The Rest of the Story…Again

Heritage Presbyterian Church

January 24, 2021
Third Sunday After Epiphany
Scripture reading – Jonah 3: 1-10

For those of you who are reading the title of today’s sermon and thinking you missed something last week, please don’t worry.  Let me explain: On March 9, 2008, I preached for the very first time here at Heritage Presbyterian Church, back at the former site of our church.  On that day, I preached a sermon called “The Rest of the Story.”  The point of that sermon is that we never know what God has in mind; even when faced with great challenges and terrible situations, we don’t know if it is a test, a challenge, a temporary set-back, or nothing much at all.  Sometimes, perhaps we need to wait for the rest of the story in order to truly understand God’s plan for us.

Last January, I preached that same sermon outline again, but this time with different examples.  The message remained the same:  sometimes, perhaps we need to wait for the rest of the story in order to truly understand God’s plan for us.

Seeing as it’s January again, and I’m still preaching here at Heritage Presbyterian Church, it is more temptation than I can stand to do this one more time…especially in light of all the changes we have experienced together in the past 12 months, as well as all the changes we will be facing together in the weeks and months to come.

The old radio host, Paul Harvey, used to tell stories illustrating the lesson of waiting for the whole story before coming to any conclusions.  If you proceeded in your thinking with just the little you knew at first, you were usually wrong.  Once you had the whole story, that was when Mr. Harvey would chuckle and say, “Now you know…the rest of the story.”

With that in mind, as well as the rather incomplete reading from Scripture echoing in our minds – a reading that completely skipped the good part where Jonah was swallowed by a gigantic fish – let us ponder the two following stories.  I can personally confirm the details of both stories because I know both main characters personally.  So here we go:

Story #1:  His name is Robert.  He was the coolest person I knew during the years I lived in Austin.  I met him during my freshman orientation.  He had short curly hair, a full beard, and an earring in just one ear.  He dressed like a typical Austin college student – relaxed, maybe even sloppy, but clean.  He was laid back – I mean WAY, WAY back – and when he spoke it was low and smooth and very, very cool.  I met him again a couple of years later when I worked with his brother in the college bookstore.  He used to come in and visit his brother, and he was always friendly to me.  We began talking and laughing together, and an easy friendship formed.  When I needed a new place to live, his brother told me that Robert lived in a house near campus and needed another housemate.  When I brought it up the next time he came in the store, he smiled brightly and invited me to stop by his house and see it for myself.  When I did, I found a comfortable house with three big bedrooms and two bathrooms near the university and – best of all – just in my low price range.  I signed the lease and started to move in.  I had some help from some friends, and Robert greeted everyone cheerfully as we carried furniture and boxes up the stairs to my new room.  Later on, when I began hanging my Jesus posters around my room, Robert’s behavior changed and he became very quiet.  In fact, I spent most of the first month I lived in that house alone.  It was depressing and I had no idea what had happened.  I never realized that it was the Jesus posters that set him off.  For you see…I also had no idea that Robert was an atheist. 

And if I stop there, you won’t know the rest of the story.

Story #2: His name is Greg.  He lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his mother.  He drinks all the time, smokes too much, and spends a lot of time alone in his room or on the back porch.  Over the years, he has fathered several children, been married at least twice, and now works for cash only to avoid paying child support.  He has people looking for him, and his dear mother once told him that if anyone showed up at her door, she would NOT hide him.  He almost died a few years, some kind of overdose I heard; he was surprised when he woke up and said it might have been better if he was dead.  He has worked laying various types of tile flooring for years and years, but he cannot do that type of work anymore because it has damaged his hips to the point that he can no longer get down on his knees.  To anyone looking at him today, he appears to be a sad, pathetic shell of a man, guilty it would seem of a wasted life. 

And if I stop there, you truly don’t know the rest of the story!

The reason I keep preaching this theme, the reason I keep cautioning against jumping in before we know all the facts has to do with a conversation I had with my son a while back.  As I read of the success of various types of churches, I marveled with frustration at how they achieved their success! I once described a church I knew of that was booming – and yet they had virtually no roles for women because of the various statements plucked from the Bible that excluded women from leadership roles.  Or this type of church was big on using the Bible to justify what I saw as outrageous, judgmental behavior and then publicly shaming its members into “behaving.”  And yet that church – and others like it – continue to boom!  I lamented this phenomenon to my son – and I was startled by his reply.  He told me that this world seems so messed up that people are hungering for something simple, someone to tell them it’s going to be easy.  The almost soft, seductive voice that says, “All you have to do is this” and then tells them where to find it in the Bible.

My son cautioned me often against the easy way, the quick fix, the short, bumper-sticker answers that might satisfy some.  He and I both believe quite strongly that taking ANY Bible verse or story out of context and using it to support anything other than the entire message of Scripture is dangerous…and possibly wicked.  

If we only read the story that we were given from Scripture today, we only know that Nineveh repented after Jonah walked through that city yelling at them to repent.  Jonah must have been incredibly effective with his message.  But it just feels like we came in on the middle of movie!

Knowing the entire story, the setting, the context of any section of the Bible is important in its study for any Christian.  Checking your brain at the door and allowing anyone to tell you how to believe, what to think, what to do, and how to do it invites trouble.  It also has the power to thrive and spread that type of message in the guise of preaching the true word from God.  

Instead, be careful.  Get the whole story.  Look for what’s missing.  Use the common sense that the Lord gave you.  Ask questions before cementing your opinions in stone.  Make sure you know the rest of the story.

Now, let me tell you the rest of the stories of Robert and Greg.

Yes, Robert was an atheist.  Notice that I said “was.”  I lived with him for two years and was his best friend for more than 20 years.  Even now, although we hardly see each other, I care very much about him.  When I lived with Robert, I never pushed my beliefs on him.  I never brought it up.  I just went about my life and was his friend.  After a long, long time, he began to ask me about faith, God, belief, Scripture, and everything else.  He was an amazingly curious person because he knew none of it.  Today he is a very active Catholic who attends mass on a regular basis.  He is a Christian.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Despite the wasted life of Greg that I described, if I saw him today, I would throw my arms around him and call him brother – and it would be very, very good.  If anyone in my family saw him, they would hug him like their own beloved friend.  I would joyfully introduce him to everyone in my family and they would all smile – because they know the stories about him.  

And when I saw him at the funeral for his mother back in 2019, he and I threw our arms around each other and just hugged and hugged.  We talked for a little while, and I learned that he continues to live a tough life…perhaps not one deserving of salvation or forgiveness.

But I will say that if he and I were to arrive before the Lord at the same time, I would get on my knees and beg the Lord to welcome Greg into paradise.  I would remind the Lord of the unwavering friendship Greg gave me during my very difficult high school years.  I would describe how he made me laugh – especially when I was angry at life and at everyone in it…except him.  I would talk about how we stuck together when both of our parents were getting divorced at almost the same time.  

I would beg the Lord to be merciful because Greg was the truest example of a friend that I had back in those days.  And if the Lord replied, “But Mark…in those 30 years that you didn’t see Greg, he has done wicked things,” I would say that it didn’t matter to me.  I still love him like a brother, no matter what he’s done. 

I owe him, Lord…I owe him.

Our loving Lord is never finished with us.  The rest of our own story, the rest of this church’s story, has yet to be written.  We may only know a part of it, but the rest has yet to be written.  Whether you are 9 or 99, whether you’ve come to Christ, live in Him your whole life, or continue to run away from His love, you aren’t done until the Lord says so.

The rest of our own story might be good.  It might be bad.  It might be ordinary.  It might be heroic.  But whatever it may be, make sure you know everything, make sure you wait for everything; because the rest of the story just might be where the Lord is waiting.