Today we begin a journey of Understanding the Bible.  In seven lessons or about 100 minutes, I’ll be teaching through the Bible from start to finish.  We’ll look for common ideas that can give you some orientation as you navigate this ancient, massive, sacred text.  There are many ways to teach the Bible.  The way I will offer is not the only way or the best way, but it is a way of understanding that I have found most helpful in my own ongoing education and at this stage in my faith.  This way will not tell you everything you need to know about the Bible, but I hope that it will draw you further into a desire to know more.  So let’s begin.  Today we will talk about an idea that will govern our study of the Bible these seven Sundays and will map out where we are headed.

I’m going to start with a story from outside of the Bible:  JRR Tolkien’s world-famous fantasy story The Lord of the Rings.  The epic is, in many ways, crafted out of Tolkien’s deep Christian commitments.  Two decades ago, it was revived through three successive movies that broke records at the box office and the Oscars.  Countless enthusiastic viewers dressed in costume and lined up in the middle of the night to watch premiers of this great story, And many of them were among the countless young people who were simultaneously leaving the church or showing no interest in it in the first place—that’s something for us to think about later).

I wonder if you saw it and remember the opening Prologue to the first movie.  The story begins in quiet and darkness, with some low whispering in the background, and the words are these:

“The world is changed.  I feel it in the water.  I feel it in the earth.  I smell it in the air.  Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it… 

It began with the forging of the great rings.  Three were given to the elves…Seven to the dwarf lords… And nine, nine rings were given to the race of men, who above all else, desire power.  For within these rings was the strength and will to govern each race.   

But they were, all of them, deceived.  For another ring was made.  In the land of Mordor, in the fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged, in secret, a Master Ring, to control all others, and into this ring, he poured his cruelty, his malice, and his will to dominate all life.  One ring to rule them all.  One by one, the free lands of Middle Earth fell to the power of the ring.  

But some resisted……they fought for the freedom of Middle Earth.…It was in this moment that Isioldor, the son of the King, took up his father’s sword.  Sauron, the enemy of the free peoples of Middle Earth, was defeated.” (Prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring).

That is the story.

I want you to think back to your high school literature class, to your favorite story of heroism, to the lives of real people whose stories engage and inspire you with their devotion to the good of the world.  I wonder if you’ve ever considered how they, or you, might fit into one greater story, a story in which we all live and move and have our being.  I would describe it this way:

The world was once a good and peaceful place where people lived together in harmony, free of fear.  But somewhere along the line, things went terribly wrong, and the goodness of that created world fell apart.  So now, we are on a journey, all of us together.  We hope that the world can be saved, that a savior will arise among us, and that the goodness that once was, might be restored.  The four Scripture Lessons we heard today:  Creation, a Covenant renewed with Israel, a Covenant with Jesus remembered through bread and wine, a promise of a New Creation…these passages span the Bible and all draw upon the same story.

John Steinbeck wrote that “There is one story in the world, and only one…  Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil.”  Every story is in some way wrapped up in this one.

It was not Steinbeck or Tolkien, or Mother Theresa, or even Jesus of Nazareth, who came up with this story, though all of them have participated in it.  And the Bible is one of the first and most profound places where this story of humanity takes shape and gets told and retold among every generation.  In this series of sermons on Understanding the Bible, we will trace this story.  It is a story of Creation, Brokenness, and Repair toward a New Creation. 

If you remember nothing else I say this morning, commit this to memory.  That the Bible is a story of Creation—the creation of a Covenant between God and humankind.  The Covenant gets broken and things fall apart—and God repairs and renews the Covenant so that New Creation can take place.  Creation, brokenness, and repair for new Creation…over and over again, that is the story we will trace in Understanding the Bible. 

So, where are we heading?

  • In Week 2 we will explore the Bible’s oldest and most important story that establishes the covenant between God and God’s people.  You may be surprised to learn it is not at the very beginning of the book in Genesis but is in the Book of Exodus.
  • In Week 3 we’ll go back to the beginning, and see how the stories of the Creation of the world and the gathering of God’s people in Genesis are preparing them for that most important covenant in Exodus.
  • Week 4 will seem at first like a huge undertaking, and it is, but our theme will help.  We will look at the hundreds of years and hundreds of pages of the history of the people of Israel and how their story is a constant reflection of living under the covenant as a chosen people of God.
  • Week 5 will be a look into what happens when the covenant idea fails and this story of the world does not make sense.  We will look at the Wisdom literature of the Bible, which are poetic expressions of the struggle to live under this covenant.
  • Week 6 we will finally enter the New Testament.  If that seems strange, pick up your Bible physically, and hold together the pages of the New Testament and see how it compares, just by length, to the overall story.  It’s not that it isn’t important, but a robust understanding of God’s covenant story is what really helps us to understand the meaning of Jesus.  So in Week 6 we’ll explore the life of Jesus as told in the four Gospels and Acts.
  • And in Week 7, we’ll look at the remainder of the New Testament, which is mostly made up of letters in the early church, and we’ll see how the earliest Christians wrote to each other about the Covenant.

I want to remind you that these sermons will not be given on 7 consecutive Sundays but will be spaced out over the next two months.  It’s summer, you will be away for some weeks and so will I, but each of the seven sermons will be collected in a common place on our website and in the same podcast, so you can keep up with the series, catch up easily when you’ve missed a week or listen again, and if you feel so led, share it with friends or join us in our Wednesday Bible studies for a deeper dive.

This leaves one remaining question which I think needs comment today:

Why understand the Bible?  And what help is it to understand it in this way?  In a practical sense, and for regular churchgoers, it’s a good use of your time.  Why come to worship, or study the Bible in your own or in a small group, only to feel like you’re being asked week after week to open the book aimlessly to Jeremiah 31 or Ecclesiastes 3 or John 15 with no point of reference as to where you might be in the larger story.  I hope these weeks will provide an orientation that you can turn to again and again and that knowing the whole story will help the individual parts of the Bible make more sense.

There are deeper reasons too, and not just for those of us who identify as “church people.”  Understanding the Bible as this story of a covenant means seeing the world differently.  The victories and defeats, the joys and sorrows of our own small lives are taking place as part of a larger story of the redemption of the world.  Our inexplicable sufferings might become a little more bearable when we see that others have been down this road before us, so we know we are not alone.  Our struggles to be on the side of the good, even against long odds, increase in their meaning.  And when we see God’s incredible patience and tenacity, loving the world, again and again, no matter how many times we fail and falter, we come to see that above all else, the Bible is a story of grace, of God’s unfailing love.  We have never earned it, but it is still promised to us, day after day after day.

Not only do we find these themes in The Lord of the Rings, and in Steinbeck, but in Flannery O’Connor and Maya Angelou, and the tellings of our American story by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.  And the story belongs to you as well.  Maybe you are a young person seeking direction, or an older person searching for meaning, or a busy parent just trying to get through the day:  Perhaps you often find that the days are long but the years are passing quickly.  You sense the giftedness but also the brokenness of your own life.  You imagine that life was once simpler, and you wonder if such a life for you can be restored.  All of these stories find their origins in the Bible.  I hope you will find this series to be a renewal of your love for the traditions that we share and that are meant as a gift for all of us.  This is our story—embrace it!  Amen.