[Moses said] “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.
Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.
(Deuteronomy 4:1,2,6-9 ESV)
So here’s the beginning of this sermon. I had read the text – reflected – thought about the historical context – noted the power and importance of words – after all, Moses’ message might be summarised as ‘keep God’s Word and do them’ – in fact for those who read James recently, we hear the same message: if your hear the Word, if you know the Word, ‘do’ the Word – because we are a forget people – and an opening sentence came to me – which I haven’t used! ‘We are the stories we tell ourselves.’
Then I was curious about the sentence. I didn’t consciously draw on any image or literature. There was no quote, no film, no YouTube snippet playing in my head. No, this was my thought. A good sentence I felt. Nevertheless, I googled it and to my surprise the sentence was not unknown to Google. There is a Ted Talk with that as the title by an Indian film maker I didn’t know. There were numerous references to psychologists and their counselling and advice. I suppose a truth is a truth no matter who says it but I felt a little deflated in the creative sense.
But where had the sentence come from? From me in a flash of creative insight? From me remembering the text – the sentence – but not the context? From the Holy Spirit? The more I thought about children growing up and the words said to them, the more I could sense how that affects people as adults. If you believe the words said to you about you – maybe about your size, your abilities, your personality, your intellect – then until you hear and accept different words, those words will probably define or describe you.
And if you expand that idea from an individual to a family to a tribe to a nation then you have folk lore, ballads, myth and the like that describe the collective, the group. Consider ancient writings such as The Epic of Gilgamesh – one of the oldest stories ever told – and the Iliad which is a poem about the Trojan War and you have stories that reveal landscapes, reality, the world as we know it – we recognise these worlds and what they contain – conflict, fighting, jealousy, competition, war, gods involved, gods not involved – and we are supposed to learn from them for, hopefully, a better life.
The Old Testament, however, opens with a landscape that has no conflict only chaos and God – and there’s only one God – creates and what he creates is finally ‘very good’. When human beings enter the picture, it is they who bring the rebellion and the consequences of relationship breakdown at every level and death – and God has a choice to be involved or not, to destroy or not, to rescue or not. This is the basic story that the people of Israel saw lived out as they left Egypt and survived the 40 years in the wilderness and now as they are about to enter the land, Moses is reminding them of reality – life here which is life with God.
This story is fundamentally different to other stories of the world by not starting in conflict between gods and among people but by starting with a good creation and a single God. When things go bad with conflict, rebellion and death, this story is again different because it is not a battle between the gods with an unknown outcome but rather it is a story of God who comes walking in the garden in the cool of the evening looking for his hidden people to help them and give them life. Yes, the casting out of the garden is a punishment but it is also a rescue before Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of life – they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – but if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have been permanently alive in their rebellion. The casting out is both punishment and rescue.
And now cast out of Egypt – remember even the Egyptians wanted them gone – the people have been rescued and now 40 years later when entering the new land, Moses is reminding them to remember, recall, retell and live the story of who God is and what he has done and how he wants people to live. And as you remember, recall, retell, and live so you remember who you are and how you are rescued and that relationship then determines your behaviour. Remember, it is our relationships that determine our behaviour.
And that is how children grow up – learning who they are from their parents, learning the family story about parents and grandparents and where they ‘fit’ into the scheme of things. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as they say. The stories relating to our identity are part of the gifts that are given to us – which we do not choose – and which we will either embrace or reject.
God told his people as they entered a new land, ‘Remember me. Trust me. Follow me.’
Judaism still tells this story but for the followers of Jesus there is more to tell. Jesus acted and taught with a claim that bordered on and sometimes crossed over into blasphemy in Judaism by claiming to be one with God and so close to God that he was God as he described God as Father. Jesus forgave sins as if God and when the people were in the wilderness around Lake Galilee, he fed them. He opposed the traditions, the stories, that the religious told and which were the basis for arrogance and injustice and when he was cast out – or should I say up from this earth – on a cross, he was drawing all people to himself. His casting out was our rescue. His death was our life guaranteed by his own empty grave. And on the night before he died, Jesus took the Passover Meal and made a new story – to be told and to be eaten and drunk – do this in remembrance of me … for the forgiveness of your sins.
And then as he ascended – and appeared to leave us when in fact he was now coming close to everyone at once, Jesus told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)
Our history as Christians is bound up with his story! Jesus’ story. A story of casting out and rescue. A story of life based on death – and when I say life I’m talking about life each day – living each day as we tell our story to ourselves and to others knowing that Jesus is with us always to the end of the age. Our story is a story of Law and Gospel – sin and grace. Today people seem to be caught up with identity – a label that describes us – English, British, Scots, Australian, Labour, Conservative, UKIP, straight, gay, bi, trans. I am not sure how helpful identity politics is because it seems to me that you are summarising a person’s story to a title and we are more complex than one or two words. However if we are going to talk about identities – and that means stories – then standing under the cross, the followers of Jesus will claim that they are sinners forgiven by God and now called God’s children – and that story shapes everything they think, say, and do – and not even death can stop such a life.
We are the stories we tell ourselves. Thank God for telling us who he is and what he has done and is doing in Jesus Christ!
- Deuteronomy 4:1 - 9