University Congregational Church, Wichita, Kansas
Gary Cox, 12/16/01
As a group of University Congregational Church members met one evening in November, we discussed some of the similarities and differences between our faith and other faiths. And we came to the conclusion that of all religions, Christianity has the best story.
We weren’t denigrating the faith when we said that. Every religion has a story. Every human life is a story, with each and every day adding another page to the work-in-progress. This morning, as we gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus, I thought it would be a good time to look back over the story of our faith, as we prepare our hearts for the choir’s performance of Rutter’s Gloria.
Christianity’s story is a beautiful mixture of history and myth, of prose and poetry. The line between history and poetry is sometimes difficult to distinguish; but it is not our purpose today to differentiate between what actually happened in this world of God’s creation, and truths that can be embraced only through poetry and myth. For they share in common an important trait—they both bear the truth. And as long as our hearts are open to those truths, it matters little whether the elements of our story are historical truths, or poetic truths.
We share most of our story with our Jewish brothers and sisters, because the one we call Lord was himself thoroughly and devoutly Jewish. So to tell our story we must take a quick walk through the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—for that is where our story begins, with the Genesis accounts of creation. It would be a mistake to take the poetic truth contained in these chapters and claim they are scientific accounts of how God created the universe. They are much more important than that. They are the beginning of our story.
Our story begins by saying there was a time when there was nothing at all—nothing other than God. And out of the vast emptiness of a seemingly eternal night God called into being everything that is. In a systematic and intelligent way God started the process of creation, a process which continues today, and which reached the height of its glory with the creation of human beings. These human beings were created in the very image of God. This does not mean they looked like God, or physically resembled God, but rather that the very power of creative love which called forth creation in the first place created beings who themselves were capable of creative love.
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The story goes that these human beings rebelled against God—that Adam and Eve rebelled against their Creator by intentionally disobeying God’s will. And the price for that disobedience was death. Each and every human being who would ever live would have to face the fact that he or she would one day have to die.
The time would come when people became so wicked, God caused a flood that resulted in the death of every living creature on the planet with the exception of Noah, Noah’s family, and the creatures Noah was able to save from the flood. And afterwards, God promised never again to destroy humanity, and created a rainbow in the sky to remind human beings and himself, whenever it rained, of this promise.
Generations came and went, and then God chose Abraham to be the father of a great nation—the nation of Israel. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who was far beyond childbearing years, through a miracle of God gave birth to a son—Isaac. Previously, because Abraham and Sarah had never been able to have children, one of Sarah’s slaves—Hagar—bore a child for Abraham. After the birth of Isaac, Hagar’s child, Ishmael, was cast out by Abraham and Sarah. Thus, the story goes, two great nations arose from the offspring of Abraham. Even today, the Jews of Israel believe they descended from Isaac, and the Muslims of the Arab world believe they descended from Ishmael.
Isaac married Rebekah, and they had twin sons—Esau and Jacob. Because Esau was the first to exit the womb, he was entitled to his father’s birthright, meaning the great nation God had promised to the descendents of Abraham would arise through Esau. Jacob, however, was the cleverer of the two. As his father Isaac laid on his deathbed, Jacob tricked him into giving his blessing—and his birthright—to him. Soon Jacob’s name was changed to the name “Israel.” Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, and they bore him twelve sons, each of whom would become the father of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, I began by saying that our story was a mixture of myth and history. Most Bible scholars will tell you that the elements of our story we have covered up to this point fall under the “myth” category. That doesn’t mean we should forget about them, or ignore them. And it doesn’t mean they aren’t brimming with truth. It simply means that, while parts of these accounts may have been based on historical events, and while these stories were deemed important enough to be passed along orally from generation to generation, these are probably not historical accounts, at least not in the modern sense of history.
Now we enter that part of the story where myth and history start to meld together. One thing seems certain. Sometime between 1450 BC and 1250 BC, a group of slaves made an exodus out of Egypt and entered the land called Canaan, which we now call Palestine, or Israel. History would call these people the Hebrews, or the Jews. According to our story, the leader of these people was named Moses. He led his people across the wilderness and into the Promised Land, receiving from God the Ten Commandments along the way.
The twelve tribes of Hebrew people, after several hundred years of fighting with the native Canaanites, united under the first king of Israel—King Saul. I should mention at this point that while all parts of our story are equally important, the rest of our story is much more grounded on historical facts than are the previous elements. If you want to start a fight among Bible scholars, simply ask the question, “Was Moses a real or mythical character?” You are guaranteed a real donnybrook. You’ll get no such arguments over the characters who fill out our story from this point forward. They are undoubtedly historical figures.
After Saul came Israel’s greatest king of all time, a musician and warrior named David, who became king sometime around 1000 BC. It was under King David that Israel reached the height of its glory, and even to this day there are many Jews who pray for the day a messiah will come and restore Israel to the glory it had at the time of King David.
King David’s son, Solomon, took the thrown after David’s death, and was known as the wisest king who ever lived. King David, the musician, is credited with writing many of the biblical Psalms. Solomon is credited with writing the Book of Proverbs. Under Solomon the Temple was built. This was considered to be the home of Yahweh, Almighty God, and in the Temple was placed the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments.
In 922 BC King Solomon died, and the nation of Israel was split in two. Rehoboam became the king in the south, which was known as Judah. Jeroboam became the king in the north, which was called Israel. This situation lasted for 200 years, with ten of the original twelve tribes in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and two of the original tribes in the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
This was an important time in our story, as some of the greatest prophets of God who ever lived, including Isaiah, Micah and Amos, interpreted God’s will for the people of Israel and Judah. And then, in 722 BC, 200 years after Israel split into the two kingdoms, a great tragedy occurred. Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel, conquered it completely, and resettled all the inhabitants of those ten tribes. While the Southern Kingdom of Judah remained intact, the Northern Kingdom and its people were gone forever. These people are what history calls the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
The next great event in our story occurred in 587 BC. King Nebechednezzar of Babylon invaded Judah, which was by then known also as Israel. And then the unthinkable happened. King Nebechadnezzar’s troops entered Jerusalem and literally destroyed it entirely. Included in this destruction was the Temple, the place in which the Hebrew people believed Yahweh actually lived. The Arc of the Covenant was hauled off and lost to history, and the Hebrew people were forcibly removed from Israel and taken into captivity in Babylon. This is the period known as the Babylonian Captivity, or the Babylonian Exile.
The greatest good can sometimes come from the greatest tragedy, and that is the case with the Babylonian Exile. The consciousness of the Jewish people was forced to expand. What did it mean that the Babylonians could literally destroy the Temple–God’s house? What did it mean that the Hebrew people could be removed from the land they believed God promised to them?
It was at this point that people began to understand that God is much bigger than they had previously thought. God did not need a Temple in which to live, because God was everywhere. God was not bound to a particular piece of land, which was the assumption up until this point. Rather, everything everywhere was the creation of the one God. At last, the human imagination expanded to the point it could conceive of the one God who called the universe into creation. In our story, true monotheism was born in the Babylonian Exile.
Fifty years after the beginning of the Babylonian Exile, King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians, and with the Edict of Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. After the rebuilding of the Temple in 520 BC, Israel would continue to be occupied by various powers throughout those years, with Alexander the Great conquering Jerusalem in 332 BC, and the Romans taking control of the area in 63 BC.
That second Temple remained intact throughout this period, surviving for almost 600 years, until the Romans eventually destroyed it in the year 70 AD. Today incidentally, when you see the Jewish people bowing and putting notes in the Wailing Wall, that is the remaining wall of the second Temple.
Now, we are only halfway through our story. We have covered the two–thousand year period that led up to the founding of the Christian Church. But for this morning, we must stop this story in the middle, because this story is not like most stories we read today, which slowly and surely build to some sort of climactic moment toward the end. The pivotal moment in our story comes in the middle, with the arrival of Jesus Christ into this world.
The central chapter of our story remains the centerpiece of our lives. It is Jesus that makes our story the best of all stories, because our story says that the very God who called this universe into being out of sheer nothingness came to live among us. God knows what it’s like to be us. Because God lived in a very unique way through Jesus, God knows what it’s like to suffer emotional pain, and to suffer physical pain, and even to face death.
We have a God who understands us in every way. We have a God who took the worst we have to offer at the cross, and offered us nothing in return other than love, and understanding, and forgiveness. And then, last of all, through Jesus Christ, God overcame death itself. That is our story, and it is the greatest story ever told, because for all its poetry and for all its imagery, it is the truest story ever told.
The idea that God somehow came to live among us is a mystery that cannot be understood through reason or defined with logic. How can the glory of such a thing be expressed? Matthew and Luke tried their best with their wonderful birth narratives, but even they fall short. Great poets and musicians through the ages have tried to express the wonder of it all, and even their most inspired efforts fail to capture the full wonder of the birth of Jesus. I certainly do not have the words, so I will only ask that you open your hearts, that you hear this marvelous choir as they, through their performance of Rutter’s Gloria, embrace the mystery, the wonder, the glory of having a God that loves us so much.