"The Greatest Story Ever Told"#85-17
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 24, 2017
By Rev. Dr. Ken Klaus, Speaker Emeritus of The Lutheran Hour
(Q&A Topic:The Greatest Story Ever Told)
Copyright 2018 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Luke 1:30-32a
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Three small words, but those words are part of the greatest story ever told. They tell us that the sacrifice which was Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection, has been accepted, and His rescue work is complete. Now, by the Holy Spirit's power, individuals are being called to forgiveness of sins and faith. By God's grace, chapters of that story continue to be written in lives throughout the world. Amen.
The big mistake I made on this day-before-Christmas sermon is I mentioned its title to two of my friends. Now these weren't just run-of-the-mill friends, oh, no, I couldn't have done that. These two friends are trivia experts on American-made movies. From the moment I said the title of my sermon is The Greatest Story Ever Told, I lost all control of the conversation.
The first of my friends said, "Ken, you don't want to preach on that 1965 movie. When it came out, The Greatest Story Ever Told, the critics didn't like it, and the movie-going pubic didn't go to see it. My other friend chimed in: "If you look at the list of famous actors in the movie, you will be impressed. Sadly, most of them put in some very unimpressive performances. Today, 50 years later, there is only one character who sticks in people's memories, and that character said only one line." "And just what was that line?" I asked. My friends looked at me like I had a screw loose. The first friend said, "That part we're talking about was that of the centurion at Jesus' crucifixion." The second friend added, "The line he spoke was 'Truly this man was the Son of God.'" And the actor who played the centurion and got only one line? Together they said, "The centurion was played by John Wayne."
After that they pleaded, "There are so many other movies made by Hollywood which can boast of being The Greatest Story Ever Told. Use one of them! Well, it took a while to get them calmed down and understand that my message was on the greatest story ever told-the story of God's Son who, according to prophecy, was born into this world to save doomed and damned humanity from the curse of the Law. Yes, finally, I got them to understand, and they got me to thinking. What do people think is the greatest story ever told? What story is their favorite? Well, rather than wondering about it, I decided to ask some of them: "What is your greatest story ever told?" Now, what they told me is going to take a little while to report to you, so I ask you to be patient and stick with me, your investment in time will be worth it, and no, I haven't forgotten this is a Christmas message.
I asked a couple of ladies what their greatest story ever told was. After some discussion, they agreed the musical My Fair Lady was special to them. Watching poverty-stricken Eliza Doolittle pull herself out of the gutter through sheer dedication and commitment, had meaning for them. Eliza's remaking herself, so she could face society and stand up against the inconsiderate and egotistical taskmaster who had taught her to speak properly, appealed to the ladies.
I asked some young people and they simply couldn't come to an agreement. There were some who loved Star Wars, especially the first three episodes where Luke Skywalker is taught how to use the force by gifted teachers like Obi Wan Kenobi and diminutive Yoda. The force, along with assistance of the primitive Ewoks, help the rebels destroy the fully functional battle star and hand defeat the evil empire.
There were others teens, mostly the younger ones, who liked the story of Harry Potter. You remember, Harry is a wizard who is the target of Lord-He-Whose-Name-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned. Harry, an orphan, is being raised by an aunt and uncle who unsuccessfully attempt to keep a lid on his developing magical powers. As they are Muggles, which means they have no magic powers of their own, they cannot understand Harry is going to need those powers if he is going to survive the ultimate battle against the dark forces which are allied against him.
The rest of the young people I talked to were split in their preferences as to the greatest story ever told. Some loved Frodo Baggins, the Lord of the Rings hobbit who wanted nothing more than to be left alone at his home in the shire. Much to his consternation, fate selected Frodo to be the ring-bearer, the fellow who would destroy a powerful, evil ring by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom. To get there and defeat evil-eyed Sauron, Frodo and his faithful compatriots must face or hide from hordes of Orcs and Goblins.
Various individuals, when I asked them about their submission to the greatest story ever told list, came up with other film titles. Let's see, there was the refugee from outer space, ET. That movie shares how ET managed to escape the clutches of meddling government agencies and make a collect call to home using a contraption made of bubble gum and bailing wire. One fellow I talked to mentioned Jaws, the story of a small-town sheriff who faces a great white shark, and, with a well-placed rifle shot into an oxygen tank, turns that shark into a mountain of sushi.
All in all, I was impressed by this greatest story ever told list. When I asked my family, they added a few more names. There's Spiderman who battles villains, his insecurity and the desire to be like everyone else. There's the Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, the meek, from Kansas who scuffles with a wicked witch before she finds there's no place like home. One said we dare not forget Rocky Balboa. In seven films Rocky fights against opponents who are twice his size, half his age, and four times as smart. But that lad's got heart, and he's got pluck and determination, which means even though he's had his head handed to him during the first half of the movie, in the second half he comes back to win.
My friends, you know these films and their stories. Some of their dialogue has become part of our language. They are all immensely popular and some are on the list of the biggest money-making films of all time. What you may not realize is that even though these films are set in different times and have different heroes and villains, all of these movies are the same. Each begins with an inexperienced, ill-prepared underdog hero who must take a stand against a super-villain. Anyone who looks at the situation from an honest and logical point of view knows there is absolutely no way the hero can emerge victorious. It can't happen, but it does. Each of these movies tells us good can triumph over evil; the weaker can defeat the stronger; and the pure of heart can win over against those who are corrupt to the core.
There is one other theme these movies share: all of them have made lots and lots of money because people flock to see them. Why, because, with all our hearts we wish to believe that if you are dedicated long enough, if you are committed long enough, if you believe in yourself hard enough, you will win. I like that idea; you like that idea; Jiminy Cricket, the poet laureate for such movies liked that idea, too. How did he say it?
"When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you.
If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.
When you wish upon a star as dreamers do, fate is kind: after all,
When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.
There's only one very small, teeny-tiny problem with the Cricket's song, and these stories. Life doesn't work out that way. Not really.
In our generation, in every nation, people want peace. But in our generation, as is true in every generation, our friends, our fathers, our sons, our daughters, our brothers and sisters are still being trained for and sent to places where it seems the dogs of war are about to be turned loose. We work to increase farm productivity, but there is still starvation. There's still pain. There's still death. There's still loneliness. And no matter how much you believe, no matter how strong you are, no matter how dedicated all of us are, we are not going to create a perfect world. I wish you could, but you can't. No matter how long you wish, those dreams do not all come true.
On your own you can't win is the sad, sorry reality of life. Yes, I know the Olympic gold medalists say your dreams can come true through perseverance, but don't forget they usually say that after they just defeated the rest of the world in their particular sport. By God's grace, all of you listening to my voice this Christmastime will get every gift you want and will find your calendars filled with countless days of happiness, sunshine, hope, joy, and laughter. But, and you know this to be true, you will also have heartache, heartbreak, and pain.
Of course, you don't have to believe me when I say these things. But, how about believing George Lucas, who wrote the original Star Wars. Unlike the other films we've mentioned, Star Wars is different. It's different because Lucas knows, on his own, good doesn't always win-not unless the "force" is present. Of course, Lucas doesn't tell us what the force is, or where it came from, or how you get it. He doesn't tell us because he doesn't know. All Lucas knows is that on our own, the good guys, the good guys like you, don't always win.
Which is why, even though these stories appeal to us and touch us, the bottom line is they are not, nor can they ever be the greatest story ever told. Those who are in pain, those who are lost and lonely, hurting and afraid need to hear another story, a better story than any competition which might be developed by the creative minds of Hollywood.
Today, the day before Christmas, I'm speaking about the greatest story ever told. It is a story which begins in the Garden of Eden, the kind of perfect place only a perfect God with an overwhelming love for His children can create. Tragically, the Lord's love was not returned with the same intensity it was given. When a seductive suggestion was made to our first ancestors, they thought it an improvement on their present situation, so they turned on their Maker and sinned.
As they had been warned, at that moment everything changed. The peace and harmony of the Garden had been disturbed, and they would never again be able to restore it. Pain, sorrow, and heartbreak found a new home, and death began to stalk the globe. The first couple, and all who followed after them, should have been given a punishment which had no hope of parole. Temporal and eternal death was their failed future. At least it should have been, but the merciful Triune God decided to write another story, which held out the possibility of another ending.
This story still called for death, but now the death sentence would fall upon God's Son, who was promised to enter this world to fulfill the Law, resist temptation, and serve as our perfect substitute. For hundreds upon hundreds of years, that promise was explained and illuminated through the pens of inspired prophets. Those writers told us where God's Son would be born and how He would die. His mother, without complete understanding of all that was happening to her said, "She was the Lord's servant." The Savior's step-father had his fears about his bride put to rest, and they both became part of the greatest story ever told.
On the world's stage, even great Caesar and King Herod became players used by the Lord to fulfill His promises to seek and save the lost. Sadly, I do not have the words to illuminate the path the Savior walked. All I can do is say that path was too difficult for any other human being who has, or ever will walk this earth. Look to the Gospel, the story of His earthly life, and you will hear a Teacher who hung truth on everything He said. You will watch God's Son embrace an unclean leper and observe Him brush aside the cold and clammy clutches of death with a word. Look at the Gospels. Get a front row seat to the greatest story ever told.
See Jesus turn down temptation with a Bible verse; watch Him heal as no other physician could, and hear Him when He says, 'I am the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in Me will not die." That is His irrevocable, irreversible, undeniable promise. By the Holy Spirit's power, believe in Him as your Savior and find out that the Lord has made you part of the greatest story ever told. Beginning tonight and for these next weeks, we remember a story whose earthly beginning was announced by an angel who said, "I have good news of great joy... a Savior has been born for you." It's a story which underlines God's good news with the Redeemer's third day resurrection from the dead. It's a story which has another angel telling some despondent women that Jesus was not in His tomb, but had risen and had conquered death for Himself-and all who believe.
Yes, Jesus' story is the greatest story ever told. And, by God's grace, it is your story, too. Although I claim no gift of prophecy, I'm fairly sure your future has no Orcs, Wraiths and Goblins messing with your mind, but I have no such certainty about you being able to avoid those malevolent men and women who will con you, try to steal your identity, or put a virus in your computer. The story of your life may never have you face-to-face with a great white shark, but a hateful boss, a betraying friend, an unfaithful love can hurt you more. The chapters of your life may never see you testing your skills against someone who is so bad he can't be named, but you most certainly will find yourself fighting against evil, the devil and death.
At such times remember you are not alone. The Babe of Bethlehem has grown into the Man whose life was sacrificed to pay for your sins and win forgiveness. Jesus' resurrection from the dead is our assurance that His work has been accepted. And now, your Redeemer has promised to be with you in a new and wonderful way. Do not stop the Lord as He wishes to open your heart and make you part of the greatest story ever told.
To that end, if we can be of help, please, call us at The Lutheran Hour. Amen
Reflections for December 24, 2017
Title: the Greatest Story Ever Told
MARK EISCHER: Dr. Meyer joins us right now. Dr. Meyer, Merry Christmas!
DALE MEYER: Thanks, Mark. And I wish you and your family a wonderful celebration of the Savior's birth. And if I may add, to all the staff and the volunteers of Lutheran Hour Ministries, thank you for what you do. The coming of Jesus is what our work is all about! And to you who listen to The Lutheran Hour, blessed days to you. Jesus came, and He will come again, and that gives our lives meaning and purpose!
MARK EISCHER: Pastor Klaus spoke about "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Your thoughts.
DALE MEYER: Pastor Klaus is a great teller of stories. Let me key in on that word "story." I just had a collection of sermons published, it's called Word Alive, and in the introduction I write about the great changes that have happened in American culture during my 48 years of preaching.
MARK EISCHER: What would you say is the greatest change?
DALE MEYER: People today don't believe in absolute truth. Years ago, people believed there was some kind of absolute truth. Maybe it was science, maybe reason, and for us it was-and still is-the Word of God. In that environment, we believed we could prove Christianity from the Bible. But today people tend not to believe in absolute truth. We often hear, "You have your opinion; I have mine. Who are you to tell me that I'm wrong?" That befuddles a lot of Christians. If people don't regard the Bible as absolute truth, where does that leave us?
MARK EISCHER: Well, we're eager to know the answer!
DALE MEYER: I think it leaves us today with the story-the greatest story ever told-that lays a claim on me, on you, on us. We can prove many things with the Bible, but finally we cannot prove scientifically that the Bible is true, but we believe it because it brings us Jesus who claims us as God's redeemed people. The story goes to everyone, and some can reject it, but at the end of life I, for one, am not going to give God proofs that I should enter heaven. I'll only be able to say, "I'm a sinner, but I have trusted Your Word, Your forgiveness, Your story."
MARK EISCHER: I don't want our listeners to be confused that when you talk about "story" as though this is something that's just made up in order to produce an effect in the listener. I mean we believe stuff that really happened, don't we?
DALE MEYER: Yeah, that's a great point, Mark. Thank you for bringing it up. "Story" does not necessarily mean fiction. Judaism and Christianity are the two historic religions of all world religions. You can go to Israel today and see sites mentioned in the Bible. Luke chapter three, for example, lists all the various rulers when John the Baptist appeared on the scene, so this is rooted in history just as the incarnation brought the Son of God into real history. So by "story" I mean something that really happened, the greatest event, the greatest story ever told that claims us.
MARK EISCHER: And again as you said, the story that brings Jesus Himself to us.
DALE MEYER: That's the key. It's all about Jesus.
MARK EISCHER: Any other thoughts?
DALE MEYER: Pastor Klaus also talked about the hard times we all have in life, and that's going to continue on this side of eternity. I think that's when we really hold on to the story, especially to the promises that God makes in His Word. There's a beautiful passage in 1 Thessalonians 5:24, "He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it." All of the promises of God are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And I think that's how we witness today. We tell the story of how God in Jesus has blessed us in our lives.
MARK EISCHER: Thank you, Dr. Meyer, and we wish a merry and blessed Christmas to all our listeners.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"All My Heart This Night Rejoices" by Paul Gerhardt, setting by Johann Crüger. From Heirs of the Reformation (© 2008 Concordia Publishing House)
"Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)