Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
December 21, 2012, was supposed to be the end of the world. At least that’s the story that was being circulated. According to some people, ancient Mayan calendars predicted cataclysmic and transformative events just before Christmas this year. It didn’t happen, as you know. And that really messed up my weekend. You see, I hadn’t done any of my Christmas shopping. I figured, what’s the point? Suddenly Saturday morning came after all and I had to scramble, me and all the other Mayan enthusiasts out there!
In all seriousness, most of us didn’t put much stock in the Mayan version of the story of how everything is going to end up. Instead of postponing our Christmas shopping or liquidating all our assets, most of us took a view of this whole scenario which was a bit closer to this cartoon.
So the popularized Mayan version of the story didn’t turn out to be true. That means that some other version of the story must be true. Right? If the world doesn’t end in 2012, when does it end? How will it end? Will it ever end? And how did it begin? Why did it begin? Where did we come from? And why is there so much that goes wrong in our world? Can anything, or anybody, ever put things right again? Where are we headed? What is our destiny, our purpose? And are we alone in this world? Is there something, or someone, beyond? There has to be some story which rightly answers these questions, some story of our world that is the true story. Even if that story is mostly about randomness and chance and meaninglessness, there has to be a story. Your whole life depends, you know, on the version of the story you choose to believe.
We did not gather together here in church last Friday, on December 21st, because we don’t buy that story. We gather instead on the eve of December 25th because we believe another story is the true story and we believe this particular date points to a very important chapter in that story. It’s a story which answers all those questions I just raised in ways that no other story in the world answers them. And tonight, I want to read you a few lines from the book that tells that story. And then I want to tell you the rest of story, at least the condensed version. Even if you’ve heard it before, it’s worth hearing again. The best stories always are.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, NRSV)
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People love stories. Children love stories. Old people love stories. The best movies, the best books, the best music all tell great stories. When I get up and talk in front of people, which I do a lot, sometimes people listen, sometimes they fall asleep. Whenever I tell a story, however, everybody’s with me. We all love a story.
It’s my theory that we love stories because stories, at least good stories, always contain a hint of truth. Even in fairy tales, we see something true about the way the world really is, or the way the world is meant to be. We see ourselves in the story. I recently heard David Letterman talking about the nature of comedy, which is really just stories that make us laugh. He said that when comedy works it’s because “it’s silly but it’s still within the range of plausibility.” Even silly stories can work as long as they leave us thinking, “Who knows, maybe that could actually happen?”
This is why I personally have never been interested in dreams. Even when one of my own kids says, “Dad, do you want to hear about the dream I had last night?” honestly, I don’t want to. I listen, of course. I’m their dad, it would be cruel not to. But I’d much rather hear a story about something that really happened to them than listen to a story about some purple bear who smeared peanut butter on the walls of their room and drove off with Justin Bieber in a Volkswagen Bug. The value of a story is that it holds truth, at least some truth. It may be wild. It may be far-fetched. But it still works as long as there’s at least some hint of truth in the story that gives us a glimpse into how the world really is and how we fit into it all.
Some people think the Bible is a book of rules. It has rules in it, of course, but that’s not really what it is. The Bible is not mostly about what we should be doing but about what God has already done. The Bible contains rules, and poetry, and letters, and proverbs, but the Bible is more than a collection of these things. Above all, the Bible is a story. And it’s the best kind of story, the sort of story that is not only stunningly beautiful, and wildly adventurous, and unbelievably far-fetched, but also absolutely true. This story actually happened. It is actually happening. And we, even tonight, are right in the middle of it all.
The story begins in chapter 1 with God. In the beginning that’s all there was, a God of infinite power, goodness and holiness. A God of love and community. One God but, at the same time, somehow, three persons. A Father. A Son. A Spirit. Loving and enjoying and serving one another for eternity.
This love of God – Father, Son and Spirit – could not be contained. It burst forth into the nothing and began to create. God desired a creation, not to get love but to share love. So God began to fill up the emptiness. Deep blue oceans. Jagged mountain peaks. Blazing stars and planets. A sun to light the day, a moon to light the night. Thunderstorms. Redwood trees. Cherry blossoms. Swordfish. Grizzly bears. Banana slugs. Not only was God’s creation stunningly brilliant and endlessly diverse, it was absolutely good. Everything God made was good.
Into this good world God then put people. Made in his image, men and women were the grand finale, the centerpiece, of God’s creation. God made people to be his children, to share his love and to live in his world as their perfect home. God loved his creation, but he loved people best. From the beginning God would move heaven and earth to be near them, always, no matter what.
God then told his children that they must trust him. All the goodness of life was from him. He was the source of it all which meant that the creation could never be fully and forever enjoyed apart from the creator. This is how the story began, in paradise, just the way God designed it.
Before long, however, things went wrong. In any story worth telling, something always goes wrong. Maybe you’ve noticed this? Ever been to a movie where there is no conflict and the whole thing just sails along. There has never been a movie made like this. Nobody would see it because nobody would believe it. All the best stories in the world are full of conflict and pain and struggle because they all reflect the one, true story which is full of conflict and pain and struggle.
In chapter 2 sin entered God’s perfect world. People got it into their heads that perhaps they didn’t need God quite as much as he told them they needed him. Perhaps God didn’t love them near as much as he said he loved them. Perhaps there was more to this life than God had let them in on. These and other great lies came into the world and people believed them. People are still believing them.
So people ran from God. They hid from God. They felt shame before God and began to mistrust God. They worshipped things other than God. They worshipped their possessions, their work, their families, their status. They worshipped money, and sex, and power, and comfort, making these good things more important than God.
This sin caused a lot of things to happen. Mostly, it cut people off from God. And because God was the source of all life and goodness, it cut people off from these things as well. As a result, the creation began to unravel. At the end of chapter 2 the world ceased to be the paradise it was created to be and degenerated into the sort of world where nations hate one another, and cancer infects friends, and hurricanes wipe out whole communities, and kindergartners die in school shootings, and people don’t even know the name of their Creator.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end in chapter 2. Thankfully, the love of God which created the world was greater than the sin of people that ruined the world. God’s love is the most enduring power in the universe, never stopping, never giving up, unbreakable, eternal. And so at the beginning of chapter 3 God sets a plan in motion. Out of love, and in the full knowledge that it would be carried out at great cost to himself, God initiates a rescue mission to get his children back.
At just the right time, God himself slipped into the world. Augustus was emperor at the time, but he didn’t notice. Quirinius was governor at the time, but he didn’t notice. God slipped into the womb of a young virgin named Mary and then, one silent night when all the world slept, he slipped into the feeding trough of a forgotten stable in a backwater town calledBethlehem. Now, to look at him that night you’d think that this was just another ordinary baby. But this baby was given an extraordinary name. They called him Jesus, or Joshua in Hebrew, a name which means “the salvation of the Lord.” For though he was human, the son of a woman, he was also divine, the Son of God. In a way that nobody can ever explain, God had come in the flesh.
Right off the bat it became clear what sort of rescue mission this was going to be. The first birth announcements weren’t sent to the usual suspects. Instead, God announced his arrival by sending angels to lowly shepherds and a star to alien fortune-tellers. Apparently, God was not coming to save only the especially righteous and respectable, whoever they might be, but was coming to save even outcasts, even foreigners, even people who clearly have no rightful claim to be in his family, even us.
After some years the child grew up and the world began to take notice. He taught with unprecedented authority. He did things people never dreamed could be done. He loved people nobody thought were worth loving. Jesus amazed many people but in the end the people did to God what they had always done to God. They turned on him. One Friday they executed him in the most painful and shameful way they could think of. And he let them do this to him. He even loved them as they did this to him. Innocent to the last, he took the sin of the world onto himself. And in the end, even though a few people did mourn his death, he died alone, fully immersed in the darkness of our world.
Now, lots of stories end with death. This one does not. Chapter four begins on a Sunday morning. Once again, as most of the world slept, God slipped back into the world. Before, Jesus had slipped in from above, from the heavens. This time he slipped in from below, from the grave. The powers of hell which for three days had claimed victory could do so no longer. For the one they thought was defeated by death turned out to be the very author of life, the one whose love was stronger even than death.
The first people to hear the story that day were women on their way to the tomb to grieve their master. On hearing the news, the women rushed at once to tell their friends the story. In time, those friends traveled far and wide to tell other people the story. And those people told still more people the story. And many, many years later, and half a world away, somebody told me the story. And tonight, I’m telling you the story. And I’m telling you, it’s a true story. I’m telling you that it all really happened.
This is the point, of course, where we each have to decide whether or not we want to believe the story, whether or not we want to be written into the story. Not everybody, you know, believed the story. Some people chose, and still choose, to believe other stories. Though God came to save all people, some people didn’t want to be saved, or didn’t think they needed to be saved. Some people preferred life on their own terms. Some people, for some reason, preferred life without God over life with God.
Others, however, did believe the story. They stopped trusting themselves and trusted God. And with God’s help, they not only believed the story but they began to live it out. Filled with new power and grace, inspired by the very Spirit of the Risen Christ, they began to do the very same things Jesus once did. They taught with authority that changed lives. They did things which on their own they could never do. They loved people nobody expected them to love. And slowly, like a seed growing in a field, the long-rejectedKingdomofGodbegan to grow again in the world.
One of these believers was a man named John. One day he had a dream. It was more like a vision, really, or a revelation. And even though I told you I don’t usually like dreams, I like this one. Because I believe this one was from God. This dream was a dream about what was still to come, a dream about the end of this story and the beginning of a whole other story.
In this dream there was a King seated on a throne. A King who once was a baby. A King who once was a carpenter. A King who once hung on a cross. Around the throne there were people, all sorts of people, people you might not expect to see there, all different kinds of people who had, over time, allowed themselves to get swept up in the story. There they were, bowing before the king and laying their treasure at his feet. All around there was laughter, and applause, and singing. All of creation, in fact, was gathered around the throne in praise and celebration.
The throne on which the King sat was at the center of a great city, a sparkling, glowing, flourishing city which was coming down from heaven to the earth. Even though there was no sun and no moon, the city was blazing with light, light that burst forth from the throne, light that swept away every last trace of darkness.
At one point in the dream – and this is the best part of the dream – the King rises from his throne to make a declaration, a declaration that is fulfilled even as he speaks it. From now on, the King says, God and his children will be together. No longer will there be any running away or hiding. No more shame. No more sadness. No more fear. No more loneliness. Nobody will ever get sick again, or lost again, or hurt again, or left alone again. Nobody will ever die again. No more hospitals, no more graveyards, no more prisons, no more lonely motel rooms. From this day forward the only tears ever shed will be tears of joy. Everything – everything! – will be made, has been made, new again.
That is the dream God gave to John. And when the people who had believed this story up to that point heard this dream, when they heard how the whole story would one day end, and then begin again, there was only one thing they could do.
All they could do was pray. And all they could pray was, simply, “Come. Come, Lord Jesus, come.”
Which really, was just their way of saying, “To be continued…”
 I am indebted to two wonderful resources in the re-telling of this story. In his book, Center Church, Timothy Keller has a marvelous chapter in which he recounts the story of the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, c. 2012). Also, Sally Lloyd-Jones has written a marvelous children’s Bible called The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, c. 2007).
 I’m stealing this last line from the brilliant way Sally Lloyd-Jones ends here children’s Bible.