What is your favorite story?
Outside of the Bible, because I know some of you will be tempted to say “the Bible” to score points with God – outside of the Bible, what is your favorite story? It can be a book, a movie, a comic book, something your mom or dad told you, but think about that question for a minute. What is your favorite story? Mine happens to be both a movie AND a book and I think you’d be surprised because it’s not Star Wars and it’s not Disney related. I know, shocking right? My favorite story is The Princess Bride. I absolutely love that movie. And the book, too. I’ve read it cover-to-cover probably about three or four times and I’ve watched the movie more times than I can count. It’s hard not to love a story that has “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love… Miracles” as the grandfather would say. It’s a great read. I’m sure your story is a great read, too and I’m confident I can tell you what your favorite story is all about. Without even knowing the title or anything about it, I bet I can tell you what your story is all about. See if this sounds familiar. The story you love is about a character or characters who experience an event or series of events that change them by the end of the story. The story you love is about a character or characters who experience an event or series of events that change them by the end of the story. Isn’t that true? Some of you are going to say, “Well, of course you got it right, that’s the premise of every story ever told!” And that’s right. The reason we are drawn to stories in the first place is because we love to hear and read and watch movies about people whose lives are changed. It’s fascinating to us to learn about how an event or series of events can radically change a person’s life. The better the story, the more astounding the transformation. That’s why the greatest story ever told is the story of the resurrection of Jesus – because it absolutely changed the entire world.
It’s the reason the Gospels were shared and then written.
It wasn’t just a recorded history of things that happened. It was the amazing transformative story of the people of God. It’s the story of God who came in human flesh, who suffered a horrible death, and then came back to life! It’s the story of the apostles and how they were changed by this amazing series of events from being ordinary people living ordinary lives to becoming people who were willing to give everything they had to help others come to faith in Christ. And the purpose of all these stories we read in the Bible can be summed up in two short verses from the apostle John who walked alongside Jesus while he was on Earth. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone and you want to follow along, we’ll be reading from the Gospel of John, chapter 20, beginning with verse 30. John 20:30-31. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all share the same basic story. They share different details and include different vignettes, but basically they all share the life and times of Jesus. And John sums up the reason they wrote down these stories in a really simple statement found near the end of his writing.
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.” Please be seated.
All the stories, all the parables, all the miracles were written for one reason.
“That you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. That is the transformative power of the Gospel. Believing in THIS can change your entire life! And John tells us that these stories were just the tip of the iceberg. He writes, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” And in the next chapter he writes at the end, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” But these stories were chosen among all the ones out there to make it clear that Jesus was the Son of God. Story is important because it can shape the way we think and how we understand life. And Jesus knew this. It’s why he told so many stories of his own. In fact, he often wouldn’t speak directly to the people about his identity or about what he was trying to teach, but instead told them story after story after story. We hear the story of the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son, about the workers in the field, about the man sowing seeds, the wedding banquet, the bridesmaids waiting for the groom…the list goes on and on about the stories that Jesus told.
Stories have the power to change lives.
And as we cross the room and live in 3D by developing relationships, discovering stories, and discerning next steps, eventually people will want to know our story. Like the Muslim man, Bob whose friend Steve asked about his belief in Islam, eventually, Bob wanted to hear Steve’s story in return. Do you know what your story is? Not every last detail about your life, but the before and after effects of Jesus? In his book, Just Walk Across the Room, Bill Hybels says that what people really want to know are the before and after effects, like in a commercial for weight loss or body-building. People want to know why they should follow Christ. What difference has it made in your life to follow Jesus? Because if there isn’t any evidence of it, why bother? What makes being a Christ follower any different than a guy who joins the Rotary Club? And that is a story only you can tell.
Today, I thought I would tell you mine.
I grew up in a nominally Buddhist household, meaning that we didn’t go to temple or anything like that. My grandparents were Buddhist on both sides and I ended up going to a lot of funerals for a kid. My parents bought me a set of prayer beads when I was young and taught me the traditions of a Buddhist funeral, but I have to admit to not understanding the significance of any of it. When my grandmother passed away, it was the first time someone I knew well had died. I was about eight years old and I remember asking my mom what happened to her. Where did people go when they died? What happened to them? And I’ll never forget what my mom said. She said, “I believe she is in Heaven with God.”
Well, that stirred up all sorts of questions.
Who was God? Where was Heaven? Could you get there by bus? How do people get to Heaven? What is a soul? I guess my questions were getting to be more than my mom could answer because I remember by fifth grade she sent me to Sunday School for the first time – Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church. It was there I first heard about the life of Jesus. It was a typical Sunday School. Every week we had a memory verse and if you memorized your verse you got a stamp on the wall and once you got 50 stamps you got to go to Disneyland. Even then I was a Disney fanatic so you bet that was great incentive for me. My mom was a little worried I was spending so much time on my Bible and was afraid it would affect my schoolwork. In my defense it didn’t, but she suggested we stop going for a while which I was just fine with.
I didn’t go back until I was much older.
But in the meantime, God kept putting people in my life that encouraged me to come to church. I remember the first time I went to a Christian funeral. It was for my mom’s uncle. His family were the only ones in our extended family I knew who were not Buddhist and when he passed his funeral was so different. Instead of rituals where I didn’t understand the language or the meaning behind them, it was a celebration of his life and the ways in which he touched those around him. I remember someone high up in California government came to speak at his funeral and talked about what an honorable man he was. Someone from the national Boys and Girls Club of America came to pay respects and to say a few words about his work with those kids. And of course his family shared about how much he meant to them. And all of that testimony really made a difference to me. Later on when I was in college, I invited my friend Lisa to come to my house for our family’s Easter get-together and she said sure, but would I like to go to church with her? It was the first time I attended an Easter worship service (and again it was in a Methodist church coincidentally). We sat up in the balcony and something about that service stuck with me. I ended up wanting to find out more about God and joined my first youth group while at UCLA. The people there were the most caring group I’d ever encountered at school and their love was amazing. But one member of the group kept crying every week about how her parents were never going to Heaven and for someone new to faith, it was really hard to understand. I ended up quitting the group, but God wasn’t done with me.
Over and over again there were people who kept bringing me back to God.
I told you last week about my friends Mark and Steve who kept inviting me to their church and how I would keep dipping my foot in the pool. Another friend of mine, Mark Adams, asked me to be best man at his wedding and his priest just had this air of grace – he didn’t stand high on pretention but treated me with kindness. And of course, Cassie, who would invite me week after week to go with her to church. I remember when it hit me what difference Christ made in the lives of others. It was in Sunday School when we were talking about raising kids. These people weren’t perfect. They had problems like we had problems. The difference is when things got tough for them, they had faith in Christ. When things got tough for me, I had only me. I wanted to know more about the peace that they had in their hearts and that’s what convinced me that I needed to devote my life to God. My life is a testimony to God’s prevenient grace, because as stubborn as I was to hear him, God never gave up on me. He kept reaching out to me through the love of the people around me until I finally heard. Now, how I got to be a pastor is a whole different story and something I’ll probably share one day, but that’s how came to faith in Christ – through the love of those around me. Which is why I know this stuff works.
Now would I share it that way with someone who was new to faith?
No. Not at all. I can share it with you because you are here in a church, willingly seeking God. But for someone new to faith, who doesn’t want to hear a sermon, and who asks me for the reason I have chosen to follow Christ instead of something, ANYTHING, else, I would say this, “I used to think that Christians were hypocrites who pretended to love Jesus on Sundays and on Mondays acted like the rest of us. But so many people in my life I have come to love and admire were not like that at all. They had a peace in their heart I just couldn’t find. It wasn’t until I decided I wanted that same peace and devoted my life to Jesus that I really understood the power, the grace, the love, and the mercy he wants to give to all of us.” Understanding your story can be the most powerful witness of all. It can open the gate to deeper conversations where you can explain what all of that means, but if you can’t explain in short, concise ways, why you believe what you believe, then you really need to think about it more. Sometimes we do more harm than good with how we transmit our stories if we decide to share them at all. Peter tells us in one of his letters that we have to be prepared to share with others the reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:13-16). Are you prepared? I want to challenge you this week to write down your own faith story in 100 words or less. I’ll be happy to help anyone who would like it, but just as it’s important to be willing to share our faith, we also need to be prepared for why Jesus makes a difference in our lives. Remember the reason your favorite stories are your favorite stories is because you see the evidence of transformation in the lives of the characters in the story. If at the end of the story, their lives were no different than they were before, why bother reading it? Know your story because your story is a continuation of the mighty work God is doing in each of us. Your story like John’s stories are given so that others may have life in the name of Christ. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.