The Story of Love and Grace

Do you know how many creation stories are told in the Bible? This is not a complete list but it gives a sense of some of the Bible’s rich complexity.

Most people probably know about the version we find in Genesis 1. The Creator creates from a distance and outside of creation.

In the beginning— was God, creating the heavens and the earth . . . Then God said, “Let there be light.”

And God said. And God said. And God said.

Like a brilliant composer, imagination becomes palpable reality, and the music of the cosmos is created. Like a master conductor, with a nod to the string section, and then a wave to the woodwinds, and now a sweeping movement toward the brass section, a complex, polyphonic symphony of harmonies and melodies comes into existence.

“And God said.”

And then God created the humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female God created them. And God blessed them . . .

And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

Then there’s a different creation story in Genesis 2. Here the Creator is close by and intimate, like a potter with dirty hands bending over her clay breathing life into her creation.

Then the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.

Here’s a poetic version of the creation story from Psalm 33.

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth . . .

He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle and put the deeps in storehouses. Godspoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

Quite a few of the psalmists retold the creation story with extravagant poetry. Listen to Psalm 104.

O Lord my God, you . . . are wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you make the clouds your chariot and ride on the wings of the wind . . .

How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all.

And then Wisdom herself speaks, telling her own creation story. Hear these words spoken from the mouth of Sophia/Wisdom in Proverbs 8.

When God established the heavens, I was there . . . when the skies above were made firm . . . and the sea was assigned its limit . . .

When God marked out the foundations of the earth, I was there, like a master worker; rejoicing always in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Then centuries later, when the New Testament theologians wanted to tell the story of Jesus, the one who had completely changed everything, they were challenged to re-read their Hebrew Scriptures and reconsider everything they had known before. The prologue to John’s gospel is bold as he now saw the Genesis creation story through the lens of the Christ. John dared to re-write his Holy Scriptures when he said:

In the beginning—was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The Word was in the beginning with God. And all things came into being through him; without him not one thing came into being.

John 1:1-3

And then the soaring poetry and high Christology of the writer of the letter to the Colossians:

Christ Jesus is the image of God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-17

Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer: One God, forever and ever. Amen.

Living in The Story

So this is a quick summary of Week 2 of Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace. 48 weeks to read the Bible by reading across the Bible.

When I developed Living in The Story, it was important to me to read the Bible in the Big Picture and to see how the Bible has been in conversation with itself over its many centuries. I want to understand how the Torah and the Prophets and the Wisdom writers explored and interpreted their own journeys of faith. How they asked the age-old questions: Who is God? Who are we?

And then I want to see how the New Testament theologians re-read their Holy Scriptures in light of their experience with Jesus, the one they understood to be the promised Christ of God. How did Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul re-think and re-imagine the ancient questions of their faith: What does this mean?

Read the Bible Through in 2022

A few weeks ago, a local pastor and I sat down for coffee and I was pleased to realize these questions are important to him as well. He invited me to come to his congregation to invite them to read the Bible through in 2022. Or maybe just read part of it. But it’s important for all of us Christians to read the Bible for ourselves because this is the book we claim as important—as guide and teacher, as comforter and confronter.

Living in The Story is one way to do that. The reading guide is the core piece of this project—a weekly plan that leads us across the sweep of the biblical story. The reading guide and several essays are available on the LivingInTheStory.com website, open to the public. The just released book Living in The Story offers all those resources expanded and edited into one convenient place.

But the main thing I want people to get from the Bible is The Story, The Cosmic Story of God’s Love and Grace to which the Bible bears witness.

Very Human Stories

I’m quite aware that many of the stories we find in Scripture are not stories of love and grace. There is plenty of violence and cruelty, greed, betrayal, and arrogance. But I think the very fact that these absolutely human stories are included in the church’s Holy Scriptures proves the point that this is not a magic book. Rather it’s a very human book written by humans for humans, a library of books that tell our human story honestly—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

That’s why the witness of love and grace is so remarkable. Within and beyond these limited human words, the church confesses that The Eternal Word is still speaking and Spirit is still inspiring and breathing life. We confess that God is still creating goodness and beauty and order out of every dark and ugly chaos. 

The Bible is not magic, but it is mystery. Much as the church confesses that Jesus the Christ is “truly human and truly divine,” so is the church’s book. Truly human words through which the truly divine Word still speaks. To us. Now.

Bold New World of Faith

I’m ever so grateful for this faith journey that has led me into a bold new world of faith where the journey keeps going “further in and higher up.”

I’m grateful for new eyes to see and new ears to hear with fresh insights the promise of Isaiah’s God: “I Am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43:19)

To hear Paul’s claim that: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2Cor. 5:17)

To hear the witness of the Revelation that the One seated on the throne is in the process of “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

This journey into newness, This Story of love and grace keeps unfolding before us and inviting us to come closer, go deeper, soar higher, and live larger.

Like Abraham, we’re invited to walk away from some of the things in our lives that seem settled and safe in order to journey into new awareness, new opportunities, new possibilities.

Like Jacob, we’re invited to wrestle with this God who calls us. To hold on with a stubborn, even stumbling faith in the God who changes us, re-names us, and re-claims us.

Like Mary, we’re invited to once again (and again and again) birth Christ into our own dark and desperate world. Even with our questions that echo Mary’s own questions: Who am I? How can this be? we, too, with Mary, are invited to risk everything and say “Yes. Let it be.”

God is Not Finished

The Story tells us that God is not finished. That Creator keeps creating love and grace in all sorts of unexpected places and unlikely people. The Story gives witness that the One True God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer will continue to form, reform, and transform everything until all God’s creation is brought together in a final conclusion of love and grace.

That’s the Big Story of the Bible I want to help others see and hear and understand. That’s The Story I want to live in.

Amen



A version of this sermon was preached at Calvary United Methodist Church in Paris TX on November 14, 2021.

Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace is available at Wipf and Stock publishers, Amazon, and Kindle.

Abraham

Living in The Story Readings for Week 4

Genesis 12-20

Psalm 23

Psalm 25

Romans 4-8

John 13-17

As You Read the Old Testament

As you read this week, you might consider the fact that Abraham was not a Jew. Is that a startling statement? The people known as “Jews” didn’t come into being until much later than the time of the Patriarchs. Abraham is highly honored within the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because all three monotheistic religions see him as one who shaped the foundational understanding of these faiths.

Continue reading “Abraham”

Sin

Living in The Story Readings for Week 3

Genesis 3-11

Psalm 5

Psalm 10

Psalm 53

Romans 1–3

John 9-12

Reading the Old Testament

As you read Genesis 3–11, notice how these stories seem to be set out of time. Next week when we start with Abraham and the patriarchs, we will see more geographies and genealogies and we’ll recognize that the telling of those stories is more history-like. But the opening chapters of Genesis tell us primeval mythological stories of origins.

“Mythological” is not a slur. Myth is one way to speak about things that are deeply true even if they are not factual or historical. Consider this description from Britannica:

Myth has existed in every society. Indeed, it would seem to be a basic constituent of human culture . . .

A people’s myths reflect, express, and explore the people’s self-image. The study of myth is thus of central importance in the study both of individual societies and of human culture as a whole.[1]

Myths are the stories we tell that help us understand where we come from and what is the meaning of our existence. All our human religions include this type of narrative as a way to point toward deep truth that is difficult to understand or explain.

Every religion is true one way or another; true, that is, when understood metaphorically. But when religion gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, we get into trouble. (American Christianity has its own special challenges when it comes to getting “stuck” in metaphor.) But when we allow ourselves to get unstuck, to break free from literal, concrete thinking, then we begin to discover truth that is wider, deeper, and higher than simple facts.

Continue reading “Sin”

Creation

Readings for Living in The Story Week 2

Genesis 1 and 2

Psalm 29

Psalm 33

Psalm 104

Psalm 148

Proverbs 8

John 1-8

Colossians

As You Read the Old Testament

As you read about creation this week, watch for the confession of faith that God is Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer of all-that-is. Listen for the confession both of Israel and Christianity that everything is “good.”

As you read Genesis 1 and 2, watch for differences in the two creation stories: for example, see how God’s name is different, the order of creation is different, and theology is different. Some students of the Bible are troubled by these seeming contradictions, but the stories are different by design and purpose. Scholars understand chapter one to have come from the historical tradition of Israel called “Priestly”—these passages refer to God as Elohim. Chapter two seems to come from another tradition we call “Yahwist” since these texts cite God’s name as Yahweh (Yhwh).[1] When we read the stories side by side, not as scientific reports but rather as theological reflections, then we recognize the beauty of the diverse poetic ways that Genesis describes how all the generations of creation were first generated. (Note the many word plays throughout both chapters. This is rich reading!)

During my earliest days of questioning who am I? as a woman believer who wants to take the Bible seriously, I spent months studying these two short chapters in Genesis. That deep dive completely changed my understanding of how men and women relate appropriately to one another in the home, in society, and in the church.

Continue reading “Creation”

We Begin with Faith

Readings for Living in The Story Week 1

Deuteronomy 6-8

Psalm 119

2 Timothy 3

John 5

As You Read in Overview

What is your basic understanding of where the Bible comes from and how it functions? How were you taught or what did you absorb as you were growing up? How have you changed your views over the years? What questions have shifted your thinking? Our first week of reading the Bible with Living in The Story begins by considering the nature of Scripture. Together we will ponder the question, “what kind of book is the Bible?” as we read this week.

A popular aphorism says: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” I absolutely believe this. We all interpret. We all interpret everything. There is no such thing as un-interpreted awareness. We all have some lens or another through which we see the world. We all have a framework with which we make meaning. This was as true of the biblical writers as it is true of us Bible readers.

The authors of these ancient texts began with faith. They started with a confidence that God was somehow in their story and as they collected and recollected the stories of their life together as God’s people, they sought to understand its meaning. The biblical writers are not, for the most part, apologists, arguing for their faith in a way that was designed to convince nonbelievers. Rather their writings were intended to confess and explore their faith within a community of faith.

Continue reading “We Begin with Faith”

Introduction to Living in The Story

I believe the one true loving God faithfully shepherds and sustains all-that-is from its good creation to its ultimate culmination in wholeness and shalom. The Story of this Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer God is written in stars and in DNA so that each of us—with our own individual stories—shares in that overarching story of love and grace. The Bible offers the witness of a particular people to that cosmic story. I believe that—within and beyond the ancient words of the Bible—the Eternal Word is still speaking.

Living in The Story provides a unique opportunity to read the Bible through fresh eyes. Each week, the reading guide leads us across the sweep of The Story of God’s faithfulness for God’s people across the ages. Each week, we will read from the Old Testament and from the Psalms alongside passages from the New Testament and the Gospels. These readings follow some of the great themes of the Bible.

Continue reading “Introduction to Living in The Story”

Psalm 89

I will sing of your steadfast love forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

Psalm 89 begins with praise and confidence but ends with lament and confusion.

Our poet lays a solid, irrefutable groundwork: This is what you said. This is what you did. The psalmist is counting on the character of Israel’s God to come through for them once again as they languish in exile in Babylon.

I will proclaim your faithfulness…

He uses this one word ‘faithfulness’ eight times throughout the psalm. Our poet stakes his own reputation on the trustworthiness of the Covenant God.

God’s mighty acts within creation help him make his case.

Who is as mighty as you, O Lord? Your faithfulness surrounds you.

You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.

You crushed [the chaos monster] Rahab like a carcass;

you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.

This is glorious cosmic poetry. And once again, the poet’s theme repeats:

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;

steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

This is who You are, the poet-theologian reminds the Creator. This is what You do!

Continue reading “Psalm 89”

Amy-Jill Levine on “the Jewish Jesus”


Elizabeth Palmer interviews Amy-Jill Levine March 13, 2019

Amy-Jill Levine. Photo © Daniel DuBois / Vanderbilt University.

Amy-Jill Levine, who teaches New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt, is the author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and coeditor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament. She has also written (with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso) several children’s books, including Who Counts? 100 Sheep, 10 Coins, and 2 Sons.

Dr. Levine is a member of an Orthodox synagogue and speaks frequently in Christian congregations. Her most recent book is Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week, designed for use in group discussions.

How did you as a Jewish scholar come to focus on the New Testament? What is it about Jesus that drew you in?

I think Jesus is fascinating. Plus he’s Jewish, so he’s one of ours. The more I read not only the words attributed to him but also the stories told about him, the more intriguing I find the material.

I also have very much worried about the anti-Jewish views that frequently surface in studies about Jesus. A number of Christian commentators feel the need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. Instead of portraying Jesus as a Jew talking to other Jews, he becomes in their views the first Christian, the one who invented divine grace, mercy, and love, and all that other good stuff. Such views neglect the presence of these same virtues within Jesus’ own Jewish context…

Continue Reading Knowing and preaching the Jewish Jesushere at Christian Century

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Creation Stories

Few texts have had a deeper influence on Western civilisation than the first chapter of Genesis, with its momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Set against the grandeur of the narrative, what stands out is the smallness yet uniqueness of humans, vulnerable but also undeniably set apart from all other beings.

The words of the Psalmist echo the wonder and humility that the primordial couple must have felt as they beheld the splendour of creation:

“When I consider your heavens,

The work of your fingers,

The moon and the stars,

Which you have set in place.

What is humanity that you are mindful of it,

The children of mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them little lower than the angels

And crowned them with glory and honour.”

(Psalm 8:3-5)

The honour and glory that crowns the human race is possession of the earth, which is granted as the culmination of God’s creative work: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” This notion is fortified in Psalm 115: “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth God has given to humanity.” While the creation narrative clearly establishes God as Master of the Universe, it is the human being who is appointed master of the earth.

Grappling with the challenging notion of humans as divinely-ordained owners and subduers of the earth, we come face to face with the fundamental questions of our place in the universe and our responsibility for it. A literal interpretation suggests a world in which people cut down forests, slaughter animals, and dump waste into the seas at their leisure, much like we see in our world today.

On the other hand, as Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, writes, any intelligent person should know that Genesis 1:28, “does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfil his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart.” Could God have really created such a complex and magnificent world solely for the caprice of humans?

Genesis chapter 1 is only one side of the complex biblical equation. It is balanced by the narrative of Genesis chapter 2, which features a second Creation narrative that focuses on humans and their place in the Garden of Eden. The first person is set in the Garden “to work it and take care of it.”

The two Hebrew verbs used here are significant. The first – le’ovdah – literally means “to serve it.” The human being is thus both master and servant of nature. The second – leshomrah – means “to guard it.” This is the verb used in later biblical legislation to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that belongs to someone else. This guardian must exercise vigilance while protecting, and is personally liable for losses that occur through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of humanity’s responsibility for nature as the Bible conceives it.

We do not own nature – “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1) We are its stewards on behalf of God, who created and owns everything. As guardians of the earth, we are duty-bound to respect its integrity….

Finish reading Rabbi Sacks’ essay here at his website …

An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.

Charlotte and Janie talk about Sin

Janie and Charlotte grew up in the same Southern Fundamentalist denomination and were best friends in college. Now – after years of growing in some different directions – they are back in touch sharing blogs about how they see faith, politics and culture. Here are some brief interchanges as they engage Charlotte’s Living in The Story project.

Janie’s response to Charlotte’s blog on sin:

So much of what you say here rings true, Charlotte.  I totally agree that sin causes all kinds of natural consequences and we have only ourselves to blame for it.

Still . . .

It seems to me that what you’re describing here–broken relationships, separation from God and each other, self-bending–are symptoms, not causes. The original sin was not choosing to break the relationship, but choosing to exalt ourselves over God by the simple act of not believing him.

Where does temptation fit in all this? (You may have discussed the temptation aspect elsewhere.) We don’t have to agree on whether Adam and Eve were historical characters to understand the meaning of the serpent’s snare: “Did God really say that? Are you sure he has your best interest at heart? Don’t you understand that his real intention is to keep you dependent and inferior?”

The heart of sin is rebellion against God’s righteous authority–not acknowledging him as God, as Paul says in Romans 1. In the divine scheme of things, that’s not just tragic choice (though it is that too, of course)–it’s a crime. All sin is in some form rebellion against God, as David admitted in Psalm 51: “Against you, and you only, have I sinned.”

As you said, there are all kinds of natural consequences, but judgment is not one of them. The consequence of sin is not just a question of what we do, but of Who he is. “God as Judge sees and names what is real” (quoting Charlotte). That’s what God as Prophet does. God as Judge names the crime and pronounces a penalty–that’s what a judge does. Otherwise the word means nothing. The import of the flood story (which, again, we don’t have to accept as literally true in order to assess its meaning) is not only that God has a right to judge, but that he is right to judge.

We humans do bear responsibility for this: by deciding to reject him as Lord, we made him our Judge. To be true to his own righteousness, he has to judge, and someone has to pay. That’s where blood atonement comes in; otherwise it makes no sense at all.

Charlotte’s response back to Janie:

We don’t really disagree, Janie. Or at least not very deeply, I think.

“The original sin was not choosing to break the relationship, but choosing to exalt ourselves over God by the simple act of not believing him…” (Charlotte quoting Janie). I would say the Bible calls this idolatry, listed at the top of the Top Ten List of the 10 Commandments. I still think Augustine’s definition fits here as description, not just consequence. “incurvatus in se” – the self curved in upon itself. (Do you remember C.S. Lewis used the concept of “bentness” in his Perelandra series?)

No, I don’t talk much about temptation here. Happy to do that with you though.

Yes, Scripture speaks of sin as “crime.” That is one way to think about it. Barbara Brown Taylor also points out the biblical understanding of sin as “sickness.” Depending on which one we humans emphasize determines our understanding of appropriate “treatment.” Sin as crime demands judgment/penalty/punishment. Sin as sickness needs diagnosis/compassion/healing. Both are valid metaphors and both are present in Scripture. (I think you would really enjoy Brown’s book.)

I think we differ slightly in our understanding of God as Judge. I would say, within the created world the Just God has put into motion natural consequences for our sin that is indeed a kind of judgment. I would say it is God’s judgment that comes to us in the consequences. The brokenness, the bentness, the curving away from God, the rebellion, the self-centeredness all produce results in our lives (and in the lives of others) that have the power to challenge and entice us back to proper alignment. I still call that process the judgment and justice of God. That does not negate a belief in judgment as an external indictment by the Divine Judge. I just don’t see that operating in our world as it currently functions. Who knows what The End will look like? I leave that in God’s hands.

“To be true to his own righteousness, he has to judge, and someone has to pay. That’s where blood atonement comes in; otherwise it makes no sense at all.” (Janie’s words) This is important. The way you speak of atonement is ONE way of understanding what happened/happens through the cross. I refer you to Father Richard Rohr’s brief reflection on blood atonement. This could spark more interesting conversation.

At-One-Ment
https://cac.org/at-one-ment-not-atonement-2018-01-21/

Thanks for this. I always enjoy these talks of ours. Love…

 

See their first conversation on the Nature of Scripture here.

See Janie Cheaney’s Bible Challenge project here.

See more of their conversations here at Charlotte’s Intersections: Faith Culture Politics website.