A Story About Trust
In the 1940s (I cant’ be too sure of the date), a young and promising preacher, a man who seemed to have something of a gift for evangelism, found himself wrestling with the truth of the Bible.
There had for the previous 100 years been much criticism of the historical reliability of the Bible. People had poured on scorn that on old Testament giant like David actually had existed, that details in the New Testament like the birth of Jesus had been invented to fit earlier prophecies, that Jesus’ resurrection was merely a hallucination, a powerful piece of wishful fulfilment experienced by Jesus’ followers which had given them the energy that they poured into founding the Church.
These questions were flying around the Theology Faculties, and eating at the confidence of the Church. A good friend of the evangelist had himself begun to succumb to his own doubts.
So what this man did was he went out at night and he wrestled with God – a way reminiscent of a story about Jacob in Genesis – he wrestled all night with the truth of the Bible. He did not get technical answers on the Greek used to describe the Virgin birth, or a piece of historical data that confirmed the resurrection.
But what he did receive was a sense of presence of God, and a sense of submission, that in ways he did not fully understand, this book could be trusted.
The man’s name was Billy Graham. Possibly the most influential Christian leader of the last 50 years.
From that moment on his ministry experienced a new power. His ability to communicate words which reached into the depths of people’s lives, and offered hope, the possibility that they could be different, and a fearlessness in the face of death; this ability touched millions in America, in Europe, in Africa and Asia.
When Billy Graham spoke there would be a constant refrain – “The Bible Says, The Bible Says, The Bible Says”. His preaching was a passionate repetition of the truths found in this book; truth which has transformed millions and millions of lives.
A Story About Limits
I read recently a modern reworking of Darwin’s “The Origin of The Species” – the book through which the theory of evolution through natural selection was given to the world. The book is called “Almost like a Whale” – which is a line taken from Darwin who was speaking about the habits of certain bears to float around in the water with their heads up to catch flies; looking “Almost like a Whale”.
Steve Jones who wrote it, and who was the scientific advisor to David Attenborough on his recent series on the Tree of Life, is passionate about the theory of Evolution. He, like his fellow Darwinist, Richard Dawkins, is a committed humanist, but at the end of his book he says some words which Dawkins would never write, but with which I wholeheartedly agree:
When it comes to what makes us different from other creatures, science can answer all the questions except for the interesting ones. (pp432-433)
Much of what makes us what we are does not need a Darwinian explanation. The birth of Adam, whether real or metaphorical, marked the insertion into an animal body of a post-biological soul that leaves no fossils and leaves no genes. (page 437)
Having spent too much of the last couple of years reading Richard Dawkins’ work, I was shocked to read such words from a biologist. I would not have been surprised to read something like that from a physicist or cosmologist. There there is a point – underneath the quarks and the bosons, after you have driven huge tunnels under the Swiss Alps and eventually got them working, after you have comprehended the vastness of the universe, the bendiness of space and the possibility of a billion billion universes, you start to run out of answers.
And you end up where Billy Graham ended up in the night back in 19XX, with a book that goes further, makes outrageous claims, asks and then answers the question in the deepest possible way, the question “What is going on?”
The Bible As Story
The Bible can be broken down into many different ways:
You can have the most common division: Old Testament – life before Jesus and the history of Israel; and New Testament – life after Jesus and the history of the Church.
You can have a history of covenants, agreements, key points when God and people come to agreements about the future: agreements with a man called Adam, with Abraham who became a father when he was 100; Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt and then received the 10 commandments; David and the story of the Kings who led and then failed to lead Israel and the exile of Israel from Israel to Babylon – Iran and Iraq; and then the arrival of Jesus and the new covenant, the unbreakable agreement with his followers the Church.
But today I want to think of the Bible as a big story, a big story which answers the question “What is going on?”
Like all stories there is a Beginning, A Complication, A Resolution and An Epilogue.
The Epilogue is often an attempt to get back to the beginning
And you see this in Toy Story, Lazy Town, in Lord of The Rings, in Star Wars, in Bambi, in 24.
The Complication is long and brutal
And the Resolution is long and glorious
The Complication has lots of hints of resolution
And The Resolution still has to deal with the long painful history of the Complication.
Beginning, Complication, Resolution and Epilogue.
The Beginning changes the question from “What is going on?”
To “Who is going on?”
The Beginning is this
In the beginning “God.”
God is the subject of the Bible.
That you can ask questions about quarks and genomes
You can psychoanalyse the id, and materially organise the economy
But nothing can happen, nothing can change
Nothing can change
Until you start to ask questions about God
Or more properly “God starts to ask questions about you.”
In the beginning God – four words in – and you get to God.
In the Hebrew its quicker, the word for God is Elohim
Beraishit, Bara Elohim.
“In the beginning God” says the book of Genesis
And it is a beautiful beginning. You know the story, but hear it again.
In the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth.
Space with all its bends – because in real space parallel lines do meet each other at infinity
And time can go at different speeds
And the electron over there knows exactly what to do, in the same way as the electrons over there
Something is holding these guys to the same program
And there are 10-11 dimensions the physicists tell us – and even that theory is struggling.
And God said “Let there be light” – God starts with light, that most basic of things.
Stunning to discover that as a beginning.
Suggestive of a big bang, but deeper than that, probing at what light is, energy
And the light is separated from the darkness and you have night and day and the basic rhythm of the cosmos is established, you now have time.
And God created an expanse in the middle of the waters, the waters above are the clouds, the waters above are the seas, and the expanse between God calls “Heaven.”
I know that some of you will have in your Bibles “Sky”, but its not Sky, the word is Heaven
Heaven is between the clouds and the seas, that space is called Heaven
Yes it’s the space above the clouds as well
But it’s also the space below the clouds.
I want to have words with Bette Midler and Sir Cliff Richard who said that God was watching us from a distance.
Because Heaven where God reigns is so much closer, an Irish proverb says its three foot above a man’s head, but it’s closer than that, it’s on the tip of your nose
And that is the second day.
The third day is when earth is made, mud, earth, soil.
And the plants upon it fruit and seed – and do you notice here that in biology now you have death and life – not the second, terrible, moral death with which Adam will be inflicted, but the death that Jesus spoke about when he said “unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it remains a single grain.” The rhythm of losing what you are in order to become something bigger. That is there now on the third day
And this thing called life.
This vital spark
Called life, it is there and this is the third day and God saw that it was good.
Do you notice you Christians who remember your Easter story and who know about crosses and empty tombs (we’re jumping ahead here, and pretending that we don’t know any of this is about to happen) that it is on the third day that life appears, and on the third day that something new happens, God saw that it was good.
Because creation is not just generation, but also appreciation.
You notice that rhythm here – generate and appreciate.
Any time you make something you are doing a little sniff of what God does in Genesis. But to complete the cycle you have to appreciate.
This Tuesday when I was meant to be preparing this talk my son Sam was unwell and instead of doing deep reading and translation (for those of you who came today looking for deep reading and translation and are not getting what you came for, you can blame the nursery where Sam got the virus), so instead Sam and I decided to make puppets. This was begrudging.
As Anna my wife drove our two daughters off to their child minder and left me with Sam, as I called out “Love you” her parting words “Make sure he isn’t watching the telly all day” (which is what I had planned because I was hoping to do some deep reading and translation) so we were inspired by a program called Big and Small to make some puppets. Here they are.
And I loved making these. And I loved appreciating them. I would quite happily stop the seminar for the next five minutes to enjoy that cow’s nose.
Because Creation is about generation and appreciation.
On the fourth day, God refines what he created on the first day
And he puts lights in the sky – sun, moon and stars to rule the night and day
And God saw that it was good.
And on the fifth day God populates what he made on the second day.
Birds that fly across heaven (v20)
And God populates the water under the earth with great sea creatures.
And God saw that it was good.
And on the sixth day God populates what he made on the third day
He populates the earth with livestock and creeping things
And you know the story because he makes something in his own image
Something that the stars and the centipedes do not share
He makes us
Male and female.
And you know the story in Genesis 2 where male himself in a garden
Where they are to eat, the Hebrew says eat, eat the fruit of every tree.
Trees and fruit, eat eat, says God
And there is the tree of life
There is the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
You must not touch that says God you will surely die., you will died
And a river runs through the garden
I want you to remember the river and the two trees.
And then God sets to finding the man a companion
And so God takes from Adam’s side – not from his head to be above him, not from his feet to be below him, but from his side, the woman, his companion
And they are in the garden
And they are to eat eat of all the trees in the garden
But not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And then there is the complication. To understand “What is going on?”
You need to understand “Who is going on?”
And you need to understand “What went wrong?”
And what went wrong was that all the trees in the garden weren’t enough
What went wrong was the woman and the man who was standing next to her
Listened to the wrong voices
That voice that sowed doubt
“Did God really say you shall not eat of any tree in the garden”
And the woman doesn’t spot this. Because there is the kernel of resentment
Because she can have the grapefruits and the oranges and the apples and the satsumas and the tangerines and the clementines and the mandarins and the jack fruit (the world’s biggest fruit by the way) but she cannot have the fruit of tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She can enjoy 99.99% of all garden fruit, but the serpent picks up on the limit, and suggests that God of satsumas and mandarins and jack fruit is a miser.
And she doesn’t spot it, and before you men get superior and start muttering to ourselves (it’s always the women’s fault), dufus silent boy in the background, he doesn’t spot it either. And the woman says
“We may eat (not we may eat eat) of the fruit of the trees (not all the trees) in the garden or but you shall not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden nor shall you touch it (a wee addition from Eve) lest (this is also a different word – God had said “for” you will definitely die, on that day; but this is weaker, you will be in danger of dying) you die (and the die is only once here).
In short what Eve has done (and silent, no help at all at this moment boy) is forgotten the kindness and severity of God.
And having moved from doubt, the serpent moves to lies
You will be like God, and you will not surely die
And the woman sees that the fruit is good to the eyes (not to the taste – remember fruit is for tasting, not looking at; the test of a fruit is not how much you want it when you don’t have it, but how much you enjoy it when you eat it) is to be desired to be one wise (not “good and evil” but to be wise) she took of its fruit and ate and she gave some to her man.
And what great divine knowledge do that man and woman gain from this incredible fruit which promised so much.
They know they are naked and they make fig leaves and loin cloths.
And you know the story.
God, who is intimate, with his people, seen, unveiled,
Comes walking in the garden and the man hides (next time you wonder about the pain of God being invisible, remember it was us who hid first) and God says “where are you.” And seeing the man suddenly self-conscious says “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat.”
And Adam says “Yes”
No of course, because we never admit we are wrong, we look for someone to blame.
“The woman whom you gave me she gave me and I ate.”
And the woman says “The serpent tricked me.”
And the serpent is cursed – and there enmity between him and the man
And a verse I want you to remember “between your seed and his seed and he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”
And there is strife between the man and the woman
And they are banished from the garden
An angel and a flaming sword guard the entrance so they cannot get back to the tree of life – remember that tree.
And there is a chasm between the humans and God because never again does God walk amongst his people in the same way.
And that is the complication. The thing that undoes the refrain of “this is good, this is good”. Because now there is something that is no good.
It starts with something remarkable trivial.
The eating of fruit
But inside that one act are darker intentions about feeling hard done by
And resenting authority
And listening to the lies of the liar
And desiring fruit that looks good and but whose taste is forgotten
If the first sin had been a murder, or a rape
Then we who have never murdered or raped could have said “That had nothing to do with me”
But because it came out of something stupid, pathetic, foolish, trivial
All of us are drawn in.
And forced to watch in horror as what began with fruit theft turns into murder
And all the carnage of humans at their worst is unleashed on the earth.
And that Old Testament – if I can generalise hugely is about dealing with the complication.
Dealing with the outworkings of this estrangement.
There are new starts like with Noah and the ark and life after the flood – and you can read about Noah in Genesis 6-9.
And with Abraham – above all with Abraham who inherits a promise that from him will come a great nation, and a people who will bless all others.
In all this story of hope, there is the threat of unhope
Abraham is hold, his wife is ninety, and still in the depths of his being the light flickers but it has not vanished and he still believes.
He tries to get round the thing by having a child with one of his wife’s servants – but Ishmael is not the one. He has to keep hoping, and he keeps believing and this is called righteousness.
And you have beautiful moments with Abraham promises to him in Genesis 12, 15 and 17 – including the covenant of circumcision
That God will not let down Abraham, and Abraham believes and this is counted as righteousness.
And with Moses – who leads an escape from slavery that will rebirth Israel, and inherit a law ten famous commandments; 613 commandments in all that instruct and let people know what the standards of God are, but fail because laws cannot change the heart. But you can read about Moses and the laws in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
And from Moses you have a degeneration in the promised land, the days of the judges when anarchy reigns.
And with David the king after God’s own heart, who is weakened by his folly, but has the courage to trust grace.
And you can read about David in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel and the start of 1 Kings.
And you can read the thoughts given to David the psalms
Beautiful honest raw prayers to God
The one I read this week read “God you do not go our with our armies any more and it is not our fault” (Psalm 44)
And like many of the attempts to rescue
The Kings fail, because they want more power
And they want Gods apart from God.
And this genetic flaw from Adam
This lust after self-importance and refusal to trust the generosity of God
Nor face the severity of God
This kills us,
All the attempts at rescue fail.
The other attempts are wisdom – the Proverbs of Solomon
And the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel , Daniel; Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah Jonah Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi
Who speak the words of God to a rebellious people.
None of this quite works.
Noah through a starting again with people who are good.
Moses through law
David through authority
Solomon through wisdom
The Prophets through the words of God.
It doesn’t work because it can’t affect the heart.
Only Abraham’s believing God, trusting God and this is righteousness, only that one will have a chance.
And so that is the complication.
And now Resolution
The resolution happens when something happens when something that had not happened since God walked in the garden looking for Adam and Eve, God comes down.
It is interesting that the two trilogies that have captured the imagination most in the last few decades: Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings.
Both of them Resolve with the hero returning. With Lord of the Rings it’s Return of the King, and with Star Wars it’s Return of the Jedi.
There is a notion here of Return of the Creator.
It is John’s gospel which gets at this most explicitly.
Firstly a hark back to Genesis “In the beginning” but this time it’s “In the beginning was the Word”
And the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life.
And God comes back.
He comes back and he deals with the tragedy that has ensued from the Eve’s apple.
He does it in very real terms. In his return to his home town of Nazareth, he says he has come to proclaim Good News to the poor
Liberty to the captives
Recovery of sigh to the blind
And at liberty those who are oppressed
And to proclaim the year of God’s favour – the year when debts are forgiven.
And in ways which are physical (the blind receiving sight, prisoners being set free) and financial (Good news to the poor, the year of the Lord’s favour which was about money) Jesus is reordering life on this beautiful, broken place.
And he tied the physical to the moral, it happened in one incident where a paralysed man is lowered through his roof. And he sees that what afflicts this man is moral as well as physical, so he proclaims the forgiveness of his sins, and then heals the man of his disability.
And so when Jesus talks about the blind he is talking about people with cataracts and people who fail to see what God is doing in the world
When he talks about freeing prisoners he is talking about those imprisoned under trumped up charges, and those in prison because their guilt doe not let them go
When he proclaims the year of God’s favour it is about an economic system where debts are not allowed to build to catastrophic levels, and where all the debt of all the malice and the all bitterness and all the violence of all the ages, all of that debt is to be forgiven.
He taught that Kingdom of heaven, heaven , the place where God reigns, could move three inches. It could move from the air, and all that surrounds, to the human heart.
He taught this, and he lived this truth in the most shocking way.
He got angry at hypocrisy
He handled money and he possessed little of it
His first miracle involved the manufacture of wine – a miracle that happened let it be noted, “on the third day”.
He used violence against property when that property exploited the poor.
He referred to the children of a foreigner as “dogs” and then healed the same child.
He questioned the position of his mother and brothers
He engaged with a woman who had five husbands in a way that she seems to have regarded at first as flirtatious
He said that the greatest faith he found was in a member of the occupying army.
He did miracles all over the country except in his home town
Despite the calls to do otherwise, he insisted on going to Jerusalem where he knew he would be killed
And when he was killed, the most agonising, tortured of deaths, he prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven
And when he was at the very cusp of achieving what he had been sent for, he asked why God had abandoned him.
But at the end he did say “It is finished.”
What had been finished
The rescue from the moment that forbidden fruit had been taken.
On that cross which is the centre-point of our faith
The centre-point of this drama
Of this book.
There are different ways of understanding this moment
It is to say that the debt is paid, the ransom is paid – we are released
It is to say that though we have committed the crime we are declared not guilty – we are justified
It is to say that the anger of God against us has been met by God’s own grace – the word for that is propitiation
It is to say that the power of death within us is defeated and the power of life is now at work within us – we are being made holy – sanctified.
And all these images point at the character of God who is perfect, holy, cannot just forget what is brutal and count it as nothing.
And God who is grace who does everything, who gives up his own life to win us back, who loves us before we loved him.
The question “What has happened?” gets a second answer
“God has died for us.”
The power of the genetic flaw had been undone.
And this is done through the way that Abraham first encountered
We are justified (rectified is a better word) by faith
By trusting Jesus to heal us, we are healed.
This is the gospel,
This is how the victory of Jesus becomes our victory.
This is the resolution.
And just as the complication had a long tail in its wake
So the resolution does and did too.
It’s consequences are still being worked out
And are still in conflict with the consequences of the complication.
We exist in this in-between time
When the victory has been one
But the battle is still being fought.
And how we are as people of God is captured in this in-between time.
We aspire to love. And at moments this breaks through
We at times, with the people around us become hugely irritated, irrationally conceited, proud, spiteful, gossipy – and yet at other times we manage to experience the forgiveness of God, and recognise that we are all, each of us broken, and in love live with those around us.
We are greedy, we consume too much, drive cars that have too big engines, fail to recycle, choke the planet with our excessive air miles- and yet are capable of sustainable decisions of self-sacrifice in imitation of Jesus who did not have a home to call his own.
We play power games eager to be recognised, promoted – and at other times we are happy to wash the feet of our friends, and do the least tasks without credit.
We got lost in ourselves, but our best moments we are not the bodies of Christ but the body of Christ.
We live in this in-between time. Where the kingdom of heaven has moved three inches, but it is still fighting for final control.
In our faith we waver between the mountaintop where all is clear – and the depths where we are met with grace to match our suffering and in-between where apathy and blandness and emptiness terrify us; there is also strength for another day, meaning, joy in the ordinary, glory in the grey.
You see this in the letters to the early Church.
Paul writes to the “Saints” of the Church in Corinth and also tells them not to visit prostitutes.
He tells them that they are the fools of the world called to shame the wise; and also hints that some of them have died early because of the way the celebrate communion
The Church today with its grand visions, but the worries about who gets the credits
The servants of the one who gave up his glory who hope that one day they might get to run a mega-Church or get to speak at Keswick.
We are caught in-between.
We say we have faith but we panic when the pound loses its value
We say we have hope in God, but have all load of supplementary measures up our sleeve in case that one doesn’t come through
We say we believe in love, but cause great great hurt through the way we manage our relationships
We condemn the addictions of drug, but say less about our addictions to porn, playstations or shopping.
We are caught in-between.
This is where we are.
That is what is going on.
And if you want to understand the world
If you want to understand ourselves
If you want to know God
This is the book that tells us.
We will all one day get a Stephen.
Finally there is the epilogue.
Which I want to put under the question “What is going to happen?”
The answer is that we will all one day get a Stephen.
We will not be in-between forever.
The best description of the timeline of the Bible is that at the present time, believers in Jesus when they die go to be with Jesus, and enjoy his presence in paradise.
But there awaits an even greater day.
The day of the return of Jesus when the great resurrection of the dead will happen
And those who have trusted in Jesus will go to be with him
And in the words of the Epilogue in Revelation
Heaven will come down to earth
And at last in the fullest way
The Blind will see and the captives will be set free
And the year of the Lord’s favour will be proclaimed
And you can read about this in Revelation, particularly the last two chapters.
Heaven will come down,
And every tear will be wiped from every eye.
The nations will come from the East and the West
And they will still be nations, they will still be speak their native languages
Did you know that in heaven you will still speak English but that you will also understand French and Swahili.
There will be a banquet, a wedding feast, and we will all get married to Jesus
Which for blokes I think takes a bigger leap of the imagination than for women.
But in the words of Jerry Maguire, we will be completed
Or in Biblical language, we will be made full.
And songs will be sung
And a table will be spread
And the poorest will eat fare that on earth that was denied them
And God will be with us.
And there is city, and a river runs through it – do you remember anywhere else that had a river.
And also a tree, and what tree is it
It is the tree of life.
The tree that we were barred from the tree of life
With twelve kinds of fruits – what kind of tree has lots of fruit
But this is God loving to give his children fruit
And the leaves are for the healing of the nations.
And we are back to the garden
Back to peace
This is what is going on.
We are going back to God.
Let This Word Dwell
There is a curious relationship between these words and the truth they describe
That to devote ourselves to these words
Not in the way of the critics who want to know about tense, and mood and number
Important things by the way, but not the most important.
But to devote yourself to these words, the way that Billy Graham did, to devote yourself to trusting them
To let God, to let God the Holy Spirit truly teach you what is going on
Is to let your life become the life that is called to be.
It is about you being you
It is about knowing that you are going home
And the ones who go home, don’t just go home
They get a Stephen – from the Greek word Stephenas meaning crown.
That our ability to live story
To do what Jesus did and undo the complication and live the resolution.
It is not forgotten
This is the story of this book.
What is going on – is really Who is going on – this is God’s world
What is going on – you have to know two things that happened
A man and a woman ate a fruit – the complication
And a man died on a cross – the resolution
What is going on – we are in-between but we are going home – the epilogue.
Thank you very much for listening to this afternoon.