The Journey: I Love to Tell the Story
February 11, 2018
2 Peter 1:12-2:3
Rev. Stan Mast
One of my favorite parts of being a grandpa is telling stories to my grandchildren. They are all getting too big for this now, but I have fond memories of sitting on the couch with grandkids tucked under each arm, snuggled into me, as I tell them stories about my life or their lives or make up silly stories or read them stories like The Pokey Little Puppy or Good Night Gorilla or Green Eggs and Ham. It doesn’t get any better than that.
That’s what Peter is doing in our text with his spiritual grandchildren. He’s getting old, nearing death, about to fold up his tent, as he puts it. And as old men will do, he looks back at the beginning of Christianity and ahead to a day when it will be in much trouble. So, he gathers his loved ones around him to remind them of the truth of the Christian faith. And he does that by telling them a story. You noticed, I’m sure that our reading begins and ends with that word “story.”
The story Peter tells is not about himself or about his children. He doesn’t tell them silly stories or stories every child knows. No, he tells the story of Jesus and his love. Peter is afraid that the story will be forgotten or distorted or misapplied, so he’s going to tell it one more time. He admits that he has told it many times before; old men tend to repeat their favorite stories. But it’s is absolutely important that we remember this story because, as he says in verse 3, in knowing it you have everything you need for life and godliness. This story can change your life. It is the most important story ever told.
That’s quite a claim, given how many stories there are in the world. Stories are so important to human existence, because we can’t make sense of our lives without them. Shakespeare once wrote that “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Sometimes it feels like that, but we can’t live with a life that means nothing, so we tell stories to connect the dots and fill in the gaps. We see a man standing on the corner with a sign asking for money, and we tell ourselves a story about that man. He is a drug addict who is trying feed his habit; or he is a lazy person who doesn’t want to work; or he is a veteran who is suffering from PTSD; or he is a good family man going through a hard time. We always tell ourselves stories to explain events.
And we tell ourselves stories of our own lives. Each of us has his own life story, and it governs how we think about ourselves, how we act, how we relate to others. I’m a little Dutch boy born in South Dakota, raised in Denver, graduated from Denver Christian and Calvin College where I met the love of my life who gave me two fine sons and I became a minister, etc. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
In addition to our own little stories, we have these grand cultural stories, meta narratives that shape our whole society and give us a group identity. There’s the American story, or the Canadian story, or the story of our immigrant forebears. All of these stories are important, and many of them are helpful and good and even true.
But there are also stories that are insidious. They have the ring of truth in them and they seem helpful, but they are deeply false and ultimately harmful. Peter in 2:3 talks about stories that have been made up to exploit people. The Greek there is plastois logois, plastic stories, stories that are manufactured, fabricated, molded to reshape reality, and thus finally false. These plastic stories exploit people and take away their money or their dignity or their freedom or their lives.
A recent issue of the Wall Street Journal reminded me of one such story that dominated the 20th Century. The Journal had a major piece on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Communist Revolution in Russia. “Communism entered history as a ferocious yet idealistic condemnation of capitalism, promising a better world. Its adherents blamed capitalism for the miserable conditions that afflicted peasants and workers alike and for the prevalence of indentured and child labor. Communists saw the slaughter of WWI as the direct result of the rapacious competition among the great powers for overseas markets.”
So, the communists told a new story about class strife and economic equality and a workers’ paradise. But, writes the Journal, “a century of communism in power has made clear the human cost of a political program bent on overthrowing capitalism. The effort to eliminate markets and private property has brought about the death of 65 million people and has left country after country in economic ruin.”
There are other plastic stories out there. There is the sports story, not the story about how much fun and healthy sports can be, but the story that sports are the be all and end all of life, the story believed by young athletes who give their lives to sports success. And there’s the consumerist story, which claims that getting and spending and having is the meaning of life. And there are the plastic stories of the great world religions. And the anti-religious story of postmodern relativism, which tells us that there is no meaning to life, that we are all little specks of dust floating in an accidental universe, so we have to make our own meaning.
That’s the kind of thing Peter was talking about when he coined the term, “plastic stories.” All of them are partially true, alluring in their promise of happiness, and finally destructive of human life. And here’s why. In 2:1 Peter says that they are destructive because they deny the sovereign Lord who bought us. Many personal stories and all of these great cultural stories deny the centrality of Jesus, the Sovereign Lord of the Universe who bought us by his blood so that we belong to him body and soul, in life and in death.
That’s why old grandpa Peter is so determined to tell the story of Jesus. Rather than being a plastic story fabricated to reshape reality, it is the historic story that is rooted in reality. It is a story that is filled with integrity, true through and through. Here Peter focuses on one shining moment in that story, the event we know as the Transfiguration of Jesus. After walking with Jesus for almost three years, getting a full view of his genuine humanity and occasionally glimpsing his glory, Peter, James and John go up on a mountain with Jesus for a stunning Epiphany.
Imagine the scene. Jesus leads the disciples up this mountain, single file trudging up the steep. When they arrive, they are so tired that they begin to drift off to sleep. But they are roused by a spectacle that was burned into their memory. Something happened to Jesus; the Gospels used the word “transfigured” to describe it. The very human Jesus whom they knew so well was, well, changed in a spectacular way. His face shines like the sun. His clothes gleam with a blinding light like a bolt of lightning. Moses and Elijah, the classic representatives of God’s entire Old Testament revelation, are talking with Jesus. For one bright and shining moment Jesus humanity was overwhelmed by his divinity and his disciples see his divine glory.
It was, says Peter, a majestic sight. And, most important, God told a very short story that explained what they were looking at. As Peter puts it, the Majestic Glory spoke, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The three disciples were so overcome by that thunderous message that they fell to the ground. With typically impetuous zeal, Peter gushed that they should build shelters there to memorialize the experience, to put lightning in a bottle, to capture that moment of overwhelming glory. But, no, there would be no shrines, only the story.
That story summarizes the story of Jesus and his love. It gave his disciples a glimpse of the glory hidden in his humility. It proved his divinity in humanity. It anticipated his Second Coming when the whole world will bow before the glory of the Sovereign Lord. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah about his coming death in Jerusalem. And Mark adds that as they were coming back down from that sacred mountain, Jesus told them not to tell the story until after his resurrection. It’s all there, his humanity and divinity, his death and resurrection, his ascension and return-- the whole blessed story that gives us everything we need for life and godliness.
That’s quite a story, isn’t it? Almost too good to be true. Maybe fabricated, a plastic story, a cleverly invented story. That’s how early critics of Christianity reacted to it, and incredibly that’s how some of today’s liberal Christians read it. But Peter insists that this is simply what happened. We saw it, he says. We three, we were there, and we saw it with our own 6 eyes. And we heard that voice. How could we ever forget it? It will cost me my life, but I will tell that old, old story as long as I have breath. This is not a cleverly invented, plastic story designed to exploit people for our benefit. This is what actually happened, and it can change your life.
You can be sure of that, says Peter in verse 19, because in this story of Jesus “we have the word of the prophets made more certain.” What does that mean? Well, consider that there are about 60 major prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament. Several years ago, a mathematician calculated the chance of even 8 of those prophecies coming true in one person; it was 1 in 10 to the 17th power, that’s one with 17 zeroes behind it, 1 in 100 trillion. Imagine that we take 100 trillion silver dollars and scatter them over the face of Texas. Texas would be covered 2 feet deep. Now take one dollar, mark it, and drop it somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. Your chances of finding that dollar would be 1 in 100 trillion, the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing just 8 prophecies and having them all come true in one man, if they wrote in their own wisdom. But they didn’t; they wrote inspired by the Holy Spirit.
That man, fulfilling all 60 prophecies, made the words of the prophets more certain. Because of this story, witnessed by Peter and his friends, and that back story, told ahead of time and fulfilled in one Man, we can be sure that we have seen the Light. So, says Peter in verse 19, “you will do well to pay attention to that light, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
We live in a dark place, don’t we? And there are so many stories designed to light a candle in the darkness, to give direction and purpose and meaning to our lives. But that’s the point. Those plastic stories are designed, carefully, cleverly fabricated to reshape reality. Here is the one story that is rooted in Ultimate Reality, the story of God become human, glory hidden in a body, until that day on the mountain when there was this Epiphany and we saw the Light of the world.
So, what’s your story? What is the dominant story of your life, the story that gives your life meaning and shape, that motivates you and sustains you, that gives your direction and hope, that saves you. If it’s not this story, let me tell you how Jesus’ story changed my story, and can change yours. I am not just a bit of cosmic dust who just happened to be born to Dutch American parents; I am a born-again child of the Eternal Father who sent his only begotten Son to become a piece of cosmic dust for me and my salvation. I am not only a miserable sinner deserving of God punishment; I am a forgiven saint because Jesus took my punishment in his suffering and death. I am not merely a citizen of a great flawed country divided by partisan strife; I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God that unites all people under one Head, Jesus Christ. I am not a fearful victim of natural and human forces that can ruin my life; I am the victorious servant of the Sovereign Lord who bought me with his blood and protects me by his power. I am not a mere mortal who will get sick and die and cease to exist; I am an heir to the promises of eternal life, the resurrection of the dead, and a restored world. And until that time, I am not lost in space, wandering with no sense of direction and purpose; I am a disciple of the great Teacher who revealed the truth to Moses and Elijah and Peter and me. In short, my story is not “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes said. It is a story filled with glory, not because of anything I have done, but because of the work of Jesus, whose glory was revealed on that mountain, and on the cross, and in the empty tomb, and will one day be seen by the whole world.
I’m an old preacher like Peter, but I’m sticking with the song I learned as a kid. “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true; it satisfies my longing as nothing else can do. I love to tell the story; ‘twill be my theme in glory to tell the old old story of Jesus and his love.”
It will be my theme in glory and it is my theme here in the darkness. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.