The Parable Principle
The Parable Principle
Move beyond the familiar story to the deeper story.
Depending on whom you ask, it has been some 2,000 years since Jesus' birth. That's a lot of Christmases. We all know that any event, even something as amazing as the Incarnation of the Son of God, will eventually start to feel stale. This shouldn't surprise us. We all know our human tendency to let important events fade in wonder as the years go by. After all, how many years does it take for a husband to forget his wedding anniversary or for a child to forget her parents' birthdays? If you're anything like me it sure won't take 2,000 years.
Despite how natural this tendency is, our first instinct is to beat ourselves up for feeling distant from the Christmas story, as if feeling guilty about our lack of connection to Christmas might somehow spark newfound appreciation. Sure, this approach might help for a single season, but the following year, I'm usually right back where I started from, struggling to find inspiration. And even worse is that the sermons that I do write that year tend to be negative and critical, harping on how far we have strayed from the true meaning of Christmas. This may be a valid observation, but it contradicts the spirit of Christmas, which is to inspire hope through the power and love of God through Christ Jesus.
The parable principle
I have discovered a far more effective way of reconnecting myself to the story of Advent, using a principle that Jesus himself employed. I call it "the parable principle." We all know that Jesus taught his disciples about the kingdom of God, but sometimes we forget that no one except Christ himself had ever seen that divine and eternal reality. As such, the kingdom was a very distant concept for the disciples, if not an entirely confounding one. To address this, Jesus described the kingdom of God using everyday examples of life, or parables that were designed to connect with everyday experiences, like feasting, or living within or family, or finding a fortune. This allowed people to place themselves and their own experiences into the context of that parable, so that the kingdom might be more tangible and less removed than it might have been otherwise.
Place yourself in the story
This basic principle has helped me on multiple occasions to see the story of Advent with fresh eyes. Whenever I feel distant or removed from Christmas, I place myself into the Advent story, and try to pay special attention to how I would have responded, or the ways in which that story mirrors my own life and reality. Of course every sermon should start with solid exegesis, but this principle adds another step as you prepare your sermon: rather than reading Advent as something that happened to other people a long time ago, I think about Advent as if it happened to me recently. When viewing the Christmas story through this lens, new and exciting themes begin to quickly rise to the surface.
For example, try placing yourself in the shoes (or sandals) of Joseph for a moment. Let's say that you are engaged to be married, something that many of us can relate to. But your fiancée tells you that she is pregnant, and in an effort to explain herself, tells you that it wasn't a man who did this, but instead … the Holy Spirit. As modern day Christians who have heard this story time and time again, we often take this explanation at face value—of course Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit! We've heard that since we were small children. But in reality, very few of us would have believed Mary's story, and neither did Joseph. We know this is true because Scripture tells us that Joseph resolved to divorce Mary quietly to save her from disgrace. When you look at the Advent from this very personal perspective, you begin to realize how mysterious, controversial, and even foolish the Incarnation truly was (and of course, I mean foolish in the best possible sense, the kind of foolishness that thwarts the very best human wisdom). It was not an idea that even the most faithful people could easily digest.
Compare and contrast responses
But one could go further with this and compare Joseph's response to our own. Placed in Joseph's position, many people wouldn't simply be doubtful—they would be enraged. Nearly all of us know how angry or even vindictive a jilted lover can become. It is not difficult to imagine Joseph feeling this way, enraged with Mary, maybe even wanting her to physically suffer for the situation he finds himself in. As removed as this might seem, the despicable phenomenon of rejected men throwing acid in the faces of women still makes its way into the news with startling regularity.
But that is not Joseph's response. Instead, it says that he wants to divorce her quietly, so as to not expose her to public disgrace. Again, we are so familiar with this story that we hardly give a thought to Joseph's decision. But "public disgrace" is something of a euphemism, because as is written in Deuteronomy 22, if a woman is betrothed to be married and is found to be pregnant with another man's baby, that woman is to be stoned to death. That is what public disgrace means in this context: death.
So Joseph's character then comes into sharper focus. In not taking Mary's explanation at face value, he becomes very human and relatable. But at the same time, despite his unbelief, he doesn't let rage get the better of him. He still values Mary enough to protect her from public disgrace and death. In the very next verses, in the midst of what must have been a bewildering and painful moment for Joseph, God makes clear that he has not abandoned Joseph, but has marvelous plans for this son that Mary carries.
Make the story relatable
Now to be fair, all of these themes are plain to be seen in the passage. But they stand out more clearly when we take a moment to place ourselves into the story, and compare and contrast our responses to those of the characters who are involved. When we do this, the story becomes far more relatable and personal than it was before—and not just for yourself, but for your congregation as well. After all, how many people in your congregation are dealing with a relationship in which they feel wronged or betrayed? How many of them feel tempted to lash out in anger or vengeance? How many live in the shadow of shame and disgrace, wondering if God has abandoned them, and desperately need to hear what God said to Joseph: "Don't be afraid, I'm very much here with you, and I'm at work." How very relatable and personal Advent becomes for them (although I truly hope that none of them tries to use the "conceived by the Holy Spirit" card)!
Advent is not the only context in which this tool is very helpful. This same "parable" principle can be applied to nearly every passage of Scripture, and allows us to approach well-known stories with a fresh perspective. Viewing Advent, or the disciples, or even the Pharisees as a mirror unto ourselves helps to illuminate our own tendencies and fallacies, and demonstrates how despite what we often think, we are no better than the disciples or even the Pharisees, and are equally in need of Jesus' patience and mercy.
The word "parable" is made up of two Greek words: para, which means "with, or alongside", and balo, which means "to throw." In parables, one story is thrown into comparison with our own, so that we might recognize the similarities and the differences, and so that we might find parallels to even the most distant and sublime of realities. So this Advent season, don't guilt yourself into feeling excited about the Christmas story. Leave guilt for when you've had too many cookies. Instead, "throw" your own life story alongside the story of Christ, and I pray that you discover the Christmas story more personal and powerful than ever before.