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The Old, Old Story

April 4, 2012

With the approach of Easter I was searching for something relevant to post.  Nothing worthwhile was coming to mind, so I resorted to what I should have done in the beginning:  I asked God what He wanted me to write.  The answer came clear, tying together a number of themes that have been on my heart, but I had been unable to articulate in any coherent manner.

 

I have long seen the Bible as a story rather than a collection of narratives, prayer, poetry, law, ethical teaching, and so on.  Indeed it contains all of these, but they are set within the framework of an overarching story.  It begins with creation, proceeds quickly through the fall and moves toward God’s mission for the renewal of all things, the story of a loving Father restoring His rebellious children to life under His grace.

 

The story of Israel can be distilled down to God’s calling the Israelites on Sinai to mission, to be a light to all nations, showcasing to the world how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people.  The remainder of the Old Testament is the saga of Israel’s struggles to carry out that mission.  When they fail, God Himself, in the person of Jesus, takes over the mission to bring salvation to the world.  He gathers a remnant to Him and commissions them to gather the nations to God.

 

This is the mission of the church—not just to preach the gospel to the nations, but to demonstrate how relationship with God changes us, makes us different.  We are to engage the world for the sake of all of God’s creation.  As Christians, we are every one of us invited and commanded by God to be His missionaries to the world, working within history for the redemption of His creation.  Mission is central to our being.  But this can only be fully appreciated when the Bible is seen as a story.

 

It is within this story that we find our true identity.  But in order to be faithful to our missional identity, we must not be conformed to the dangerous idolatries of the world’s culture.  The spirit-filled life is one that is disconnected from the world.  We are chosen out of the world, to be in it but not of it.  But the world exacts its price for non-conformity  To follow Jesus, we must be willing to share His lot.

 

In my personal opinion, the church is deeply conformed to the world.  It has allowed the Gospel to be domesticated, and Christians have become nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the world.  They have in large part been co-opted into a different story, one of consumerist individualism and free-market globalization.   That story, although it loudly promises freedom, is sweeping diversity from the world, exacerbating and contributing to poverty, ravishing the environment and destroying traditional cultures.  The church has pragmatically allowed the Christian narrative to become a tool of the forces of domination that are global capitalism.

 

This is not new.  Throughout its history, the church again and again has been seduced by the promise of power.  From the time Constantine hoisted the Chi -Rho on his battle standard and began to conquer in the name of Christ, the church endorsed the use of power to further its ends.  But whenever the church forsakes her Husband and gets into bed with the world, it is the church that plays the harlot.  In the process, she must surrender her true mission, her moral authority, and ultimately trade God’s story for an imperialistic one.

 

Worldly power should never be a tool of those who understand the truth of the Biblical story, even in an attempt to realize “victory for God.”  Neither should we condone the use of power, force or violence for any purpose.  As Christians, we are called to refuse to be co-opted into the death dealing powers of the dominant story.  Jesus tells us that it is through the overcoming power of love, mercy, forgiveness, weakness, lowliness and suffering that our victory is assured, but it is reserved until the final day.

 

This is, I believe, made clearest in the Sermon on the Mount.  The Beatitudes make little sense from the world’s perspective.  But to those attuned to the power of Jesus, they are the clarion call of truth.  Jesus calls us to be salt to a world that is rotting, warning that if we lose our saltiness, we are useless to His mission.  He calls us to be light, showing the way to a lost world, telling us that if we do not keep our light clearly visible, we are of no help.  He asserts that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and then calls us away from the letter of the law, and back to the spirit of it.  He makes it clear we have a responsibility to care for others.  He outlines for us the power of prayer.  He explains that we have no need of the treasures the world promises, that God loves His children and will care for them.  He points out that what we love reveals our hearts.  He warns us to leave judgment to God.  He goes on to explain that not all who hear His words will embrace them, and many who believe they are embracing them will miss the mark.  I believe that only when one reads His words in light of the whole story of God’s mission does their meaning become clear.  Many of the positions I see many Christians taking today suggest to me that His message has been missed.  Or perhaps it has been decided that the cost of discipleship is just too high.

 

To the world, the idea that the only way to atone for the guilty is through the sacrifice of the innocent is utter foolishness.  Even within much of the church the idea of redemptive sacrifice has become unpalatable.  But without it there is no salvation, no hope, no life.  With it, “it is finished.”  The story has reached its climax, culminating in the victory of love over power.  The chains of sin are broken, the powers of Hell and evil are defeated, and the gates of glory are swung wide to all who believe.  This is the message of the cross, the mighty deed of God in history that gives that history meaning:  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  I believe this can only be well understood in the context of the whole story.

 

 

——————–o——————–

 

In 1866, A. Katherine Hankey wrote her poem The Old, Old Story.  From it were drawn the words to the more familiar hymn, I Love to Tell the Story.  While I am fond of the old hymn, the words of the original poem touch my heart more deeply.

 

 

The Old, Old Story

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

Refrain

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

Refrain

Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

Refrain

Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

Refrain

A. Katherine Hankey

 

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