What sort of story are you living in?
In JRR Tolkien’s The Two Towers, Samwise is walking with Frodo, reflecting on what has happened to them since they left the Shire. He realizes that if he knew ahead of time what dangers and hardships they were going to encounter, they probably would have never set out in the first place.
“We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it… I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
I love this quote from the Lord of the Rings because it recognizes that the true, good, and beautiful stories that happen in life are not ones that are leisurely selected from comfortable positions, but rather are thrust upon us by the hand of providence. In our world of hyper-personal choice and supreme autonomy, we need to remember that we are not the captains of our fate or the masters of our destiny. It may sound terribly strange to hear, but what if we aren’t writing our story, but are simply responsible for walking out the path laid before us? What is your story? Where are you going? What is true, good, and beautiful?
Here is a common narrative that people live by today: You are a good person. Of course, you are not perfect (who is?), but down at your core, you are fundamentally good. There are negative things outside of you that will at times inhibit or prevent you from being that good person, and you will be a better person to the degree that you can remove those negative outside influences from your life (bad relationships, negative thoughts, financial hardships, etc.). Your highest good is found in being able to express yourself, stay true to your deepest desires, and finding meaningful relationships with others who are willing to help you fulfill those goals.
That is a very popular “story” that people in the West adopt today. Our movies, music, politics, art, and culture at large repeatedly reinforce this narrative. And it has almost no basis whatsoever in the Scriptures. But, and this is key, many people will come to the Scriptures with that narrative firmly in place in their mind and then interpret the Bible in light of that story. This happens all the time. And you can begin to sniff out when someone’s interpretation of the Bible is artificial when it just so happens to always reinforce what the culture around them values—what their narrative is. Isn’t it funny that the most conservative and the most liberal of politicians can both quote the Bible and appeal to Jesus to validate their mutually contradictory policies? Perhaps that isn’t a sign of Jesus’ or the Bible’s schizophrenia, but instead reveals that neither of them are actually listening to the story of the Bible, but just interpreting it in light of their agenda. Adolf Hitler famously championed the courageous manliness of Jesus because He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and drove the Jews out of the temple, calling Germany to do likewise and rid the motherland of the Jewish infestation (of course, forgetting that Jesus Himself and all of His followers were Jews as well). Hitler was simply doing what many, many others have done: interpret Jesus in light of the values and norms of the culture of the day.
So what am I hoping to do today? I am hoping to help you understand the story of the Bible, and in particular who Jesus is and what He came to do, on its own terms. If you have sought out Christianity because it seemed to basically reinforce what you have already believed, I would ask you to entertain the idea that perhaps you have not yet really encountered Jesus on His own terms. Perhaps you have done what Sam thought heroes in stories did, picked out an adventure to add some excitement to your life. My hope is that today you will see that there is a much larger, grander story that—if you have trusted in and follow Jesus—you have been thrust into.
A Story of Humility
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,” Isaiah 40:1-2.
What is Isaiah talking about here?
For the past two weeks we have been examining Isaiah’s message in chapter 40. The book of Isaiah is explaining the danger that awaits the nation of Israel if they do not repent and return to Yahweh. The consequences that have been laid before the nation have been clear: if you do not keep Yahweh’s commands, if you worship other gods, then Yahweh will remove Israel from their land and scatter them, exile them into foreign nations. And tragically, that is exactly what happened. Starting in 605 BC, Babylon begins attacking the nation of Judah and deporting its citizens. And in 586 BC, they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, hauling the majority of the surviving Israelites off into captivity.
But now, when Israel is at its lowest, when they have been reduced to a shell of what they once were, God turns to them with a message of comfort, tenderness, forgiveness. Exile is over. Israel has received the consequences that God had promised they would receive. But God’s anger does not last forever; now he turns to Israel with the compassion of a parent welcoming back a prodigal child. Like the father in Luke 15, Yahweh doesn’t wait for Israel to clean itself up, but instead runs out to meet them and leads them back home, literally prepares a way for them. Look at Isaiah 57:14-15 with me:
“And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite,” Isaiah 57:14-15.
Who does the high, exalted, and holy God dwell with? The lowly, the contrite. Israel had grown arrogant and presumptuous and had to be whittled down to what she was in the exile before she was humble enough to dwell with Yahweh. And friends, sometimes the Lord will lead us through seasons of darkness and difficulty—not because He doesn’t love us, but the exact opposite. He wants to whittle us down till we are ready. He wants to disabuse us of our foolish notions of pomp, self-importance, and self-righteousness. It is the weak who will renew their strength (Isa 40:29-31).
I want to apply this truth to you personally, and then to our congregation as a whole.
Perhaps you have felt like you have been led through a particularly trying season lately. Your job hasn’t turned out to be what you had hoped it would; your friends haven’t turned out to be who you thought they were; you haven’t been who you thought you were. Perhaps in the Lord’s mysterious providence, He has led you into a dark night of the soul in order to clarify your vision, to help you see the reality of your feebleness…and the beauty of His grace. Today, no one is willing to admit that they are a sinner. They are always just misunderstood, they didn’t have the right opportunities, they weren’t really so bad, it was mostly the other people’s fault. Can Quinault Baptist Church be a place where we can be sinners? I am reminded of a famous, and often misinterpreted, quote from Martin Luther, writing a letter to his friend Melanchthon:
“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”
What is Luther saying? He is not saying: go out and sin a whole bunch because God will forgive you! No. He is definitively NOT saying that. Rather, he is saying this: don’t dress up your sins like they are not sins! “Man, I’ve been really struggling with falling into temptation…” You mean you’ve been looking at porn? “I told most of the truth…” You mean you lied? Look friends, there is a path of repentance and sanctification we need to think about on the other side of our sins, but there is an incipient self-righteousness that hides behind our schemes to make our sins sound like not-sins. Deep in our heart we fear that if the full weight of the sinfulness of our actions were to be acknowledged, then what on earth would happen to us? We fear, ultimately, that our God is not a God of forgiveness and grace. But dear friends, who does the high and holy God dwell with? The self-righteous? The pretty good, most of the time people? The lowly. The humble. The broken. Here is how Jesus put it, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” Mark 2:17. If you came to Jesus hoping he was just going to augment your already pretty awesome life, if you thought he would make a nice addition to your estate, you will not find Jesus. Friends, unless you are willing to be a sinner, Christ has nothing for you.
Our congregation for the past number of years has gone through a season of difficulty. There are more empty chairs in our auditorium than filled ones. And it may be tempting to view that as a sign of abandonment by the Lord. But, perhaps instead it has been the Lord’s means to inject a strong dose of humility and awareness of our own weakness into the life of our church. When things start getting difficult in a church, or a family, or a marriage, there are two ways to respond to it. We can point fingers, get self-defensive, and blame everyone else for what is wrong. That is a surefire way to kill a church, kill a family, kill a marriage. Or, with deep humility, we can say: I had no idea just how weak, how sinful, how selfish I was, till now. I need the Lord to show up, I need a strength, power, and vision that comes from outside myself. I feel a desperation for the Lord to show up in a way and to a degree that I have never felt before—O Lord, help!
Friends, that is exactly where the Lord wants our hearts to be. The Lord will be found when we seek Him with all our heart and all our soul. When we come to Him in honesty and sincerity as sinners, profoundly in need of grace.
A Story of Honor
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
What is happening in this text? Well, verse 3 is describing the preparation of Yahweh leading the exiles home, verse 4 describes what will happen as the exiles come home, and verse 5 describes what happens as a result of the exiles returning home. In the wilderness, the desert that separates Babylon from Jerusalem—which was massive and entirely uninhabitable—a pathway is being prepared for the exiles to return. Who leads them? Yahweh Himself. As they return, creation itself is being reordered before them—what would be obstacles or hindrances are being removed. And as they return, the glory of Yahweh will shine forth so brightly that all of humanity will see it.
Now, in Jeremiah we are told that after 70 years of exile, the Israelites would be released from captivity and return to their land (Jer 29:10). The story of the return to Jerusalem from captivity can be read in Ezra and Nehemiah. The Jews in captivity are released, return home, and rebuild the torn down walls of Jerusalem and the temple.
But, there are a number of ways that the return from exile is somewhat disappointing. The whole book of Isaiah describes the nation’s return from exile leading to all of creation being renewed, the nations of the world streaming into Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, the end of all wars, the end of all sorrow, the end of all sickness and death, and so on and so forth. Nothing like that happens when the Jews return.
In fact, when the foundations for the new temple is laid, many of the elders actually begin weeping! Why? Because they know that this second temple they are building is nothing compared to the glory of the first temple that was built (Ezra 3:12). In fact, when the first temple is built and consecrated to the Lord, the Lord descends in smoke onto the temple and fills the entire house with His glory so much so that no one can enter it (1 Sam 8:10-11). Nothing like that happens after the second temple is constructed. In fact, the ark of the covenant—the symbol of God’s presence—is entirely missing in the second temple. Though God’s people have been delivered from Babylon’s rule and have returned to the land, they are still under the umbrella-rule of the new Persian empire, and will eventually come under Greek rule, and finally Roman rule. The glory of the kingdom that they once had simply never returns. And after Malachi, no prophet arises up and there is a famine of God’s Word for over 400 years. Surely, this is not the glory and grandeur that appears to be promised to Israel at the return of their exile.
In the book of Daniel, Daniel (a Jew who has been taken captive into exile in Babylon), is reading the book of Jeremiah and notices that the 70 years that Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 29:10) is nearly up, so he seeks the Lord in prayer, asking Him to restore Israel according to His mercy (Dan 9:1-19). To his surprise, the angel Gabriel appears and informs him that though Israel will return physically from exile, it is going to take seventy “sevens”, that is, 490 years from the rebuilding of Jerusalem, for Israel to be fully restored spiritually. Israel’s restoration is described in the terms of forgiveness, atonement, and everlasting righteousness (Dan 9:24). In 457 BC Ezra is sent to Jerusalem to help establish the resettlement of Jerusalem (Ezra 7)—do you know what happens 490 years later, at 33 AD? A Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, who claimed to be God in the flesh, is crucified between two thieves. When the gospel of Mark opens up with Isaiah 40, saying that it is a description of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he is saying that Jesus is the one who has come to bring an end to exile. (For defense of this interpretation of Daniel 9, see Stephen J. Wellum and Peter Gentry’s Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, pg. 544-47).
Why does this matter?
First, because this is simply what the Bible teaches. Let’s not be so sophisticated that we can’t simply say, “If the Bible teaches it, it is important.”
Second, this enlarges your view of what happened in your salvation.
Jesus Christ did not only come to provide a means of forgiveness for you individually—he came to bring about a cosmic renewal; an end to exile. Do you realize the story that you have been swept up into?