(To be clear, I don't fault anyone for not knowing the Old Testament well. Many Christians, and especially ELCA Lutherans, have either deemphasized it or just focused on the violent portions.)
The five stories that I find myself using the most when I preach or teach are Creation, Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, King David, and the Exile. Having completed the preaching series, I thought I should summarize it here for those who couldn't attend all or any of it and to have brief summary for future reference. As I mentioned in my sermons, I could not to full justice to these stories in a 15-minute sermon, so my focus was on three questions: What happened? How does it relate to Jesus and the New Testament? and Why does it matter to us today?
I was also challenged by a member of my congregation to sum up every sermon in one word to make it easy to remember. Having hopefully met his challenge, I will use those here as well.
When the story of creation gets discussed, it often centers around the creation-evolution debate. I think that's a red herring. The more important part of the story is that God calls this world "good," or "tōv" in Hebrew. This world is meant as a blessing for us and for all life in it. It isn't inherently evil or corrupted (which goes against some Christian denominations). To the degree it is corrupted, it's because of us. Humans reject God's good order and plan and instead shape the world in our image. Out of alignment with God, things often go badly. But as we see in this story, God creates order out of chaos. Jesus puts us back in alignment with God and orders our chaos (or sin) to become a blessing again. And it is good.
Abraham and Sarah
Abraham and Sarah are given an unbelievable promise from God: follow me and I will give you a great family and bless all people through you. They do follow God, but they don't always do it well. In fact, they make some big mistakes along the way. However, God never breaks the promise. Even when the following generations also prove to be deeply and tragically human, God remains faithful and continues to renew the promise. Abraham becomes the spiritual ancestor of three world religions --Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-- and in Jesus, God fulfills the promise to bless all people, offering life to everyone, not just Abraham's blood relatives. When God makes a promise, God keeps a promise.
When God calls Moses to become a liberator, God says, "I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them" (Exodus 4:7-8). That God sides with the Israelites, who are not powerful or important, but are oppressed and enslaved, gives us an important insight into God's character. God is keeping the promise to Abraham, but also creating a precedent of caring for the weak and freeing those who are oppressed. This God of compassion repeats this pattern throughout the Bible, especially in the person of Jesus, who saves us from the oppression of sin, drowns our spiritual enemies in baptism, and brings us into a new life where we can be God's people again. Whenever we're trapped, God works to free us.
The Sunday I was scheduled to preach on David, I had to stay home sick. (Boo.) Pastor Vivian Thomas-Breitfeld did a great job filling in and naming how we are called to be tabernacles to carry God into the world like the tent of God in David's age. She also lifted up how David was a flawed king and person, but repented and was loved by God. My intent for the sermon was to name David's flaws as a king, but also how his example creates a flawed idea for those in Jesus' day and our own. One of the titles David is given is "messiah," which is not a unique title to Jesus. It literally means "anointed" and referred to someone chosen by God to defeat the enemies of God's people, build a holy kingdom, and rule with justice. David does this and becomes the example people expect from a messiah, but Jesus does it in a very different way. People expected the Messiah to defeat Rome, restore Jerusalem, and rule as king of Judea, and when Jesus refuses, he angers and confuses many. But Jesus does defeat the true enemies of God's people (sin and death), he builds a holy kingdom (a new reality built on resurrection and mercy for all people), and rules with justice as the true leader of this world. His time as messiah wasn't limited but is for all people in all time.
The Exile is a sad and complicated story, but it has its roots in the creation story: when humans reject God's good order, there are consequences. This time the consequence of ignoring injustice and putting their trust in wealth and military might means being crushed by Babylon and dragged off into mass imprisonment for 70 years. But God tells them before and during that time, "I will not forget you or abandon you." And after it is over, God brings them home where they belong. This mirrors the ministry of Jesus, who says we are exiled by our sin and separated from God as a consequence, but God will not forget or abandon us. Jesus comes to find us in exile and bring us home. There is no place we can go, physically or spiritually, that God will not come looking for us.
I love these stories because they aren't old stories, they are about a God who is still caring for people. They are our stories. And they are still being told.
From the Gray,
“Remember how it felt before. We still have a lot to live for.” -The Rescues, “We Are Not Alone”