Advent III: Heard any good stories lately?

Mt. 1.1-17, 18-25

Stories are a part of our everyday lives. We watch TV reality shows to see how folks are living. We watch the News to catch up on all the latest evil and corruption in our communities. We listen to NPR and hear all sorts of national and global news. Probably the stories we tell best are those closest to home in our own backyards – marriages, divorces, and babies. We read the latest news in the newspaper, and discover the local happens are all around us from Live Nativities and Christmas Pageants to a boil water advisory. We like to tell the stories of the “barnburners” ball games, the “Hail Mary” throws and the “buzzer-beater shot from mid-court.”

Last night the Heisman Award was announced. The most valuable college football player was awarded a trophy and accolades. Lamar Jackson, the youngest player ever to receive this honor, shared his story last night to the numerous college football fans and followers that were watching. His personal story was all about how his mother went the extra mile to ensure that he grow in his giftedness as a football player. It was said that she even went so far as to put on football uniform pads to ensure the development of her son as an excellent player.

What does story mean to you? Story could mean a good book, a storyline or plot. Story could mean a report such as a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast. Story may be the past account of someone’s life. Story is defined by the real or imaginary people involved, and is often told for entertainment. Story is often understood as one person’s viewpoint of the facts based on information gathered from their experience. Story could mean a lie, a false statement, a piece of gossip, a rumor.

Let’s hear the story of Jesus from Matthew’s perspective. Listen closely because I want you to be able to repeat every thing you hear accurately. At the end of the reading I would like a volunteer to repeat the script. Read Matthew 1.1-17.

Now that you have heard that very true story, what can you repeat? Can you remember any of the details you just heard? Probably a few names are recognizable, but for the most part the genealogy of Jesus doesn’t impress us as a repeatable story. Yet, Matthew understood this story to be of paramount importance so much so that he put it first in his gospel account. When we meet our neighbor, usually the first things that come out of our mouths are the best stories!

Our biblical story begins with a couple – Adam and Eve. And, it all began with a story as the evil one invites Eve to doubt what was the truth, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’” Gen. 3.1 NIV

What’s the biblical story that we need to be repeating? The biblical story tells a family story from beginning to end. In the beginning there was a momma and a daddy, and we even have a “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” The emblem of a tree shows up pretty quickly in this “grand sweep” of stories. Some call it a “meta-narrative.” Some have called it “the drama of Scripture.” Some consider it an “epic.” There are many ways of describing this collection of historical documents into a collective holy text. These historical stories depict personal encounters with God, and a community’s experience of God. You might even have a way of using story that’s different form these definitions. For Christians we have to look at the concept of story through a different lens. We call it the cannon of Scripture and it begins in Genesis and stretches to Revelation. It includes all sorts of family stories.

What story are you listening to? Family stories are worth listening and appreciating. Family stories are incredibly important in the Scriptures. In Matthew’s Gospel the story begins with a family – Mary and Joseph. He sketches the family tree in all her fullness, and doesn’t leave out any “questionable” characters. We use phrase like “but that’s another story,” “it’s a long story,” “the story goes,” “the same old story,” or “to make a long story short.” Matthew doesn’t leave out any detail.

Stories teach us that we belong to one another no matter whether we’ve got the story right or wrong. Through the biblical stories we discover who we are, and we discover our identity. We belong to a national people as we are grafted into the Jewish heritage. We belong to a cultural community that was formed to live out the holy principles. Some of us even belong to a church where the gospel message is preached. Stories tell us how we belong to one another, or how we are separate from one another.

Stories teach us that we are family. Jesus’ story begins with a family. Matthew tells the gospel story with a community that had been telling itself a story about a coming Messiah for a very long time. In fact this story had been handed down for many generations. Now that the Messiah was coming, that story had to be retold not only with hope and longing but with facts. Matthew writes his gospel with the community in mind. He goes back to the original source – Jesus’ parents and tells the story of Jesus’ ancestry, his genealogy. Matthew wants to set the story straight. He couldn’t just tell the addendum; he had to reconstruct history for it to all make truth, not just make sense. Because the story doesn’t make sense!

Stories come from various perspectives. Matthew tells the story through Joseph’s viewpoint whereas Luke’s story is told through Mary’s viewpoint. The stories are dynamically different and richly valuable as witness to the complexity of our human experiences. When I’m telling a story, what might be important my husband might not be as important to me. When he tells the story, what is important to him may not be as valuable to me. So you can only imagine the different perspectives among a room full of people.

Stories are complicated. Making sense out of this moment in history may not be possible for us – we don’t have a God’s eye view of time and space. Our perspective on life limits our worldview. Our view improves when we listen to an eyewitness account, but even then each eyewitness account captures a different angle of the story. We see that in the gospel stories.

What story are you telling? Joseph, bless his heart, had to deal with being blindsided with a story that would shake any man. He’s faced with a real dilemma – should he believe this young woman? I would guess he did some powerful thinking to come to the place of divorcing her privately. Most likely he didn’t want people to know that he had fallen into a relationship with a crazy lady! It wasn’t just about not having her stoned to death. I would bet money it was more about his not wanting to be seen as the husband of a crazy lady! Better to be single than married to a liar. Remember Eve believed a half-truth, and shared that half-truth with Adam. Now we have a lady who would tell the truth to her betrothed, and she would be shunned as a liar.

Some folks like to make up stories. I once had a chaplain mentor who told me I should just make us a new story when things get bad for the people I cared for in the hospital. She offered me this advice, Help them live into a new story for their lives. Just make a story that’s better than what they are living in now. I can’t imagine offering someone a lie as a way out of their painful experiences. But what I do know is that the story of Jesus is the perfect answer for us to live into as the reality of our lives.

Stories define who we are. In the ancient near east there would have been plenty of stories of heroes. These stories provided all sorts of fodder for people to live their lives according to these great heroes. But none of those stories about heroes were like the stories of Jesus. Most of those stories were embellished legends, fairy tales, and mythology. Whole cities were built around the stories of these false realities.

Stories have characters that shape our lives. The town of Hodgenville has built the whole city around a man who was said to have valued honesty. Young Abraham Lincoln was nicknamed “Honest Abe.” Lincoln would use his nickname “Honest Abe” as his presidential campaign slogan in 1859. Lincoln used his understanding of God and Scripture to guide his decision-making. He chose not to make up a story, but to live into the truths found in the biblical narrative.

Some say that the story about Jesus is the greatest story ever told. When Jesus was conceived, I would guess there were some wild stories circulating about that family. Whoa! Let’s look at the genealogy a bit deeper. There were some interesting characters in Jesus family tree! Those women of questionable character included Tamar, Rahab, and Bathseba. And, now Mary’s name would be placed among those questionable women. Matthew deliberately aligns these women up together to point to a greater understanding of her character.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Ever heard “you just couldn’t make up something like this.” Stories are that way. There are times when real life seems more like a cheap novel than God’s plan. But isn’t this the story we are given. Here in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we’ve just read about a great romance gone sour with plans for divorce and the possibility of a stoning. If you were Mary, you’d wondered what kind of trick God was playing on you. If you were Joseph, you’d wonder what kind of trick God was playing on you. If you were baby Jesus, you might even begin life wondering what in the world is going on with these emotions!

Who’s ear are you pulling? No doubt Joseph thinks very little of his betrothed when he finds out that she is pregnant. Surely, she is not the young woman he thought he was marrying. This predicament would surely ruin his reputation. Some might say this family needed therapy! To be sure this story helps us to understand that all things are not as they appear. God has a bigger picture if we are only willing to wait and watch. We are invited to invest in a future where God is with us. But we just can’t see the big picture just yet. This story is inconceivable, yet it is truth!

James says it best in his letter. Heed these words: Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? – James 3.1-11

When we came in here today, we came in with a family tree full of stories that could bring more drama than the law allows. Some of us came in with our bags packed and ready to leave – not even sure where we’re going. Looking for love in all the wrong places, and seeking companionship with the wrong person. Sometimes we can’t see beyond our own hurts and emotional pain. Some of you might remember comedian Bob Newhart. In one of his skits he uses two words to offer therapy to a woman living in fear. Two simple words… “Stop it!” Fear lies to us.

Who’s got your ear? We came in here with a tongue ready to tell stories some good and some not so good – some true and some make-believe. But when we leave here today, we all have the opportunity to leave here with a clear slate. Ready to lay aside stories that were baked half-truths, stories that were cooked up in our own opinions, preferences, and assumptions of how things ought to be. If we learn nothing more during this holy season of preparation, know this: God sees the big picture better than humans do. Our best bet is to surrender to what God has in plan for us rather than manipulating and controlling the future.

The greatest fruit comes from the humility of surrendering to the plans of God. Paul tells it best in Philippians, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil. 4.8).

 As we think back over our story, the important detail that we need to remember is that sometimes stories are bigger than life. We can easily get caught up in the details. To be sure we understand that our storytelling is always subject to our own perspective and selective hearing. Even our best efforts can leave us telling stories that are misinformed, misguided, and just wrong. So what can we do about it? We created tools to help us tell our stories with integrity.

Read” and listen to the word of God. You can get apps for your phone YouVersion and Bible Gateway. These apps can read the word to you! “Repeat” the good story of Jesus. You can start something new this Christmas by telling the story about Jesus to children, grandchildren, sisters/brothers, neighbors, and colleagues. “Review” what you say closely. I share with you a great post on Facebook this week from one of our own folks, “A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected!” Families are the place that we should feel the most appreciated! “Renew” your attitude. Our attitude is ours to guide and direct. Choose how you plan to spend your time storytelling. Let’s spend our conversations sharing the goodness of God and neighbor. And, I leave you with these words! “Rejoice! Again, I say Rejoice!”


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