Big Idea: God’s story, and our story, begins and ends with a world that’s better than we can imagine.
I picked up a book recently that I didn’t expect to love. It’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. To my surprise, I couldn’t put it down. I would look for excuses to read little bits of it during the day. I bought the audio version so I could listen to it in the car. I devoured it so quickly that when it was over, I thought, “What am I going to read now?” It was a very enjoyable book.
I was trying to think later about what I liked so much about good books; not just this one, but other ones like it. I came up with three things. There has to be:
- a main character I like
- a tension I can relate to
- a resolution that satisfies
In the case of Shoe Dog, there was definitely a character I liked: Phil Knight, the founder of Blue Ribbon Sports, and later Nike. He was so quirky, strange, and such an underdog that I couldn’t help but like him. There was a tension that I could relate to: the struggle to start a shoe company against almost insurmountable odds. I was thinking that maybe if this little company could grow, there’s hope for a church plant too. And there was a resolution that satisfies. In the end the triumphs over the evil companies, banks, and hardships that held him back.
We’re thinking these days about the Bible as a story. I want to ask: what makes the story of the Bible so compelling? I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it as being compelling, because I know many of us struggle in parts to understand the whole story. But it is a great story. In fact, I’d say that there’s not another story like it. It’s our story, and the story of the whole world.
The Bible, too, contains the three things that make for a great story.
- There’s a character we like, except “like” is too weak a word. He is fierce, awesome, unavoidable, and irresistible. He is God, the one for whom we were made, and the One without whom we are incomplete. Yes, this is a character that we not only like, but whom we all long for in the depth of our beings.
- There’s a tension that we can relate to. Although we’re made for this God, we don’t have the relationship with him that we desire. Not only that, but something has gone terribly wrong. “This world, with its break-ins, teary good-byes, frigid temperatures, lonely dinners for one, wild horses, and blossom end-rot, is not the way it’s supposed to be. Like graffiti spray-painted across the Mona Lisa, our fallen creation is now a horrid amalgam of breathtaking beauty and crass ugliness. The world retains impressive reminders of its created beauty, but this beauty has now been buried beneath the unsightliness of sin” (Mike Wittmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth)
- There’s also a resolution that satisfies. And that’s what I want to look at today.
When we see the main character of Scripture, feel the tension of the story, and then discover a resolution to the story that satisfies us, then we will not only find ourselves fascinated by Scripture, but drawn into it, because it’s our story too.
So today I want to look at the bookends of the Bible with you: the beginning and the end. I want to look at the tension and the resolution. Seeing the beginning and end of the Bible together will help us enter into the heart of the story.
So two questions: what’s the tension? And what’s the resolution?
What’s the tension?
Genesis 1 to 3 at the beginning of the Bible give us key parts of the story. Specifically, it helps us understand that God made this world to be good, but that we seriously damaged creation so that it needs repair. It’s like the foundation of a house. Unless we get the foundation right, nothing else we build on top of it will stand.
So in Genesis 1, we learn that God created the world and everything in it. Where before there had been nothing, now there was life, color, and wonder. Seven times, God, the greatest artist and the toughest critic, pronounced it good.
I want to pause here for a minute because I think we forget this sometimes. There is a view that’s popular out there that the material world isn’t that great. There’s a popular quote out there: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience” — as if our humanity, our physicality, is somehow less important than our spirits. Or there’s songs like this one: “This world is not my home / I’m just a-passing through / My treasures are laid up / Somewhere beyond the blue.” It makes it sound like earth is like that dingy first apartment you rented because you couldn’t afford anything else, but you can’t wait to move out. That’s not the story of the Bible. You were made to be body and soul. And you were made to inhabit this earth. And this earth is supposed to be amazing. Creation is a good gift from God to be enjoyed. We are supposed to find pleasure in this world. Enjoy it!
At the pinnacle of creation, the narrative slows down, and God goes from saying that it’s good to that it’s very good. It’s when God creates humanity, male and female. He makes us from the dust of the ground, which means that at our very core we are physical creatures. “There is a physical and theological connection between us and the ground. The lot of the earth is thrown in with us. As we go, so goes the earth. With this in mind, perhaps you can begin to accept the biblical truth—startling to some—that we belong on this planet. In short, we are earthlings. We were made to live here. This world is our home” (Wittmer).
There’s both a humility in who we are: made from the dust of the earth. And there’s a dignity in who we are: made in the image of God. In some ways, God has made us to be godlike. God created us in his image, with higher intellects and ability for language and logic, so that we could be in relationship with him. He made us to love him, to love others, to take the raw materials of the world and make something of them, and to enjoy and celebrate our work.
But we all have the sense that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. The problem isn’t the world. The problem is sin. In Genesis 3, we see that things go horribly wrong. Unless we understand this part of the story, we will never understand why our lives are they way they are today.
God put Adam and Eve in a garden, a forest, to enjoy his presence. In all the garden, there were two trees that stood out: the tree of life, which seems to be like a fountain of youth that sustains life indefinitely. Also there was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. God told Adam and Eve that out of all of the trees, there was only one tree that was off-limits: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He made an abundance of things to enjoy, with only one thing that Adam and Eve couldn’t have.
Tragically, the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden tree. The serpent tells them that God doesn’t want them to enjoy any of the trees; that they wouldn’t die if they ate from that tree; that God was holding out on them. And so they ate. Rather than accepting what God said is good, they took on that responsibility for themselves.
In that moment, the world became what we see today. Immediately, and for the first time, Adam and Eve experienced shame, a sense that there was something desperately wrong with them. They experienced a rift in their relationship with each other, and began to shift blame. They hid from God and could no longer freely enjoy his presence. They lost access to the tree of life. The world itself was plunged into ruin. And all of this became a cancer on the human race. When Adam and Eve had children, they found that the damaging effects of sin were passed on to their children as well. Their first son, Cain, killed their second son, Abel. The cancer of sin has affected the whole world.
One writer describes the fire that took place in the home of his parents:
They hurried home to find that some workers mending the gas main outside had caused an explosion in the house boiler. The boiler itself was a charred ruin, but the rest of the house seemed alright. Except, that is, for the smoke damage. Smoke had got round the entire place, and now everything smelled of it. On every wall you could wipe to reveal a thin, grimy film; every picture you took down left a non-smoky mark; every item of furniture smelt burnt. Everything was still there, but nothing was now the same. In a similar way, after the Fall of Humanity in Genesis 3, God leaves us with the blessings he has given, but each one is damaged; each one has, if you like, a spoilt smell about it. (Alasdair Paine, The First Chapters of Everything)
This explains our lives today. Our relationships with each other and God, our enjoyment of this world, the conflicts and sickness we see around us, and our decaying bodies are all consequences of the sin that was unleashed on the world that day. This is the tension of the story of the Bible, and it’s our tension too.
What’s the resolution?
In the passage that Mary read for us today, we see some startling parallels from the beginning of the Bible right at the very end. There are so many allusions in Revelation that you we can conclude that the Bible begins with paradise, and ends with paradise improved. What we can look forward to is just as good as what Adam and Eve enjoyed, except even better.
Let me summarize just a few of them:
Access to the tree of life — I mentioned that the tree of life is like the fountain of youth. Apart from it, we age and die. When Adam and Eve sinned, we lost access, and decay and death has been our reality ever since. Just over a week ago, a pastor in our denomination passed away after a brief illness, leaving his wife and kids behind. He wasn’t even that old. In Revelation 22, though, we read:
…through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations…Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:2, 14)
Adam and Eve lost access to the tree of life, but we’ll get it back. Death and decay and trips to the hospital will no longer be our reality. Funeral homes will go out of business. We’ll never lose anyone to death again.
A new heaven and earth, and a new city — We often talk about going to heaven. We’re not going to heaven, at least in the end. We’re headed for a new earth. It’s not that we go to live with God; it’s that God comes to live with us. For those of us who love cities, there’s great news. We will live in the best city. Revelation 21 says:
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.” (Revelation 21:1-3)
What this means is that our future isn’t floating on a cloud somewhere. Our future is this earth, only way better. We’ll eat, but the food will be better. We’ll have friends, but the friendships will be deeper. We’ll work, but things won’t go wrong. “Carefully read Revelation 21– 22 and many other passages, and you’ll discover that we’ll eat, drink, work, worship, learn, travel, and experience many of the things we do now” (Randy Alcorn). Best of all, God will live with us, and we’ll enjoy eternity with him forever.
We’re out of time, so let me just list a few other things:
- In Eden, Adam and Eve had a river (Genesis 2:10). On the new earth, we’ll have the river of the water of life from God’s throne (Revelation 22:1).
- In Eden, Adam and Eve had gold and onyx nearby (Genesis 2:11-12). In the new Jerusalem, we’ll walk on golden streets, and walls will have every precious stone (Revelation 21:19-21).
- In Eden, Adam and Eve will called to rule and to serve (Genesis 1:26; 2:15). In the new earth, we will serve as kings and priests (Genesis 22:3,5).
- In Eden, the unclean serpent was present to tempt and to bring shame (Genesis 3:1). In the new earth, there will be nothing impure, shameful, or deceitful (Revelation 21:3,23).
- After Adam and Eve sinned, they were banished from God’s presence (Genesis 3:23-24). On the new earth, God’s presence will endure forever (Revelation 21:3,23).
This is our future. This is the beginning and the end of the story.
What does this mean for us? Three things.
First, what you do matters. N.T. Wright says:
What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
Second, we can have hope in suffering and death. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to lose people we love. We are all going to go through tough times. Having this hope, knowing that God will set everything right, is the only thing that will keep us going sometimes.
Finally, we can let others know about this. This is the best possible news. Let’s tell everyone about Jesus and what he’s done to make this possible. Let’s tell everyone we know about this story so that it can be their story too.