Our girls, ages five and seven, have just recently reached that stage in their lives where they like to hear stories about what they were like when they were babies. To Melinda and me, of course, that seems like just yesterday. We blinked our eyes and they aged five years. To them, however, that was all “way back then,” before their memory really started. Both girls are coming to understand and appreciate that these stories we tell of their birth and earliest years are really part of their story, not just something we’ve made up. Of course, from their perspective, these stories can seem pretty fictitious---like the time one daughter, out of curiosity, grabbed an inedible a part of a table decoration at her uncle’s wedding rehearsal and swallowed it whole and then said “cheese” to the x-ray technician in the emergency room when they tried to find it…or the way the other daughter had acid reflux and cried almost non-stop through the first nine weeks of her life unless someone cradled her just right.
They can’t remember those things happening, of course, but they hear themselves in them. They’ll say, often as we’re sitting at the supper table, “Tell me again, Daddy, Mommy, about when I was a baby,” because they know their identity is somehow bound up in them, that we can all see little bits of their personality are peeking out. One of them, for example, will still eat just about anything you put in front of her, and the other one loves to be cuddled.
|Adam and Eve (Mabuse, c.1510)|
This is very similar to our relationship with the stories we hear in the beginning of the Bible, which were the same stories that the ancient Hebrews were told about their earliest years, and the same stories that the apostle Paul’s people surely heard and understood. The Scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have passed down through the ages the stories that tell us what happened “way back when,” long before any of us were born or could begin remembering. These stories seem strange and peculiar from our perspective nowadays, and probably even from Paul’s perspective almost 2000 years ago. After all, they involve special trees, eating fruit with strange powers, and a talking snake! However, people of faith read them and understand that, yes, this is our story. These are our people.
The facts might not always make sense to us, but there is great truth in what these stories communicate, and they explain with great accuracy why things are the way they are. We hear them and—although we were not there at the time, although it occurred long before any of us existed—we can still acknowledge that this struggle between the first humans and this force that works against God is part of our identity. That is, the decision made by our earliest ancestors to succumb to the temptation and swallow that off-limits table decoration has affected who I am and who we are on a very basic level. They weren’t satisfied with simply being made in the image of God. They wanted to put themselves in the place of God, and we’ve known that desire ever since.
|Adam and Eve (Titian c.1550)|
More than that, it has effected who I am and who we are in a negative and permanent way. We were created to live in harmony with God and with creation, to worship God around that tree of the knowledge of good and evil—we can still sense that design now, even if we can’t fully behold it—but somehow, very early on, things within creation went awry and humans bear the guilt. Maybe it’s that sense of pride, maybe it’s some kind of rebellion, maybe it’s disordered desire, maybe it’s not heeding God’s Word…no matter what it was and when it happened, that original transgression has led to generations upon generations of wrong decisions and self-centered behavior. Its power grips us from within and taints everything we do. It’s like it is all we know, and although we are often ashamed of it, sewing little makeshift fig leaves to cover it up thinking no one will notice, we can’t seem to do anything about it. It lingers and lingers, infecting all of our relationships, even our relationship with ourselves. Yes, this is our story. We may quibble over the science of it all, but there is no mistaking that this is us.
Sometime later in human history something called the law came along. This, too, became part of our story, and it happened so long ago that, as far as any of us can tell, it’s always been there, too. The law was designed to help curb and contain some of this sinister force that had been unleashed. It was supposed to institute guidelines or guardrails between humans and other humans, and ultimately re-establish that healthy boundary between creature and Creator. Different cultures had different versions of the law, but one people, in particular, were entrusted with the holiest, most righteous law, the law that was supposed to eventually unite all the straying peoples under the sovereignty of one almighty and loving God.
This, too, went awry, because all the law ended up doing was show us just how bad we really were. Our sinfulness, as it turned out, had infected even what we were supposed to do with the law, and we ended up using to exploit or exclude others. The temptation to serve ourselves above all others could not—and still cannot—be curbed by something as good as a set of laws. This, too, is our story. Yes, it is depressing, but it’s the only one we’ve got.
|Temptation of Christ (Rembrandt)|
The opportunity to eat something tempting is presented, and this man doesn’t play God and satisfy himself. The opportunity to put himself in the place of God is offered, and he rejects it outright. The offer to possess all the things the Creator made is laid before him, and this man still chooses to worship the Creator himself, instead. All of the temptations which had infected God’s people from the very beginning are, in some way, placed before him and he turns it all down. Even when the devil, that voice of lying and selfishness and corruption, tries to use the law against this man by quoting Scripture, this man is able to see through the testing.
|Temptation of Christ (Duccio)|
The man will eventually leave the wilderness of temptation, but his testing will continue. In fact, it will only intensify from that point, culminating with his death on the cross. It is there where this man will show just how faithful he is to God by allowing himself to die rather than taste, once again, the rotten fruit of self-preservation. It is on the cross where we will finally see the extent to which that law was supposed to serve us by showing us love for one another. This new story—a new, true story—has a powerful, incredible ending in which God makes sure that the sin we feel so inclined to does not have the final say. When this man rises on the third day it becomes clear that death will not rule human destiny anymore. And because this man is Jesus of Nazareth, human born of a woman, it is now our story too. His life is our life. It abounds for the many. His grace becomes our grace, just as much as Adam and Eve’s sin has become our sin.
When you think about it, Christian faith involves a lot. It can be very mind-boggling when you consider, for example, all the things the church does, the ministries undertaken daily by those who bear Christ’s name throughout the world. Our community, for example, is a place where quilts and pillowcase dresses are sewn for people in developing nations. We donate and grow food for distribution to people in our own neighborhood. Some of us play silly youth ministry games to help us build community and break down barriers. People read books together, study the Bible, make popsicle-stick crafts that somehow illustrate God’s love. We walk babies down the aisle, we marry couples, we bury our dead. Christian faith and ministry entails an awful lot, but at our core—the absolute essential basis of our identity and mission—is remembering and re-telling this new story God has given us in Christ Jesus. This is made real for each of us in the moment of our baptism.
And each week, behind all the work and ministry that goes on here or any other place of ministry, the most important thing that happens is this exchange of stories, this re-telling of what God has done with creation through his Son Jesus and to us in our baptism. Each time we gather for worship, no matter what else that we think is important, this is what’s really going on: we are having our awful, crooked, broken life story—the one where we think it’s all we know and all we can be—re-claimed and re-written by the new beautiful one God gives us, even though we’ve done nothing to deserve it.
That’s the main thing: that we gather around this book, around this bowl of water, and around this table…we gather with the rest of our beautiful but flawed family and we say, “Tell us again, daddy...tell us the story again of what it means to be your redeemed child.” And God says to us: “It means a lot of fearsome and wonderful things, but mostly it means you are to feed on the words that come from my mouth. And it also means that no matter what…no matter how selfish and cranky you become because of what that inner turmoil does to you…I will cradle you, always, in the embrace of the cross.
And we, with hearts now broken open, say, “That’s an amazing story. We’ll take it.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.