For my final project this summer, I had to write a sermon. I've never done this before, so I was nervous and a bit out of my element...and thankfully I didn't have to preach it to anyone since I'm still working through stage-fright.
The assignment was to find a passage in the Bible and connect it with ecclesiology and eschatology. So, here's my first attempt. I've been encouraged by other preachers that it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of bad sermons before you get a good one...so this may not be the best one will ever write, but I've got to start somewhere!
Again, a warning for these "A Deeper Look" posts, they are quite a bit longer than my "Musterings" or "Poetry" posts.
What Story Are You Living In?
A Sermon on Ecclesiology and Eschatology
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? w3
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
1 Corinthians 15:55-58
What is the story of God?
I've found the way N.T. Wright breaks up the story of God into six acts that create a whole play very helpful in my way of understanding the story of God. The first act is Genesis 1 and 2, where God creates his kingdom on earth. The second act is revealed in Genesis 3 through 11 when the creatures God has created rebel against him. The third act is the whole rest of the Old Testament, where God promises to restore his kingdom and bless the world through the nation of Israel through Jesus. The fourth act is the story of Jesus, as told in all four of the gospels. The fifth act is the beginnings of the Church, as described in the book of Acts and the Epistles. The sixth act is where the King returns, the kingdom is fully restored, everything is put in back into its original intended form. This sixth act is where we are in the story today.
The whole play is built around the great news that God created a perfect and beautiful kingdom where he placed his image-bearers to multiply and thrive, live in unity and love, and be in communion with Him.
But it didn't happen the way it was intended, did it? God's image-bearers turned from their vocation of bearing the image of God. Instead, they chose to turn away from their vocation and do things their own way, and then when God went looking for them, they hid in shame.
This is where the most extraordinary love story ever told takes an interesting turn. Before Adam and Eve left the garden, God made them clothes, and if you have seen anyone make clothes for someone else before, you know it is a very timely and intimate process. The sewer has to know the exact measurements of the person they are making the clothes for. There is the choosing of just the right material, the pinning, the cutting, the sewing. It is quite the process. Now I realize this probably isn't exactly how it happened, God probably just spoke the clothes into being. My point here is that God knew his image-bearers so intimately and cared for them so deeply, he not only went searching for them in their shame, but he made them clothes, so they didn't have to live in their shame.
As we enter into the third act, we are introduced to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and then the nation of Israel, who will bring forth the promised everlasting King. The Old Testament is full of stories of the nation of Israel turning its back on their intended vocation, which was to be image-bearers of God to the world. They would sin, then God would leave them to their own demise, and then because of their suffering, they would repent and turn away from their sin, back to God. Despite Israel's constant refusal to live into their vocation, God always called them back. And really, he didn't just call them, if you read any of the prophets, they are full of God crying out in agony, begging the nation of Israel, His bride, His image-bearers to come back to Him.
The climax of the whole story of God happens in act four when Jesus breaks into the world fulfilling every prophecy written in the Old Testament about the coming King and turning everyone's beliefs upside down on the character of God, their definition of the Kingdom of God, and what story matters. N.T. Wright calls Jesus the truly human being, for he intimately knew God, he ushered in the Kingdom of God, and he knew what story he was living in. He lived, died, and then rose again and conquered death, which marked "the beginning of God's new world."
It wasn't until Jesus spent the forty days after his resurrection, explaining all the prophecies of the Old Testament to His followers that they finally realized the story they were to live in. This is where act five of this long story God is slowly and beautifully weaving together to redeem all of humanity and creation, where the Church is being built in the books of Acts, and the Epistles begins.
And here we live in the final act, where the Kingdom of God is being ushered into its fullness. Where we are to take part in "reestablishing God's sovereignty over the whole creation as a great act of healing and rescue, not from creation, but to be a light to the Gentiles so that humans could be rescued to be God's rescuing steward or priests over all creation." This is our vocation, our jobs as image-bearers, His Church.
When we are living within this reality, within this incredible story, there is hope in knowing that from the very beginning, God has been in the process and continues to be in the process of restoring all things to what he originally intended them to be.
Sting of Death
There's nothing quite like the sting death brings.
My grandpa breathed his last breath, surrounded by his wife and all four of his daughters. I can still hear his deep raspy voice as he held each of my children's hands, looked them deeply in the eyes, and said, "I love you, Peyton," (deep raspy breath) "I love you, Reagan," (deep raspy breath) "I love you, Kaitlyn," (deep raspy breath) "I love you, Liam," the night before he died. The last time I saw him, we were leaving the room, and he and Ryan were giving each other a thumbs-up as Ryan said, "See you on the other side."
Three weeks later, my grandma had a heart attack, followed by a massive stroke. I rushed to the hospital, where she lay in a vegetative state. I watched as her oxygen levels lowered, and her heartbeat slowed. Through tears, I whispered in her ear, "You can go now, MorMor." She slipped away soon after.
I lost both of my grandparents within a month of each other in 2014.
My grandparents were amazing people. They loved Jesus, and they loved people, taking to heart Jesus' words when he said in Matthew 22:37-40, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Everyone around them knew they were dearly loved and accepted by them. They lived their lives taking part in the work of the kingdom of God as image-bearers.
The sting of death is painful. It is not what God intended. Paul knew that.
Paul had to have known what the sting of death felt like. He had to have regretted holding everyone's coat while watching Stephen being stoned to death or the Christians he had hunted down before he met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Simultaneously, with all the shipwrecks we are told he was in, he must have lost some comrades to the tumultuous black seas. He also had to have known and befriended people in prison who were killed. Paul had to have known what the sting of death felt like, so his words, "death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" are dripping with the painful knowledge that comes with the hope of living in the now but not yet part of act six of God's story.
There is Hope
He knew that there was hope in the resurrection and that someday, God would complete the story and that each of us has a part to play within that story. We can almost hear the hope in his voice as he writes, "But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Victory over the sting of death. Victory over suffering. Victory over living in a world that is broken, hurting, and full of pain. A world He intended for good and is now patiently, slowly, gently, restoring it to its rightful place through us, His image-bearers.
This is where Paul leaves off today, encouraging the Corinthians to remember where they fit within God's larger story. Encouraging them to see that God is using them to help restore His kingdom to its rightful place. Encouraging them by giving them a name "beloved" and a job, "be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord." And finally, encouraging them with a reason, "because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain."
What story do you find yourself living in these days? Is your hope in the Lord, knowing that He is in the process of restoring all things, or is your hope in what is going on in the news, how many followers you have on social media, or whether your political party of preference will win the election and make our problems go away?
What story do you find yourself living in today? Are you able to trust that from the beginning of the story of humanity throughout our world history with the wars, famines, plagues, empires rising and falling, natural disasters, and famines, God has continued His slow and tedious work of restoring all things?
What story are your actions, words, and life telling others? Are you bringing peace, unity, and grace to conversations and situations, or are you adding to the fear, anxiety, and division that is so prevalent right now?
As you think about what story you find yourself living in this week, may you remember the larger story and as Paul said, ma you “be steadfast, immovable, and always excelling in the work of the Lord because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” Amen.