Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” But what compelled those wise men to follow that star in the first place? Especially so far, into a strange and foreign land? I suppose there could be all sorts of reasons, but the simplest seems to be this: they were astrologers, and they were trained to take stars very, very seriously. And when they took that star very, very seriously, it took them where they needed to go, and in so doing, they encountered all kinds of joy.

I have told you before, scientists estimate we have one septillion stars in the sky. That’s a one with 24 zeros after it. That’s a lot of stars. And while I am frequently amazed by their beauty, not one of them has ever beckoned me with promise and hope and guidance. The Bible, however, does that every time I encounter it. I suspect the same is true for you, or that you would like the same to be true for you, or that you at least wonder if it could be true for you, since you have gone through the trouble of making your way here this morning, when there are countless other places you could be.

Scripture is to us what that start was to the Magi—the source of light that leads all traveling. More often than not, however, we talk about certain parts of the Bible, but it is not often our practice to look at the story in its entirety, all in one sitting. We’ll try that today. I will do my best to offer you the arc of the biblical story. I won’t be able to include ever single story. Because if I did that, well, I’d just be reading you the Bible, and we’d be here for days. I have promised you 20 minutes or less.

Everything begins with the Spirit hovering over chaos. Into that chaos, God speaks. God says, “Let there be light and life,” and there is. I have talked about this more than anything else with our middle schoolers; how to reconcile the details of this story with what we know to be scientifically true. Here is what I have told them: This story is not about how the world was created. It is a story that tells us why the world was created. This is a love story, in which God calls every whit and atom of creation good and very good. And it tells us this: the word of God is what makes life possible. Without that word, there is no life.

We don’t get far into the story before we become intimately involved in it. God creates humanity, Adam and Eve—because from the beginning, God is a God of relationship. Adam and Eve are created, cared for, and instructed by God. All this is yours, God says, all I ask is that you avoid that one fruit, that one thing, because it is not good for you. Adam and Eve think they know better than God, however. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is evidence that the stories of the bible, whatever else they are about, are also about us. Because, like Adam and Eve, don’t we so often think we know better? That’s a pretty good definition of sin. It’s not failing to know what God asks of us or intends for us. It’s thinking—and acting—as if we know better than God.

And sin against God always results in sin against one another. So, only four chapters in, Cain kills his brother Abel. This, too, is our story. We do not always treat each other rightly.

God could have called it quits then, washing God’s hands of humanity and the world as a whole. But that is not what God does. We will learn that over and over and over again. God created us, and God refuses to give up on us.   

Even through the flood. Again, don’t ask how it all happened. There is no explanation for how there was room enough for giraffe necks or where on earth they stored 40 days-worth of elephant excrement. The question to ask isn’t how. The question to ask is why.

Almost every culture has a flood story, and every other one of them ends with a god unleashing divine wrath. This one, though, does not end there. It ends not with divine wrath but divine insistence that this will never happen again. God spreads a rainbow through the sky and promises us that. This is the story of a God who wants to be in relationship with us. A God who wants to save us. A God who just doesn’t want promises from us but makes promises to us.  

These promises show up in a man named Abraham. God calls Abraham to leave his father’s household and everything known and familiar to him, and to set out on a journey to a new land. People didn’t really do that back then; there was a cyclical view of history in which everything that has happened will happen again, and we are born into the midst of this cycle, and we die in the midst of this cycle. What happened to our ancestors will eventually happen to us and then it will happen to our children.

But, Abraham leaves. He steps outside this cycle and steps into a new future. This is revolutionary—this idea that we are not struck, that we can in fact break out of the past and everything that has happened, or to say it a bit more accurately, that God can cull us into an entirely new future. The new future is one in which we are blessed and asked to be a blessing. Violence is no longer the answer. Blessing is what will preserve us and preserve our people. God tells Abraham, all people—all people will be blessed by you.

In the story of Exodus, Moses and the Israelites are enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt, far away from their home. God seems to be absent. Why do we have this story? At least, in part, because it answers all sorts of questions, questions that linger with us still today. Will the Pharaoh always have all the power? Whose side is God on? Are the deepest forces of life for us or against us? Are we here to suffer, or are we here for something better than that? Does oppression or liberation get the last word? Does injustice or freedom win in the end?  

When Moses leads his people out of Egypt, it isn’t just the liberation of a specific group. It is, once again, an answer to the question that started back with Abraham: whether our lives are set in stone and unable to change, or whether we be set free from whatever it is that holds us back, from whatever it is that enslaves us. That means the exodus is also a warning to anyone who has ever bullied another person, anyone who has ever taken advantage of someone weaker than them; anyone who has ever used their power to dehumanize and exploit others. And the warning is this: your days in power are numbered, because God has a habit of showing up for the oppressed, the underdog, and the powerless.

            And so, while Exodus still ends with the people in the wilderness, they are free in the wilderness, and they have learned how to make a life for themselves in the wilderness. What’s more, they carry a Tabernacle with them, which is where they believe God lives. God is no longer absent; God is with them always, whatever they do and wherever they go.

Leviticus follows, and Leviticus has a lousy reputation. Some of it is deserved. Most of Leviticus we never read. Bits of Leviticus have been used in hateful and harmful ways, citing ancient laws, with the intent of squashing life, not enhancing it. But this book, too, serves a holy purpose. It presents law after law after law, and the big take-away here, if I understand it, is a reminder that our human actions matter, deeply. That the existence of a creative and loving and redemptive God doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want, without a care in the world. Leviticus assures us our actions have impact and consequence. Our actions point toward God and tell others what we believe to be true about God. It is a question worthy of consideration today: what do we communicate to others by the way we live our lives?

A life where our actions had no meaning would not be much of a life at all, and Leviticus insists that will never be the case. Our actions will always be important, and we get to decide if they will be holy, or not, if they will point to God, or not.

Our actions get all sorts of practice throughout Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. Moses does not make it to the promised land God tells the Israelites about. He gets close enough to see it, but he doesn’t make it all the way there. Joshua does, and he takes his people with him. Once they are there, in that land flowing with milk and honey, they are ruled by judges, Deborah Gideon, and Samson among them. But, it isn’t enough for the Israelites. Everyone else has a king, they say. We want a king. I am your king, God says. We want a king like the other people have, the Israelites cry back. Isn’t that always a struggle for us? How are we alike, and how are we different from others? What sets us apart?

            They wanted a king, so they got a king—King Saul. After that is King David, who is credited with the entire book of Psalms. The book of Psalms is the church’s first hymn book. And like the very best music, it contains all manner of emotion. Whatever you are feeling, toward life, toward God, or toward others, there is a psalm for you. Whether you are joyful, thankful, sorrowful, confused, angry as all get out, or anything else—there is a psalm that reflects those feelings. The psalms reassure that whatever we are feeling, God is big enough to receive those feelings, and receive us.

            In general, though, while there were some wonderfully faithful kings, it turns out most of them care more for their power than they care for their people. In response to that, God sends us the prophets, speaking clearly through ordinary men and women, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Micah and Amos among them, to remind us of the promises God has made since the beginning—that God’s intent for life, for all people, is to be good and very good, that a new way of life is always possible and is, in fact, headed our way.

So, yes, justice will roll down like waters, and there will come a day when we will all do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God; and, yes, the lion will lay down with the lamb, and there will come a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares, because we will finally understand that it makes more sense to feed each other than fight each other. The prophets also tell us that a little child will lead us there…

It is there the gospels pick up the story. Jesus Christ, love incarnate, son of God and son of man, comes to earth to show us just how seriously God takes God’s promises to us. This part of the story you  probably know the best, and so I’ll be briefer here.

Like God called Abraham to leave everything and begin a new life, Jesus calls James and John and Peter and the other disciples to do the same. He teaches and preaches and heals. He talks about the kingdom of God by telling stories of seeds and weeds and surprisingly good Samaritans. He captures people’s attention, and then he captures their hearts, and then he captures their imagination, about what life really can be like. This, of course, means he himself is captured, and put to death. He is not surprised by it, though. Rather, he predicts it. New ways of being are never easily received.

But, in the face of death, the death of God’s own son, God does what God has always done—stared the love of power in the eyes, and responded with the power of love. The resurrection reveals to us that God stops at nothing---nothing—to redeem the creation created to be good and very good.

The story of Acts is the story of the church—how we get along after Jesus. Acts is filled with all kinds of stories—some good and some ugly, just like us—but overall, Acts tells us that the message of Jesus refuses to be contained by any one group or ethnicity or geographical location or even any religion. The kingdom of God refuses boxes of any kind. And so, the church moves from Jerusalem to Rome, from the known to the unknown, from the particular to the universal, from the local to the global, from one people to all people.

Most of what follows Acts are letters—letters written by early leaders to early congregations. Many, but not all of them, and long, but ultimately, they deal with ordinary issues of how to be Christian in the routine of daily life—how to be a Christian in the market, at home, in worship, at work, how to be Christian to your neighbors, your family, and any strangers you encounter. These letters also tell us how to endure in the face of suffering, especially when that suffering comes because of how we live and who we follow. But perhaps more than anything, these letters remind us who we are. We are reminded that we are blessed and adopted and redeemed and forgiven. That we are included and alive and raised up and loved forevermore.

The Bible ends much like it began—with a promise. We call it the book of Revelation. And while it has sometimes been used to instill fear, what it offers is freedom. It offers a word of tremendous hope for people in their very worst moments. Revelation declares, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this world is no accident, and that you are never insignificant or overlooked. Revelation declares that God’s love will be known by one and all, that God will not rest until that is so, and so we do not have to be afraid. We need only live trusting in the day God promises us is coming.

So, there you have it: the story of the Bible. It is the story of an extraordinary God. And it is the story of ordinary people like Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Samuel, Micah and Amos and Mary and Martha, Peter and James and John and Paul. The Word of God has always lived in people, and because the Word of God endures forever, it lives in you, too. We carry it imperfectly, but we carry it, because it tells us how to live and how to love until all is fulfilled, until all that has gone wrong has finally and ultimately been made right—until everything is once again good and very good.

That is the promise of the Bible. 

And it is a promise made to you.