November 25, 2021

November 25, 2021

November 25, 2021

Rev. Dr. Alex Thompson
Clergy
Hiwassee District
Pastor, Niota and Cedar Springs UMC
Assistant Professor of Religion at TWU

The Same Old Story
Nehemiah 9:6-15 (NRSV)

You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.
“You are the Lord God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous.
“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea.[a] 10 You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. 11 You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. 12 By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.
13 “You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. 14 You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses. 15 In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them.

Devotion

“Can you read it again?” my son asks as I finish Corduroy for the third time that day. Most parents have been there before, reading the same book again to their child for the umpteenth time. Whether it is Cat in the Hat or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, a parent can be forgiven for growing tired of reading the same story. But why is it that a child never tires of hearing the same story? Could it be that the same old story provides comfort and stability in a world that is overwhelming with all of its new things?
 
This question looms in the background of our passage from Nehemiah today. Israel has returned from exile, a devastating tragedy that uprooted their lives for decades. As they return to the land, they must rebuild their lives, homes, and the Temple again. As they face this daunting task ahead of them, they mark the occasion by gathering together to pray, fast, and hear the Law read aloud. They have even invited the Levites to bless and worship God. Our passage gives us the opening words of the Levites’ prayer and, perhaps to our surprise, it is not a new petition. It is a repetition of the same old story.
 
The Levites’ prayer is a rehearsal of the story of great acts of God. It begins with a celebration of God as Creator (v.6), recounts the call of Abraham and the covenant with him and his offspring (vv. 7-8) before moving into the events of the Exodus (vv. 9-11), God’s gift of the Law at Sinai (vv. 12-14), and God’s provision in the wilderness wandering (v.15). If you continue on in Nehemiah 9, you would find that this repetition continues as they trace Israel’s history through its highs and lows. The whole thing is simply a retelling of the same old story. What sort of prayer is this?
 
It is a prayer that reminds Israel of its roots, its origins, in the call of God. For Israel, the upheaval of the exile required a return to their roots. Israel needed to be reminded who they were, who their God was, and what their purpose was in the world. They needed to hear again the same old story. In order to face the uncertainty of the future, they needed a deeper awareness of where they had come from. After all, every present act emerges from the story we tell ourselves. Israel’s story of creation, covenant, and law gave them the resources they needed to face the difficult task of rebuilding. Like children, the old familiar story provided stability, predictability, and comfort.
 
The need for memory, for repeating the old stories, feels counter-cultural for the Church today. In an age that celebrates and craves what is constantly new —the newest cell phone, the latest trending show, immediate news updates—we need to be reminded that our faith is rooted in an old, old story. Our roots are deeper than any present crisis. Our God has been faithful to God’s people for centuries. We do not need new stories to face the strange future ahead of us. Instead, what we need is a deeper appreciation of our roots, of the stories that got us to this place. It is the old, old story that defines the Church as the people of God. We don’t need new stories, but better and deeper readings of the same old story. May you be reminded of that story today.

 Prayer

God of creation and covenant, of law and liberation in Christ, thank you for your faithfulness over the centuries. We remember today the ways you have acted in the past­­—with Israel, through the sending of your Son, and in the Spirit’s work in our communities. May we meditate on that old story and may it empower us to trust you in the uncertain future ahead. In Christ’s name. Amen.