the greatest story ever retold

Read Revelation 12

Parents have shared their amazement at how children will want to hear a favorite story over and over again—whether it’s a completely made up, picture-book story, or an actual, it-really-happened family story. It’s reassuring to them. The repetition and familiarity provide a level of comfort and security even as they get caught up in the story line time and time again. I want to share with you a story by Philip Gulley, a Quaker pastor and writer in Indiana. His story is a lot longer than stories I would normally quote in a sermon, but there’s an exception to most every rule, right? He writes:

I was born deep in the winter. Each birthday my father phones to recount the events surrounding my birth. Our sons are asleep in their bedroom under the eaves. My wife and I are sitting in front of the fireplace; she is doing her needlework and I am reading a mystery. The phone rings. I ease out of my chair, walk to the kitchen, pick up the phone and say, “Hello.”

It is my father. No “Hello.” No “How are you?” Just the same question each birthday: “Have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

“I don’t believe so,” I tell him.

“Well, it was eight o’clock in the evening when your mother went into labor. I remember the time because Gunsmoke was just starting. There was a terrible snowstorm. We could barely see the neighbor’s house for the snow. We got in the car to drive to the hospital in the city. Our defroster didn’t work, and I couldn’t see through the windshield. I had to drive the whole twenty miles with my head out the window. It was so cold my face was frostbitten. I ran a red light and a policeman pulled me over and said he was going to give me a ticket. I told him to hurry up because my wife was going to have a baby. The policeman said, ‘Follow me!’ and he turned on his lights and siren and off we went, all the way to the hospital where you were born. Not everyone can say that. That makes you special.

When I was a child, my mother would tuck me into bed, kiss my forehead, then leave the room. My father would come in and sit at the foot of my bed and ask, “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

“I don’t believe so,” I would tell him.

He would lean back, close his eyes, and conjure up that memory—the snow and the swirling red lights and the siren’s wail. I’ve hear that story nearly forty times and I never tire of it. Every year I wonder the same things: Will they make it in time? Will I be alright? Of course I will be, because here I am. But the way my father tells the story leaves the outcome in doubt and I never quite relax until the story concludes with me safely delivered.

In my teenage years, when my father and I were at odds, I would remember how he had suffered frostbite to bring me safely into the world … and my heart would soften. I was a skinny kid, the target of bullies. When beaten up and ridiculed, I would take comfort in the fact that I was ushered into this world with a police escort and they were not. It was a wonderful gift my father gave me, that story. He could not give me wealth or fame to ease my way, so he gave me that story and it provided a deep consolation.

My chief regret is that I am not able to offer my sons a similar story. Their births were routine, insofar as a child’s birth is ever routine. We had sufficient time to drive to the hospital. The roads were clear. The car ran smoothly. My wife was unruffled. The doctors and nurses were competent and our children were delivered with a minimum of pain. I didn’t feel a thing.

When my older son turned five years old, he asked me, “Daddy, what happened when I was born?” I didn’t want to tell him the truth—that as births go, his was unremarkable, with only one peculiarity. When he was due to emerge, I was in the hospital restroom reading a back issue of Reader’s Digest. Drama in Real Life. A man ran off the road and over a cliff, where he lay broken and dazed for three days before spelling out HELP with rocks and sticks. Spotted by an airplane, he was rescued and lived to share his dramatic story.

As I finished his harrowing tale, the nurse knocked on the door and said, “You wife is having your baby. You better get out here.” So I came out and five minutes later, so did my son. That is the truth, though it isn’t the kind of story I want to tell my son. It is not the stuff of legend. So when he asked me what happened when he was born, I kissed his forehead and took my place at the foot of his bed.

“Yours was a very special birth,” I told him. “Quite miraculous. It was the middle of winter. It was snowing. We were sitting in the living room late in the evening. Your mother went into labor. We climbed into the car and made our way toward the hospital. The roads were terribly slick. As we were rounding a curve, we slid off the road and over a cliff, where our car came to rest at the bottom. We were dazed and bruised. Your mother was pinned in the wreckage and couldn’t move, but I could, just barely. I managed to climb out through a window and gather some sticks and rocks, which I used to spell out HELP. The next morning, an airplane, circling overhead, spotted us and we were rescued. We were rushed to the hospital where you were safely delivered. And that, son, is the story of your birth.”

He swelled with pride. He’d had no idea his beginnings were marked with such drama. “Tell me again,” he pleaded.

“Next year,” I told him. “You’ll have to wait until your next birthday.” I kissed him goodnight and went downstairs to sit in my chair. My wife was there.

“What were you and Spencer talking about?” Joan asked.

“I was telling him about the night he was born,” I answered.

“Did you mention how the nurse had to get you out of the restroom because you were reading that story in Reader’s Digest?”

“Indirectly,” I answered.

“I hope you haven’t put ideas in his head,” she said.

My wife is a straightforward woman who doesn’t always appreciate the advantage of story and drama. She doesn’t need to embellish her birth story. Her mother delivered her without assistance after the doctor had left for the day. With a birth like that, you don’t need to exaggerate. It’s miracle enough.

I went back upstairs to talk with Spencer. “I would prefer,” I told him, “that you not talk with your mother about the car wreck and your birth. The memory of it is more than she can bear.”

My birthday came a few weeks later. My parents invited us for Sunday dinner. We were seated in the dining room. I said to my father, “Tell me about my birth, about the policeman and the snow.”

“What policeman?” my mother asked. “What snow?”

“The policeman who escorted you and Dad to the hospital the night I was born. Remember? It was snowing and the defroster was broken and Dad got frostbite from driving twenty miles with his head out the window.”

Mom said, “It wasn’t snowing—it was unusually warm that day. And he wouldn’t take me to the hospital until Gunsmoke was over. It was his favorite show, you know. He almost named you Festus.”

I looked across the table at my father. He smiled, winked, and said nothing. It was all a story—no snow, no policeman, no frostbite, no siren, no swirling lights. But it was my story, true or not, and I was grateful for it. I did not have wealth or fame or muscles or good looks to ease my way into this world. But I did have my story. My father gave it to me. It was his gift to me, bestowed with love, and I treasure it.

Later that night I was sitting in our living room. The phone rang. It was my father. “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?” he asked.

“I don’t believe so,” I answered.

He spoke of blowing snow and running a red light and how he got frostbite. He told me about the policeman who pulled him over and the police escort with the swirling lights and the siren. “Not everyone gets a police escort,” he pointed out. “That makes you special.”

These are the stories passed from father to son. We have no wealth to bestow, no fame to offer. We have only these legends to remind our children that on the day they were born, the ordinary was suspended and the miracles flew thick. (Philip Gulley, “A Time to Be Born: birth stories,” in For Everything a Season: simple musings on living well (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) 13-20)

Many, many years ago, deep in the winter, a husband and wife rode a donkey through a freak blizzard in the middle east. The woman was great with child and was completely bundled up riding on the donkey, but the father got frostbite where the wind swirled through the opening in his hood that he needed in order to see where they were going.

There was no room for them at the inn, but the innkeeper escorted them through the howling wind to a stable, and there, under a flashing, red “NO VACANCY” sign, the mother gave birth to her baby boy without assistance (or without the assistance of doctors—I’m sure Joseph helped!) and wrapped him in swaddling clothes.

Overhead, a new star celebrated in bright glory, and shepherds and the wise made their way to the stable as angel chorus ran through the night. And whenever and wherever this story was told, in the suspension of the ordinary, you knew that this one was special. This baby boy, born in these circumstances, miracles flying thick, was special.

And he was, wasn’t he? A long longed-for answer to prayer. For through the years HELP had been spelled out—written large in the broken lives of God’s daughters and God’s sons—written large in the pain of the human condition and the plight of the natural world—a desperate plea from a world spinning out of control—sliding off the way things were supposed to be—sliding off the way God had envisioned. HELP was spelled out amidst the wreckage of how things are.

But ushered into the world, in and through this baby boy, was the possibility of transformation—the possibility of reconciliation and redemption. And mothers and fathers passed the story along to daughters and sons—a story told with all the hope broken lives could rally—with all the love that beings shaped in the image of God could muster—a story told with every scrap of imagination that human creativity could draw upon when confronted with the divine. All this to convey the absolute importance of this story—the utter significance.

And so in the sky—on the largest canvas we have—a poet draws the image of a woman—not just bathed in the brightness of the sun—the softer light of the moon and the stars, but actually wearing the sun as a wrap. She wears a veil of clouds but sunbeams lance out every which way. Too bright and too beautiful a sight to behold. Too vast to take in even if we could see. All the colors of sunrise and sunset dance around her. She’s crowned in starlight, and her feet are propped up on the moon. So with the great lights of the dark night above and below her, she is herself clothed in the light of day and on her person, she reconciles the darkness and the light, the day and the night.

And she is pregnant. What manner of child would such a woman as this birth? What hopes will be fulfilled when light and beauty give birth? We wonder, and we anticipate. Yet she is in agony. And though the sound of her pain is the vast creaking of the earth shifting in place—the crackling of the flames at the very heart of the earth—though the sound of her pain is the howling of the fierce north wind and the roar of the deepest waves crashing down on beaches and rocks the world over, nonetheless, in her pain, we feel closer to her than we ever knew we could in her beauty and in her majesty.

Then in the sky appears also a dragon. A fierce beast—fearful in appearance with seven heads—seven gaping mauls with sharply serrated teeth, and ten razor sharp horns, and a mighty tail that swept a third of the stars of the sky from the heavens leaving dread in its wake. In the sky, next to the woman of light, the destroyer of light—evil and danger made image. Long before mapmakers would designate the perils of unknown territories with the words, “Here there be dragons,” it was known, subconsciously—it was known deeply and truly, that dragons represented that which was evil—that which was deadly. And this immense dragon in the sky, waits, poised, ready to devour the baby as soon as it is born. A dread threat posed to the hope of all who look to light and believe.

And we wait—poised over a world about to erupt with joy or with grief—a world about to be saved—or be damned. Does it matter that the poet is using mythic images from a host of different stories from a variety of different cultures? Maybe. Sure. A lot you can do with that. But what matters most is the story being conveyed. An humble story—just the story of a birth—but a birth with cosmic ramifications. And because Jesus was born to bring about the possibility of transformation and redemption, this story can also be the story of any birth. This very day, this very hour, images of God are being born all over the world.

So, this is the absolutely unique story of the birth of Jesus. It’s also the absolute truth of any and every birth—this baby could grow up to change the world. There’s a gap in the story here, isn’t there? A gap into which Jesus fits—a gap into which any newborn fits—a gap into which you fit—when you were born.

You can fill in other gaps in the story if you want to. That’s what good stories do—invite you to fill the gaps. Is the dragon Herod? Sweeping into Bethlehem to murder the babies? Sure. Is the dragon a modern corporation registered overseas to avoid paying taxes—exploiting conditions to virtually enslave native children? Absolutely. Do you hear the dragon’s roar in the insidious advertising that suggests young women must be as this and young men must be as that? Yes. Do you see the deadly horns in abusive parents, and apathetic parents, and parents who exploit their children? Of course. What about a country that lets its children go hungry? Without education? (Years ago, when I first wrote and preached this sermon, I had in this list … what about a country that lets its children go without insurance?) So many sharply serrated teeth taking a huge bite out of the future. This baby could have changed the world. Thing about gaps in stories like this, they’re always big enough to take more. They’re not gaps you can fill. They’re not gaps to be filled. That’s part of their power.

And so every year—every day—every time we hear this story—this story of Jesus—this story of us, we wonder the same things: will it all work out? Will love overcome apathy? Will everything be alright? For the way the story is told leaves the outcome in doubt, and we never quite relax until the story concludes with all safely delivered.

So, when we are at odds with God, may we remember how God suffered to bring us safely into this world … and may our hearts soften. When we are beaten up and ridiculed by the circumstances of our lives, may we take comfort in the fact that we were ushered into this world with God’s blessing and with God’s love. It’s a wonderful gift we have, this story. It provides a deep consolation. This is our story, and we are grateful for it. We may not have the priorities of this world that lead to wealth and to power, but we do have our story. God gave it to us. It is God’s good gift, bestowed with love, and we treasure it.

Every year around Advent, we start singing the few Advent hymns we have, and we throw in Christmas carols because there are so many of them—so beloved—and never enough time to sing them all. We decorate, and we bake. We thoughtfully and joyfully plan to gift each other. And Christmas comes and Christmas goes. Gifts go from being anticipated possibilities to the latest possessions. It’s back to work. Put up the Christmas music and the Christmas decorations.

Our text today, suggests that Advent and Christmas are not about particular days of the year commemorating particular days long past. Rather, our story suggests that we live our days as Advent, expecting and anticipating the coming birth, as we simultaneously live our days as Christmas, celebrating the birthing of the divine—as God has been born into our very midst—as God is even now being born into our very midst, and as God is yet to be born.

This is not a story about four weeks of Advent once a year, but about Advent week by week, year in and year out. This is a story not about a Christmas season, but about a Christmas lifestyle. We have only these legends—these stories—passed on from parents in the faith to children in the faith, to remind us that on each day God is born, the ordinary is suspended and the miracles fly thick.

Thanks be to God.

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