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?
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.