The Bible as a Five Act Play (and Why That Matters)

Sermon delivered on Bible Sunday B, October 24, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon (and today you should listen rather than read the text below), click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 55.1-11; Psalm 19.7.-14; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; St. John 5.36b-47.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Bible Sunday, celebrated every year on the last Sunday after Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday we focus on what the Bible is and means to us. NT scholar and renowned commentator and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright, has likened the Bible to a five-act play. What is that all about and why does it matter to you and me as Christians? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Before we look at Wright’s model, let us keep the following in mind. Holy Scripture is God’s word to us and that alone makes it worth of our reading, reflection, and study. As  we prayed in our collect earlier, we are called to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s word because we need it for encouragement, guidance, reproof, and correction. As we will see, we are created in God’s own image to be wise stewards of his good creation. If that is true (and it is), then it makes sense that we need our marching orders, i.e., we need to know how wise stewards who bear God’s image should think, speak, and act. Scripture isn’t an instruction manual per se, a “how to” for every contingency and situation in life. Rather it tells the story of God’s interactions with his chosen people and the rest of the world, giving us both examples and non-examples of what wise human stewardship should look like based on God’s law/will. Because it is God’s word, we have no right to tinker with it or interpret it according to our own preferences and inclinations. As we saw last week, Holy Scripture isn’t your Bible or mine. It is our Bible and we should read it together as much as we should read it individually. And because we are so profoundly sin-sick, we must read it in the context of how the Church has read it over time and across cultures. Only then can we have any confidence that we are not returning God’s favor of creating us in his image by trying to make God into ours.

Having reminded ourselves that Holy Scriptures are trustworthy and worthy of our best endeavor, let us look at Wright’s model of the Bible as a five-act play, remembering that the overarching narrative/story line is how God is putting his sin-sick and corrupted creation and creatures back to rights. Act 1 is Creation and we find it in Gen 1-2. There we learn that God, who is eternal, created all creation out of nothing by speaking it into existence. We dare not get too literal here nor misread Gen as a science book. Gen 1-2 cares very little about how God created this vast cosmos and us, only that God did. In Gen 1-2 we are told that everything God created was good and that when God created us in his own image to run his creation, God declared everything very good. Yet even in the midst of this brilliant and wonderful creation, the writer notes—almost in passing—that chaos still existed in God’s good and ordered creation. God’s creative word brings goodness and order, and as Christians we should always look back to the creation narratives to learn about God’s original intent for his creation and us. When we do, we learn that God’s world in which we live is full of beauty and goodness. There was nothing wrong with creation before the Fall. In Gen 2 especially we catch the breathtaking beauty of God’s good intention for us as his image-bearers. God created man and gave him dominion over the rest of his created order, expecting man to run it wisely. But man was lonely and so we read the beautiful story of how God created woman from man to be his equal and companion. Only then could man find real happiness and fulfillment. The beautiful and compelling story of how God commanded males and females to become one flesh (to marry) to enjoy perfect intimacy and union for the purpose of procreating and forming families, and so organize ourselves to be wise stewards, is the story of how God intended all this to play out. Only when man and woman come together as husband and wife is the logic of God’s image made known in humans completed. To be sure, some are called to singleness and celibacy, but that is not the norm for God’s created order. If humans are to be good stewards, we need to reproduce and multiply, and only marriage provides the ordered context and security for primary human relationships to thrive and flourish. When we look at the breakdown of the family and other forms of social experimentation, is it any wonder why so many in the West are unhappy and searching for something they know in their bones is possible? But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Here, we note that before the Fall (Act 2), humans enjoyed perfect communion with God and each other, and because we did, there was no such thing as anxiety or alienation or hostility or broken relationships. God created us for this and we need to pay careful attention to what the story of God’s created order intends/desires for us because it represents God’s gold standard for us as his image-bearing creatures and stewards. Even after the Fall, the closer we can align ourselves with God’s original intentions for his created order and us, the happier and healthier we will find ourselves, although not perfectly.

Why not perfectly? Because after the goodness and beauty of creation found in Act 1 comes Act 2, the Fall (Gen 3-11). Despite enjoying perfect communion with God and enjoying God’s presence in paradise (the writer talks almost wistfully about God in the garden, walking daily with humans), humans rebelled against God, trying to usurp God’s rightful role as Creator and Lord. In vivid and memorable language, the writer tells the sad and sickening (literally) story of how humans strove to become God’s equals by eating from the tree of knowledge. Whatever that looked like, it immediately caused alienation between God and humans, resulting in God’s terrible curse on our evil (our first hint that God does not and cannot allow evil to ultimately exist, let alone prevail) by cursing all of creation and expelling humans from paradise. No longer would humans enjoy perfect communion with God or with each other. Human sin allowed evil and the pockets of chaos that God mysteriously allowed to exist in the midst of his good and ordered creation to gain footholds and thoroughly corrupt both creation and us. This is why, e.g., we find evil and ugliness in the midst of God’s beautiful world. Natural disasters, human disasters, birth defects, madness, alienation, fear, and conflict, to name just a few, exist because of the Fall. And marriage? It too was corrupted. As we just saw, originally God created man and woman to be equals and enjoy perfect communion with each other, thus bringing out the beauty of God’s image through mutual love and trust. After the Fall that all changed and divorce, abandonment, abuse, and struggle for relational power/control took over. The beauty of God’s original created order was marred and corrupted by human sin and the evil our sin ushered in so that we were finally enslaved by those two powers. In Genesis 3-11, we see the ever-escalating corruption that human sin and evil ushered into God’s good created order. Murder, mayhem, madness, sickness, alienation, rebellion, war, and all the rest were sadly here to stay. Things got so bad that God considered destroying his good creation and creatures gone bad and starting over. You can read about that in the account of the great Flood found in Genesis 6ff. But as we all know, God changed his mind and didn’t start over because God’s love for his image-bearers is constant and faithful despite our inconstancy and faithlessness, thanks be to God!

But what was God going to do? If God refused to destroy all humanity and his creation and start over, how was God going deal with the corrupting and death-inducing sin and evil? After all, as we have seen, God can tolerate no evil! If humans are so thoroughly sin-sick as to be beyond self-help or human effort (which we are), how was God going to handle the intractable problem of Sin? Appropriately—and quite surprisingly—God again chose to deal with human sin and the evil it produces through human agency! God unexpectedly and inexplicably called Abraham, a wandering nomad, to be the human progenitor of Israel, God’s chosen people God called out to once again be God’s true image-bearers, through whom God would restore his good but sin-corrupted and evil-infested world. Welcome to Act 3, Israel, which starts with Gen 12 and comprises the rest of the OT. But as this Act quickly makes clear, God’s people were every bit as broken as the people they were called to bring God’s love and goodness to bear. This, of course, didn’t catch God by surprise, but it often leaves us scratching our own heads. Why would God choose to call a people to be stewards of his holiness and love if God knew all along they were going to fail? We aren’t told. Instead we are encouraged to trust in God’s wisdom and redemptive plan, a plan in which humans are intricately involved. Despite human wickedness and rebellion, God still chooses to use human agency to make his ways and Presence known to all creation, a reality St. Paul proclaims in Rom 8.18-25.

Israel’s failure to be the people God called them to be resulted in Act 4, Christ. Christ was the one true Israelite, succeeding where Israel had failed, but representing Israel nevertheless because as we have seen, God is faithful to his promises and commitments, despite our failures and wickedness. And so what God’s people failed to accomplish, God accomplished by becoming human to die for us to reconcile us to him and to break our slavery to the powers of Sin and Evil, powers that resulted ultimately in Death. What looked like catastrophic human failure on Mount Calvary, was transformed into God’s mighty victory when God raised Christ from the dead to defeat Sin, Death, and Evil, and to inaugurate God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. But here again, God surprised us because Christ’s victory over Evil, Sin, and Death, while real, is not fully implemented. We await his coming in glory to complete his saving and healing work. St. John’s Revelation speaks to this reality in quite vivid language and it appropriately closes out Scripture, giving us a vision of God’s new world that exceeds the compelling and beautiful vision of God’s original creation found in Gen 1-2. Simply put, we live with the ambiguity of the already-not yet. God’s victory is accomplished (the already) and we know the good guys are gonna prevail, good guys being Christ and anyone who belongs to him, something left entirely up to God. But the victory is not yet consummated (the not yet) and we are left to endure the enemy, Satan, along with all the heartbreaking evil and sorrow the enemy, his human minions, and a cursed creation bring to bear on us. We will talk more about God’s new world next week, but for right now we should note that despite the ambiguities and unanswered questions, despite the heartache and sorrow, despite the ongoing existence of sickness, madness, chaos, and death, we are promised deliverance and rescue and healing because of the saving work of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Once again, the story invites us to trust God despite all that swirls around us and screams at us not to believe.

This brings us to the final Act in Scripture, Act 5, The Church, you and me in all our redeemed sin and brokenness, seeking to imitate Christ in our lives in the power of the Spirit to bring his Good News to others. As St. Paul astonishingly proclaims in Eph 3.10-11, “God’s purpose…was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Did you catch that? You and I and every other Christian on earth are called to proclaim to earth and heaven how God was reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ. Time doesn’t permit me to unpack this other than to say that this is an impossible task without the help and Presence of Christ as mediated by the Holy Spirit. Even then we get it wrong more than we care to admit. But we also get it right more than we sometimes acknowledge because we are people of God’s power. Act 5 will end when Christ returns to consummate his saving work and usher in the new creation in full. When that happens, the story of Scripture will be complete, God be thanked and praised.

So why does this all matter to us as Christians? Beyond the obvious from all we have said up to this point that we are a people with a future and a hope, let us allow today’s lessons to offer us some additional insights. From Isaiah we learn that God truly desires to restore and heal us, thus the inviting language of feasting and drinking. It is an astonishing thing to consider that God still values his human image-bearers and desires his original intentions for us. We also note that this invitation comes after Is 53 with its poignant story of the suffering servant who dies to redeem his people and ultimately the world. We only come to the table through Christ! There is much we do not understand about God’s plan of salvation, and we are sometimes consternated and puzzled over how and why God allows Evil to still make its deadly presence known. But our OT lesson reminds us God is God and we are not. His thoughts and ways are different from ours. But unlike us, God has the power to make good on his promises and we are to trust those promises based on God’s track record among us, most notably in Jesus Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead. 

Our psalm reminds us that God’s law or way of doing things revives us and heals us, and is therefore highly desirable. When we align ourselves with God’s created order we can rejoice because we know God is good and just, albeit in some surprising ways, but good and just nevertheless. That is why we are encouraged to pursue God and his ways revealed to us, supremely in Jesus Christ our Lord. Doing so gives us a hope and a future, our only hope for a future.

Our epistle lesson affirms all this. St. Paul argues strongly that when we read Scripture we mysteriously evoke God’s power on our behalf to be his holy people, his true image-bearers patterned after Christ. But St. Paul also warns us that human sin-sickness runs deep and that opposition will arise, even within God’s people. We see this playing out in our world today, and at a frightening pace. We have forgotten about the sacred origin and purpose of marriage and the vital role of procreation. We’ve given up the beautiful and wholesome vision described in Gen 1-2 in favor of human inventions that are bound to fail and in the process destroy people and lives: the oxymoron of “gay marriage,” the racism of CRT, the biology-denying disorder of transgenderism, the plundering of God’s good creation for selfish purposes, human support for abortion, all in the name of “freedom” and “personal rights,” except for the fetus of course, the unhealthy human desire for power that results in disorder of all kinds. Again I do not have time to unpack any of this, but a careful and consistent reading of the Bible as a five-act play gives us solid guidelines to help us in our thinking and doing as we navigate through the world’s chaos. As St. Paul reminds us, we are at war against the disordered human systems of the world, our own disordered desires and sin-sickness (the flesh), and our arch enemy, the devil. And because we are at war we will inevitably suffer for our Lord and his Truth because much of the world does not want to hear God’s truth as proclaimed in holy Scripture. Are we prepared to give up everything for Christ as he gave up everything for us? Without God’s help in the person of the Holy Spirit we are bound to fail. With God, nothing is impossible.

The story contained in the Bible as a five-act play is a story of creation, goodness, order, sin, and redemption. It is ultimately the story of how God’s power plays itself out in his creation and our lives and how we are to cooperate with our Lord’s power made known supremely in Jesus Christ, God become human. The arc of the story points us to new creation, not a disembodied eternity in heaven. Creation matters to God. We matter to God, and God has gone to great lengths to show us this. In the story of Scripture we find our future and our hope: healing, life forever with God in perfect communion with him, forgiveness, mercy, justice, beauty, truth, and righteousness. Best of all, God calls each of us to play our role in his world starting imperfectly right now and being transformed into utter perfection on the blessed day of our Lord’s return. 

But here’s the thing. If you don’t read the story or you rely solely on sermons like this one to learn it, you’ll never know your own story nor will you ever enjoy or benefit from its treasures like the psalmist did. If you love Christ and his Church, you will read his story, a story he told us was about him, even in the OT. So how do you do that? Anglicans have a time-tested and beautiful tradition. It is called the Daily Office and in it you will read the five Acts systematically and regularly over a two year period. If you are new to Scripture, get a good study Bible. I am happy to help you with that. But read Scripture via the Daily Office, which means reading it with others regularly and daily. Since I started using the Office 15 years ago, I have read through Scripture more than eight times and each time God reveals new things to me, building on the foundation he built when I first committed to reading Scripture systematically. Trust me. If you want to know Scripture so that God can help you become a faithful steward patterned after Christ, the one true human and faithful steward, if you want answers to legitimate questions and issues that bedevil us today, if you want a sense of certainty and order in the midst of uncertainty and chaos, if you want to find the meaning to real life, a life lived in and for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and if you want to know the Truth and be set free by it to live as God created you to live, then learn how to read the Bible through the Daily Office so you know your Story. When we get in our new home, we will help you do this, but you have to first commit yourself to the process. Don’t be a fool. Learn your Story, the greatest Story ever. You won’t be disappointed, even in the midst of trials and tribulations, because we Christians have the best story ever and the greatest game in town, and in it God will show you Jesus his Son, who is your only life and hope. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.