Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sermon Prayers and Thoughts: Staring at the Barren Ground: People, Look East!

The sermons of December are related to favorite stories connected to Jesus' birth. Before we get to Jesus' birth, we take a visit to the family birth story of John the Baptist and his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1.

Birth stories are popular to this day. Melanie and I recently watched the popular film "Knocked Up." The story highlights the birth of a child in a tenuous situation--which is actually a common theme. Even though the circumstances have some unique qualities today, there are some common themes to all stories related to birth.
Elizabeth and Zechariah's story follows a long tradition of stories related to the arrival of a child. Though the circumstances from story to story may be different, a lot of similar things happen. The parents-to-be are anxious. They move through periods of excitement, amazement, doubt, bewilderment and feelings of inadequacy. This is very common in story telling. When a familiar story is told, it engages the audience, but also makes them more sensitive to differences in characters. Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine shares some excellent work related to how story types in the Bible are very important in conveying messages about God, faith and community life. It doesn't take a sophisticated mind to recognize story patterns--if we name a type of story, we almost don't have to watch the story to give a basic outline of the plot. If I say "Western," you can probably give a plot outline. If I say "murder mystery," you can give a plot outline. If I say "situation comedy from the 1970's," I could give a plot outline. As a child, Tuesday evening television was devoted to my indoctrination into the power of familiar stories. If I had done my homework and got ready for bed, I could watch Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. I knew the plot lines for Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley: each one of the characters took their turns in messing something up, only to be remedied by a young and cool Italian man. One of those Italian heroes being Arthur Fonzarelli, the other being Carmine Ragusa. They weren't the most educated, or even wealthy. Their M.O. was using their own special gift in a pressure situation. Carmine believed in honor, and his artistic abilities. The FONZ was all about grace under pressure. He really didn't even need to throw a punch, though occasionally showed the ability to throw a punch. I think I liked these characters because I was also an aspiring young Italian man who wanted to make a difference in people's lives.

Birth stories are prevalent in the Old Testament. Why tell a birth story? What does the birth story say about God and God's people?

Genesis 11 is part of the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son, Isaac.
Genesis 25 is part of the story about Isaac and Rebekah and their son, Jacob.
Genesis 29 is part of the story about Jacob and Rachel and their son, Joseph.
Judges 13 tells the story of Samson and his parents.
1 Samuel tells the story of Samuel's parents Eli and Hannah.

What do all of these stories have in common besides the birth of a son? Each of these women is considered "barren." The audience of these stories probably knew what was coming next in these kinds of stories, probably recognizing the same nuances I did with my Tuesday night situation comedies on ABC KOMO TV4. Though each of these women are barren, each has its own twist of plot or characterization.

A few interesting points about Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest and charged with the care of communal faith life. He was living his calling and making a difference for the community of faith. Elizabeth was a descendant of Moses' brother Aaron. This was an important couple in the community. Luke 1:6 tells us that both were blameless and upright, following the commandments of God. Yet, Elizabeth was barren--she could not give birth to a child, what some might consider a curse. Like in the story of Job, the main characters have done nothing to deserve the circumstance in their life. Barrenness is not seen as a consequence, but a condition of life--and an opportunity.

I really love my life when things seem to click and move well. I like it when I'm funny. I like it when I have a good conversation with my wife, or connect with my kids. I like life when I have a good idea, or solve a problem. I like it when I read voraciously, write prolifically and pray earnestly. The problem is those times become a temptation to think I can somehow live without God (kind of interesting when I actually have a good prayer life). When life is not clicking, I think God is absent, but actually God is at work. Barrenness in Luke chapter 1 is not a punishment, or the absence of God, but an open field for the love and action of God to be made known for the people who are looking. Even though Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced barrenness, they still couldn't see the possibilities that God had through them. Even though Zechariah was blameless, he had famous last words (literally and figuratively), challenging the Angel Gabriel, "But my wife is getting on in years." His doubt landed a long sentence of muteness. So much for being blameless and upright.

Whatever barrenness we experience in life, personal or communal, it is time for the people of God to "look East," and look up and proclaim the action of God, even in places that appear to be barren. God is at work.

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