The Whole Story (More or Less)

Yesterday in worship, I preached a three-part sermon telling the arc of the biblical narrative. I've found that many people know biblical stories but not necessarily where they fit. I've also found that Christians don't often know what to do with the Hebrew Bible, and end up mostly ignoring it. I obviously left out far more than I was able to include, and made interpretative decisions as well. But, here it is: the biblical story in a nutshell.

Part I

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. May God bless our understanding of this sacred story.

Creation - and then, the fall. Did God know that the human beings, created in God’s image, would willfully do the one thing they were told not to do? The moment Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, a rift formed between God and the crown of God’s creation.

The rest of the Bible is essentially the story of God’s attempts to repair that rift.

When humankind fell, we fell hard. We demonstrated a remarkable capacity for wickedness. God was so horrified by the evil in the hearts of human beings that he regretted creating the world in the first place - and sent a massive flood to erase it. He wanted to start over again with Noah, who was righteous. When the floodwaters receded, God established the first covenant with Noah. God promised his blessing to Noah and his descendants, and swore that he wouldn’t flood the earth again. He put a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of the covenant.

The fix didn’t stick. People were still people. Capable of great good, but also capable of great evil. God determined to heal the rift - this time, through a people. Through these chosen people, all the families of the earth would be blessed. God approached Abraham and established a covenant with him, promising Abraham that he would have many descendants, and that the land known as Canaan would belong to Abraham’s descendants.

Abraham and his wife Sarah were far too old to bear a child, and yet they did: Isaac. In one of the most chilling stories of the Old Testament, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This was unthinkable - not only for all of the reasons that make us cringe in horror, but also because Abraham’s promised descendants were utterly dependent upon Isaac living long enough to procreate.

Still, Abraham trusted God. Isaac was bound and Abraham was lifting the knife when he noticed a ram stuck in a nearby thicket - there was the sacrifice God promised he would provide. Isaac was saved, and Abraham’s faithfulness was confirmed.

There was drama, and more drama. Isaac married Rebekah and had two sons, Esau and Jacob. God continued to affirm the covenant from generation to generation, reiterating the promises of land and descendants.

As often as not, these biblical “heroes” did not act heroically in the slightest. There was trickery and violence and cruelty. Jacob’s beloved son Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers.

And that is how the Israelites ended up in Egypt. When a famine hit, Joseph’s brothers’ sought relief in Egypt, where Joseph had become a powerful leader. The Israelites migrated but lost their power and good favor over time, and before long they were enslaved.

Keep in mind that these are people with a God who had promised that they would be a people who live to bless - and a people with land. And they were enslaved in a foreign land.

God followed through with the Covenant. Through Moses, God delivered the people out of slavery – but it wasn’t easy. Pharaoh did not want to release the Hebrew people. On the night before they finally escaped, an angel of death tore through the streets of Egypt, but passed over the houses of the Israelites, for God had instructed them to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doorframes with its blood, as a sign. And so Moses led the people out of Egypt… and into the wilderness. Where they wandered for forty years.

But they did not wander alone; God provided water and food for them, and in time, through direct communication with Moses, God renewed the covenant with the Israelite people - and gave them the Law, including the Ten Commandments. The Law was what makes the Israelites the Israelites, more or less - it set them apart, establishing the rules and regulations of their tribe. For the Israelites to fulfill their part of the Covenant, they had to abide by the Law.

Finally, the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.

This was a complicated thing; see, there were people living there already, and meanwhile these Israelites showed up saying that the land belonged to them. But they settled, sometimes peaceably, and sometimes not. And they went on with life - sometimes abiding by God’s commandments and far more often - not.

For a time, the Israelites were governed by judges. But they wanted to be like other nations - they wanted a king. God didn’t want them to have a king; God wanted to be their king. An earthly king would be redundant. But they were stubborn, and he relented. A series of kings reigned over the Israelites; some were good, more were terrible. Some were both good AND terrible; see King David.

All along, the people continued to break the covenant.

They worshipped foreign gods, they failed to take care of the widow and the orphan; at one point they literally lost the Book of the Law. They’d apparently forgotten its very existence until it was discovered during the reign of King Josiah; they repented and renewed their covenant with God. It never lasted. God called a series of brave prophets to call the people back to faithfulness, and to warn the people that there would be consequences if they did not remember the covenant.

And there were consequences. First, Israel split into two shards - a Northern Kingdom, and a Southern Kingdom. And then, around 586 BC, Jerusalem fell. The temple was destroyed, and the Israelites were exiled to Babylon. They lost their freedom, and they lost the land that had been promised to them.

God was angry with the Israelites, no doubt. God was exhausted by their empty promises and worn out by their wickedness.

But God loved the Israelites, did not leave them to waste away in exile forever. Cyrus, King of Persia, captured Babylon and sent the Israelites home - a decision credited to the providence of God.

So the Israelites returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. But things still didn’t go smoothly. Jerusalem was overpowered by a series of foreign powers, Alexander the Great around 330 BC, and the Roman Empire a few hundred years later.

A profound yearning to be a proper Israel again emerged and deepened. The people longed for God to send a King - a Messiah - who would restore the nation to glory.

They had reason to believe this would happen; God had done it before, and through the prophets, God had promised to send someone from the royal line of David to save the Israelites.

And that is, in very, very broad strokes, the narrative arc of the Old Testament.

Part II

The Gospel according to Mark hits the ground running: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.””

That messenger, John the Baptist, came to call the people to repent, to confess their sins and be baptized. When Jesus came to John to be baptized, something remarkable happened: the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Matthew and Luke famously start further back. Luke offers birth narratives for both Jesus and John the Baptist, both stories infused with miracle and mystery and the movement of the Holy Spirit. Matthew starts with Abraham - which is to say, he starts with the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. It is so easy to skip past that genealogy - all those names, so many of them unpronounceable. But they represent the story of the Israelite people, up to this point. The genealogy ends with this verse: So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
But the gospel of John begins at the dawn of Creation. “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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Forgive me for conflating the four gospels from here on out. They were written in different contexts, with disparate perspectives and sources. But they all want the reader to understand who Jesus is, and understand it well: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The Messiah. The King. The way, the truth and the life. They are all saying: this is the one.

After his baptism Jesus spent forty days being tested in the wilderness. When he emerged, he began his public ministry by calling disciples. With this small band of misfits and fishermen, Jesus set out to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God - a Kingdom that was not quite what the people had expected. He healed people. He talked to women and dined with outcasts. He cast out demons. He taught in parables. He proclaimed that the Greatest Commandment was to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and that the second was, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

He taught people to forgive. And he taught people to pray, a prayer I will invite you to join with me now: Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

According to all four gospels, Jesus fed multitudes by multiplying loaves and fish. Yet not everyone welcomed his ministry.

Jesus often subverted the Law in ways that frustrated the religious authorities - healing on the sabbath, and touching Lepers as he healed them. Resistance to his ministry was fueled in part by the unstable political and religious situation. Jerusalem was Roman territory; the religious leaders wanted to keep the peace. Meanwhile, the zealots were disappointed by Jesus as a Messiah figure because he did not actively work to overthrow the Romans and restore political autonomy to Israel.

With his Disciples, he traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover, which was the time the Jewish people remembered the time that God delivered their ancestors out of Egypt. He entered the city on a colt, with people waving palms. The night of the festival, he gathered his disciples and washed their feet - a remarkable act of service and humility. He commanded them to do the same, and to love one another.

And then they shared the Passover meal. The Passover tradition called for the sacrifice of a lamb – an echo, a foreshadowing.

(Celebration of Communion)

Part III

Jesus was betrayed by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Tried first by religious and then political authorities, Jesus did not resist or defend himself.

His disciples fled and denied him.

Jesus was beaten, mocked, and crucified.

On the cross he prayed: forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

And then, three days later: Easter.

The strife was over, as we sang in our Eastertide hymn, for the tomb was empty, and Christ was Risen, Risen indeed.

Jesus appeared to his followers - in a garden, in a locked room, on the road to Emmaus, by the seashore. After a short time, he ascended to heaven, promising that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with the believers. And so he did, on Pentecost.

The Spirit empowered the early Christians to do remarkable things - indeed, to be transformed from frightened and scattered failures into a movement that would become the early church.

Apostles began preaching the good news of Jesus Christ - and one former persecutor named Paul became the greatest of all the apostles. Letters from Paul and other early church leaders reveal a community working out what it means to live according to the New Covenant - what to believe, how to behave, how to honor the Hebrew scriptures that were sacred to Jesus.
They confessed that Jesus was sent to make things right - to heal the rift, to reconcile God and God’s creation once and for all. They did not believe that Jesus abolished the Law that God had given to the Israelites; they confessed that he fulfilled the Law - that Jesus himself was the new Covenant.

Paul writes, “Do you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

The early Christians also confessed that Jesus would come again, and that God would cleanse the world of the effects of sin and evil. They confessed that this was nothing to fear, because they believed that by the grace of Jesus Christ, they were forgiven and freed from anything that could separate them from the love of God.

They confessed that the Kingdom of God, would flourish for eternity - and not only for the chosen people, to whom the law was given and from whom the Savior was born. They confessed that the gates of the Kingdom were flung wide open for all people to enter.

The story that began in a garden ends in a city: the New Jerusalem.

Hear now the word of the Lord, from the Revelation of John.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
“See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

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