Text: (attempt at a summary of the whole Biblical story)
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God spoke and the world came into being: land and sky, plants and animals, rivers and oceans, stars and sand. And it was good. It was all good. And then, God made humanity. “Let us make them in our image,” God said. Male and female, God created them. And God said, “It is very good.”
God gave the man and woman a beautiful garden in which to live. A garden with everything that they need. They are to till and keep the garden – to use it for food, for shelter, and to be stewards of the garden. They may eat from any of the trees in the garden but one: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
But the serpent told the woman that if they ate from that tree, they would be like God. And so, they did. Their eyes were opened, but paradise was lost. They could no longer live in that garden, and after that, life was a struggle.
Things did not get better with time. As humanity spread and grew, so did the brokenness. Finally God spoke to Noah, told him to build an ark and bring along animals, two of every kind. And Noah did. Noah and his family got on the ark and the rain began. For forty days and forty nights it rained. The earth was flooded; mountains were covered. Finally Noah sent out a dove, and it returned with an olive branch. There was land.
And there was a rainbow. A promise. A promise for life. And God follows this up with another promise - a promise to Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees. God called Abraham and his wife Sarai to go to a new place which God would show them. “I will make of you a great nation,” God said. “I will bless you and all the world will be blessed because of you. Your descendants will be like the stars in the sky.”
Years later, when Sarah was long past child-bearing age, God told Abraham that Sarah would have a son. Overhearing this, Sarah laughed. Yet it came to be, and the boy was named Isaac, which means “Laughter.”
Isaac was the heir to God’s continued promise. Isaac and his wife Rebecca had twins - Jacob and Esau, quarreling from birth. Jacob, the younger, was favored and chosen, crafty and calculating. Esau was not.
Jacob grows up, he bears the fruit of his deception, he dreams of a great stairway to heaven, and God makes a covenant with him – the same promise made to his father and grandfather. But Jacob struggled, wrestled with God. Asking, “Who are you?” He is not given a name, but is renamed himself. “You are Israel, for you have struggled with God.” Israel left with a limp, but the nation would bear his name.
Israel had twelve sons – the fathers of twelve tribes. Joseph, the favorite of the twelve, had a prized gift from his father: a coat of many colors. His brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Thinking Joseph dead, Israel’s heart was broken.
In Egypt, Joseph fared incredibly well. He rose up the ranks because of his ability to interpret dreams and became second in command, in charge of all the grain in the country in a time of impending famine. The other brothers came to Egypt in search of food. Joseph, able to grant life or death, provided for them, forgave them, and the family was reunited. Israel’s family was given choice land and settled in Egypt in the land of Goshen.
But in time, the Pharaohs forgot this history. The Israelites became very numerous, were seen as a threat and put into slavery. Pharaoh ordered that Israelite infants be killed. The people cried out to God. But God had not forgotten them or the promise.
Moses was born and to save his life, his mother put him in a basket in the bulrushes, where Pharaoh’s own daughter found him and raised him in Pharaoh’s palace. Years later, a burning bush spoke to Moses, telling him to take off his shoes because he is standing on Holy Ground. A voice from the bush said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” But Moses wants to know God’s name. The reply is simply, “I am who I am.” God tells Moses to go and tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Moses resisted God’s call but God said, “Tell Pharaoh I AM sent you.” And Moses went.
Pharaoh was not amenable to this request, of course, and so God sent plagues - blood, frogs, locusts and more - and then, the Passover. Pharaoh finally relented. Yet Pharaoh’s army gave chase when the Israelites left, so God parted the waters of the Red Sea and the Israelites walked right through. They were free from slavery but they complained about life in the wilderness. God sent manna to sustain them.
Moses climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai where God gave him the Law, the Ten Commandments, ways of life for God’s people. “I brought you out slavery in the land of Egypt, therefore, live as my people.” But by the time Moses descended the mountain, the people had already made a golden calf to worship.
The people wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Moses did not reach the Promised Land himself, but led by Joshua, the people crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. The tribes were ruled by judges, leaders like Gideon and Samson and Deborah and Samuel, but in time, the people wanted a king, like the other nations. So God gave them kings, but even in the Golden Age of Israel, with Kings Saul and David and Solomon, the Israelites turned from God. Factions developed, the kingdom was split, the people followed other gods. There were corrupt kings and conquering armies.
The psalmists wrote of their feeling of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They wrote of waiting: “How long, O Lord?” They wrote of trust: “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” They wrote of safety: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” They offered praise: “O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” And they wrote of God’s care for humanity: “When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? The son of man, that thou visitest him?”
There were writings that gave people direction. In Proverbs we read, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
The prophets called the people to faithfulness. Amos said, “Let justice roll like water, sand righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Micah said to the people, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Habakkuk told the people, “The just shall live by faith.”
Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, and despite all of the pyrotechnics, he encounters God not in earthquakes or winds or fire, but in a still small voice. He was taken away to heaven in a chariot of fire.
There were those who even in captivity remained faithful to God. Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den for refusing to worship any God but the God of Israel, but God closed the mouths of the lions and protected Daniel, just as God protected Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego when they were thrown in the fiery furnace.
In time the Jews who were taken into captivity in Babylon returned. The governor Nehemiah and the priest Ezra oversaw the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.
And the prophets continued to speak. Isaiah prophesied, “For a child has been born for us, a son is given to us… and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Jeremiah said, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
And God did make a new covenant. An angel from God appeared to a woman named Mary. The angel said, “Greetings, favored One! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. You shall bear a son, and his name shall be Jesus. The child to be born to you will be great and will be called Son of God.” And Mary said, “I am the servant of the Lord.”
She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. John wrote, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John the Baptist paved the way for Jesus. When he baptized Jesus in the river, the heavens were torn open, a dove descended, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus ushered in God’s Kingdom. His message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." He preached: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” He spoke in parables: The kingdom is like a mustard seed – the tiniest of seeds that yet grows into something great. The kingdom is like a prodigal son who leaves home, squanders his inheritance, and yet is welcomed home by a loving and forgiving father.
Jesus said we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, and when somebody asked, “Who is our neighbor?” he told the story of a man beaten on the side of the road. A hated Samaritan, whom we now call the Good Samaritan, was the one to help – he was a neighbor to the man in need.
Jesus traveled from town to town. The blind could see, the lame could walk, the lepers were healed. He fed multitudes with a boy’s lunch and turned water into wine at a wedding. He scandalized the establishment by associating with known sinners. He included women in his circle of friends and supporters. And when his friend Lazarus died, he wept.
Through it all, Jesus pointed us to God. He showed us how to live. This was God’s will, God’s way, God’s Kingdom. But not everyone approved. Some saw Jesus as a threat. There was a plot. A betrayal. A payoff: thirty pieces of silver. But on that night that he was betrayed, Jesus shared a meal, the Passover meal, a meal to remember God’s faithfulness. He gave his disciples a command to share this meal in remembrance of him.
Before long, he was before the authorities - soldiers mocking, crowds jeering. There was a crown of thorns. Nails through his hands. A cross on a hill called Golgotha, or Calvary. Nearly all of his followers abandoned him. Peter denied him. Jesus cried out, “It is finished.” And he was laid in a tomb.
But on the third day, women were going to the tomb when they found the stone rolled away. An angel said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is nor here, but he has risen.” God acted and brought forth life from death, hope from despair, joy from mourning. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers on several occasions and then ascended to heaven.
Not long after, on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were gathered together when there was a mighty rush of wind, and the Spirit descended like tongues of fire. God’s Spirit was present, giving them faith and courage and a call to share the Good News with all nations. And they did.
A man named Saul, a persecutor of this new movement, was traveling to Damascus when he was blinded by a light and a voice came from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was converted and became Paul, the great apostle. Paul was ministering among the Gentiles and a dispute arose over whether Gentiles must follow Jewish law in order to be followers of Jesus. A council was held in Jerusalem and it was decided that the gospel should be available to all people. The church grew throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean world. Paul and Barnabas and Silas went on missionary journeys. Paul and others wrote letters, sometimes even from jail cells, sharing what God had done, imploring believers to live as faithful followers of Christ.
The cross and the empty tomb changed everything. We now see that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. God’s new covenant is that we are justified by grace as a gift, completely apart from anything we have done. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
According to the promise made back in the first chapters of Genesis. Through this great story, we are drawn to have faith in God’s promises. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And we know that God is faithful; by him we were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
One day, God’s kingdom will be fulfilled. The Lamb will be seated on the Throne. God will make all things new. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, and every tear will be wiped away. There will be a New Jerusalem, with the river of life flowing from the throne of God. And in the middle of the city will be a tree: not the old tree at the center of the Garden, but the Tree of Life – whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. And all who want to drink of the waters of the River of Life are welcome: “let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
The final book of the Bible ends, “Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”
(Thanks to Rev. Jason Lee for the idea for this sermon. In writing this sermon, I drew from Jason's sermon and also asked members of our church to share favorite Bible verses or stories, which I wove into the narrative.)