Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Screenplay of Christmas
A Sermon for Christmas Day, by Griff Martin
For the Community of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On December 25, 2016

Our text this morning is a wonderful text, one of the better known texts in Scripture. So this morning I am going to ask you to approach it a bit differently with me, I want to play a little “what if” with you. Let’s think of this as a screenplay this morning. The Screenplay for the Christmas story.

And if you were God, how would you write this screenplay? What would your version of the Christmas Story look like?

If I were God, which I realize is a most difficult and dangerous what if to play, but if I were God this morning’s celebration would look quite different.

For starters, the location would be totally different.

A stable in a small town that has little political power. That simply will not do.

I would have cast this story in a different location. Perhaps somewhere near Vatican City, in a hostel on the outskirts of Rome, close to the political powers of the day. Or perhaps in a penthouse in New York City downtown near Wall Street, one of the world’s financial and cultural centers. Maybe it would be near Washington DC or , a political capital city. Or maybe I would put it here in Austin, the third coast… the live music capital of the world and this story would certainly fit with Keep Austin Weird.

And if we are just going just simply for beauty there are several options: on a beach in Spain or on in a tent on the safari plains of Kenya at sunset or nestled in cottage near the foot of the Rocky Mountains in some small Colorado town.

But no, instead we get a stable in the middle of the night in Bethlehem.

And the casting, well to put it simply the casting is way off in this story and there are many changes I would make here.

Let’s start with Joseph.

For Joseph I know exactly whom I have in mind. Joseph will be played by Robert Redford. You can take your pick of which Robert Redford- you can choose Denis Finch Haton from Out of Africa or Hubbell from The Way We Were. Either can do- they both show man at his best- both masculine in the best sense of that word and compassionate, tender, and caring. Truly, the ideal man.

I am not so sure about this Joseph from Scripture. Sure he comes from quite a lineage but with Anscetory.com today we can all be related someone impressive, and this Joseph… he is so silent, so awfully passive, and from what we think we know of those days, so old.

There does not seem to be a romantic side. He is not uttering infamous lines, like “See ya Kid.” And he does not carry about him that aurora that makes you just instantly trust and like him…. Certainly Redford is the perfect casting for Joseph.

And God, well I would have most certainly have given God a part. In our story God is so awfully silent, I mean even when it comes to the Shepherds, it’s the angels who do all the talking. In our story, God remains largely behind the scenes.

Not in my screenplay, in my screenplay God is very active.

And I know exactly who is going to play God- Martin Sheen- but not just any Martin Sheen. For this role, we need Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlett from the wonderful television show, The West Wing. Martin Sheen has the perfect way of playing the “I am in control and I care deeply about what I am doing” character.

And in my screenplay, God would get some lines. God would make things very clear. We would know exactly what was going on and who was in control and what this was all about from the very beginning.

And Mary.

Well the Mary of Scripture has become so iconic in our minds; it seems unfair to mess with her. But if I am honest, I am not so certain about this Mary- young, truly too young to be having a baby, vulnerable, meek, a silent strength.

It’s all admirable. Yes. But it’s not how I would cast it.

Mary would be cast as either Diane Keaton from Annie Hall or Beyoncé. Smart. Sophisticated. Brilliantly witty. A knockout. The type of woman who commands a room.

Mary would really be in control. And we would just adore her.

And Jesus.

Having two children who were once newborns, here is what I can report about babies: they are most difficult at times, they don’t sleep through the night, they get cranky at the worst of times, they don’t always communicate clearly, they don’t understand or give good direction, and they require a lot of care.

They take up a lot of time and energy.

So I might scrap the whole baby bit as well.

I am thinking some sort of grand entrance where Jesus is already through the newborn, toddler, and adolescent years. And we can cast him as Lin Manuel Miranda… someone who just shows up on the scene and is suddenly the most creative and influential person the world has ever seen. Suddenly he appears almost from nowhere and we are all hanging on his every word.

My story would certainly not include shepherds. They have no place. For starters they are filthy from being out in the pasture working all week and certainly they would be easy to discredit. Who is going to believe a bunch of shepherds? The messengers appear either during a United Nations meeting to all the worlds powerful leaders or in the editorial office of the New York Times. The world would know from respectable sources.

And there is my Christmas screenplay.

The story is set in a powerful location. Joseph is the ideal man- masculine, tender, and caring. Mary is the iconic woman- smart, certain, witty, and a knockout. God is present in a manner that displays leadership and care. And Jesus arrives on the scene full of wisdom and power. And the world would instantly know because the world’s powerful people would be in on it from the start.

And of course we know that God’s screenplay is so vastly different.

God’s story takes place in Bethlehem. It’s a Biblical city, but it is not one of the more powerful cities. It’s the type of place that you are from, in terms of ‘I was from there, but I am not there anymore.’

Beside Bethlehem, this story takes place in a stable.

And maybe this was the only place to stay, but we make it way too pretty on our Christmas cards and we miss the mess of it all. Animals lived here, so it was not the nicest and tidiest of places. 

And then we get to Joseph. He is really a bit player in the story- actually the Gospels as well. We assume that he is an older gentleman. He comes from quite a line of people, but there is little written about him.

There is Mary, who I think is stronger than we ever show. For starters she is a young woman who has made it through a pregnancy that made her an outcast. During this pregnancy, she makes quite a journey to visit Elizabeth- no small feat for a pregnant girl. And here we find her giving birth in a barn.

Tradition tells us that she is young- too young for this role.

She will grow in faith through the story, becoming one of the most faithful followers, but at this point she is an unknown.

As for God, well God does not even make an appearance until the very end of the story

The whole baby thing- it’s a huge risk. God who will require diapering, swaddling, and nursing.

And the shepherds, the no one’s of society are going to be the first ones to know this news. This is completely illogical.

When you start to really think of it, this story seems too ordinary and common. And year after year, I am again stunned by it- stunned by an ordinary story that contains God.

I don’t know why I let it surprise me every year. After all, messing with the ordinary seems to be one of God’s favorite tricks. The ordinary seems to be God’s greatest paint brush. Normal people seem to be God’s tool of choice.

It should not surprise me. Throughout the Old Testament, our story up till now, God has always been working through the ordinary things. Donkeys. Bushes. Fleeces. Ladders. Dreams. Breezes. Rain. Smoke and fire.

Or think about the women who play a role in Jesus’ lineage. Tamar- a widow who desperately needs a child. Rahab- a working woman desperate for salvation. Ruth- another widow looking for a place to belong. Bathsheba- a victim seeking redemption.

It seems that God does God’s best work with the ordinary. And that is the Gospel for us on Christmas morning. God uses the materials of every day life. God uses the emotions of our existence. God uses us. God’s love is found in the ordinary everyday things.

The Christmas story serves to remind us once again to pay attention.

Pay attention to the ordinary.

Pay attention to the common.

Pay attention to the human.

Because if you pay attention to those things, you will find God.

One of my favorite plays is Our Town by Thorton Wilder. One of the central characters in this play is a young lady by the name of Emily. In the play Emily passes away as a girl.

Upon arriving in heaven, she goes to the character who is set to resemble God. She asks of this character for a chance to go back and relive one day of her life. Just any day. She is given this wish and returns to observe a day of life, her 12th birthday.

Throughout the day she is stunned by the beauty of it. There is so much around her. She notices the goodness of life. The richness of each moment. How sacred, beautiful, and wonderful each moment really is.

When she returns from observing this day, she asks the stage manager if anyone ever notices the goodness of it all. He replies with a most sad and telling comment, “No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.”

Which means this- most of us we don’t know it. We need to find ways to become saints and poets and notice the goodness.

To find that God often exists in the ordinary moments we pass right by.

Christmas, God’s screenplay, is just one more reminder that we should not miss the goodness, the Godness, of each and every moment.

As you celebrate today and this year, be present.

Be present to each and every moment.

Pay attention to the ordinary, to the common, and to the human.

It is here that Christ was once born and it is here, in these things, that Christ is most likely to be re-born. Amen and Amen.


  1. Griff!

    From my experience of reading and hearing you, it is obvious that you were not riveted to every holy word of instruction offered you in classrooms. I recognize the smell from the cauldron bubbling up running over in you. It is ''Christ in you, the hope of Glory.''

    with love from one who is learning of you,

    kenny wood