At St Christopher’s Church this year, we’re exploring the Big Story of the Bible, beginning this month with a whistlestop tour of the whole bible in just two weeks, before journeying with some of the key characters in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, gaining inspiration from their stories – their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures – about how we can grow together in our own walk with God and play our own part in God’s Big Story. Here is the text of the sermon I preached yesterday on whole New Testament (well, almost!). Buckle in and enjoy the ride …
“‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction’” (Malachi 4:5-6).
These are the final words of the book of Malachi, the final words of our Old Testament, written in 432BC. And then, after those words, after that comes nothing. For 400 years, there is silence, which is broken by the announcement of a miracle baby to an old couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah is left speechless – literally – by the idea that he is going to be a dad, and that his promised son would be the fulfilment of the final words of Malachi. This child, whom he is instructed to name John, “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’” (Luke 1:17) – a deliberate echo of the words in Malachi. The message is clear. The time of waiting is over, God is acting again. Then, 90 miles away, a few weeks later, Gabriel pays another trip, this time to a young girl called Mary (Luke 1:26-38). She too would bear a miracle baby. Like John, he would be destined to do great things, he’ll be called Jesus, the son of God, named that way because he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
This child’s birth is heralded by angels who serenade sleepy shepherds on the hillside (Luke 2:8-14) and it attracts strange visitors from afar (Matthew 2:1-11), but other than that, he is born in obscurity, wrapped in rags and laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). No one would pick this family out of a crowd, except that’s exactly what happens, when Simeon and Anna spot Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, and realise that this child is the one they’ve been waiting for. Simeon proclaims, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations (Luke 2:31). Anna too giving thanks to God for the redemption that he was bringing about through this child (Luke 2:38). At long last, God is keeping his promise. At long last, the silence is broken.
But then, tantalizingly, it all goes quiet. We hear nothing of John or Jesus for around 30 years, except for one strange incident when Jesus gets separated from his parents, sending Joseph and Mary into an understandable wild panic. Then, after 3 days of searching they discover him at the temple and inexplicably he asks them, “‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49)
Despite Jesus’ strong pull towards the place where he feels most at home, he returns home and is obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51).
And then, again, there is silence, while Jesus grows up “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52) – away from the limelight. We hear nothing for possibly as many as 20 years. And then John the Baptist bursts onto the scene. He appears in the wilderness, wild, passionate, unpredictable, courageous, the one whom, it is prophesied, would call people to “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:13). He pulls no punches, calling people to repent and be baptised. Crowds gather around him made up of all sorts of people. Cut to the heart they confess their sins and make a brand new start, and out of the crowd steps one whom John knows has no such need. He has never done anything wrong. And yet he asks to be baptised. John objects, asking, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13). But the man, Jesus stands firm. This is the way it needs to be. And so, he is baptised not for his sin, but for the sin of all humanity, because he has become one of us. In that moment of baptism the Holy Spirit fills him, empowering him for ministry and the voice of God declares, “‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11). You see, because Jesus needs the Holy Spirit, the power of God to do the things he does, to be the way he is. He also needs the affirmation of the Father, those wonderful words reassuring him, even before he’s done anything particularly special, “You’re my boy. I love you. I’m pleased with you.” That same voice speaks those words to those who seek to follow and obey him. Hear him speak to you; feel the warmth of his affirmation.
It is a glorious moment, but so short lived. As so often happens, the experience on the mountain top is followed by a trip to the depths as Jesus is tested in the wilderness, pushed to the limit, but he withstands. He passes the test. He is ready, and now his ministry begins. John is imprisoned by Herod for speaking the truth, and Jesus steps out of the shadows “into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he says. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15).
The silence is over. Jesus has come to bring in God’s kingdom. Now is the time for action. Now is the time to respond. And many do. Crowds soon form around him as they see him perform miracles, heal the sick, as they hear him speak about the nature of God, about heaven and hell, as he paints word pictures of the kind of world that God envisages – a world of justice, where no one is excluded, where all are able to experience God’s love, and above all, a world where all receive the invitation to come home. If you want to know what God is really like, Jesus says, look at me. This causes great offence among the religious authorities in the temple, who rather like the power they have afforded to them by their status, and they can’t stand the idea that people’s heads are being turned by this country bumpkin from the north. Wasn’t he a carpenter from Nazareth – don’t we know that nothing good comes from there? What’s more, he’s not a lone wolf, he’s enlisted a bunch of working class people and shady characters – fishermen, tax collectors – to follow him and become his so-called disciples, and he also seems to enjoy hanging out with women, perish the thought, some of whom have dodgy reputations. He dares to stir things up and challenge them. He has this very annoying habit of telling the truth, calling out hypocrisy where he sees it. He has no fear of authority. He is clearly a troublemaker. He’s bad news and, even worse, he seems to be gaining popularity. The crowds love him. No mud they try to sling at him sticks. So, in the end, desperate, they find a way to fabricate charges against him, charges that would bring him down. They collude with one of his followers, who has become disillusioned because Jesus refuses to capitalise on his popularity to ignite a popular revolution and kick out the oppressive Romans and begin God’s reign here and now. This disillusioned follower agrees to trade in Jesus in exchange for silver. Then, as now, money talks.
Jesus is convicted in a nighttime trial, by a kangaroo court that was determined to find him guilty of a capital crime no matter what, and in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice ever carried out, he is crucified even though he was innocent. He joins the ranks of millions over the centuries who find themselves victims of injustice. How does he respond? He cries out, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34) laying down a blueprint for all those who find themselves victims of injustice.
Darkness falls, and all is deathly silent. His followers are numb, shocked and disbelieving, it’s not possible – surely he had been the promised messiah, sent by God to right all wrongs, to bring freedom – freedom from oppression, freedom from Rome – hadn’t he come to bring in God’s kingdom? How could he be dead? All their hopes have gone.
The silence falls once again. This time it seems so final. The silence of the grave. But then, it is broken, two days later, by the sound of thunder, by the sound of a rock moving from the face of the tomb, by the sound of excited and disbelieving chatter – where is his body? Who’s taken him? Broken by the sound of a voice – his voice. Impossibly, he is alive. Risen. He appears to dumbfounded, disbelieving disciples. They had never understood, never really listened when he told them that the big story would always unfold this way – that this was the way the story had been written from the beginning of time (Luke 24:45-47). But now, with him standing in front of them, truly, brilliantly alive, they’re listening now.
Forty wonderful days follow – they experience fresh hope and forgiveness, try to go back to their old lives (John 21) but realise that now they’ve met Jesus things will never be the same again – because those who encounter the risen Christ are transformed for good. But then he leads them to the top of a mountain and says goodbye, disappearing in the clouds, leaving them with three final instructions – go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18), go back to Jerusalem to wait to be given power to do this (Luke 24:49), and get ready for his return (Acts 1:11).
And so silence falls again. The disciples – by now a group numbering a hundred or so – huddle together, praying and worshipping, in an upper room (Acts 1:13-14), probably in the same room where weeks previously he had broken bread – his body, and drunk wine – his blood, with them. They hadn’t understood what he’d meant then, but they do now. And so they wait, wait because they know that they cannot possibly do the task they’ve been given – it’s simply impossible. And the silence is broken by the sound of a rushing wind as the Holy Spirit comes down upon this group and starts a revolution. By the end of the day, the hundred becomes three thousand. They are baptised and repent (Acts 2). It’s a new beginning, the birth of the church. Ordinary people find their lives completely transformed and they find that they are given power to bring transformation to others. They find themselves able to do what Jesus had done – a lame man walks (Acts 3:1-10), even a dead man rises again (Acts 20:7-12), all in the name and power of Jesus. And the movement grows. More and more are added to the number of those who follow Jesus (Acts 2:47, 5:14). But with the glory comes sacrifice. Persecution follows as the same people who put Jesus to death do all they can to end the revolution (Acts 5:17-42). The ringleaders are imprisoned, a couple are even killed (Acts 6-7, 12:2). The church scatters (Acts 8:1). One fanatic in particular is determined do all he can to kill the Christians (Acts 8:3), but then, on the road to Damascus, he’s stopped in his tracks by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus, who gives him a new job, a completely new direction, an extraordinary part to play in God’s big story (Acts 9). “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). People are suspicious at first and most definitely incredulous – wasn’t he the lead persecutor, how can he now be the Jesus movement’s chief ambassador (Acts 9:21-22)? But, believe it or not, that’s exactly what he becomes, and through him and the other disciples, despite the best efforts of those who try to shut them up, the word continues to spread like wildfire and communities of those who follow Jesus are formed all over the Roman empire, and the more they are oppressed, the more they seem to flourish. But this new movement – of Christians – as they are called – need teaching, so letters are written to these fledgling congregations to full of tips on how to deal with issues that spring up from matters of theological misunderstandings to conflict resolution and advice about how to live the best life that honours and pleases God. Accounts are also written of Jesus’ life. In these accounts and in the letters the writers seek to come to terms with who this Jesus was. They’d been brought up good Jews who knew that God takes no physical form, and yet here was a man who had lived such an extraordinary life that it seemed that he could have been no ordinary man – and that was before he rose again.
Could it be possible that this man was God? Could it be possible that he had come, because “God so loved the world that he gave his son that whoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)? Could it be possible that the same God had sent his Holy Spirit to fill ordinary people with extraordinary power to continue the work that he started? And perhaps this is the most extraordinary thing, could it be that this work, this big story – the story that began in the garden and will end with a fully restored heaven and earth (Revelation 21), that will end with his people returning home, is still being written? Could it be that the author of this story who met and worked through people with feet of clay like Abraham, Moses, Hannah, David, Elizabeth, Mary, Peter and Paul wants to write his story through us too? Could it be that we too have a role to play in helping people return home? That the author of life wants to write on our hearts and the hearts of those around us? Could it be that we are God’s only strategy for bringing hope and transformation to a dark world? That we’re no different from those first disciples, whom, because they stayed close to Jesus, living lives empowered and shaped by him, were able to change the world? If so, the story continues through you and me. God longs to write his story of salvation in us and through us, and the one thing that’s required from us is to learn to listen to him and then to step out and obey. Our friends, our neighbours, our family members need to hear the big story, that there is eternal hope for the world, that this story will end well when the author of life himself returns. In the meantime we are called to pray and work for his return, to play our part in the story as we wait for him to return.
“He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).