Monday, January 18, 2016

The Story "THE UPPER STORY AND THE LOWER STORY”

Readings; Psalm 23, 2 Kings 22:1-12, John 1:1-5, 2 Timothy 3:14-17
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 17, 2016

Starting next week you are invited to join me on a journey. From next week until the beginning of summer, a journey though the Old Testament. From after the summer, until the beginning of Advent, a journey through the New Testament.

At the start of a New Year people make resolutions. Often they decide that this will be the year that they write another thing off of their bucket list. And on many peoples bucket lists, which is a list of things they would like to do before they 'kick the bucket', appears things like 'See the Grand Canyon', 'Visit Paris' 'Parachute out of a plane' and 'Read the Bible from cover to cover.' Sadly the one many never complete is 'Read the Bible from cover to cover'.

There's a reason for that. The Bible is a tough cookie to read from start to finish. For one thing it is not actually a book. It is a collection of 66 books, translated from ancient Hebrew and Greek, that span thousands of years of life on earth and written by many different authors. It does not have a single literary structure but includes lists and genealogies and history and prophecy and poetry and a whole lot of other forms that are quite unique to sacred literature.

If you have ever started to read the Bible from cover to cover, you will know what I'm talking about. It starts off fine. 7 Days of Creation. But then it goes and gives us a second creation story, which doesn't quite match the first one. And there are all sorts of strange happenings with floods and towers and a whole lot of smiting going on.

Jut when you have plowed through all of that you end up in a book full of strange laws and regulations about everything from mildew to pork chops. If you carry on you find that when you get to Kings and Chronicles they are telling the same story. If you persevere to the prophets, oh no! More smiting.

If you make it through to the New Testament you start with Matthew. Then Mark, who seems to be a Readers Digest version of Matthew, and then Luke, who repeats a lot of what Matthew and Mark have already told you, and then John who seems to be writing from another place altogether. After a book called Acts, about how the church acted when it began, there are letters, answering a lot of questions many of us never ask, and it all ends up with some weird visions in a book called Revelation.

For sure there are bits of it that we really like. The 23rd Psalm, 'The Lord's my shepherd'. That story about the kid who went off the rails and when he came to his senses his dad welcomed him home. That tale about Joseph and his technicolor dream coat. And then there's Christmas with Mary and shepherds and angels, and the sad bits we talk about Easter time when Jesus was murdered, before they found His tomb empty three days later.

But the question is, how does it all fit together? How can you make sense of the whole thing? Why has the church claimed since it's very earliest days that these 66 writings are the ones that we need to pay attention to, over and above all other things, that have ever been written?

A few years ago, a couple of preachers, Max Lucado and Randy Frazee, mused about preaching a series about how the different books of the Bible held together and complemented each other. How behind all the individual stories of human kinds striving and struggle there lay another story, one about how God is constantly seeking to help us and guide us, a story whose highlight is witnessed to in the gospels, through the ministry and actions of Jesus Christ.

They decided to produce a collection of Scripture passages, that gave, in chronological order, in 31chapters, the overarching story of the Bible. It's not a new translation, but a different way of arranging the Biblical narratives, linking one bit to another and missing out some of the repetition and long lists of laws and unpronounceable names.

Consider for example a character like the Old Testament King David. We know how he was the little guy who fought the giant Goliath. But we might not instantly link the fact that David the Shepherd boy, also became the one who gave us that wonderful 23rd Psalm 23 about the Lord being our shepherd.

We may remember David had an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. But we might not connect the heartbreaking words of confession found in Psalm 51 (that we used for our confession prayer) with that tragic chapter in his life. 'Generous in love; God, give grace! Huge in mercy; wipe out my bad record. Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in Your laundry. What You're after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.”

Max Lucado and Randy Frazee called their collection of Scriptures 'The Story' and, beginning next week, we'll take a look at each of the 31 chapters. It comes in different versions, and hopefully, if you haven't already, you have obtained a copy. We'll be looking at it in our services, our study groups, our Sunday school, and our youth meetings. I'll be posting the sermons online if you miss any of them!

Something we will see as we go through this process is that there are two stories being told throughout the biblical narratives. There is the Upper Story. This is the big picture, the meta-narrative.

We are going to see the big story of how God created the heavens and the earth and entered into a relationship with humankind but how, so often, we choose to reject that relationship. We'll see God building a program that eventually brings Jesus Christ into our world and offers redemption. We will see how we can restore our relationship with God. That is the upper story, the meta-narrative.

Then there is the Lower Story. This is the story of how humankind often rejects, mistakes and confuses God's intentions. This is the story of humanity's striving to find meaning, both with and without God, and the consequences of either acceptance or rejection of God's grace. This is the story of how lives can be transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit and hope can be born in the most hopeless looking of situations.

By looking at the Biblical narratives in this way hopefully we'll be able to see ourselves in the stories. We'll see how we can be the misguided and confused ones with weak priorities and compromised commitments, but how God has never given up on us but is constantly calling us to better ways of being and living. So my prayer is that somewhere among this 'Upper Story' and 'Lower Story' pattern we'll find a third thing. Our Story.

By the end of this year we have the opportunity of doing something significant. We can gain a knowledge of 'The Story' that lies behind all the biblical stories.

One of the bibles greatest authors, Paul of Tarsus, wrote a letter to Timothy, a young friend he was mentoring as a leader in the earliest church. He told him; 'From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (1 Timothy 3:15-17)

Many of us, from our earliest days, have had a relationship with scripture. It has already formed many of our values and influenced our decision making. Many of us rejoice in the revelation it has given to us about the life and work of Jesus Christ and the way His living Spirit is helping us live our lives. And many of us are aware that we need all the help we can get to be the people God is calling is to be.

That's why I like the last words of that verse. God gives us the Scriptures, not to confound us and confuse us, not to judge us or condemn us, not to make us feel guilty or unworthy, but to empower us, to let us know we are loved, to move us into a place where we are not just existing, but really living. He gives us 'The Story'; 'So that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Our churches mission statement is quite simple. 'Growing in faith, Called to serve'. May this journey we take during 2016 enable us to live out those two principles as we encounter the 'Upper Story' of God's redemption informing the 'Lower' story of our everyday lives.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.