[Published originally on the Westminster Seminary California website]
Next to The White Horse Inn, one of my favorite radio programs is This American Life starring Ira Glass. I stumbled across this show several years ago, and for a while I did not understand why I was so attracted to it. Glass does not have a classic “radio voice” (it has been described as “adenoidal”). The production is good but not extraordinary. Indeed, some of the stories are completely mundane. For example, they once broadcast a show recorded over 24 consecutive hours in a local diner. They edited those American lives to broadcast length, added a narrative, and voila! A national radio show was born.
Sometimes the topics are even uncomfortable and more than once I have tuned out. Still, I keep coming back. Why? It is the stories (they usually have the ring of truth) and the way they are told. They have a formula and they follow it quite strictly. Every story has an introduction, characters, tension (dramatic, tragic, or comedic), a resolution (sometimes unexpected), and an epilogue.
This formula is not new, so why is it so compelling? I think it is because humans were created to hear and tell stories, and it is by a story that we are redeemed and changed. As many writers have pointed out in recent years, Scripture is a story and contains stories. In our Christian Mind course, we spoke of “the one and the many.” The one great story, which contains hundreds of smaller stories within it, is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
The word “story” can connote a narrative that is not true or bears little relation to reality. When I say “story,” however, I do not mean something that is untrue or unhistorical, especially regarding Scripture. Though true and beyond doubt, Scripture is nevertheless a story and contains stories.
Presently I am preaching through the gospel of Mark and I’m influenced by Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Guardian, 1944). He was ahead of his time in noticing the way Mark tells his story of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Though true and historical, the accounts of the healings and of Jesus’ interaction with the disciples and the crowds are stories. The crowd and the disciples serve Mark’s literary purposes as he paints his fast-moving portrait of Jesus’ movement north away from Jerusalem and then his descent back to Jerusalem and the cross. For Mark, even geography serves a literary purpose.
The gospel writers were following a well-established pattern. At the beginning, God walked in the garden with Adam and told him a story. He told him how He had created everything from nothing by His powerful Word. He told Adam how He had created him from the earth and how Adam had it within his power to experience more than his present life in the garden; that there was before him a consummate, glorious existence of intimate, perfect, and endless fellowship with God and man; if only he would pass one test.
God was, however, not the only one telling stories. Before Adam, one of God’s creatures had decided to tell an alternative story about a defection to an alternative power, about another way of life. So Adam had a clear choice between competing stories.
Tragically, he chose to believe the false story and did not pass the test and enter into the consummate state. Nevertheless, despite Adam’s disloyalty, God graciously told him another story: about the coming long war between the serpent and the Son, which the Son would win finally but at great cost to himself. The original test–the path to the consummate state–remained to be fulfilled. The promise, however, was that it would be the Son who would pass the test for us.
God repeated the ancient story to Noah, who proclaimed the impending judgment on all those who had failed the test in Adam and He proclaimed deliverance for all who believe the story and the Son whom it promises.
Upon entering into a covenant with Abraham, God told him the story of the Son and the serpent, the test and the promise. He told him about what would be and about what He would accomplish through him. By grace, Abraham believed the promise of the Son.
When Yahweh redeemed his adopted son Israel from slavery and made him a temporary, national people, he told and retold the story of how Israel had been enslaved in Egypt and how Yahweh had graciously and sovereignly delivered Israel from “the house of bondage.” The whole national existence was premised on that story. As with Adam, as part of the story, God entered into a covenant with Israel and gave him a test, not as a condition of entering the consummate state, but as the condition of remaining a peculiar national people. If Israel obeyed, the land and its material blessings would be his. If he did not, however, like Adam, he too would be expelled and experience curses of equal magnitude.
Israel’s history itself became a part of the great story. Within it were dozens of stories, some of them tragic, some of them comic, and many of them sobering; stories about kings and prostitutes, liars and truth-tellers, the greedy and the righteous. One of Israel’s great sins was that she forgot the story of God’s faithfulness, the promised Son, and consequent test for the land. Like Adam, Israel lived as if she had written her own story so that she finally received the curses rather than the blessings.
Of course, like Abraham, some of Israel’s children remembered the test and the promised Son. They understood that neither they, nor Moses, nor David, nor any of the prophets had passed the test. Those who heard and believed the story lived gratefully, looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Finally, the time for the climax of the story arrived. The battle raged for more than thirty years as the serpent attacked the Son repeatedly, sometimes subtly and sometimes violently. A few times it seemed as if the Son might fail. Indeed, when the enormity and finality of the test became completely clear and near to him, he asked if it might be possible for someone else to undergo the ordeal and finish the story. Nevertheless, the Son finished the great war and endured the bloody attack until the end when the battle took its toll. When it was over, a few of his friends laid his cold body in an even colder tomb.
As you know, however, the story does not end there. The Son remained in the tomb just long enough. As had been evident in his life, he was too good for the tomb and too powerful for death. So he walked out of the tomb, alive and full of life. The Son was not just Adam’s son, as we are; it was he who walked with Adam and who told the story in the first place. The Son, who killed the serpent by giving his own life, was the One through whom all things had been made, God of the same deity as his Father.
Lots of folk saw him going about, and for several days he explained the story and his role in it. When he finally left, he sent his Spirit, the third divine person, to equip his friends to tell the story to others. The Spirit was no stranger. It was he who had hovered over creation, who had been with the Son in the garden, who had led the adopted son Israel through the desert, who had been with him during the long war, and who had, as it were, gone into that cold, dark tomb to give life again to the obedient Son.
Now the Son communes with his friends by His Spirit and the Word he left to them. As it has been since ancient times, the story of the test and the promise and its fulfillment is still being told and believed and lived by believers even today.
Like all the characters in This American Life, everyone has a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Each of those particular stories finds its significance relative to THE story. Until and unless, however, they embrace THE story of the Son, they remain under a test that they can never pass. Those, however, who believe the story and the Son, begin to experience some of the blessings he promised to Adam and to Abraham.
Like Ira Glass, we who stand in the pulpit are story tellers. Our story has a beginning, middle, and an end. At their best, those stories are pale reflections of THE story. Because we were created to respond to stories, we who tell stories for a living should have confidence that God’s elect will be drawn to THE story itself. We must have this confidence because He who wrote, told and fulfilled the story has promised to use and bless its telling.
May the Lord bless our faithful story telling.