"Back Stories 01: The Priestly Story" by Tim Suttle

"Back Stories 01: The Priestly Story" 

by Tim Suttle


Isaiah 52: 1-10

 Wake up, wake up, O Zion!
    Clothe yourself with strength.
Put on your beautiful clothes, O holy city of Jerusalem,
    for unclean and godless people will enter your gates no longer.
2 Rise from the dust, O Jerusalem.
    Sit in a place of honor.
Remove the chains of slavery from your neck,
    O captive daughter of Zion.
3 For this is what the Lord says:
“When I sold you into exile,
    I received no payment.
Now I can redeem you
    without having to pay for you.”

4 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Long ago my people chose to live in Egypt. Now they are oppressed by Assyria. 5 What is this?” asks the Lord. “Why are my people enslaved again? Those who rule them shout in exultation. My name is blasphemed all day long. 6 But I will reveal my name to my people, and they will come to know its power. Then at last they will recognize that I am the one who speaks to them.”

7 How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who brings good news,
the good news of peace and salvation,
    the news that the God of Israel reigns!
8 The watchmen shout and sing with joy,
    for before their very eyes
    they see the Lord returning to Jerusalem.
9 Let the ruins of Jerusalem break into joyful song,
    for the Lord has comforted his people.
    He has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has demonstrated his holy power
    before the eyes of all the nations.
All the ends of the earth will see
    the victory of our God.

2016.06.11 – Back Stories

Isaiah 52 – The Creation, Exodus, Exile, and Priestly stories.

The past 2 wks we talked Sacraments: we’ve been trying to describe human condition in a way that has some traction for us. We’re beginning a new series, but I want to carry forward a couple of concepts that were introduced last week.

The LACK: this is the basic human problem.

  • There is within all of us, a sense that something is missing.
  • And we are always trying to get it back … to fill this void.
  • And… thee LACK creates something that is very important to this picture of the Human Condition… what it creates is called:

The Sacred Object: this is that person, place, thing, idea, circumstance that we believe has the power to fill the void.

  • If we could just have that Sacred Object, we’d no longer feel The LACK.
  • Christians are tempted to make God their sacred object.
  • An idol, or magic potion, or talisman that would fill the void.
  • Jesus seemed to know that this would never work.
  • He expected his disciples to actually change from the inside out.
  • …to feed their lives on Christ & be transformed by this.

PT: So, when we talk about the Gospel, this is what we mean. Everybody has access to God that can transform us from the inside out. Regardless of race, education, ethnicity, socio-economic-religious affiliation or upbringing… every person has access to God through Christ in the power of the Spirit.

So Jesus’s whole project had everything to do with The Lack we all feel. 

He shed new light on how God was planning to deal w/The Lack, & in so doing, he was asking his followers to try and enter into a whole new story.

Now, we talk about this word “story” or “story of God” a lot at Redemption. 

  • It’s really a shorthand for the word narrative. 
  • Narrative: is the over-arching story about life that helps people make sense of their own existence. 
  • We all have these narratives that inform our worldviews & shape the way we see ourselves, God, other people, & world around us. 
  • Our narratives shape our imagination and in some ways determine our response to the world we encounter. 
  • There are all kinds of different narratives.

Church narrative: how many of you grew up going to church? So if I asked you to describe the narrative that church gave you… could probably do it. 

  • Mine: (Baptist) humans are bad & God is not happy with us. If we’ll believe in Jesus, God will let us go to heaven when we die… anyone? 
  • Some had the opposite narrative: God was happy & nice. As long as we are happy & nice we’ll go to heaven when we die. As Baptists we had a name for these people. We called them Methodists...
  • Joke: guy goes to heaven, getting tour, seeing people he knows, gold streets, harp shops, brick bldg. w/no windows… “church of Christ…”
  • Church narratives can be powerful. 

Family narrative: Speaks identity into all of us. What’s your family narrative?

  • Don’t bother dad because he’s always grumpy? … common narrative. 
  • Don’t mess with mom’s way of doing things...  conform to her system?
  • Us against the world… there are all kinds of family narratives… 

Work narrative: This has changed over the years. 

  • For centuries the primary job of a business was not to make money!
  • It was to provide a service to their community & living for their employees…. that narrative is rare in our day.

One of the narratives I was raised on was the underdog narrative. 

  • The story from my childhood that most fed into that narrative was the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team… the miracle on ice. 
  • The US team made up of young collegiate players, defeated the Soviets, who had won the gold in 6 of the 7 previous Olympic games. 
  • They were total underdogs who found a way to win.
  • The reason that story has so much power is that it embodies this bigger narrative that we all love and feel kinship with. 
  • It’s our founding narrative.
  • Paul Revere, George Washington & the Revolutionary War. 
  • We were raised on Underdog stories… Can anyone think of underdog stories in movies or books?
  • From the Bad News Bears to Harry Potter, we love a good underdog story because we’ve been raised in that narrative. 

(BTW, I think part of why our society is struggling so much now is that the underdog narrative is breaking down. We’re not the underdog anymore, so that story doesn’t help us make sense of the world anymore – that’s another…) 

PT: There are all of these narratives (over-arching stories about life), and they help us make meaning in our lives… tell us who we are & why we’re here. They shape our imaginations & determine our responses. Narratives have power cuz our lives will conform to the stories we tell about the world & our place in it.

When Jesus walked the earth, he lived within one of these overarching narratives – the Jewish Story. 

  • So Jesus’ life was deeply imbedded in the narrative framework of our Old Testament… Jesus was Jewish… 
  • I managed to get all the way thru college w/out deep appreciatn of that. 
  • JS was immersed in the narratives of the Jewish Scriptures (our OT). 
  • He lived deeply and faithfully within that OT narrative framework. 

So when Jesus thought about The Lack & the dangers of the Sacred Object, his imagination was shaped by the narratives of the OT. 

  • Or, you could say: When Jesus preached the gospel, it was embedded in the Jewish story & the narrative framework of the OT. 
  • Most American Christians are really disconnected from the OT. 
  • I hope this is not true at Redemption.
  • I try to preach from the OT for much of the year, as much as half.
  • And the reason is that JS was rooted in the narrative framework of the OT, so the gospel, is rooted in those narratives, too.

In fact the origin of the word gospel isn’t the New Testament, it’s the OT. 

  • The book of Isaiah is often divided into 2 sections, & the second section  (chapters 40-66) describe the return from exile. 
  • Isaiah begins in Chapter 40 w/a voice calling out in the wilderness to “make straight the pathway for God.”
  • God will come for his people. 
  • Then it reaches a peak in Isaiah 52:7… 
  • “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

This is a foundational text for Jesus’s imagination.

  • Imbedded in it is this word good news.
  • Most likely the bible that JS read was called the Septuagint.
  • It was the Hebrew bible written in the Greek language. 
  • The word for good news was euangelion. 
  • In English it’s translated as gospel.
  • Our word gospel = rooted in the Jewish Imagination & the OT.
  • Gospel: is the proclamation of peace & that:“Our God reigns.” (Kog)

PT: So, Jesus’s understanding of the gospel that he was proclaiming & enacting was rooted in the Old Testament narratives… in fact there are:

4 Jewish narratives in particular that shaped JS’s worldview. We’re going to spend the next 4 weeks looking at these: Creation, Exodus, Exile, Priestly…

The Creation story was a big part of Christ’s understanding of the world.

  • It’s the story of a good creation, & the creatures who bear God’s image.
  • These creatures are asked to share responsibility for the world. 
  • Humans were created to participate w/God in the ordering of creation. 
  • The creation story says, “Our God Reigns,” but then what does he do? 
  • God transfers power for the care of the world to human beings.
  • But there’s a problem.
  • Human beings default on their responsibilities & the whole thing goes off the rails… (This is The Lack in the creation story)… so:

Salvation in the creation story is about restoration of the creation project; the restoration of human beings into new participation with God. 

  • In other words salvation in the creation story is the restoration of shalom… peace. 
  • Not just the absence of war, but everything in its place doing what it was intended to do from the beginning. 
  • In the Creation story, Gospel is about this movement from chaos to shalom… right ordering of all of life.

The Creation story shaped the life of Jesus & the gospel he proclaimed in profound ways. 

  • In fact, the Gospel of John is, among other things, a retelling of the story of creation. 
  • The first words of Genesis are “in the beginning.” 
  • The first words of John are “in the beginning.” 
  • The gospel of John is arranged to correspond to the 7 days of creation all of which correspond to the 7 days in Genesis.

PT: The story of creation shaped the gospel JS proclaimed in profound ways.

Another story that shaped JS’s imagination was the story of Exodus.

  • The people of God lived in slavery in Egypt.
  • (This is The Lack in the Exodus story)…
  • God rescues God’s people from slavery.
  • And there is this clash between the reign of Pharaoh & of YHWH.

Salvation in the Exodus story is about God liberating his people from bondage

  • It’s the proclamation that YHWH, not Pharaoh reigns in this world. 
  • So, in the Exodus story, Gospel is about this movement from bondage to freedom 

The Exodus story shaped the life of Jesus & the gospel he proclaimed in profound ways… in fact:

  • Matthew & Mark are filled with images of Jesus as the new Moses, reconstituting Israel & then leading them toward a New Exodus. 
  1. Parallels: baby Jesus hides from Herod / Baby Moses = Pharaoh. 
  2. Moses flees from Egypt / JS & his family flee to Egypt; 
  3. Herod & Pharoah both kill the 1st born children.
  • The entire SOTM parallels with Moses on Mt. Sinai bringing down the law for the people. 
  • Jesus gives a new understanding of the law that is really about freeing his people from the slavery of religious oppression & dogma;

PT: The story of Exodus shaped the gospel JS proclaimed in profound ways.

The third story that shaped JS’s imagination was the story of Exile.

  • Exile is the most disoriented moment in the history of Israel. 
  • They had come into their own as a nation, taken possession of the PL. 
  • They were strong & vibrant as a nation, and then they turned from God & were destroyed. 
  • When the walls of JER were torn down & the leaders of Jewish society were carried off into exile in Babylon.
  • Israel ceased to exist as a nation. 
  • From that moment on they lived on the margins of culture.
  • (This is The Lack in the Exodus story)…
  • They were aliens in a strange land, & they all felt like God had turned against them…

Salvation in the Exile story is about how God took his people who were living in alienation & marginalization & moved them to the center of God’s reality. 

  • It’s a story of reconciliation between God & his people who had ceased to recognize him as the God who reigns. 
  • So, in the Exile story, Gospel is about the movement from the fractured margins of belonging, to a life centered in the very life of God (KOG).

This story shaped the life of JS & the gospel he proclaimed in profound ways. 

  • In fact, Luke’s gospel is filled with exile language.
  • Do you remember in Luke 4 when Jesus goes to the synagogue in his hometown?
  • He’s asked to teach & he reads from the scroll of Isaiah.
  • Isaiah is written all about the people in exile, right? He reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news [there’s the word again] to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

  • Then JS sits down, all eyes on him & what does he say?
  • “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
  • Jesus is the return from exile.
  • Luke & Acts are filled with accounts of Jesus engaging with those who live on the margins of the culture… those the society left out.
  • No gospel gives more airtime to women, children, lepers, poor, demon possessed, and Gentiles than Luke does… Acts as well.
  • You can’t tell the gospel w/out talking about the promise of movement from the fractured margins of belonging to a life centered in God.

PT: The story of Exile shaped the gospel Jesus proclaimed in profound ways.

That’s 3… there’s a 4th … the Priestly narrative.

  • The Priestly story is all about who is clean & unclean / holy & unholy. 
  • It’s about sacrifices made to placate God.
  • In the other 3 stories there was a movement.
  • The priestly story breaks that rhythm. 
  • It’s not a story about dynamic movement, it’s about brokering a transaction… & minding boundary markers of who’s in/out.
  • (This is The Lack in the Exodus story)…
  • Salvation in the Priestly narrative is about is the transaction that renders people clean before God. 
  • It’s not a movement, it’s a transaction.

And for the most part, the church, for the past 300 years or so, has been obsessed with the priestly story.

  • In large part we’ve framed the entire gospel around this story.
  • … how to save a person’s soul from sin & damnation.
  • … boundary markers … who’s in & who’s out.
  • how we get things like the 4 spiritual laws, gospel as an equation, reduced to algebra… a mechanism to receive eternal life.
  • Jesus is reduced to a sacred object.

But when we look at the life & teaching of Christ, what we find is that the Priestly story is the story Jesus engages the least. 

  • And when he did engage it… he subverted it.
  • He was always saying, “You think you know who is holy… you don’t know. You think you know who’s clean, but you have it all wrong.”
  • When human beings engage the priestly story we almost always mistake who is righteous and who is unrighteous.

So in the Priestly story the gospel involves Jesus subverting it & reinterpreting it for the people..

  • That’s very different from his engagement w/the other 3 stories.
  • Jesus completely redefined the priestly story. 
  • The problem was that Israel’s priests had inserted themselves between God & the people of Israel – mediating God’s presence to the people.
  • It was never meant to be that way.
  • God wanted to pull all of Israel close so they could mediate God’s presence to the rest of creation… a nation of priests…
  • So, Jesus set himself up as the mediator between the people & God & established a new Israel—the church—and charged them with imaging God to the surrounding world.
  • Jesus wasn’t a big fan of the Priestly story. 
  • He hardly ever talked about it, and when he did, subverted it, in a way subsuming it into the other three narratives. 

PT: In a sense the church has gone the other way. We have ignored the other 3 narratives, or subsumed them under the priestly narrative. 

This has caused the church some really big issues…

For one thing: When we focus only on the priestly story we ignore the other 3 narratives, we run the risk of misunderstanding the gospel & the demands it makes upon our lives.

For EX: A gospel that hyper-focuses on the priestly narrative and ignores the creation narrative has no rationale for why we should care for the planet. 

  • Christians who only care about how to escape the world for heaven have no reason to take care of the world. 
  • I grew up hearing things like “why should we care for the planet. It’s all gonna burn anyway.” 
  • Jesus refused subverted that way of thinking.
  • Happily this is changing as evangelicals embrace the responsibility to care for creation & the movement from chaos to shalom/peace as essential to the gospel.
  • That’s just one example of a larger problem: if we focus only on the priestly narrative we’ll miss many aspects of the gospel as JS saw it.

Another problem with the over-emphasis on the priestly narrative is that the priestly narrative doesn’t really speak to the questions our culture is asking. 

  • The priestly narrative is the least effective at providing a meaningful and healing narrative to our world. 
  • The priestly narrative is providing answers to questions our culture isn’t asking.
  • Our society isn’t asking if they’re clean or not. 
  • If they were, this narrative would be a useful entrance point… their not.
  • You know what they are asking? … questions about how to move:
  • From chaos to shalom… right ordering of our societies & the world.
  • From bondage to freedom… addictions, cultural norms… 
  • From the fractured margins of culture to a life of belonging.
  • In other words… they’re asking Q’s of creation, exile, & exodus.

Just a few Creation Questions our culture is asking:

What does it mean to be human?
What are human relationships supposed to be like… especially w/those who aren’t like us?
What is our role in the care of creation?
How do we understand sexuality & gender?
What is my calling?
What is my purpose?


PT: the creation story speaks powerfully to those kinds of questions.

Exodus Questions our culture is asking:

I feel stuck in my current situation & don’t know how to get out.
How can I stop being a slave to this thing? 
How did I get here?
It’s not my fault, I was born into this… no control over my life…
I feel like I’m in captivity, how can I find release from this bondage?
This goes to questions of Addiction, vocation, isolation.


PT: The exodus story speaks powerfully to those sorts of questions.

Exile Questions our culture is asking:

I screwed up huge & I can’t come home again… shame… that’s an exile..
How do we engage those on the margins of culture?
Black Lives Matter is an exile question… as are many question of race.
The immigration policies of our government fit here, too.
Whatever you think about Donald Trump, the people who support him feel like they are on the margins… 
So many things you hear in the news are exile stories… refugees, immigrants, gender issues.

PT: The Exile story speaks powerfully to those who live on the margins of the culture and are asking these kinds of questions about how can I become an insider instead of an outsider? 

You guys, these Questions are Gospel Questions…When we keep our understanding of the gospel rooted in the stories Jesus was rooted in, then the gospel speaks directly to the questions people are asking in our culture.

  • When we don’t & it’s all Priestly narrative & holy/unholy, clean/ unclean
  • We lose the point of contact between the gospel Jesus preached and the deepest longings and questions of the human heart in our time
  • Cole: uses these stories often w/our students. 
  • Our students are teaching us: the priestly story it doesn’t have any traction… it’s an answer to a bunch of questions they’re not asking.
  • The other stories? You talk about Exodus, exile, or Creation stories (especially the creation story) and they light up.
  • When we think abuot the lack in our world & JS’s way of engaging it.
  • We have to keep it rooted in all 4 of these big stories.

What about you? You are probably going to see yourself more dominantly in one of these key stories… What story speaks to you most personally? What story helps you locate yourself in the story of God?

Are you living in chaos & your life needs order?
Are you living in slavery to something & you need to be liberated?
Are you feeling on the margins / on the outside, lonely or oppressed?
Did you screw up & feel like you can’t go home?
Only when we keep the gospel rooted in all four of the big stories of Israel will it be good news for all of us.
Which one of these stories do you locate yourself in? 

These are the four stories that shaped the imagination of Jesus.

You can’t understand the gospel JS proclaimed & lived out w/out these 4 stories