“Fear Not,” Charlie Browns of the World

Our Nativity Scenes conflate the differences in Luke and Matthew in wonderful ways. For one, we have the Magi from Matthew mixing with the Shepherds from Luke. There are differences, of course. Matthew has Jesus in a house and Luke has the birth in a stable. Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus goes back to Abraham and Luke’s all the way back to Adam. There are theological reasons for their differences, but, more than that, the differences highlight their primary emphases: Matthew and Luke wanted to present the facts of Jesus’ birth in ways that engaged their audiences.

Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, hence the genealogy going back to Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews (Arabs, too, through Ishmael). Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than the other Gospel writers, somewhere around four to one. All this focus on the Jewish people, fulfillment of Jewish prophecies and Scripture, is all very ironic since Matthew was a hated Roman Collaborator and Tax Collector, not a popular guy among his own people. It shows just how much Matthew loved his own people, and shows us how to love those folks this Christmas who get under our skin at family gatherings. But Matthew didn’t give up. He told his Gospel in a way that especially invited the Jewish people to believe in Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, is a Gentile-focused gospel. His primary audience in his euanggelion are non-Jews. His literal “good message” or evangel reminds us why each Gospel writer is called “Matthew the Evangelist,” “John the Evangelist,” and so on. Each wrote to specific groups of people to best try to win these individuals to Christ. Luke’s shift from “they” to “we” about Paul and his entourage in the Book of Acts (Acts 16:10) is significant. It supports the common scholarly contention that Luke was a non-Jewish convert to Christianity. How wonderful it would be that we could find Gospel-bridges to the “nones” with no faith around us, to present the Good News of Jesus in engaging ways with our culture that welcomes and invites the outsiders to come inside.

So the focus of Luke’s evangelistic/euanggelion/Good News was the Gentiles. He quotes Jesus’ parables about the common lot of the Gentiles of his day. They were the ones most likely to be the least, last, lowest, and lost. In Luke, Jesus tells parables that would uniquely speak to those that were either poor in resources or spirit. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, therefore, includes poor despised shepherds and a stable rather than a house and wealthy Magi. By the way, Matthew’s use of the Magi, given his heart for his own people, is more about the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy (Genesis 12:1-3) about a Jewish savior of the world than being pro-gentile.

Nevertheless, each Gospel writer remembered and shared the parts of Jesus’ history to reach a specific audience, or a general one in John’s case. This is one of the reasons why we can legitimately mix Magi and Shepherds in our crèches though they come from two different Biblical sources. Both make the same point, which is belief in Jesus Christ. That should be the point to us as well, and, in addition, there are lessons to be learned in making the Gospel accessible to all people whomever our hearers.

I, for instance, especially like the shepherds and the Gentile-focus of Luke’s gospel. Frankly, most of the Christians that I know today wouldn’t be Christians if it weren’t for the Lucan emphasis on God’s mission to poor Gentiles. That’s the spiritual and genetic background for most of the worldwide church. Jesus’ family tree in Luke that goes back to Adam emphasizes that Christ is the savior of all humanity, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. The question is, “Is He my savior?”

I resonate with the lowly shepherds, a despised bunch without rights or legal standing, who found themselves relegated to the outskirts of town, literally marginalized. With my mixed-blood heritage and a father who didn’t get past the eighth grade, it’s Luke’s message that speaks volumes to me. God’s angelic message of Jesus’ birth doesn’t go to the high and mighty, but to the poor and unaccepted. It’s to the shepherds that the message is given, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…” News for them, news for all – God’s love is not just for some, but for all – spoken to each human heart’s individual need; i.e., “For God so loved the WORLD…that WHOEVER believes in Him shall have eternal life.”

You’re included and so am I. I’ve played a humble shepherd in every Christmas pageant since I was a little boy. I never got promoted to being Joseph or a Wiseman. It was not only type-casting, it was true. I have often felt like a scared second-rate shepherd.

I also resonate with Linus from Peanuts fame who has always needed his security blanket. Maybe you do, too? Don’t we all want security? Haven’t we all sometimes experienced denigration and a lack of acceptance?

I am struck by something on this 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Charlie Brown shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who can explain to me what Christmas is all about?” It’s Linus, carrying his security blanket, who goes to center stage and says, “Lights, please,” before beginning his monologue. Then precisely when Linus quotes appropriately from Luke’s message to the hurting and lost; i.e., the shepherds, something amazing happens. It is exactly when he quotes the angel’s message of “Fear not” to the shepherds that Linus drops his trusty blanket. After that he goes over to Charlie Brown and says, “This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Yep, there’s a message of hope to all of us Charlie Browns who never kick the football, and feel put down just like the shepherds. Jesus’ birth ushers in shalom and a whole bunch of “Fear nots!” that we all need to hear.

Drop whatever security prop you use. Me, too. Linus’ fear subsides and so will ours. This is what I need to hear this Christmas. Listen, “Behold, I bring YOU good news of great joy that will be for ALL the people.”

Love & Marriage: Mutuality of Purpose!

In the little bit of television that I get to watch last night was one in which the shows featured their annual Valentine’s Day entrees. Whether through sitcom or sermon this is a perfect time to focus on relationships – with each other and Christ. Both remind me of Lucy and Schroeder from the “Peanuts” comic strip. Schroeder is the toy-piano Mozart playing intellectual type and Lucy can be a bit difficult, but she’s had a consistent crush on Schroeder. Anyway, in one of the comic strips she walks over while Schroeder is playing and tries to get him to think about her and love. She asks him, “What is love?” He gets up from the piano and looks out into space and says, “Love: a noun or a verb meaning having a deep affection for a person, place, or thing.” Then he sits back down and starts playing again. Lucy then looks off into space and says, “On paper he’s great.” Unfortunately, this is too often true about our interpersonal relationships, and our relationship with Christ. On paper we’re great. How about our actions?

The Call to Action legislation says that we can fix our denominational problems through restructuring. I’m wondering if our real dilemma is a spiritual issue that all the tinkering in the world can’t fix. We need to bathe this whole process and the upcoming General Conference in prayer so that a spiritual renewal takes place. Perhaps if we do that first then all the structural pieces will fall more easily into their proper place. Paper answers cannot solve a spiritual problem. Love in action is a better place to start!

The speaker at a woman’s club was lecturing on marriage and asked the audience how many of them wanted to “mother” their husbands. One member in the back row raised her hand. “You mean you really want to mother your husband?” the speaker asked. “Mother?” the woman said. “I thought you said ‘smother.’” In a true marriage smothering doesn’t take place. There is a free mutuality of purpose and a partnership of respect.

Unfortunately there have been lots of people who seem to totally misunderstand what marriage really is. Such a man lived in Redlands, California. His name was Glynn “Scotty” Wolfe. Wolfe was married 29 times. Worse, this guy was a Bible-thumping Baptist minister! As far as I can tell he still holds the Guinness’ Book of World Records title as the most-married man. He died in a nursing home in 1997 at age 88, just 10 days before his first wedding anniversary with No. 29, Linda Essex-Wolfe, the world’s most-married woman with 23 husbands.

Even though they lived apart – she in Indiana, he in California – their 11-month marriage lasted longer than some of their others. Wolfe’s shortest was 19 days, while Essex-Wolfe once ended a marriage after 36 hours. Both of their longest marriages lasted 7 years. Wolfe left one wife because she ate sunflower seeds in bed, and divorced another because she used his toothbrush. When he died Wolfe’s body lay unclaimed at the San Bernardino County morgue. Big surprise! No one wanted to pay the cost of burial. Since no one stepped forward to claim him, Wolfe was cremated by the county and put in a collective grave.

Wolfe attracted worldwide attention the year before he died when he wed Essex-Wolfe. The National Enquirer introduced the pair in his hometown of Blythe, California. At the time, he was married to a 17-year old girl from the Philippines. “As soon as I saw him, I knew I cared for him,” Essex-Wolfe said. “He was a charmer. He married a lot of beautiful women, a lot of young women.” They spent only one week together before getting hitched in front of cameras for a British documentary about marriage. Unwilling to leave her hometown, the bride flew back to Indiana the next week. Unwilling to venture into the cold weather of the Midwest, the groom remained in California. They stayed in touch by writing letters.

Scotty Wolfe was married 29 times, but he died alone with no one to give him a proper burial. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. The man didn’t understand either commitment or very little, it seems to me, about true love. If we don’t do better than Scotty Wolfe in loving our spouses, other people, and especially Jesus then we can forget about solid relationships! The Call to Action for me this week through Valentine’s is a Call to Love in Action!