The Rest of the Story
One of the most enjoyable presidential elections I experienced was in 1984. Dave and I were living in Italy. We got just enough current news to have a sense of what was going on with the election without having to suffer through the ads and television coverage and newspaper stories. What I really enjoyed was getting our news magazines several weeks after the fact and reading the predictions about what would happen which turned out to be totally wrong.
Nowadays I listen to a lot of podcasts. And I'm woefully behind on them, which means that right now I'm listening to news-based podcasts from August, when President-Elect Trump's campaign was disintegrating, and the election was Hilary Clinton's to lose. It has been amusing listening to them knowing the end results.
The season of Advent starts on Sunday. It's the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. But it's a little like reading my 1984 news magazines, or listening to three-month-old podcasts. I already know the ending. There's not a lot of mystery in the story.
More and more churches advertise Advent as a time to slow down, to prepare, to get ready for the coming of Christ. But it's not. There are concerts to attend, shopping to be done, decorations to put up. We have to really work hard to slow down. And why do we need to slow down to listen to a story we've heard lots of times?
Maybe Advent is the time to pull out your inner Paul Harvey and look at “the rest of the story.” (Google it.)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The 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. And 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then 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. (Luke 1:26-38)
We've heard the story countless times. But look at it again. While Mary was perplexed at the angel’s greeting, there didn’t seem to be any great surprise that there was an angel in front of her. No surprise at being told that her elderly relative Elizabeth was pregnant. No surprise at being told that she herself would give birth to the son of God.
What incredible faith this young woman had to accept everything happening to her and everything being told to her. What incredible faith to accept the declaration that she was to give birth to the Son of God. No questions, no arguing, just faith. "I am the servant of the Lord."
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:8-20)
We've heard the story countless times. But look at it again. At least the shepherds had the sense to be terrified at this angelic presence before them. After calmly being told to not be afraid, there was then a multitude of angels. Being a shepherd is a fairly lonely profession. Having a multitude of angels suddenly talking to them had to have been beyond terrifying. But the shepherds didn’t flinch. What incredible faith it took to leave their sheep and travel to see a baby. What incredible faith it took to share their story with others, without being afraid of sounding crazy. What incredible faith it took to simply look at each other say “Let’s go.”
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12)
We've heard the story countless times. But look at it again. No angels this time, but signs in the sky. What incredible faith it took to follow these signs. What incredible faith it took to believe their dreams and escape the clutches of Herod. What incredible faith it took to offer priceless gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a baby and his poor parents. What incredible faith it took for them to acknowledge this infant as a King.
Advent offers us the chance to slow down and listen to the familiar stories in new ways. Through the Advent carols we will sing during the next few weeks. Through the movies we’ll watch. (I’m thinking more “It’s a Wonderful Life” than “Bad Santa.”) Through Wednesday night vespers where we will read some of the Old Testament prophecies about Christ’s coming.
We think we know the story. By slowing down we can look at “the rest of the story,” the details we don’t focus on when we listen to the story on Christmas Eve. Like my 1984 news magazines, or my three-month-old podcasts, we can listen to the story, knowing the ending, but seeing the details in a fresh way, precisely because we know the ending.
Through slowing down we can hear “the rest of the story” and see that it’s not just a story about Christ’s birth, it’s a story of incredible faith that I can’t even begin to imagine having.
- Ann Warner