What do you call a man with a shovel in his head?
Getting the Jesus story...
Week of Sunday 18 December - Advent 4
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” asked Ajak, as I took kids home one Sunday. “To see the man lay a brick!” he informed me triumphantly.
When I relayed this joke to Indian friends a few minutes later, they looked at me with total incomprehension. I did not continue with the question which had followed from Ajak’s little sister, Atong, about why the dinosaur also crossed the road. (He didn’t want to be a chicken.)
These jokes delight two Sudanese children now growing up in Australia. Their Indian friends, both multi (several times over) lingual adults, are mystified. We have been exploring Australian humour and slang. We’ve looked at how jokes have a form to them. We have identified Knock, Knock jokes, and Good-News-Bad-News jokes, for example. We’ve explored jokes you tell, or play, on new comers.
In Australia, we warn visitors of the danger of drop bears, which are a hallowed mythology, and as we were entertained by galahs at a picnic last night, I explained that you could eat these if you were down on your luck. The trouble is that the meat is very tough, and you have to boil them with a stone. Only when the stone is soft, will the galah be ready to eat. My friend laughed at me, disbelieving; she knows the signs now.
When I visit India, I will have stored up an enormous cache of teasing in return for all this.
On the way home from church I had asked what you call a man with a shovel in his head. She shook hers.
“Doug,” I replied. “Now, what do you call a man when you pull the shovel out of his head?” Her “You-crazy-Australians” frown deepened.
“Doug-less?” she wondered, and then burst into delighted laughter.
Reading the gospel is a bit like this telling and receiving of jokes. There is a deep culture behind the familiar stories. Explaining the form and structure of chicken crossing the road jokes, (let alone how dinosaurs are funny in this context because the chicken jokes are not that funny, and that’s why we tell them,) seems to remove all the humour. I explained chickens, and laying, and builders, and bricklaying, in some detail the first time we crossed the street with that chicken joke. Met with two blank faces, I embarked on a short description of the relative shape of bricks and eggs... It wasn’t funny.
Sometimes we fear that explaining the form, the editing, the historical background, the conventions of the day; all this will remove the wonder of the story of Jesus. My own experience of this is twofold.
Firstly, there is content in the gospel stories which quietly mystifies us. Familiarity may have quietened our questions, but surely many of us wondered why Luke had such intricate (intricate is a code word for slightly boring) stories about Zechariah, or such long poems like Mary’s song. It always seemed slightly unreal that she would burst out in song when Elizabeth greeted her; rather like a poor quality Hollywood musical. I didn’t “get it.” I didn’t understand the form of the story. Background information clears away the mystification.
(I wonder if a lot of our pious hallowing of the stories is rooted in this sense of unreality, or strangeness, of the form of the story. We want it to be holy, but we do not quite understand it, and are afraid we will lose something if we change things.)
The second thing is that careful study actually sets us free, rather than removing the wonder. It opens new vistas we can barely imagine. Our own lives begin to intersect with the gospel. My friend is a nurse, and a man called Douglas, it turns out, is one of her patients. Her delight at the shovel joke was bound up with that fact; there was a unique Word for her in that little story.
Christmas stories sometimes seem especially ossified in our collective memories; why can’t we just have the old carols? Strong emotions warn us against spoiling the story. If the meaning of Christmas is bound up in muzak carols, why would we risk suggesting the whole story is carefully crafted fiction shaped around a very few historical kernels? People may not find this funny.
But some will 'get' the new story. And this will make all the difference. It may even become their own Word, touching them deeply.
As we come to this week’s gospel, we need to remember the traditions which surround great people. They need a birth story. They need to fit the form. This is a deep longing in us for this; if they don’t fit the story, we will make them fit!
In the United States one such form is the myth of “Log Cabin to Whitehouse,” for example. We do it in Australia in reverse; the house where Bob Hawke was born has a plaque on it, and is a little shrine in a country town where likely no one votes Labor! In our strongly secular country, the fact that Bob is a parson’s kid has been woven into the story. Who cares about clergy kids? But this keeps coming up and is secularly hallowed wherever people talk about him, just like John Howard’s petrol station father. We create a story which goes beyond the facts. We can’t have great leaders who don’t fit the form of what great leaders “are.”
So, in dot points, here is some building of the story in Luke.
- Significant people needed to be announced into this world by angels and portents.
- You can build up the power of the story with a time line: In the days of King Herod... (1:5) and then
- you maintain the momentum: for five months (1:24)... and in the six month... (1:26)...
- an angel appears to Mary. This angel (unlike Zechariah's) has a name. This fact alone indicates superiority; already Jesus’ precedence is being suggested. ! (1:26) To add to this, Gabriel is no minor angel, but one of the leading lights.
- Mary has found favour with God... again, a sign.
- This birth is even more miraculous than the mighty miracle of a birth given to a barren woman... (Hint: think of Hannah and Samuel here. We are making the historical connections I will mention below.) There is no barren woman here; this birth is given to a virgin. Virgin births are one of the portents of significant births; you are a pretender without one.
The birth story needs to fit in with, or be fitted into, the historical expectations of the day, and the cultural memories of the people. The poverty of the president during childhood will be magnified, even if it needs to be manufactured because he was rich from day one.
- Back in history, it was said to King Ahaz by Isaiah that the birth of a child to a young woman would be a sign of God’s activity and power. (Isaiah 7) There was no virgin in the original text, only a young woman. The virgin occurs because of a (mis)translation of the original Hebrew into the Greek version of Isaiah that was common in Jesus’ day. The use of the virgin birth motif by the Gospel writers seems, to our eyes, decidedly dodgy and opportunistic exegesis!
- People expected someone from the House of David (1:27, 32,33) to be involved in the future of Israel because of the promise in 2 Samuel 7:16. Luke makes this reference three times! His repetition is not just a style of oratory, but is deliberately emphasising the point.
- This child comes from God (the power of the Most High will overshadow you.) He is the Son of the Most High, a holy child born of God, not one adopted like his ancestor David. In the royal psalm (2:7) where it says “you are my son, today I have begotten you,” begotten means adopted.
- And you will name him Jesus: Joshua is a great name from the pas. He is the one who finally leads Israel into the Promised Land. Joshua means Saviour. Name is all-important. John Howard was the ordinary person’s Prime Minister. Plain John Howard fitted the story. “Little Johnny” came from those who despised him. Robert James Lee Hawke called himself Bob. Bob fits the image of the likeable rouge. We tend to remember Bob Menzies as Robert, much more formal.
This has been a short list. Anyone with a study bible, and a little time, can find more echoes from across the history of Israel that Luke weaves into his story; even some Luke did not think of at the time.
Let’s come back to the Virgin Birth.
The virgin birth is a Christmas shibboleth to many of us. We give it Capital Letters. It’s not just a touch stone of orthodoxy for many folk. Explaining the origins of the miracle feels to many folk, like explaining away a joke. All the power and humour is removed by the explanation. It’s already bad enough that some joyless minister has said that even if anyone special did come to see Jesus, (unlikely) nothing was said about there being three of them, or that they were kings. Also, nothing is said about camels and oxen, let alone lobsters, in the birth story. Now even the miracle is destroyed.
How do we get into the story without destroying it for people?
My wife and I discussed, somewhat sadly, the almost non-event of Christmas in our house this year. There are no decorations up. The Christmas Tree nearly died because the pot didn’t get enough water during the November heatwave, so it’s not coming inside this year. It’s been a lean year for money, so the presents are going to be thin on the carpet. And we both have Christmas services, and too many meetings. Thank goodness for Auntie Beth, who’s offered to host Christmas lunch for the family!
Actually, much of the joy of Christmas we were remembering was about our childhood delight at Christmas, and then the delight we had in our own kids’ Christmases as children. To regain the joy of Christmas, we have to tell our own Christmas story that fits with today. We have to weave our own life and situation into the story Luke has told us. To do that, we need to understand what Luke is telling us. The better we understand him, the better we can tell our own story.
This brings me back to the reason for the form and style of this rather self indulgent First Impression. It’s laden with the names of friends, and local stories, and private memories. If you don’t love Love Actually, the lobster joke means nothing. The theological task of Christmas— I mean the call God makes on us as Christians— is to take our story, our memories, and our little private jokes and weave them into the story of Jesus.
Luke’s story is laden with historical memory. He is building us up to claim that his story of Jesus is The Story of the Universe, much better and More True than the shallow claims of the Roman Empire. This is why Jesus is significant. This is what he Means. Shepherds and angels and mangers are meaningless without the challenge to the Romes of our time. Will we take the story we were given as children, and grow up? Will we take and treasure the harmless touches of local genius, such as second lobster, weed out the shallow materialist claims of the current Empire, and tell a better story?
You see, when I weave myself into the story of Luke, then tired transporting of people home from church, swapping weak jokes with the kids, simple picnics with friends, and even worn-out-with-work Christmases, become full of joy and power. There is a Word which enters into my words. I find a story. Life becomes joyful. I am not struggling to re-create a past memory of Christmas; I am meeting a future.
Andrew Prior Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!