“If a lion roars, who will not be frightened? And if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?” -Amos 3:8
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. -Luke 1:29
A few years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Randy Harris about how someone had wronged me. I was waxing eloquent about how righteous I had been, and how villainous I thought this other person was acting.
Then Randy told me something that has stayed with me ever since.
He said, “Have you ever noticed that it’s really not the thing that happened that bothers you? It’s the story you lay on top of it?”
Immediately something in my heart started to soften. I began to realize that for several weeks I had been re-interpreting the recent past with a story that helped me to nurse a wound and keep me the righteous victim.
The way I thought of the past was infecting my present.
Last week I mentioned how right Charles Dickens was. There is a sense that Christmas is about the past, present and future. Christmas time feels magical because time is different here.
This may sounds strange, but I’ll be it’s something most of us have intuitively experienced.
Have you noticed that at Christmas time your sense of nostalgia stands out? Have you noticed how much more profoundly the ache is for deceased loved ones this time of year?
It’s that empty chair or that present you didn’t give…it’s the longing for what used to be.
It’s a longing for Christmas Past’s.
ReVisioning The Past
Last week, I read a book by James Kugel called The God of Old. Kugel is a Harvard professor of Ancient Judaism, and one of the things that he stresses is that this need to lay a story on top of things is something that religious people have always been tempted to do. And it’s not always a good thing.
For example, there is a Jewish document that dates back to a little before the time of Jesus called “The Book of Jubliees.” It’s basically a retelling of the entire book of Genesis, with some running commentary added. (This was a common way for Rabbi’s to teach back in the day called Midrash). What the Book of Jubilee’s did was tell the old stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, by trying to fill in some of the plot gaps for questions that people had.
And it gets really interesting when they talk about Abraham.
In the original story of Abraham in Genesis, Abraham is given no special introduction. In fact, it’s kind of non-sequitar. Genesis goes almost directly from the Tower of Babel story to “And God called Abram to leave his home and be a blessing to the world.”
But apparently, Jewish people started asking the question “Why Abraham?”
So the Book of Jubliee’s gave them a story to put on top of the story.
In the book of Jubilee’s, Abraham is no longer just a regular guy. He’s now a pillar of righteousness, he’s bothered by all the idol worship that is going on around him. In this story, the people’s pagan worship disturbs Abraham so much that he starts praying to God for Him to please do something This new Super-Abraham prays and fasts and then God acts.
In other words, in this story, Abraham initiates.
God doesn’t take the first step, Abraham does.
Here’s how James Kugel says it:
What’s interesting about Genesis account of Abraham is what Abraham does to bring about this encounter with God: absolutely nothing. He does not pray. He does not fast, he indulges in no acts of self-mortification such as those practiced by mystics and seekers in later times…What Abraham was doing or had done was just not important from [Genesis] standpoint. God spoke to Abraham and that was all that mattered.
Now this re-writing of story wasn’t just specific to Abraham. Over time, Moses and other heroes were also given more pious backstories. Because, Kugel says, “It just didn’t seem right to the religious people that God could just choose anyone, anytime and anywhere.”
This matters more than you probably think. Because what you think about the past will shape your present, and how you think God is working in it.
One of the most overlooked details about Christmas is the passive nature of everyone involved. Zechariah and Elizabeth aren’t actively trying to get pregnant, Mary certainly isn’t…and Joseph has to be talked into the whole thing!
The first Christmas wasn’t filled with pious people praying fervently for God to act, as much as it was filled with people who were absolutely shocked that He was acting. Christmas is a divine initiative…
Christmas was a surprise to everyone.
In my experience with religious people, we tend to think so much like those ancient Jews, re-reading those ancient stories. We like to take the mess out of the “heroes of Christmas.” We make Mary so heroic and Joseph full of virtue….and rightfully so. But we must never forget those parts of their story, like Abraham, only begin to come out….after God has acted in surprising ways through surprising people.
In the Bible, no prophet ever seeks God out first, God always initiates. In the words of the prophet Amos: “If a lion roars, who will not be frightened, and if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?”
The Christmas story, is one of many stories, that make us reconsider how strange and good God is. He just starts talking to people who are not considered sane by the right authorities. He initiates this whole thing.
And if he did that then, maybe He will do it now.
We never know how or when, but anything is possible and it could just be around the corner.
And whatever it is, and whoever it’s through,,,it’s always grace.