January 18, 2015 – The Story Retold

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It is a very human thing to re-tell stories. We do it all the time. When my children were little, like all parents I used to tell them stories at bedtime. Sometimes we read chapter books together, but a lot of times I would tell the old stories that parents have been telling for years, probably for centuries – the three little pigs, and little red riding hood, and the billy goats gruff and the three bears. And of course I didn’t tell them exactly the way everyone else tells them. I developed my own special ways of telling them, and I also changed them in some ways, especially the endings. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to tell a story to my little kiddos, all tucked up in bed and drifting off to sleep, that ended with someone being killed or eaten or cut in half. So my stories tended to end happily ever after for everyone. The little red hen shared her bread with her friends, and Red Riding Hood and her grandmother shared their basket of goodies with the wolf, and Goldilocks made life-long friends with the bears. No one was eaten up, and especially no one was left all alone, because that always made Wyatt cry.

A new movie that came out this past year, Maleficent, was a re-telling of the old Sleeping Beauty story. Walt Disney has always been a big fan of re-telling the old stories, but this one was particularly interesting because it gave a very different perspective on the characters and their actions. It told the Sleeping Beauty story through the lens of the dis-order of modern male-female relationships of which we are, fortunately, becoming increasingly aware. And told through that lens, we can see that the evil of the witch springs from the wounds of an abusive relationship. And unlike the traditional story line, the true love’s kiss that heals the princess is not from the prince captivated by the princess’s beauty, but of the witch herself, who has learned to love and care for the princess like a daughter. It is very modern, and very interesting, and it is an example of this human tendency: that we re-tell stories according to new understandings and hopefully according to deeper insights into truth.

We are used to thinking of stories as things that are either true or not true, things that really happened or things that didn’t really happen, like fairy tales, but stories can be true on different levels. Obviously Sleeping Beauty is a fairy story; it’s not even slightly based on anything historical, but at the same time, like most fairy tales it reveals truth, truth about love and goodness, truth about human nature, truth about our desires and fears. In a very real sense, the cliché ending of all fairy tales is entirely biblical. “And they lived happily ever after.” It is our hope, it is God’s promise and commitment to us, it is the childlike description of the redemption of all creation.

And the Bible is story in the truest sense; the Bible, as the word of God, who is the Word, is true in e very sense. We believe that the stories we read in the Bible tell us about real flesh-and-blood human beings like ourselves. We believe that what we read happened, in time and space as we know it, usually in a literal sense, things like the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Law and the reign of King David and the feeding of the five thousand, but sometimes in a more poetic sense, like the creation of the world by the hand of God. But one of the things about the stories of the Old Testament, one of the reasons it is so important for us to read and know the Old Testament, is that those stories are very often true events that foreshadow future events that are even more deeply true.

I think of the story of Jonah. Jonah is identified as a real man in the second book of Kings, who prophesied during the reign of King Jeroboam. And while many people doubt the factuality of his being swallowed up by a big fish, it isn’t actually impossible, and I believe it truly happened – certainly there are documented cases of similar events. But what is even more important about the story of Jonah is that it foreshadowed the death of Jesus Christ, as Jesus himself said, preaching to the Pharisees and scribes: “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Jonah’s life told a story that would be gloriously re-told in the life of the Son of God. God tells us stories through our own history that foreshadow his work in our world. The smaller stories of real men and women give us a preview of the Big Picture of redemption.

And we can see that in the passage we read today from the first chapter of John. Jesus was gathering his first disciples around him, the first of those twelve men who would be his close friends and students during his life, and who would carry on his ministry after his death and Resurrection. John the Baptist directed two of his own disciples to Jesus, and one of those disciples, Andrew, brought along his brother, Simon, whom we know as Peter. Jesus himself sought out Philip, and then Philip went to summon his friend Nathaniel, saying, “We have found the one Moses and all the Prophets were writing about!” And when Jesus sees Nathaniel coming, he says something remarkable, “Behold, an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit!”

And then Jesus says something private that completely convinced Nathaniel that Jesus was who everyone was saying he was, truly the Messiah. “I saw you under the fig tree,” Jesus says, “before Philip called you.” But we aren’t let in on the secret; all John tells us is that Jesus knew something about Nathaniel, something that happened under a fig tree, that proved to Nathaniel that Jesus had seen into his very heart and known him truly, as a man without guile, without trickery. I would so much like to know the whole story, but we aren’t told any more than that.

What we do know is that there is a story of another Israelite long before Nathaniel, in whom there was indeed deceit and trickery. In fact his name, at birth, was Jacob, which means “he cheats.” And Jacob’s life certainly displayed that character flaw pretty clearly. Jacob grew up to be a mama’s boy who cheated his own twin brother out of his inheritance, and who lied to his blind father on his death bed to steal the blessing that rightly belonged to his brother as the elder twin. Not an admirable person, but a true Israelite for sure, because it was Jacob to whom God first gave the name Israel. And as Jacob’s story continues, he ended up having to run away from his brother, who, not surprisingly, was trying to kill him. And on his journey, alone and helpless, Jacob came to a place called Luz to spend the night, and there he had an amazing dream.

In the dream, Jacob saw an immense ladder, or flight of stairs, stretching from earth up into the heavens. And he saw angelic beings going back and forth between heaven and earth, and God himself was there, standing beside Jacob. And God spoke to Jacob and reassured him that he was going to keep the promises he had made to Jacob’s father and to his grandfather, to make a great nation of his children, to bring them to a land of their own, and to bring blessing to the whole world through them. When Jacob woke up, he knew that it was more than just a crazy dream and he said to himself, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it! Truly, this is the house of God.” And Jacob re-named the place where he had his dream Bethel, which means “house of God.”

And Jacob being Jacob, as the story continues he makes a deal with God, “OK, God, if you take care of me and keep all those promises and provide everything I need, food and clothing and so forth, and get me back home safely, I will worship you and you will be my God. Oh, and I’ll tithe, a tenth of everything I get.”

If we follow the story of Jacob in the Old Testament, it turns out that God is faithful in more ways than Jacob had any right to demand, and that by his grace Jacob grows to be a mature and much humbler man – less like his old name, “the one who cheats,” and more like his God-given name, “Israel,” which means “the one who struggles with God.” But today we are following the echoes of Jacob’s story all the way forward, to the life of Nathaniel, who has just come to know Jesus, and to be known by him. And Nathaniel is awestruck at the supernatural knowledge of this man he has just met. “Truly, you are just what Philip said – the Son of God and the King of Israel!”

And Jesus looks at Nathaniel and answers him, “Are you so impressed by knowing that I saw you under the fig tree? Stick around. You are going to see much, much greater things than that. Truly, truly, I tell you: you will see heaven standing wide open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” We are hearing the story of Jacob’s dream re-told in the lives of Jesus and his new disciples: and not just re-told, but fulfilled, made full. The story of Nathaniel is the consummation of the story that Jacob only dreamed of all those centuries earlier, because here in Galilee God himself was standing with his people, not in a vision, but physically, flesh and bone and breath. And the time had now truly come in Israel, not for a vision of the heavens standing open, but the heavens had actually been torn open and the voice of God had spoken in words that could be heard by human ears at the baptism of Jesus. Truly, truly, Jesus said to Nathaniel, you are about to find out that the Lord is in this place, that I am He, that where I am is always and forever Bethel, the house of God, and that I have come to make my dwelling with my brothers and sisters. And the gates of heaven will never again be closed to you. The story of Nathaniel is the story of Jacob brought to its perfect conclusion.

I have recently become aware of an expression I had never heard before. When people have a great need for prayer, when they ask others to join them in crying out to God for his help in some terrible trouble, they sometimes say that they are “storming the gates of heaven.” I understand very well what people mean by that; I sympathize with that kind of desperate intensity of prayer, those prayers we offer up for the needs of those we love deeply and whose troubles are so are terribly beyond anything we can humanly have any hope of seeing relieved. But the picture is all wrong, if we remember the story of Nathaniel, and of Jacob, because there are no gates in the heavens to be stormed.

Jesus told Nathaniel, “You just wait – you are going to see something so much greater than supernatural power and wisdom. You are going to see the gates of heaven thrown wide open. You are going to see God come to live among his people, that coming and going of blessing and prayer, that communion with the Most High, established forever.” Where Jesus is – and he is present in and through his people, which is us – is Bethel, the house of God. He has pitched his tent with us, and the coming and going that Jacob saw in his dream is the love and grace of God poured out on his people, and the prayers of his people freely heard and freely answered, coming and going with no barrier, no barred gates, no unheard cries.

We might say that it was just a story, the story of the ladder with its fanciful images of angels running up and down from earth to heaven and back again. But it is true, in the deepest sense of the word. And the story of Jesus’ life on this earth, his birth and his baptism, healing and casting out of demons, teaching and miracles, his death and his days in the tomb, and the glorious morning of his resurrection: all these are echoes of the story of Jacob’s ladder, where heaven burst open at last after man’s long self-imposed loneliness, and where the glorious life of heaven now moves freely from heaven to earth, because God has come to make his home with his children forever.

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