by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” - Mother Teresa

February, 1998

During Advent, our Sunday School class talked about the way we, as Christians, "condense" the story of Christ's birth. The "standard version" is the one typically portrayed in the annual "Christmas pageant": Mary and Joseph find no room at the inn and wind up in the stable; the angel appears to the shepherds; the Christ child is born; the shepherds arrive at the stable; and the wise men arrive with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And all this usually happens in the space of about fifteen minutes.

The real story is, as usual, longer and more complicated than the popular version. The story of Christ's birth begins with the immaculate conception and the angel's announcement to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). It might be said to begin six months earlier with the conception of Jesus' earthly cousin, John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25). Matthew even begins by tracing Jesus' ancestry all the way back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1-17). After the usual time, Jesus was born. Then the shepherds came from the surrounding hills (Luke 2:8-20). The wise men had farther to go and arrived later (Matt. 2:1-12), perhaps when Jesus was nearly two years old (Matt. 2:16). This is far different from the "Christmas pageant" version.

On my way home from work, I pass a billboard for the St. Louis Symphony that says, "Hear 300 years of music in 1." In the case of the Christmas pageant, it's "Hear 2 years of the life of Christ in 15 minutes."

Of course, our tendency to "condense" the story is nothing new. The four gospels are mostly mute concerning the period between Christ's birth and the beginning of his ministry. Luke alone relates the isolated incident of Jesus remaining in the temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-52). Mark and John don't describe Jesus' birth at all, but essentially begin the story with the appearance of John the Baptist. Matthew tells of the coming of the wise men but not the shepherds; Luke describes the appearance of the angel to the shepherds but omits the wise men.

It's no wonder, then, that people who are unfamiliar with the church can become confused. We glibly make references to "Advent," "Epiphany," "Pentecost" and more, as if everyone knows what we mean. (See acts 8:26-39.) But they only know the "Christmas pageant" version of the gospel. While we may think everyone understands our jargon, the fact remains that we need to do a better job of communicating our message.

In his introduction, author and screenwriter William Goldman claims that his book, The Princess Bride, is "The 'good parts' version" of a fictitious book by "S. Morgenstern." This, Goldman says, is a version with all the bad stuff removed: All the history, all the minutiae, all the parts where nothing happens, all the boring speeches and especially all the disturbing or troubling parts. All that's left, he says, is high adventure, romance and a happy ending.

Before I knew the word "gospel" meant "good news," I heard a preacher say the Bible is not good news, it's bad news, because it tells people they're going to hell. But it's also good news because it tells us we don't have to go. We are called to spread the whole gospel: Not the condensed version, not the "good parts" version, but the complete version (Acts 18:24-26). We must spread a gospel with all its parts: the parts that condemn and the parts that forgive; the parts that challenge and the parts that affirm; the parts that call for faith and the parts that call for actions. The good news and the bad. The good parts, the bad parts and the rough parts. The whole gospel.

"I have fully preached the gospel of Christ, thus making it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man's foundation, but as it is written,
'They shall see who have never been told of him,
and they shall understand who have never heard of him.'" (Rom. 15:19b-21 RSV)


Copyright © 1998 by Maplewood UMC