The Story Begins

Today, as you know, we begin something new.  This is the start of The Story.  Now, I know you’ve been hearing bits and pieces about The Story for months, but here it is: beginning today, this whole church – and, in fact, a few of our friends from the other churches in town – are going to spend the next 31 weeks learning the story of God’s redemption, the story of God’s unchanging, unshakable love for us.

Now I know some are thinking, “oh that’s nice.  Yes, that’ll be good for those people who are newer to church, who didn’t have Sunday School when they were little.”  But this really is something for everyone.

You see, stories are important.  Humans were made to tell stories – you don’t see a mama dog sitting down her pups to tell them about how it felt when she saw you for the first time at the animal shelter.  It’s a nice thought, but telling stories is one of those things that make us unique.  And, of course, we know and we believe that the reason people aren’t quite like other animals is that we are made in the Image of God. 

Storytelling isn’t just something for children.  No, we tell stories every day so that we can make sense of the world.  Stories help us know other people’s character, as we learn how our family, friends, and neighbours acted in a situation.  Far more often than we might even like, we’re bombarded by news stories.  And they are stories – even the barest of facts are strung together so that we can make sense of them, so that we can make up our minds about who was right and who was wrong, as we learn how actions and decisions and events in other places have an effect on us.  If you watched the debate the other night, what you saw there in it’s grandest form is this act of human storytelling, with each party leader narrating their version of how our nation got here, who the good guys and bad guys are, and where they’d like the next chapter to go.

Stories are essential to being human.  Each family has a story, and we’re wired to share it.

So why do we – who are already in church – need to take 31 weeks to learn the Church’s story? 
Isn’t that preaching to the choir?

Maybe not.

Why we need The Story: The Facts

Play along with me… if you have a Bible in your house, raise your hand.

            Great – now, who has two Bibles in their house?  Three?  Four?

Now, who here – either as a child in Sunday School, or as an adult on your own – learned about Adam and Eve?  Who knows the story of Abraham?  What about Moses?  Ok, what about Rahab?  And Ruth?  King David?  Solomon? 

Who knows about Mary and Joseph riding to Bethlehem?  Who’s heard of Pentecost?  Who has heard that Jesus will come again?

Alright… that’s great.  Now: who knows how it all fits together? 

What’s Abraham’s role in the Christmas story? (He has a big one!)
What does Rahab hiding Jewish spies on her roof have to do with Pentecost?


So the most recent statistics show that 41% of practicing Christians who have 4 or more Bibles in their homes confessed to researchers that they never read them.  41% — and that’s those who told the truth!

As we’ve been saying for two years now, our job is to reach out – to let people, our family, friends, and neighbours, know about the love and mercy and healing found in Jesus.  But the main reason we’re all so hesitant to do that is, simply, we don’t know what to say.  We’re all able to speak about our families, we all have opinions and some of us could go on all day about politics or what’s happening in our world, but along with that, we need to learn The Story – our story – so that we know our place in it, and just as importantly, so we can invite others to find theirs.

The Unchanging Story of God’s Redemption

Now, there’s another problem worth thinking about.

Yes, the Bible is the story of God’s redemption of the world.  But… isn’t it old? 
Like, very old?  Sure, there’s stuff we can learn, but is it really fair to say that this book from long ago is my story or your story or our story? 

And, that, my friends, is one of the key issues: we’ve been taught to read the Bible in chunks, like it’s a newspaper, where you can read the headlines that catch your attention, but skip over the others, learning a bit along the way. But the Bible isn’t meant to be a history book, a raw collection of facts.  No, the Bible is… a love story, one unfolding account of the Creator of the Universe overflowing with love so that God creates everything that is so that he can invite us into relationship with Himself.  It’s the story of the source of life being so abundant and gracious and merciful that He’ll do what it takes to let us share in that abundant life, if only we’ll choose it.

And, the amazing part that too many of us weren’t taught is that your Bible has a gap. 

The Bible isn’t just long ago and far away – we’ve come this far (the last of the Pastoral Epistles), but we haven’t yet reached the end.  We’re still living the story, it’s still playing out around us.

So there’s a crucial reason that these ancient words still matter.  Yes, the story started long ago; yes, we come and go, like the grass; yes, kingdoms rise and wane; but what about God? 

(Maybe the kids can help us with their memory verse today:  Does Jesus or his love for us change?  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”. Hebrews 14:8) 

That’s the amazing message of The Story.  The times change, the characters change, the locations change, but through it all, in every time and place, God doesn’t change, and his purpose to invite us to share in his abundant life hasn’t changed from the moment that first atom sparked into being. 

Today’s lessons are the perfect example.  Numbers 21: God’s people wandering in the desert, having a hard time trusting him.  Just a chapter earlier God had provided food and water for them, and here they are grumbling because the food is worthless – who cares it filled their bellies and didn’t cost them anything, they just weren’t satisfied.  They start to curse God, who removes his protection from them, and the realities of desert life set in – poisonous snakes crawling everywhere.  But what’s the solution?  To lift up the thing they’re afraid of, face it head on, and trust in God.  Or, as Paul wrote in First Corinthians 1:18-24, or Jesus said in today’s Gospel (John 3:13-17), the solution is… the cross

You see, the times, the places, the characters change; but God remains the same.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

As we go through this year together, what we’ll find is that there are two “levels” to the story that we share.  To keep things straight, we’re going to call them the “Upper Story” and the “Lower Story”. 

The Upper Story is the overarching narrative tying it all together.  It’s those things we miss when we’re caught up in the weeds, but where we see God working all things together for good in the big picture.  The Upper Story is where we learn that God is revealing himself to us, and his one plan since the beginning of creation is, simply, to create an eternal people to live with him forever.  That’s the overarching story that we’re living in, because we’re still in that gap.

The Lower Story, then, is how we see God working in ordinary people’s lives.   One of the challenges for us this year is perhaps to undo some of what you learned in Sunday School.  We’re not looking at scripture to find heroes doing incredible things – that’s to miss the point.  No, scripture shows us the stories of ordinary people, people who make bad decisions, get angry, have doubts, but many of whom decide in faith to become part of God’s great plan.  And, as we see God at work in those lower stories of ordinary people, I know for sure that we’ll be better equipped to see God at work in our own lives.

Stories are important. 

We need to know this story, because what God’s doing in your life might seem mysterious, but guess what – it’s no mystery!  God doesn’t change! His desire for you is the same as it is for all people, to invite you to a relationship with him, to learn to reflect his love, to stand in the face of the things that scare us – whether it’s a snake or a lifeless body on a cross – and acknowledge that our only hope is to trust in the one who never changes.

At the same time, I know – I’m absolutely sure – that you’re going to discover something as we walk together through the lower stories.  Guess what: we’re not all that different.  You, me, the annoying neighbour, people around the world, and the people on the pages of scripture.  There really isn’t anything new under the sun, and there’s great encouragement and freedom that comes with learning that no, whatever you and your family are going through isn’t new, you’re not alone, and more importantly, whatever you’re facing won’t thwart God’s plan, if only we learn to trust in his big picture.

We’re made to tell stories.  This year, we’ll tell ours.  May God give us the grace to see how we fit into His, for he’s the same, one God, yesterday, today, and forever.  Amen.

What if it tastes like Toothpaste and Orange Juice?

The Prophet Jeremiah said: Your words were found and I ate them, and they became to me a joy and the delight of my heart… Jeremiah 15:16

Throughout scripture, cover to cover, we learn that God’s word is to be on our lips and in our hearts.  We are people who are to speak the Good News and guard our tongues against speaking words of deceit or slander – after all, ‘the tongue is a double-edged sword’[1] and – as we heard last week – it’s what goes out of the mouth, not what comes in, that defiles us.[2] 

No, that the Word of God should be on our lips is certainly no surprise.  As one of the most famous prayers from the prayerbook puts it, our task is to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”[3] the truth of God as revealed in the pages of scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit at work in the Church.

But – it might shock you to find out – that on at least three occasions in scripture, the prophets, the messengers of God, took this literally.  Yes, three times in scripture, someone eats the Bible.[4]

The prophet Ezekiel chows down on the word of God;[5] John the Divine is told in a vision to eat a scroll, and it turns his stomach;[6] and then in today’s Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah munches on and swallows up the Word of God written out on a sheet of goatskin.

Now before we get any ideas, this was not one of those “go and do likewise” sort of moments.  No, this is a symbolic action[7] meant to help us visualize and enter into the lessons God has for his people, much as the light spreading outward from a single candle in a dark church on Christmas Eve speaks the truth of our hope in the darkness of this world more deeply than any sermon, or praying alone in a darkened and silent church on the night before Good Friday allows us to really recognize the sacrifice of the cross.

The point is this: all the instruction about having the truth on our lips, about speaking the truth, about loosing our lips to praise, about opening our mouth to sing a new song of the Lord’s faithfulness, about our lips never failing to recite what the Lord has done, are not just happy thoughts or motivational words on a pretty plaque hung on your wall.  No – God’s Word is not just something to think about; no, it’s meant to sustain us.  God’s Word – the Truth we proclaim – is something to live by, something to guard us, guide us, keep us, and feed us through the ups and downs of life.

You Are What You Eat

I’ve always said that one of the central points of Christianity is, simply, “you are what you eat”.  It was through eating that which wasn’t ours that humanity first tasted the fruit of disobedience.  It’s through looking back through our journey through the lone and dreary wilderness that we taste and see that the Lord is good, and happy are those who put their trust in Him.  Christ invites us to join him as sons and daughters of God adopted in the waters of baptism and cleansed in his one perfect offering on the cross, but to do that – to share in his risen life, to remain part of his body, to become like him – we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in the sacrament he gave us.  And, we are a people who feed on the truth of the Gospel. 

And this is where those symbolic actions of the prophets are important.  The Word of God was never intended to be knowledge safely stored in a book, learned once in Sunday School or Confirmation Class, or studied in the hallowed halls of seminaries, and then put back on the shelf.  The Word of God was never meant to be displayed – covers closed – on a coffee table or next to your bed.  No, these aren’t just words to live by, they’re words to live on; as the prophets show us, they’re meant to be consumed – one translation even says “devoured” – to give us the energy, the direction, the substance we need to move forward; like the manna in the wilderness, like the gifts from the Lord’s Table, the Word of God is our daily bread. 

Like an athlete fueling up for a race, we’ve been given a banquet of truth and hope and good news to fuel up as we face the road ahead each day.  As we read today in Romans, we’re to rejoice in hope, and be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  Add that to turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies, and caring for those in need, and that’s quite a tall order, especially if we find ourselves scavenging and scrounging just to find enough hope to get out of bed in the morning, as we have some days lately in our house.

But God never intended for us to scavenge and scrounge within ourselves to drum up some hope or peace.  He’s laid out a banquet; he’s given us our daily bread; he’s invited us to pull up a chair and feast on his Word… but, just like the prophets, God doesn’t force feed us; it’s on us to open up, take it in, enjoy the sweetness, chew on the tough parts, and let that God-given diet of even a few verses of His Word transform us from the inside out, like our daily vitamins and glucosamine pills that transform us, that loosen up our stiff joints as we prepare to run the race ahead.

I ate it… and it turned my stomach sour.

You are what you eat, and we are to inwardly digest and live on the truth of God’s Word.  But there’s one other warning we see in the example of the prophets who took this image all the way and munched on their Bibles.

John chewed on the scriptures, but found very quickly that it turned his stomach sour.

Now, let’s be clear, that’s not a defect in the word of God.  No, no matter how good and nourishing the meal, the are just some things that cannot go together.

It’s happened to all of us – you brush your teeth, so you can present yourself to the world all fresh and minty clean, and then you pour up a refreshing glass of orange juice.  Now it could be the finest, freshly squeezed orange juice in the world, but if you drink it after brushing your teeth… ugh, I cringe just thinking about it.

The same goes for scripture – it’s often hard to swallow when we’ve been trying to freshen ourselves up in the eyes of the world.  But, like lots of good medicine, there’s no benefit if it sits in a bottle on the shelf; sometimes we have to get over the taste and let it work from the inside out.

Someone asked me this week, “how have you managed to keep going in the pandemic?  It seems like you have so much energy, and I just feel like sitting on the couch in my pyjamas.”

“Well,” I said, “don’t be fooled.  “I’ve spent plenty of time on the couch… and have the pandemic gut and chin to show for it”.

But – and I say this with all seriousness, and not just because I’m the priest – when I drag my butt off the couch and come to the church to say morning prayer – yes, a couple times even with pyjamas under my cassock – I find my daily bread.  Every day, without fail, there’ll be a lesson, or a phrase, or maybe just a word I hadn’t noticed before, that gives me energy, that gives me hope to rejoice in, that gives me strength to persevere, that gives me the trust I need to be patient, and to allow God to guard me, guide me, keep me, and feed me.

…and then I come home, and I don’t want to do anything.  Some days I’ll get stuck scrolling Facebook; some days I’ll make the mistake of turning on the news and wind up depressed; some days I’ll stare out the window and wonder why the clock has stopped moving and time is going so slow.  But, sooner or later, the story, the phrase, that word will bubble up from within and encourage me, and suddenly I’m given the hope that I lack, the energy to run the race, and the patience I need to keep myself out of trouble.

Feed your enemy, and offer them something to drink.

God’s Word is our daily bread.  And I want to draw your attention to one more thing we heard this morning.  From Romans (12:20-21): “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Do you think this is just about a slice of bread or a plate of cookies?

If someone drives us nuts – if someone goes out of their way to embarrass us, or put us down, or make us feel worthless, or is just stubbornly in our way, we’re to have the word of God on our lips, we’re to rejoice in hope and speak the truth in love, even when it’s hard to swallow.  That’s because, even for our worst enemies, our task by the grace of God, is to lead them to the living water that is Jesus Christ, who pardons us, provides for us, and guides us on, all the days of this (crazy) journey set out before us.

My friends – let’s be people who feed on the word of God… just not literally; after all, self-serve food is prohibited.

[1] See James 3:9-10

[2] Matthew 15:1-20

[3] The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent written by Abp. Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and contained in every Book of Common Prayer since.

[4] Ok… not an actual modern-day Bible, but a scroll containing biblical text…

[5] Ezekiel 3

[6] Revelation 10:8-11

[7] In Biblical Studies we would call this a “prophetic sign-act”, a non-verbal dramatic action to visualize the message they brought to the people.