Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Fairy Tale

Modern people deal with religious claims in different ways. One way they respond is to pretty much label it all a fairy tale. They don’t usually use those words, but that’s what they mean. Reading religious stories of miracles and all that sort of thing might make someone feel good, and that’s fine, but they didn’t really happen. So, they tell us that we can believe in the moral of the story but not the story itself. After all, it doesn’t really matter if the story is true as long as it helps you to feel better.

Now, when it comes to the story of the Gospel, that’s just wrong. The story can make you feel better, but it’s important to remember that the story is true. It really happened.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. The Gospel actually is a fairy tale. It’s just that it’s a true fairy tale.

Consider the elements of one kind of fairy tale. The focus of the story, our fair maiden, is caught up in some difficulty. Magic is usually involved, magic wielded by some evil wizard or the like. And as the story unfolds, things go from bad to worse. Our fair maiden now finds herself in serious trouble. The evil magic has done its work. Ah, but then, there is a new element to the story. The hero shows up. And with a magic of his own, he defeats the evil wizard, rushes to where the fair maiden is held captive and rescues her. All that’s left is the ending that usually goes something like, ‘And they lived happily ever after’.

Part of what is so captivating about fairy tales is that every woman wants to be that fair maiden, loved and fought for by her hero. And every man wants to be that hero who, for the sake of love, fights for and wins his beloved maiden. Fairy tales touch something deep within us.

I love Reformed theology. The more I study it the more that I have found it to offer clear statements of Gospel truth. And that clarity leads to practical applications that make a huge difference in how a Christian can live well. In my opinion, it is the best way to understand so much of what’s in the Bible. However, I need to admit that the way that Reformed theology is sometimes taught - or to be more honest, the way that I have too often taught Reformed theology - can be so … and what word do I put here? How about dry, mundane, pedestrian, or even just out and out boring.

Teaching the Bible in this way can be like teaching how to find x in an algebra problem. All you need to know is what right the steps are and how to do them in the right order. Follow the formula, and you’ll come up with the right answer. To be sure, getting to the right answer is a good thing, but there isn’t much to engage the soul as you work toward that goal. It’s the rare person who gets excited about an algebra problem. Studying the Bible isn’t supposed to be like that. Learning the Gospel is supposed to be more like a watching a fairy tale unfold.

So, consider. In the Gospel, we have our fair maiden, the finest expression of beauty. But alas, she falls into trouble. An evil wizard lurks and attacks, using his magic to charm our fair maiden, placing her under his control. All that was goodness and light now becomes this bitter darkness. But then, our hero arrives on the scene. And using his own very good magic, he undoes the evil that has captured our fair maiden. He defeats the foul wizard and rescues the maiden. And the story ends with something like, ‘And they lived happily ever after’.

Now, which fairy tale have I described? Cinderella? Snow White? Sleeping Beauty? Haven’t I just described the Gospel? Jesus, the hero, has come to defeat Satan, the evil wizard. Having done that, Jesus then is able to rescue the Church, His fair maiden. The Gospel is a beautiful fairy tale, the kind of fairy tale that is true.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. And what is Advent? Advent is the celebration of the fairy tale. Advent is retelling the fairy tale but using more than just words. Advent is rejoicing in the fairy tale by using special songs, special food and special decorations. Our fairy tale is, after all, something worth celebrating again and again and again.

We can use the structure of fairy tales to celebrate Advent. And what part of our fairy tale can we look at today to do that? How about the part that goes, ‘And they lived happily ever after’?

Earlier in the service I read Revelation 21 to you as one of our Scripture readings. Listen again to the first part of it.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21.1-4
Now, if that doesn’t qualify for, ‘And they lived happily ever after’, then I don’t know what does. It’s the final scene of the fairy tale where the hero and his fair maiden ride off together into bliss.

However, the only way to enjoy, to really enjoy, a happy ending is to live through the sadness of what went before. And our fairy tale has plenty of sadness. When Adam took a bite out of that apple, all of life was changed. Sadness, deep sadness, entered the story. Instead of shared laughter during a pleasant afternoon stroll with God through the lush Garden, there would be tears and a lonely slog through fields of thorns and thistles. Oh sure, life wouldn’t be filled with tears. There would be lots of bright spots. But there would be enough tears so that even the happiest times would be stained. And that’s because even in the happiest times there would be memories of what was. There would be thoughts of what is no longer and what might have been. It’s because of the tears that there would be mourning, mourning what has been lost. The first part of our fairy tale is about pain. The evil wizard was busy working his magic. And he has been very good at it.

What did Sarah feel as she contemplated her barren womb? Think of the shame she felt as she walked past the mothers and their children. What was it that the Samaritan woman at the well was looking for so desperately, thinking that she would find it in the next lover? What did Bathsheba tell herself when she heard the news that her husband had been killed, that he had been killed so that she would not face the disgrace of being known as an adulterous woman? And what was Mary feeling as she watched her son writhing in pain, crying out in agony, dying as a criminal? The evil wizard has been busy working his ugly magic.

But our hero has come. He has confronted the evil wizard and has bested him. He has rescued the fair maiden. All that is left is to hear that ending. ‘And they lived happily ever after.’

But we’re not at the end of the story yet. The evil wizard has been beaten, but he is not gone. He has a mortal wound, but he’s not yet dead. And what does that mean? It means that we still have tears. We still have memories. We still mourn. And that stains even the happiest days. So, what do we do?

The answer is clear. We celebrate. We celebrate because we know that our hero has come. And we do that with gusto. Our hero has come to deal with that evil wizard. And in the most unexpected way, he dealt the evil wizard a fatal blow. And while the wizard has not yet given up, even he knows that his days are numbered. Our hero has come and he has rescued us, his fair maiden. So, we celebrate the coming of our hero. 

The fact of the matter is that our celebration just might be stained by tears.  We still have times of mourning, mourning what has been lost, what might have been, what sadly is. There still is evil magic. And the beauty of the story is still being corrupted and made ugly. We celebrate in the midst of all of that.

But we still celebrate. And we can celebrate in the midst of all of that because we are celebrating, ahead of time, the inevitable end of the story. That’s when all of our tears will be gently wiped away, and there will be nothing to mourn. The evil wizard and his foul magic will be done away with, gone forever. And life will once again be shared laughter during pleasant afternoon strolls with God through the lush Garden.

Jesus will return to finish what He started. And when He does that, we will live happily ever after. And that is why we celebrate.