Begin by reading Genesis 3:1-11, the ancient account of the temptation and fall of humanity.
Starting out, I want you to think about your favorite love stories. Y’all know that I’m a movie guy. As a matter of fact, and to vouch for myself, next week our men’s small groups start a series based on several classic “man movies” that will be all chest-bumps and grunt-fests. But a man also needs some favorite love stories. I hope you have one or two, in film or book, whatever form.
Think about them.
Most of those stories follow a pretty common pattern.
First, somewhere towards the beginning, there’s usually an initial bliss. It might just be a first encounter, like the “meet-cute” or “meet-ugly” when, let’s say, our love interests bump into each other awkwardly at the farmer’s market and lock eyes for the first time. The original bliss could be a momentary happiness, or a long-term season of joy. It’s a connection, that special something, where things just click.
Inevitably, though, the bliss gives way to conflict. It might be internal or external. It could take the form of a villain, or circumstances, or poor choices. There’s betrayal, separation, loss. Through the conflict, the characters’ hearts are torn apart because something is wedged between them.
And then this conflict, this turmoil, ends up driving the story’s drama. The drama is where we spend most of our time in stories, because it’s where the action and suspense live. Drama takes shape either as a downward slope, when things get worse and the conflict deepens, or it takes an upward trajectory, as our heroes/heroines make their way back toward one another. And, of course, most stories have a little of both, ups and downs in waves.
It’s in the drama that, even though Harry met Sally, those two just can’t seem to get onto the same page together. The drama is where Belle the Beauty works so hard to discover that the Beast might have a good heart after all. The drama is where Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy get stuck in a cycle of misjudging each other, in their pride and prejudice. The drama is where Bill Murray can’t stop reliving Groundhog Day over and over again, and where Edmond Dontes spends years in prison before becoming the Count of Monte Christo. The drama is where Westley becomes Dread-Pirate Roberts while Buttercup fends off Prince Humperdinck. The drama is where Edward’s a vampire, Jacob’s a werewolf, and Bella is a human, and none of them can get over their angst. None of us is a stranger to the drama.
Fortunately for us all, the drama comes to an end, and so does the overall story, in resolution. To be fair, sometimes things don’t resolve the way we hope, do they? In resolution, Scarlett finally realizes that she loves Rhett, but, by that time, frankly my dear…Rhett doesn’t give a damn. Resolution sometimes means that Bogart convinces Bergman to fly out of Casablanca just in time, only with the other guy, while Bogart is left walking into the fog with “Louie.” Resolution even means that, while the Titanic is sinking, there’s only one floating wooden door left in the ocean, and only big enough for Rose. It can be a gut-punch.
But then occasionally…rarely…after all the stress and separation and suffering of the drama, sometimes resolution does actually include redemption, doesn’t it? Peace is won. Amends are made. Forgiveness is offered. Not only that but in some cases we might even get a chance to witness reconciliation — when two people truly come back together.
It’s the pattern of the love-story.
Do you recognize it? What about in your own relationships, with a significant other, or with family or friends? The realists in our midst will cry out that “LIFE ISN’T A ROMANTIC COMEDY!” but I’m not sure. I’ve known real-life relationships to run pretty wild. They’re not scripted. They involve real feelings. And they won’t be resolved in 90 minutes or 200 pages. When my wife Karen and I first met, we had a saga of our own. There’s no time (or permission) for it all here, but I’ll just share one piece that fairly few people know: Karen and I actually got engaged twice. You may not realize it, but that’s not the usual number of times for that to happen. So…there was some conflict. High drama. And some awesome resolution, by God’s grace. My point is just I think there is something real in this pattern. Something deep and ancient and familiar. And the reason it’s pertinent to Ash Wednesday is that you and I, every one of us, is participating in a story like this right now. With the Lord of heaven and earth.
After all, in Genesis, how does our story with God begin? In total perfection. A bliss where we walked personally with God, and our hearts were on fire, and everything just clicked. I imagine it was all pretty overwhelming in the best possible way. It was true love! We know that, in part, because God even provided us a choice in the matter. An alternative was always just hanging there to be plucked and eaten, if we ever decided to do so against God’s warnings. Our original bliss.
But in the middle of that paradise, as we read in Genesis 3, there arose a challenge, I think both external and internal. An enemy came to plant seeds of his own in God’s garden. First, there was a whisper casting doubt on God’s character: “What good reason could God have for such ‘silly’ obedience? You really can’t eat this?” Second, there was a test of God’s love: “Would God really let anything bad happen to you? Would God really let you die?” Last, there was an offer: “What if I promise you something more, something undiscovered, something that you deserve, something that will belong to you alone?” And those strong seeds took hold and bore some pretty horrible fruit. Thus went the conflict.
Then what about the drama? The great bulk of the Bible is dedicated to it. On the downside, it’s a spiral into guilt and shame, cycles of violence, humans trying to forget what we lost, or trying somehow to earn it back, or still trying to build our own version of it. But on the upside, there are ongoing hints and signs of our Beloved working and waiting and fighting for us, crossing all time and distance against all odds, to make contact with us, promising to return to us. It’s high drama, y’all. And if we’re honest, there are certain points in the Biblical drama when it looks like there isn’t going to be any good resolution. At a point, it feels like the kind of story where you might want your money back once the credits roll.
Except. Except after all that preparation, working and waiting, our beloved did appear. God arrived right by our side, human just like one of us. And while he was in that vulnerable form, our old enemy returned to engage humanity again. Just listen to it here in Matthew 4:1-11.
Things sound a bit different this time, don’t they? Do you know what it sounds like to me? The beginning of good resolution. Because where humanity first fell short, where the first Adam failed, our second Adam stood firm, remained faithful, glorified God, and drove the enemy away.
I think it’s so important to make that connection. I really think the Gospel writers intended us to. Because the Bible doesn’t describe separate, disconnected eons of history, with a little bit of God popping in from time to time. Rather, if we zoom way out, our story with God is a lot more like uninterrupted chapters in a single book. It opens with God’s love for us, as Creator. Then, at the moment of the Fall, God immediately began the next chapter; we might call it Redemption. And finally, through the cross and empty tomb, Jesus opened a final chapter, the one where we live right now; we could it Reconciliation.
I think that’s a far better way to understand our story with God. As a matter of fact, I was thinking this week, maybe we can even take things one step further. Zoom out just a bit more, simplify down one final step. Maybe it’s not even that we’re talking three separate chapters in a single story. Maybe all of it together is more like three words, that God speaks together in a single breath over every single one of us: “I…love…you.”
I love you.
And so, on our way toward Easter, may the Lord bless this 40 days, our listening and watching and waiting on him, that we might see and hear and know the truth, for the first time, or like never before.