Telling Stories

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.

Click here to read the biblical text

Sermon text

One of the funnest (and funniest) parts of Thanksgiving dinner is when family and friends start sharing stories around the table. They often start with something like, “Remember that time Uncle Harvey…”

In our family, my wife and I have one that we never get tired of telling the kids. It’s the classic story of “How I met your mother… twice.”

I first met Sarah at a student conference in western North Carolina in the summer of 1999. We had a nice chat on a group hike, established that we had a mutual friend, shook hands, and parted ways. Four years later, I was getting onto a bus in Vancouver, Canada, having just moved there to begin seminary. The woman across the row from me struck up a conversation. We had a nice chat, established a mutual friend, and… suddenly both of us had a major case of déjà vu.

As it turns out, she was the very same person I had talked to four years prior. When life gives you a second chance like that, you take it. We began dating less than a month later and married before the end of graduate school.

People love to tell family stories like this, especially during the holidays, because they help to give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. In a world that often seems so random and out-of-control, these stories give us a hunch that there is some other Will working itself out through our existence. They remind us that we are not alone in this universe and that life itself is meaningful and good. We never get tired of telling or hearing them.

Of course, these stories don’t just exist in our families. They are a major reason why we come to church. The Bible itself, even though it is a collection of many different stories, tells one Big Story that continues to shape and change our lives today.

The biblical story is that the infinitely loving God of the universe created the world and called it Good. When we humans, in our selfishness, turned away from God and each other and fell into slavery to sin, God did not abandon us. After centuries of reaching out to us through prophets and sages, God took on flesh and came to dwell among us in the person Jesus Christ. When we refused to listen to Jesus and tried to silence him by the violence of crucifixion and death, God summarily rejected our rejection by raising Jesus from the grave. Now, we who are baptized into Christ share the healing power of his resurrection and function with the world as his Body, his hands and feet, on earth until he comes again in glory. On that day, the dead will rise and the whole creation will be made new, as God originally intended, and governed with divine justice and mercy.

This is the story we Christians tell ourselves each Sunday in church. We hear it in the Scriptures and see it in the Sacraments. We leave the liturgy each week, fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, and are sent out into the world to be the Body of Christ. It cannot be understated just how important that mission is in this world, where life often seems so empty and meaningless.

Jesus talks about this Christian story in today’s gospel reading. Like any good story, this one has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Today, Jesus is talking to us about the ending.

He starts by undermining two thousand years of Christian speculation about the end of the world. Look in the Religion section of any bookstore, and you will find multiple books claiming to have figured out the scoop on when and how the end times will take place. But Jesus says in this passage, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

St. John Chrysostom, a bishop in the early Church, agrees with Jesus on this. He wrote that human beings “should not seek to learn what angels do not know.” Jesus does not give his followers any “insider information” on the end of the world. What he asks of them is far more difficult.

What Jesus asks of Christians is that we “stay awake” and “be ready” for history to reach its conclusion. This is important. Life on this planet often feels chaotic, empty, and meaningless. To the eyes of a person without faith, it seems like a random series of events that are just happening. Without a sense of purpose in life, we are wont to slip into a mindless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of fear.

In Jesus’ mind, this state of existence is not unlike the condition of the world immediately before the great flood of Noah. He says, “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Another way of saying this is that it was “business as usual” for everyone until the moment when the rain began to fall. They were so caught up in their little plans and schemes, they didn’t realize that God’s great story was in the process of unfolding all around them. When the moment of truth came, they were not ready.

Jesus reminds us that the world does not revolve around us. The universe will not stop its ordinary operation to accommodate our plans, however great we think they may be.

The good news is that God has an even greater plan, and we are invited to play a part in it. Jesus invites us today to reorient our lives around God’s vision for the world. God’s dream is to renew the face of the earth so that it reflects the harmonious beauty that God intended for it to have at the beginning. God dreams of a world where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, strangers are welcome, and sinners are forgiven. Jesus often referred to God’s dream as “the kingdom of heaven”. It is the one thing around which he oriented his entire life and ministry.

The work of the kingdom of heaven has been going on since the dawn of time. It began in earnest with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It continues today through Christ’s Body on earth, the Church, and will draw to a conclusion at some unknown point in the future. It is God’s dream and Jesus is inviting us to be a part of it. We come to church each week and tell each other these stories in order to be reminded that this universe is no accident, and our lives are no random series of events.

This week, we begin the liturgical season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate that beloved moment in God’s story when Jesus Christ, the Word of God, “took on flesh and dwelled among us.” But it is also a time when we look forward to Christ’s second coming at the conclusion of history. It is a time when we are invited to reorient our lives around the divine vision of a renewed creation, the vision for which Jesus lived, died, and lives again in us.

In this coming holiday season, let us not get caught up in our cultural patterns of materialism and greed. Let us also avoid the backward-looking nostalgia for the “good old days” of Christmases past. Let us instead look within and around us for the work that Christ is giving us to do in this world today. Finally, let us look forward to the day when God’s story finishes with a happy ending and all of creation joins in the song of unending praise to its Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Let us pray.

“O Come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” Amen.

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