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Transformation Blog

 

 

What is the Story of Scripture? (Scripture II)

Brandon Cook

The Bible can be an imposing book, filled with strange stories and wonderful moments. It’s laced with confusing practices and shrouded in ancient customs that are strange to modern readers. Yet it speaks the arc of a story that, when understood, cannot help but resonate. 

Still, how do we approach a book that is actually a collection of sixty-six separate books, written and edited over a millennium in different times, places, and contexts? In order to enter into Scripture, we need to understand how all of its unique parts ultimately come together to tell a single story. 

The Bible is a story in four acts, each of which uniquely reveals a stage in the journey of transformation and also reflects our own journey. Transformation, after all, is what really matters. As Paul says, "What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation.” In other words, religious ritual is not our goal; inner transformation is. Scripture is ultimately the story of this transformation—of all things being made new—and howthis comes to pass within us, in and through Jesus. 

There are different classifications of Scripture out there, and what follows is far from definitive. Nevertheless, I’ve found it a helpful rubric for approaching the Bible and for making sense of a story that, otherwise, might be a bit overwhelming.

Act I: Creation

Act I is Creation, which we read about in Genesis 1 and 2, and then again and again throughout the Bible. The idea takes various forms: in Ezekiel 36 it’s a new heart; in John 3 it’s being born again; in Romans 8 it’s becoming new creations; in Revelation 22 it’s a new heaven and a new earth; and on and on. Jesus is clearly about making everything new. 

The point of the creation narrative in Genesis 1-3 is that God is good and full of life—that He’s far better than we can imagine—and He desires union and communion with us and with all of Creation. Perhaps the lynchpin of Act I comes right at the beginning, when God avows that creation is “good.” We have to see this original goodness, this original blessing, because it reflects the heart of God. That originalintent and pervading reality gives us hope, despite the corruption of creation that follows. You have to see this original blessing, because Genesis 1 is actually the start of the GospelThe good news starts with the reality that God desires communion and union with us. 

If your Gospel only starts in Genesis 3, with God’s rescue mission to save the world, you may not see how thatpart of the story happens within a bigger context. Your Gospel will probably deal with the sin issue at the heart of the world’s corruption, but you will miss the underlying story of God’s deep desire for relationship with us and the restoration of all of creation. 

We all share this “DNA” of desire. In Genesis 1:26, God creates us (me and you and every other human being) in His image. This means that we are made in the image of the God of Love; we share the divine longing for intimacy and connectedness. Our hearts yearn to be loved and to love, to be known and to know, to be accepted and to accept, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The entire story of Scripture is God and humankind dealing with our deep desire for relationship and union. 

But of course,we can try to fulfill that need for love in other ways. We can abandon self-emptying love and choose the path of power, which leads to devastating results. This is essentially the tragic story that unfolds immediately after Creation. 

Act II: Exodus

Humankind, rather than trusting love to be enough (because love requires trust and trust always feels vulnerable), resists the whole creation enterprise and rebels against God. This is what Genesis 3 is all about, as Adam and Eve look for some way to be powerful on their own terms. They are a picture of us, we who also try to get our desire for love met through other means. We can feel powerful by having enough money or being smart enough or by being successful enough, and by proving ourselves in whatever way wecan, we won’t have to be dependent on God or anyone else. This is what our ego—what Paul calls our flesh—with its self-obsessed focus on being independent and powerful, wants most. And this quest to get our desire for love met through other means always leads to slavery, as we are held captive not only by our failures but also by successes which never satisfy. Indeed, Act II culminates in the story of the Exodus, as God seeks to rescue His people from slavery. 

Here’s a brief summation of Act II: Genesis 3-11 is about mankind’s frustration outside of union and communion with God, and about our ensuing attempt to find power, outside of relationship with the Divine, to subdue this frustration. And it introduces God’s desire to redeem us from our state of agony and futility. This desire takes specific action in Genesis 12, as God calls Abraham to follow and trust Him. Abraham’s call begins a long process of Divine revelation. The true character of God is slowly revealed to those who have been blinded by selfishness and self-absorption and have lost their ability to see or hear clearly. Abraham represents the beginning of a rescue mission, God’s plan to redeem all creation from the bondage and decay to which it has fallen because of humanity’s rebellion. God calls a nation (and ultimately, all nations) to know Him. 

However, the nation God calls—the Hebrew people—end up in slavery and captivity in Egypt. If you read the story of Joseph and the Hebrew people in Egypt, you’ll see that it’s really through no fault of their own that they come into slavery. The text doesn’t fix blame anywhere, and this is part of its wisdom (a wisdom surely beyond human accounting, as we who follow Jesus believe that the Spirit of God speaks through the text). The Exodus Narrative, very simply, represents the realitythatin life, things happen to us beyond our control. Sin is done to us, and it’s not fair. This is the terrible reality of living in a beautiful but definitively broken, death-touched world. In the early history of Israel, we see a story that serves as a picture of our own humanity. 

And yet, God sends Moses to free His people from slavery. The story of the Exodus—of Israel coming out of slavery and into the land God promised to Abraham—is a meta-story that runs from Genesis 3 to the end of The Book of Deuteronomy. Indeed, God alwaysseeks to lead His people out of slavery and into a good land. This is what we constantly see in Scripture: God is trying to bring His people out of darkness and into light, out of death and into life. 

But the people grumble, making God’s work difficult. Once again, God’s people, like Adam and Eve, have difficulty trusting and instead choose power and control. Scripture often rhymes and repeats, the same themes returning again and again, and this is one of the clearest themes in the Bible. At many points, the nation prefers to go back to Egypt rather than living in the tension of trust. Humankind prefers certainty over tension, even if the certainty makes us miserable. 

Nevertheless, God seeks to formalize His relationship with Israel, cementing the promise made to Abraham by making a covenant, sealed by the giving of the Law of God. At the heart of this covenant is a promise: if the people obey God’s Law and follow Him, blessing will reign down; if they ignore the Law and go their own way, they will release not blessing but curses. Thus, God says, “Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendantsmight live!” 

The Law thus reflects the reality that we have freedom and choice and that choices have consequences. This simple truth is fundamental for the development of a human being or of a nation. 

Unfortunately, Israel could not keep the covenant, and they could not release the blessings promised in the Law. 

Act III: Exile

Act III begins with the story of Israel in a land of their own. After forty years wandering in the desert, they come to a well-watered and fruitful land (which is another metaphor for God’s heart toward us). The story picks up in the books of Joshua and Judges, ultimately inaugurating an era of kings and prophets, of great names like David and Solomon, Elijah and Esther. But the story of the nation of Israel, for all its moments of glory, is one of decline, as the nation decays from within. Yet again, God’speople ultimately choose power; they worship idols in order to escape the tension that trusting God requires and the character that it demands. Israel, once again, serves as a picture of our own selves. Choosing some means of feeling powerful over the vulnerability of trusting, self-giving love is the perpetual temptation of all human hearts, so the story of Israel remains our story, even as it is theirs. 

Ultimately, this process leads to the Kingdom of Israel being overthrown by foreign armies and carried into exile. The Northern Kingdom is captured by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The act ends with the Hebrew people torn from their soil and scattered in foreign lands, far from the plans of the God who promised abundance back in the days of Abraham. Ultimately, a foreign king allows the nation to return from exile, but they come home to a war-reduced land. The last prophetic book, Malachi, ends as the people have returned from captivity to a barren homeland,with a call to repentance and a new opportunity to turn back to God, lest the people remain under the curses of the Law because of their unfaithfulness.

The exile is about the reality that not only are things done to us, there are also things that we do that lead us into captivity. Not only are we sinned against; we also sin.Act III, then, is a story of failure, aptly summarized by God through the prophet Isaiah: “In returning [to Me] and in rest is your salvation, but you would have none of it.” Israel refused to trust God and to become like Him. This captures the heart of the Third Act, the failure of Israel to keep the Law and thus release the blessings it promised. 

Act IV: Adoption and New Creation

Things have not gone well for Israel. They have not released the blessings promised to Abraham. The story in the first three acts is that God desires communion and union with us, but we can (and do) choose to pursue other things. Furthermore, things are done to us which hamper our willingness to trust, and of course we often choose power and control over trust without any prodding. Thus, the story ends with a succession of failures: what we call “the Fall” in Genesis 3, the grumbling in the wilderness within the Exodus story, and the captivity of the nation of Israel within the Exile Narrative. Following the Exile, we get centuries of silence, at least in terms of Scripture being written. 

What happens in the quiet is actually a rowdy time of international imbroglio, as the Promised Land is captured by the Greeks, whose monarchy devolves into battles for succession in which the Jews are caught and in which they take sides. Then come the Romans, who capture the Promised Land in 63 BC and begin the era of Romanoccupation. The Pax Romanaprovided calm across the Mediterranean, but in Judea, there was discontent and potential revolution brewing, as many longed for a Messiah to come boot out the Romans and restore the Kingdom to Israel. Many Jews concluded that Israel had been carried away into Exile because they had not kept the covenant, and so there was a push to live pure, religious life under the Law and also vigorous debate as to what that purity looked like. The rules of the Law were, in fact, greatly expanded, to ensure that the nation lived a holy life that would please God and curry His favor. The belief was that if Israel could get it right, God would be pleased and would once again bless the nation. A Messiah, sent by God, would come to deliver them, just like Moses of old. This general push for purity is the backdrop of the debates in the four Gospels between the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious groups, not to mention Jesus himself. When we read in the Gospels about the religiosity of the Scribes or the Pharisees, the context is their longing for the nation to be redeemed and the belief that they had to get things right for it to happen. 

Then, in a startling flash of revelation that no one dreamed to hope for, God answers the failures of Acts IIand III in a manner beyond comprehension. He comes to humanity as one of us, in order to adopt us. Jesusleapfrogs us out of sin that has been done to us (represented by the Exodus Narrative) and sin we’ve done (represented by the Exile Narrative)We find the Father’s ultimate revelation of Himself and the answer for the failures of His people in the coming of Jesus. In other words, God sends Jesus as a member of Israel to be Israel’s representative. Jesus will do what Israel could not. He will keep not just the letterof the Law but the heartof the Law, thereby releasing the blessings promised in the Law. And more, he will fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel and give the people new hearts. 

God does it himself. Through Jesus, God makes us all children of God, not because we keep the Law but because we enter into God’s own love and faithfulness. This is what we had to learn: that we could not do it ourselves. And this is exactly Paul’s interpretation of Jewish history when he claims that the Law was just a babysitter, meant to teach us that we couldn’t get it all right and to be with us until we understood that. This was a scandal to any mind bent on “gettingit all right” to earn God’s love or favor. 

Paul says that what God’s creation is waiting for is people who get the reality of God’s love and live in it. Who get the reality of our own powerlessness to transforms ourselves and humble themselves into the love of God, rather than bucking to be powerful on our own terms or finding some sort of numbing mechanism for our weakness (through money, sex, religion, or any other means). All creation is waiting for children of God who understand that they’ve been adopted in God while they were still unworthy of it, and can thereby release the power of God. 

God’s answer to death and the spoiling of His creation is, in a word, adoption. 

Despite all the things that have been done to us, despite all the things that we’vedone, the Father still sees us as His beloved creatures, whom He comes to restore as children. In Jesus, we can become children of God, fulfilling the promise of blessing made to Abraham all the way back in Genesis 12. We can receive the new reality—revealed in Jesus—that it’s faith in Jesus, not birth by blood into the nation of Israel, that saves us into our adoption. 

And we can receive with joy the reality that what God does in us He will do for the whole world. New Creation is coming, because of who Jesus is and what he has done. The Scripture ends with the kingdom of God come to fullness on earth. We are not “going to heaven when we die.” We are to enjoy an ongoing relationship with God that is heaven, and we are going to participate in new creation. We enter into this life—life as an ambassador of the coming Kingdom of God—here and now, becoming a people who seek the wholeness and redemption of the world. We confront racism and anything that dehumanizes. We care for the forgotten and marginalized, forthe widow and the orphan. To be in relationship with God is to participate in God’s work in the world. 

We discover, then, that Scripture—just like our lives—is not a linear story. Act IV, Adoption, is also a return to Act I, New Creation. Adoption takes us back to the Garden, to the place where, once again, we can enjoy union and communion with God our Creator, knowing—and by knowing, I mean experiencing—the lavish generosity of God. We can always choose to jump back into Act II or Act III at any point, blaming the things that have been done to us as reason enough for cursing God, or we can turn to idols (sex, money, power, religion) to save us, rather than the tension-filled path of trusting the God who adopts us. These are, in their own ways, easier paths, and the path following Jesus is narrow. It is hard, after all, to learn to surrender a life of control and to learn to trust. It is truly a “losing” of our life, as we’ve known it. Still, it is the best path, the road that leads to the fullness of eternal life in God.

Reading Scripture will always call us out of distrust and into trust, so that we can abide in Jesus, fully receiving our adoption in him. As Paul says: “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’  For His Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are His children, we are His heirs.”

How’s thatfor a grounding point?

 

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'

Scripture Grounds Us (Scripture I)

Brandon Cook

Through spiritual reading we have some say over what enters into our minds…but it requires real discipline to let God and not the world be the Lord of our mind.

—Henri Nouwen 

Jesus was grounded in Scripture.

We know this because he referenced and quoted Scripture all the time. I say “grounded” because a grounding wire is what connects you back to earth—or, in a broader sense, to a deeper reality beneath your feet. Jesus used Scripture in just this way, to keep himself connected to the reality of God beneath his feet and all around him. 

When I was eight years old, I had my first depression. Depression is hard to describe. It felt to me like a great hollow. A gray malaise surrounding everything and every moment. A wet coat in my mind that I couldn’t shake off.

Years later I would understand: I was sensing breakdowns and tensions and sadness in my family long before I understood and certainly before I had words for what was happening. The heart, not to mention the body, is often miles ahead of the head, after all. But at the time, I had no idea whyI was so down, and neither did my family.

One February evening (I remember it was February because it was right after my birthday, which had only warmed me very briefly before I sank back down into the depths) my mom took me aside and made me open the Bible to the Book of Psalms. She thumbed through the pages until she found the verse she was looking for. Then she had me copy it down ten times on a yellow index card. I know this sounds like some sort of bizarre religious punishment, but it wasn’t. It was compassion and care, and I understood that loud and clear. I wrote the verse ten times, as instructed: You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance.

It helped. Or at least I think it must have, because even now I remember both the words and the sense of comfort they conveyed. But beyond the specific words she pointed to, I learned a broader lesson: my mom was teaching me that there is a reality beyond and distinct from the one between my ears. She was teaching me that even what I think and feel is not to be entirely trusted. She was, ultimately, teaching me how to enter another story, and one in which there is hope, resource, and abundance. She was teaching me that, through Scripture, I could learn to become aware of that story. 

I’ll never forget that lesson. It’s helped anchor my life into a posture of trust, even when I’ve been beset by sorrow and despair far greater than my eight-year-old self could have foreseen. 

Jesus tells us that we become clean by the words he speaks. If we hear them and respond to them, it transforms us. Jesus is the Word of God, and he speaks the words of God, words that are captured for us in Scripture. If we want to thrive as his disciples—if we want to become clean and stay clean—we must learn to enter into the story that Jesus tells.

This will mean far more than just memorizing Scripture, and certainly more than taking in information about Scripture, although both of those practices are valuable. It will mean learning to trust and yield to Scripture, absorbing it and wrestling with it, which is the only way we enter into the transformation at the heart of its story. 

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and LoveLike Jesus.'

The Heart of Hospitality (Hospitality VII)

Brandon Cook

How then do we move into Jesus’ Ministry of Reality, taking the same posture as our Savior in the world? 

We simply seek to honor humanity as Jesus does. In short, Jesus’ formula for hospitality becomes ours:

·     We ask questions and listen to the stories of those whom God gives us to love.

·     We tell the story of God in all the ways we know how.

·     We share meals.

We ask questions so that he can hear people’s stories and enter into their lament with them. We seek to put words to all the ways we experience God and His goodness at work around us. We share meals in which stories are told and questions are asked. This movement back and forth—of listening and sharing, giving and receiving—is the heart of hospitality. 

Jesus’ way of being with people on the Emmaus Road (and in so many other places) can become our model. It is a picture of how to be with others in their humanity. When we honor people like this, we help to re-humanize them. And in seeking to live into Jesus’ posture, we grow to understand God’s own posture of love and compassion towards us. 

This is urgent work. The world grows increasingly disconnected and increasingly lonely.[1] Technology, for all of its benefit, exacerbates our ability to isolate ourselves and to indulge fantasy, fleeing from reality. The world needs neighbors postured as Jesus and empowered by His Spirit. Jesus was prepared to be a neighbor to those that God gave him to love, whether he lived next to them or encountered them on some forgotten village road. He is our model and our teacher. We must joyfully embrace the reality that we can, in his name, make manifest the reign of God as he did. 

Let’s start with asking questions. 

When was the last time someone asked you questions and really listened? Can you remember? What did it feel like? 

This is what Jesus so often did for others.

So what might questions might you ask those that Jesus gives you to love, in order to honor them?

When was the last time you sought to hear someone’s story—your family and friends, your spiritual family, your neighbors and people of peace? When was the last time you asked a neighbor more about their life? People love to be loved, and we love by asking questions. Here’s an exercise, then: Think of three people you love, and think of one or two questions for each that would honor their humanity by creating space for their story to be told. “Hey Bob, we’ve lived by each other for five years, but I realize I don’t know much about where you come from… Where did you grow up? I would love to hear a little bit about your life.” 

Take a moment to write down the name of each person and the questions you want to ask them. Then pray for opportunities to love them by honoring them with questions, and by listening generously to their stories. 

Hospitality transcends having someone over and involves listening and a posture of curiosity. We can invite people into our homes, but that doesn’t mean we’ve practiced hospitality. It’s not about the act alone, but the posture. Asking questions will lead to more conversation, more dinners, and more opportunities for the Reign of God to be made manifest as we love others.

Of course, we need to be good at small talk, too. We can’t always “turn it up to eleven” with everybody we meet, and that’s not always appropriate. But at the same time, we need to be intentional in training ourselves into Jesus’ way of being with people. Love, after all, is the end-point of discipleship. And the joy of discipleship is getting to be for others in the same way that Jesus is with us. Whenever we get to be forothers, we should give thanks to God because, in the words of one of my favorite musicals, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”[2]

Indeed, Jesus’ picture of discipleship—for all of its trials and all of the “losing of our life”—is also incredibly joyful. It’s full of parties. It’s full of eating meals together, as we see all over the Gospels and especially in the Gospel of Luke. Our challenge is to live into this posture. To learn to be for others. Through us, our neighbors—in our literal neighborhood or wherever they cross our path—may get the sense that God is nearer than they’d hoped and better than they have imagined. Through us, the Reign of God can be made manifest. Through us, Jesus can extend his Ministry of Reality, re-humanizing those he so desperately loves. 

So be it, in and through us all.

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'

[1]See, for example, “Researches Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness” by Kate Hafner. The New York Times, September 5, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html [May 11th, 2017] 

[2]“Finale” from Les Miserables: Original Broadway Cast Recording.Musical, by Cameron Mackintosh. Uni/Geffen. 1987.