Taste and see

November 1st, 2014

You probably know well the stories that surround the Christmas events. Maybe you love them or maybe you’re a little bored with them, but something makes you want to experience Christ in Christmas in a fuller way. The focus of our time together will be much more than to remember the Christmas story. We will aim to experience the events of Christmas ourselves. This guide invites you to “taste and see,” to imagine the tangible elements in the stories and the probable feelings of the characters. Historical and cultural facts provide context and a means of stepping into these events and these lives for a while. While you probably are embarking on this study in order to celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way (and to enjoy fellowship with others if you’re doing this with a group), be prepared for God to speak to you in ways that meet deep needs within you.

Some things to keep in mind

A different way to read

In school we read textbooks to gather facts that would be included later on in a test (study). While facts are important in Bible reading, there’s more. If you also want to get to know God or experience God, you’ll need to explore the events a little more (meditation). Both study and meditation are valuable; here are the differences.

  • Study (dissecting the text): What exactly is the text saying? What do the words mean?
  • Meditation (savoring the text and entering into it): What is God saying to me? What is God inviting me to consider? 

The advantage of meditating on scripture is that we not only get to know God better but also we are usually changed from the inside out. Our thoughts and feelings change, which then changes our behavior in an organic way. We want to grow as God is guiding us to be and to do differently. Meditating on scripture reorganizes our thoughts, feelings, and motives “so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Josh. 1:8).

Using the “movie method”

In this Advent study we will use what can be called “participative” meditation: you become a part of the story in some way. You participate in it through your imagination so that the event becomes a movie in your mind. This is, of course, how the Jews celebrate Passover—by entering the story as they eat the food and converse at the table. Christians have used participative meditation for centuries as well, especially those who have learned the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, which guide people into experiences of Jesus’ life through the prayerful use of the imagination.

In each session, you’ll have a choice either to be a “fly on the wall” observing the events or to see yourself as a particular person in the story and experience it from that person’s point of view. Let the Spirit guide you. Either way, close your eyes and try to sense what was happening. If you had been there, what would you have seen? Heard? Would you have tasted, touched, or smelled anything? How did these people probably feel? What might it have been like to be in their shoes?

During the “Responding to the Story” phases, you’ll be asked to pray silently. If you can, try to write your prayer. It doesn’t have to be long. Writing keeps your mind from wandering and helps you think more concretely, rather than letting thoughts get muddled in your mind. If writing prayers seems like work to you, try using colored pens or even drawing your prayer.

In “Take Two” options, you can choose a meditation from the week to enter again. You might choose the one that seemed to resonate with you the most. Or you might pick a passage you skipped or even one that did not resonate with you because you’re more intrigued with it now.

Meditating on a passage a second time is usually a richer and deeper experience, even if you’re sure the Spirit drained every last drop of inspiration from it the first time. The spirit of a “Take Two” is that of a hiker who has a favorite trail and loves to do it again. But you’ll know the passage better this time, and probably receive more from it. Expect God to surprise you.

But I don’t have an imagination!

Most people have a vivid imagination but think they don’t. To prove you have a vivid imagination, answer this question: Can you worry? If so, you have an imagination because you’ve asked yourself, What if . . . ? many times and come up with vivid answers.

Here’s another example: Think of a lemon. Now think of cutting a lemon into four pieces. Now think about putting a piece of the lemon in your mouth—quick, what comes to mind? What’s happening inside your mouth right now? Has your imagination kicked into gear based on the fuel from your past experiences of the sour taste and tartness of touching a lemon with your tongue? If so, you have a skilled imagination.

Perhaps you don’t want to use your imagination because you’re afraid it might get you into trouble. You’ve imagined yourself telling your boss what you really think! In that case, your imagination is still a gift from God, but it needs to be retrained to imagine God-stuff. The imagination’s potential for misleading can be reconfigured by the mind of Christ, which Paul claims we possess (1 Cor. 2:16). Think of how Christ’s mind was filled with stories, images, and hopes drawn from God’s history with the people of God—you see that “imagination can become a penetrating force.” The more you do the meditations, the more skilled your imagination will become.

Week one

Experiencing the blessing of Zechariah and Elizabeth

First Sunday of Advent

Zechariah’s Surprise in the Temple (Luke 1:5-­25)

Today you begin an Advent study that invites you to experience familiar biblical stories in a new way. The group leader will walk you through the preparation, scripture reading, and exercises below to help you engage with the scripture. For the rest of the week, follow the guidance for Days 2 through 7 about related Bible passages.

Opening Ourselves (10 minutes)

Once the group has gathered and is seated, the leader encourages everyone to relax and take a few deep breaths.

Pray this opening prayer: Let us release the cares of our day, and open our eyes to the wonder of God. With an attitude of empathy to people of another time, let us open our hearts and minds to God. Let us prepare to experience God’s word to us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Entering the Story (20 minutes)

Read today’s scripture passage silently. In small-­group settings, the leader will then read aloud the notes that follow the scripture. Review these notes yourself if you are not part of a group. Consider how this additional information affects your understanding of the story. Then close your eyes and listen as the leader reads the passage again (reread the passage aloud if you are on your own). Hear the words as if they are new to you. Move deeper into the scene in your imagination on this second reading. Hear the words as if they are new to you. Move deeper into the scene in your imagination on this second reading.

Write a sentence or two in response to these questions in the space below:

  1. What feelings might Zechariah have had about being chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense? Perhaps thrilled? Or terrified?
  2. What thoughts or feelings or past experiences might have prompted Zechariah to ask, “How will I know that this is so?” (v. 18)?
  3. What feelings might Zechariah have experienced when he kept motioning to the others and remained unable to speak (v. 22)? One commentator surmises that Zechariah was in a “wordless daze of joy.” What do you think? How would those emotions blend with the emotions he probably had in seeing a vision?

Here are some cues to help you enter the story.

BIBLICAL CUE: An angel’s appearance

In this passage we aren’t told what Gabriel looked like, but elsewhere angels usually appeared clothed in white. Angels were so dazzling in appearance that they terrified those who saw them. Hence, they often began their message with the words “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28:2-­5).

HISTORICAL CUE: The altar of incense

Zechariah’s eyes were probably already overwhelmed by the altar. If this altar was like the one in Solomon’s Temple, it was built of wood and measured 18 by 18 by 36 inches. And it had horns! The altar’s top and sides were overlaid with gold, and it was surrounded by a crown or rim of gold. For ease of transport it had golden rings.

SENSORY CUE: Smell of incense

Incense mentioned in tabernacle and temple worship is generally “sweet incense,” compounded in specific amounts with perfumes, pure frankincense, and various other ingredients (Exod. 30:34-­36). Frankincense emits a fragrance of pine and lemon combined with a dry, woody aroma.

PICTURING CUE: Talking with Your hands

How would you describe having seen an angel and being given a message if you could use only your hands and arms? Consider what it was like for an esteemed priest to do what might have looked to us moderns like a game of charades.

Responding to the Story (15 minutes)

As the leader reads the passage aloud, try to picture Zechariah, or even put yourself in his place, smelling the incense, seeing what he saw and feeling what he might have felt. If you wish, you can lie on the floor or prop your feet up on another chair.

  • What do I (as Zechariah or observing Zechariah) hear or see? 
  • What feelings do I imagine Zechariah had?
  • What word, phrase, scene, or image emerges from the scripture and stays with me?

Write your responses here. Consider whether God is offering an invitation to you in this passage. Sit quietly for a few minutes, pondering these questions:

  • How is my life touched today by this passage?
  • Is there some idea, feeling, or intention I need to embrace from it? If so, what?
  • What might God be inviting me to be or know or understand or feel or even do?

Be open to the quiet and don’t feel pressured to come up with answers. Write thoughts prompted by the questions in the space below.

Take a few minutes to respond to God in prayer about any invitation or call from today’s scripture. Reflect on this question:

  • What do I most want to say to God about this experience in scripture?

Participants may wish to ask God questions (answers may come to them through the group or later in the week). They might want to write their prayer in the space below. That practice keeps the mind from wandering.

Allow time to sit in the quiet and consider:

  • How did God (or God’s actions) seem to me in this passage?
  • What does this tell me about what God is like?

Spend a few minutes simply resting in God’s presence.

Group Sharing (10 minutes)

Group participants may now share, if they wish, responses to this question:

  • What do I think God might have been saying to me, calling me to be, to know or understand or feel or do?

If people choose not to share, that’s fine. Listening to what others say may resonate with them. It’s also interesting to see how God speaks to our sisters and brothers in Christ in a variety of ways.

Closing Prayer (5 minutes)

Close the session by praying the following prayer together as group members look forward to engaging scripture in the coming week. You all may want to use this prayer each day even if you don’t do a meditation that day.

Grant us wisdom and courage this week: to be open to your surprises, O God; to taste and see your presence in new ways; to trust that you will do good and joyful things in our lives and in the world.

During the Week

Here are two practices or exercises to try in the coming week:

  • Before going to bed, or when you’re doing a simple chore (for example, taking out trash, washing dishes, locking doors before retiring), reflect on this: is there anything God might be leading me to do because of what came to me today in this passage? This must not be forced or contrived or according to the usual tapes that might play in your mind (for example, fix this person; make someone happy; correct people’s thinking; strive a little harder). God may not be leading you to do anything; but if so, be open to what that might be.
  • Observe older people you know and try to spot moments when they seem joyful or amused. Then ask in a playful way (if they aren’t saying), “What are you smiling about today?” Or you can do this with anyone the Spirit leads you to. Consider the joys of older people. You might want to ask an older friend what makes him or her particularly happy. If you have an older friend who is particularly joyful, ask him or her what is required to be joyful as the years go by.
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