wrestling with texts for advent III...

Today I am wrestling with the Advent texts:  John the Baptist, Isaiah and all the other wild
prophets of our faith family.  Last night I reread Ray Brown's 1984 booklet: An Adult Christ at Christmas. It is the condensed essence of his life's work,The Birth of the Messiah, and a useful summary of the way the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke present the whole "gospel story in miniature." After reviewing how the story of Jesus' death and resurrection became the core of faith for early believers, he reminds us of three other important insights:

+ First, the passion and resurrection narratives guide and shape ALL the stories included in the gospel cannon.  It is this encounter that both revealed the heart of God's grace to a broken world in a startlingly new way, and, empowered wounded women and men to live into their pain and suffering with joy and trust.  Just as God had raised Jesus from death by the power of love to overcome the rejection of the Empire, so too would God strengthen and renew believers as we lived lives shaped by Christ's love in our generation.

+ Second, as the early Christian community matured, they began to see that the Cross was present in the words, deeds and parables of Jesus.  Through the lens of the Cross, texts like the Sermon on the Mount took on new significance. These homilies and aphorisms held more meaning than passing reflections; rather they pointed to a love that wins beyond the power of death. As a result, collections of stories emerged - sometimes organized thematically as the Beatitudes suggest - that were guided by the love revealed on the Cross.

+ Third, as one generation passed on knowledge to another, it became clear that even the birth of Jesus contained the essence of the Cross and its counter-cultural love. Brown teaches that Matthew takes Old Testament themes from the Exodus and King David and reworks them in his birth narrative to highlight the Magi and the star.  Writing from a community in Antioch, this once Jewish-Christian gathering in Syria was now wrestling with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the diaspora forced upon Jews by Rome after their rebellion, and Jewish and Christian disagreements concerning the meaning of Jesus. As this church became less Jewish and more Gentile, the anonymous "Matthew" described how this division was at work during the birth of Jesus. Gentile astrologists from Persia responded to nature's testimony about God's grace as they followed the star to Israel. There they had the Scriptures revealed to them by God's special people and responded to the proclamation of grace with gifts and homage.  Luke does much the same thing in his birth story, but emphasizes the importance of shepherds. His community, most likely Gentile Christians in Rome, sensed that the prophetic words of Isaiah had been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus as shepherds came to clearly recognize the manger of the Lord.  The key here is linking Jesus to the great shepherd:  King David.

Both Brown's introduction as well as his magnum opus are fascinating.  A key insight is that the gospel of Jesus Christ always evokes a response. The first preachers of Christ crucified and risen found that some responded with discipleship while others chose rejection and hatred. This pattern exists in the experiences of St. Paul, too. As a result, those who wrote and edited the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John made certain to emphasize the response in each discrete portion of their stories:  the passion narratives are obvious, but the same rhythm of acceptance and challenge are woven through the words of Christ's baptism, healings, sermons and birth as well. 

How ironic that today's "posting" from the quotes of Frederick Buechner would include his musings on reading the Bible:

There are people who say we should read the Bible as literature. The advice has a pleasantly modern and reasonable ring to it. We are all attracted. Read the Bible for the story it tells. Read the King James Version especially for the power of its prose and the splendor of its poetry. Read it for the history it contains and for its insights into ancient ways. Don't worry about whatever it's supposed to mean to religious faith. Don't bother about the hocus-pocus. Read it like any other book. The trouble is it's not like any other book. To read the Bible as literature is like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or The Brothers Karamazov for its punctuation.

He goes on to offer better ways of reading the Bible (should you be so inclined) and you can read the full quote here.  I like how he describes what's really at stake in this holy reading:

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth says that reading the Bible is like looking out of the window and seeing everybody on the street shading their eyes with their hands and gazing up into the sky toward something hidden from us by the roof. They are pointing up. They are speaking strange words. They are very excited. Something is happening that we can't see happening. Or something is about to happen. Something beyond our comprehension has caught them up and is seeking to lead them on "from land to land for strange, intense, uncertain, and yet mysteriously well-planned service."

To read the Bible is to try to read the expression on their faces. To listen to the words of the Bible is to try to catch the sound of the queer, dangerous, and compelling word they seem to hear. Abraham and Sarah with tears of incredulous laughter running down their ancient cheeks when God tells them that he is going to keep his promise and give them the son they have always wanted. King David, all but naked as the day he was born, dancing for joy in front of the ark. Paul struck dumb on the road to Damascus. Jesus of Nazareth stretched out between two crooks, with dried Roman spit on his face. They are all of them looking up. And listening.

And so the listening - and wrestling - goes on...

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