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Windows Into the Word: History

Joshua 1:2-3; Joshua 24:15; 1 Samuel 8:19-20; 2 Samuel 22:1-3; Ruth 1:16

Mark D HBefore I begin, let me remind you that you have a half page ‘History’ window frame that you can use to take notes and write things down during the time of reflection after the sermon. We do not have junior Sunday School or a Worship Response time after worship this morning, but we will put our empty window in the upper foyer, so when you leave the sanctuary you can jot down something on the big window with the markers that are there, or leave your sheet there for some comments to be transcribed. Behind me you can see the window from last Sunday, and we will continue to put these up. Feel free to come up and read these at your leisure.

So, how do we tell our history, our story? Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. I have always seen the Thanksgiving weekend as a time to reflect on stories and histories. As you ask yourself what you are thankful for, you often think about what has gone on in the last year – what do you remember, what went really well, what has been difficult – how do you tell the story of this past year? For many years here at St Jacobs, there was a special Thanksgiving Monday service – often one with much testimony, special story telling about how God has been at work that year. Often this extended into our sharing and prayer time. For many years, our recently departed friend Gordon Martin would stand up, come to the front, and testify with deep emotion, honesty and thanksgiving about the anniversary of his sobriety from alcohol, and how God had released him, saved him. In my own family, it has often been around the Thanksgiving dinner table that we tell stories. We heard news about the adoption of my sister Kristen on this weekend many many years ago. Rachel and I announced our engagement 26 years ago by putting on our newly minted wedding bands during the Thanksgiving dinner prayer and seeing who would notice first. I suspect this year we will reflect on the health journeys of this past year. Often the storytelling that we do is not so much about chronologically listing all the facts, but rather trying to highlight the important things, telling the story in your own way that captures significance and meaning, more than dates and information. To use our fall image, we choose which windows to look through to tell our story, to offer a perspective that makes sense of them for us.

In a similar way, today’s large section of Scripture we are exploring is about how a story is told, what is of significance, what needs to be shared and highlighted, how do the authors make sense, make meaning, out of a certain collection of tales, stories and events that have been handed down to them, often through aural history, around the campfire, from mothers to daughters and fathers to sons, and written down much later in the form we have today. We are using the word ‘History’ to name a large section of Scripture, certain books, but it is not History in the modern use of that term – a careful and complete study and recording of events, but rather much more of an exercise in meaning making, in telling the story a certain way, in claiming how God has been at work. In preparation for this series, I have been reading Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, The Canon and Christian Imagination (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) He writes that the material of these books of the Bible are both ‘theological testimony’ – ‘a believing effort to give an account of faith ... and a God who is engaged in the lived processes of history’ and an ‘interpretive commentary’ – on the meaning of reported history...reconstrued according to the God of the Torah.’ (Ibid, p.103-104) When we read these books of the Bible, we get insight into how the authors understood the role of God in their stories, and how they explained their faith and the story of their people – for good and bad.

So, what books are we talking about today? I invite you to take out your Bibles, or look along with the person beside you. Turn to the index at the front of the Bible, that list of the 66 books of the Bible that Kevin outlined for us to start the series. Last week, Wendy introduced us to the Torah, to the first 5 books of the Bible. These give us the foundations – the basic theology of who God is and what covenant and relationship with God looks like. The Torah also tells a story - of the Creation of the world, the calling out and covenant making with a people and their Exodus out of Egypt. It ends with the people on the verge of the Promised Land and the sermon Moses gives in Deuteronomy for how they might imagine living faithfully when they arrive. The foundation of the Bible is set and in many ways, the rest of the Bible interacts, argues with, affirms and reinterprets that foundation for each new time and place and situation. What follows are a bunch of books that tell the story or History of the People of Israel, starting from when they enter the Promised Land in the book of Joshua to when they return to it after their years in exile, after having lost the land. The land was given as a gift, and this is one long arch, or an interpretive commentary on how and why Jerusalem fell and they lost the land – an overall up and down story of disobedience and the conditionality of land.

Today we are looking at that broad sweep of 12 books – from Joshua to the book of Esther. In my Bible, that is about 224 pages – a lot of pages. Don’t worry - I won’t comment on every page. In Judaism, they divide the Hebrew Scriptures a little different - into 3 sections – the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. The Prophets, their Second Canon, actually starts with 6 of these books of History – what they call the ‘Former Prophets’ – Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings – the story up to the exile to Babylon in 587 BC. This 2nd Canon also includes the ‘Latter Prophets’, what we name as the actual named Prophets from Isaiah to Malachi, who deal with the prophetic voice on the exile itself. It is what Zac Klassen will look at with us next Sunday. The rest of the History books, 1st and 2nd Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and the books of Ruth and Esther are all part of what Judaism calls ‘The Writings’ or the The Third Canon - books written after the people of Israel return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and they look back again at what got them there.

So what is the nature of these books of History? Brueggemann names these as ‘literature that articulates Israel’s faith and practice in the rough and tumble of historical reality.’ (Ibid, p.102). These are the books where Israel needs to figure out what it means to actually live in the political and social reality of the Land. This is where a life of politics begins, a life filled with choices, how to live in the land (Ibid, p.110). How does following God become practical in real lived lives, when you have entered the land? The issues they faced are really not all that different from the issues we face as we try to live as people of faith within the very real society we find ourselves in. We too are ‘landed people,’ here in Canada.

Turn for a minute to the first of these books – Joshua. This book sets things up. Joshua takes over from Moses. It begins with Promise and Gift. (Joshua 1:2) ‘Cross over into the land that I am giving to you, to the Israelites.’ (Joshua 1:7) ‘Be strong and courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law (Torah) that my servant Moses commanded you.’ - Already a warning that you could lose the land if you do not live by Torah, if you are not faithful. Remember that this is not your doing. Live by Gift. Just like how they left Egypt through the Red Sea, the Lord parts the Jordan River and they cross on dry land. In chapter 4 they take 12 stones from the river bed and make a memorial, so that when the children ask what these stones mean, they can tell the story of God’s gracious acts. It is God, Yahweh, not their own strength, who makes the walls of Jericho fall down after this strange act of marching around and blowing trumpets for 7 days. Entering the land is by Gift. But then we read (Joshua 6:21) that ‘they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city.’ And there continues to be scenes of violence and destruction of other peoples – often in the name of, or attributed to God, to Yahweh, something that does not sit well, particularly for us Anabaptist pacifists. The original inhabitants, the indigenous peoples of the land, are displaced. While scholars suspect that historically this conquest was probably more of a slow infiltration with lots of side by side living of peoples, this is how it is written up in Scripture, how it is remembered. How different is this from the colonization of Canada and its indigenous peoples, or so many places in the world where people have taken over land by divine right, where Christians have appealed to books like Joshua to justify violence, to claim being God’s chosen people. The appeal to violence overrides life as Gift. This ‘is a burden the biblical tradition must bear,’ (Ibid, p.119) and passages I continue to struggle with.

The next books, Judges, Samuel, Kings - tell that story of trying to live in this land. We hear about the Judges, the first spiritual leaders, and characters like Gideon, Deborah and Samson, leading us to Samuel, the most famous and wise of the Judges, who as a boy heard God calling his name in the middle of the night – ‘Speak for your servant is listening.’ (1st Samuel 3:10). It is under Samuel that there is this demand by the people to appoint a King, to be like the nations around them. There is this move from a tribal society to a monarchical people – (or as Brueggemann calls it - ‘bureaucratic self-aggrandizement.’ (Ibid, p. 131)) There is this constant struggle to figure out what it means to be a people of God as a minority people, and yet be a part of this world. How separate are you? How integrated in, like the nations around you? Sound familiar?

We hear all about Saul and then King David and Solomon and all their leadership and exploits. There is not much censorship here – we hear the good and the bad, the faithfulness and the violence, failings and a story like the seduction of Bathsheba and the killing off of her husband Uriah. These are messy and honest stories. As the history continues into 1st and 2nd Kings, we hear about a whole list of kings, most named as unfaithful – the repeated phrase – ‘he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.’ There is the worship of Baal and other gods than Yahweh. There are also prophets like Elijah and Elisha who confront the oppression of the kings, and various kings like Hezekiah and Josiah who try to reform the people back to God. There is the division into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Southern Kingdom of Judah and then the fall of Israel and capital Samaria to the Assyrians in 722 BCE and later Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. These books end with the people in captivity, with the loss of the land. In many ways, how this story of these centuries has just been told explains why the land has been lost, despite the repeated faithfulness and second chances of a gracious God.

If you turn back to your index, you will see the rest of the history books – the ones from ‘The Writings’, the Third Canon – written after the exile and return to Jerusalem. I realized that I did not know these books as well as the earlier ones. 1st and 2nd Chronicles tells the whole history again, along with the genealogies, right from Adam and Abraham, through all the kings, especially King David, to the fall of Jerusalem and exile. It is like a fast forward account, glossing over much and touching down on the important stories and characters one more time – almost a revisionist history. What is significant, is the claim and proof that even after all these years and kings and capture and exile, the people were not assimilated – they somehow still had a memory and identity as God’s people – they are ‘the only people in antiquity exiled from their homeland and national religion who maintained their religious and social identity in captivity.’ (Ibid, p.381) If you turn to the last chapter of 2 Chronicles – 36:22 – what is the very last verse of Scripture in the ordering of the Jewish Bible, you read this message of hope where Persian King Cyrus declares that he has been charged to build a house again in Jerusalem, in Judah, to proclaim liberty for these Jewish exiles – a new start.

Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the return to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple and the discovery of the ancient scrolls, almost forgotten. The Torah is read out loud before all the people, with sacrifices, prayers, confession and repentance. Oppression is named and denounced, but there is also a call to purity and a denunciation and rejection of anything foreign, including foreign wives and even their children. ‘Make Israel great again!’ is the call. This too sounds familiar to our modern ears and we are starting to see the consequences.

We also get the gift of two more short books, one set in the time of the Judges - Ruth, the other during Persian rule - Esther. I love these books. They are subversive and challenge the dominant narratives. Their female characters open the window into a new way to understand faith and God. In Ruth it is the foreigner, Naomi, who asserts herself together with daughter in law Ruth and finds and makes a home in Israel – a vision of a much more open and generous Judaism. In Esther, she herself becomes Queen in a foreign land, for such a time as this, and saves her people – ‘a huge act of subversive imagination... in the interest of communal survival.’ (Ibid, p.348) Two radically different windows - both named as Scripture.

So there it is – the broad sweep of these books of History. I personally enjoyed re-reading sections and discovering that bigger narrative arch this week. It gives me a framework to put all the small details and stories into. I was struck by how many themes and struggles we still deal with today. We wonder what it means to live as people of faith, what is out unique identity, in the midst of the very real lives we live. Our lives are political too; we have to make choices and decisions. Our lives are also messy, filled with all sorts of things. Do we see ourselves as a kind of chosen or special and privileged peopled and what has that meant for how we treat others who are different than us? How do we think and talk about Thanksgiving on a day like today, this time of blessing and abundance and even gluttony, in a world of so much need? Can we live our lives as Gift, or do we grasp for more? Are we tempted towards violence or superiority or a colonization mindset? How do we relate to Empire? To those more powerful than us? To Big politics or multi-nationals? How do we treat those who are less powerful than us? Whose stories are the subversive ones among us, that need to be heard to give us alternative visions of our world? Whose voices are silent and not heard? Where is God, this Yahweh, within our lived realities and lives?

I am also left with the question of how we tell our history, our stories. Which windows do we look through – which perspectives? Are we honest and forthright with what stories are told and who tells them? Do we leave in the messy parts? I love the honesty and straightforwardness of so many of these Hebrew texts. They tell it like it is. They do not hide all the tough things. This summer was the 150th anniversary of Canada and I was intrigued by how that story was told as we celebrated this marking point for our nation. It is easy to gloss over our history and just proclaim the best of who we are. In some circles we are hearing more of a militaristic slant to our history, used to support a growing armed forces. There can be strong nationalist leanings or anti-immigrant rants. Then in other places you hear a pride in multi-culturalism and the welcome of refugees from around the world. The First Nations voice told of a much deeper and longer history than 150 years. How is this story of Canada told? In July I spent a sobering afternoon in Winnipeg at the Human Rights Museum. The second flood was comprised of a bunch of little rooms, little window vignettes of some of the ugly moments in Canadian history – the Chinese head tax, the Japanese internment in World War I, residential schools and the 60’s scoop, the treatment of those who are disabled or struggle with mental health, language rights, early LGBTQ activism, racial discrimination and the story of Viola Desmond, jailed and fined for not giving up her seat in the whites only section of a Nova Scotia theatre, and more. The museum is a powerful way to tell the story, tell the history in an honest way. We could ask some of the same questions about how we tell our church story or how we tell our family stories. I encourage you to ask those questions. What will be the conversations you have around the Thanksgiving Dinner Table?

These 12 books of History give us the gift of story. They give us all sorts of windows through which to view our bigger history, our spiritual heritage. Through all of this, is the conviction that God is present and underneath all of our stories, and that like Joshua, we can choose to serve the Lord. May it be so. Amen. I invite you into a time of reflection.