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Old Worlds & New

Starting Stories

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2000

John 1.9-13:There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

Back when I lived in Florida, I was able to support a comic-book habit. One of my favorites was Legends of the Dark Night because it presented a series of stories about Batman without any sidekick. I always thought the caped crusader made more sense as a loner, so I preferred the series.

The first story was quite good but sadly rather new age in orientation. At one point Bruce Wayne was nearly killed in a car accident in Alaska. He woke up in the house of an Alaskan Indian who was telling him a story from Native American mythology about a creature being healed by a story. Somehow, according to the comic book, the telling of a story healed the person who heard the story.

Again, the story was rather new age, but the premise about the story is rather insightful, believe it or not.

Tell me the old old story
‘T’will be my theme in glory
To tell the old old story
Of Jesus and His Love.

That’s a rather popular if simple hymn. But it acknowledges something rather fundamental about the nature of the Christian Faith.

It is a story.

We are starting a sermon series on Genesis today, and it will be important for us, to understand why we need to study Genesis, to be reminded of the importance of stories both to the Bible and to the human condition.

Let’s start with the importance of stories to the Bible.

One of the major problems we have in understanding the importance of stories in the Bible, is also found in the attitude revealed in the hymn I just quoted: “Tell me the old old story.” The words are fine but the interpretation often assumed for them is somewhat problematic. Commonly, I think, the idea imputed to the hymn is that the basic facts of Jesus life death and resurrection are the story, and nothing else in the Bible is all that relevant. Jesus was both God and man, he lived a perfect life, he died for our sins, and then he was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Now those facts are important – important enough, I believe, to be called the story, not simply a story in the Bible. But it is not the only story. Nor is it an isolated story. The Bible is not simply like a collection of short stories by different authors. Rather it is a series of interrelated stories, laws, poems, and prayers which all mutually interpret one another and combine to climax in a single unified story – and that story is the gospel – the story of Jesus conquering sin and death and bring life and immortality to light.

You see, there is no question that for the Apostles the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are central. But there should also be no question that for the Apostles the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were the climax of a much larger story and group of stories. Liberal commonly claim that the last week in Jesus life is the authentic tradition while the stuff about Jesus’ ministry is more or less made up by the gospel author. Those who are committed to the trustworthiness of Scripture should know better, but the fact is that many more traditional believers in practice implicitly endorsed the same position. We act as if the basic Gospel message is simply the death and resurrection and don’t really do much with the previous material in the Gospels.

One New Testament scholar observes that in the hands of the Protestant Reformers, the material previous to holy week became simply a load of moralistic information. Jesus’ struggles with his contemporaries are treated as a kind of a composite between Socrates against the Sophists and Luther against the Pope and cardinals. We end up making a great deal of what the gospels say extraneous to the Gospel. It sometimes sounds as if Jesus could have been born in any nation at any time in history and, if he had died, then he would have been raised and provided forgiveness of sins – and that is all that matters.

Hopefully we all know better, but our rhetoric can sometimes fail to do justice to the old old story. The story of Jesus, if it is to be properly understood, must be read in light of all that is said in the Gospels. A man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey being hailed with palm branches and garments strewn before his feet will make no sense to us unless we have some idea of where he came from and why he is being hailed King of the Jews.

But we can take this a step further – indeed we can take this many steps further until we reach all the way back to Genesis. A man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey being hailed as King of the Jews will make no sense to us unless we have some idea of the significance of Jerusalem and the significance of the Jews and the significance of being their king. And once we admit this, we have to go beyond simply the Gospels into the background of the Hebrew Scriptures – a background of which both Jesus and the Gospel writers were aware and were building upon.

Bear in mind, secular historians often despair of ever really knowing who Jesus was during his ministry. They look at the data we have and they realize that you can’t reconstruct many days out of Jesus life. Most of his time on earth was unrecorded. So how can we really say we know Jesus with such a small amount of data? Even we, who believe that the claims of the Gospel are true, have to admit that there’s not much to go on.

But, of course, we have more than the Gospels for our use in understanding Jesus. We have the entire Bible. A secular historian may not think that means much, but Jesus taught and his disciples taught that he was the fulfillment of all the story of the Scriptures. We don’t need more stories from Jesus’ life to fill out his identity; we have the previous stories from the Hebrew Bible.

According to Matthew 12.42, Jesus was the greater Solomon. According to Matthew 12.41, he was the greater Jonah. Repeatedly he is called the son of David. The stories of David and Solomon and Jonah fill out and explain who Jesus was and is. Despite their sins those people fill out and interpret the life of Jesus. Or, to put it another way, the lives of people like David and Jonah were completed and fulfilled by Jesus.

Take a look at our text this morning. I could have mentioned any number of other texts as well, but this serves as a good initial example. John is introducing his subject matter, the person and work of Jesus.

There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him

Now, you all recognize in those words, an invocation of the creation of the world, of Genesis chapter 1 verse 1-3. John in fact began his Gospel with that same appeal:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

God creates light by speaking. Genesis 1.1-3 is the obvious text here. Jesus is being compared to the creation of the world. Other New Testament documents do this as well. Why? Because Jesus is the new creation. This should begin to give us some idea of the value of Genesis.

But in our passage, John doesn’t stop with the first verses of Genesis 1. He continues through chapter three:

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.

We’ll see this in Genesis 3. God creates the world culminating in Adam and Eve. He leaves them for a while, and then he shows up and finds his own children refuse to receive him. Israel is the re-established Eden, and in Jesus the fall happens again. They are not prepared for the day of their visitation.

By the way, we’ll see this in Genesis itself. Abraham is chosen as a new Adam a new humanity that is part of and being used to bring about a new creation. So it makes sense that Jesus coming to Israel is treated as God’s visitation of the Garden of Eden. The story of Jesus is described in language that evokes themes from Genesis, from the story of the Fall in Genesis 3.

But there is more to Genesis, and John is not finished with the book. After the fall, one predominant issue and theme, as we will see in the weeks and months to come, is that of the promised seed. Eve conceives Cain and names him according to the idea that Cain is God’s son. She is mistaken, but the need for children from God is a real need. We’ll find that Noah struggles for children, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. And more than once in various different ways the issue comes up among brothers: Who is the true heir of God – who are the sons of God?

He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

This is a text we’ve all read and loved. But have we really understood what John is trying to say? Or at least how he is saying it? Tell me the old old story. John’s doing that by weaving in the story of Genesis. To fully grasp and be grasped by the story of Genesis, you need to grasp and be grasped by the story of Genesis.

Actually, that’s not quite right. We need to be grasped not only by the singular story of Genesis, but also by the several stories in Genesis. You see Genesis, as the first book of the Bible is in many ways a microcosm of the Bible. The Bible is one book, but many also sixty-six books. It is one story, but many stories which make up that one story.

We can see this kind of relationship between stories if we look at the first six books of the Bible. In Genesis, God promises Abraham a people, his presence, and a special land. If we think of that, we can see Genesis through Joshua as all one story. The third promise is not fulfilled until Joshua leads the people across the Jordan and divides up the land among Abraham’s descendants. Commonly the term “hexeteuch” is used to refer to the six books as one book.

But of course, the term penteteuch is much more common. The five books of Moses are all either authored by Moses, or were dictated to Moses, or came to us through Moses. In that case, we can see the five books as one story with Joshua as a sequel. From that perspective we have the Pentateuch as the first “Old Testament” and then the book of Joshua as the initial New Testament which fulfills the hope of the Promised Land.

But Genesis is a book in it’s own right. It begins with Adam given the whole world in the Garden of God but then losing everything. It ends with Joseph again receiving dominion over the whole world in Egypt – a country which is explicitly compared to the Garden of God, to the Garden of Eden, in the book of Genesis. Keep in mind, by the way, how the New Testament writers tie this sort of thing into the story of Christ. Joseph is a new Adam raised up to Pharaoh’s right hand. Jesus is the definitive new Adam of whom Joseph is merely a shadow, and who is raised up to God’s right hand. The old old story is in Genesis.

But there’s more to say about the book of Genesis: It is not merely one book but ten books. They are marked off from one another by the phrase, “these are the generations of.” Quite likely, these books, while perhaps given a final edit by Moses, were actually written by the people in the stories, Moses, Noah, Seth, Abraham, and others.

Now what is interesting about this is that it means we have the same dynamic going on between the stories within Genesis that we have going on between Genesis and the other books. Just as John presents Jesus to us in a way that evokes parallels to the story of Genesis, so the story of the flood presents Noah to us in a way that evokes parallels to the story of Adam.

By the way, I should also mention one other relationship. The stories of Genesis are not only alluded to in order to help us understand Jesus; they are also alluded to earlier in the Bible. The story of the Exodus does not stand alone, we will find in various Genesis stories more than one account of an exodus, including an exodus from Egypt itself on the part of Abraham and his family.

So when we come to Genesis, we are not dealing with something extraneous to the basic story of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, we are dealing with the foundational story which builds up in various later stories to climax in Jesus Christ.

If you’ve ever read a mystery novel, you know the temptation of simply flipping to the back to see who did it. But when you skip the beginning or middle of the story, even if you learn the answer to the mystery, you won’t really understand why the answer makes sense. Your appreciation will be much greater if you read the mystery from start to finish.

We’ve all been told the ending of the story and the solution to the mystery. We needed to know it and so we have been told the answer to the riddle. Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures and was raised up three days later according to the Scriptures. But we will understand what those words mean in a much deeper and more life-transforming way if we see how Genesis fits into the overarching story of the Gospel.

So ultimately, even though the events recorded in Genesis take place thousands of years before Jesus walked among us, the in preaching though Jesus I will be proclaiming the story of Jesus.

I have spoken of the importance of stories in the Bible, let me conclude by challenging you to realize the importance of stories to our very selves. I think there is a great desire among people for something other than a story. A true story may be valued, but it is often valued because it demonstrates certain moral or philosophical principles. That’s why so much modern Christian literature reads like a guidebook or a philosophy textbook. But as helpful as such things are, it is extremely important to realize that God hasn’t given us a textbook or a guidebook. He gave us a story. He gave us a great number of stories which all fit together historically and thematically.

Stories are the basic building blocks of worldviews. Modern secularism depends on a story of life somehow being spat out of primordial slime and evolving into greater complexity. Marxism has its story of class warfare and the evolving social system. And these stories are complicated by other stories which fit within them. By giving us a story the Bible gives us an alternative way of looking at the world, God, and ourselves. And Genesis, as the beginning of that story is very important. Listening and believing this story will transform you into a new person.

It doesn’t make immediate sense to us that simply listening to a story and bring about our healing. But those who profess the Gospel must realize they cannot possibly disparage such an idea. Whether in Genesis or the gospel of John, we have been told a story that if believed will transfigure us after the image of Christ.

copyright © 2000

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