Have you heard of Storycorps? Storycorps is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to celebrate the lives of everyday Americans by inviting them to tell and record their stories.
It's a pretty simple concept. The Storycorps sound booth travels from city to city and sets up shop. People are invited to bring one person with them whose story they want told, and the two of them sit in a sound booth for 40 minutes and talk. When they're done, they get a CD with their story on it, and another copy is sent on to be archived in the Library of Congress. You can hear their stories online and weekly on NPR.
I listened to a few: the story of a young mother running through the hills from Mexico to the US—in socks so as not to make any noise—in order to escape drug violence and find a better life for her children. The story of a husband caring for his elderly wife for over 10 years, refusing to let Alzheimer's take her from him. A Vietnam vet, whose high school sweetheart married someone else when he went off to war. He never stopped loving her, and never married, until he found her 40 years later, single again, and made her his wife.
So far over 40,000 Americans have had their stories told and preserved. Together, they tell the American story, one life at a time. The founder of the movement is named Dave Isay. If you asked him why he does this he'd say it's because he wants people to know that their stories matter and won't be forgotten.
Suppose the Storycorps trailer pulled into the parking lot today, and you had a chance to sit in the booth. What story would you tell? What dreams have you chased? What obstacles have you overcome? Are you living the life you imagined? Are you living a good story?
This year we are focusing on stories here at Grace Chapel. In September we began a 40-week journey through the Bible. We've discovered that the Bible isn't just a collection of laws and lessons for life; it's more like a collection of stories about people, events, nations. Together they make up one story: God's quest to save the fallen race of beings made in his image, and to restore this broken world to its original splendor. We've also discovered that every time we open the Bible, we find ourselves in the pages. The people we meet here are just like us, the stories they're living are a lot like ours.
I came across an interesting column in the paper a couple weeks ago. It was just after Tim Tebow was traded to the New York Jets. Tebow, of course, is an outspoken believer in Jesus Christ, and was perhaps the most talked about figure in American sports this past year. Ross Douthat, a writer for The New York Times, was trying to explain why Tebow's remarkable ride has been so captivating. He writes, "Tebow's religion doesn't just promise a path to personal transformation. It claims that every human life is actually a story with an Author, and that a genuinely Christian life should make that divine authorship manifest." This, from The New York Times?
I don't know if they realize it, but Dave Isay and Ross Douthat are simply confirming what the Bible tells us from the very first pages—every person's story matters, because God's story of love is being told one life at a time.
On Easter Sunday, we come to the most climactic moment in that great Story: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we're going to discover that when God's story intersects with our story, it changes everything. But before we get to the Jesus story, let's think for a minute about our own stories.
The human story
Donald Miller is a contemporary writer who says that in order to have a story, you have to have "a character who wants something and has to overcome conflict to get it." That's a pretty good definition of a story.
Take Romeo and Juliet—two young lovers want to be together, but they have to overcome their feuding families' opposition. I asked some of the pastoral staff to help me illustrate this definition with other stories that fit this pattern. They quickly came up with quite a few:
Frodo has to destroy the golden ring in order to save Middle Earth.
Rudy wants to play football for Notre Dame but has to overcome poor grades and a puny build.
Katniss has to survive the Hunger Games in order to get back to her family.
I was impressed with how thoughtful and cultured our staff was, until one of them brought up Lloyd Christmas in the film Dumb and Dumber.
So what's your story? What do you want, and what's keeping you from getting it? Chances are there are as many answers to that question as there are people listening to this message. Maybe you want a successful career, or a happy family, or good health, or financial security. Maybe all you want is for your baseball team to win a game. These are all reasonable, but it seems to me what every person really wants in the end is life. Not just any life. A good life. A meaningful life. A long life. Isn't that ultimately what we all want? The rest, as the saying goes, is just details.
We want life, not just for ourselves, but for the whole world. So, what keeps us from getting it? What do we have to overcome on our way to long and good life?
Again, it could be lots of things—sickness, unemployment, racial prejudice, family dysfunction, bad habits, bad people, bad luck. But in the end, there are two things that keep us from the life we want: sin and death.
Sin is our human tendency to mess things up, to think of ourselves first instead of others, to hold a grudge instead of forgiving someone, to settle for lust instead of intimacy, to twist the truth, to lose our temper, to break our promises, to hurt the people we love. Sometimes it's our own sin that gets in the way; sometimes it's someone else's. Either way, it's always there, spoiling our joy and sabotaging our good intentions. As long as sin is on the loose in the world, in the human heart, we'll never live the lives we were meant to live.
The other thing that gets in the way of a good life is death. No matter how good our life is, we're always haunted by the fact that it could end at any time, and that it will end sometime. When it does end, it will probably feel too soon, like there's more life to live.
That's the basic human storyline: we want a good, long life, but sin and death keep getting in the way.
Years ago, when our kids were young, we were out at a themed restaurant with TV's all over walls, playing cartoons with no sound. The six of us were goofing around the table, but our youngest, who was about three or four at the time, had his eyes glued to the TV screen. He was watching a continuous loop of Road Runner cartoons, watching as Wile E. Coyote strapped on rocket-propelled roller skates, or shot himself out of a cannon, or launched himself from a giant slingshot in pursuit of the elusive Road Runner. After watching intently for a long time, he had an epiphany. Without taking his eyes off the screen, he quietly announced to the table, "No matter what he does, he's never going to get the chicken."
Isn't that the human storyline? No matter what we do, we're never going to beat sin and death. No matter how many self-help books we read, no matter how many promises we make to ourselves and others, sin continues to wreak havoc on our careers, our relationships, and our good times. No matter how many peace treaties are signed, no matter how many relief efforts are launched, we still can't fix what's wrong with the world. And no matter how many vitamins we take, no matter how much we exercise and eat right, no matter how many advances we make in medicine, we just can't beat death.
No matter what he does, he's never going to get the chicken. And neither are we, as long as sin keeps thwarting our dreams and death keeps robbing us of life. Every human being since Adam and Eve has lived his or her own version of that same story. That's not to say that our stories are never good. But they're never as good, or as long, as we'd like them to be. With that in mind, I think we're ready for a better story: the Jesus story.
The Jesus story
The Jesus story begins as a classic rags-to-riches tale. A child is conceived out of wedlock, and born to a peasant couple on the road, a long way from home. His first night in this world is spent in a barn. They wrap him in cloths, and lay him on a bed of straw. He grows up in a backwater town, and spends the early years of his life in obscurity working a blue-collar job, providing for his family, and practicing the religion of his people.
At age 30 he breaks onto the public scene, making a name for himself with rousing sermons, and promises of a coming kingdom. He speaks of a new age—of peace and justice for all people, of God's goodness filling the earth and healing the nations. He speaks about God as if he knows him, as if he's on some kind of "mission."
But they're not just words; he backs them up with actions. Everywhere he goes blind people see, paralytics get up and walk, hungry people are fed, and those beset by demons are set free. He gathers around him a small band of followers—a dozen zealous, untested men and a handful of capable women.
Like every folk hero, the common people love him, but the authorities are alarmed. Soon great crowds are following him everywhere, rumors and expectations are getting out of hand. So the authorities make plans to get rid of him.
The tipping point comes in the third year of his ministry. He comes out of Galilee with fire in his eyes, marching toward the capitol city. He arrives just in time for the holy days. As he enters the city, crowds come out to greet him, lining the streets and hailing him as their coming king. His followers are pumped; this is the moment they've been waiting for.
But suddenly, the story takes a dark turn. Instead of leading a revolt, Jesus turns inward. He talks about suffering and death, about going away for a long time. The crowds quickly lose interest. One of his own men sells him out. By the end of the week, he's placed under arrest, and his friends are nowhere to be found. He's sentenced to death by lying priests and a cowardly politician. After a public beating and humiliation, he's marched out of the city where he's nailed to some timbers and hung up to die in the midday sun.
Jesus' story ends in death, like every other human story. He dies virtually alone. It's left to a couple of strangers to take his body down and hastily wrap it for burial. From rags to riches to rags once again. His followers go into hiding, disillusioned and afraid. It was a remarkable run, but short-lived.
On the third day after his death, a few brave and loyal women come out to the grave to pay their last respects. But they find the tomb busted open, and the body gone. A heavenly being appears to them and tells them not to worry. Jesus is alive again! He's on the move. He's eager to see them, and to pick up where they left off.
So the story's not over, after all. Rags to riches to rags—to riches once again. And two thousand years later, this story's still being told.
It's a remarkable story. Although it's familiar to many of us, it never fails to surprise us, to stir our hearts. But let's come back to our definition of story: a character wants something and has to overcome conflict to get it.
The results of Jesus' story
So what did Jesus want? We could answer that question in many ways. He wanted to make God known. He wanted to restore the nation of Israel. He wanted to inaugurate the kingdom of God.
But as I asked myself that question, What did Jesus want? I found myself drawn to Jesus' own words, found in the gospel of John. Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Jesus wanted us to have the very same thing that we want for ourselves: life. Not just any life, but a full life. Or, as he says in another place, eternal life. That's what Jesus wants for you and me and every human being: a good life that goes on forever. That's why he came.
What did he have to overcome? The same two things you and I have to overcome: sin and death.
First, he had to overcome sin—everything wrong with the human race and this fallen world. And he did! He took on the foolishness of the crowd, the faithlessness of the disciples, the jealousy of the religious leaders, the brutality of the soldiers, and the cowardice of Pontius Pilate. He absorbed it. He forgave it.
Then, he had to overcome death. It was the last enemy, the undefeated foe, the end of every human story. Jesus took death on. His lifeless body was laid to rest in a stone cold tomb. Three days later he blew the door off that tomb and opened the way to eternal life.
Fifteen years or so after these things happened, the apostle Paul wrote these words after observing the impact of Christ's death and resurrection firsthand. "Where, O death, is your victory? And where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" (1 Cor. 15:55-57)
To put it another way, Jesus caught the chicken. Like a snake handler offering his arm to the viper's fangs, he absorbed this world's evil, draining sin of its lethal venom so that you and I can have life to the full.
The truth of Jesus' story
That, friends, is the true story of the risen Jesus. There's never been a story like it in human history. There's never been a story of a human being who conquered both sin and death. It's so remarkable some people find it hard to believe.
We don't have time to consider all the evidence this morning, but consider this: there were other "messiahs" in Jesus' day, inspiring teachers, religious radicals. Historians point to a dozen of them, at least. They gathered followers and made promises and raised people's hopes and expectations. But every one of their stories ended in death, usually a violent death. That was the end of them. None of their followers suggested that they had somehow come back to life. The thought never even crossed their minds. Why would it? They simply concluded that these must have been false messiahs, and began looking for the next one.
But for some reason, that didn't happen with the Jesus story. His followers insisted that he'd come back from the dead, that he was very much alive and more messiah-like than ever. His enemies couldn't refute it. They couldn't point to a grave or produce a body and say, "Look, there he is."
The Jesus story refused to die. In fact, it only gained momentum. His followers told it to everyone, everywhere. They went to their deaths telling his story. Within a few years, a new religious movement emerged—the Jesus movement—entirely consistent with the story that had been told for thousands of years, but far better and broader than anyone imagined.
It is hard to believe. But consider the evidence. First, there is the physical evidence of the empty tomb. The Jesus story would have ended immediately if Jesus had stayed in the grave like every other dead person. Something happened to the body of Jesus that no one has ever explained.
Second, there is the human evidence, the change that came over the disciples. Something transformed them from sniveling, doubting cowards to courageous leaders who spent the rest of their lives claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, and who suffered painful and untimely deaths because of it. Something happened to the followers of a dead Messiah that no one has ever been able to explain.
Third, there is the historical evidence of the rise of Christianity. The brilliant historian N.T. Wright points out that the Jesus movement that arose after these things was a radical departure from historical, scriptural Judaism, but at the same time was entirely consistent with historical, scriptural Judaism. In other words, no one in first century Israel could have dreamed up such a belief system, a suffering Messiah who died and rose to life. At the same time, the belief system among Jesus' followers clearly emerged from the stories that God's people had been telling for thousands of years. Something happened to give birth to a spiritual movement that shaped human history like no other.
It can change your life, too. If Jesus conquered sin and death, he can conquer whatever is getting in the way of the life you want and were meant to live. That's our storyline this Easter Sunday. If Jesus is greater than sin and death, he's greater than anything that can keep us from living a better story.
The power of Jesus' story
I went to a show in Boston a few nights ago, an off-Broadway musical called Next to Normal. It's the story of a typical American family trying to live a good life. But something keeps getting in the way, ruining their good times and sabotaging their relationships. In this family's case, it's the mom's bipolar illness, triggered by a terrible loss earlier in life. No matter how many times and ways they try to deal with it, it keeps rearing its ugly head and wreaking havoc on their lives.
It's a powerful story—honest, heart-breaking, and occasionally hopeful. One by one, the members of the family do the best they can. They accept the fact that they'll never be a normal family, but they strive to be "next to normal." The show ends with the mother singing, "You don't have to have a happy life, to be happy you're alive."
I enjoyed the show; I really did. But when it was over and we applauded the cast, I couldn't help thinking to myself, The gospel is so much better than that. Jesus is so much greater than the pain and the grief and the disappointment and the failure that this family and what every family experiences in this life.
Life wasn't meant to be normal or next to normal. It was meant to be rich, and full, and satisfying, and eternal. As we drove home I thought to myself, I can't wait for Sunday, when I get to tell a better story: the true story of the risen Jesus.
I don't know what specifically is keeping you or your family from the life you want to be living. Whatever it is, I can assure you that Jesus is greater.
Don't just take my word for it. A few weeks ago, we set up a few story booths right here at Grace Chapel in Lexington and Wilmington. We invited people to step inside and tell their stories. We didn't give them 40 minutes. We gave them three sentences. Dozens of people took us up on it. We can't share them all, but listen to a handful of people describe how Jesus is helping them write a better story.
[Editor's Note: The audio of this sermon continues with a number of short testimonies focusing on how Jesus is writing a better story in the lives of Wilkerson's church members.]
They say that every good story has an inflection point, an incident that changes the trajectory of a character's life. I wonder if this Easter Sunday could be such an inflection point for you. If you'd like to live a better story, I'd like to offer you a couple of first steps.
If there's something in particular that's getting in the way of your good life—some habit, some hurt, some hang-up—I invite you to check out Celebrate Recovery. It's free. It's anonymous. It can give you victory over whatever is keeping you from a better story.
If there's nothing in particular you're dealing with, but you're curious about this Jesus story, wondering if you can really believe it, I invite you to check out Alpha. Alpha is a safe place to explore the Christian faith, to ask anything you want. You're welcome to try it one time.
If you're already a believer in Christ, but you're still not satisfied with the story you're living, I invite you to come back next week to this church or any church that's telling the true story of the risen Jesus. Because the resurrection changes everything.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.