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.

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