B.C. Before Christ: Part 1 – Ancient Promises

BC Blog Meme-Centurion-720x442-Final2Editor’s Note: This is part one of a multi-part series that unpacks the historical background of Jesus’ Birth and in so doing unlocks new insights into the life and times of Jesus and the New Testament world. This blog series is designed to help you and your family “go deeper” this Christmas and any time of year by getting a better grasp of the crucial background events of the New Testament and the major players on the stage at Jesus’ Advent.

The Birth in a Stable that Changed the World

Two millennia ago, in the small Judean village of Bethlehem, a baby was born to a peasant girl and a poor carpenter. This child grew up to be the person whom historians call Jesus of Nazareth. It goes without saying that his life “turned the whole world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  Like us, Jesus was not born in a vacuum, but appeared in a certain historical, political and religious setting.  In fact, the Apostle Paul says that his birth was planned for that very moment in time by God:
“In the fullness of time, God sent His son, born of a woman, born subject to the law to redeem us who are convicted by the law, that we might receive adoption as His sons (Galatians 4:4-5, author’s translation).
Mary Lullaby MemeLike any good story, the pages of the New Testament come alive with deeper meaning when we know the historical back story of Jesus’ birth and life.  Getting a handle on Jesus’ context gives us a deeper appreciation of why Jesus said and did what he did, and how people of his day interpreted him in light of their circumstances and their place in history.  Just as importantly, if we understand the historical, political and religious setting of first century Palestine, we will better understand the import of Jesus’ words for us and our own circumstances today and his story will explode with greater power in our lives.

All Roads Lead to Rome – and Jerusalem

Jesus was born in Roman-controlled Israel around 5 BC during the reign of the Roman King* Caesar Augustus (Caesar means “king”).  Roman occupation of Israel had begun only four decades earlier (40 BC), but it followed a long period of foreign oppression at the hands of five different foreign powers dating back over 700 years. Before that time, Israel was an autonomous monarchy under the likes of David and Solomon. But even there isn’t far back enough to understand the story adequately.  To set it all in context, let’s wind things back to about 2000 BC when God appears to a man named Abraham.

Ancient Promises

In about 2000 BC, a prominent man named Abram and his wife Sarai and their entourage journeyed from Ur (present day Iraq) to the region of modern day Palestine.  Abram entered into a covenant with God and God renamed him “Abraham,” and his wife “Sarah.”  In that covenant, God said that through Abram’s descendants (literally “seed”), all the people groups of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). This was a huge promise, but all the more because Abraham was old and childless and Sarah was well past her child-bearing years.  But God miraculously provided them a child of promise, named Isaac.  Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau.  Jacob was renamed “Israel” by God, and was chosen to be the father of the nation Israel, and his 12 sons became the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob’s son Joseph was sold into slavery by these jealous brothers and languished in Egypt until he miraculously rose to become second in command of Egypt due to his wisdom, integrity and ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Jacob’s family eventually reunited with Joseph and lived in Egypt due to famine in Canaan. But after Joseph’s death, another Pharaoh rose to power and enslaved Abraham’s descendants due to fear.

04.52.20 Simeon - Lord himself will give you a signThe children of Israel lived in Egypt 430 years and were enslaved for much of that time until they were liberated by Moses about 1400 BC. Moses became the first prophet-leader of God’s people, and to him was given the law and ordinances for Israel, and he established the first sacrifices and worship at the portable temple-tent, called the Tabernacle. God said to Moses,

“I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.  It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him” (NASB) Deuteronomy 18:18-19.

In Jesus’ day, people wondered out loud whether Jesus or even John the Baptist might be “the Prophet,” and they were referring to this figure (John 1:21,25; 6:14; 7:40). At the Transfiguration, the Father’s voice from heaven said very similar words to Deuteronomy 18:19, warning, “this is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7).
After Moses died, Joshua led the people into the Promised Land and settled it and defeated many enemies (the name Joshua in Hebrew is the equivalent to “Jesus” in Greek). For hundreds of years thereafter, Israel was ruled by warrior-kings called Judges who mostly rose to power when Israel was in danger from foreign invaders (due to God’s judgment of their idolatry).  The last of the judges was a prophet named Samuel. Samuel appointed the first king of Israel, Saul, but Saul was an unfit king, and the Lord chose a young shepherd boy from Bethlehem to be the king after him. This was about 1000 BC. His name was David.

Coming Up – Israel’s Golden Years

In the Christmas story, and in the New Testament in general, the name David appears again and again.  In the next installment, we’ll explore the splendor and promise of the Davidic Dynasty, the building of the temple, and the tragic events that left all of Israel crying out to God for a Messiah to come and deliver them.
This article prepared with the aid of Olive Tree Bible Study Software. OliveTreeIcon

What the Christmas Story Teaches us About Giving Thanks

promise_mary_magnifyIt’s that time again – turkey and a host of other wonderful foods, gatherings with family and friends, and the Christian obligation to give thanks to God.  Obligation?  Well, yes, to be honest, sometimes taking the time to give thanks can be a bother, especially when someone suggests it right as the food is put on the table piping hot. Right as your mouth is dripping with expectation, someone plays the spiritual card and goes into a long dissertation on being thankful, which leads into a long prayer. And the mashed potatoes are getting colder by the minute.

I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but let’s be frank, even for those who love the LORD, thanking God at Thanksgiving can feel more obligatory than spontaneous, more ritual than real.  The thing is, we know that we have lots to thank God for. Our short memories and our five senses scream out examples of God’s blessings that we could name ad nauseum. So why aren’t we more thankful at Thanksgiving?

For the last two years I’ve been immersed in the story of the first Christmas in the Gospel of Luke as we have brought this story to life in the animated musical The Promise: Birth of the Messiah. Luke’s story encompasses just two chapters in Scripture. The thing that has surprised me about these two chapters is the amount of praise that leaps off the lips of the characters in the story. This story about Christmas is a perfect prototype for a Thanksgiving celebration.

For instance, Mary exclaims, “He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).  Zechariah says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68).  And it is said of Anna that after seeing the infant Jesus, she began to “give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  Add to this the praises Simeon, Elizabeth and a host of others.

Zechariah - God's remembered promisesYou may be thinking, “of course these biblical characters were joyful.  They were honored with front-row seats to the biggest party ever staged on earth – the Advent of the Messiah, and they were each blessed greatly.”  That is certainly true! But upon deeper inspection, the thankful hearts of these folks did not begin with their good fortune, but began long before. And in fact, for all the worldly blessings they received from God, most of them endured much more worldly suffering due to the role they were asked to play in His Advent. One could say that their blessedness was a double-edged sword, and indeed, Simeon used a similar metaphor to inform Mary that tremendous pain was in her future, saying “a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35).

The life circumstances of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Anna were very difficult.  Mary was poor, betrothed to a poor carpenter, and it didn’t help matters when she and Joseph had to endure tremendous public ostracism because of her unplanned pregnancy. Never again would they be treated the same in Nazareth. Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless, and this was considered a clear sign of sin and the disfavor of God in one’s life. All the people in their lives – family, neighbors, and fellow priestly families – cast a suspicious eye on them, wondering what they did to incur the punishment of God (see Luke 1:25).  Anna lost her husband after only seven years of marriage, and was a widow for over 60 years! This was not the kind of life others considered “blessed.”

Nor would their earthly circumstances improve in the future after Jesus’ birth. Joseph passed away leaving Mary alone to navigate the rejection and crucifixion of her son. Zechariah and Elizabeth, if still alive when their son John the Baptist ministered, endured his denunciation by the religious authorities and horrendous beheading by Herod.  Anna likely died shortly after seeing Jesus, passing from this world as a poor widow.

Give ThanksSo, the spirit of thankfulness in these characters was not based on circumstances before the coming of Jesus, and certainly not afterward. If not, then why were they thankful? The answer that I arrived at after working with this story for over two years is this: they had the right eyes. Eyes? Yes, eyes. It appears that each of these persons had developed eyes to see beyond this world, to see into the spiritual realm of God, to see the things that matter to God, to see things that matter period.

The question is, as we prepare to sit down before our turkey and mashed potatoes and take a moment to be thankful (or not), how did they gain such a God-centered worldview?  Where did the fountain of thankfulness well up from? Certainly the first answer is that faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9).  But aside from this theological reality, what means did God use to deliver or at least develop this faith in their lives? The facts of the story shocked me. The vehicle God used was PAIN.

What a surprising thing to find in the midst of the joyful Christmas story!  The faith and other-worldly thankfulness of the biblical characters was a product of great difficulties which stripped away any false hopes of peace, joy or hope based on the things of this world.  God’s blessing of pain – from their poverty and rejection by others – helped them to yearn for things beyond this world, to search for realities beyond what they could see and touch.  With all worldly hope removed, they found the reality of the God of Scripture, and clung to Him and His promises as their ultimate reality.

It would be fun to have Mary, Zechariah, or Anna at Thanksgiving dinner. I can just imagine their prayers. They would not only thank God for all of His material blessings and His undeserved mercies: for their jobs, their families, or their health. I am pretty certain that they would praise him for the incredibly difficult circumstances of their lives that taught them their most important lesson – that He is all they need. He is their salvation, their peace, their hope and joy.

Thanking God for the pain that gives us eyes of faith never becomes obligatory, because each painful circumstance helps us to appreciate that which is eternal, and to let go of that which is passing away.  As Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . . His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (ESV Luke 1:46-47,50).

Okay, now pass the mashed potatoes.

Child to Child

Through the Holy Spirit, God can speak a message to an unborn child about another unborn child. Is anything impossible with God?

“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb…”  – Luke 1:39-41

Through the Holy Spirit, God can speak a message to an unborn child about another unborn child. Is anything impossible with God?

Through the Holy Spirit, God can speak a message to an unborn child about another unborn child. Is anything impossible with God?

 

 

 

 

Voice of an Angel: The Challenging Job of Playing Gabriel

deck_char_gab-LON2-550Do you believe in angels? If so, what do you think angels are like? What do they do? What do they look like? Some time ago these questions got much more personal for me when I was given the role of the Angel Gabriel in The Promise (more about that in a moment). But you don’t have to play an angel in a movie to wonder about these heavenly beings. Questions about angels are pretty relevant in a culture where many people completely reject these supernatural beings on the one hand, while others accept all manner of wild myths and folklore on the other.

To believe the nativity story of Jesus is to believe in angels. The opening acts of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels record angels everywhere: speaking to Zechariah in the temple, announcing the coming Messiah to Mary, announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and speaking to Joseph three times in dreams (one has to wonder, too, if Simeon and the Magi don’t receive their messages from God through an angel?). Without God’s heavenly messengers, the story simply could not have happened as the New Testament tells it. How else would Mary and Elizabeth have known the significance of the babies they carried? How would Joseph have been prevented from divorcing Mary, or the lowly shepherds informed of Jesus’ birth? Without angelic messengers, it seems like these people would have lacked a lot of information – and a great deal of confirmation – that the angels brought to them.

My own knowledge of angels was recently ramped up considerably as my personal journey took an “angelic” turn. One day my friend and The Promise director Todd Shaffer asked me to come into the Glorious Films studios to sing for him and producer Ron Mezey a newly written song for The Promise. At the time I was doing  part-time Bible and music consulting for the movie, but by the time I walked out of Ron’s office, I had a new “role” – the voice of the Angel Gabriel! I decided immediately that I must do a serious study of Gabriel and angels in the Bible in order to play the part faithfully to Scripture. As Bible consultant, I also wanted to make sure the script and animation portrayed Gabriel as accurately as possible. So I dug into angelology (the study of angels) and the following is what I discovered.

This original sketch of Gabriel gave way to a more rubust, muscular figure which befits the biblical description of these warrior-messengers of God.

This original sketch of Gabriel gave way to a more rubust, muscular figure which befits the biblical description of these warrior-messengers of God.

When you read the Bible, the first thing you’ll learn about angels is that they are not who pop culture makes them out to be. Rather than child-like cherubs with wings, halo and harp, angels are mighty warriors of God. In fact, the name Gabriel most likely means “Warrior of God.” Often biblical angels brandish fiery swords, and are used by God to defeat earthly and heavenly enemies (they do this seven times in just the first two books of the Bible).

Physically speaking, angels appear in human-like form very often; they speak, eat, and walk around like human beings. Unlike popular depictions of angels, they probably they do not have wings (this notion is apparently derived from the fact that angels may descend from and ascend to the heavens (how else, but by wings?). There’s also probably some confusion due to the fact that the other heavenly creatures, cherubim and seraphim, have wings).  Quite often, angels are mistaken for mere men in the Bible (see Genesis 19:1ff). At other times, angels have a radiance about them that clearly communicates that these creatures are from the heavens, their countenance having been illuminated by being in the presence of the glory of God (Matthew 28:2-3). The most oft-repeated phrase in the Bible is “fear not” and it is for good reason that angels are often the ones voicing this reassurance — men and women are understandably frightened to death at the site of these mighty, radiant warrior-messengers of God!

09_08a

Early sketch of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. The Bible records that Gabriel and other angels often say to people, “Do not fear,” apparently because their appearance is startling in some way.

As I researched Gabriel, I found that Gabriel is one of only two angels mentioned by name in the Bible (the other is the archangel Michael). This scarcity is astounding when one considers that in extra-biblical Christian, Jewish and Islamic writings there are found some 100 angels by name (Raphael, Uriel, et. all.). Gabriel is mentioned four times in Scripture – twice in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament, and it is very possible that he is the angelic messenger in other stories where the figure goes unnamed. He first appears to the prophet Daniel (8:16) to explain the vision of the ram and the goat. Later he gives Daniel the prediction of the seventy weeks (Dan. 9:21-27). In Luke’s Gospel – the biblical source for The Promise – it is Gabriel who appears to Zechariah in the temple and announces the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:11) and shuts Zechariah’s mouth for nine months for his unbelief even as he opens his wife’s closed womb. Most famously, Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will bear the Messiah. Every time Gabriel brings a message to someone, it is a momentous prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. When Gabriel appears, good news seems to come with him!

I spent a lot of time with the lyrics for Gabriel’s songs, and I think the writers did a great job capturing the essence of the biblical text. One of these is Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:28ff:

Lon recording Gabriel-close

Recording the voice of Gabriel for The Promise at Studio 2500 in Montreal.

“Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.
Don’t be afraid Mary, I am Gabriel.
I stand in the presence of God
And I have been sent  
To bring you a message.
For you have found favor with God.
Soon you’ll conceive and give birth to a son
And he shall be named, Jesus.
He will be great. The Son of the Most High.
And the Lord will give him
The throne of His Father
And he shall reign over the house of Israel
And his kingdom will never end!”

Mary understandably asks, “I will bear the Messiah? How can this be since I’ve not been with a man?”

To which Gabriel responds,

“Nothing is impossible with God!
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
And the power of the Most High

Will overshadow you.
A child will be born.
And he shall be holy – the Son of God.

Gabriel stands in the presence of God. He is sent from God and bears His messages. The message he brings to Mary is phenomenal – she, though a virgin, will conceive a son through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that child will be the promised Messiah – the Son of God!gabriel_glorytogod

When I went into the recording studio, my goal was to portray Gabriel in a way that did justice to this warrior-messenger who “stands in the presence of God.” That’s not necessarily easy, or even possible, to do (contrary to my wife’s confidence that I could play the role convincingly because I talk so loudly)!  Likewise, our studio artists crafted a Gabriel who is a formidably large and muscular figure, dressed in fine linen, sans wings. He has a graceful, yet authoritative and other-worldly sense to his movements and facial gestures. But most of all, Gabriel in The Promise does what the real-life Gabriel did 2,000 years ago – he delivers a very important message to human beings on earth – “A child will be born, and he shall be holy, the Son of God. . . and you shall name Him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins!”

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

Character poster of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed in The Promise as a real person with a big faith in a big God.

Poster of Mary the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed in The Promise as a real person with a big faith in a big God.

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Those words, famously sung in The Sound of Music, could have been the theme song of Glorious Films’ writers and artists as we tackled the difficult task of bringing to life the figure of Mary, the mother of Christ.

Portraying a person who is as well-known and beloved as Mary presents loads of challenges. First, we had to find the real Mary of history. To do that we had to get beyond the clichéd version of Mary from popular culture – you know, that super-spiritual saint with the angelic demeanor who lived above the problems and pains experienced by “real” people. So we dug into the Gospels. There, we found little attention given to the personal details of Mary’s life. When you come to the Gospels, you are dealing with a unique form of ancient historical biography that is not the same as modern biographies or historical novels that delve deep into the psyches of each character and describe every facet of their life in minute detail. The Gospels were designed to tell people essential information about the life and work of Jesus the Messiah — not details about his mother’s personality, age or appearance – or what dress she wore at Passover celebrations!

Piecing Together the Puzzle

Our team had to piece together the bits of information we did find in the Gospels about Mary in order to construct a sketch of her that was as accurate as possible. Scripture tells us that Mary was a righteous peasant girl from the obscure village of Nazareth. We know that she caught the eye of “a righteous man,” Joseph, a poor carpenter, and was pledged to be his wife. History tells us that Jewish brides of the period were often young by today’s standards — with some marrying as early as 13 years old –so Mary was very likely this side of 20 years old when she was engaged to Joseph.

Mary was clearly a person of great faith and devotion to God. When Gabriel told her she would bear the promised Messiah, she didn’t doubt that God could cause such a thing to happen, but she simply asked how she was going to have the baby — since she was a virgin and had kept herself pure before marriage. Compared to biblical figures like Zechariah, Sarah, and Hannah who doubted God when they were told they would have a miracle child (and were reproved by God for their lack of faith), Mary believed God immediately. Because of her faith, Gabriel was happy to tell her how it would happen – “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This early sketch of Mary is about as close to the final version of Mary (above, right) as the cliched cultural version of Mary is to the real Mary of the Bible.

Our original sketch of Mary is about as far from the final version (above, right) as our culture’s idea of Mary is to the Mary of Scripture.

Mary also showed enormous humility as she accepted the task God had given her, saying, “Let it be as you have said. I am a servant of the Lord.” Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff) also showed a serious and careful devotion to the Word of God (listen to our version entitled “I Will Magnify” on the music page). In this song of spontaneous worship, Mary draws on deep theological themes and ancient prophecy to extol the grace and mercy of God for sending the Messiah to save His people. Clearly, Mary knew God and knew much of His Word by heart.

Faithful, not Flat

It was this kind of faith that served Mary well as she faced the questions – and scorn – of parents, family, and her community, who could hardly be blamed for doubting her story. The hardest thing of all was telling her fiancé Joseph, who must have been crushed when he learned that she was pregnant. Joseph doubted Mary, but God did for Mary what He does for all His servants – He provided for her needs. For Mary’s need, God sent Gabriel to Joseph to confirm her story in a dream. As for her parents, God through Gabriel gave Mary a message that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was miraculously pregnant – something that her parents did not yet know – and the Lord used this to validate her story and vindicate Mary to them.

20130921-013908.jpgThe NT also portrays Mary as a normal person with all the attendant issues of human frailty and emotion. Stories such as the one found in John 2 where she seems to use her motherly authority to persuade Jesus to help a young couple in a tight spot at their wedding ceremony suggest that Mary was a formidable and confident figure who used her influence to help others. Luke 2:51 says she “treasured up” Jesus’ character in her heart. Mary also made mistakes. She misunderstood Jesus and even doubted His sanity at one point (Mark 3:21,31)! And, as Simeon prophesied, “a sword pierced her soul” at Jesus’ crucifixion

Problem Solved

In the end, “the problem” of Mary was not as difficult to solve as it at first seemed it would be. When the Glorious Films team gathered all the facts about Mary, we found a portrait of a real person. We concluded there was no way she was the flat, boring, Victorian-esque prude we’ve seen portrayed in film and print. Mary was a real human being spiritually, physically and emotionally. She surely had a vibrant but humble personality to match her infectious faith. Hers was a big faith in an even bigger God that she knew personally. She was just the kind of person who God would assign to raise His Son. That’s the Mary we developed for The Promise: Birth of the Messiah. I think you’ll enjoy meeting her this Christmas.

Why Luke’s Nativity Screams “Musical” (and why that’s Biblical)

The world-renowned Montreal Boys Choir "Les Petite Chanteurs du Montreal" are a part of the talented musical cast of The Promise.

The world-renowned Montreal Boys Choir “Les Petite Chanteurs du Montreal” are a part of the talented musical cast of The Promise.

I love musicals.  I like watching them live, on TV, or listening to their songs on my iPhone. I have performed in a few, and I even wrote one once (don’t ask). Musicals like The Sound of Music are some of the most beloved and enduring art forms in popular culture.  But when Glorious Films’ Creative Director Todd Shaffer told me he wanted to make a Broadway-style animated movie about the birth of the Lord Jesus, I was concerned. For some reason I imagined a South-Pacific-esque mash-up of donkeys, sheep and oxen gathered around Mary, singing, “There is Nothin’ Like a (Notre) Dame.” Don’t get me wrong – I love South Pacific – but I didn’t want anything to do with a campy version of the nativity story. “Count me out,” I thought to myself.

Happy to be Miserables

To my great relief, that’s not at all what he had in mind. Todd explained that what he envisioned was a no-holds-barred recounting of Luke’s birth narrative set to powerful music in the tradition of dramatic works like Les Miserables. That got my attention, because frankly, that’s never really been done before. But I was still wondering to myself, “why a musical?”  I asked him if it was because a musical would be a great match with the Christmas season and all its attendant music.

“That’s not the reason at all,” said Todd. “In a nutshell, when God sent His Son to earth, He put on a musical to proclaim it.”

Musical to my Ears

A musical?  Despite a couple of decades in ministry, I couldn’t recall a musical in the New Testament.  I asked Todd to refresh my memory.

“When you read the birth narrative in Luke, you realize that it’s filled with celebrative passages like Mary’s Magnificat that are essentially Hebrew poetry.1 They lend themselves to song — in fact, they are songs,” he told me.

This musical moment when Zechariah opens his mouth to sing his son's name is a favorite of audiences young and old.  The rest of the song, called the "Benedictus" has been one of the favorites of the church for two millennia.

This musical moment when Zechariah opens his mouth to sing his son’s name is a favorite of audiences young and old. The rest of the song, called the “Benedictus” has been one of the favorites of the church for two millennia.

Once he said Hebrew poetry, I knew exactly where he was going. Biblical scholars tell us that Luke 1-2 contains as many as eight passages that are in the mold of Old Testament poetry. Mary’s Magnificat, the angelic birth announcement of John the Baptist to Zechariah, Zechariah’s prophecy, Elizabeth’s prophesy, Gabriel’s announcement-encounters with Mary, with Joseph and with the shepherds, and Simeon’s prophecy.2  That’s a lot of music in two chapters!

God Turns Up the Volume

So, what’s with all the poetry stuffed into Jesus’ birth story?  Think about this: for 400 years there was no prophet in Israel. Then, all of a sudden, in the first century we see an explosion of angelic visitation and men and women giving prophetic utterances in the advent of the Messiah. His servants – human and angelic – broke out in song. God was shining a big light on what was taking place.

“I can’t imagine Mary, Zechariah or Simeon expressing these things in straight voice — they are explosions of praise,” said Shaffer.

He also said he has major concerns with the omission of these passages in most re-tellings of the story today. “Why would those divinely inspired messages, recorded by Luke, be something that we would be comfortable to overlook and allow to remain in obscurity, especially given that this is one of the few celebrations that we return to year after year?”

The Empty Manger

Todd explained that the music is the story, and the story is the music.  He said, “I’m not talking about the musical form, I’m talking about the content of the songs — they are the story.  Which would lead me to say that, for the most part, the nativity story has historically been emptied of much of its drama and meaning.”

That was a pretty big statement, so I asked him to clarify what he meant.  “The key themes of this story are given to us in Luke’s poetry, in the praise and prophecy of the songs.  They are found in the words of Mary’s “Magnificat,” in Zechariah’s song of praise and prophecy, and in Simeon’s song at Jesus’ presentation of at the Temple.  As much as we celebrate this story at Christmas, these songs remain in almost complete obscurity. And that’s a tragedy. To skip these prophecy-songs is to skip much of the significant gospel material.”

Todd said he saw in the musical nature of Luke an opportunity to bring to life the full story – the real story – of God’s Messiah coming to earth and fulfilling eons of prophecy. “Rather than glossing over these deep theological aspects of the story of Jesus’ birth, we seized the opportunity to include all of these details in a dramatic and artistically beautiful way through animation and song.”

A Difficult Posture
This is an early black-and-white sketch of a temple priest crying out to God. When Zechariah was confronted by the angel Gabriel in the temple while burning incense, it was the first of a series of angelic visitations and prophetic utterances that marked the coming of the Messiah.

This is an early black-and-white sketch of a temple priest crying out to God. When Zechariah was confronted by the angel Gabriel in the temple while burning incense, it was the first of a series of angelic visitations and prophetic utterances that marked the coming of the Messiah.

However, finding appropriate ways to turn poetic prophecy into lyrics proved to be a big challenge.  “I studied these songs in depth, line by line, word for word. And when we were writing the lyrics, one of the challenges we found was that our Christian culture does not even have the language or imagery to access these songs. How do you easily explain, “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us?” So where the songs were very obscure, we thought long and hard about how we could pull them from obscurity and attempt to posture the meaning of those parts so that they would be understood immediately in the song.  This was a difficult challenge in writing the music.”

Who Needs Jesus?

But the challenge was worth the effort.  “I believe every person needs to contemplate and be changed by the deep words Luke recorded for us,” said Todd. “They tell us that people need God, but our sins separate us from Him. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, and His life, death and resurrection was God’s way of saving His people from their sins, and from every enemy we face. I was personally challenged by digging into these themes in Luke’s nativity, and I can’t wait until others get a chance to engage in this story through The Promise.”

Glorious Films is excited that God has allowed us to produce The Promise: Birth of the Messiah. Watch for its release in fall 2013. And we promise — no singing sheep or crooning donkeys – only God’s glorious musical celebration of His Son’s birth, just as Luke recorded it.

For more info, visit http://www.gloriousfilms.com.
This article prepared with the aid of Olive Tree Bible Study Software. OliveTreeIcon
—————
Notes

1 F. E. Gaebelein, “Poetry in the New Testament,” Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Olive Tree Bible software electronic version, accessed June 17, 2013.  Gaebelein defines poetry thusly:  “…in accord with most literary criticism, poetry is defined as the expression of intense experience or thought in creative and connotative language (with or without rhyme or meter) …Much more of the NT is poetical than most readers realize.”

2.  Ibid. Gaebelein comments, “The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke contain eight passages that are akin to OT poetry: Lk. 1:14–17, 32–33, 35, 46–55, 68–79; 2:14, 29–32, 34–35. Four of these—the Magnificat (1:46–55), the Benedictus (1:68–79), the Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and the Nunc Dimittis (2:29–32)—are widely known for their liturgical use.”  See also The Literary Study Bible note on Luke 1:57-80, “Among the Gospels, Luke is unique for including lyrics in the Christmas story.”