The Gifts of God: The Birth of the Way

christmas-presents

“A well-crafted story shares with the most elegant theories the ability to bring a version of the world to light that so transforms the way people see that it seems never to have been otherwise.” – Lisa J. Disch[1]

As I have said before, I come from a family of storytellers, a very long line of people who have shared their experiences from one generation to the next for better than one hundred years to my knowledge. My father and I continue to tell the stories that his father and his father’s father told and my mother has been studying our family’s genealogy for more than three decades. There are stories of saloon-keepers, prison guards, farmers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, and even a line of descendants that connects to royalty (somewhat diluted at this point). My children have and will continue to hear these stories, as they are old enough to hear them in some cases, as will their cousins in the hope that the people and their memory live on.

The purpose of storytelling is to convey an idea in a common language and common understanding. Story becomes the method and means for creating culture around specific ideas that are important enough to want to share for successive generations. Jewish storytelling is about conveying the Jewish experience to the next generation, especially in the ancient world. It was a means of passing the religion, culture, and experience of being a Jew to their children and children’s children. Peninnah Schram, a professor of Speech and Drama at Yeshiva University and shelihat tzibbur or communal prayer leader writes,

“The first and best reason to learn anything worth knowing is to share it with someone else, to plant trees so that the future generations will be nourished with their fruit. Each generation in turn plants for the next one, and the next one, and the next one.”[2]

When we come to the story of Jesus birth, we so often look at it as a simple little quaint tale, a sweet little bedtime story to tell the family before we go to sleep on Christmas Eve. But if we understand the ideas of Jewish storytelling, especially in ancient times, we will know that every element of the story conveys something greater, perhaps even counter-culture. As Marcus Borg writes,

“Like his parables, the birth stories are subversive. They subverted the “world” in which Jesus and early Christianity lived. As stories told by his followers later in the first century, they are part of their testimony, their witness, to the significance that Jesus had come to have for them. That significance had at its center a different vision of life, a vision they got from Jesus – from his teaching, his public activity, and his life, death and vindication by God. The vision was embodied in Jesus, incarnate in Jesus.”[3]

So, what is this subversive story, the story beneath the story that gets buried in tinsel, wrapping paper, and simple platitudes?

What is Jesus birth actually about?

Good storytelling is not really about fact but truth. In the ancient world, the point of the story was to convey a truth about life, death, spirituality, or the other aspects of being that were part of the human experience. The story of Jesus life, the gospels do precisely that with each version being a telling of the story specific to a people, in a place, and at a time. If we take a moment to look beneath the surface and dive below to the meaning, we will find not only a great story, but a greater truth to be understood and lived.

To do this, we should understand some ideas in the story that are important to the Jewish people of the time and place. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I can see a couple of ideas that make the beginning of the gospel story more than we give it credit for.

Firstborn Son

According to ancient practice, it was common to offer certain privileges to the oldest son in the family and in the Jewish context both the firstborn or animals and people were regarded as the property of God (Exodus 13:2).[4] The oldest enjoyed a preferential status, receiving a double portion of the inheritance, a special blessing from the father, and the right to succeed his father as head of the household.[5] At times, the bible notes that the removal of these rights and privileges are a punishment for not living up to the expectations of what was essentially an ‘office to be held’ within the family structure.

For Mary, Jesus is firstborn of what will be a large family for her and Joseph, although his parentage is different from the rest.  Not only will Jesus come to be the head of the household, succeeding his earthly father Joseph, but Jesus was “conceived” or brought into being “by the Holy Spirit.”[6] In the spiritual sense, this makes Jesus heir to an earthly household and heir to a heavenly kingdom. Therefore, people can say Jesus is ‘God with us,’ or Emmanuel, because according to the gospel he born of, as John would later say, “water and the spirit.”[7] Because of this ‘dual birthright’ of heaven and earth, the gospels are trying to say that Jesus has authority over the household of man and the household of God. As well, Jesus acts as intermediary between the two houses by virtue of his position in both.

Poverty and Patronage

In the time of ancient Rome, it is estimated that between eighty and ninety percent of the population lived in day to day poverty.[8] That means that the majority of the those who lived in Palestine and other remote parts of the empire, had a subsistence lifestyle: no 401Ks, no social security, just eating whatever they could work for day in, day out until the day they died, which most likely was before they turned forty. Joel Green and Lee McDonald put it this way,

“…the vast majority of inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world, who lived “at or near subsistence level, whose primary concern it [was] to obtain the minimum food, shelter, and clothing necessary to sustain life, whose lives [were] dominated by the struggle for physical survival…This picture forms an important background for discussing the social context of the early Christian movement, reminding readers of the NT that subsistence existence and poverty would have been the norm for the vast majority of contemporaries of Jesus and his earliest followers.”[9]

Joseph was a craftsman, and maybe even a good one, but even with that, the best they may have been based on the gospel record was ‘making ends meet.’

There is also the question of Jesus parentage from the standpoint of those around him. While we have the viewpoint of two-thousand years of theological discussion and debate, history and culture, those who lived in Jesus time must have heard the rumors, must have known the human reality that Jesus father may or may not have been Joseph. The Jewish sage and writer Ben Sira writes, “A person’s honor comes from his father.”[10] If Jesus’ parentage could be questioned, and there is speculation that it was, Jesus would have held a place of dishonor in Jewish society, the founding culture behind the Christian movement.

What makes it significant?

So, what makes these ideas of being the firstborn son, poverty, and patronage important when considering the gospels? What makes these ideas worth exploring in our day and time?

To begin with, they make the story of Jesus a relatable story to most people who were living then and now. While the poverty levels are different from region to region, country to country, the idea of one who came from nothing to greatness is something we can all look at with some degree of aspiration. David deSilva writes, “…honor can be achieved as well as ascribed,” something that is accomplished by living a life of virtue before others. In the gospels, Jesus overcame the social stigmas of his time despite the cultural handicaps that were inherent in his circumstances.

Part of the message of the gospel is that in being new creations we are no longer bound to the past, good or bad; no longer imprisoned by the supposed future. Our calling becomes not to live down who we were or think we can be but to live a life of following Jesus, of being as he was, of doing as he did. The message that we see as the gospel begins with and continues to follow the same path, bearing the same message. From its beginning the message is ‘Come, follow me. Come, walk in a new life. Come, leave what was and embrace Jesus as he was, is, and will be.”

The birth of Jesus is how we can engage God as God intended, relationally, having been redeemed or restored to a life worth living; a life that is marked by being children of God, overcoming the poverty of poor spiritual and emotional choices.

What do we do about it?

So, what do we do about it? How do we do this?

I’m going to invite you to do something ancient, something that ties the faith of today with the faith of the time we have been talking about tonight, the first century. In the first century, the early church had no bible, no liturgies, no written polity to follow. They had stories, stories passed down from one person to the next, like the nativity stories and others that taught a lesson beneath the story. As I quoted Lisa Disch in the beginning,

“A well-crafted story shares with the most elegant theories the ability to bring a version of the world to light that so transforms the way people see that it seems never to have been otherwise.”[11]

So, I want to encourage you to let the story of the nativity transform you. But I want to encourage you to do something that I have asked a friend and fellow disciple to do. I want to encourage you to read this particular story, one that shows up a little later in the gospel of Matthew. It’s called The Sermon on the Mount and it’s found in Matthew chapters five to seven. I want to challenge you to take a few moments each day and follow in the footsteps of the early church who told this teaching to one another and lived by this teaching in a time when they had no written words to go on. I want to challenge you to do as the early followers of Jesus did after his death and live The Sermon on the Mount, the easy stuff, the hard stuff, all the stuff in there. If we really want to know the meaning of the nativity, we can see it plainly there and if we can live that life, we are living the meaning of the nativity before the world.

Let us go and live a subversive gospel for the Kingdom of God to carry on, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] (Disch 1993), p.665

[2] (Schram 1988), p.19

[3] (Borg 2007), p.37

[4] (King and Stager 2001), p. 47-48

[5] ibid

[6] Matthew 1:20

[7] John 3:6; 4:1-42

[8] (Green and McDonald 2013), Kindle Location 4169

[9] ibid

[10] (de Silva 2000), p. 28

[11] (Disch 1993), p.665

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The Gifts of God: Life

christmas-presents

Same old story, same old song and dance

What do 10 Things I Hate About You, Bedazzled, A Knight’s Tale, Scotland, PA, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? all have in common?

They are all remakes, stories that have been told, being told again. Each of those stories is a retelling of a story by Shakespeare, Faust, Chaucer, or Homer. They are all stories that have had enough of an impact on the culture itself that they bear repeating even if they end being updated for a new generation. The writer of Ecclesiastes penned that “there is nothing new under the sun” and apparently for moviemakers this is certainly true. Think about how many 1980’s movies, toys, and televisions shows have been dusted off CGI-ed up and repackaged from another generation. Even beloved stories like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and other big budget franchises end up telling the same story with the same characters and different faces.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell, a scholar and professor of comparative mythology, released the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell makes the case that all great stories – great myths and legends – share the same basic structure. Drawing on the psychological research of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Arnold van Gennep, and Otto Rank as well as the ethnographic work of Franz Boas, Campbell inferred that all myths derive from the same basic twelve step story called the monomyth. The preeminent mythologist explained it this way,

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

While it may seem strange at first, in many if not most cases, there is some truth to this basic outline. Many writers, screenwriters, filmmakers, and artists have adopted this understanding of storytelling and used it to create their works. The theory has directly led to number of great epic stories and film sagas like The Star Wars Saga; The 2001: A Space Odyssey series; Disney films like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast; and television series Lost and Community.

Life…uh…Finds a Way

If a story is retold for a new generation for successive generations, there must be some substance to the basic tenets of the story. This is what Campbell and others have recognized and I believe that this is something that biblical writers recognized even without being able to articulate it in the same way. Because of this, there are many stories in the bible where the main character’s names and places change while the basic story stays very much the same. For instance, our text this week borrows from a familiar story found in Genesis and Samuel. The players change – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Rachel and Jacob, and Elkanah and Hannah – but they all are reliving in their own, for their own generation, the same story. This week, we see the story taking place in the book of Luke with Elizabeth and Zechariah along with Mary and Joseph. It is the story of life finding a way miraculously.

When we begin our reading this week, Elizabeth is six months pregnant. What we didn’t read was a story much like the story of Abraham and Sarah: a childless, barren couple who had all but given up on the idea of having a child. By the time the angel visits Zechariah to tell him that he and Elizabeth will have child, the temple priest finds it incredulous. The angel Gabriel tells him of the great things his son will do in the name of the Lord and Zechariah stares in disbelief,

“How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”[2]

Gabriel’s response,

“I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”[3]

So, Zechariah was mute until the day that his newborn son was brought to the temple for dedication as the first born and Zechariah had confirmed his son’s name. At this point, after the text we read today, Zechariah prophesies of his son John and another who will “…come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house…”[4] In the middle of this story in Luke chapter one, we find our text and Mary being told of her own miraculous child, a child who will be born of a virgin. Like Zechariah, Mary offers a great, poetic praise offering to God for the salvation of his people and the mercy of his hand. Normally, the story we would tell of Christmas would be one of the two children, each born to a mission, called by God to refocus the spiritual life of Israel and the world back to God.

But I want to get back Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. I want to get back to the story beneath the story, the one told over and over throughout the biblical narrative, the message under the surface. In the same way that Campbell sees a recurrent story being told in all the great stories of world literature, I see the bible telling its own version of this throughout the greater narrative. I see a couple of things there a layer below the veneer that hold the stories from Abraham in Genesis to Mary in the gospels together.

First off, the people of God have a greater need that God is meeting. In Abraham and the patriarchs, it was the continued line toward becoming a great people. As God met with Abram in Genesis 12 and 15, God spoke of making his people more numerous than the stars and giving the people an inheritance and a nation. He spoke of these things coming to pass through the children of Abram in spite of Sarah being barren. Abram didn’t believe it would happen. Sarah outright laughed at the idea and yet God gave them a child of promise when they were both nearly a hundred years old. The need for Abraham to have and heir of his own other than his servant and for Sarah to avoid the stigma of being a woman unable to bear children while meeting the promise of having a great nation who named God as king and Lord.

In Samuel, it was raising up a prophet to establish Israel. Hannah spends her days lamenting being the wife without children and the scorn of her rival, Peninnah, who taunts and tortures her. In her despair, Hannah, cries out to God in the tabernacle and God hears her cry. She is given a son whom she gives back to God, a child who grows up in the tabernacle before God and becomes the ‘kingmaker’ of Israel, first with Saul, then David. Hannah, like Sarah, loses the stigma of being a barren woman and Israel has established the office of spiritual counselor before there is even a king.

In Elizabeth and Mary, it is the birth of a new covenant where the people of God have wandered away from him. Elizabeth, the wife of a temple priest, is barren much like the hopes of Israel at the dawn of the first century in Palestine. They live in an occupied country under the rule of a great empire, exiles once again without having to leave their land. Elizabeth is old, as we talked about today and yet God tells Zechariah she will bear a child as well, one who will “be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes… bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Mary, her cousin, is given an even greater promise in the face of an even greater human challenge, to have a son without a human father, to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s child will be not just a great prophet like his cousin, but he will be, “…called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Jesus and John not only are children of promise in the way of Isaac and Samuel, but are children who will become agents of change in a changing time for their people. They will be lights in the darkness and salt to preserve and flavor the testimony of God to and before Israel.

God is giving life where there seems to be no hope of life – In these stories, life is promised but missing. Abraham and the patriarchs would die out before becoming the nation that God promised without it. In Samuel, Israel would fall apart (and did) without establishing the need for prophetic direction first shown in the life and ministry of Samuel. In John and Jesus, the despondent Jews under Roman rule may well have given up or revolted (which they eventually did in 68 AD) and been driven from the land (which they were) without a hope to carry with them in the Diaspora or scattering of the Jews.

In each of these stories, there was barrenness in both the women involved and the spiritual landscape of the land they lived in. In each of these stories, they were visited and promised and end to being barren and given the opportunity to bring life into this world as their children brought life to the despondent spiritual lives of their people. Each son was the bringer of life from what they thought was lifelessness, hope in a hopeless situation as they grew into their callings. Isaac would continue the line of Abraham that there would be a people to one day settle Canaan. Samuel would grow to be the prophet and set the standard for one who speaks the word of God to the people through the king as Israel would become a nation-state. John would be the forerunner of Jesus, declaring the one to come and hit the reset button on the spiritual life of Israel and Jesus would come to change the entirety of human history in his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection.

So, what are the gifts of God for Christmas?

There are many gifts of God that he offers us not just at Christmas but throughout the year. God offers hope born out of darkness, shining through the remnants of deepest night to point us to the light, that we may bring those who are hopeless a new hope. He offers mercy that can be accepted and re-gifted as we offer mercy, lovingkindness, and redemption to others who are in need. He has given us the good news of redemption and restoration as the central themes, the basis for our walk with God and others.


[1] (Campbell 1949), p. 23

[2] Luke 1:18

[3] Luke 1:19-20

[4] Luke 1:69

Worship, Maybe…

tissot_david_danced_before_the_lord_with_all_his_might
“David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod” by James Tissot (1836-1902)

For years, my father has told me about his childhood experiences with church in the same way: with food. I can’t count the number of times I have heard him say, “We went to church three times a year: Christmas, Easter, and Homecoming, the three times you could get food.” He would talk about oranges at Advent, Easter eggs for the resurrection season, and dinner on the grounds in July. It was part of yearly cycle of events that my father and many others experienced as part of their formative years as well as their introduction to church life.

From an anthropological perspective, this would be considered ritual. According to anthropologist Conrad Kottak, ritual is “behavior that is formal, stylized, repetitive, and stereotyped, performed earnestly as a social act; rituals are held at set times and places and have liturgical orders.” [1] By his definition, my father would have been going to a formal (instituted with intent), stylized (with particularity), repetitive (every year occurrence), and stereotyped (easily categorized), and trust me, southerners eating at a family dinner is definitely performed in earnest. They happened during the same three seasons of the year every year at the same Baptist and Assemblies of Gods churches and with a set of ordered activities that usually included my great-uncle J.W. praying long enough for all the children to go through the line, eat, and be outside playing before he was finished.

Ritual has an important social function for the community and for many, if not most of us, it has the potential to provide certainty and comfort in important areas of life. Ritual, however, is not worship. Worship, on the other hand, may and usually includes elements of ritual but has other aspects that define the experience of worship as distinct from ritual. In-depth research would certainly reveal many others but for this piece I have identified three that I find academically interesting. I see worship as having intent, focus, and specific experience.

Worship must have intent

As a worship leader, I have been privileged to looked out across the great of people in congregations in Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado, and Wyoming and quite honestly, see a lot of bored people. Whether leading Wesley and Watts hymns or the latest offerings by Jesus Culture and Gungor, I have seen the faces devoid of interest. Now, having said that, I know I haven’t the slightest idea what is in their hearts or whether that is their worship style or what have you. I can, however say, that statistically speaking, not all of them are simply, “quiet, introspective worshipers” or “subdued saints.” Based on personal testimonies I can for certain say that I have known several people whose reason for going to church is obligation. As one man back in my home state of Georgia told me, “The family goes here and grandma would be upset if we weren’t here with her.” Rodney Stark puts it this way, “A man can easily keep his religious beliefs a secret, but his failure to fulfill his religious obligations is quickly revealed. It is quite possible, of course, that ritual obligations will be fulfilled perfunctorily, by merely going through the motions.”[2]

Whether obligation or some other reason, if it is to be called worship, there must be intent. I ran across an interesting exercise in a psychology of religion textbook[3] that goes something like this: a man goes in to ask a minster about baptism. He wants to know what the ceremony would like if someone was being baptized. The minister goes through the motions of the liturgy, dips his hand in the font, and makes the sign of the cross on the head of the questioner. The ritual was performed but neither the minister nor the questioner participated in a baptism because neither had intent. It was simply an exemplary exercise for demonstration. If a person simply shows up, goes through the motions with everyone else but is thinking about the pot roast on the stove or checking their social media accounts, that person is not worshiping. I would venture to say that even if they are listening and paying attention but are ‘detached’ internally, they are not worshiping. Which brings me to the second point.

Worship is focused on the divine not the human

There are many words which are worship related throughout biblical literature, proskuneo, barak, shachah, halal, and many others. The one common thread between these words is that when used regarding worship, each will point specifically in the direction of the divine. Worship must have not only intent but direction. Worship is only worship, in the purest sense, when directed toward the divine, biblically speaking God.

Consider two stories from the bible: the first is one of David doing what everyone else thought was lunacy in the temple. Second Samuel chapter six says,

“David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod…But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes;”[4]

Obviously, Mrs. David was less than enthused by the king’s display. He was ‘vulgar’ (a commoner) and ‘shameless’ (without regard for personal appearance before others) in his display of worship and affection for Adonai. Yet he was not dancing for the people or his wife or even for himself. David “danced before the Lord with all his might” (Don’t worry this wont devolved into Ren’s speech from Footloose). The point here is that the worship offered is directed toward God and throughout the Bible where there is intent to worship properly, it is focused on God. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, all the stories that serve as example for what it means to be a God-follower are stories where those involved turn their worship attentions to God.

Worship is experiential as an encounter with the divine not necessarily the community

Notice again our story from 2 Samuel 6. David does not worship alone.

“…all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.”[5]

David is not concerned with community, though community is present. The community is celebrating as well and they are a part of the proceedings that David is part of and yet I believe that David would have been (and in other places was) perfectly comfortable worshiping God alone. As David shows intent and focuses on the divine, his worship could be part of a greater worship outpouring or an individual, private affair and in either case it is still worship.

To return to our example of those who are ‘going through the motions’, there are also those that may be experience the divine in the presence of those who are oblivious to the divine. Rudolph Otto, in his discussion of the numinous or the encounter with the holy, speaks of guiding others into the experience until the numinous stirs within their consciousness.[6] Those oblivious to the numinous do not impede the worship of those who are drawn into or led into the encounter and respond with focused intent on the divine. It cannot be expected that anyone else will worship with us when we do, yet if it is worship there is an encounter with divinity that cannot be anything less than worship.

Magis Sermo

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion but more of a conversation starter. If you would like to continue the discussion feel free to comment below or write to michaeljarrell@yahoo.com.

References

Crapps, Robert W. An Introduction to Psychology of Religion. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing, 2004.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Stark, Rodney, and Charles Y. Glock. American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1968.


[1] (Kottak 2004), p. 350

[2] (Stark and Glock 1968), p.82

[3] (Crapps 1986), p.265

[4] 2 Samuel 6:14, 20-22

[5] 2 Samuel 6:15

[6] (Otto 1950), p.7

The Gifts of God: Good News

christmas-presents

As I was preparing the sermon this week, I ran across an article that references a song from my childhood. I think the article by Chet Flippo of CMT and the song by Anne Murray are as apropos as ever and I thought I would begin today’s message with the piece.

In country, rock and pop music, there’s never much real good news in the broadest sense. In the way of bad news, it’s usually heartache, and death, and cheating, divorce and betrayal — if it’s not outright mayhem. Good news is usually defined as the occasional true romance, drinking and dancing and driving a pickup and partying.

I don’t mean songs about personal emotional knitting-up, such as “The House That Built Me.” And I don’t mean the occasional powerful song about national healing, the main example being Alan Jackson‘s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” Or the “what-if” songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Or the antiwar songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and the Dixie Chicks‘ recording of Bruce Robison‘s “Travelin’ Soldier.” But songs that truly spark the human spirit of altruism and have the power to bring people together seldom come around. I’m talking about the rare song like Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

…In country, the song that has best managed to tap into an emotional current about the national psyche in recent decades has been Anne Murray‘s “A Little Good News,” which takes on the national angst of the entire American population. When I turn on the radio or TV and all I hear is a cacophony of angry voices arguing with each other and calling each other vile names, I want to hear a song that reflects and shows the other side of that. I want to hear a song that brings people together.

Of the 50 songs that topped the Billboard country songs chart in 1983, the one song that I can still easily quote is “A Little Good News.” The lyrics from such other 1983 No. 1 songs as “Paradise Tonight” or “Faking Love” or “Inside” don’t come tumbling into my brain quite as readily. The year 1983, after all, was when the first Hooters Restaurant appeared.

I rolled out this morning
Kids had the mornin’ news show on
Bryant Gumbel was talkin’ ’bout the fighting in Lebanon
Some senator was squawkin’ ’bout the bad economy
It’s gonna get worse you see, we need a change in policy.

Murray didn’t write the song. “A Little Good News” was written by Charles Frank Black, Rory Michael Bourke and Thomas Rocco, but Murray’s expressive performance forever made it her song. And it won a Grammy for best female country vocal, was also the CMA’s single of the year and the album A Little Good News was named CMA album of the year. With that last award, Murray became the first woman to win the CMA album of the year honor.

So where are such songs today? I submit that they aren’t being written and recorded because no one will play them on radio. So why bother? Who cares about trying to capture the national mood? Where’s the profit in that?

There’s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band
One more sad story’s one more than I can stand
Just once how I’d like to see the headline say
“Not much to print today, can’t find nothin’ bad to say”, because

Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town
Nobody OD’ed, nobody burned a single buildin’ down
Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain
We sure could use a little good news today.

There was a music video shot for “A Little Good News” in 1983 and it was shown then on TNN (The Nashville Network), but it is no longer available for streaming and downloading today due to issues of rights and clearances. We have it in the video archives here, so I watched it a couple of times recently and concluded that the song is better off today without the video. Why? Country music videos at that time operated on the principle of closeups of the artists. Many closeups, no matter how badly they were shot or miked. But you had plenty of those, and then you threw into the background some action footage or some news clips or whatever the hell you could clear without having to pay for it. So, today the video looks very dated. But the song “A Little Good News” still stands very capably and strongly on its own.[1]

People Needing Some Good News

To follow up on this theme of having some good news, let’s see if we can look at the text today from a standpoint of whether we are dealing with good news. If the news from Isaiah were being broadcast in the ancient world, would the people watching see this as a good news story? Would they want to change the channel? Would they run to HebrewBook and post a link to this?

There is an art to newscasting and having a marketing background I can tell you that there is a certain methodology to setting up, delivering, and closing a news story: the lead, the story, the close. According to the University of Florida,

Few people read an entire newspaper story, but most people listen to the entire TV and Radio news story, so keep it interesting and in the lead:

  • Capture the essence of the story without giving too much detail
  • Make the lead simple and whet the appetite
  • Command the attention of the audience
  • Grabs the listener´s attention – the rest of the story should keep that attention
  • Make the listeners want to listen to the rest of the story by giving them just enough in that first sentence that they will want to know more
  • Think about what the story is and in the lead start with whatever carries the most impact
  • Ask yourself, what is it that is in the story that makes it newsworthy? And then use that for the lead

Part of setting up a good story is knowing your audience. As we have talked about before, the audience for Isaiah is a people who have been captive in a foreign land and are now readying to return or have recently returned home. Several generations have lived and died in Babylon, Media, and Persia, and now are being given the opportunity to return to a land, for some that they only know in stories from their elders.

With that stage set, let’s check the lead-in. The writer of Isaiah 61 opens the first few verses with,

“The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoner, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.”[2]

For the Jewish people hearing these words, I think this would get their attention. God is doing something among us again. Someone has been called to speak a truth on God’s behalf. Those who are poor, brokenhearted, still captive in their hearts, and imprisoned by the circumstances listen up. I can’t say for certain, but I would imagine the list covers just about every type of person that would have been returning or have returned. I think we can safely say, this would get the listener’s attention.

Now, for the story. What is the crux of the message presented here, what are we hearing here? The big picture story that we are hearing here is one of being restored. Notice where the story goes from here,

They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the Lord to glorify himself. They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past. Foreigners will stay and shepherd your sheep, and strangers will be your farmers and vinedressers. You will be called The Priests of the Lord; Ministers of Our God, they will say about you. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and fatten yourself on their riches. Instead of shame, their portion will be double; instead of disgrace, they will rejoice over their share. They will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs. I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the Lord.[3]

The people who were once living as exiles are now a people who are being given back what they had lost and then some. The people will return, they will rebuild what has been left to ruin. They will have their relationship with God and their status among the nations restored and rejoice over God giving them a “double portion” of blessing.

The meat of this story is that what was once taken is being returned: the land, the relationship with God, the standing among nations, all of what was once lost forever, is being given back. That which was lost is found and return to its place. God, who seemed a distant memory in the foreign land, is now before them to show them the way home. The Jews repentance has led to rekindling the dead flames of their faith and as they turn back to God, God is waiting there. The things most important the Hebrew people: their God, their land, their temple, are being returned.

Finally, the close or conclusion of the story: those who have been given this mercy, the restoration, should worship. The close of the story is a call to action. Those who have been the recipients of God’s many gifts should respond with worship and praise,

I surely rejoice in the Lord; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.[4]

God has done great things for the Jewish people: what was taken has been returned, what was thought lost is now restored. So, the call is to answer this extravagance with praise for God’s mercy and worship of God’s person. It should be the response of all who have received the gifts of God that they should offer praise and worship to God. This was call in the days of Isaiah, this is the call today.

There is Still Good News to Tell

The lead, story, and close are essentially the same when Jesus picks up a scroll one Sabbath day and reads this verse to the synagogue audience with one caveat: It is Jesus himself who is the fulfillment of the promises in Isaiah. As Jesus finishes reading this, he announces that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”[5] Jesus is saying that in him, we find the ‘anointed one’, the servant of God who will bring about a reality of hope to the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned; the amnesty, liberation, and restoration that comes with the Jubilee Year found in Leviticus 25:8-12.[6]

Here is the Good News, or the gospel as it is called in Greek, that we have to share with the world: The God that was a God of Restoration for the exiled Hebrews is the God embodied in the life and redemptive work of Jesus and the God who continues to work through those who choose to follow the Way of Jesus. The good news, the best news that we can share is that the December child we celebrate in the manger, grows into the Easter man who offers us the resurrection of life to live beyond the base nature of our being.

As we celebrate this advent season, let us celebrate with the good news of redemption and restoration as the central themes, the basis for our walk with God and others. May we seek this gift of good news for ourselves, that we can know it so well as to be able to share it with others. That those who are poor, brokenhearted, still captive in their hearts, and imprisoned by the circumstances can know that God has made a way home for them in the life and person of Jesus.

In the words of the great American broadcaster Paul Harvey, that is “the rest of the story.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] http://www.cmt.com/news/1656341/nashville-skyline-anne-murray-was-right/

[2] Isaiah 61:1-3a

[3] Isaiah 61:3b-9

[4] Isaiah 61:10-11

[5] Luke 4:21

[6] Fred Craddock. Luke: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster/John Knox Press. Louisville, KY © 1990, p.60-61

The Gifts of God: Mercy

christmas-presents

As a student of history and culture, I have studied many eras of the human existence and found that I have a certain affinity for some more than others. Studies about biblical lands and empires hold an obvious fascination for me and tend to gravitate to certain eras of America history. But the one area that I find myself reading about over and over is Jewish history leading up to and during the second world war. I find it easy to be engrossed in the tales of survival against horrific odds but more than that, I find that I love reading about the heroism and courage of those willing to risk everything to help a people not their own; stories about people we are familiar with like Oskar Schindler and those that we may not be so familiar with like Jan and Antonina Żabiński.

“It was World War II, Warsaw was under German occupation, and the wife of the director of the Warsaw zoo spotted Nazis approaching the white stucco villa that she and her family inhabited on the zoo grounds.

According to plan, she went straight to her piano and began to play a lively tune from an operetta by Jacques Offenbach, a signal to Jews being sheltered in the house that they should be quiet and not leave their hiding places.

That scenario, repeated over years of war, was one of the tricks that allowed Jan and Antonina Zabinski to save the lives of dozens of Jews, a dramatic chapter in Poland’s wartime drama that was virtually unknown until an American author, Diane Ackerman, published a book about the Polish couple in 2007 called “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

The Zabinskis’ remarkable wartime actions — which included hiding Jews in indoor animal enclosures — seem certain to gain even more renown with the inauguration Saturday of a permanent exhibition in the villa, an attractive two-story Bauhaus home from the 1930s still on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo.

…78-year-old Moshe Tirosh, who sheltered there for three weeks in 1943, when he was just six…[is one of those saved by the Zabinski’s courage]. There is only one other known living Jewish survivor, Tirosh’s sister Stefania, who lives in Canada.

Tirosh can still recall details, even though his time there amounted to just a short spell in a long and dramatic struggle for survival over years of Nazi occupation. He remembers being taken there by a horse-drawn carriage that carried him over the Vistula River to the green gardens of the zoo. He remembers squatting in the cellar with his sister while his parents hid in animal enclosures. He said he was always putting his hand over his sister’s mouth when she cried to stifle the sound, which could have given away the hiding place. He also remembers being well fed, compared to periods of near starvation during other periods of the war.

When it was time to move on to another hiding place, Antonina brought him upstairs to dye his hair blond, hoping to help him pass as an “Aryan.” But the color turned out red instead, the inspiration for a secret code name for him: squirrel.

He also remembers Antonina using her piano to send the secret messages, with one melody to warn of danger and a different one to signal that danger had passed. He can’t identify the tunes, but other witnesses say that the warning was “Go, Go, Go to Crete!” from Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” — a piece that a pianist is to play at the inaugural ceremony Saturday.

Though he is grateful to both Zabinskis, his fondest memories focus on Antonina, who had closer contacts to the Jews in hiding than her husband, who was more active out of the house in his underground anti-Nazi activities, including by helping Jews escape from the Ghetto. By helping Jews the Zabinskis risked not only their own lives but that of their children, with the dealt penalty in force for Poles caught helping Jews.

“Antonina is a great woman, a hero…She was also beautiful, smart and wise.”

The couple is credited with saving dozens of Jews; though the exact number isn’t known it is believed to range from over 100 to 300. They were both honored in 1965 as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.”[1]

As I look at this and other stories like it, I find that a certain word comes to mind: mercy. In the face of uncertainty and fear, people like the Jan and Antonina showed mercy and compassion to a people that they owed nothing. In fact, if you look at the those who are honored with the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, you will find that the list includes over six and half thousand Polish men and women, more than any other nation in the world.

As we look at the words from the prophet Joel this morning and consider the second gift in our series I want to think on this idea of mercy or as some may say, compassion. As God has given, gives now, and will continue to give mercy, I wonder what should response to God be? To others?

A Bugged Life

Let us begin by considering that Joel hates bugs. Joel especially hates locusts, as do most people living in an agrarian setting, because they can undo several years of hard work and destroy enough food to feed a country for several years. Such a plague of locusts acts as the main opposition to the Jews in this little prophetic book. And just any plague of locusts, locusts like no one had seen in recent memory.

2 Has anything like this ever happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell it to your children, and have your children tell their children, and their children tell their children. What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. what the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten. And what the hopping locust left, the devouring locust has eaten.[2]

This band of bugs did exactly the kind of damage that we have just mentioned: it destroyed everything or as Joel says in 1:6-7, “Its teeth are like lions’ teeth; its fangs are like those of a lioness. It has destroyed my vines, splintered my fig trees, stripped off their bark and thrown it own; their branches have turned white.” In verses 16-18 the damage is described in further detail: grain shrivels before the shovel, granaries are emptied out, barns are found desolate, and the animals wail for hunger in the field. It is complete agricultural meltdown.

It is also complete social meltdown as well. The first part of the Joel story goes on to say that the people “who drink too much” need to “wake up” and “scream over the sweet wine” that has been lost. Joel calls on the people to go into mourning and lament or wail “like a woman…who has the husband of her youth.” Later on, we read where the “priests and the Lord’s ministers morn” for lost offerings of the field, offerings that cannot be brought before God. The prophet calls on the people of God to “Dress for a funeral and grieve” and to “spend the night in funeral clothing” and the prophets cries for the burning pastures and fields. Eugene Peterson puts it like this,

“There is a sense in which catastrophe doesn’t introduce anything new into our lives. It simply exposes the moral or spiritual reality that already exists but was hidden beneath a layer of routine, self-preoccupation, and business as usual.”[3]

Like many Old Testament authors, Joel uses the physical catastrophe to highlight a spiritual catastrophe in the hearts of the Jews. The writer makes a contrast between what is going on in the field (a plague of locusts destroying the agriculture), and what is happening in the temple (a moral plague of indifference and silence before God). The people of God have apparently turned away from God and forgotten what it means and what it looks like to follow God. “…return to me with all your hearts, with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow; tear your hearts and not your clothing” the writer says, “return to the Lord you God, for He is merciful and compassionate.” It is this idea, “merciful and compassionate” that I want to consider this morning as we continue to reflect on the gifts that God has given us.

The Hebrew idea of mercy is wrapped up in a word we have talked about before, chesed, This Hebrew word is used for the idea of the lovingkindness of God directed toward all God’s creation, and especially toward those who seek after God. But it is a far-reaching concept that includes not only lovingkindness but also the favor of God, the redemption of God, and the active expression of these things toward those loved by God. Joel is calling the people of God back from their own path to a merciful God who seeks to walk with them again and we see in verse eighteen that God shows Israel that kind of mercy.

 Then the Lord became passionate about this land, and had pity on his people.

This gift God offers is mercy, the gift given only when the people are ready to receive it. Being ready reminds me of a story from my childhood where I got a present that I couldn’t have. When I was about ten years old, my father’s older brother decided that I needed a pocket knife to carry around with me. This knife he decided to give me wasn’t a pocket knife but a six-inch folding knife that I couldn’t even get into my pocket. He called it a ‘frog sticker’ and the blade was longer than my hand. I had never had anything like that and the truth is I was such a clumsy kid that I would have most likely hurt myself with it, that is if my father hadn’t intervened. The obvious truth of my being a suburban kid, too young to have what was essentially a weapon, was not lost on my father. He allowed me to accept the gift and as soon as my uncle drove away, he took it away from me and put it in his closet. “I’ll give it back when you’re ready,” he told me. It would be two years and a couple of pants sizes later before I would be ready to handle the responsibility and even then, it came with a lot of instruction.

In the Joel narrative, the people of God experience this plague and God is willing, waiting to offer them mercy. But mercy doesn’t come to them until the turn their hearts back to God until, as the prophet says, they are ready to return to God. Their repentance happens just before God abruptly “has pity his people.” According to the text, the people,

Blow the horn in Zion; demand a fast; request a special assembly. Gather the people; prepare a holy meeting; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the groom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep. Let them say, “Have mercy, Lord, on your people, and don’t make your inheritance a disgrace, an example of failure among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”[4]

Notice that the text uses the word, then, to begin verse eighteen, as in God responded immediately after the people responded. God is wanting to respond to the need but the people are not ready yet to accept that response. God does not force mercy on us. God waits until we are ready to accept it and to know how to live with it before mercy can be given. God doesn’t leave mercy on the porch like a mailman leaving a package of chocolate in the sun. God waits until we are there to receive the gift.

The Gift in the New Testament

The idea of chesed finds its way into the New Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the word eleos, the equivalent word used in translating the Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint. The same intensity that was present in the Hebrew is still present in the Greek, shown as lovingkindness, favor, and with redemptive qualities as well. Jesus uses this idea taken directly from the Old Testament, where God speaks to Hosea saying, “I desire faithful love (another translation of chesed) and not sacrifice.”

Jesus reiterates this Old Testament statement saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice”[5] during the stories of the calling of Levi and the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. In both cases, Jesus is saying that the law of showing mercy is greater than the law of Moses as they have interpreted it, that the godly treatment of those who are in physical or spiritual need supersedes religious rules that are meant to control the external behavior while ignoring the internal aspects of godliness.

It is a mercy that the Pharisees cannot see for their blindness and cannot hear for their deafness. It is a teaching that seems incomprehensible to them because they are so focused on keeping order and keeping the Romans disinterested that they have adapted the Law of God to serve the Law of Need. It is an interpretation based in comfort and safety not in the kind of extravagance and abandon that God wishes to offer it. Again, they simply are not ready to receive the mercy that God offers.

The question for us as we consider the Advent season is, are we ready to receive Emmanuel, God with us, into our hearts and lives this season. He is the gift that God has given but are we able to receive that gift, are we able to put self aside, put brokenness aside, and embrace the gift given to us. It is gift that can be accepted and re-gifted as we offer mercy, lovingkindness, and redemption to others who are in need. But we cannot give what we do not have and we cannot receive unless we are ready to do so.


[1] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/1.651285

[2] Joel 1:2-4

[3] Eugene Peterson, The Message Bible. NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, © 2012, p.1383

[4] Joel 2:15-17

[5] Matthew 9:13, 12:7