The Verbs of Christmas
As I shared in my Christmas letter this year, I recently finished reading Anna Carter Florence’s book Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community. Anna Carter Florence is a professor of preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, and I have had the privilege of hearing her preach and lecture when I’ve attended the Festival of Homiletics, a preaching conference. Two memorable times stick out to me. Once, she designed her preaching and worship around the conference, held in May, as an Easter Morning Service. We started out singing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, and she preached a resurrection sermon. Like most of the other attendees, I’m usually leading worship on Easter Sunday, not attending worship. It’s been 15 years or so since I just attended worship on Easter Morning. I didn’t realize how much I had needed it. I think I cried through the whole service. And this last year she preached on the book of Job, one of the hardest books of the Bible to figure out, and she blew me away, helping me understand the scripture in a way I never had before. I find her preaching to be a balm for my soul. So, when I heard her mention her new book, Rehearsing Scripture, I knew I had to pick it up.
I was so glad I did! I found her work profoundly moving, and I also found it practical, with many concrete suggestions for how we can read scripture together. She takes themes from theatre and acting, something she has experience with in her background, and she applies them to how we read scripture. One of Carter Florence’s first guidelines is to “read the verbs” in a text. She invites readers of scripture to focus less on the nouns in the text, and more on the verbs, the action of scripture. Focusing on the nouns keeps us separate from the Bible stories, she says, because the nouns can be so unlike ours - confusing names and places and objects. If we focus on the nouns, which are strange to us, it is hard to notice how much we have in common with our biblical forebears. But, our verbs haven’t changed. We share verbs with people in the Bible.
She writes, “We all have verbs - the same ones, actually. You and I share verbs with Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi. We share verbs with Mary and Joseph and Peter and James and John and Martha and Lydia and Paul. We even share verbs with Jesus. That does appear to be the whole point of the Incarnation, doesn’t it? - that God came to share our verbs. The Word became one of us and lived among us. Apparently, even God thought the best way to reach us was to meet us, verb for verb. Meet us and raise us and change the whole game.” (20)
God came to share our verbs! I’ve certainly never heard the incarnation, God becoming one of us in the birth of Jesus - described quite like that. Carter Florence gives some guidelines for how we read the verbs of scripture. She says that we should note “who gets what verbs”: For example, in Genesis 3, what verbs does God get and what verbs do people get? What verbs does Adam get and what verbs to Eve and snake get? And, we should note in what order the verbs appear, like how in Genesis 1 God says and then right after there is. It gives us a pretty clear sense of our place in the creation. God first, the creator, then us, the creatures. And, we should ask what verbs surprise us and why. Where is there a verb in the text that catches us off guard, catches our attention? (Chapter 3)
What happens when we apply Carter Florence’s questions to our Christmas story? What happens when we focus on the verbs of the nativity story? What does the angel do? What do Mary and Joseph do? What do the shepherds and Magi do? What are their action words? Once we figure that out, we get to the most important questions of all: What is it that God does at Christmas, and what will we do in response? What will our verbs be, because of how God acts in the world and in our hearts?
So, I did as Carter Florence suggested, and looked over our text from Luke 2 and focused on the verbs, and who gets what verbs, and what order they show up in. When we do that, here’s what we get. Emperor decreed. World registered. All went. Joseph went. He went. Mary was expecting. Time came. Mary gave birth. Mary wrapped the baby. Mary laid the baby in a manger. Shepherds lived. Shepherds kept watch. Angel stood. Glory shone. Shepherds were terrified. Don’t fear! See! Angel brings good news. Shepherds will find. Baby lays in manger. Angels praise. God favors! Angels left, went to heaven. Shepherds said. Shepherds go. Shepherds went with haste. Shepherds found. Baby lays in manger. Shepherds saw. Shepherds made known. All heard. All were amazed. Mary treasured. Mary pondered. Shepherds returned. Shepherds glorified. Shepherds praised because shepherds heard and shepherds saw what angel told. This text really moves when we focus on those verbs, doesn’t it? Let’s take a deeper look.
I notice Mary and Joseph’s verbs. I admire Joseph’s verbs. Joseph went, went, went (and of course Mary with him!) If you’re in worship on Sunday, you’ll hear the scriptures about what happens while Jesus is still a baby, you’ll find that the little holy family has more much travel ahead of them. Joseph does a lot of going where God tells him to go. And Mary gets an impressive set of verbs - Gave birth. Wraps the baby, lays the baby down. Treasures. Ponders. Her verbs succinctly deliver to us the Savior of the World, and in the midst of so much busyness, she just reflects in her soul on all that has happened. I’m not sure I’d have it as together as Mary does. The angels have dramatic verbs. Glory shines near them. They praise. They issue imperatives - verbs that leave no wiggle room - Don’t fear! See! Find!
But when I’m looking for a set of verbs that we might share more fully in this Christmas story, the shepherds really shine in this text. Depending on how you count, they get almost half of the verbs in this passage. They live. They keep watch. They are afraid. But they will find the baby, the Savior. They talk. They go. They go with haste. They find. They see. They tell. They hear. They are amazed. They return. They give glory. They praise, because they heard, and they saw.
It is their verbs that I connect most to in this story. They’re living. They’re working. That’s just their day to day. Living and working. Can you relate? They’re just doing their everyday thing. But then God speaks, through the angels. As a rule of thumb, when we’re reading the verbs in scripture, God’s speaking should be followed by our acting. And we certainly see that here. The angels speak on God’s behalf to the shepherds, and it prompts their let’s-make-haste reaction. The shepherds are terrified when the angels first appear. As much as we (say we) long for it, sometimes the ways God shows up in our life are terrifying! We didn’t mean like that, God! Maybe just a warm feeling during the Christmas Eve service, not showing up in all your glory sending us on a quest! Disrupting all that living and working we’re used to doing!
But the shepherds move beyond their fear because of the words of God through the agnels. Once the shepherds act, they find that things are just as God through the angels have told them. How do we react when God speaks to us? What has God shown you? What do you do in response? The shepherds go, and they go with haste. And they find the good news God has told them they will find: a savior, a great joy, a sign of peace for all people. They see it, and they tell how God sent them. And everyone hears and is amazed.
And then, they return, the shepherds, back to their flocks. They haven’t abandoned their lives. They don’t become celebrities. They’re still shepherds. They return, though, praising and thanking and glorifying God for what they’ve experienced. I wonder: How do you think their lives might have changed? They’re still shepherds, but maybe they think differently about what that means. Maybe they think differently about how God works in the world. Maybe their faith is forever strengthened because God spoke to them, and they went and saw. Maybe they understood for the first time that God wasn’t just for the priests and the scholars and the religious authorities. God was for them! Maybe what they heard and saw and did gave them to courage to hear even more from God, see even more of God at work in the world, and do even more in response to God’s amazing gift in the Christ-child. What will their next verbs be? We don’t know, but I bet they get some new ones, after God changes the world like this.
How about you? When you return from your visit to the Christ-child this Christmas, what will your verbs be? Hopefully, we can start by sharing some verbs with the shepherds. We praise. We glorify, because Christ is born and God is with us. God speaks and we act. What will we do because of what we have heard and seen? What will your new verbs be? Amen.