Barbara Robinson’s classic novel, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, has been read and performed in classrooms, Sunday school rooms, homes, and community theaters. For 45 years readers have giggled, wondered, and maybe even cried with narrator Beth Bradley as she introduced us to the Herdman children–“the worst kids in the history of the world.” All six of them smoked, stole, and fought. And “Since none of the Herdmans had ever gone to church or Sunday school or read the Bible or anything, they didn’t know how things were supposed to be.”
Then, rehearsal after rehearsal, we watch the Herdman children hijack the traditional church Christmas program.
One reason this story clings to the Christmas season is because it provides fresh perspective for those of us who are dangerously overfamiliar with the biblical Christmas story. Through the unfiltered outbursts of the motley Herdman children we get to observe the story of Jesus’ birth as though we’d never heard it before.
For most of us, overfamiliarity causes us to yawn through the angel’s song and saunter up to the manger unsurprised to find a baby in a feed bucket. Perhaps this year we can take a cue from the unpolished Herdmans and un-familiarize ourselves with the Christmas story. Not in order to forget it, but in order to read it again as if for the first time. Perhaps a slow and imaginative Bible reading will return the wonder of God’s extraordinary plan as we take a fresh look at the familiar.
Here are 5 tips for reading the familiar Christmas story as if for the first time.
1. Zoom in: Start with one verse and observe the fine details. Take Matthew 1:28 for instance. “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (NIV) Zoom in on Joseph and put yourself in his sandals. He was a carpenter, and when his fiancé was “found to be with child,” there’s a good possibility he was distracted when he went to his woodworking that day. See his knuckles whitening around the hammer? Hear the lumber thrown in a pile? Watch him leave his workshop before sunset to see to the Jewish logistics of a quiet divorce. Because he was a righteous man, observe how he sought to follow God’s law even in the wake of a devastating announcement.
2. Confine yourself to a limited perspective: Remind yourself that Joseph and Mary did not know the rest of the story as we do. Joseph did not have a trip to Bethlehem planned. From his limited perspective, he was staring down a future of disgrace, embarrassment, and—if he ever hoped to be married–another long engagement period in the distant future.
3. Ask their questions: List some questions Joseph might have asked. Didn’t I choose the right girl? Is this punishment? What does obedience look like now? Is my anger righteous? Will my family be ashamed? Is there anyone else in this small town who will marry me? What will happen to Mary? What will happen to the baby?
4. Pray their prayers: How would a righteous Old Testament man have prayed the night before he went to the synagogue to write a “certificate of divorce” (Matthew 5:31)? If he was at a loss for words, would he employ the prayer of the Psalmist? “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.” (Psalm 13:2-3)
Or would he have acknowledged God’s sovereignty with words of worship borrowed from King Hezekiah “Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth…” Help. (Isaiah 37:16)
5. Retell the story: After your sanctified imagination, governed by the parameters of history and scripture, has walked a day Joseph’s sandals, return to the passage and read it again. Feel the devastating weight. Then move to the next few verses and experience the holy exhilaration of a divine assignment. Retell the story to yourself or a friend.
You can repeat this exercise with any character you find in the Christmas narratives–Zechariah or Elizabeth, Anna or Simeon, or maybe the first shepherd who “hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby” (Luke 2:16). Take the challenge offered by Dr. Howard Hendricks to pray as you read, “Lord, clothe the facts with fascination.”
A word of caution though. Use these tips as tools for taking a fresh look at the familiar, not a basis for building a doctrine. It’s a method of placing yourself in the position of a real person in history and to glimpse what it meant for them to trust and obey God.
When you step back into your ordinary modern-day life you’ll be filled with fresh wonder at what God can do with ordinary humans who are willing participate in his extraordinary plan.
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