In the text Paul is speaking and says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.”
It is obvious that I have already seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the movie that has surpassed all box office predictions. It was a low budget film, and a rollicking good movie. If you haven’t seen it, it is about a Greek girl who is immersed in her Greek family with all its ethnocentricity. She has a father who thinks Windex will save the world. If you have a fever blister, he’ll put Windex on it. He probably thinks Windex is a cure for cancer. The movie goes through all the ethnocentricities of this Greek family – their food, their custom. They are boisterous, humorous, and somewhat embarrassing to the girl. She falls in love with a guy who is uninformed of the Greek way. He is from an uptight WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) family. These two come together, and he gets involved with her Greek family and their customs. He is even baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church which was a very tender scene. He ends up saying, “I’m just going to become a Greek Orthodox. I’ll send my children to Greek schools, and we’ll live happily ever after.” It was a very popular movie, and it broke all records.
Life is really this way. The Bible is one big, fat collection of crazy personalities. We have really done damage to the Bible when we take all these personalities in the Bible and line them up like plaster saints in the window. When we say their names, we say it with solemnity. When we preach them, they become plaster saints. We never see the humanity of these people because we make them one-dimensional. So I started reading about them again and saw them as one carefree good family of God. God in His wisdom did not give us a 25-volume set of theological propositions that we need to understand. That’s the way you and I think about things. God in His wisdom took truth, wrapped it up in flesh, and sent it to us. That is what the Christmas celebration is all about – truth wrapped up in flesh, Jesus Christ. God said, “If you want to know what life is like, just look at these people. They are marbleized in their personalities.” You see all the layers in them. No one in the Bible is as good as we make them, except for Jesus. No one in the Bible is as bad as we make them either.
If you look at the characters in the Bible, you are looking at our spiritual family tree. In fact, as you look at these beautiful, wonderful, spirited characters, you will say, “I know someone like that. I’ve been cheated like he cheated. My brother is just as jealous of me as Cain and Able were.” In fact, there was no such thing as brotherly love in the Bible. Name two brothers in the Bible who got along. Cain killed his brother Abel. The prodigal son’s brother was jealous. As we look at all these wonderful personalities, let’s let them teach us. We can learn some wonderful things from them.
Several decades ago, the Harvard Business School said the way to teach business was not to teach propositions or theories, but to learn from actual business situations and let business people struggle with how to solve the problems. That what the Bible does. The Bible gives us people in solid situations and lets us learn how to live by seeing them struggle with the situation. They fall; they break; they sin; they gossip; they do all kinds of things. But God has a way of saying, “They are my children, and I love them.”
When I was a boy, growing up in south Florida with my mother, we didn’t have television. In the evenings she would tell me about the family I didn’t know. She told me about her wicked step-mother, and how she ran away from home in the North Carolina mountains three times. On the third time, she met my daddy, and they fell in love. He was a grocer and entrepreneur. After two and a half years of marriage, he died of appendicitis. She told me about the crazy relatives who came to the funeral and fought over the will. She told me about the officer at the bank that managed a little trust I had that got me through college and seminary. I got to know all those people through her. Occasionally, I would meet them, and later she would say, “Didn’t I tell you they were weird?” You have people in your family like that, don’t you?
Our families are put together that way. We have jealousy, hatred, murder, dishonesty, fear, revenge; some are naughty, and some are nice. So in the following weeks, we are going to be looking at some of these characters. We are going to look at Jacob (you wouldn’t buy a used car from him). We are going to look at Adam and Eve (talk about immaturity!), but, of course, they didn’t have any history with which to work. We have Mr. & Mrs. Lot (she was a pillar in the community). We have Hosea and Gomer who had a marital tragedy. Cain and Abel are pictures of jealousy. David and Bathsheba – David learned that the grass is not always greener, and if you look at the story, Bathsheba is out of line also when she takes her bath. Then there is Rahab, the prostitute, who ends up in the lineage of Jesus. So we’ll let these stories speak to us because God speaks to us through stories.
We all have a story. Sometimes you have to go to a therapist to get him/her to sort out your story because you don’t understand it. It’s not just those great stellar people who have these marvelous testimonies. We all have a story.
When Time magazine first came on the market, many intellectuals told Henry Luce, the publisher, that it was not a very intellectual magazine – there are too many stories about people. Henry Luce said, “I’m not the first one to tell people stories. I got the idea from the Bible.”
We all have a story. When I first became pastor of a church right out of seminary, I will never forget the shock I had. Everyone I met, in one way or another, said to me, “You are probably going to be the one who will do my funeral. I want you to know about me and my life.” What they were saying was, “I’ve got a story, and when my funeral occurs, I want you to know my story.” We want our stories told. God has given each one of us a sacred story. Never diminish it. Never think your story is not as good as someone else’s because it is unique. It is yours because God has given it to you. The only way we can legitimatize who we are is to reach back, touch our story, and say, “It’s alright.”
When I was putting this together, all of a sudden, the light bulb went on. Jesus tells a story about the prodigal son in the far county. When he was in the pig pen, the Bible says, “He came to himself and said, ‘I will arise and go to my father’s house’.” He wanted to go back and hook up with his roots and his story. He liked the father’s story, though he was trying to get away from it. Whatever your story is, it’s God’s story.
The problem in our culture is that we are a culture that has done away with its stories. If you don’t know these stories, you can’t understand literature. Steenbok wrote East of Eden, a story directly out of the Bible. The movie ET – if you don’t know death, burial and resurrection, you won’t understand ET. Where does Judas Goat come from? Or “scapegoat,” or “skin of your teeth, or “apple of his father’s eye”? These are all biblical terms, and we have worked hard to make sure that our children don’t know these stories. “I’m afraid if they know the Bible, it would change their lives! Don’t teach the Bible; teach them how to relate to the world.” No! Just teach them the stories. Stories work down into the pores of our being, then we begin to respond. These stories direct us to respond.
I want to chide you a little. Your children won’t learn much about the Bible when you bring them once a month to Sunday School. When you deny them access to worship, they won’t learn much about the stories. We have substituted our own stories, and these are okay, but your children won’t learn about Adam and Eve, or Jonah and the large fish. They will learn about Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Buzz Lightyear and The Simpsons, a good model of family life. We learn about the Osbornes, and Barney and Andy from Mayberry. These are the carriers of the stories of our culture because we have refused to learn the stories that God has given us.
If this was a seminar, I would ask you to write your story, then I could file it away so I would have it when I do your funeral. Write your stories. Some of you have pulled me aside and said, “I want to tell you about this.” I’ve pulled some of you aside occasionally to tell you my story, but I’m one of the few blessed people in the world who gets to tell everybody my story. We all have a story. What influences have shaped you? What choices have focused you? What forces have tempted you? You do have a story. All you have to do is bring it out and bless it.
I was going to prepare some family life sermons and couldn’t find any good families in the Bible. They are all flawed. We have a lot of bad examples of families in the Bible. But the one thing I want you to hear is that these stories change when the person met Jesus. Look at our text, “If a man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Then all of a sudden, his story changes. It didn’t make any difference who he or she was – when they met Jesus, their story changed. It’s that simple. It’s not when they understood the deep dynamics of the inspiration of Scripture and how that relates to the Virgin Birth, once saved always saved, the necessity of baptism, and the ecclesiastical history of their denomination. That is not what saves you. They were saved when they met Jesus. It is a relationship. That is the key to all of this. We see all of these tangled people who are dealing with the issues of life, and then it all points in the Old Testament to one direction, then in the New Testament, Jesus comes and touches lives. And stories change. Do you know what this means? If you don’t like your story, it can be changed, because this is the year you can write the chapters of the story like it ought to be, and Jesus should walk through the middle of it.
Look at Zaccheus. He was a vacuous, selfish, money-grubbing, rich tax collector. Jesus said, “Come down, Zaccheus. This day I’m going to have lunch at your house. This day you are a son of Abraham. You are restored to your roots. Your story is restored.” Zaccheus said, “If I have defrauded any man, I will restore to him fourfold. I will take half of my money and give to the poor.” You know he was converted! Jesus touched his life. That’s why, if you want to hang it on something, you can hang it on “if a man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”
If you want a modern illustration of that, look at Chuck Colson. He was the Watergate conspirator, and he spent time in federal prison. He met Christ through the ministry of Billy Graham. God touched him, and changed his life. He has spent the rest of his life trying to bring some kind of redemption into the prison systems of the world. I read recently he had visited 6,000 prisons. He is the one who popularized what the Bible says when something happens to us – he was “born again.”
So take a look at your life. Look at the chapters you have in the past. Are you satisfied with the ones in your life? None of us are. I’m not satisfied with the ones in mine. We have an option. Those of us who have already called Jesus Christ into our lives and have responded to His grace in faith, have a chance to grow closer to Him and make sure our life is what He wants it to be. For those who sit back wondering, “How does this fit in with . . . ? How does your expression of the Christian faith compare with so-and-so’s?” For those you who are doing that, you are coming at it the wrong way. The way you come at it is just to meet Jesus.
The more I read the Bible, the more I am impressed that there was very little theological discussion in the New Testament when people came to Christ. Nicodemus had some discussion with him but basically, it was a connection, a relationship that was affirmed, restored, and created when it happened. This is the way people’s lives are changed, and this is the way their stories are changed.
Do you know what this means? It means that when your story is changed by Jesus, you no longer have to play the victim role. We love the victim role, “Poor me. Oh, me. Oh, my goodness. If only I had better parents. If we had only been born in another place in town. If I had just been able to go to that college instead of this college. If my wife had . . . If my husband had . . . ” Those are all victim stances. Now we’re walking around, wringing our hands, over the stock market. “The world is coming to an end. Henny Penny is reigning supreme.” What we need to understand is that we wear the victim hat well. If a person be in Christ, he is a new creature and he doesn’t have to be the victim any longer.
C. S. Lewis – who was changed radically by his experience with Jesus Christ – has a marvelous story of how you come in heart first, then your head straightens it out later. In his book Mere Christianity, he says you can take a horse out into the field and teach the horse to jump a fence. You can train a horse, take it to shows, and win prizes with it. But essentially, the horse is still a horse. But the Bible says that if the horse grew wings, started flying around and doing acrobatics in the sky, it wouldn’t be a new and improved horse. It would be an entirely new creature on the face of this earth.
That is what the Bible is talking about. The Bible is not talking about moral rearmament or a new year’s resolution but the Bible is talking about making new people out of us which would change the story. We are like unborn chicks in an egg. Inside of that egg is enough nutrient to sustain life for that chick but there comes a time when that chick has to peck itself out, push its legs out, break out of the shell, and walk into a strange new world. The chick has to make the decision, and some chicks never do that. They die in the shell. Others break loose and find a new world. If you want to rewrite your story and get out of the victim mode, then the way to do it is just take the risk and push back and be met by Christ.
There’s a great old gospel hymn that I like: “This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.” Another one I like is We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nation. This is imbedded in what we do. The Bible is full of stories of people like you and me. You have a story. God loves you with the richness of the personality He gave you. Lives are changed, and stories are changed and rewritten when Jesus touches them.
A good thing to do, a good way to do it, and a good time to do it is now. I’m not asking you to make a new year’s resolution to be a good person. I’m asking you to say yes to Jesus Christ, to come out of that shell, to let Him make a new creature out of you. Let your story be changed. Let a new chapter be written.
If a man be in Christ, he is a new creature. He is new. That is the promise of the Bible. The story that is written from here on will be a new and better story. It will be a vital story. But it is up to you. You can be a victim, or you can be a success story. The choice is yours.
William L. Self is Senior Pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, GA.