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


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