Children’s Time: Beachcombing
SERMON: The Big Story (Psalm 136; Acts 13:15-33) – Jeff White
One week ago, at this moment, Sharon and I worshipped with another church in our area. They met indoors, inside their building, like we do. Here, we use only one in three pews, in order to be physically distanced. The church we visited used every second pew. I guess two metres is shorter in their building. It was made clear to us we must sit in a pew without a cushion on it. Here, we leave the cushions on the only seats to be sat upon. Also, we entered wearing masks, but were told we could take them off once we sat down in a pew. Here, unless we are the one person speaking, or singing, we keep them on.
It is clear that local groups of Christians are understanding the provincial guidelines for this state of emergency differently – sometimes with the fair opposite interpretation!
Christians following the Bible can be like local Churches following pandemic recommendations. One church says ‘drink no alcohol, ever,’ another actually serves alcohol, at least at their communion service. One church baptizes with water only people grown up enough to agree to follow Jesus, another gives baptism to infants before they can speak one word. One church puts women in leadership at every level, just like men; another church allows only men to lead and preach; and another allows only single, celebate men to be in those roles.
And we all claim to be following God and the Holy Bible. So, surely, all we, believers, have got some things wrong, and only God’s got it all right.
Thus, we keep meeting, keep studying, keep praying, to know better. To know how to do this better. To know God better personally. We keep reading scripture, and work on it together; we never stop.
I have been convinced, for years, that one key to knowing the Bible is to see the Big Picture. Get to know the big story – the ‘metanarrative’ – and then see how the smaller parts fit within it: the books, the chapters, the verses.
My Old Testament professor, Dr. Timm Ashley, would tell us: ‘The three most important things for understanding a Biblical text are these: 1. the context. 2. the context. 3. the context!
The context is the big picture. You read one Bible verse and ask, ‘who said this, who wrote it? When? And why? What happened before and after? Where does this fit in the whole scheme of things?’ There is a ‘whole scheme of things’ here.
One verse or story, even a whole chapter, can be misused when quoted. Remember what Satan does with a scripture verse when tempting Jesus in the wilderness? He suggests the wrong thing to do – using the Bible. Jesus knows the whole thing, the big pic.
There are times, in the scripture story, when the big picture gets summarized, and remembered, and celebrated. Such as in the historical Psalms: 78; 105, 106 & 107; 114; 135 & 136, which we recited today. We see summaries in the preaching of the New Testament apostles. As in what Paul said in Pisidian Antioch, that Heather read today. In this case, Paul is preaching about Jesus, and uses the whole story of the Hebrews and their God to lead to Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah.
What a preacher like Paul gives is a summary; he selects certain things from the whole story to mention. Of course, what’s recorded here in Acts 13 of Paul’s sermon is but a short synopsis; surely his actual sermon that day was more than three minutes long!
The story is told of a special Church meeting and dinner that was being held, and near the end of the meeting, the pastor stood up to offer a few closing remarks, which became quite long-winded. As he rambled on, he lost his place in his notes for the third time. “Now where was I?” he asked, scratching his beard. To the delight of the audience, one person spoke up and said, “In conclusion!”
When you see the bigger picture, and understand the context of a piece of the Bible you are reading, you can know how the idea you see fits into the whole thing. You can discover if it is part of one of the big themes, the main ideas. Or, if it is a smaller point to ponder. A minority report. A dissenting voice among the majority. All these things are here in these pages.
For instance, it can be easy, and comforting, to quote verses that speak of how protected and safe we shall be. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I will not lack anything.’ Yet there is a right time and a wrong time for such words.
Just look at that scene from Matthew 4 of Jesus tempted in the wilderness. At one point, Satan quotes Psalm 91:11. ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.’ Now, there is nothing wrong with Psalm 91. Peter and I have even sung a version of it as a duet. But, that moment, in a Palestenian wilderness, Jesus rejects what Satan is suggesting, using Psalm 91. Jesus answers with another verse, this one from Deuteronomy 6. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ How a Bible verse gets used matters.
We see how so many Christians can end up disagreeing with one another about so many things. Using the Bible. But we do not give up! We must not give up on using the scriptures to hear from God. Just because it can become confusing, or upsetting, or mysterious, or challenging, the Holy Bible is still holy and still powerful for us. The work we put into it is worth it. It is a life-long conversation we have with our Master in this amazing text. There is always more to talk about – to pray – in the Spirit.
So, in my preaching plans for the next eight or ten months I intend to use something called the narrative lectionary. Each Sunday, we follow the flow of the whole story in the Bible. We will start with Creation, and by December we will get to the promises of a Messiah. After Christmas, we will follow the story of Jesus, and of the apostles taking the Church to the world. I hope and pray this will give us a good perspective on holy scripture, refresh our sense of holy history, and ‘the big picture.’
And many times we will end up as Paul did in Pisidian Antioch. With Christ: crucified, buried, risen, and visible! Paul concludes his message saying:
Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this [Jesus] everyone who believes is set free from all [those sins] from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (A13:38-39)
On the bulletin cover today we have a copy of a Victorian painting that is framed, in black and white, in our Parlour: ‘The Soul’s Awakening,’ by James Sant. The portrait in the Parlour was donated by the family of Marie Woolaver, I believe, years ago. The girl in the picture is, apparently, awakening to faith in Jesus, with a small Bible in her hands. The Big Story of holy scripture, and many Bible moments of which we read in the verses, can still have a deep influence upon the human soul.
We now gather at the Lord’s Table for communion – for fellowship – with Jesus. Here we tell, with bread and juice, the story of Christ. For us Christians, His story puts the Big Picture of the Bible in perspective.
PRAYERS: Omniscient God: seeing and knowing all – we quiet ourselves under Your gaze, in the light of Your countenance. We have praised You for the great story of Faith You have shared with us, and now we focus upon the centre of the story, the Saviour, Jesus, and His saving actions.
As we look toward the table of our Lord, we pray from here for ourselves and the whole world. We ask for those who are not asking. We seek You for those who are not even seeking. We hope and have faith for the sake of many who are without hope or confidence in Christ.
Life is changing, God. It always does. For some life has gotten harder: there have been losses, hurts, troubles, fears. Be the strength of the weak, the wisdom of the confused, the way for the lost. In this ‘state of emergency’ getting sick is harder, for the help and the treatments are more arduous. Have mercy.
Spirit – working in our midst – on this Labour Day weekend we pray for all who work, especially those whose work has become more challenging this year. Today we pray in particular for teachers and workers in schools and colleges, and for all the students – those in classrooms and those at home. From day to day, may You remind us that education is not easy for anyone right now. So make us into encouragers and supporters, not critics and fearmongers.
God: Perfect Parent of all peoples: the civil unrest, the calls for justice, the acting out in anger over evil continues from day to day. To You, all lives matter. May we be like You, and see all others through the eyes of Christ. We Protestant Christians are rooted in protests of the past. May we be guided to stand up for others, stand up for what is right and better, and stand up with peacefulness and power in the Spirit.
O God, how long! How long shall pestilence, & ignorance, and violence, and greed, and disasters crash in upon the world? Oh draw us closer to You, and to one another, for the sake of the beauty You want on this planet. And help us pray. Our Father… AMEN.