Salvation Through Stories
(Adapted from a sermon I delivered 28 April 2019, at Russiaville Friends Church)
Sometimes in the pursuit of new ideas, I find myself circling back to a favored old one. God put a spark in my heart for stories – especially ones with ensemble casts of characters working together toward some world-altering goal. I marvel at the power stories have to shape culture, influence history, and change people. It’s that passion for influential storytelling that all my work filters down to.
I’m certainly not alone in my enthusiasm. Some of the highest grossing industries in the world cater to people’s demand for stories: film, publishing, television. A single New York Times bestseller can bring in around $95 million. Actors generate cult followings. Lines from popular literature and movies seep into our cultural vernacular. See if you can’t finish these:
To be or not to be . . .
May the Force . . .
There’s no place . . .
Hakuna . . .
Even if you haven’t seen or read the pieces those lines originate from, chances are good you’ve at least heard them referenced before. Stories are so important to us we’ve woven them into our social fabric. We build communities around them. Some of us invest thousands of tuition dollars in degrees studying them. I could fritter away an entire day boring you with my thoughts on just about any novel that once touched or inspired me in some way. Raise your hand if there’s a TV show you hate to miss? How about a book or film you’ve revisited more than once? An author or playwright’s work you favor? Good storytelling has an almost addictive quality. It not only engages us but compels us to talk about it.
Humanity has this insatiable appetite for tales both true and fictional. Why is that? C.S. Lewis famously said, “We read to know we are not alone.” That cuts to the heart of it, doesn’t it? We are creatures designed for relationship: first with our Creator, and then with each other. Stories connect us, provide common ground. In times of relational sever stories tie us into something greater. They involve us, offer us perspective, develop empathy within us, and remind us of our potential. They offer glimmers of hope when the world around us seems so devoid of it. And in our deepest being, they echo the truth that we are characters in the grandest story of all: that of God’s redemptive love in the fallen world.
During Easter we celebrate the most dramatic and world-shifting plot twist there’s ever been. God – creator of the universe – was killed. And just when all hope seemed lost, he rose from the grave, opening the way to eternal life for all mankind. I defy you to find a more spectacular and wide-reaching climax than that.
If stories mean so much to us, if they keep us coming back, speaking to longings and experiences we struggle to articulate for ourselves, why doesn’t the earth wobble on its axis every Easter Sunday from people rushing to hear the greatest story ever told?
You see, it’s not just the stories we tell that matter; it’s how we tell those stories. Jesus knew this well and tailored his earthly ministry accordingly. Look at Matthew 13:1-3:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed.
Jesus has drawn a gathering so invested in his words that they’ve crowded him right off the shoreline. He has to address them from a boat, balancing as it bobs on the waves. Think of the last time you were in a large crowd like that. Maybe at a sports game or even just at the grocery store during peak hours. Did the faces in that crowd look the same? Dress the same? Have the same background and interests? Probably not. Usually the larger the group the more diverse it is, right? Even in small groups, each person comes with significant differences. So how did Jesus captivate such a large, varied audience? Look back at verse three. He spoke to them a) at length b) in parables.
What exactly is a parable? It’s a story that illustrates a moral or teaches a lesson. Though every single individual in that gathering had the same inherent need for a savior, Jesus didn’t toss out a one-size-fits-all demonstration. He invested time fabricating stories that resonated with the different factions listening to him. He crafted parables to meet each heart where it was in that moment. Do you know how many of Jesus’ parables are recorded in scripture? There are 46 in total. All thoughtful, each one carefully chosen for its listeners.
Jesus being God could have used any mode of communication for his earthly ministry, but he chose storytelling. Why? The disciples asked that very question. Skip down to Matthew 13:10-17:
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
Unlike tales meant just for entertainment, parables are designed to provoke thought and reflection. They’re intended for personal application. Unless you apply some brain power to it, you won’t reap the depth of insight it offers. The people pressing Christ into the water that day with their interest, no different than the faces swirling around us today, had a longing. If they felt truly whole, they wouldn’t have paused their lives to hear what Jesus had to say. They wouldn’t have stayed long enough to generate such a throng. Somewhere deep inside they must have sensed something missing, something they had yet to understand. And here was Jesus, answering the questions of their hearts they didn’t realize needed asking. And he did so with imagery personally significant in their lives.
That same longing that draws us to stories, that deep-seated desire to be part of a larger narrative than our small day to day routines, is an echo of eternity in our hearts. No, we are not the ultimate protagonists. Jesus Christ is the only true hero of the only timeless tale. But we are called into vital supporting roles of this continuing epic.
The Easter story ends with what we know as The Great Commission: “Therefor go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Looking back a Matthew 13, the header just before verse ten in my bible reads, “The Purpose of Parables.” The following header above verse 16 says, “The Privilege of Discipleship.” There’s a relationship there. We are commissioned by Christ himself to tell his story and make disciples of all peoples. This is our purpose and our privilege. If we are followers of Jesus, if we aim to model our lives after his example, it would be remiss to ignore the power of storytelling.
Stories are a common language. They open gateways to understanding. Jesus says as much in verse 11. He could have lectured. He could have performed interpretive dance. He could have held up signs in the marketplace or just let his actions speak for themselves. But instead he left his house and went to the beach where people were getting on with their normal lives. Fishermen tended their nets. Carpenters repaired boats. Vendors sold fish to women toting their children along. He stepped into the familiarity of their world. He drew from references this collection of people connected with and he spoke to their inner longings, meeting them where there were in terms they understood.
If we hope to have an effective witness, we can’t ignore Jesus’ example. We also can’t ignore his reasoning for choosing narrative as his primary tool for ministry. Stories transcend obstacles of prejudice and culture and help people grasp ideas on a personal level. But we must meet people where they are. We must draw upon the experiences and references our audience recognizes. Sometimes we’re off-put by those references – disgusted even by what passes as entertainment or work. Jesus prayed for us in this. In John 17:15-19 he pleaded this shortly before his crucifixion:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by[a] the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
Paul echoes this in Romans 1:1-2 saying:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
We focus so much on the second phrase derived from these scriptures: “Be in the world, but not of it.” But how are we to engage on a genuine level with people if we aren’t willing to step into their worlds? Be in the world. Get up from the comfort of home and go where people live without true life. Make the story of Christ irresistible. Speak to that intrinsic longing for eternity planted in every human heart. Jesus has already done the hardest part for us.
Stewardship of the gospel is part of the privilege of discipleship. People have longings for God they don’t fully realize – longings for relationship, meaning, and purpose; a need to feel part of something greater than self, and to know they are not alone. We have the story that not only speaks to those deepest longings but fulfills them into eternity. If our lives have been and continue to be shaped by the gospel, then our passion for Christ should compel us in spreading it.
But how we tell that story is just as important. It must be told compassionately.
Perhaps for some, the most engaging way is reading a Facebook post or a song you’ve written. For someone else it might be hearing your personal testimony over a cup of coffee. Though we are minor characters in the grand redemptive narrative, we each play critical parts. Your relationship to the author and hero is completely unique. Only you can tell your part of the story. Somebody needs to hear you share it and see the evidence of how that story guides your life. It may take 46 different attempts for them to fully grasp the message. They might not connect immediately with a parable about old wineskins or pruning vines. But it’s your chapter to tell. Your witness to share.
Can we call ourselves Christians if we don’t walk in the way of Christ’s example? Are we willing to leave our homes and take his story where it’s needed? Are we willing to listen compassionately to others’ stories? Get to know our audience? That cup of coffee you chatted over last week might be the key to unlocking someone’s understanding of personal relationship with God. And who knows? Their stories may open you to deeper understanding of God as well. Are you willing to speak at length about Jesus to those struggling with those inner longings? Let’s choose to be in the world and build community around the shared story of salvation.