.  One at a time Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, step out on the stage to tell us their stories of Jesus. All of them are stories about the same person, but all of them are different, and that can be a little confusing. For example, we’ve just come through the season of Christmas, where we’ve heard two different versions of the Christmas story—Matthew’s and Luke’s. Sometimes we get the details mixed up, and think the shepherds and the wise men ended up in the same nativity scene (nope!). But maybe we could do better than that in this new year. Maybe we could let each of these Gospel storytellers tell the story of Jesus in just the way he wants, and maybe we could be grateful for the differences.

I sometimes say that if there has been an accident at a busy intersection, the investigating officer will be grateful if there were four witnesses, one standing at each corner.  That gives him four different perspectives on the same event.  And even though there was only one accident, and his final report will tell only one story, it will be informed by four different stories, and because of that he will have a better, clearer picture of “what really happened” than if there had been only one witness.  In the same way we should be grateful for the four different perspectives we have on Jesus, and the four different witnesses who provide them.

Matthew, for example.

This is Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, which is Matthew’s year.  From now until Advent we will spend more time in the Gospel of Matthew than any other Gospel.  For that reason today might be a good day to let him step out on the stage all by himself, and tell his version of the Jesus story, or at least the beginning of it.

  • It begins in an interesting way, with the genealogy of Jesus. If you’ve ever been asked to read it aloud you know how hard it is to pronounce some of those names.  You may wonder why Matthew started his Gospel like that.  But I think he wants us to know that this is not a new story, but the continuation of a story God has been writing from the very beginning, from the time he called Abraham and promised that through him the nations of the world would be blessed.  I think Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise.   And so he tells us that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and fourteen generations from David to the time of the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to Jesus, the Messiah.
  • And then he tells us how the birth of the Messiah took place, and his version is very different from the Christmas story we usually hear. According to Matthew Joseph and Mary didn’t travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem: they already lived there, though not in the same house.  But after Joseph had a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife he did take her—he married her—and brought her into his own home, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.  So, no stable, no angels, no shepherds in Matthew’s Christmas story: just a newlywed couple having a baby at home.
  • And then, after a year or so, they got a visit from some magi from the east. Jesus would have been a toddler by then, a beautiful brown-eyed boy clinging to his mother’s skirts, staring at those wise men. We don’t know how many of them there were; there might have been two, there might have been twenty.  But they came bringing gifts for the new king of the Jews after learning from Herod’s wise men where that new king might have been born, and following a strange star that came to rest over his house.
  • And can I pause long enough to tell you how much I love the image of that star shining over that house? Because this is the story we tell on the Day of Epiphany, January 6:  we tell the story of the wise men coming to visit Jesus.  All they had was the light of that star to guide them to his house, and I can almost see the starlight shining on his beautiful face, reflecting in those big brown eyes.  But in the same way the days get longer and longer at this time of year, the light that shines on Jesus gets brighter and brighter on these Sundays after Epiphany; we see him more clearly for who he really is, so that by the time we reach the end of this season—Transfiguration Sunday—his face will be shining like the sun!  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to King Herod, and not to tell him that they had found the child, but to go home another way.  And when Herod found he had been tricked he was furious.  He rounded up his troops and sent them to Bethlehem, to kill every baby boy under two years old.  But Joseph was warned in a dream to get up that very night, to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and that’s what he did.  Good old Joseph.  Good old faithful, obedient Joseph.  When Herod died he brought his family back to Israel, but when he heard that Herod’s son was on the throne he kept moving, and settled his family in Nazareth.  That’s where Jesus grew up.  That’s where he learned his father’s trade.  And that’s where he was when he got the news about John baptizing in the Jordan…

(for the full sermon from January 8, 2017, click HERE)

KOH2RVA: Day 122

Baby-Jesus-SleepingI keep thinking about the evangelist whose story I shared yesterday. He is a former Muslim, converted to Christianity, and eager to make a billion more converts. He is doing it by telling school children in India the “true story of Christmas,” which somehow ends with the message that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity.

That’s not the message I get from the true story of Christmas. In fact, that’s not the message I get from either of the Gospels that tell the Christmas story (Matthew and Luke). I challenge you to read either one all the way through, from beginning to end, and conclude that it’s about how to stay out of hell. Hell doesn’t figure into these Gospels very often. Jesus mentions it 7 times in Matthew, 2 times in Luke. But he makes reference to the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, a staggering120 times in the Gospels. And when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray for this: that God’s kingdom would come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That was his mission.

So, where did we get the idea that our mission is to keep people out of hell? The evangelist I talked with on Sunday might say that he gets it from John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“See?” he would say. “That’s the true story of Christmas. God loved the world so much he gave his only son, like a Christmas present, wrapped in swaddling cloths.” And I would agree; that is the true story of Christmas. “But if we don’t receive the gift of his son,” he would add, “we will perish everlastingly.”

And that’s where I get stuck

Love with an “if” in it is conditional love. I believe that God loves us unconditionally. I sometimes say to people, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you more. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you less. All you can do is choose to receive the gift of his love.”

What if those Indian schoolchildren heard that message? Wouldn’t that sound more like what the gospel is supposed to be—good news? And if they could really believe that God loved them unconditionally…

Wouldn’t heaven come to earth?