The Greatest Story
Welcome to River City Church this morning! Happy Resurrection Sunday!
This is the day for Christians all over the world, where we once again revisit the same story we’ve been telling and re-telling for 2000 years, generation handing it off to generation, reading and re-reading the story of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
I’m sure you all have a favorite book or movie, some story that you enjoy revisiting from time to time. Maybe watching It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas, or just popping in one of your favorites when you have a free evening.
But, when your favorite movie ends, you put the DVD away, or you grab the remote and shut off the TV or close the computer. Or you close the back cover of your favorite novel again and put the book back on the shelf, and you walk away from it until next time. Those movies or stories don’t really have much effect on how you go about living your life… maybe there is a bit of inspiration, but in terms of banking your life on that story being true, it’s not something you would even think about.
Take Star Trek, for example, since we’re in Riverside. We’re all well aware that that is not the story of our lives. This city has a monument over by city hall that says Captain Kirk will be born here in about 205 years. But they’ve already moved it once and are talking about moving it again. And the thing is, no one really cares where we put it, right? Why? Because we know it’s not a true story. There’s no one studying the original manuscripts to see if it was near the city hall, or across the street from the IceHouse, or if some poor woman gives birth at Hall park instead of at a decent hospital. Most of us are not pulling out Star Trek books and reading them at night to our kids, because one day everything in them will come true. I say most of us because there’s always someone.
And yet THIS book; this story is one that is one that doesn’t fit that category. This story is one that is meant to be read and reread and reread and reread until everything in it finally happens, because it’s the story you and I are living in right now. It’s the true story of the universe, and everything in it. It includes how it began, and it includes how it will end…except the end is really just the beginning, and we realize we’ve been living in the Prelude the whole time.
Here’s the reality for all of us. All of us are living our lives under a dominant story. We perceive the world and human interactions through the stories we know and believe. We think about the world based on stories we’ve been told or experiences we’ve lived about where we grew up, how we grew up, wins and losses, good guys and bad guys, political victories, the history of our home country, or how we got to where we are. Sometimes our story is one of hurt and pain, loss or rejection. Sometimes it’s a story of wins and success, accomplishments and victories.
Sometimes these stories are real; others are simply narratives we’ve crafted in our minds, based on how we interpret things around us. In some cases, we believe outright lies.
For example –
- One person believes their story is that it’s them against the world. Something bad is always happening to them. They say things like, “I just have bad luck, or life just keeps dumping on me.” There’s no way God could be good, and let me live like this.
- Another person believes they are not good enough for God to want them. They have sinned too much…or they were sinned against. They don’t read their bible enough. They were rejected or chosen last on the playground, and as a result, they think they aren’t exactly what God is looking for. He can’t use them like he uses others who are more “perfect” or put together or those who know their Bible a lot better or grew up in solid homes.
- Or on the other side of the spectrum, someone else was the homecoming king, accomplished in multiple sports, got good grades and married the girl of his dreams. He starts his own business, and strikes it rich. The story he chooses to believe is that if you put in the hard work, have a drive to succeed, and some great teammates, anyone can do the same thing. It’s the kind of story that writes business books and autobiographies, but he has no concept of grace. Everything in life is earned. God must be the same way.
These are stories that shape how we view the world, and how we view God. But then there is the story of God found in the Bible. It’s the story that redeems, heals, and completes our personal stories—those smaller stories within the true story. Maybe this story is familiar to you, like pulling in the driveway after a long trip. Maybe this will be the first time you’ve heard it. But either way, I want to tell you the story of all stories.
“In the beginning God . . .” (Gen. 1:1). That is how the story begins—with God. God eternally existed in community—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—one God in three persons, existing in perfect unity. Nothing else existed. Nothing else was needed. They were perfectly fine and complete and joyfully overflowing in the love of a Father and Son.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… not because he needed to, but as the passage Lori read for us this morning from Ephesians 1 says, it was according to the good pleasure of his will. In other words – he created the world and everything in it because he wanted to. He adored Jesus, his Son, so much that he wanted to create more sons and daughters to love! Out of his overflow of love for Jesus his Son, he chose to make us! And the backdrop for this story is an incredibly beautiful and complex world full of ants and owls, whales and walruses, mountains and caves, lakes and streams and waterfalls and algae and roses, gravity and summer and of course, the stars.
He simply spoke and it all came into being. God’s word brought about God’s work. So the questions that you and I ask when we think about our own stories – when we ask the questions, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?” …these questions can only be answered inside of what God says and what God does.
For example, Caitlin Clark’s worth and significance does not ultimately come from what she does with a basketball, or what she did for women’s sports. It comes from the fact that she, like all of us, is made in the image of God, and only he can define if she is ultimately successful or not.
Same is true of you: Your worth, your value, your significance in the world does not come from your bank account, your accomplishments, your abilities, how well your kids are doing, or from anything other than what God says about you.
In the first two chapters of the Bible, God created man and woman to look like him, and called them to trust him and obey him: Believe who I say you are. Trust in what I’ve done to make you who you are. And as a result, listen to my words and obey them… an instruction to love, work, and govern in such a way as to show all of creation what God is like.
It was a good and beautiful garden; Everything the entire place was available to them, except the fruit from one tree. If they ate it, God said, they would die. It was a place of abundance and joy, with a man and a woman living in harmonious and pure love, naked and unashamed, daily enjoying each other, working and ruling over creation, and interacting with God in their midst. What did God think of it all? He said it was all very good!
FALL: But Genesis 3 shows us there was a problem. The problem was unbelief. The Serpent, the Devil, convinced the woman that God’s word was a lie and his work was not good: “God knows you aren’t as good as you could be. He knows that if you just took matters into your own hands, you would be much better. You can be like God if you just eat the fruit of the tree he told you not to eat of.” Instead of believing God’s words and living by THAT story, they believed the lie of the Devil, the master of weaving stories that aren’t true, that they would be fine.
Eve ate the fruit, then she gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate too. As soon as they did, they became suspicious of each other, and tried hiding from God. As a result of their rebellion, sin entered the world and brought about exactly what God predicted: death.
- Spiritual death (They started hiding from God in guilt and shame instead of looking for him),
- Relational death (They didn’t trust each other anymore), and
- Physical death (Creation began to decay; Adam and Eve began to grow old).
Sin produces brokenness, suffering, and death. This is because rebellion against God is rebellion against the giver of life. And this rebellion continues to go on today because of unbelief in the truthfulness of God’s word and the sufficiency of his work.
We’ve all experienced the brokenness that comes from unbelief. Physical, emotional, spiritual abuse. Divorce or nasty breakups. Bullying at school, work, or online. Tension between coaches and athletes; parents and children of any age; teachers and students; bosses and employees; countries/nations/political parties, arrogance and pride, self-promotion and self-righteousness, and on and on it goes.
Not to mention, our relationship with God’s good created world is often broken too. I pick up trash along the road almost every time I mow the lawn because someone considers creation to be a trash can instead of a reflection of God’s glory. Pollution. Stripping certain areas of natural resources without replenishing or replanting. Dumping stuff into the oceans because it disappears there.
And Romans 3 tells us we’re ALL guilty of this rebellion. Our sin doesn’t all look the same; the consequences aren’t all the same, but we’re all guilty. Adam represented the human race when he sinned, and everyone who came after him carried his death sentence. Sin doesn’t make us bad, it makes us dead.
There is no way for us to get back to that garden unless something is first done about the problem of unbelief and sin.
REDEMPTION: Thankfully, that’s only the third chapter, not the last chapter. Though he had every reason to abandon them right then and there, God explained the consequences of their rebellion, and then promised to put an end to the Serpent who deceives, and the rebellion he had started. God promised them that through one of Eve’s children, Satan would eventually be crushed (Gen. 3:15). God would have the final word. He would reverse the curse, and save us from our sin. He would rescue us from Satan. He would put death to death. His words are true and his work is sufficient.
Adam and Eve had failed to obey God, failed to trust him, failed to walk in God’s ways listening to his voice. As the Bible unfolds, generation after generation of God’s people failed too. God’s plan, however, did not. He would still fulfill his word. Through Eve’s offspring, the world would be blessed.
Another son—the true Son of God—would accomplish it. Jesus is that Son. Fully human, Jesus had to grow up just like any other person would. He got tired, thirsty, hungry, angry, sad, and experienced joy and laughter and fun. Fully God, he was born without a sin nature, like we are, and never disobeyed his Heavenly Father. He lived the perfect life of obedience and trust, just like Adam and Eve and you and I were designed to do. He trusted God’s promises perfectly, just like Abraham and Israel and you and I were supposed to do.
But because Jesus never followed in Adam’s footsteps, never giving into unbelief in his Father’s words, Jesus was able to be the perfect sacrifice required to atone for sinners. He took our sin on himself at the cross, where he paid for it with his blood and destroyed its power. Verse 7… in him we have redemption through his blood, and the forgiveness of our trespasses. From the cross, Jesus signed the check for the payment for sins with his own life, when he cried out, “It is finished!”
All the hoops you needed to jump through to get back to a right relationship with God, each other, and creation - Jesus took care of them. He took away the sin-record that stood against you. He took away the punishment that your sin deserved. He took away God’s wrath that stood against you because of sin. And because he did, your sins are washed away by his blood – forgiven and erased, never to be brought up again!
How do we know that’s true? How can we guarantee that Jesus’ death takes away our sin anyway? How can we be sure that one man’s death is the cure for sin in me and you and in other people? How can we be sure Satan won’t just overpower us and we go right back to where we were?
The answer is “The Resurrection!”
If Jesus paid for our sins with his body on the cross, the resurrection is proof that the check cleared! The cross worked! On the third day, Jesus was raised to life, just as alive as if he had never died. He overcame death and was given new life. And his resurrection, according to Romans 4:25, clears us of our sin so that we are raised to a new spiritual life — one where your slate is wiped clean as if you’ve never sinned at all! Death is no longer the end of the story for us either!
Everything has changed. The story that defines our life is no longer about how we did in school, or work, or relationships or athletics. The story that gives us our identity is no longer about abuse or accomplishments, shame or failure, beauty or brilliance. It’s all been bought and overshadowed by the resurrection of Christ! Our identity and our purpose, as well as our understanding of the truths of God, have completely changed. Our identity is that we are the new creation people of God! Chosen. Saved. Loved. Forgiven. Redeemed.
Jesus came up out of that grave and 40 days later, rose a second time… this time, rising up from the earth and going back to heaven where right this moment, he sits at the right hand of God, glorified, worshiped, exalted, and praised as our high priest, interceding for us, praying for us, and if you are in Christ, joined to him by faith, Ephesians 2 says you are as good as there already, an an inheritance waits there for you.
But he is not a distant God somewhere up there in the galaxies. Verse 13, in Christ you were also sealed with the Promised Holy Spirit when you heard and believed the gospel. Jesus went back to heaven, in a sense, to get out of the way. As a physical man, he could only be in one place at a time, but through his Spirit he can be in every city of every country on every continent at the same time. Now the Holy Spirit of Jesus lives in anyone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus and are obediently following his words and his instructions. If you have trusted Christ for salvation, by his Spirit, Jesus is in you, and you are in him!
Never again are you alone. You are never powerless. You are never forgotten. Never overlooked. Never unseen. Never ignored or unheard ever again. The Holy Spirit brings us close and connects us to Christ in such a way that we can enjoy him, serve him, worship him, and grow close to him, knowing each other like good friends.
RESTORATION: This same Jesus is right now, as verse 20 points out, as we speak, sovereign over every nation, every kingdom, every church, every earthly authority and every spiritual power, and He will soon come again as the king and the judge of all of history, when He will banish evil from the world forever and bring the full kingdom of heaven here to earth.
I don’t know what you think of when you think about heaven… maybe naked chubby babies with strategically placed ribbons, playing harps on clouds, or something like that. Or an eternal church service where we all just sing and pray forever and ever.
Throw that picture out the window. The kingdom of God won’t be up in the sky somewhere, with us hopping from cloud to cloud. It will be right here on a freshly recreated and renewed earth that looks a lot like that first garden, and it will be the most glorious family reunion ever, full of laughing and resting and working and experiencing the beauty of creation the way it was meant to be, relationships the way they were meant to be, with animals, flowers, trees, smells, colors, all delighting the senses like nothing we’ve ever seen or experienced. No more death. No more decay. No more pain. No more sorrow. Never again will you feel small, unfulfilled, depressed or unseen. Never again will you wonder if you really matter. Never again will you wonder if you are doing the right thing.
And better than all the streets of gold and beauty you’ll see is that Jesus will be there.
We were made for him! He is at the center of true life, and he will be forever. If there is no resurrection; if Jesus just stayed dead like everyone else, then heaven would not be heaven. We would be without the very person who can actually bring us joy and satisfaction and delight! But because he is alive, and we will be with him forever, heaven will be a place of perfect wholeness and completeness. Everything that was ever unsettled will be settled in him and in his perfect presence. “Eternity will not be long enough to learn all He is, or to praise Him for all He has done, but then, that matters not; for we shall always be with Him, and we desire nothing more” (Tozer).
The true image of God, Jesus, will light up that world with his glory, and we also will be given renewed resurrected bodies. We will reflect God as redeemed, recreated, and resurrected image bearers, transformed by the glory of Christ. This is not just a figment of our imagination, like Star Trek or Lord of the Rings… this is what is real, what is true, what is factual reality –– this is our story!
Jesus didn’t live, die and rise again so that you would just swear a little less than you used to, or so that you would just stop looking at porn or stop yelling at your kids. He didn’t live, die and rise again just so you would come and sit through 4 songs and a sermon once a week. He didn’t live, die and rise again because he needs 10% of your income, or needed you to serve him in some way.
Jesus lived, died, and rose again so that he could live in you and with you, his life in yours, so that you can know him right here and right now, enjoy him and walk with him and seek him and talk to him and rest in him, as he fills you with the power of his Spirit so you can walk in freedom and newness and wholeness. Because he rose again, every moment of your smaller story, no matter how painful or forgettable, will be redeemed and not a single moment of it is lost; because Jesus rose again, Satan is defeated! The curse of Eden is reversed, and because Jesus rose again, death is no longer something to fear… it’s just the turn of the page, from the prelude into the real story.
That’s the story that’s worth telling and retelling over and over and over again, until everything in it finally happens, and what should blow all of our minds every time we tell this story: It’s all free.
You don’t need a seminary degree to experience a growing daily friendship with Jesus. You don’t have to donate a certain amount to the church. You don’t have to have done a certain amount of charity, or have done more good things than bad things. You don’t have to consider yourself religious. You don’t have to vote a certain way. You don’t have to believe for a certain amount of time. You don’t even have to be able to repeat the whole story perfectly.
You just need to see that your sins separated you from God, and believe that, because he loved you, he did something about it by sending his Son. And then for the rest of your life, grow in your delight for him and for what he has done. If you have never done that – today is the day.
Questions to consider:
- What story have I been believing? What narrative have I built my life around? That I have to pull myself up by my bootstraps? That I am rejected? That God can’t use me?
- Open my eyes to see Jesus! Whether it’s for the first time, or you need a fresh picture of who he is and who you are…a fresh picture of what Jesus has done and continues to do.
- Fill me with your Spirit! Give us a fresh outpouring, a fresh anointing, a fresh awakening to you, so that we can say no to sin, and yes to Jesus
If you want someone to pray with you, join me on the sides.
I'm indebted to Jeff Vanderstelt for his book Gospel Fluency, which tells the Story of God in such a beautiful way, and helps make sense of how it all applies to our smaller stories. Much of my explanation of the Story comes by putting Jeff's content in my own words, or has been quoted from the field guide for the book... too much to reference every single time. Jeff Vanderstelt, Gospel Fluency: Field Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018)
Paul Tripp, New Morning Mercies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), entry titled “April 4”
David Mathis, Thirty Days of Easter, March 9, 2023 (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/thirty-days-of-easter), accessed March 10, 2023.
AW Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc, 1948)