I think we often don’t realize how powerfully our stories shape us as people and as nations.
For example, in British military history the idea of the brave few who win a glorious victory over the many has been a recurrent theme. I think it goes back to Shakespeare, to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where the King says ‘We few – we happy few – we band of brothers’. Admiral Nelson took this up during the Napoleonic Wars, talking about his ship captains as a ‘band of brothers’ fighting against the superior numbers of the Spanish and French. And Churchill tapped into it in his famous Battle of Britain speech: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”. These stories reinforced in the British psyche the idea that it doesn’t matter if British forces are outnumbered, because they have a history of coming from behind to win.
I think in the Church we have to be very careful that we don’t get coopted by stories in the culture that are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus. Two of the most powerful are the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of the American dream. Redemptive violence tells us that violence is usually the answer: the way to defeat an enormous evil empire is for Luke Skywalker to wield his light sabre or fly his X-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star. The American Dream tells us that the key to success in life is ever-increasing wealth; to get richer means making progress and getting ahead, but not to do that is failure. These are powerful stories in our culture and they shape us in ways we often don’t notice. Unless we challenge them – and then the culture pours down scorn on our heads.
Psalm 111 reminds Israel of its founding story – the story of how God rescued a slave people from Egypt, led them safely through the desert, fed them with manna, gave them laws to shape their life together as God’s people, and then led them into their home, the promised land. Year by year by year, this story was told in the liturgy of Israel, especially at Passover time, and as the people heard it they understood once again who they were as a people, why God had called them, what God had called them to be. This story shaped their lives, which is why it was so important for them to come back to it again and again.
As Christians, as we read this psalm, we’re going to ask ourselves the question: What is our equivalent of the Exodus story? How does the Jesus story shape us like the Exodus story shaped Israel? What practices do we follow to allow it to shape us? And are we being faithful in those practices, or are we neglecting them?
The heart of the psalm is verses 5-9. Let me read them to you again from the NRSV:
‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name’.
Three incidents in the Old Testament story of the Exodus from Egypt are recalled here. First, in verse 5 the people remember how God fed them in the desert: ‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant’. Exodus tells the story of how the people came to Moses grumbling that there was no food for them to eat, and there were many thousands of them, all in danger of starvation. So God sent them ‘manna from heaven’, little flakes of a bread-like substance that fell on the camp every morning. The tradition in Exodus is that this food came to them every day for the forty years of their desert wanderings, until the day they crossed the River Jordan and entered the Promised Land: then it stopped. So God in his power and mercy kept them alive through the desert, and all through the years they celebrated this memory.
Second, in verse 6 the people remember how God led their armies into Canaan, drove out the Canaanites before them and gave them the land for themselves. ‘He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations’. The biblical story is a little unclear as to how this happened; Joshua gives the impression that it was sudden and decisive, while Judges seems to suggest it was longer and messier. But it was the universal belief of Israel that it wasn’t their own military prowess that had won this victory for them; rather, God had provided them with a safe home to live in.
Third, in verses 7-8 the people remember how God gave them his ‘Torah’, his laws or instruction, on Mount Sinai. ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness’. God didn’t give the Torah to Moses as a way of earning his love; he had already poured his love out on them freely when he rescued them from Egypt. But he wanted to shape them into a people who would shine his light for all the world around them, and the Torah was going to help them do that.
This psalm doesn’t specifically mention the coming out of Egypt itself, of course, or the crossing of the Red Sea; it assumes that story, which is retold poetically three psalms later, in Psalm 114. But if we take these four incidents in order, here is the story that shaped Israel: First, God rescue them from slavery in Egypt. Second, God provided supernatural food for them to eat in the desert so they wouldn’t starve (he also made water flow supernaturally for them). Third, God gave them the Torah to shape their lives as obedient people. Fourth, God led them into Canaan and gave it to them as their Promised Land.
I want to make two more comments before applying this story to us today as Christians. First, for Israel this story spelled out to them the character of their God: verse 4 says ‘the Lord is gracious and merciful’, or as another, more literal translation has it, ‘showing favour and merciful is the Lord’. In other words, the God of Israel is a loving and generous God. The book of Deuteronomy underlines several times that this love wasn’t something they had done anything to deserve: it was the free choice of God to make them his people and shower his love on them. The New Testament word is ‘grace’: love you don’t have to earn or deserve – it comes to you from God as a free gift, not because you are lovable but because God is love.
My second comment is to remind you that Israel reminded themselves of this story year after year. Where is this psalm recited? Verse 1 says ‘I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation’. In other words, the people of God are gathered together to worship God, and in that gathering this story is retold, to remind the people of who God is and who they are.
Verse 4 in our NRSV says ‘He has gained renown by his powerful deeds’, but many other translations say something like ‘He has caused his wondrous deeds to be remembered’, or ‘a memorial he has made of his wondrous acts’. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God commanded that year by year the people celebrate the Passover Festival as a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt. For thousands of years now Jewish people have been doing just that.
What about us as Christians? What story shapes us, and how do we celebrate it? Our story, of course, is the story of Jesus. If we were using the same categories as the Old Testament people, we might tell the story in four acts:
What is our deliverance from slavery? It’s Easter weekend: the cross and the resurrection, the story of how Jesus reconciled us to God by his death and gave us victory over evil by his resurrection. By Jesus’ death and resurrection we’re set free from guilt and fear. We find a new connection with God a new strength to do God’s will, and a new hope for the future. Easter weekend is Jesus’ great victory over the armies of Pharaoh. No wonder we celebrate it year by year.
What is our story of being sustained in the desert by manna from heaven and water from the rock? In 1 Corinthians Paul applies these stories to Christ, who is our nourishment on our desert journey through life. The Eucharist, of course, is a graphic picture of this: we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). So we celebrate the continuing presence of Jesus with us to sustain us on our journey, and especially his presence in the Eucharist.
What is our story of God giving us his Torah, his instruction, to shape our life as an obedient people? Surely this is Jesus coming among us as our teacher, by his actions and his words. Jesus gives us our clearest picture of what God is like and what God wants for us. His Sermon on the Mount and his other teachings spell out for us what it looks like to be a people who love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and love their neighbour as themselves. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3). In other words, the word God has spoken to us in Jesus is the highest and clearest word we have ever received, and it’s meant to shape us as a people.
What is our story of God leading his people into the promised land? We need to be careful about this one, because one of the discontinuities between Old and New Testaments is the place of violence. Jesus never commands his followers to carry out their mission by war and conquest. And we don’t have an earthly ‘promised land’; if we have such a place, it’s in the life to come. But where he is leading us is out into the world in mission for him. Jesus doesn’t send his soldiers out to conquer; he sends his missionaries out, armed with nothing but the gospel on their lips and the love of God in their hearts. As we share the Gospel and call others to follow Jesus, the whole world in a sense becomes God’s promised land.
How do we Christians respond to this story? Two final things: we retell it over and over again, and we live in awe of the God it reveals to us.
We Christians understand that it’s hard for us humans to concentrate on the whole story all the time. We need to go through it stage by stage, over and over again, giving our attention to different parts of it. As we tell it and retell it, it sinks into our subconscious and shapes us as God’s special people.
We’ve just gone through one of those special times – the story of Christmas. Once again we heard the story of how God came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. Luke told us of the manger in Bethlehem and the shepherds telling the story of peace on earth, good will to all. Matthew told us of the wise men and their star. John told us what it all means for us: the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Ahead for us soon is the other major festival in our story: Holy Week and Easter. We’ll focus again on the story of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection. We’ll enter into Jerusalem with him on Palm Sunday. We’ll sit in the Upper Room as he washes his disciples’ feet and gives them bread and wine to proclaim his death until he comes again. We’ll go with him to Golgotha on Good Friday and watch the nails pounded into his body and hear him cry out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we’ll go to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and join in the amazement of those first witnesses in the Upper Room as the Risen Lord appears to them.
But there’s a problem. Years ago, working people only got one day off at these high and holy days. Travel was difficult and no one went away. Nowadays, not so much. Many Christian people skip these central celebrations of our faith altogether. They go away to the sun, and the last thing they think about when they’re enjoying their holiday is going to church.
What does this mean? It means that year by year we miss out on focussing on these central stories that shape us as a community. Some people say, “But I can read them in the Bible any time I like”. To which I respond, “Yes, but do you?” It’s easier to get Bibles at this point in time than it has ever been, but I suspect that the Bible is actually read less and less. And anyway, it’s not the same as coming together as a community and focussing together on these central stories of our faith. So please don’t cheat yourself of this vital discipline. Even if you go away for the holidays, make sure your holiday time includes joining in worship with other Christians to celebrate the story of our salvation.
Lastly, we walk in ‘the fear of the Lord’. ‘Fear’ is perhaps not such a good translation these days; the idea of fear is usually connected in our minds with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word includes a larger range of meanings: ‘awe, reverent respect, honour’. The writer of the psalm sees no contradiction between talking about the grace and mercy of God in verse 4 and the fear of the Lord in verse 10, so the ‘fear of the Lord’ obviously doesn’t mean terror; rather, he says, it’s ‘the beginning of wisdom’.
In other words, if we have a proper attitude of awe and wonder and respect toward God, we will be in a better position to know how to live. Day by day, as life presents us with difficult situations, we’ll find that we know how to respond to them. Knowing this story – the story of God, of God’s love and God’s power – will give us a proper view of what life is all about.
I find this to be profoundly true: the light of the gospel doesn’t just illuminate God for us – it illuminates everything else as well. Things that were dark and murky become clearer and brighter. We see God as God is; we see ourselves as God sees us, and we see the world as God sees it. And seeing those things, we know what our next step on the journey ought to be. In the end, that’s what wisdom is all about.