In 1933 a new pulp magazine debuted that featured a hero who was a wealthy playboy by day and the world’s greatest detective at night. He would don a mask and catch the criminals that eluded the police. In the magazine the police commissioner even installed a special light that he would shine into the sky to summon the hero when he was needed. While all of this might sound familiar to some of you, I am not describing Batman. Batman did not make his first appearance until 1939. No, in 1933 the Phantom Detective debuted, and the Phantom Detective had a major influence on the creation of Batman. The Phantom Detective was not just a one hit wonder, flash in the pan either. His magazine was published continuously for twenty years, and there was a radio drama featuring the hero that enjoyed a small level of popularity. However, the Phantom Detective has faded into obscurity, while more than eighty years later Batman, the hero inspired by the Phantom Detective, continues to be popular and an icon of pulp culture.
The reason why Batman’s popularity has been consistent for eight decades and The Phantom Detective is virtually unknown today is because Batman has been reimagined time and time again. Batman began as a masked detective in the 1940s and there was a strong true crime bend. Batman’s popularity had drastically dropped by the 1960s, but it was revived by the Batman TV show staring Adam West. This introduced a much lighter hearted and campy take on Batman. In the 1980’s, the Batman comics took a turn to be more serious and brooding. This tone then inspired the Michael Keaton Batman film. In the 1990’s a successful animated series gave another take on Batman, The Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy gave another take on Batman, a whole series of popular video games presents a different perspective on Batman. Today, some kids’ best know Batman from the LEGO Batman iteration. The Phantom Detective on the other hand stuck to gritty, pulp crime stories and radio dramas, as culture was turning to more fantastical stories and television.
How Batman was presented changed, and the Phantom Detective did not. This is why Batman has endured. While the different iterations of Batman has given a different take, the core of what makes Batman the Batman has not changed. It does not matter if Batman is portrayed by Adam West or presented as Legos, the core identity of the character does not change, but the presentation does. Batman has been popular for decades because a version of the hero keeps getting presented in new ways that appeals to new fans. I think there is a lesson for us to learn from this. This morning’s scripture is a reminder that we have a responsibility to teach our children so that the next generation will know the faith we proclaim, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.
This morning’s scripture comes from Psalm 78, and it is interesting one because it is a summary of the Israelite’s journey as God’s chosen people from Moses to David. The entirety of the Psalm recalls the past failings of the Israelites and it urges them not to repeat these sins of the past but to continue on as God’s people. The selection we heard this morning is the introduction of the Psalm. What we heard read is a reminder that the story of God’s wonder, power, and love that is about to be told is an old one. What we heard read is also a reminder of the importance of passing the story and the commands that God gives down from generation to generation. One of the aspects of this morning’s scripture that really impresses me is how well that was done. Psalm 78 was likely written between 750-720 BCE. This is almost three hundred years after David’s reign, and it is somewhere between 700-800 years after Moses. In an era without printing presses, no mass communication, and spotty historical records the story of God and God’s chosen people managed to endure and be passed down from generation to generation. When this Psalm was written it was an attempt to tell the current generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. This morning’s scripture lifts up that the Israelites had a responsibility to tell their story so that new generations would continue to know it. As followers of Jesus, I believe we have that same responsibility. We are only going to fulfill the great commission and our mission of making disciples if we continue to tell the story of Jesus and his love. This morning’s scripture is an example from long ago of how one Psalmist attempted to tell the story of God to a new generation. As we consider how we are to do it, I think there are three components of telling the story that we need to keep in mind.
I think the first component we need to keep in mind is that the story does not change. I think that this has to be kept to the forefront of our minds, because there is a temptation to do this. There is a temptation to contextualize the story of Jesus and his love to make it more relevant. This is not a new phenomenon. It seems every generation faces challenges that seek to change the story to better fit in the context of their time. In the 1700’s there was a movement of deism that sought to cast God not as a God of miracles, but as a distant clockmaker who created a perfectly ordered world and then essentially walked away. This view of God does not fit with the Bible but it fit with the enlightenment driven philosophies of the era. In the same way, in the 1800s the United States was littered with preachers who twisted scripture to support the enslavement and dehumanization of people based on skin color. Again, this is not an accurate representation of the scripture but it was what Americans who wanted to justify owning other human beings wanted to hear. In trying to chase being relevant our message of who God is, who Jesus is, and what Jesus saves us from can get twisted, watered down, or lost altogether.
The reality though is that God is always relevant. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is still the God of all creation today. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The bible is the divinely inspired word, and its power does not change just because the year on the calendar has. The message of our faith does not change. The creed that we recited at the beginning of this service dates back centuries and it is still just as true today. We need to tell the story to new people today, but we need to ensure that we tell, as this morning’s scripture puts it, “things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us.” The story we share needs to proclaim that we are all created by a great God of love; that even though we are great sinners, Jesus is a greater savior; that by the power of Jesus death and resurrection we are forgiven and we are forever reconciled with the God who created us.
The good news of Jesus does not change and is always relevant. However, the second component we have to consider is how that story is going to be communicated in our present day and age. Just like Batman has been presented in different iterations over the years, the way the eternal message of salvation is communicated needs to be updated. This has always been true. In the 1700’s John Wesley brought revival to England by preaching in the fields. However, I have read John Wesley’s sermons. While theologically solid and deep, I feel they would go over like a lead balloon in the 21st century. Since the days of Wesley, the way the gospel is communicated and the way worship is conducted has changed. Today, instead of communicating the gospel in the way that we are most comfortable with, we need to do so in a way that connects with those who need to hear it the most.
We first have to be brutally honest that for the past couple of decades the American church has not done a great job of sharing the story. The evidence is all around us, or rather it is not around us. In the vast majority of churches around the country people my age and younger are absent in large numbers. It is easier to blame younger generations, to say they just don’t get it. It is easy to shake our heads and say “kids these days”. However, that is not the right approach. People in their thirties and twenties today, still need Jesus even if they are not in church. It is our job to properly communicate to them the story of Christ. Now obviously every single person is different, and there is no silver bullet, one size fits all solution. At the same time though years of research has shown there are some consistent ways to communicate the story to our current younger generations. In their 2016 book Growing Young Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin summarized some of these key ways. Their research showed that in order to help young people discover and the church and our story there are a few key aspects of the faith that should be emphasized. Instead of judging and criticism, they want to see Christians meet people where they are at like Jesus did. Instead of focusing on flashy worship and big programs, they want real community and friendships. Instead of condemning the world outside our walls, young people want opportunities to be loving neighbors. All of these essential strategies they identified fit within a Christian approach. The message stays the same, but how we present the message and share it with the world can and probably should change.
This leads to the third component we have to keep in mind. If we have a responsibility to tell the story of God’s love and Jesus’ life so that next generation will know them, then we have to tell the story. Making new disciples is a responsibility that every follower of Jesus shares in. The way we do this is twofold. First we have to know the story. Being a Christian is not being the member of some sort of club, and the sanctuary is our clubhouse. Being a Christian means we have had a life altering experience with the saving grace and the sanctuary is our place of worship because we declare with our mouths and believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord. This morning’s scripture talks about telling the next generations about God’s praiseworthy deeds, God’s power, and God’s wonder. The question that I think this challenges us all to consider is, can you do that? Have you ever done that? If you have never really verbalized the ways that you have experienced God’s wonder, the ways you understand God’s power, and the deeds of God you consider praiseworthy, then I consider you give it a shot. Even if you just write them down for yourself, we likely all need more practice at telling the story.
Second, if we are going to tell the story to others, then we have to know people to tell the story to! One of the most common excuse given by people about why they do not share their faith is that they claim they do not know anyone who is not already not a Christian. If that is true, then that is an easy one to fix: go meet new people! There are no shortage of people who need Jesus in the world. To share the story about God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we do not need to be a slick talking, bible thumping, street corner preaching, mega-phone wielding evangelist. In fact, we probably will do a better job if we are not that. Especially, with younger generations the most effective way to share the story of God’s love is by showing them God’s love through our actions. We do not treat the people who do not yet know Jesus as projects, but we treat them authentically as people who are worth loving because God loves them.
In the late 1990’s there was a doom and gloom report based on a Gallup poll that declared “the church is one generation from extinction.” That is an outlook that lacks a lot of faith, the church, the body of Christ on earth, will go on until Jesus comes back. I am fully confident in that. As the years go on, it will likely look different and perhaps go through some rough patches, but as long as faithful believers continue to tell the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done then there will be followers of Jesus. The question for us to consider is what part will we play in that legacy? It is my sincere prayer that each and every one of us decides that we are willing to be disciples who make disciples so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children until Jesus returns.