Story - Introduction
Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1–26:11
True confession. I have over 100 books checked out from the library at the moment. But it's not my fault. Ok it is my fault. But it’s cute, I swear. You see, when Patrick and I go to the library, which is pretty frequently, we tend to get a bit carried away when it comes time to leave with books. We’ll go to the Thomas book section and find a few or ten. We’ll see more Elephant and Piggie books. We’ll look for Daniel Tiger or Disney books. And Patrick will always find some random book I swear he’s not going to like and then demand to have it read to him once a day for four months. And if you do this enough times, you wind up with 100 books checked out from the library. Did you know you could even get that many?!
Patrick loves his stories. Last Christmas my parents got him a train set. And about May he started really getting into Thomas the Train and playing with his train set everyday. And even though the trains in his train set don’t look like Thomas trains, he still named all of the trains in his set after Thomas trains. And then sometime in the late summer he started doing this amazing thing where he would make the trains re-enact the stories from the Thomas books we had checked out or the Thomas shows we watched. He did it all on his own.
This Christmas we got Patrick a Lion King Lion Guard play set. It has this plastic set and a bunch of pieces. And Christmas Day he spent hours playing by himself re-enacting scenes from the Lion King on his play set.
Stories are important. Developmentally they’re the first way we can interact with our world, the first way we can grasp concepts. They’re the first way we can make connections and learn to think with. Patrick can play as Thomas or as Percy or as Spencer and he knows enough about them to do that because he has read and knows so many of their stories.
And even as we get older stories are the easiest way to communicate complex, abstract ideas. When we are getting to know each other we don’t just recite facts about ourselves or list off some random traits. We tell stories. Stories about what our childhood was like. Stories about our family. Stories about our kids. We do that because we know stories are the best way to let people into our lives.
There’s a movie that came out many years ago called “Stories We Tell” where the director and main character attempted to go back to learn about her mother who had passed away before she could get to know her. So she interviewed her dad. And her mothers second husband. And her siblings. And her mothers friends. And as the movie goes on we keep getting different pictures about her mother because none of the stories line up. And by the end of the movie we as the viewers and the daughter have no better idea who her mother was than when we started. Stories are important. They are the way we make sense of our lives, of who we are. If the stories of our past don’t line up, it can be hard to imagine who we’ll become in the future.
Stories are important. Its almost as if we are hard wired for stories. Its almost as if that’s the primary way that our brains function. And if that’s true, then it should come as no surprise to us that God would relate to us through, well, story. And that’s precisely what I think happens in Scripture. The Bible is a book full of stories but it itself is also one large story. One large story of God saving us. And as we start this new year, I want us to look at the elements of the story. But first, I want to talk about why story is important.
Near the end of Deuteronomy, God is giving the Israelites instructions on how they should give their offerings to God. Now, I promise, this isn’t a giving sermon. It just so happens that this prayer was meant for offering. When the Israelites brought their gifts to God, there was a prayer they were supposed to pray. But before I read the prayer there’s something about Deuteronomy I need you to know.
Deuteronomy presents itself as a set of rules given to the Israelites as they are about to enter the promised land. But it’s name betrays its real setting. Deutero means second, so Deuteronomy literally means the second giving of the law. There’s a story in 2 Kings of a second book of the law found during King Josiah’s reign that led to a great awakening of faithfulness to God. King Josiah reigned long after the Israelites entered the promised land, long after King David, etc. Now most scholars will tell you that Deuteronomy was actually written then as a way of ushering in reforms that would bring Israel back to faithfulness. All that is to say that when we read Deuteronomy we should apply a context of late kingdom Israel, not Israel about to enter the promised land. And I promise this is important.
But here is the prayer they were supposed to pray.
When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.
So I said that the context of late Kingdom Israel was important and this is why. Joe the late Kingdom Israelite is bringing his offering to the Temple. And he is reciting this prayer. His father was not a wandering Aramean. His father did not go down to Egypt. His father was someone that grew up in Jerusalem. But everyone who prays that prayer inserts himself or herself into a story. A story that beings with Abraham and a covenant God made with him that was realized in Jacob who would be renamed Israel. It’s a story that moves to Egypt where the people Israel were enslaved. It’s a story that involves burning bushes and plagues, and a reluctant leader. It’s a story that involves miraculous salvation. And it’s a story that involves a people prospering and flourishing because of God’s grace.
There was a critically popular show on HBO last year called “The Night Of.” It was about a young kid accused of committing murder and what happens to him during the investigation and trial. At one point his lawyer tells him that a murder trial is primarily a competition of two stories. “The prosecution tells their story then we tell our story.” I tell you that because there’s another dimension about the context of this prayer and the prayer itself that are important. See late Kingdom Israel had a problem. Existentially the problem was the Assyrians and the Babylonians. But the prophets had been making clear for centuries that their existential problem was first of all a spiritual problem. The people Israel had betrayed God in order to serve foreign gods. Gods of fertility and harvest. The people Israel had traded in their God in order to worship gods who might be more effective in solving their problems.
Deep down the problem was of competing stories. On the one hand the prophets of Ba’al, the foreign god, would say that Israel was experiencing a famine because the God of Israel wasn’t powerful enough, wasn’t effective enough. And if they wanted a successful harvest, they needed to sacrifice to Ba’al. On the other hand the prophets of the God of Israel would say that God was disciplining His children. It was a competition of two stories. How could the prophets and the leaders of Israel bring the people back to God? By telling, not necessarily a new story, but the whole story.
So against a story that says the God of Israel is powerless, that the God of Israel has never done anything for you, that the God of Israel is deaf to your pleas, that the God of Israel won’t save you and that Ba’al will save you, this prayer tells another story. This prayer tells the story of a God who cares. Of a God who is there. Of a God who listens and who acts. Of a God who is all powerful, more powerful than the great Egyptian empire. A God that has defeated empires in the past and stands ready to do so again. And the prayer puts the petitioner right into the middle of that story, makes them claim that story, makes them make that great story of salvation her own story.
Our lives are a competition of stories too. There’s one story that the world tells us. A story that says we are no good. A story that says that we have to earn love. A story that says that things and possessions will cure all our faults, fill all the holes in our lives, make us feel better. A story that says we need to scratch and claw for what little we can get, and we’d better keep it for ourselves. A story that says our failures own us, our regrets are the only thing that are eternal, and you can never escape your past. A story that says death is the final and ultimate power over all of us. A story that says that God is dead, there is no higher power to rescue us, and morality is relative and pragmatic. A story that says we must constantly live in fear, we must be concerned about people who are different from us, and it is ok to hate. A story that says its hurt or be hurt, kill or be killed. A story that says there is no hope and we are fools to have faith.
Now it wouldn’t be fair to say that this is a story we are told in every place that isn’t the church. But it’s a story I have been told at many parts of my life. There were parts of my life where I felt like love was primarily conditional. There were parts of my life where being generous and charitable felt anathema to success. There were parts of my life where it seemed like the ultimate purpose was to be successful, wealthy. Some of these I still struggle with. There’s a story the world has told you, too. Maybe it’s the same as mine, maybe its slightly different. Maybe you picked up more on different elements. And some of that story still affects you.
On this day and in this place let us all hear the good news: God tells us a different story. God tells us a story of unconditional love. God tells us a story of grace. God tells us a story of hope. God tells us a story that fundamentally changes how we live in the world, how we love, and what we think is important. God tells us a different story. And I want us to spend the two months hearing that story.
In the Bible God is telling us a huge story, a grand story, a story of love and reconciliation and salvation. And in telling us that story, God wants to re-author our stories. God wants to change our narratives. God wants to give us a reason to hope so that we can be a people who hope. God wants to tell us we are loved so we can be a people who love. God wants to tell us we can live with him forever so we can have faith in the midst of death and sorrow. God wants to tell us that He is with us so we can know that we are not alone in this life.
God is telling us a story so the he can re-author ours. God is telling us a story so that he can be the author of ours.
And here is the story. Conveniently for us, it’s a collection of 7 C’s.
This is the story that God tells each of us in Scripture. It's the love story God is writing in the pages of the Bible and wants to write on each of our hearts. It’s the story that God wants to use in order to author each of our stories so that we can be a living love story to the world. Our lives are a competition of two stories. First the world tells theirs, then God gets to tell His. Will you listen, hear, and receive the story that God is writing you in Scripture and wants to write on your heart? Will you let God re-author your story? Will you let God be the author of your life?