We all love stories. They entertain us, move us, make us laugh and cry. And they shape us, they tell us who we are. Think of the stories that we want our children or grand-children, our nieces and nephews, to hear. Because they are our children we want them to know the stories of our family, and of our local community. We want them to know the stories of our cultural heritage, and we want them to know the stories of our faith.
I drive my children crazy. One of the ways I do that is the way I watch films with them. I almost never sit through a whole DVD. I pop in and out picking up threads of the story until right near the end when I get absorbed into the drama. Then I sit down and keep asking them – “is that the guy who owned the shop? Am I supposed to like that person? Why’s he saying that? Why’s she crying?” It doesn’t take long before someone tries to shut me up by saying “Watch it from the beginning!” I wonder if that isn’t how we interact with the Christian story? We join part way through. We’re captivated by the climax, where Jesus rises from the dead, and we know the stories of his birth, and his miracles. We also know bits of the earlier story – Moses and the ten commandments, David and his harp, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But those are free-floating images, which we battle to fit into the overall plot, and we’re not quite sure of how we get from there to Jesus. And maybe that’s one reason why its sometimes hard to get from the story of Jesus to our story in the here and now.
The Old Testament is full of all kinds of things – there are weird laws, beautiful psalms (provided we skip through some of the more vindictive sentiments expressed in some of them), confusing prophecies, lots of heroes like Samson and Joshua who do different things. But underlying it all, the Old Testament is the story of the people of God. As an Old Testament scholar, what matters most to me is that story, and how that story is the backdrop and first part of the story of Jesus, and how that story, as it interacts with my story, shapes me as a member of the people of God.
The story is of a world that is given as gift by a Creator who blesses the creation with the ability to co-create, a world which is beautiful, but also fragile and fractured, a world in which we experience both connection and alienation, among ourselves, within our self, and with those who are different from us. God begins the story, and God won’t allow our stubbornness, sinfulness or stupidity to derail it. So God calls one family to journey with God. That one family and their children and children’s children will come to know God, and how to live in a way that promotes the full flourishing of humanity along with the whole of creation, so that they can become a channel through which the gracious, giving God can bless all the families of the earth.
And so the journey begins with Abraham. Not too far into the journey, the people of God experience oppression in Egypt, which provides the setting for their experience of the power of God to set them free. This story of the Exodus becomes their foundational story. They are set free from slavery, from the systems of power that dehumanize them in order to live freely as the people of God. The laws that they are given at Sinai are not there to enslave them all over again, but to guide them into a life lived in freedom that respects the freedom of others and that does not result again in the enslavement of the poor by the powerful.
The people of God find it too hard to live in that freedom under God, and so they ask for kings to lead them. There are a few good kings like David, but even good kings play politics and are tempted by power. The story of the people of God becomes the story of a state struggling with issues of social justice and covenant faithfulness, with prophets calling them back to the vision of the Exodus. The people of God live out their story against the backdrop of powerful empires that threaten to engulf them. They find it so hard to life faithfully and trustfully in freedom. Their elite choose to ignore the voice of God’s messengers, and instead play the games of power. They lose, and it looks like they might have lost everything. But in this dark time of loss, they begin to discover again something of the truths of the journey with God that their fathers and mothers knew. The God who led them out of Egypt leads them out of this exile back to their land where they begin to rebuild life out of the ashes of their old life. The story continues, on in to the New Testament, with the coming of Jesus, son of Abraham, son of David. And it continues today in the story of God’s people in their communities throughout the world, in the 21st century, struggling to live faithfully, tempted by power or frustrated by its lack, feeling overwhelmed by economic, political and cultural forces, and yet looking for and finding God’s fingerprints in the details of our lives, learning to trust, to build and rebuild. The journey with God continues.