Acts 3 & 4: Israel and Jesus (‘Starting at the Beginning’ Part 4)

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We’ve been looking at the  story of God’s involvement with us as being like a play in six acts. We looked at the first ‘Act’, the creation of all that exists, and the second ‘Act’, in which the human characters rebel against the Author of the Story. Today we go on to Acts 3 and 4.

Act 3: Israel
I began to learn to play the guitar by myself with the help of an instructional book. This book taught me some basic chords and techniques, but my progress was slow and difficult. This changed, however, after I met some more experienced guitarists and was able to watch and listen to them. They were my models, and by imitating them I was able to make much better progress.

God wants a group of people who will learn a different way of living and will model it for the world around them, so that everyone can see that God’s will is good. God wants a countercultural community. And so, as Act 3 begins, God chooses one elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, calling them to leave their family and go to a new land. They are told that God is going to bless them and make their name great, and that through them God is going to bless all the families on the face of the earth (see Genesis 12:1-3). Although they are too old to have children, God gives them a miracle child, Isaac. Isaac becomes the father of Jacob, and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the ancestors of the famous ‘twelve tribes of Israel’.

The story goes on to tell us how, many years later, God led those tribes out of slavery in Egypt back into their own land of Israel. Through all the hundreds of years that followed, God was patiently teaching them. Here are some of the lessons they learned:

  1. Their God was the one and only God, and the idols of the nations around them were false gods.
  2. Their God was the Creator of everything; therefore all of creation belonged to God.
  3. Their God was holy and good. Consequently God wanted them to live lives of goodness and holiness as well, and gave them commandments to show them the kind of life they needed to live in order to be a blessing to the world.

Over the hundreds of years of their story, these people were often unfaithful and disobedient to God. God was patient with them, welcoming them back whenever they turned from their disobedience.

Act 4: Jesus
In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken mentions how, although every author starts writing a book with some kind of plan in mind for the plot, it often happens that the characters run away with the plot and start behaving in ways the author did not intend at the beginning. This, says Vanauken, is what happened to God’s world. He goes on to say that perhaps there was only one way for the Divine author to bring the story back to its original purpose. That way was for God to enter the story as a character and actually meet the other characters on their own level, talk with them, and invite them back to the original plan.

Incredible though it may sound, that is exactly what God did. In Act 4 God stepped onto the stage, as one of the characters in the story of Earth, Jesus of Nazareth. You can be sure that if the Creator of the universe has actually visited this planet in Jesus, then the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has to be the most important story ever told in human history.

That story was recorded for us in the biblical documents we call the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They tell of how Jesus was born in unusual circumstances in Bethlehem, and grew up in Nazareth near the Lake of Galilee. At the age of thirty he left his home and began a travelling ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. The basic them of his teaching was “The kingdom of God is at hand!” which meant that the time had come when God’s kingly rule was going to be extended over this broken and spoiled world. God was going to defeat evil and restore creation to its original purpose. Jesus believed that this was happening through his ministry.

Early in his ministry Jesus began to gather apprentices who could carry on his work; traditionally, we have called them ‘disciples’ or ‘apostles’. A lot of the material in the gospel accounts comes from them. In those days Jewish rabbis taught their disciples by making them memorize their teaching, and we have no reason to believe that Jesus was any different. Gradually as these apprentices progressed in their training, Jesus sent them out on teaching and healing missions of their own.

But Jesus also aroused considerable opposition from the religious establishment, and this led to the strangest part of the whole story. It sounds like a defeat, but the New Testament tells us that it is in fact a victory. We are told that toward the end of his ministry (we don’t know exactly how long this lasted, but it seems likely that it was about three years) Jesus was arrested by the authorities in Jerusalem, given a mock trial before the ruling council of Israel, and then handed over to the Romans, who executed him by crucifixion. This presented a problem for his followers. They had believed him to be the ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek), ‘the anointed One’, the King sent by God to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. But would God have allowed the Messiah to be arrested and executed? That was not in the script they had read in the old prophecies!

However, on the third day strange things began to happen. Some of the women went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Followers of Jesus began to see him alive again. He met with them over the next six weeks and taught them the true significance of what had happened. Gradually, as they looked back and reflected on all of this, they came to understand that, through his death and resurrection, Jesus had somehow healed the great breach between God and humanity, which was opened up when the first human beings rebelled against God. The story goes on to tell us how, before he ascended into heaven, Jesus sent out his first apprentices to tell the story to others and invite them to be a part of it as well. And so the church was born.

In the next instalment, we are going to skip Act 5 for a moment, look at Act 6, and then reflect on what we have learned so far about God and his story.

Act 2: Rebellion (Starting at the Beginning 3)

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In the previous section we introduced the idea of the story of God’s involvement with us as like a play in six acts. We also looked at the first ‘Act’, the creation of all that exists. Now we go on to Act 2: ‘Rebellion’.

God decided to give human beings the terrifying gift of free will. We can understand why God would do that. If we created an android and programmed it with a microchip requiring it to love us, that might be an enjoyable experience for us for a while, but eventually it would come to seem hollow, because we would know that our android had no choice in the matter. In the same way, if God had simply created human beings with no choice about whether or not they would love God, their love would not be real, because real love requires freedom of choice.

In Genesis chapter 3 we read about how the first human beings we tempted by a snake – an obvious symbol for the forces of evil – to step outside God’s will for them and choose their own road instead. They were told that if they did this, “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, all quotes from NIV 2011). They gave way to this temptation, and as a result, sin and brokenness entered their lives.

Not only was their relationship of trust and love with God broken, but also their relationships with each other and with the world around them were disrupted. They were evicted from their beautiful garden home, a symbolic way of saying that paradise was lost to them as a result of their choice to rebel against God. Their sin had an effect on the natural world around them as well; God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Genesis 3:17-18).

This story teaches that the world as we see it now is not the world as God intended it to be. It has been infected with evil. This evil is not just a force external to us as human beings. Jesus told us that it is in us as well, in our ‘hearts’. He said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, from a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).

A good way of summing up what we have learned from Acts 1 and 2 is a scene from the old Robin Williams movie Good Morning Vietnam. In this scene Louis Armstrong is singing his song ‘What a Wonderful World’. It paints a lovely picture of green trees and red roses, blue skies with white clouds, and friends shaking hands. But as Rico Tice points out in Christianity Explored, the song says one thing but the pictures in the movie say another. They are pictures of war in Vietnam. As we are told that the roses ‘bloom for me and you’, we see a child in the foreground and a bomb going off in the background. As we hear the words, ‘the colours of the rainbow so pretty in the sky’, we see protesters being beaten up and a young man being shot. And, most poignant of all, the chorus, “‘I say to myself, what a wonderful world’ is accompanied by images of the bloodied sandal of a little child.

This is the world as we see it today. It is a place that was made by a good and loving God, and it still contains many signs of God’s goodness and love. Yet we know that it is also infested with evil and sin. Evil has infected God’s good creation and spoiled God’s beautiful plan for the world. Instead of binding the world together, the loudest voices are often those of self-centredness and anger.

But God has not given up on creation. God intends to delve fit from its captivity to evil. And so, stay tuned for Act 3…

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Act 1: Creation (Starting at the Beginning 2)

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In the last section I talked about how we all need a story to live by, and how the story of God and God’s dealings with creation turns out to be something like a play with six acts. In this section I’ll think about the first act: Creation.

In this act, God creates the universe and everything in it, including this planet on which we live. Of course, we now have a much bigger view of what this act of creation entailed than did the author of Genesis when he wrote, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1, NIV 2011). We know about the untold millions of years during which God was slowly shaping the evolution of life on this planet, preparing it for the arrival of humankind.

But the author of Genesis knew a thing or two as well. He knew that God had created human beings ‘in his own image’, as he says in Genesis 1:27. Obviously this was not meant to suggest that we look like God physically. But in a number of important ways we do resemble God. We are creators. We have a sense of right and wrong. We can make free choices rather than being slaves of our instincts. And we have been placed on this planet as God’s representatives, to care for God’s creation and protect it from harm. This is the meaning behind the symbolic language in Genesis 2:15 where we read, ‘The Lord GOD took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’ (NIV 2011).

In the beginning, the original human beings fulfilled their role as God intended. The story tells us that they lived in perfect harmony with each other with the universe, and with the God who had made them: ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31 NIV 2011).

Next up: Act 2: Rebellion.

Starting at the Beginning 1: Finding a Story to Live By

Cartoons can tell you a lot about the way people look at the world, including how they feel about God. A friend of mine once had a cartoon in his office with a picture of God sitting at a computer. On the monitor was an image of a man about to walk under a ladder; on the ladder a couple of other men were trying to get a piano through an upstairs window. As the man approached the ladder, God’s finger was hovering over a button on the keyboard marked ‘Smite!’

I also remember the BC comic strip by Johnny Hart, in which one of the characters looks up to heaven and cries out, “O God, send me a sign!” In the next frame a lightning bolt comes down from heaven and strikes him with an enormous “ZOT!” In the final frame, the charred and blackened figure looks out from the cartoon strip and comments, “God’s got electric signs!”

We should not assume that when different people use the word ‘god’ they are all talking about the same thing. A university chaplain told how students would often come into his office and loudly proclaim that they didn’t believe in God. His response was invariably, “Tell me which god you don’t believe in; I probably don’t believe in that god either”.

Over the next few weeks I want to say some things about the god Christians believe in. Yes, there’s only one god (that is one of the beliefs Christians have about God), so technically all monotheists (those who believe there is only one god) believe in the same god. But we don’t all believe the same things about our god, and it’s naive to say that this is unimportant. For instance, I think it makes a huge difference whether you believe that your god is pleased with you when you commit mass murder in his name, or whether you believe that he wants you to love your enemies and pray for those who hate you. So if we believe in God, it matters what we think God is like. In fact, it will change the way we live our lives.

Christians, like their Jewish ancestors in the faith, have always answered questions about their god by telling a story. If you had asked an Israelite in the 8th century B.C., “Which god do you believe in?” the response would probably have been something like, “The god who brought us out of Egypt (and by the way, he told us his name is Yahweh)”. And if you had asked a Christian in the first century AD the same question, the response might well have been, “The god who raised Jesus from the dead”. Both answers, you see, tell stories about what God has done. Christianity, like Judaism, is a narrative faith.

The stories these people used to answer the question not only told them about their god; they also told them about themselves, and their place in the world. Sooner or later, all of us look for a story that tells us how we fit in. We want a story that will help us find answers to questions like, “Why am I here?” “What am I supposed to be doing with my life?” “How do I know what is right and what is wrong?” and “How is it all going to end?” I have heard these questions described as “God-shaped questions”, because Christians believe there is absolutely no way of answering them adequately without including God in our answer. The story that helps us find answers to these questions turns out to be the story of God and God’s dealings with creation. This story, in its Christian version, turns out to be something like a play with six acts…

Next Up: Act 1: Creation