THE STORIES WE TELL & WHY WE TELL THEM
“Every time someone tells a story and tells it well and truly, the gospel is served.” But why? And how? Why and how does storytelling serve the gospel? The good news that God in Christ
creates, God in Christ saves, God in Christ rules? As the author of the quote would say,
“Out of the chaos of incident and accident, story-making words bring light, coherence and connection, meaning and value.” – Eugene Peterson, “Pastors and Novels”, Subversive Spirituality, 187.
Stories are told to help us make sense of the world we experience. Stories reveal to us something we sense but which our five senses often fail to grasp; connecting the visible and the invisible. Everyday moments, and episodes come together to expose meaning, value, emotion, truth, hope.
Every person and culture throughout history has been shaped by and uses stories to shape their experience of life. Looking for continuity in the movements of the plot, capturing and captured by something transcendent; similar to Catherine and I’s story-making conversation I shared last week. In this way, life is experienced as story shaped and shaped by stories we tell.
As a people of faith we believe that God is a storyteller. We live in response to the conviction that God has revealed the story of the entire world in a crafted narrative, bringing coherence to the events, details and characters for the plot; capturing a theme that invites us to see what we would fail to recognize without this story: a state of being, a gospel reality.
What we discover in the story God tells us is that His Story is the invisible that every other story attempts to capture, to connect to, or finds itself in conflict with. No story can be told outside of universality of His Story.
Indeed, your specific story— from your birth to now, and from now to your end—takes place in the life creating current of God’s Story: God in Christ creating, God in Christ saving, God in Christ ruling.
Therefore, as a people of faith, a people who have experienced in some way or another the mercy, grace, and truth of God in Jesus; we recognize that the story of Scripture, the stories of our culture, and the stories of our history (as individuals and faith family) are written in the stream of God’s Story, and draw us into the flow of His Story today. A flow we call gospel activity.
What is the story of the world? It is the story of good news. God in Christ creating, God in Christ saving, God in Christ ruling. We live in this gospel reality today, the year 2017 A.D.
STORIES OF REDEMPTION
We discover the all-encompassing nature of God’s Story quickly in the narrative already unfolding before us in Genesis, Exodus, and yes, even in Leviticus and Numbers too!
We have begun to recognize the world of Genesis 3-11 is not too different than our own world today. Humans and divines multiplying, advancing civilization, finding ways to prosper through cultivation and violence. Perhaps the various characters’ observable interactions are a little more obscure, but none-the-less active. Yet our intrigue has certainly been peaked.
As the story of Abraham, Sarah and their family unfolded, did you not find yourself draw into the plights of the characters? Would God be faithful? Would Abraham screw things up? Every success seemingly followed by a failure, but favor and promise never removed. And then Joseph! A person of character we all would desire; if not his circumstances in which such character was formed! All his difficulties, the hatred towards him, and oppression upon him; yet never crushed and ultimately blessing those who cursed him. Surely now the promise of restoration would be fulfilled! The divines in conflict fading behind the scenes and humanity with a growing hope in God’s persistent faithfulness.
Yet, we turn the page on Genesis and find that in the story Exodus that God’s patience in restoring Eden of Genesis 1-2 has led not to a garden life but to his people’s and the peoples’ around them forgetfulness of God’s all-encompassing story. Humanity and the divines have fallen back into a similar ignorance and arrogance as Genesis 4-6. God again is needed to not simply turn evil to good, a bad situation to a better situation like in the case of Joseph. God is going to have to do something dramatic to rescue his inheritance and keep his promise, and much more if he is to bless the entire world under the rule of others.
It is here in the narrative that perhaps for the first time we begin to identify the events of the story in Scripture with our own stories. Longing for deliverance from oppression, whether in suffering, addiction, boredom, brokenness, directionless-ness; we cry out to a God who we are distantly familiar. A God who are parent’s spoke of, but who we never experienced as more than a set of religious behaviors. A God who we had heard enough about his faithfulness and grace that we want some of that for ourselves. A God who we think should care about us, but who feels far off. A God who we have seen others trust and who we want to trust too, though unsure we can.
And, most every one of us in this room are in this room because, like our faith family in Egypt, we have had our cries for deliverance answered! Perhaps unbelievably at first, and maybe not in such drastic splendor as the events of Exodus; but none-the-less we are delivered from evil within and without. Guided through a watershed moment when that which oppressed us has been overcome! Walking now on steady footing with the expectation of a better world, a promise land, a new life free from all that enslaved! Redeemed! Saved!
This story of redemption, of deliverance from suffering to a better world, in not simply a story arch that reflects our own stories and has been foundational to our faith family, but a story which has given shape to our American history and culture.
Americans tell redemptive stories. Stories that move from sin to forgiveness, from slavery to freedom, from poverty to prosperity, from sickness to health, from ignorance to knowledge, and from immaturity to maturity. Delivered from the pain of this world into a better existence.
The story of Scripture and the stories of our culture in this way seem to be parallel plot-lines. Both Scripture and our American culture narrate a Redemptive Tale: deliverance from suffering into a better world.
Yet the thing with parallels is that while they run alongside one another, even moving in the same direction, they never connect—at least not in the world of geometry!
Yet, in the world of human existence, there is an irony to the parallels of redemption espoused in both the story of Scripture and stories of our culture. Their failure to connect as paralleled plot-lines attempting to make sense of the present through a coherent past and anticipated future history actually reveals that they are in conflict, running perpendicular to one another.
It is in this conflicting convergence of God’s Story and our cultural stories where your story, my story, our neighbors’ stories and our faith family stories have unfolded throughout the plot-line of history. The conflict arising in what we are delivered from and into what we are delivered into. What, after all, is a better world?
Our—American, 2017—cultural narratives deliver us from internal guilt, from oppressive systems and ideas, from want for the necessities, from sickness, from addiction, from ignorance, and immaturity as a species and individuals. We are delivered most often by grit and perseverance through a disciplined life, a process, a religion, or simple toil. Certainly, there is a bit of fate, luck, or even divine intrusions; but our delivery is more than often self-actualized.
In turn, we experience the benefits of our efforts and fortune from our perseverance in the immediate, and hopefully, for the foreseeable future. Arriving at a peace that is understandable, having been hard- fought. A world in which what I have been delivered from has been overcome by me. A world in which I am a conqueror, in control (for the most part!).
In contrast, God’s Story has shown us that what we are being delivered from is sin. A rebellious nature in which we attempt to control our own destiny, write our own story. A nature that is not ours alone, but which has enacted itself like a force upon creation. Our deliverance comes through God’s grace and justice extended to us in our most desperate time.
Thus we are being delivered into the presence of the Lord, into a holy relationship. A world in which I have been overcome, as well as the evil in which I am immersed, but neither destroyed. A world in which my flourishing comes in relation to the One who creates, who saves, who rules.
This, the conflicting stories of redemption create tension for you and I. A tension created by opposing stories and the world they describe, a pressure in which our faith family’s traits are forged. After all, like in diving, the deeper we are pulled into the ocean of God’s Story, immersed in the current of gospel-reality, the more pressure we experience. Life on the surface is different than life in the depths. But pressure doesn’t have to destroy, as long as we acclimate.
TENSION OF REDEMPTION
The stories of history, the stories of our faith family and even our own stories, help us discover how to navigate in the tension of redemption, to acclimate to the pressure of a new world. A tension pressed upon us from three points.
We see each of the tensions in the second half of Exodus and the books of Leviticus, Numbers and into Deuteronomy. And we will see them experienced in different ways throughout the story of Israel, and even again in the stories of the early church to some degree.
These are the same pressures which forge our character—our family traits—in the story of our lives still today. Tensions that, if we don’t try and relieve through masking, fleeing, or attempting to control; will construct us into a people who are Distinctly God’s.
Ones so closely associated with God’s intent and attention that we cannot be described or understood apart from our relation to him.
The first pressure point is the expectation of redemption. We desire an immediate better world. On the other side of the sea, having seen our oppressor defeated, now, finally and fully free; we must be in the better world! And yet, as is most often the case, the ecstasy of deliverance is followed quickly with the dessert experience.
We find ourselves like Israel, wandering on our way to the better world but through a foreign and apparently fruitless land. This world is not better! We feel as though we are deprived of the very necessities of life. Having to have our expectation of redemption reframed. In turn, we often find ourselves fearful and complaining, all of which ironically keep us from experiencing the benefits of the better world already being poured out like manna and bursting forth like water from a rock (Ex. 16-32 & Numbers 11-16).
The second pressure point we have discussed already is the focus and locus of redemption. It is in our reframing of expectations that we discover that our focus and locus of redemption are actually tension points.
Our focus of redemption is often circumstantial. Remove us from or overcome what keeps us from experiencing life fully now. In turn, our locus of redemption is often internal. Perseverance and grit in process, right behavior, in holding on to hope, etc.
What we have seen most clearly in Exodus, especially in the story of the golden calve and God’s response (Ex. 32-34) is that what we are being redeemed from is an alternate story that clouds our entire existence: sin without and sin within. In turn, what we need is not simply better circumstances, but a new world—or a re-creating of the old world from Genesis 1-2—the presence of God with us.
And it is here, in the presence of God, the better world that we experience the third pressure point of: the life of redemption. How do we experience God in Christ creating, God in Christ saving, God in Christ ruling, when we are still pulled toward sinfulness and immersed in a world in which sin still has a stronghold? Living holy without being destroyed (Leviticus – Deuteronomy). Holy new world in the midst of an unholy old one.
This is the question that story of Israel will attempt to answer. Leviticus through Deuteronomy setting the stage for the redemption experienced—at least temporally—and the struggles of living redeemed. In the stories ahead we will see our own struggles with religion, with doubt, with faith, with control, with expectation, with being overwhelmed, with perseverance, with selfishness, with prosperity and with exile, and the like. Holiness seeming to allude our faith family with any consistency. The presence of God forgotten, rebelled against, competing with the rule or stories of others, attempted to be controlled like a weapon to yield for our own advantage, etc.
In some way, Israel’s story is the story of us. A people who will struggle to live in the tension of redemption with purpose, fruitfulness and longevity. But only when we forget that their story is written as it is in the plot-line of history so that the story being written today would be experienced differently (Heb. 11:1-12:3).
If the better world of redemption is the presence of God with us; then how does that shape of how we think of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? What does he show us and what does he do for us?
Read John 15:1-15.
Does Jesus not show us what it is to live holy in the midst of the unholy? Does he not cleanse us so that we might be restored to relationship, connected to God? As the apostle Paul would describe it, the dwelling place of God, being built into his holy dwelling together?
There is no human perseverance, discipline, wisdom, etc. that can overcome that which we need deliverance from (sin and death). Israel has proven that our redemption stories don’t fully and truly redeem!
What Israel’s stories reveal to us (those of faith who opened the mouths of lions, those of faith who were eaten by lions, and those of faithlessness (Heb. 11)) is that in the story of the world, there are only those who abide and those who remain disconnected.
So why identify more with Israel? Why repeat their ups and downs? Why form their religion and experience their exile? Why not identify with the ONE faithful Israelite? The ONE whom all their heroes and leaders looked to, waited for, longed to see? Why not attempt to live like Jesus, to rest in Jesus, to get what Jesus had—union with the Father (Jn. 17)?
And because we gain relation with God in Jesus we can live and participate in the parallels of cultural redemption (the blessing of others); not as their redemption but as fruit of the presence, the power of holiness that does not consume but transforms. We will actually see this too in the story of Israel, even if it not often embraced and with only a remnant of fruit.
Our cultural stories are slightly distorted because of the focus and locus of redemption. But they are reflections we can see with soberness, clarity, perseverance and abiding in Jesus by the Spirit. For we participate in redemption in the way Jesus did:
- Enjoying the love of the Father,
- listening to the Father,
- proclaiming and living in relation the Father and the power of the Spirit;
- being Distinctly God’s, saints!
OUR ONE REDEMPTION, OUR ONE BETTER WORLD
It is because of Jesus that we live redeemed, experience a better world today—even if our expectations, focus, and locus of redemption or still being reformed and redirected!). In Jesus we, all those who recognize God’s Story today (God in Christ creating, God in Christ saving, God in Christ ruling) have one redemption and one better world: together!