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Tell Me the Old, Old Story

I was brought up listening to stories. As a young child my parents read stories to me every night until I learned to read for myself and was then able to hungrily devour book after book! My father, in particular, told me numerous stories. Stories from his own childhood in the 1900s, stories from his time in India as a soldier during the British Raj, and other stories that he simply made up. Consequently I too always read to my own children, and told them stories – some of which they in turn told to their children?! In addition, my formative years were the early 1950s, when very few people actually had television but everybody listened to the radio. In the early 1950’s the memory of the wartime years still remained comparatively fresh in people’s memories in the UK so radio programmes were often quite jolly and steered toward leaving your troubles behind you. The radio was always on in our house, and as a child I became familiar with programmes such as Workers Playtime, Housewives Choice, Music While You Work, and Mrs Dales Diary. My favourite programmes, however, were always the stories – detective stories such as Paul Temple, or adventure stories such as Dick Barton: Special Agent. I also enjoyed the Variety Shows such as Educating Archie with the ventriloquist Peter Brough, and his dummy Archie Andrews. It was this programme that first introduced me to Max Bygraves (1922-2012) who appeared as one of Archie’s ‘guest tutors’. Bygraves went on to become a very successful entertainer in his own right, combining a mixture of songs and anecdotes in his act. Bygraves’ catchphrase – which always led into a poignant or amusing anecdote – was, ‘I wanna tell you a story!’

As a Christian, and as a preacher and teacher, I also tell stories! I am not speaking here of merely ‘sermon illustrations’ although these are helpful – ‘windows to light truths difficult to understand’ as someone once described them. Neither am I suggesting – as critics of the Christian Faith often do – that the Bible is full of ‘made up’ stories that no intelligent person can really believe? The whole Bible is  essentially narrative – a book of numerous stories of God’s gracious dealings with individuals, people groups, and even nations – rather than a book of rules and regulations we are slavishly meant to follow. The old idea of God’s eternal plans and purposes being akin to some kind of overarching rainbow above us, which presented us with an idea of God as being wholly ‘other’ and distant from us, has been replaced by a more perceptive understanding of God’s eternal plans and purposes being more like a divine safety net undergirding us. Biblical history is to be seen as a kind of eternal time line of stories of God’s gracious dealings with humanity in which individuals, various people groups, and nations have come to encounter God for themselves in a meaningful way. Their little stories have found a place in God’s big story, if you like. And when we read their stories in the Bible, and see how they fit into God’s big story, and how God dealt graciously with them, it encourages us not just to find parallels with their stories, but to see that our own particular story also fits into God’s big story and that we too may expect God to deal graciously with us if we allow him to shape and mould our destiny.

The whole Bible is essentially one big story – albeit split into significant component parts – that tells of God’s gracious dealings with his Creation from Eternity to Eternity.  What we call the Old Testament is primarily the story of God’s gracious dealings with a particular people group, chosen by God himself, for a specific purpose – namely to bless all the other nations of the world by giving birth to God’s Promised Messiah and by sharing the knowledge and understanding that God had given them with everyone else! Right from the beginning – made perfectly clear in God’s initial covenant with Abram – Israel was brought into being, and given a special place in God’s plan and purpose, so that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12:2,3)! Sadly, Israel repeatedly failed to fulfill this God-given mission, so God gave it to another – the mysterious ‘Servant of the Lord’ whom we find mentioned in several places in the Book of Isaiah. Thus God tells the ‘Servant’ that ‘It is too small a thing for you … to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 49:6). Who is this mysterious ‘Servant of the Lord’? Clearly it is none other than God’s Promised Messiah, God’s ‘only begotten Son’ (John 3:16), the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thus what we call the Gospels is essentially the story of the life and mission of Jesus who came into the world ‘not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:17)! Although I firmly believe that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (2 Timothy 3:16) and that therefore, under God, the Bible is our authority for all matters of faith and conduct, belief and behaviour, the Gospels are the most important part of the Bible!  They are the ‘lens’ through which the rest of the Bible should be read. We should regularly read the whole Bible but whenever we read something from either the Old Testament or the rest of the New Testament, we should constantly be asking ourselves, ‘What did Jesus have to say about this?’ or ‘How would Jesus have viewed this?’ In his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) we read that Jesus repeatedly used phrases such as, ‘You have heard that it was said … but I tell you’. When Jesus said this, he was primarily thinking of the inadequate understanding of the teaching in the Old Testament in the minds of the Jewish people – both God’s ancient people and the people of Jesus’ day. Jesus did not say that the teaching of the Old Testament was wrong – simply that it was all too often misinterpreted and misunderstood – which is why he said (also in the Sermon on the Mount) that he had not come ‘to abolish the Law or the Prophets … but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). Jesus did this through both his life and teaching. Thus, as suggested earlier, whenever we read the Old Testament we should view it through the ‘lens’ of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. In addition, I would also suggest, that we need to apply this same principle to reading the rest of the New Testament also!? Once again I am not suggesting that the Acts of the Apostles or the various Epistles etc are less inspired than the Gospels. There has however been a tendency over the years (especially in evangelical circles) to over-emphasise the teaching of the Epistles (particularly the Pauline Epistles) over and against the teaching of the rest of the Bible. It has even been suggested, by N T Wright and others, that the Church actually developed it’s theology primarily from the teaching of Paul (rather than Jesus)?! Thus we also need to read the rest of the New Testament through the ‘lens’ of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. We need to ask similar questions (to those suggested earlier in connection with reading the Old Testament) when reading Acts or the Epistles etc, namely ‘Did Jesus have anything to say about this?’ or ‘How would Jesus have viewed this?’ To do this provides us with a healthy antidote to some of the Charismatic, Reformed, Evangelical and Liberal excesses that have subtly crept into the Church over the years.

In much the same way, what we call the Acts of the Apostles, and the various Epistles and Letters (that make up the rest of the New Testament) are largely the stories of the growth of the early Church and individual local churches. We too easily forget this – particularly when it comes to the Epistles – and thus interpret what we read simply doctrinally rather than as narrative? Primarily, however, Paul and the other Apostles are responding to ongoing situations in the life of various local churches. They are answering questions raised by these local churches, or dealing with problems that have arisen as a result of the cultural clash between local customs and Christian values. Thus Paul’s comments about appropriate behaviour between husbands and wives in worship in 1 Corinthians 11 should be understood not in ‘prescriptive terms’ as binding on men and women for all time in every church, but as salient advice for dealing with a localised cultural problem pertaining to 1st century Corinth. One of Paul’s abiding concerns (seen repeatedly throughout his Letters) was for the effectiveness of the Church’s testimony in a largely pagan world. Hence his advice given here for Christian men and women to behave appropriately – even conservatively – in a Corinthian culture that simply would not have understood (or accepted) the new found freedom that Christian women now enjoyed in the Church as a result of coming to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord! The seeds of liberty and equality for women (and slaves for that matter) are clearly found in Paul’s teaching (as in the teaching of Jesus), but Paul knew that it would take a very long time for these seeds to ultimately bear fruit. Thus his advice for the Corinthian church at this time and place in their particular story, was not to allow particular issues – however commendable – to get in the way of the Gospel which alone could change people’s hearts and minds (and therefore ultimately their negative behaviour patterns).

Jesus himself taught primarily by telling stories. His disciples on one occasion asked him about this. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ (Matthew 13:10). Now a parable is simply ‘an earthly story with a heavenly meaning’. A cursory reading of Jesus’ response to this question would seem to suggest that whilst the disciples were in a privileged position whereby the message Jesus sought to communicate was made clear to them, Jesus used parables so that the majority of the crowd listening to Jesus were simply left ‘clueless’ because Jesus never explained the meaning of these parables or stories?! There has to be more to it than this, however? Jesus’ mission was far more than entertaining the crowds with amusing stories of every-day country folk?! From the preacher-teacher point of view the concept of preaching or teaching in such a way so as to deliberately leave your hearers in ignorance is plainly ridiculous – although, in fairness, it could be said that perhaps some preachers and teachers in the Church today do just that?! A more discerning view of this passage, however, would suggest that although Jesus favoured the narrative approach this was intended to encourage his hearers to think more deeply about hidden meaning behind the stories Jesus told!  Teaching through story-telling would most certainly attract a congregation, but those same stories would also intrigue many of the hearers. Some, of course, would not get beyond the story itself, but others would surely ask themselves, ‘What is Jesus really seeking to say here?’ ‘There has to be more to this story that just the obvious?’ And of course, that is exactly what Jesus wanted his hearers to do. He wanted them to explore beneath the surface. He wanted them to ‘tease out’ the deeper meaning. Thus here, where Jesus tells the crowd The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9), Jesus wanted as many of his hearers as possible to recognise that he was likening the ‘seed’ sown by the Sower in the story to ‘the message of the coming of God’s kingdom’ (Matthew 13:19) and that the various soils represented the differing responses of the ‘hearts’ (Matthew 13:19) of the hearers.

The use of ‘narrative’ is the most honest and effective way of communicating the Gospel, and the teaching of Scripture, to others! It is the more honest way because, as we have seen, virtually the whole of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is itself in narrative form. It is more effective because it draws the hearer into the story. We hear the stories of God’s gracious dealings with various individuals, people groups, and recognise that their little stories fit into God’s big story and how God dealt graciously with them. This in turn encourages us not simply to find parallels with their stories, but to see that our own particular story also fits into God’s big story so that we too may expect God to deal graciously with us if we allow him to shape and mould our destiny! The old idea of rather close-knit, exegetical exposition of a verse, a phrase, or even just a word is, to my mind, not only unhelpful but prone to abuse? Equally, the more modern idea of what I call ‘How To’ sermons is also both dishonest and unhelpful with its use of ‘proof texts’ to support points the preacher has already decided to make, and has a tendency to make the hearers actually feel even more inadequate than they were when they came into church?! Good narrative preaching and teaching, on the other hand, involves the hearers in the story being told, and takes them on a similar journey to a better place in God.

In secular society ‘story telling’ is enjoying something of a renaissance. The ‘story telling’ comedians such as Michael McIntyre are proving very popular these days, often playing to full houses at the various theatres and comedy venues up and down the country. Many pubs also host ‘story telling’ evenings where people can go along to either listen to, or tell, stories and folk tales of one kind or another. I know of one Christian man who goes to such events and simply re-tells Bible Stories. He is a good ‘story teller’ and his stories go down well – even though he doesn’t necessarily tell his audience that he is simply telling ‘Bible Stories’ – because quite a number of those present have never heard them before!? Even ‘in church’ there is a place for simply ‘telling Bible stories’ and not just ‘reading them from the Bible’. In our own church in Dorchester we have a couple who are very good at doing this. They simply re-tell the Bible story in question in a way that is both faithful to the text but also really interesting, and often amusing as well as poignant, and which really ‘grabs the attention’ of the congregation!

One further thing needs to be said, however, and that is about telling our own story! The Psalmist encourages all of us who name the Name of the Lord to share our story with others. In Psalm 107:2 he says, ‘Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story!’ All of us who have come to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord have a story to share with others. We may not necessarily be called to be preachers or teachers, but we all have a testimony to share. When I was one of the Youth Leaders in my home church in Greenford in Middlesex, we had a young girl in the Youth Group named Lorraine. She was quite a simple girl, not very attractive or intelligent to tell the truth, and she came along to the Youth Meeting because another girl – a Christian girl at her school – befriended her. Lorraine made a commitment of her life to Christ and began to change. She soon possessed an attractiveness that only Christ can give to us, and her academic work improved – she went on to become a qualified nurse. Lorraine managed to retain her ‘simplicity’ however. She never became a great preacher or theologian but she had a grasp of the significance of scriptures such as John 3:16,17 (quoted earlier) and she had a testimony of what God had done for her in Jesus! She would share both these with anyone who would listen, and as a result several other people came to know Jesus Christ for themselves. They recognised the Lorraine’s simplicity and genuineness. They said things like, ‘This is Lorraine … we now understand why she has been transformed … her story must be true!’ And they believed in Jesus for themselves!

Tell me the old, old story,
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love;
Tell me the story simply,
As to a little child,
For I am weak and weary,
And helpless and defiled.

Tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story,
Of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story slowly,
That I may take it in –
That wonderful redemption,
God’s remedy for sin;
Tell me the story often,
For I forget so soon,
The ‘early dew’ of morning
Has passed away at noon.

Tell me the story softly,
With earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner
Whom Jesus came to save;
Tell me the story always,
If you would really be,
In any time of trouble,
A comforter to me.

Tell me the same old story,
When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
Is costing me too dear;
And when the Lord’s bright glory
Is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story:
‘Christ Jesus makes thee whole’.

~ Katherine Hankey (1834-1911)

Jim Binney


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