Sunday, 21 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (4): Remembrance of Things Past


I contributed last week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will teach you lessons from the past –
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
Psalm 78:1-4

The story of Israel is told not only in different periods of time – by Moses, then Joshua, then Samuel – but through a variety of literary genres. Psalm 78, for instance, the second longest in the psalter, poetically recounts God’s acts on behalf of his people, from the exodus through to David.

Interestingly, this psalm addresses the congregation rather than the Lord. The speaker begins by inviting the people to listen to his ‘teaching’. In particular, the teaching is given in the mode of ‘a parable’ – the type of instruction one associates with a teacher of wisdom, a teller of stories – which requires an attentiveness that goes beyond the surface level of what’s said. And, like other wise teachers, his move between ‘I’ and ‘we’ shows this is for him too; he is not distancing himself from the necessity of learning ‘lessons from the past’.

In this case, then, it’s about the significance of remembering and passing on what has been heard and known from one generation to another. What, exactly, are they to tell? The Lord’s ‘praiseworthy deeds... and the wonders he has done’. Indeed, the presence of the psalm in Israel’s hymnbook, used regularly in gathered worship, indicates that the story – and its lessons – are to be told again and again.

But, far from the psalm being a flat recitation of the works of the Lord, still less a condemnation of the people for their constant rebellion against him, it is designed to recall the past for the benefit of the people in the present with the encouragement to tell it to others. As it happens, the psalmist does not exhort his audience directly, in the style of Moses or Joshua. He sets up himself as a model of remembering what God has done, engaging his audience’s memory by exercising his own.

For us too, it’s a valuable reminder of the assurance that comes from knowing God has been involved with us from the beginning, of our responsibility to pass that on to others, and the significant role of communities, churches, and families in doing so. The covenant was founded when God ‘remembered’ his commitment to our ancestors in the faith (Exodus 2:24), and the covenant will endure as long as we continue to tell subsequent generations of God’s acts for us, to remember and not forget.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lausanne Global Analysis 6, 3 (May 2017)


The latest issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement, is available online from here. This issue ‘has a strong theme of engaging with and reaching out to Muslims’.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor says:

‘We look at how refugees in Europe are turning to Christ and in turn reviving the church there; we assess Disciple-Making Movements as a Biblical solution for the remaining task of reaching least-evangelised peoples; we consider how we should view Islam and the importance of developing a biblical worldview that gives a framework for relating to Muslims; and finally we ask what the Caliphate means and how we should respond to many Muslims’ aspiration for it.’

Monday, 15 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (3): Under New Management?


I contributed last week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

Then Samuel said to the people... ‘Now then, stand here, because I am going to confront you with evidence before the LORD as to all the righteous acts performed by the LORD for you and your ancestors... If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God – good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your ancestors.’
1 Samuel 12:6-7 & 14-15

Like Moses and Joshua before him, Samuel calls the people to covenant faithfulness at the dawn of a new era in their history – the transition to Saul’s kingship. Again, like Moses and Joshua, his instruction is informed by the biblical story to this point. How will the monarchy relate to what has gone before?

Samuel begins by ensuring his own integrity is not under dispute, and the people happily agree that he had neither cheated or oppressed them. But he goes on to show that the Lord, likewise, has been faithful to them in his ‘righteous acts’.

His historical sketch begins with God’s liberation of the people from Egypt, through Moses and Aaron. It takes in the period of the judges, as Samuel makes it clear that the Lord repeatedly raised up leaders to deliver them when they rebelled against God and fell into enemy hands. In the context of the people wanting a king ‘such as all the other nations have’ (1 Samuel 8:5), the clear upshot of Samuel’s telling of their story is that God himself, as ruler over all, has consistently provided leaders to rescue his people in times of need. The ongoing problem, it appears, is not the system of leadership per se so much as their constant turning away from God.

Even now, notwithstanding their request for a ruler, God remains committed to Israel. But the king will not guarantee their future success. That will be down to their ongoing trust in, and obedience to, God whose covenant still stands – for the king as well as the people. Kingship will be allowed, but both leader and people are to serve the one who is Lord of all.

As it turns out, later generations would come to know that kings do not and cannot save. And the biblical story anticipates the need for a ruler who would reign forever, who would bring about a salvation that Israel’s king could never achieve. Now, as then, as 1 Samuel 12:22 makes clear, the basis for our confidence and delight in serving God is his saving grace towards us: ‘For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.’

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Centre for Public Christianity (May 2017)


Among other items of interest, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted an audio interview with Thomas Crow on ‘how artwork that seems devoid of religion – whether it’s a still life of a white tablecloth, or an Andy Warhol-inspired anti-war poster – can point towards something sacred’.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (2): The Promises of a Settled People


I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants...” Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness... As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’
Joshua 24:2-3 & 14-15

Towards the end of his life, Joshua gathers the people and recites the story of all that God has done for them. His account intersects with Moses’ earlier summary in Deuteronomy 1-4, but is also influenced by the situation at hand. Having now entered the land of promise, they have stopped journeying and must decide how they will live as a settled people.

Joshua reminds them of God calling Abraham, defeating the Egyptians, bringing them through the wilderness, and dispossessing the Canaanites (24:2-13). The Lord is repeatedly the main actor in Joshua’s account – the one who ‘took’ and ‘led’ and ‘gave’ and ‘sent’ and ‘brought’ – emphasising that it is only by his grace that the people now stand where they do. Moreover, like Moses before him, Joshua shuffles between ‘they’ and ‘you’ in his telling in a way that interweaves his audience with their ancestors, such that the foundational story of the covenant people becomes their story too.

Not to be missed, however, is that Joshua tells the story of Israel’s past as a journey from a ‘foreign’ land to the promised land by the descendants of people who ‘worshipped other gods’. Just as Abraham made the journey from polytheism to faith in the one true God, so Israel’s future depends on the acceptance of this same journey as their own.

So it is that Joshua tells the story in a way designed to bring Israel to a decision. On the basis of God’s great acts for them, he appeals to the people to dedicate themselves to the Lord, announcing his own commitment to do so. Now that they have stopped journeying, they can live as Terah did ‘beyond the Euphrates’, or they can serve the one who delivered them from idolatry and slavery. One way or the other, the story of God’s people will continue to unfold.

For us too, the call of Jesus to ‘follow me’ flows out of what he has already done on our behalf. And we do so with the confidence that he has brought us this far and will be with us always, to the very end of the age.