A New Story About Ourselves (1)
the story begins with a God of abundance, who, having formed the people in his image, continues to look upon them only with love, providing for their needs, healing their wounds, forgiving their transgressions and keeping faith with them no matter what the Journey requires. So every member of the company can feel secure, because they know they are loved and they know they belong as God’s beloved. Their personal experience fits into a larger narrative of grace and faith; it gives them purpose and potential; they have room to develop, mature and grow.
Further, the story is rich, exciting, many-layered and varied, encompassing all human life, emotion and aspiration. It contains heroes and heroines, monsters and marvels, and positively pleads for those with energy and ambition to dream dreams, search for treasure, seek adventure and take up a quest. The story is full of people who are called by God to go out into the Wild, or who are helped by God to overcome adversity, or who are challenged by God to work through their fears. And each of these tales contains an example and a promise: live like this, and the God of abundance will be with you.
And finally, the story contains much practical advice: strategies that change situations, tools that are effective, techniques that work. Narrative uses words to encapsulate movement. Stories do more than describe a dynamic, they contain and direct it.
The gift of God to which Jesus had to work out how he was going to respond.
Firstly, it was a Gift of acknowledgement, time, attention. Spent time with him. Space reserved in God’s heart for Jesus. He was God’s beloved (Henri Nouwen). Wonderful assurance. Yeshi Dhonden. Jesus receiving the children onto his lap. A loving acceptance. A loving welcome. God the Gardener - time and attention - seeds that grow. Grow into plants that can mature, flower, bear seed.
Secondly, it was a Gift of affirmation - pleased with you. Wonderful encouragement. You are doing well. Pleased with the way you are doing things. Pleased with your passions, your plans, your hopes and dreams. You are doing well. You are handling things well. Keep on doing the good stuff the way you are doing it. I believe in you. I have faith in you. This is a deeper, more persistent kind of love. Love at depth. Enduring love. Love that keeps going lovingly. Love plus commitment to loving. God the Gardener says he has faith in us, we become hardy plants that can stay out in all weathers.
Thirdly, the effect of both of these, it was a Gift of power. Energy. Commitment. Joy. Enthusiasm. Faith, hope and love. Energy. Because when we are given time and attention, we flourish, and grow, and when we are affirmed, we are energised. If someone invests time and energy in us, then it fosters our development and our growth. If someone says, explicitly, that they have faith in us, then we are given the energy to endure.
This was the gift of the Spirit that Jesus received. But what was he to do with it? How was he to respond to it? Could he really use his own understanding of God’s word as the basis for a whole lifestyle, a whole way of doing things, a whole ministry?
Jesus did not just want to receive this gift for himself, he wanted to share it. To share it so that others were able to receive it. Wanted this to be the foundation of the rest of his life. But how could he do this? How to share it? What should he do? But even more important, what sort of person should he be?
What about his own needs? His need to make a living. His need for relationships, love and affection. Was he being called into leadership - or was that arrogance on his part - and if he was being called what sort of leader should he be? What did he want to achieve? What sort of power should he work with? Where would it come from? Where might it take him? What would it cost?
This is why it was the same Spirit - the one he had received at his baptism - that led him out into the wilderness. The temptations as a process of wrestling with God’s gift of abundant life. Abundant love. If it is true that God loves us, then how are we to respond to that love? What does it mean to take responsibility for the gift we have been given?
Working this out takes time. The wilderness was a place where he could be alone and quiet and away from people in order to think and work things out at his own pace. Not much food and water around, and perhaps he deliberately went without. Denied himself food and comfort in order to ask himself what he really wanted. What really mattered. What was really important. God had given him a gift. What did it mean? what was he to do with it? How was he to respond to it? Take responsibility for it?
God gives us the gift but we have to decide what to do with it. God loves us but we have to decide how to respond. God has faith in us, but we have to learn how to have faith in ourselves, how to have faith in one another.
This is a process of learning to trust.
Firstly, learning to trust God’s word – the story God is telling us about ourselves - God’s word to us - that it is not, primarily a commandment - an instruction, a rule, an order - to be obeyed, but an invitation, a word of love. What feeds us, in the end, really feeds us, so that we are truly and eternally satisfied? Not material things, but emotional or spiritual things. Not bread to eat but bread for the heart, bread for the soul. Proverbs? Where love is…. Jesus learned to trust that what the scriptures told him about the love of God for ordinary men and women was more important than any other consideration; and that he could rely on that love. It would feed him. It would feed others. He could nourish others by drawing on the scriptures to tell him a new story about God and themselves.
We face the same challenge. How do we see God? What do we hear God telling us? What story is he telling us about ourselves? About ourselves as individuals? About ourselves as a church? Are we willing to hear Jesus’ new story about ourselves and let it feed us?
Secondly, learning to trust God’s view of us - not needing proof all the time that we are loved, respected, listened to, trusted - as needing to make an impression on people, but as someone who is beloved and who wants others to know that they are beloved too. Messiah, apex stone of the Temple. Not large budget, special effects, lots of CGI. Small budget realism. Focus on the small picture with huge implications. A vision of God’s love for each one. For all. For all that they need. For ever.
Thirdly, learning to trust God’s view of what we can achieve. Focused not on power but love. Not necessarily going for power to achieve things, because that sooner or later that requires us to play the devil’s game. But rather being willing to work in small ways and in small things first and foremost. Small things nevertheless done in love.
In order to trust in this way, means learning to hear another story about ourselves. God’s gift is time and God’s attention. But are we willing to receive that gift? Have we been taught how to receive that gift?
If a child lives with……….
If we are used to being told that we are lovely, if we have been encouraged and built up, then we will already know what it means to be received, and we will be carrying the gift within us. And the story God tells us about ourselves will make sense to us because it fits with the story we have always been told. The two stories will work together, reinforcing one another, and we will grow in strength. We will grow in Christ.
But if we have not been given that sense of being beloved, received, worth investing in, then the story we carry within us will be one that resonates with pain and fear and that story will get in the way. The voice that we still hear in our heads will distort what we hear. Drown out anything else.
This is why Christians can find it hard to truly love one another. Because we are drawn to church to hear the story God tells us about ourselves, but we still carry the old story within us, the one that we were brought up to hear: that we are worthless, that we will never amount to anything, that we have to be good or we will be sorry, that we have to do everything perfectly, or make sure everything is done right, or we will be punished. This is why good, faithful, loving Christian people get touchy and irritated with one another. Spend time looking over their shoulders. I can’t do that - they won’t let me. They won’t approve. They won’t support me. They won’t keep their promises.
In our worship together, we hear the story God is telling us, and we love to hear it because it means so much, but the benefit does not last. As soon as the service is over, something happens - someone says something, or does something - that knocks against our bruises or awakens our anger or our fear - and God’s story is forgotten once again. It has no lasting power to help us, strengthen us, nourish us, help us grow, because, deep down in our hearts we are not altogether sure that it applies to us. At the back of our minds there is always that nagging doubt which makes us wonder if we are truly accepted, truly welcomed, truly beloved. Because that is how we have been trained to think. That is how we have been taught to think since we were very small.
But this story of Jesus’ temptation is telling us we have a choice. Which story matters to us most? Which story do we want to live by?
We can continue to tell ourselves the old story. We continue to tell each other the old story. We continue to say to ourselves - to each other - I don’t trust you. You may hold office in the church, or you may have said you will do something but actually, I don’t trust you do to it at all. Or I don’t trust you to do it well. Or well enough. You’re too young and I don’t think you’re sufficiently committed to what we are doing here. You’re too old and set in your ways. Or you’re too inexperienced, or you’re not efficient in the way I would like you to be. Or you just don’t think like I do. Whatever it is it is your fault and I can’t let you get away with it. Because I feel that you want to destroy everything that matters to me here. And if that happens, I won’t be able to handle it. Because this has happened to me before, and I can see it about to happen again. And I don’t want that. I don’t want to lose what matters to me. I don’t want to be hurt like that again.
We can continue to tell ourselves - and each other - that old story. If we do so, then we will add to the pain we are all carrying. We will deepen the wounds in our own hearts and in each others hearts, and the difficulties we face will get worse.
Or we can gradually learn to tell ourselves a new story.
It does not have to be like that. I/we do not want it to go like that. I/we want to live differently. I want to tell myself a new story. We want to tell others a new story. We will say to one another - I trust you. We trust you. We trust you to hold office in the church. We trust you to do what you have said you will do. I trust you to do what you have said you will do, and to do it to the best of your ability. In fact, I trust you to do it well. You may be young, but you have life and passion and energy. You want our life together to make a difference. You want our work here to make an impact. You may be old, but you have a lifetime of experience and you are still open to new ideas.
We can say to one another, you may not do things the way I would do them, but you are good at doing things in your own way. And if you make mistakes, you are good at learning from them. You have gifts you are willing to use, and where you lack the skills, you are willing to ask for help or collaborate with others. I am going to trust that you are just as committed to this church and to God and to our future here, as I am. I am going to trust that, at the end of the day, we want the same things. We are inspired by the same vision.
We can, each of us, resolve: I will take responsibility for the way I feel, and the way that I respond to my feelings. In particular, I will take responsibility for my fears that you will make a mistake. That you will get things wrong. I am going to trust you, because I am going to trust myself. And I am going to trust God who is holding you, and who is holding me. I trust that all that I value is safe in the hands of God. I trust that we are safe in the hands of God. I trust that I am safe in the hands of God. Whatever happens, I can handle it. Whatever happens, we can handle it.
We can tell one another a new story from this moment. If we decide to do that, what happens about the past? Our experience when things have gone wrong, and we have been hurt? These are the places where we are wounded and aggrieved. Or angry at the injustice we have suffered.
Two things - firstly, if we tell each other a new story then the pressure on our wounds will ease. We will stop knocking each others’ bruises. Call out the paramedics - take certain actions to stabilise you. Want to prevent a bad situation getting worse. Then they will get you to hospital - the place where they can provide time and space so that you can heal. If we begin to tell each other this new story, then at the very least, it will stabilise the situation. It won’t get any worse. We can begin to address the issues, be truly honest with one another, begin to really listen to one another, help each other begin to hear God’s story with undistorted ears.
Secondly, as we tell ourselves the new story - to think, not only about how we relate to one another, but how we think about ourselves and our own life. If we let God’s story touch us here, then we will begin to heal from the inside out. As with any other wound, this takes patience and persistence, but it does happen. It begins to happen at once, and if we persist, it will gather pace and we will be strengthened more and more every day. However deep our wounds are, God’s power is more profound. However strong our pain or anger, God’s love is stronger still.
Taken together, this is a process of mutual healing and forgiveness.
This, I believe, is the choice before us. Which story are we going to tell one another? Which story are we going to listen to?
Why bother? Because its worth it. When Jesus had wrestled his way through this, the angels came and ministered to him. In other words, he received a blessing. Not sure what it was, but it was the touch of heaven. That would be nice. And beyond that, this was the foundation of his ministry. This was only the beginning. He went on from here to become the single most influential individual in the entire course of human history. That alone suggests that following his example might take us to places more marvellous than we can imagine.
But at the end of the day, the best reason is the simplest one. Why choose to listen to a new story? Because you are worth it. Because we are worth it. Because our children are worth it. Because our future health as a congregation is worth it. Because we are worth it. God has said so. It is time to choose whether or not we believe him.
Great Story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, remoulds us as disciples. As we learn, remember and internalise it, study, explore and meditate upon it, the Great Story forms in us the Mind of Christ. As we think, so we feel. As we feel, so we act. As we act, so we transmit our faith and transform the world.
We have come from God and we are going to God. This is the answer to the puzzle that obsessed Nicodemus: Where does life come from? How can a person be renewed? What has the power to regenerate a people divided and crushed by oppression? How can we live in the face of death?The question troubled him because he was a leader, seeking to be faithful to his responsibilities in an age of upheaval, violence and fear. It was the same question Ezekiel had faced in his own day, and to which he received an answer in his vision of a valley filled with dry bones. A dead people are revived by the breath of God. The prophet who speaks the word of God over their bones conveys that gracious reviving power. The very act of pronouncing the blessing makes it come true because speaking, shaping, enlivening, naming and blessing are all contained in God’s call to life.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. No he didn’t. Nor do we. We cannot be renewed, reborn, revived or resourced until we understand this: We have come from God and we are going to God. The wind is the breath of God. It comes from God, and it is going to God. And all who receive life from the wind are carried with it.
 John 3.1-10.
 Ezekiel 37.1-14.
 John 3.8
Today, when we tell our story, we are expressing our will to live. A will to live that we imagine and describe in a narrative form. In doing so, we are using tools that were developed and honed during the two million years or so that it took for our primate ancestors to adapt to a way of life that was based on hunting as well as gathering.
We are using assumptions, symbols and ways of thinking that were formed by the experience of hunting and the joy of celebrating together the abundance that was gained from the hunt. But neither have we forgotten the painful lesson that we first discovered then.
Our vision of ourselves and our potential as a species was formed then. Our ability to respond and adapt and change
It is in the story, and in what it tells us about ourselves - who we are and who we might be - that the creative, transformative and redemptive power is discovered and given.
The story is larger than ourselves, and what we have to discover is how the individual, personal, working out of our life relates to the larger narrative. That’s when everything falls into place. That’s when we know who we are. Where we have come from. Where we are going. And how we can live as the heirs of the kingdom while we still on the road.
No large narratives any more.
Of course there are. People don’t see them. Or seeing them, they do not see them accurately. Or they see them accurately, but they do not see them whole. And so they discount them as irrelevant.
They do not believe.