If you follow the schedule for the Psalter as it is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer, you would have read Psalm 106 last Thursday evening. It’s a long psalm – 48 verses. The purpose of the song was to remind Israel of their history, of who they were as a people. Beginning at the Red Sea, it moves through the history of the nation, reminding the listener of events they had been learning about all their lives, as they were set down in the Pentateuch.
Here are some of the highlights of Jewish history as recounted by Psalm 106:
- When Moses brought the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, they stopped on the shores of the Red Sea. There they saw the army of Egypt coming after them, and the people turned on Moses and on God, accusing them of bringing them out into the wilderness just to murder them all. Then God saved them.
- A group of leaders appointed by Moses turned against him and attempted a coup. Moses asked God to make clear, once and for all, whom he had appointed to lead the nation. God caused the earth to open up and swallow the rebels.
- Then they made the golden calf. We remember how that turned out.
- Then when they heard the report of the scouts sent into the Promised Land, they were afraid and decided they didn’t want to go after all. So all that generation died in the desert, and God waited until their children grew up to fulfill his promise to give them their own country.
- But when they finally entered the Promised Land, they didn’t follow God’s instructions about rooting out the religions that were there already, and the people began mixing worship of God with worship of Baal and other idols. They even practiced human sacrifice on their own children! So God allowed first Israel, then Judah, to be conquered by the empires surrounding them, and the people went back into exile.
- But finally, the psalm says, God “took note of their distress when he heard their cry / for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented.”
What struck me as I read through this long recitation of God’s people failing him and rebelling against him over and over throughout their history was that the Israelites are not the heroes of their own story. They do not come off well at all; not in Psalm 106, not in the book of Exodus, or the annals of the Kings, from which the psalmist got these tales. In the history of the nation of Israel, as they themselves related it, and as it has come down to us in the Bible, the hero of the story is only ever God.
So I wondered on Thursday night how this song — likely written by an exiled Levite who had returned to the land in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and added to the national hymnbook of Israel, the Psalter — compares to the songs other musicians were writing about their own nations in the ancient world. When the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, or the Egyptians wrote and sang songs about the history of their nations, did they write about how they disobeyed and failed their gods? Or were they the heroes of their own stories?
I can’t say for sure. I don’t happen to know any ancient Assyrian or Babylonian or Egyptian songs. But from the little I know about ancient epic poems like Gilgamesh or the Iliad, I’d say the popular songs of the age likely tended to tout the good qualities of a nation’s elite people. It’s perfectly natural to want to be the hero of your own story. It’s hard to build national unity by painting your common ancestors as whiny, ungrateful jerks. I have a suspicion, therefore, that the nation of Israel might have been unique in this area.
This got me thinking about the stories nations today tell about themselves in their songs. National anthems are the obvious modern equivalent. They are songs we adopt to promote unity in a nation, to instill citizens with a sense of pride and patriotism. We all know ours, of course. What story are we telling about ourselves in “O Canada”? “With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the true north strong and free.” Most of us probably also know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” But I can’t say I’m familiar with any other national anthems. I looked up a few online. Brazil’s is pretty epic: “Giant by thine own nature / Thou art beautiful, strong, a fearless colossus / And thy future mirrors that greatness.” That should inspire zeal in the average citizen! Russia’s is much as you might expect: “Be glorious, our free Fatherland / Age-old union of fraternal peoples / Popular wisdom given by our forebears! / Be glorious, our country! We are proud of you!”
It makes sense, right? What’s the purpose of a national anthem? To make the people who hear it want to live up to its ideals, to help the nation make good on its promises. To be the heroes of their own story. But the story of ancient Israel is a different kind of national story. All those virtues that national anthems ascribe to their people, the Bible ascribes to God: truth, strength, freedom, bravery, beauty, greatness, glory, wisdom, pride. God is the giver; the people receive his good gifts. God calls; the people answer his call.
What is true for ancient Israel is true for Christians as well. God is the giver; we receive his good gifts. God calls; we answer his call. We are mid-way through the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means the revelation of God to his people. In our Scripture readings during these weeks, we are teasing out what it is that God has revealed to us about himself in the Bible. We tell over the ways in which God is the hero of our story.
In our Gospel reading from Mark chapter 1, Jesus begins his ministry in the tiny, backwater region of Galilee. “It’s time,” he said. “The Kingdom of God has come near. It’s time to change your direction, and believe the good news God is giving you.” In the culture at that time, a man seeking to become a rabbi would go out and recruit other men to join his shiva, or religious school. That is, he would recruit men to be his disciples. Now, if you wanted your shiva to become famous and popular, you would naturally look for the best candidates to become your disciples – men with standing in the community; who displayed an aptitude for religious scholarship; who would be an asset to your organization. What did Jesus do instead? Well, he started off in Galilee, not Jerusalem or one of the other major centres. Strike one. Then he went looking for recruits by walking along the shores of a lake, not by going to the town centres, where you would find the religious-minded already gathered, talking about God. Strike two. Then Jesus walked up to Peter and Andrew, who demonstrably already had jobs; a small business, really, with assets (boat, nets, gear,) and overhead (maintenance costs, family to support). Strike three. “’Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, “’and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” The sparseness of those two sentences conceals so much about how jaw-dropping this was. If a stranger walked up to you while you were in the middle of doing your job, for which you get paid and on which your family is depending to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, and that stranger uttered one cryptic sentence to you, “Come, follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men,” what would have to happen for you to instantly quit your job and walk out with him? The Holy Spirit working in the hearts and minds of Peter and Andrew in that moment must have been like getting jabbed by an electric cattle prod! To me, the calling of James and John is even more extraordinary, because their dad was right there with them! We don’t list this story of the calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John among the miracles of Jesus, but this really is a miraculous story. There was something so compelling about Jesus for those four men, that their whole lives were changed in that moment. And they would go on from that lakeshore to literally change the whole world. We are here because of them, and the church that Jesus built through them. I want to find Jesus that compelling.
Jesus called a motley crew to be in his shiva: one of his cousins, four fishermen, a tax collector, a freedom fighter (or domestic terrorist, depending on your perspective), and an embezzler. Not a theology professor, priest or scholar among them. And all apparently people who were simply going about their lives when they were called. They weren’t looking for anything, or thinking about making a change. They weren’t preparing themselves to receive a revelation from God. But God still met them, right where they were – whether in a fishing boat or under a fig tree. That’s the beauty of the Gospel. It comes to us where we are; we don’t strive after it. We don’t have to go on a heroic quest to earn salvation. The work is already done. God is the hero of our story.
That’s what needs to happen for the story we tell about ourselves to be not the patriotic story of one nation, but a story for the whole world, and all the people in it. God isn’t calling the worthy. He’s calling everyone. Look at Nineveh. That was a messed-up, scary place. They went around conquering other nations, including Israel, but they were particularly evil about it. And that’s saying something in the ancient world, to have a reputation for sadistic cruelty. None of the empire-building cultures were exactly kind to those they conquered.
So when God sent Jonah, a deeply patriotic Israelite prophet, to the city of Nineveh to announce God’s judgement on them, Jonah was understandably reluctant to go. To walk into the belly of the beast and tell it that your God was going to wipe them out in six weeks was a suicide mission. But we learn that Jonah’s reluctance came not from a fear for his safety but from a suspicion that God’s purpose was not to wipe Nineveh from the face of the earth, but to redeem them! The very next verse after our reading this morning says, “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’” In other words, I really hate these guys, and I wanted you to smite them! But I knew you probably wouldn’t, and I resent you sending me with your message of mercy!
By any objective standard of morality, justice, or human decency, the people of Nineveh did not deserve to be saved, no matter how much sackcloth they put on. And if Jonah had been the hero of his own story, they would have been wiped out, and good riddance. But when God is the hero of our story, he gets to offend us by offering the good news of salvation to people we definitely think don’t deserve it. And people, let’s remember that that’s good news for us as well. Because we don’t deserve salvation either. We are the undeserving recipients of God’s good gifts just as much as Jonah, or Nineveh, or Peter and Andrew and James and John. Jesus calls us all just the same.
This is the Epiphany, the revelation of God to us. We have been drawn into a story that is not about us. It’s about God. He is the hero of our story. But thank God! Jesus calls us – us! to have a part in the story too. Amen.