Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 2:1-14) transports me back to the Christmas season of 3 or 4 years ago, where we inaugurated another chapter in the “Only At Ecclesia” book. Our church can be a bit odd, but this was pushing the envelope even for us. We were premiering Experience Advent: The Birth of Jesus as Told Through the Music of Jimi Hendrix. It was an inter-generational musical I had been working on for years. The kids and teenagers played it straight, dressed in traditional Christmas costumes, longing for the nostalgic carols. But each time they tried, one of the adults, dressed in 60s counter-culture costumes, would interrupt and tell them they wouldn’t be able to really understand this story until they got a little more experience under the belts. One of my favorite scenes starred my good friend Linda Huntley, arguably one of the more traditional Baptist folks in our crowd. She was game, though, and played her part well. When one of the kids clamored for some traditional shepherd boys in towels and bathrobes, and started in on It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Linda interrupted, You’ve got to be kidding, right? Do you know anything about shepherds back in first century Palestine? Of course you don’t, but maybe you will one day when you have a little more experience under your belt. Listen, these guys were the lowest of the low on the working man’s totem pole. It was the hardest, dirtiest, most miserable job available. Nobody wanted to do it. Imagine them working there all night long, in the cold, with nothing but those stupid sheep to keep their minds occupied. You know as well as I do that they probably had a little bottle of something tucked away in their shepherd robes, and probably smoked whatever they could get their hands on. So the way I figure it, when one of those shepherds turned to another and said, “Yo dude, I just looked up at the sky and I saw a huge band of angels gathering, tuning up their harps,” his buddy probably said, “Uh huh. Right. How ‘bout giving me a snort of that” and the first shepherd said, “No, man, I’m as sober as a judge, look up, see for yourself.” Cue the music, as Linda belted out a great cover of Purple Haze, giving us all a chance to imagine one of the first century Palestinian shepherds responding to the heavenly hosts with Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.
The first 14 verses in Luke 2 are some of the most well-known and beloved in the Bible, made famous by the Peanuts special and thousands upon thousands of Christmas pageants. But the bottom line is this: the story of Christ’s birth, as narrated by Luke and Matthew, is not kids’ stuff. The story is counter-culture to the core. It sets the stage of an age-old conflict between the powers and the powerless, the over-privileged and under-privileged, the oppressors and oppressed. And the gospel writer makes it clear from the get-go: God is taking sides. God is on the side of the poor, the powerless, the oppressed. The long-awaited Savior comes to earth in the form of the powerless; his parents have no privilege to exercise. Then the angel breaks the news to the world, appearing first to those at the bottom of the totem pole. The shepherds quaked in their boots; they had good reason to be afraid. Angel appearances in a story generally signal that God’s front line fighters are coming to crack some heads, but the shepherds get a different message than they expected. No fear. The liberator has come. You’ll find the baby savior in a manger. Go see. Glory to God Almighty, and on earth, peace to those who enjoy God’s favor. As the story will continue to emphasize, it’s ne’er do wells like these low-life shepherds who do enjoy God’s favor. It doesn’t get much more counter-cultural than that.
The odd Ecclesia musical wound up being a great way to engage our church folks in some in depth Bible study, looking at the story through a new lens. Our rehearsals started out a bit iffy, with folks not quite sure what to make of the idea. But around the third rehearsal, Linda and some of the others began saying, I think I get it. This is helping us get back to the real story. So next time you hear some Hendrix on the radio, think about re-experiencing Christmas. The next time the wind cries Mary on your ITunes, think about the immaculate conception, the holy spirit, the sacred wind, blowing over this poor peasant girl, the least likely candidate to conceive something that would turn the world on its head. When your Pandora has you joining in and raising a serious question with Jimi – Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand? remember the trouble Joe the carpenter had escaping his cultural presumptions, and his initial desire to put Mary away as the KJV puts it. And next time you’re singing along with your Sirius XM, Fly on my sweet angel, fly on through the sky, fly on my sweet angel, tomorrow I’m gonna be by your side, don’t forget whose side the angels are on.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.