God’s Big Story and Really Old Sermons

I want to share some particularly poignant excerpts from a sermon by the 4th century Church Father of Cappadocia (in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey), Gregory of Nazianzus. This is my own translation/paraphrase from the Greek (yeah, I’m just showing off really), from Gregory’s Easter oration (sermon) 1.3-5.

“Yesterday the lamb was slaughtered; the doorposts anointed. Egypt wailed and the Destroyer passed by us, and the fearful and venerable seal was a wall being built in precious blood. But today, it is clear to see, that we flee Egypt and Pharaoh that bitter despot, as well as his vile commanders. We are set free of the mud, and brick-making. And no one is preventing us from celebrating the Exodus feast to the Lord our God.  . . .

Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with him. Yesterday I was put to death with Christ, and today I am made alive with him. Yesterday I was buried with him, today I am raised with him.”

 

Gregory’s sermon style is to draw the hearer into the drama of the Biblical story: That which they are experiencing in the liturgy and celebration of Easter is a reflection, a manifestation, of a bigger story that they are a part of. They, as a people, a congregation, as individuals, have entered into this story and it is their own.

The story of God’s redemption meets us right now, where we are.

We are being brought out of our particular slavery to sin and decay. We are celebrating our own passover at which our own fears and failures and whatever shadows of death hover over us, meet the redemption of God in Christ.

The story of Scripture is not merely some foreign world, but it is a world that invites us to meet it with our own story and our own history. Just as Christ carried His crucifixion wounds into His resurrection life, we too find a resurrection in our particular life and our particular circumstances. The redemption of Israel from bondage is, through Christ, also the narrative of freedom from our enslavement to money and sex, to the search for approval. Our fears and insecurities and self-obsessions are buried with us in our own grave, and we are raised into newness of life on the other side of that very grave. And yet this is also, at the same time, the narrative of the whole creation being brought out of sin and death. Our union with Christ in the events of His life binds up our own particular events and experiences and story into His great story, and utterly transforms us.

The preaching and declaration of the Word draws our own lives and situations, our history, into the big story of God, which is big enough for us to inhabit. It can hold our language, our experiences, our wounds, our emotions, our worship style, our art and imagery, our selves. Therefore, we need not fear that the Biblical story is distant and stale and disconnected – it becomes our story, and truly our story – even as it is the big meta-story of Israel and the Church, and of the whole creation. The declaration of God’s Word is the declaration that Christ and His life is real in our worship, real at our communion table, and meets our culture and experiences and our particularities.

Certainly, our story changes irrevocably when we meet Him – and we find Him to be more than just ourselves, always beyond our expectations and categorizations, a rock that we will stumble upon. We begin to see our story differently, as shaped and made sense of by the Biblical story – we realize that we are a sinner in need of grace, we realize that there is a particular hope that God has declared. But He is also our open door, the one who meets us where we are, as we are.

We are called to the communion table, to the story of God’s redemption, as we are – to find a grace for us, to find a resurrection out of our own particular graves, a new body out of our own particular scars. There is nothing you have known, nothing you have faced, nothing that you are, that is out of touch with God’s story and what He is doing. It is all certainly most relevant to every bit of who you are. There is nothing you have known that does not have a place at this table to be met, changed, and brought to newness of life.

Nothing you have carried is superfluous or irrelevant, or a surprise or something God cannot work with. He builds beauty out of whatever we have. He builds infinite masterpieces out of what we are, no matter what, if we merely come to Him and place ourselves in Christ’s story.

 

 I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s mine
So, you bring all your history, I’ll bring the bread and wine
Oh and well have us a party oh where all the drinks are on me
And as surely as the rising sun, oh, you will be set free
Oh, you will be set free
-Derek Webb, ‘Lover.’

(photo credit, of Cappadocia in Turkey, Moyan Brenn on Flickr)

(I’m heavily indebted to Rowan Williams and several of his essays in On Christian Theology)

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