This is Our Story - Journeys in Faith
- Week 1 - Rescued through water
- Week 2 - Guided by God's Law
- Week 3 - Fed by the Bread of Heaven
- Week 4 - Singing in the Wilderness
- Week 5 - Saved from Death
- Week 6 - Living in Hope of the Promised Land
As human beings, we love to tell stories. We like stories that have a clear shape, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We like to be able to identify with the characters we read about. Some of the stories we enjoy most - from James Bond to Lord of the Rings - are imaginary. Others, like those we often tell about our families and ourselves, are based on remembered history.
The Christian faith gives us a great story. It tells us about a loving God, who creates the universe, and creates us. It tells us of human sin and failure; of the trials and tribulations that human beings like us have gone through for generations. It tells us about Jesus, the one human being in whom God was seen with such clarity that he could be called ‘The Messiah [or Christ], the Son of the living God' (Mt 16:16). By the way he lived and died - and was raised from the dead - Jesus opened a new way for humanity to return to God. The Christian faith speaks of the destiny of humanity, which is to find eternal happiness and peace in God, in whom the whole universe is brought to its fulfilment. This is the great story summed up in the church's creeds. When we recite the creed, we are saying, publicly and together, ‘this is our story'.
This story comes to us from the Bible, taken as a whole. The books of the Bible (‘biblia' means ‘books' in Greek) include law, poetry, proverbs, letters - a variety of written material. Many of the books are ‘histories' - not in the modern sense, where ‘history' excludes all reference to God's activity, but in an older sense where the prime mover behind everything that happens is God. When we think about history today, we want to know ‘what happened' at the human level. Those who told, edited or wrote the histories of Israel or the histories of Jesus that we find in the Bible wanted to show how, in the events that took place, God was at work.
Modern critics have thrown a great deal of light on the biblical texts by asking questions about ‘what happened'. They ask about the events that the text presents and about the way the texts, which are often very puzzling, have been assembled. They have shown how the text we read in the Bible is the product of a complex process of editing. Various sources, with different emphases, written down at different times and in different places, have been woven together. There continue to be lively debates about the best ways to read Scripture and about ‘what happened'. Scholars have different ideas about what historical events lie behind the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, or Moses receiving the tablets of the Law at Sinai, or Jesus's entry into Jerusalem, but our interest in these stories - certainly if we read them as part of this Lent Course - does not depend on history alone.
For this course, I have adopted another, and in many ways older, approach to the biblical texts. It's the way Scripture has been read for hundreds of years by people of faith, who believed that these ‘remembered histories' were written down primarily to help us - the readers in later generations - hear the Word of God, spoken to us in the Scriptures and interpreted in the light of Christ. When Paul shows the Roman Christians how Psalm 69:9 (‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me') applies to Christ, he goes on, ‘For whatsoever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.' (Rom:15:4).
The stories we shall study ‘speak to us' about the experience of the Israelites, about Christ, and about our own lives. They speak to us in different ways, so there is much to be learnt by comparing the different ways in which they speak to different people. We are not the first to read them in this way. We are only the latest in a long line of people, both Jews and Christians, who have read these stories for illumination about the way God deals with humanity, and now deals with us. In doing so, we say ‘this is our story'.
The stories we shall study in this Lent Course very definitely have a beginning, a middle and an end. The narrative of the escape of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt, through a mighty act of God, can be seen as the beginning of ‘the people of Israel' who in a unique sense become ‘the people of God'. Their identity is forged in the wilderness, especially when God enters into covenant with them at Sinai. ‘The people of Israel' returned again and again to their wilderness years, remembering them as a time when they learned how to trust and be faithful to God in the most testing circumstances. The story of the creation of ‘Israel' through their ‘journey of faith' ends with the entry into the promised land - which is also a new beginning.
For Christians, the story of the Israelites' great journey through the wilderness is a vital part of the pre-history of the Gospel story. The four Gospels assume that if we know how God dealt with Israel, we can understand the story of Jesus better. God's dealing with humanity is consistent: Jesus gives us the key to a clearer and deeper understanding of passages in the Jewish Scriptures he would himself have known and thought about many times. We are told that after the resurrection, Jesus - as yet unrecognised by the two disciples making their way to Emmaus - ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets ... interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures' (Lk 24:27), and as he did so, the disciples felt their hearts ‘burning' within them (v. 32). The way the New Testament refers to and reinterprets stories from the Jewish Scriptures suggests that Christians can also say ‘This is our story': we can see these stories as, in anticipation, stories about Christ.
There is another way in which Christians say, ‘This is our story.' The passages we shall be studying, both from the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament, help us to understand the journeys of faith that we make today. This is why we read and re-read them, both in church and individually: they were written ‘for our instruction'. Since the church began, the stories in the Bible have helped Christians see our lives as a journey, like the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness. Our journey begins when we step out in faith, trusting in God alone; as it continues, we experience the ways in which God sustains us, giving us what we need to keep moving on, guiding us by his Spirit and his law, encouraging us on the right path, forgiving us when we do wrong; our journey ends when God brings us safely to the ‘promised land' we have hoped to reach all our lives - in that end, there is also a new beginning. This is the story told by the church as a whole and, in some form or other, by every Christian as we make our unique journey of faith.
My aim, in writing this course, has been to help each one of us understand better the journey of faith to which we have been called both as a ‘people of God' and individually. By saying, of the story of Israel and the story of Jesus, ‘This is our story', we are saying that we want stories like the ones in the Bible, in which we see God at work in the past, to shape our lives today. We want to be part of the ongoing story of God's journey with humanity, the story of the church and of the whole world. In studying the Bible together, we learn more about how we can see our lives as ‘journeys of faith' like those made by the Israelites, made by Jesus, and by all those who have gone before us trusting in God.
My prayer, in planning this course, is that the study material will enable members of ecumenical Lent Groups to say together, as we study the Bible and share our experience, ‘This is our story'. I hope we shall all find encouragement for our ‘journeys of faith' through the variety of Christian experience reflected in the broadcast Sunday Services, on the CTBI website and shared amongst those who meet in small groups. I hope we shall learn more about the extraordinary journeys of faith that many Christians are making today and that are bringing new life to our churches. I hope we shall find encouragement for the unique journey of faith to which each one of us is called by Christ.
Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.