So, This Story is a Little Long…
I just finished 5 weeks of preaching at Christ Journey on the topic of Sabbath. My suspicion going into this series was that very few of us, particularly here in our faith community, really understand, appreciate or practice any type of Sabbath rhythm.
I think this suspicion was confirmed and (hopefully) overcome. Over the past month I’ve had people come to me and say, “I’m glad we did this, I never knew that Sabbath had anything at all to do with Christianity – I thought it was just an Old Testament thing like Passover or Kosher laws.” Another told me, “I was always taught that Sabbath was going to church and NOT GOING to movies or the mall on Sunday.”
What we spent this entire month considering were the ways in which a Sabbath rhythm could be cultivated (which basically means that we have an intentional time set aside each week to cease from work and the compulsion to produce and prove ourselves and instead embrace other things like rest, worship, feasting, remembering, celebrating and storytelling).
I admit fully that while I have a great affinity for the concept of Sabbath I am not always very good at practice. I can see the areas in my life that would be healthier and more satisfying were I to center myself in the practice of remembering God is God and I am not…but I do not do the thing I want to do and what I do not what to do, I do.
One concept which has come up quite a bit lately, through our Sabbath discussions as well as in other (seemingly) unrelated settings is the importance of story. Being good storytellers and story-hearers is important to our spiritual formation and it is also a reenactment of the Gospel of Jesus.
We discussed in a couple of the sermons that Sabbath itself is rooted in story – we are first introduced to Sabbath in the narrative of creation. It does not simply show up out of the blue in the middle of the Ten Commandments. In fact the command issued in Exodus 20 is to REMEMBER the Sabbath day. This story is formative.
Later when the Ten Commandments are retold to Israel in Deuteronomy 5 Sabbath is set within another story. Here the people are told to remember the Sabbath day as a way to remember that they were captives in Egypt and God rescued them and brought them to freedom. The Exodus story is central to understanding God’s relationship to humanity. We, the captives, cried out to God and he came near in order to set us free. He is not a God demanding constant production, like the Egyptian masters. He invites his people to rest in Him.
Jesus would later say that He came so that we might have life and have it to the fullest. He said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”
The hearing and telling of these stories – our stories in scripture – is central to participation in the life of faith. But that isn’t where the importance of story ends.
In the midst of one of our worship gatherings we had an opportunity for several couples to share stories. They were asked to talk about how God had worked in their lives in the past or where they were hoping to see God at work in the future.
I thought it was a great moment for our family when one couple shared what they thought were two unrelated stories. However after they shared their two stories we helped them to reinterpret their story. In fact the two were so closely connected that it was quite powerful – one talking about the struggle to find balance between providing for his family and spending time with them and the other talking about her struggle to forgive a father that failed to maintain that very balance.
We are a community that tells, retells and sometimes, reinterprets stories. It is what we do because it is precisely what God has done for us. The story of human existence was one of brokenness and despair. Sin, unchecked, destroys life after life with no compassion or mercy. God in his greatness did not allow this story to define us forever. Instead he stepped into the story and began redeeming and reconciling the characters. Humanity and all creation are in the process of being healed and restored by the Great Storyteller who was not happy with this tale ending in tragedy.
Where there are chapters of brokenness, God is editing and rewriting to include restoration. Where there is pain, God writes in healing; where there is chaos, God speaks a narrative of peace.
We too have that ability. We are able to tell the story in a new light. This isn’t to say that we stick our head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. No, we step into the midst of a story that says everything is doomed and proclaim that in fact, there is hope. (Which was part of what happened at Marvelous Light)
Paul stepped into the midst of total relativism in Athens (Acts 17) and said, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Paul was able to reinterpret this story for the Athenians because he was willing to enter into their story in the first place. Had he simply stood outside the Areopagus and denounced their idolatry he would have had no impact whatsoever.
I recently heard a Christian say that they were unable to participate in Christmas activities because December 25 was an ancient pagan holiday associated with the Winter Solstice and the practices of Christmas originate in the worship of Saturnalia and other pagan gods.
It may be jarring to learn for the first time that there were religious celebrations associated with winter and even December 25 prior to Christ. While this may be difficult if you didn’t know about it, it isn’t a great deception.
In (I believe) 350, Pope Julius declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ would take place on December 25. This happened when many pagans were being forced to convert to Christianity. The move, while certainly containing the risk of syncretism, retold this story – which was always one of hope.
And theirs was a good story. The worship may have been false, but the concept was one of hope in a higher power that could rescue humanity from the powers of nature which were so threatening.
In fact, the practice of bringing an evergreen tree into one’s home was meant as a reminder that life would return even though the harsh cold winter seemed an unstoppable ally of death.
And Christianity retold this story. “Yes” we were able to say, “there is hope in the darkest of times; yes we can look forward to resurrection of life from the dead – but not because we’ve properly coerced the pagan gods but rather because the One True God has become one of us in order to be life and light in this darkness.” In other words, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Granted, the early church’s use of power and coercion was not something I believe to be Christlike. There were probably many pagans who simply used Christian language while maintaining their pagan beliefs – just as there are many Africans today who struggle with syncretism…and many Americans who baptize their consumerism and greed.
For Christians not to celebrate Christmas – at a time when the whole world is just a little more receptive to hearing the story of God coming near – seems to me to be a tragic missed opportunity to engage in this story. This story has been reinterpreted, retold and redeemed. For those who used (or use) the winter solstice to worship gods which are unable to actually save, we say, “Do not be afraid. We bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” And because this story has been redeemed we can claim it as our story…because that it what it has become, it is a new creation!
I love the season of Advent – which is focused on anticipation of God coming near; the season of Christmas – which is focused on the arrival of our hope in the form of a Savior; the season of Easter – which is the fulfillment of our hope through the victory of Christ over sin and death. These seasons are filled with storytelling cues which can be incredibly powerful…and they can also prime the pump for the story to be told to those who’ve never heard.
I love the music, the decorations, the preparation for Christmas…there is no denying that something is happening. This story is just begging to not only be told, but to be experienced and entered into.
Now if we want to have a conversation about letting Christmas be an excuse to become self-centered materialists…well that’s an altogether different story.