This is a great story. It’s a love story in which the hero dies so that his beloved might live. It’s a thrilling wonder story in which the zombies of Planet Death are transformed into living men. It’s a comedy in which a bum becomes a millionaire and a bag lady a princess. It’s an adventure in which ordinary people are sent on a great and dangerous quest. It’s a story in which the hero dies a cruel, agonizing, death-and comes to life again.
This is surely the greatest story ever told. It has to be. We keep telling it. We can’t seem to get away from it. Not that we always tell it exactly the way we read it.
For example: Once upon a time, two children became separated from their father and got lost in the woods. They found a house made out of candy. It was the house of an old witch. She kept the little boy in a cage, intending to eat him. She made the little girl work. But the witch was tripped up by her own evil desires and destroyed in flames. The children came home to their father with all the wealth she’d stolen.
Does that sound familiar? It should. If the story of Hansel and Gretel isn’t the Gospel, it’s full of the fears and longings that the Gospel touches, full of the tragedy and triumph of the Gospel.
Fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella, movies like Star Wars and The Princess Bride, classic tales like Crime and Punishment and Les Miserables–these are stories in which the most terrible things happen: trickery and betrayal, trial and temptation, darkness, death, and despair. But, in the end, the sun always shines through. Even the dead come back to life.
These stories are all true. They may never have happened; they may not be realistic. But they’re true in the sense that they speak to the deepest longings of the heart– purpose and hope, power and glory, mercy and love. They ring true to our longings. That’s why we keep telling them.
I believe the stories we make up are shadows of the Greatest Story Ever Told. I believe our fairy tales and our sci-fi movies and our love stories are vague, blurry reflections of something that became reality in Jesus Christ. I believe there’s One Story-and we’re all in it.
Chapter 1: The Big Mess.
Adam and Eve did what God told them not to. As a result, they were driven from their home. Life got hard and things got bad. Their children are still doing the same thing. And life continues to be hard and things continue to be bad.
I used to spend hours drilling the rules of the road into the heads of teen-aged driving students. I spent an equal amount of time telling them horror stories about kids who broke the rules. I told them the same thing God told Adam in the Garden: “If you do this, you will die.”
Yeah, yeah, just gimme a license so my big brother can buy me a six pack to keep in the car. Hurry up and authorize me to try and outrun a train at the crossing. Gimme that piece of plastic so I can slip it through a slot in my head and slice off my frontal lobe!
I told ‘em. They didn’t listen. Things got bad and life got hard.
What is it with us, anyway? Why do we think we can cross the line, break the rule, bust the door down and nothing will happen? A man tried to tell his friend who’d been married for 18 years what would happen if he went through with his plans for adultery. He told him he would devastate his wife, traumatize his children, and lose his friends. He told him the act of adultery would change him, harden him, distance him from God. But the man had the fever. This other woman was the locked door, the “No Trespassing’ sign, the fruit a’hangin’ big and ripe from the tree. He wanted her; he meant to have her. Well, he got her…and a whole lot more. Just like he’d been told, things got bad. Life got hard.
We can’t go out without entering a story gone awry. We step gingerly on sidewalks littered with the broken glass of broken homes. We smell the stench of dirty little secrets burning like soiled diapers. In every yard, piles of earth rest beside open graves.
Chapter One is full of Hansels and Gretels lost in the woods, eating sweets off the house of death; lying Pinocchios walking around with long wooden noses, poking each other in the eye; ragged Cinderellas puttering in ashes and soot.
What a shock to realize we’re reading our own lives! We are these “sons of disobedience” Paul talks about, carrying out the desires of body and mind, dead where we stand!
The end of Chapter One doesn’t find us in a good place. We’re tied to a log about to go sliding into the buzz saw. We’re flying down a hill with no brakes. Big curve ahead! Our ship has sunk beneath the angry waves. We’re trapped in a tiny cabin. The water is rising to our shoulders, our necks. Is this The End? Chapter One ends with a gasp.
Chapter 2: The Big Surprise.
Suddenly, the drama takes a wild turn-into comedy. Remember the Three Stooges painting inside a big, fine house? Larry’s slopping pain all over. Moe’s given a rich fool the task of mixing “spotted paint.” Curly’s humming mindlessly, coating a fine oaken table white. Even as we laugh, we cringe at the ineptitude, the mess, the waste!
But here’s where it gets funny: God has done the very same–for us! He came into our house wearing the ridiculous costume of humanity. We thought he was just another stooge. So we killed him. In the process, just like an inexperienced painter will slop and splatter all over, He slopped and splattered us with love. That wasn’t red paint dripping from his wounds. It was His own blood.
“This is love,” declares John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). What a frank statement of human need! None of us knew or cared for God! What a breathtaking intervention! God put on flesh and allowed it to be pierced by nails for us!
Jesus died on the cross for us. Jesus was buried in a tomb. Jesus rose again the third day. What a surprise! But that’s grace; the thing we least expect, the thing we don’t deserve. Grace always comes as a surprise. What do birthday parties and Christmas presents have in common? They usually come as a surprise. But that’s nothing compared to the surprise of resurrection!
When I went to preach in the church where I grew up, I thought Bill was dead. I even mentioned him as one of those who had passed on, who’d left a legacy of faith behind. His brother sat in the congregation nodding, sober as a judge. Imagine my surprise-my embarrassment-when I found Bill alive and well and eating in a restaurant!
Yes, resurrection is always surprising, isn’t it? Haven’t you been surprised at your own? You were chasing after all the wrong things. It was killing you. You were making all the wrong choices, going all the wrong places, doing all the wrong stuff. If this is living, you thought, I might as well be dead. And so you died. Yes, you died with Christ, were buried with Christ, and rose, dripping, with Christ. You shared His death, burial, and resurrection in baptism. You got into the One Story, the Greatest Story on earth.
Chapter Two, The Big Surprise, ends with us finding out what mindless stooges we were.–and with a big laugh.
Chapter 3: The Big Adventure.
Maybe we should say, “The Adventure Continues.” Paul puts it this way: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. We are God’s poem, His masterwork. We are characters in His saga.
I used to think that my life was purely a matter of my own choices. Oh, I was willing to believe God had spoken to me through the Gospel, even led me up the aisle to confess Christ. After that, though, I guess I thought that living this Christian life was pretty much up to me.
Then a funny thing happened. I got older. And, as I got older, I began to realize that there’s so little I control in life. Generally speaking, the more I’m in control, the less I’m in control!
The Psalmist put it this way: our times are in His hands (Psalm 31:14). It’s a good thing too. I look back over my life and from certain angles it looks like a big mess. I see myself making bad choices, horrendous career decisions. I see myself not doing enough of what I should’ve, doing much of what I shouldn’t have.
I can also see that, sometimes, I wasn’t the sinner, but the sinned-against. I still feel where the knife went into my back a time or two. I see brokenness and tears and anger and humiliation under dark clouds.
I’ll just bet you can look back over a life that looks pretty much the same. Times when you saw no hand like David talks about–unless it was a hand slapping you in the face.
But shafts of sunlight pierce through the clouds. I spent five years in a certain place feeling like a fish out of water. The last year in that place was-well, I won’t say it was hell on earth, but it sure wasn’t Cancun! But when I look back over it, I saw that so much Barb and I had been burdened with at the beginning of that time-a massive debt, our daughter’s anorexia, my mother’s illness–had been lifted from our shoulders.
I also saw that, through all that time, even in the midst of the struggle, God had allowed us to make an impact where we were. We did good works, even in spite of ourselves-as though, well, as though God had prepared them for us.
So, as time goes by, I feel less like I’m in charge of my own destiny and more like a character in a story; that I’m being led-sometimes pulled-through a series of adventures too audacious, too ridiculous, too amazing for any novelist or script writer to conceive. Certainly too amazing for me to engineer!
That’s my story-and I’m sticking to it. I believe it’s yours too. He’s got things for you to do. They may not look like much. But, I guarantee you, when it’s all over and you’re lying in that casket, people will be telling stories about what you did. He’s got things for you to go through-deaths, and burials, and resurrections-as He makes His story yours.
Did you know that God knows your name? Did you know you’re the heroes of a story written by God? Did you know you have a destiny? Your life means something. What you do is important. Your life is going somewhere. And God is guiding you there. You’re part of the Great Story, the One Story.
Chapter Three ends with applause. Except that it doesn’t end, really. We go on and on, the triumph of God’s will, the trophies of His grace, through endless ages. All praise to the Author of the One Story, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!