A Tale of Two Stories

That is the story we should be talking about. That little light that came into the world. That ministry of hope and reconciliation. That is the story. A different story. A better story. But that is not the story that dominates the headlines. That's not the story that controls our Facebook feeds. The story that informs our conversations with people. No, the story that we hear all around us centers on fear, on safety, on anger, or on revenge.

Every crazy and disturbing comment you read on Facebook, every discouraging conversation with someone who claims to be a Christian, and every brazen refusal to obey Jesus you encounter comes because that person has bought into a false narrative. People think that this false story is the godly story. That God approves of this story. But God doesn’t. We’ve misunderstood the story and as a result, we have lived wrongly. Our job is to tell a different story, a better story—the story of God coming in the flesh and beginning the process of restoration.

People have just bought into a wrong story. They believe an Orwellian idea that peace comes about through force. That love is weak. That evil must be used to overcome evil. We share a different story.

As we're entering the Christmas, it's as appropriate a time as any to talk about the Incarnation. The story of the Incarnation is the story of the Bible. Incarnation is the embodiment of something in another form. It's the churchy word for God coming down in the flesh as Jesus. Because God the Father really has no normal physical form, at least that we know of. He is a spiritual being and doesn’t look like anything until He becomes incarnate in another form. A burning bush, fire on top of a mountain, lightning and thunder. God comes on the scene, appears in some form, and incarnation happens. We don’t always understand it—how it happens—that’s why it is a mystery. But we understand why. God appears and manifests himself in order to make a difference.

The story of incarnation is the story of restoration—God coming into our midst and making things better. God did it in the story of Adam and Eve, when he empowered them to be fruitful and multiply and fellowshipped with them in the Garden. God did it with Abraham when he appeared and blessed Abraham so that Abraham and his offspring could bless the entire world. God did it with Moses, when he appeared in a burning bush and said he had heard the cry of the Israelite slaves and would break their chains. God did it when he appeared on top of Mount Sinai and gave the Law so that they could worship him and love one another. God did it when he aided the Israelites in their efforts to enter into the Promised Land and set them up as the people of the land. Every one of those was a response to the sin that had marred the world. Every incarnation of God was an attempt to restate the Divine Story that had been ignored, forgotten, and rejected. They are attempts to restore things to their perfected state. And in everyone of those stories, people failed to do their end of the bargain. They lacked faithfulness to God causing things to remain broken.

And the same thing happened when the Kingdom of Israel was established. They did not live in their purpose. They looked to idols and other gods for safety and security and prosperity. They sold out their story. And so God sent the prophets to convict and indict in the hope that they would be restored back to him.

This was true in the time of Isaiah and God spoke through him to address it,
The LORD has said to me in the strongest terms: “Do not think like everyone else does. Do not be afraid that some plan conceived behind closed doors will be the end of you. Do not fear anything except the LORD Almighty. He alone is the Holy One. If you fear him, you need fear nothing else. He will keep you safe” (Isaiah 8:11-14a NLT).
Then he contrasts the way things should be with the way things are:
And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?  To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.  They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward.  And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness (Isaiah 8:19-22 ESV).
There is no dawn. That's sad. I don't know how they keep their dishes clean.

Seriously, it's amazing how timely and pertinent those words are. They are applicable today just as much as they were 2,700 years ago. In a world of turmoil and distress, everyone is looking for answers. Answers that will calm our fears. Assure us of the future. And because we have believed the false story, we go to all the wrong places. In Isaiah’s day instead of going to God, they went to mediums and necromancers. Now, mediums and necromancers aren't all that prominent. But we also have our places that teach things contrary to God. We may got to politicians or celebrities for hope. And the principle is that if we go to a place that isn't teaching the things of God to learn the basic principles of how to live our life, then we will be living our life out of step with God. Because the only thing to be found in the wrong places is more darkness. They have no dawn as Isaiah said. There is no light in them.

And while it is not terribly helpful to set up an “us vs. them” mentality, it is even more destructive just accepting everything that the world tells us is right. Swallowing the fear that the world wants us to have. Kindling the hate that they want us to have. The reality is, our thinking is contrary to their thinking. Just like it was for God's people in the days of Isaiah. We don’t think like everyone else does. We don’t fear the things the world does. We don’t revere the things the world does. We don’t look for solutions the way the world does. We are to be different than the world, so we don’t react and retaliate the way the world does. Because you won’t find a happy ending in the story the world wants us to live. They have no dawn.

Martin Luther King Jr. said,  "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

And faced with a world that has a story that really doesn't bring hope, it's in the Incarnation that we find an alternative story. A way of light and love in the midst of all this darkness.

John begins his Gospel by telling this story:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John 1:1-4, 14 (ESV)
Just like God had done numerous times before in the days of the Israelites, God showed up to clean up our mess. The light entered into our darkness. God wrapped himself in flesh and came down into our world. And the reason was the same as it was during every incarnation before—to restore all things. To bring the wayward child home. To give us hope and a future.

Ronald Wallace in Elijah and Elisha describes our situation with the following:
 "We need not despair when we see great movements of evil achieving spectacular success on this earth, for we may be sure that God, in unexpected places, has already secretly prepared His counter-movement...Therefore the situation is never hopeless where God is concerned. Whenever evil flourishes, it is always a superficial flourish, for at the height of the triumph of evil God will be there, ready with His man and His movement and His plans to ensure that His own cause will never fail."
When everything looked dark; when all hope seemed to be lost; when the story was almost forgotten, God stepped in. Galatians 4:4 says that at just the right time, God sent his Son. God’s solution was wrapping his divinity with humanity in the person of Jesus.

God wanted us back. God wanted to restore things to the way they used to be. When God created, God loved it all. He declared it good. God loved us. Life ran perfectly. We were in a perfect relationship with him and one another. We had perfect purpose. Perfect provision. Perfect protection from anything bad. It was even perfect in that we had a choice to keep it that way. But humanity chose poorly then and we choose poorly now. It’s not at all like it once was. We're starting from a fallen state this time, but God wants to set it right again. That’s the process of restoration. And that is the goal of incarnation—for God to reconcile people back to Himself. To take us out of the darkness. To show us what it means to really live—free from fear, free from slavery to sin, free from hate. The incarnation is a story of passion. Jesus took on flesh so that people could see God as he really is and see how God wants us to live.

God is still doing the same thing through you, through me, and through all who believe and follow the divine story.

Twenty years ago, when I was in college, the WWJD bracelets were all the craze. Everyone would wear them. The concept behind the bracelets was a good thing. It was a constant reminder to do what Jesus would have us do. Of being a light in this dark world.

The incarnation does not end with Jesus. It continues through us as we embrace the story of light. Jesus was sent not just for salvation, but as Dallas Willard has said, “Jesus teaches you to live your life as He would live your life.”

And this is the point of the incarnation. This is the point of us surrendering to Jesus. We echo the words he said in the garden before His suffering, "Not my will but yours be done."

Even on the cross he showed us a different way when he said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34a ESV).

He taught us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9 ESV).

And one of the more challenging teachings: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:43-44 ESV).

He's setting up a different story.

The world says to not forgive. The world says to retaliate. The world says that blessed are the conquerors. The world says to hate our enemies. But Jesus gives us a different story. Which story are we going to buy into? Which one are we going to live our lives centered on?

There always seems to be this flirtation in Christianity with an easy faith. You raise your hand, say a prayer, or get baptized and you have given your life to Jesus. But that just isn't the totality of it all. Sure, raise your hand and proclaim your faith. Say a prayer and ask for forgiveness of your sins. Get baptized as a joining of you in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those are good things, but those things in themselves don't make us Christians. We are Christians because we have decided that Jesus' plan for our lives and this world is better than the best plans we can come up for ourselves. His story is better than our stories. Being a Christian, means loving the people that Jesus loves. It means living the way that Jesus wants us to live. It means buying so much into Jesus' idea for this world that we sacrifice our own lives - our own plans and desires-  our time and our energy - we sacrifice it all to follow Jesus. And we don't let the modern-day mediums or necromancers who may be talking heads on the television, scholars who have written books, a well-intentioned yet misguided friend, or anyone else steer us away from passionately pursuing the things of Jesus over the things of this world.

If you haven't done that, surrendered your life to the plan of Jesus, then I invite you to do that today. Don't hesitate if it is something you want.

Because here is the thing. Satan and this world is going to try and destroy us. There is a false narrative thriving around us. Fear, hatred, greed, selfishness - the list of sinful traits goes on and on. But what I see is that they become commonly accepted after events like the attacks on Paris. They peep their abscessed, boil ridden head out of their dark, damp, and musty hole at times like these. And for some reason, many are convinced that the freak of nature is beautiful when all that it brings is death and destruction.

At the core of this tension there is a conflict between the false story of the world and the story of restoration in Jesus. There is a tension between two kingdoms: The Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of this world - America in our context. The Kingdom of God teaches us to love strangers and protect ourselves. The Kingdom of America tells us to protect ourselves. The Kingdom of God teaches us to leave vengeance to God. The Kingdom of America tells us to take things into our own hands. Which story do we live buy? Times like these really challenge us on whether we are willing to follow Jesus even when we don't want to.

When I first planned this piece, it was going to be much different than what you just heard. It was going to be a nice story about the incarnation. About God in flesh. About how we need to be more like that with a lot of good, touching, and hopefully inspiring stories. But that was before 43 people died in a suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon a week ago Thursday. This was before as many as 129 people died in those nearly surreal attacks in Paris a week ago Friday. And even Friday, our town had a young man kill himself. During these times, we struggle to make sense of things. This other message was before people I know to be Christian cried out for blood and revenge on their Facebook pages. This was before I talked with friends who I thought shared my values; values derived from this story we have talked about here today. These friends are giving into their fear and have turned their backs on refugees who are crying out for help, suffering from the very violence we are disgusted by. Many people are following the wrong story at a crucial time in our history.

I had a nice, encouraging piece lined up to start the Christmas season. But that was before the story of life took a twisted turn. It was before all these events combined to testify against us. To convict us of selling out our true story—the story of the incarnation. Of buying into some tall tale, some fable, some flight of fancy that somehow takes the divine image away and replaces it with the idol of self. A story where it is more appealing to be practical than faithful.  Like Adam and Eve we have bought into a story that lies causing us to have these destructive yet timeless thoughts: “Did God really say that? You can’t be serious. God can’t be serious. Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? That’s stupid. It won't work.” From the beginning of time, there has been a little voice in our head that whispers this message: "You don't really need to be incarnational - to be like Jesus. You actually don't have time, and it won't work anyway. So just go back to your own life and try to survive as best as you can." And even when we fall prey and believe it at times, God is faithful when we are not and continues to seek restoration. 

We need to reclaim His story - our ultimate story. The story of the incranation. It is God in us. It is God coming into the world, bringing light, bringing hope, and bringing restoration. If our story is anything other than that, if we let anything else other than that dictate our thoughts and actions, then we’ve been deceived. We’ve bought into a false narrative—a false story.

We need more people like Antoine Leiris who lost his wife Helene in the violence that shook Paris. He penned a poignant tribute to his wife on Monday, publishing it on his Facebook page:
“On Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you won't have my hatred. If this God for which you kill indiscriminately made us in his own image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in his heart.

So no, I don't give you the gift of hating you. You are asking for it but responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.  You want me to be afraid, to view my fellow countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have lost.”

I don’t have all the answers. And I won’t trivialize this crisis by suggesting that there is some easy solution. This is one of the most complex and complicated geo-political situations in my lifetime. And it is the responsibility of the elected leaders to figure out a solution, to enforce laws, to keep order, to look out for the general welfare of the constituents. But it is my job, your job, and every Christian’s job to reconcile people to God. To be God in the flesh to all we encounter. To love people. To pray for people. To be a light in the darkness. Our world desperately needs to come out of its dark thinking and neverending cycle of violence. In this depressing, dark existence, our world needs light--the same light that entered our world some 2000 years ago. The words of Isaiah can be repeated about our generation, "They have no dawn." Yet Jesus came into the world to shine a light and he continues to shine His light through us because we are the image of God.

Jesus became flesh to add an exclamation point to His perfect, divine story that we are supposed to be part of. He came to kickstart the process of reconciliation. We have a tendency to think of change through a top-down approach. In that framework, it is believed that the politicians or the powers that be need to be convinced of the change that needs to happen in our society for it to come about. But Jesus had a different story. He brought change from a bottom-up approach. Through humility rather the worldly instruments of power. He never once tried to grasp earthly reins of power. Instead, he tried to change the hearts and the minds of the people around Him. 

But if this world is going to be reconciled with God. If it is going to have its heart changed, that reconciliation must start with us. In us. The way we live. The way we express ourselves. Following Jesus isn't easy. Sometimes it is really difficult because the current of the world's story is trying to pull us under. But Jesus wants us to give Him our all. Jesus wanted to change the world and He does that by changing the way we live our life day in and day out.

God became flesh and came to dwell among us as a baby in a manger. God is the master of creating compelling story. Eventually this led to the cross. He was willing to go through all of the pain and suffering of life to reconcile this world to Himself. He was telling a different story. Because God turns crucifixions into a resurrections.

Restoration is the goal of the incarnation. Jesus wrapped himself in flesh to put an exclamation point on the story of restoration. We then turn around and do the same in our world. To our neighbors, to strangers, even to enemies. We let God wrap us in himself. And through us, God wraps His love around others. We exemplify a different story by the way we live. Our humility and living the way God wants us to live is the way the Incranation becomes real today and changes our world. It's light in the darkness. It's the broken being repaired. It's restoration. This is our story, and it's not over yet!


This piece was co-written with Samuel Long.

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There is a Good

Lately, I have been inundated with one of our society's newest fad beliefs, “Good does not exist.” This belief is not all that new in the history of mankind, but it seems to be gaining ground in our culture. Video games are being filled with decisions where all the options available to a player are either a bad choice or a very bad choice. There is no good option. This message is not confined to the video game culture, although being there is enough to influence a whole segment of minds in our nation.

This concept manifests itself in politics where we usually vote for the lesser of two evils. We settle on the church we attend because it is most in line with what we want to be part of despite its faults. One of my friends has expressed that people only do loving things for selfish reasons. We never seem to have a choice between that which is good and that which is evil.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and a frequent guest on NPR, was asked about war being a moral endeavor. He answered, "The world rarely offers us a choice between the moral and the immoral. It's usually a choice between the immoral and the more immoral. That's why moral decision making is so tough."

Do I always have to choose the lesser of two evils? Is there ever a choice for good?

Our society screams that we must choose the lesser of two evils every day; there is never an option for good. Look at the world around us. It makes sense to say that there really is no good. Life does not appear black and white.

But what if my intellectual struggle with the concept of there actually being a good is just the result of having allowed myself to be absorbed into our culture rather than to stand as a witness for something greater in it?

These beliefs -- that there is no good and we must always choose between lesser degrees of evil -- are going to be prevailing thoughts that we are going to continue to wrestle with, especially if we strive to be disciples of Jesus and hope to help others become the same. We must know in the core of our being and live in such a way that we testify that there is good. Jesus taught, "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). For in living for the good, we draw attention to our Father in heaven.

The Apostle Matthew shared a story about a conversation with Jesus.
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"
And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." 
He said to him, “Which ones?"
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,  Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?"
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.  And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?"
But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-26 ESV).
We must find the good path and walk in it, yet the only good we can ever do is reflect God's ultimate goodness through the lives we live. There is good, but it’s almost never easy to choose. The challenge for us is to be faithful enough that we are willing to sacrifice our own desires and live in the good rather than comfortably choose the lesser of two evils.