I’ve lived most of my life thinking I am the main character I my story. As a kid I used to imagine myself part of the post-apocalyptic remnant, uniquely gifted for leadership and destined for story-book notoriety. Awakening to the true nature of my character over the years has formed me to trade such a grandiose leading role in for a more subtle story. Romantic leading man, angst-y voracious blogging anti-hero in the vein of Don Miller or Anne Lamont, or the latest version: practical breadwinner, husband and father.
But in each of these the architects of Western Civ would smile upon me and claim me as yet another success. For I am my own man, master of my destiny, protagonist in my own life story. If culture is like a river flowing with inertia, I was simply swept up in the flow of individualism that is the American Myth par excellence.
But here’s the thing – the thing I thought I was running from but ran headlong into – it is a boring story. I am simply not any good as a leading man. Main characters are bold, and creative, they jump into the unknown, they weep, and mourn, and dance. They throw parties with friends over stunning victories no one expected.
Take Peter, for instance; who gives up everything to follow a swordless revolutionary in creating a crazy new contrast world in the midst of the old regime. He’s defensive, violent, Usain-Bolt confident. His energy is always kinetic- whether fighting, flighting, or building. Now that’s a leading man, someone who always know what they want.
And that’s not me. My story? It’s largely been about safety, control, limit, and protection, and looking good. My best energies are making sure I make the grade without making a fool of myself. The primary vows I’ve made in my life have not been for such things as world peace, doing everything I can to be the best pastor I can be, or being a fantastic husband. No. I’ve invested my vow-energy into creating a small box in which I rule.
The American Myth-makers assure me, however, that it matters little how boring my story is so long as its mine. I can set aside all evidence to the contrary, deny the Copernican revolution ever took place, and continue to live at the center of my own story.
I wish I could tell you this is true. I wish I could tell you that your faith will make you a better lead character in the story of life. But I can’t tell you that, its’ not true. At least not how you might think. Following Jesus has done anything but make me be a better leading man.
This is not a story about me! It never has been. I’m not the main character in a story about me, I’m not even a supporting character in a story about me. Not because I’m not up to the challenge (I’m not), but because it’s not my story!
We’re invited to enter a new story, the story of God at work in our world. Cosmic and eternal in scope, this story is about the redemption of all creation: things in heaven and things on earth. Which is a whole lot bigger than the things I’ve made my story about: getting the girl, living a safe quiet life, being competent. No, God’s story frees us from such puny limits. It provides us the antidote we need to the lies and temptations inside us. And it orients us to an alternative, preferred future where joy, peace and celebration reign. Now this is a story worth being part of!
Which is actually quite fascinating, as it turns out; Jesus is doing some pretty startling things around town. None of which involves being nervous to wear shorts to church on a humid August day, or figuring out how to be authentic but not too authentic in your sermon, or holding your tongue about welcoming your gay friends because you’re afraid your offering will suffer, or being quiet about your widely read blog for fear your church’s officemates will find out.
Oh God no. Jesus is working to bring his beautiful new world of justice peace and celebration to every neighborhood and business in Houston. Jesus is on the library steps feeding folks without homes or food, and flipping the corporate world upside down so that one day everyone will have enough. Jesus is forgiving debts and caring for those in foreclosure, working hard to dismantle a crazy system that forces the many into poverty while the few take more than their own. Jesus is starting companies so undocumented immigrants can feed their families with dignity, and live knowing the church of Jesus loves and accepts them. Jesus is mentoring children, teaching reading skills, and blessing thousands of children who may or may not ever step foot in church. Jesus is busy rescuing young women out of the clutches of human traffickers, restoring dignity to the brokenhearted, and blessing pretty much everyone around. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is making Peace through Peace!
The Story we’re living in is a Story about Jesus. It’s all about him, from beginning to end. Our text this morning, John 1:1-18 is so certain it’s about him they give us some of the most poetic, cosmic images of Jesus anywhere. It’s been about John that it’s “shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in.” True indeed!
Jesus is present in the beginning, creating all things, he is the light that shines in the darkness.
And this would be good enough, you know? It’s good enough to know that our God is the light, and not the darkness. It’s good enough to know our God brings life, not death. I can imagine being happy thinking of a God like this sitting on his throne in heaven: dolling out treats to us down here who need them. But this, for God, was decidedly NOT good enough, there is more! This good, life-giving, light-producing God… decided to put on flesh and as The Message says, “Move into the neighborhood.” He got down out of his ivory tower to get to know his people. He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, being born in human likeness, and humbled himself.”
This is the story we’re living. Why, oh why, would I want the story to be about Marty, creator of chaos, redeemer of coupons, king of arrogance, and prince of boredom? When it can be about Jesus: Creator of the Universe, Redeemer of all things, Prince of Peace in God’s Kingdom of Shalom?
Oh my friends, we settle for so much less than what God desires for us! CS Lewis says, “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
In the face of the staggering boredom that is our own story, we must, we simply must, become people of praise. How else will we orient ourselves, our hearts, our passions, our desires, our calendars and debit cards to be part of Jesus story? Without praise, your life’s “default mode” will be stuck on Selfishness, boredom, and me me me. But Jesus, on the other hand, is “the reflection of God’s glory, the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3) He will “come to have first place in everything.” (Colossians 1:19)
Praising God, as the early church did, is like taking one giant leap into reality and seeing the world clearly for the first time. As Paul says in Colossians, we’re to let the word of Christ dwell in us by singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. This is how we reset our default mode so that we do everything in the name of Jesus, and not Marty. After all, one day every knee will bow to Jesus… not to you. And certainly not to me!
And that’s what this text, John 1, is. It’s a hymn, one of a number of Christological hymns we find in the New Testament that are about Christ. The early church knew that in order to resist, in order to be different (and oh, don’t ever loose sight of the fact this was always part of the point),in order to be faithful and consistent in their faithfulnesss… they needed to sing.
Pliny, governor of Bithynia in the first century after Jesus, said that Christians were known to rise at dawn to gather together and “sing a hymn to Christ as to a god.” You get this impression that the early church knew they couldn’t keep going, couldn’t keep their default mode set on God, unless they praised regularly. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.
Now, I have to pause and tell you that I’ve started a new exercise routine this summer. I’ve been working out pretty intensely. I’m teaching myself how to swim. Going to boot camp, which is a group exercise class with instructors hell bent on finding all the muscle groups you forgot you had. And the other day I went out for a run. It’s was supposed to be a humble, recovering from a pulled muscle run. But I got to singing songs in my head about Jesus. You know, praise songs. And I just kept running. At first it was a block farther than I said I’d run, than double, and than farther than I’d run all year… just praising Jesus. Losing sight of the pain, the heat, the fact I hate to run.
But isn’t that how it is in life? When we’re focused on God we can do what we can’t do alone. I think that’s why the New Testament consistently invites us to look to Jesus: Look to Jesus, the Pioneer and Perfector of our Faith, says Hebrews. Paul says “seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Set your mind on things above, not on things that are on earth.”
Now check this out, this looking upward through praise becomes ever more important for communities that have “things that are on earth” that aren’t going so well. Check out John 1:10-11, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
For people who feel like their faith has marginalized them, Praise is essential. Absolutely essential. We witnessed this truth in our visit last Sunday to Chin Emmanuel Church, a church here in Houston who has decided to join the Mennonite faith. Their praise, their singing, was exuberant. Dignity, competence, order, hitting all the right notes…. These things were not the priority. Praise, joy, participation were. What an amazing feeling to worship with people who are singing passionately from their hearts. As if their lives depended on it! Because they do. And I found myself singing like I haven’t in a long, long time.
Maybe you feel like the world is against you today. Maybe you understand today what it feels like to not be accepted, to be rejected. Maybe you’ve experienced the darkness winning, crucifixion coming, lonliness, pain, confusion. Maybe our lives depend on praise also; to help us remember who the main character in the Story we’re living really is.
Then its time to praise God! Psalm 24 has one of the most profound and huge visions for who God is. But it was written in the midst of war, poverty, oppression. It was written at a time when everybody, and I mean everybody, was questioning if God was really on their side or not. It was like the whole world was against them. And they had this to say, “The earth, is the Lords, and everything in it.” Everything. All the good. All the bad. Even those who seem to be forgotten. So Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and in case you didn’t catch it the first time, Rejoice! Psalm 103 reveals a lyricist who needs to talk himself into praising God, he says, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul and all that is within me. Bless the Lord O my soul and do not forget his benefits.”
It’s not the easiest thing to do. We must be people of praise because we are characters in God’s story.
For its in Praise that we see the benefits of God! Here we see how things really look. Keep reading in John 1:12-13, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” The Story we’re living is God’s. We’re born of God, we become children of God by his power. It’s up to us to receive him, trust him, believe him.
The story you are living is not about you. Praise God!