A Sermon For Year A, Second Advent
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Isa. 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13; Mat. 3:1-12; Psa. 72With special thanks to CS Lewis, NT Wright, and Brian McLaren
What is your favorite story? I'm not looking for the Sunday school answer. But really: What story captures your imagination so that you read it, or see it, or listen to it, time and time again? What story gives shape to the narrative of your life?
I know that for some, your favorite stories are 19th century romances. For others it may be mysteries. For others it may be science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, biography, or historical fiction. And, for a few of you it may be animation.
But we all have stories that shape us and guide us and form us into the type of people we are. We see ourselves in the characters. We even become FRIENDS with the characters.
My favorite genre of story is probably the dystopian apocalypse. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia: It is a world where everything has gone wrong. Despite our God-like technology, and super-human knowledge, things have somehow gone horribly wrong. If you have read Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, or 1984 you know the genre. If you have seen the Matrix, Terminator, or Blade Runner, you know what I am talking about.
I guess I feel drawn to that genre because in it, the protagonist (you really can't call them a hero) is faced with an overwhelmingly messed up system that has usually been destroyed by the best of human intentions. Things seem hopeless, well-beyond repair. And all of the promises of a human utopia built by human goodness and scientific skill have been revealed as empty and illusory.
The protagonist is drawn, often unwillingly, to be the savior of a group of people. The story is spent detailing how the protagonist and his or her little band of subversives work to overthrow the system, or at least bring people to a place uncorrupted by the dystopia. The ending is usually ambiguous: Did the unwitting hero save everyone, or is the cycle doomed to start again?
I guess I love such stories because I see myself in them. Like Neo in the Matrix, I have grown up in a culture where I was always aware that something is wrong at a deep, systemic level. Despite being one of the wealthiest societies in History, we are very unhappy, very unsatisfied, and very violent.
I never set out to try and fix anything. I was quite happy being part of the problem, to be honest. And then Jesus dragged me kicking and screaming to him, and I have never been the same. I have somehow become part of his band of subversives... and most days I am not sure quite what that means, or how to live it out... But I try.
And I know Him who is heading the subversion of the powers and principalities of our culture which dehumanize and destroy...
And I trust Him to lead me, no matter where His road goes.
My life reads to me like a dystopian novel.
And many of you could say the same. Maybe not in a dystopian way. But, you see your life shaped by a central narrative, a central Plot that guides you. For some of you, this gives you great hope. It gives you a reason to wake up every morning.
For others, it is a source of despair. You feel like you are trapped in a story of failure, doomed to repeat what your parents have done, or doomed to live out the label that has been placed on you by society.
And for yet others, you are trying to find your Plot. In fact, some of the hardest times in our lives are when we "loose the plot", and forget the Story that gives our life meaning. You realize you have no idea what your Story is, and it gnaws at you somewhere in the depths of your soul: What is MY story? What does MY life mean?
But, whether we like our story, or hate it, or are still looking for it: Isn't it amazing that stories seem to shape the very fabric of our existence?
And, no matter what the genre of the Story is, it seems like all good stories have a similar shape:
First, you set the stage and populate it with characters. You introduce who everyone is, and put them in context.
Then, a crisis comes. Everything is set off-kilter. The enemy invades, or love is lost, or a tragedy happens.
Next you spend most of the story trying to fix the problem. One lover searches for another until they are found. A small band of friends try to solve the mystery. The good guys struggle against all of the odds to defeat the darkness.
And this leads to the climax. The final showdown. The last hurrah. The tangled web of intrigue and deception and heartache and struggle leads at a fever pitch to this one last event. It could not have been any other way.
Finally, the plot is resolved. Everyone gets their just desserts. The good are sent away happy, the bad are dispatched to destruction. And everyone lives "Happily ever after".
Now, I know that not every story winds up like this. Some end in dystopia. But even the dystopias end without hope for a reason: So that we will learn, and think, and perhaps avoid the bleak future they predict. They end in dystopia in the hope that they will help us to find true utopia.
And no matter what culture you go to, you find good stories, stories that are central to the very identity of that culture, which follow the same pattern: Setting the stage; Introducing the crisis; Struggling to overcome; The great climax; and the resolution.
It's almost like this universal yearning of humanity for great stories points to Something or Someone greater than all of us: A huge overarching Story that we ALL find ourselves in.
This is nothing like a proof, and I am not arguing that we can "prove" God's existence by the universal yearning of humanity for stories of a certain type. But, I am saying that it is awfully coincidental, don't you think?
In fact, it seems like our human existence, with all of the beauty and pain that goes with it, is EXACTLY the kind of world you would expect to find if we were all part of some cosmic Story.
Our yearning for the final resolution, our struggle to find ourselves, and our insistent desire for a Plot to make sense of it all, is EXACTLY what you would find if there was an Author who was writing us all into His Story.
And, if you will go this far with me, let me suggest something else: Let me suggest that the Grand Plot you find animating the Story of Scripture is precisely the Story that makes sense of all of our stories. It is the Plot that all of our personal stories fit into.
And, if we looked at Scripture as an Epic Story, I think the Plot would look something like this:
The first chapter is "The Creation": The stage is set. The Author of the play creates a universe of freedom in which real actors can act freely in His Story. Then the stage is populated with these actors, with flesh and blood humans, and magical creatures of the spiritual realm who work behind the scenes.
The second chapter is "The Crisis": Something goes wrong, very wrong. It seems to have started somewhere off stage, but it has now started to destroy the stage itself, and every actor and actress on it. A silent enemy has snuck in and taken over. All of those who the Author loves have now turned their back on Him.
The third chapter is "The Calling": The Author calls His beloved back himself through ages and stages, in the voices of poets and princes and prophets and sages. He sends messenger after messenger, tries sign after wonder after sign after wonder. But to no avail. The Enemy has too strong of a grip.
The fourth chapter is "The Champion": In utter desperation, the Author writes Himself into His own Story. The Plot becomes a person of flesh and blood, just like us. As Isaiah says, when our Champion finally comes "The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD."
And, just like us, this real historical person suffers, and dies, and goes to the utmost depths- to hell itself- to rescue His beloved. Then, in the first great victory that turns the tide of the War, the Champion, Jesus Christ, defeats evil, suffering, and death by coming back from the dead.
The fifth chapter is "The Community": This is our chapter. In this chapter the Champion recruits subversives to help Him undermine the powers that are destroying and dehumanizing His beloved. Following his example of radical Love and forgiveness, and living in the power of His Holy Spirit, we become His Body reaching out to heal His world.
The sixth chapter will be "The Climax": At some point in the future, evil will make its last stand. Darkness will try in vain to extinguish the light. The enemy will try to make the Love of Christ's Body grow cold.
And just when the Community is trying most valiantly, against all odds, to bring light to the darkness, and love to the loveless, then the Champion will come again to complete our salvation. What He began with his resurrection will eventually triumph over all forms of death, and he alone will be victorious over all.
On that day, as Isaiah says, the Champion will judge and liberate all peoples from their bondage. "With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth". Those who have been bowed down will be lifted up, and those who lifted themselves up shall be brought low.
"He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth" and finally, once and for all, put an end to the pollution and degradation of his world. Our passage from Isaiah goes as far as to say that "with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked".
But, the translation here is a little deceptive. Because what it really means is that he shall slay wickedness itself. He will not destroy wicked people, only to allow the disease of evil to still exist and infect others. No, Christ, our Champion, will destroy wickedness itself, so that nothing will ever infect His Beloved people ever again.
And then will come the final chapter, "The Consummation": Finally, the utopia we have been yearning for will be present in all of its fullness. We will finally be at peace with God, others, and ourselves, in complete wholeness and health and joy and love.
This is what Isaiah is speaking of when he says "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den."
I do not think that God is literally going to change carnivorous animals into herbivores (although, God has done more amazing things!). You see, wolves and leopards and bears are all symbols of wrath and judgment in Scripture. When people are ripped apart by sin and evil, the picture that is used is one of these carnivores ripping apart its prey.
Lambs and cows and oxen are all creatures that were sacrificed in Temple offerings. They were destroyed to make atonement for sins, and to wash the slate clean with God.
Snakes are, of course, symbols of temptation and evil and distrust (remember the incident in the Garden?). And little children are symbols of innocence and purity: Of people in a pure, loving, humble relationship with God their Father.
So, Isaiah is giving us a picture of the ultimate Consummation of peace, brought about by the Ultimate Champion of the world. In this world, no one will be ripped apart by sin and evil. In this world, no one else will be sacrificed and destroyed for their sins. In this world, the Tempter will no longer deceive God's children and lead them into lies.
Face to face with God our Father, we will all share that pure, undefiled, innocent Love that children have for their parents. This will be God's world. God's Kingdom. And at long last "they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea."
That is the Story we find ourselves in. That is the Story that gives all our stories meaning. That is the Story of The Creation, The Crisis, The Calling, The Champion, The Community, The Climax, and the Consummation.
And that is why Paul says that "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope".
Scripture is a book of hope. A book that says that whatever Story you feel stuck in is NOT the end of the road. You can find a new Story. You can be joined to HIS Story: The Story of our Champion, Jesus Christ.
You can join him in the Cosmic Love Story to bring his beloved back to himself. You can fight with Him in the Epic Struggle of defeating the powers of darkness. You can search with Him to solve the mystery of how to find God at work in everyone's story.
Just as Christ welcomed me over a decade ago into His Story, so now I welcome you. Join me, and all of God's characters across History, in the Story of Redemption. I can guarantee you, it is well worth the price of admission! Amen+