This morning I delivered a sermon to a handful of New Testament believers in the town of Kolda, Senegal. I don't preach very often, as I'm largely a creative entrepreneur these days, but the circumstances in which I delivered the sermon hold special significance for me. The church was founded by a man named Jean Pierre Coly, a Protestant Christian believer in a country where Christians are a small minority in a Muslim-dominated nation, and Protestant Christians are rarer still.
I met Jean Pierre 12 years ago shortly after my wife and I arrived in Dakar, Senegal's capital, as Christian missionaries. Jean Pierre was a guard for a French family. At the time, he had a paltry relationship with his father, and felt rejected by his family and the society around him. Jean Pierre, as you might have guessed by the name, grew up Catholic, but was non-practicing at the time and, like most of the people around him, held to animistic beliefs.
As a zealous Christian missionary who had just arrived and knew very little French, one of the first things I did was to introduce myself to my Muslim friends, with a French Bible in hand, and say, "Hello. My name is Aaron Taylor. I'm going to start a church in this neighborhood. I need to learn French. Can you help me with my pronunciation?" And then I would read Isaiah 53 and Romans 10:9-10, classic salvation passages. In a country where religious tolerance is a source of pride, a young Muslim man, Turi, said to me as I was practicing my French with the Bible in hand, "There's a guy who works in this neighborhood. His name is Jean Pierre. If you start a church, he'll come."
The first thing that Jean Pierre said to me after seeing me fumble through the French pronunciation of famous Biblical passages was "When are you going to start your church?" I said, "Not for a few months." The next day he asked me the same question and I gave him the same answer, "Not for a few months." This went on for a few days until I finally said, "We'll start next week."
For the next year and a half, Jean Pierre followed me everywhere as I shared the gospel with as many people as I could. We would go to the university and distribute gospel tracts, New Testaments, and Bible courses. He would accompany me as I showed the Jesus film and the God's Story film in different neighborhoods and villages. After a year and a half, I felt called to leave Senegal and moved back to the U.S. to help my father-in-law through a difficult crisis. It wasn't evident at the time that our work in Senegal would bear any fruit, but Jean Pierre has since moved on to become a dedicated church planter, who is actively making disciples and helping the poor in many villages in the Cassamance, which is the southern region of Senegal.
I want to share with you what I preached this morning, but before I do, I want to preface for the sake of my non-Protestant/evangelical friends with a few thoughts and clarifications. I realize that there are multiple interpretations regarding the historicity of the Adam and Eve story and the Noah story in light of archaeology and science, and I don't wish to imply that a fundamentalist reading of the earlier Biblical stories is the only valid one. Also, my views on Protestant-Catholic relations, Jewish-Christian relations, and Muslim-Christian relations have evolved over the years and I don't wish to imply that a little creative theologizing isn't necessary to foster a commitment to human rights, mutual understanding, and better relationships between the faith communities. I believe that there's much work that needs to be done in this area by scholars and people of good will in all of these faith communities, including my own.
Having said that, here is what I preached this morning.
Twelve years ago my wife and I came to this country as missionaries. Shortly after we arrived your pastor, Jean Pierre, became our disciple. We entrusted the Word of God to him, and after a year and a half, we went back to America. It wasn't obvious at the time that our work would bear much fruit, but we did our part. We helped him through Bible school and arranged for him to intern with another church planter, and we supported his ministry over many years. After Jean Pierre met his wife, Jal, (a Brazilian missionary) he founded this church, and you are the result of his labor. I did my part. Jean Pierre is doing his part. And now it's your turn, because you are a part of this story too.
Our faith isn't based on mythology. It's based on historical fact. As the physician Luke wrote in his day, "Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things which you were instructed" (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke says, "That you may know the certainty of things which you were instructed." That's not a reference to mythology. It's a reference to historical fact. In a court of law, it takes two to three witnesses to establish a fact, but when Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to over 500 people. That's over 500 witnesses! (I Corinthians 15:6).
The appearance of Jesus was prophesied long before he arrived. From the very beginning, after Adam and Eve sinned and humanity fell from grace, God promised that one of Eve's descendants would crush the head of the serpent, the devil. The rest of the Bible tells the story of God fulfilling that promise.
Adam and Eve had children, and their children had children. Their descendants were so wicked that God was sorry that He had created humanity, so he sent a flood to wipe out the earth, and 8 souls were saved on the Ark. It wasn't evident at the time that God would fulfill his promise. There was much opposition. Only 8 souls were saved! But every time when it looks like God's promise won't be fulfilled, God provides a way.
After the 8 souls were saved, humanity sinned again. In the story of the tower of Babel, God decided to scatter humanity throughout the earth and create different languages. Now God has another problem. He has to figure out a way to spread His knowledge to all different tribes and peoples, who speak all kinds of languages. All are people who have sinned against Him and lost their way. God started that plan of redemption with a man named Abraham. Abraham is the true father of our faith.
God told Abraham to leave his family and to set out on a journey. God promised that he would make a great nation out of Abraham's descendants, and that his descendants would bless the world. Abraham didn't know where he was going, but he believed God's promise. It's at this point that Abraham was justified before God, because the Bible says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8).
Abraham believed God's promise. He was saved by faith. And he demonstrated his faith when God told him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. God had promised Abraham that it would be through Isaac that His promise would be fulfilled. Abraham believed God's promise so much that he concluded that even if he killed his son, that God would raise him from the dead. Just as Abraham lifted the knife to kill Isaac, an angel stopped him and provided a lamb to sacrifice instead. It didn't look like God would fulfill His promise, but He provided a way.
Isaac's son Jacob was a liar and a deceiver, but God chose him to be the heir to the promise. Jacob had 12 sons. One of them was Joseph. Joseph's brothers wanted to kill him because he had a dream that they would bow down to them. One of the brothers, Judah, spoke up and suggested that instead of killing him, Joseph should be sold into slavery. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, and then he was thrown in prison after Potiphar's wife lied about him. After that he became a king, second only to Pharaoh. A great famine came upon the land and it looked like Jacob and his descendants would all die. It wasn't evident that God would fulfill his promise to Eve, but God made a way. He used Judah to save the life of Joseph, and he used Joseph to save the lives of his family. Jesus is a descendant of Judah.
After 400 years, Jacob's descendants multiplied in Egypt. The Egyptians were afraid of the Israelites, so they put them in slavery. The new Pharaoh wanted to commit genocide against God's people. It wasn't evident that God would fulfill His promise, but God raised up Moses to deliver his people. After many signs and wonders and plagues, God caused his people to pass through the Red Sea and drowned the armies of Pharaoh. The children of Israel were in the wilderness for 40 years, and they grumbled and complained against Moses. After 40 years, God helped Joshua conquer the land of Canaan and the people were settled in their land, but from here on out a pattern began to emerge. The people would sin against God, God would send foreign oppressors to punish them, and then God would send military saviors to save them. This is the period of the Judges.
The period of the judges lasted about 450 years until the time of David, when God took a shepherd boy and made him king. God promised David that one of his descendants would be a great king, and that he would establish God's kingdom throughout the world. There was just one problem. Israel already had a king, and his name was Saul. Saul was jealous of David and wanted to kill him. It wasn't evident that God would fulfill his promise, because now somebody wanted to kill David, but God rescued David from Saul and made him king. David was a liar, a murderer, and an adulterer, but God still used him.
Most of the kings that came from the lineage of David were wicked, but a few of them were good. God would send prophets at this time to tell the people to repent, or God would send a foreign army to remove them from their land. The people didn't listen, so God finally sent the Babylonians to remove the people from their land. God said the captivity would last for 70 years, and then God sent Ezra and Nehemiah to restore the people to their land, and to rebuild Jerusalem (the city of David) and the temple.
Now God's people are back in their land, but they're living under foreign oppression. First the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. For 400 years, God appeared to be silent. There were no prophets to speak to the people at this time. The Jews were expecting a military savior with strong muscles to defeat their oppressors, the Romans, but God sent Jesus, who was born in a stable. Herod tried to kill Jesus, but God sent Jesus and his family to Egypt. Once again the enemy tried to stop God's promise, but God provided a way.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Unlike the military ruler with big muscles that the Jews expected, Jesus was a humble carpenter. When Jesus' cousin John the Baptist saw Jesus he said, "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." God provided a lamb just like he did for Abraham and Isaac. Jesus healed the sick. He raised the dead. He calmed the storms. He walked on water. One time he fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Unlike the children of Israel, Jesus was the faithful Israelite who obeyed God completely. All of God's promises to Israel were fulfilled in Jesus, the faithful Israelite.
Jesus did great miracles, but the leaders of the people wanted to kill him. So they mocked him and tortured him. They put a crown of thorns on his head. It's like they were saying to him, "You say you're a king. Here's your crown of thorns!" Jesus died on a cross. It looked like the promise that God made to Eve, that one of her descendants would crush the head of the serpent, would never be fulfilled. It looked like all hope was lost. But on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. When Jesus rose from the dead, he crushed the head of the serpent.
After Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, there were 120 of his disciples in a room on the day of Pentecost. God sent a rushing and mighty wind and tongues with flames of fire to sit upon their heads. All the people began speaking languages that they didn't know. God figured out a way to solve the problem after the tower of Babel. You may speak Manjak or Wolof or Diola, or Baynuk. Whatever language you speak, God knows your language, and your language is important to Him. This is the day the Church was born.
After the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost, a man named Saul persecuted the church greatly. Once again there was an enemy who tried to thwart the promises of God, but Jesus appeared to Saul, knocked him off his horse, and said to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Saul became the great Apostle Paul and founded many churches. He wrote a lot of the New Testament, and became the last person that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection.
The Bible says,"For this reason the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." We are Jesus' hands and Jesus' feet. Every time you share the story of Jesus with your friends and family, you're destroying the works of the devil. Every act of kindness, every time you show God's love to someone, you play your part in God's story. Jesus said that even if you give a cup of cold water in my name, you won't lose your reward.
The word of God is not chained! After Paul's ministry was over, the gospel spread to Europe and parts of Africa, then America and Brazil and many other parts of the world. And now the Word of God has come to you. I did my part. Jean Pierre has done his part. But now it's your turn. My work isn't finished yet. Jean Pierre's work isn't finished yet, and neither is your work finished. It doesn't matter what you're called in life to do. No matter what your occupation is, you're called to be a part of God's story.
The Bible isn't many stories. It's one story.
You are a part of that story.