Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Power of Story (Galatians 1:6-24) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I don’t know why but everyone loves a good story.   I believe there is a universal human need for stories.   Stories that enchant us, that capture our imagination, that help us make sense of our lives and our world.  I remember reading children’s stories and telling stories to our sons when they were little.  I could use it to get them to behave.  I would say, “All right no story tonight” and they would say, “OK, we’ll be good, we’ll go to bed, please tell us a story.”

Stories of course stretch back to time immemorial.   The Greeks, the Romans, the Jews and the Persians were renowned storytellers.   Every village and town had their own resident storyteller.  Storytellers often traveled from town to town. 

One such collection of stories is the legendary Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights from Islam’s golden age.  The story goes that the King of Persia would sleep with a virgin each night and have her executed the next day.  Then he met Scheherazade. The night passed by, and Scheherazade told the king a mesmerizing tale, but stopped in the middle of the story. The King asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was not time, as dawn was breaking.  So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night.  The next night, Scheherazade finished the story, and then began a second enchanting tale which she again stopped halfway through, at dawn.   The King again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.

At the end of one thousand and one nights, Scheherazade informs the King that she has no more tales to tell him.  Fortunately, during these nights the King had fallen in love with Scheherazade.  She had made him wiser and kinder through her tales.  He spared her life, married her and she became the Queen of Persia. 

Our lives are stories aren’t they?  Your life is a story and my life is a story.  Our lives are rich stories which tell of sadness and joy, solemnity and humor, successes and failures, challenges and adventures, and defeats and triumphs.  Our lives are stories being told every day. 

Have you heard of Storycorps?  Storycorps is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to celebrate the lives of everyday Americans by inviting them to record their stories.  The Storycorps sound booth travels from city to city and sets up shop.  People are invited to bring one person with them whose story they want told, and the two of them sit in a sound booth for 40 minutes and talk. When they’re done, they get a CD with their story on it, and another copy is sent on to be archived in the Library of Congress. You can hear their stories weekly on NPR. 

Like the story of a young mother running through the hills from Mexico to the US in socks, so as not to make any noise, in order to escape drug violence and find a better life for her children.  And the story of a Vietnam Vet, whose high school sweetheart, married someone else when he went off to war.  He never stopped loving her, and never married, until he found her 40 years later, single again, and made her his wife. 

So far over 40,000 Americans have had their stories told and preserved.  The founder of Storycorps, Dave Isay, says his mission is for people to know that their stories matter and won’t be forgotten.  Let’s say the Storycorps trailer rolled into our church parking lot today.  What story would you tell?  Are you living a good story?

The Bible is a really a collection of inspired stories - stories about God, people, events, and nations.   But what makes the Bible unique is that these stories coalesce into one story - The Greatest Story Ever Told, God’s decision to send His Son Jesus Christ to save fallen humanity, whom God created in His image, and to restore this broken world to its original splendor.   

That story is the Gospel.  The English word Gospel is translated from the Anglo-Saxon word, god-spell or God-story.  The Gospel is God’s story, the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and final coming in glory for the salvation of the world.   In the Bible we meet people like us, imperfect, flawed and searching.  Dave Isay is confirming what the Bible tells us—that every person’s story matters, because God has created each of us in His image and out of His amazing love, sent His Son to forgive us and restore our fellowship with God, to heal our brokenness and make us whole, and to restore all of creation to its original grandeur.

Our story from Galatians focuses on the Apostle Paul.  His Jewish name was Saul.   He had received rabbinic training in the Jewish law and traditions in the city of Tarsus under the great Rabbi Gamaliel.   He was a summa cum laude, a scholar, who advanced in Judaism beyond many of his age.  He was bursting with zeal for the traditions of Judaism.  He violently persecuted the church.  He inspired fear in the hearts of the early Christians.  He was authorized and commissioned by the Jewish high court in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, to go out and arrest and imprison men and women who were called “Followers of the Way,” who were so named because of Jesus’ saying “I am the Way.”  Saul’s intent was to snuff out this heretical Jewish cult.  Saul himself watched as the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death.

But God had other plans for Saul.  On the road to Damascus to arrest more followers of Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem, God stopped him in his tracks.  Ultimately Saul became Paul, a passionate, dedicated and brilliant theologian and Christian missionary to the Gentiles.  

Paul testifies here that there is one gospel, not different gospels, but one, the gospel of Christ, which he received not from human origin, but through a revelation of Jesus at the time of his dramatic conversion on the road.  He writes: “God through His grace, set me apart and revealed His Son to me.”  Then we learn what happened after his conversion.  Paul traveled to Arabia, then later on returned to Damascus, and after spending three years there, he went to Jerusalem.  Some time later he traveled to Syria and Cilicia.  What did Paul do during those years after his conversion?  We don’t know. 

I believe God was preparing him during those three years for his future calling as a teacher and preacher of the gospel and missionary, whose mission was to plant churches in Europe and Asia.  He was undoubtedly studying and training for his calling as a missionary of the Gospel to the Gentiles.  Perhaps Paul was doing some networking in anticipation of his coming vocation.   By God’s grace, the story of Jesus changed Paul forever.   That is the power of the gospel.

The astounding truth is that God’s Story meets our story through faith, and our lives are never the same, it changes everything.   Conversion occurs when God’s story intersects with our story and his Spirit begins working in and through our lives.

God’s story intersects your story and mine at 4 points.  At the Incarnation, where God in Jesus becomes a human being, like you and me; at the Crucifixion, where God dies and atones for our sins on the cross; at the Resurrection, where God overcomes sin and death and opens up the assurance of life after death for believers, and Pentecost, where God sends His Holy Spirit to dwell in us and to transform us and empower us and lead us and guide us for the rest of our lives.

God sent Jesus into the world to reveal himself, to make God known. Jesus is God’s revelation to humanity.  Second, God determined to restore the nation of Israel, to inaugurate the kingdom of God and to reconcile the world to himself.

But perhaps we could answer that in a more personal way. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest.”   Jesus demonstrates God’s love to us.  Jesus came to bring us new life, a full life, a meaningful life, a hope-filled life, a joy-filled life, a righteous life and a committed life and to assure us of a future life in heaven.

The glory of the gospel story is that God sent Jesus to overcome the power of sin, everything wrong with the human race and this fallen world and the power of death.  The crucifixion and the celebration of the resurrection at Easter testify that Jesus overcame the power of sin and death.

The power of God’s story.  We read in the letter of Romans 1:16-17 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.”   

I close with this story.  Recently, I was speaking with a Black Presbyterian Minister who used to pastor one of our churches here in San Diego years ago, before he moved out of state to accept a call to another church.   After being in L.A. for a church function, he had come down to San Diego for a visit.  He told me that during those years in San Diego, he spent much of his time working in the community with troubled teens through sports and other activities at his church.  He wanted to reach these teenagers for the gospel and sports are a good technique. 

One day, a distraught mother told him that her teenage daughter was missing.  She had of course filed a missing person’s report with the police.    She had been asking around the neighborhood and learned that it was possible that her daughter had been taken for human trafficking.  She had received a tip about a house where her daughter might have been taken. 

This pastor called another pastor and the two of them went to the house.  They were ordered to go away.  The pastors explained why they had come and that they would not leave.  They were allowed to enter the house.  At some point they saw the girl and a couple of other girls.  One of the guys put a gun to this pastor’s head and said to leave or they would kill them and to not tell anyone if they valued their lives.

This pastor said he just reacted.  He threw his arms around the young man holding the gun, started praying, told the young man God loved him, that what he was doing was wrong, and that they would not leave no matter what.   Then, something shocking happened.  The young man started to cry.  He motioned that they could leave and that they could take the girls with them.  How did it end?  This pastor had just come from an ordination service for this same young man, who after doing time, had become a Christian, gone to seminary, and had been called to pastor a church in Los Angeles.

The power of story.  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”  But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”  Amen!

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