It’s getting late and so I need to tell you a story before bedtime. Actually this is a story about a story. It’s about a story that God has so inscribed onto the soul of man that even when it is told in different ways by different people, the story remains the same.
The story begins with everyday people going about their everyday lives. Because they are so engaged in these activities that they don’t really see what is going on around them until something happens that opens their eyes. They go through a wardrobe into Narnia or they find a ring or they go down the rabbit hole or they wake up in OZ or they take the red pill. What they discover is not good. They discover that life is not what it seems. They find that the world is in a perpetual state of winter, that sinister forces are seeking to take the ring and gain ultimate power, that down is up and up is down, that the Wicked Witch is paralyzing everyone with fear, that humanity has been imprisoned by a race of machines that control human minds into believing in a false reality.
In the story of stories people are made to face reality through the proclamations of the Prophets. The Prophets tell them that they are so blind that they cannot see. They confront them that they are dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death. The last and great Prophet wakes them from their sleep with a call to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. The light begins to dawn.
In his book, Simply Christian, Bishop NT Wright calls this knowledge that things are not as they should be “echoes.” He says that these echoes show up principally in four areas.
First is justice. We long for wrongs to be made right but we know they are not. When I wake up late at night and try to find something boring enough on TV to turn off my brain, I can’t watch those commercials about kids in poverty around the world. It is so wrong and it so upsetting that if I watch it I know that I will never get back to sleep. So I refuse to take the red pill and I change the channel.
Things are wrong. Things are very wrong. Americans spent $61 Billion on our pets last year while we still have kids going to bed hungry in our own land. With three dogs and being a channel changer, I am as guilty as anyone. I try to help by being a regular supporter of Food for the Poor the Anglican Relief and Development Fund but that does not begin to address the injustices of this world.
I say that because it’s not just about kids going hungry. There is racial injustice, economic injustice, political injustice, legal injustice….the list goes on and on. Even the groups that some would write off as tree hugging, granola eating, Birkenstock wearing, whale saving, dreadlock sporting, climate changing wingnuts are at least partially right because they too are simply responding to the echoes in their hearts that something is terribly wrong and these injustice need to be made right.
The second echo has to do with relationships. We just don’t seem to be able to get them right beginning with Cain and Abel. On a grand scale human history is the story of nations going to war with nations and tens of millions paying the price for war with their lives. America has enemies around the world who consider it their calling to figure out new ways to kill us. We hear the great bear of Russia starting to roar again and along with the rest of the world, we worry. The insanity is that everyone agrees that war is hell but for whatever reason humanity chooses to continue to live in hell.
On a less grand scale we can’t seem to make individual relationships work either. Who can forget the video of the football player cold cocking his fiancée in an elevator? Did you know that a woman is beaten every 9 seconds in America? Between 2001 and 2012 almost twice the number of women were killed by domestic violence here in the US than troops were killed in both Afghanistan and Iraq during that same period.
We want to make it better. We just don’t know how. We have even invented something called social media to bring us all together but we are quickly learning that that dog don’t hunt.
A few weeks ago I flew to Dallas. As I walked through the airport and observed the people sitting at their gates all I saw was the tops of their heads while people stared into the glow of their phones and pads while swiping the screen with their index fingers. When we got off the plane and the bus filled with folks who were being taken to rental cars and I did not hear one conversation nor did I observe one person looking out of the window. All were staring and swiping, staring and swiping. I realized then why “The Walking Dead” is the number one TV show in America. It’s because these devices have turned us all into zombies! I fear we will end up like the cartoon of the funeral that had three people in attendance with the widow saying to the priest, “But he had 500 friends on Facebook!?” Our relationships are broken and they need to be made right and we want them to be made right but we don’t know how to do it.
The third echo has to do with beauty. Beauty is such an intangible, and it may be in the eye of the beholder, nevertheless it is sustenance for the soul. We long for it, we celebrate it and we are diminished without it. And yet beauty is under attack. We find a woman with the face of Helen of Troy to place on the cover of our magazine but first we must airbrush her picture. We have gone from Pachelbel’s Canon in D to rap songs with titles that cannot be repeated in mixed company. The beauty and art of architecture is defaced with graffiti in every city. I was shocked when I witnessed one of the worst places for it is in pristine Switzerland.
We chop down majestic forests to pour more concrete. The beauty of language has been disfigured by constant streams of vulgarity and classic books and movies have been replaced with reality shows and pornography. We are not sure that we even know what beauty is any more but still our souls long for it.
The fourth echo is spirituality. You may call it an inner sense but man has always believed that we are not alone. Some explain that sense by pointing to aliens from other planets or to the spirits of the departed. But others, many many others throughout the ages have looked to a Divine Being who loves us and wants us to know and respond to that love.
But at the same time we look around and see how far we have fallen from that vision. In the name of religion people show up at the funeral of a soldier with a “God hates fags” sign. In the name of religion 7 armed men climb over the wall of a school in Pakistan and kill scores of children and their teachers. In the name of religion girls in Africa are kidnapped and sold into slavery. In the name of religion fanatics in Ireland set bombs to kill their own countrymen. This has led some to suggest that religion is really a part of the problem. They say that the very thing that should give us justice and relationships and beauty has been deformed into a Medusa that turns to stone the heart of everyone who looks upon it.
With these echoes so strong inside of us, knowing that there is so much that is wrong and that needs to be made right, our story of stories continues. Thank the Lord that it does because that would be a terrible ending.
The next thing that happens in our story is that we discover that our hero is not the one that anyone would have chosen. The prophet asks Jesse if he has any other sons and Jesse says yes but he is just a ruddy face lad who watches over sheep. Morpheus discerns that the one who will save the world from the machines is a simple computer hacker (and nobody can play simple like Keanu Reeves). In spite of all the warriors visiting the Shire, fate choses a gentle hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. After many might men have failed, it is young Arthur that will draw the sword from the stone and it is children that will pass through the wardrobe into Narnia.
As for the true unexpected hero of the greatest story ever told, “A virgin will conceive and bear a child.” “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” The Almighty is going to defeat the ancient evil forces of the universe with a baby! The justice we long for will come through the hand of a Child! The prophets tell us that swords will be beaten into plowshares, that war will end and all the inequities will be made right and all this will come from a babe in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger! No one could have seen that coming.
The next part of the story involves collecting a band of brothers that come together to address the wrongs. This answers the echo of relationships needing to be made right. We see the brothers and sisters entering Narnia together or Bilbo joining the Dwarfs on their journey. We see Dorothy joining forces with the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man or Neo uniting forces with Morpheus and Trinity and Cypher. We see Arthur gather the Knights of the Round Table and in the ultimate story it is Jesus choosing and training the Twelve.
Just as Mary will give birth to her Son, so her Son will give birth to the Church and He will give His Church a New Commandment that we love one another. Through His Church He creates a new society and He tells us that we are to let our light so shine before men that they will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. By His Spirit, we are baptized into one Body as He tears down the walls that divide us. The Prince of Peace comes to bring peace among men. Thus part of the Good News that He brings to us is that we do not have to walk this journey alone. This infant will make us into the family of God.
But all good stories have a tragic twist that takes the journey in a whole new direction. Arthur is betrayed by Lancelot, Gollum betrays Bilbo, Edmund betrays his siblings to the White Witch, Dozier is killed by the traitor Cypher. In the story of stories Judas betrays Jesus. It sets the tone of what looks like a crushing defeat for our hero.
But at this point in the story, when it seems that all is lost, this is when the echo of spirituality surfaces. A power has chosen our heroes which gives them a sense of destiny and it is in fulfilling their destiny that all will be made right. Luke trusts the Force to defeat the Death Star. Arthur calls on the power of Excalibur to defend Camelot. Dorothy discovers she had the power all along to go home. Neo, through a device in his head taps into the power of the machines to defeat them.
In the greatest story Jesus’ power comes by humbling Himself and fulfilling the will of His Father. He accepts His destiny by drinking from the cup that the Father has given Him. He uses His divine power to take on the sins of the world and to lay down His life for the world. What looks like the ultimate triumph of evil is turned into its very defeat. On a cool Sunday morning, Life will walk out of a garden tomb and death will be swallowed up. The Child born this night is born under the shadow of the cross but the cross does not have the final word. The final word is Life.
And this Life, whose birth we celebrate tonight, will come again for the healing of the Nations. He will create a new heaven and a new earth that is so beautiful that it can only be described as streets of gold and gates of pearl but even these images fail to describe what it will truly be like. The Bible says that no eye has seen nor ear heard nor has it even entered the heart of man all that the Lord has in store for us.
The story usually ends in the hero receiving his reward. Often he is given a title or a medal or made a knight or a king. This certainly happened to Jesus. He ascended to the right hand of the Father and was given a Name that is above every Name that at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.
But there is a reward that Jesus received that I don’t want you to miss tonight. That reward is you! He did what He did for us that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. The Babe we celebrate tonight is for you. For unto us a child is born and unto us a Son is given. You are the treasure He came to win and that is why we come tonight to offer Him our worship. And thanks to the story of stories, we know and believe that all who believe in Him will live happily ever after. The end. Sleep tight.