This is one of the best known stories in the Old Testament. And the main character of the story, Abraham is one of our great Heroes of Faith. The Bible is full of wonderful, juicy, sometimes very sad sometimes very inspiring stories about Abraham and his wife Sarah and his sons Isaac and Ishmael, and lots of stories of their descendants. We talked about Abraham and Sarah last week.
So let me tell you how these stories came to us. Once upon a time, about 600 years before Jesus was born, young Jewish men sat in a camp very near where Baghdad is today. Now you could call it a concentration camp or prison camp or resettlement camp or whatever kind of camp you want to call it, but the point is that they were very far from home and they were controlled by their captors. And a good many of them stayed there that camp for about fifty years.
And here’s how they got to be prisoners in that camp. Enemy soldiers had swarmed into the area around Jerusalem. They had stolen anything of any value in the cities and towns and villages of the country. What they couldn’t carry with them they had burned and they had left whole villages in total ruins. Many of the villages were so badly demolished they were never rebuilt again. They swept into the farms and demolished them and burned them to the ground. Worst of all, these soldiers had utterly destroyed the beautiful shimmering shining golden temple in Jerusalem, and they had carried off all the beautiful, precious gold and bronze furnishings in the temple.
AND those enemy soldiers had taken captive the strongest and healthiest and wealthiest young men of the country. They had forced them to march at sword point, five hundred miles across the dessert to that prison camp. Right there near what’s now Baghdad, where the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers come together in what’s now Iraq. The last those young men had seen as they were forced from their villages were their homes and their farms in flames and ashes. They worried about the families they had left behind when they had been dragged away, and they worried what was happening in their homeland.
And there they sat. Those strong, healthy, wealthy, well-educated young men. For years and years they sat. In that camp, with nothing to do. They tried to sing the songs they had sung in the temple in Jerusalem. But that only made them more homesick. And so they sang another song, the very one we have read ourselves this morning. They sang how homesick they were, and how heartsick they were. They sang about how they couldn’t sing and how their captors tormented them.
So instead of singing the songs they loved, they told each other stories that they had heard from their parents and grandparents – stories that had been passed down, word for word for word for generations in their communities. Stories about God, and about who God is and about how God is with people. Stories they had heard about Adam and Eve and Noah and his family and about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and all their other great heroes of faith. We’ve had some of these stories recently and we’ll be having more of them in coming weeks.
Now some of the young men were from the northern part of the country and some of them were from the southern part of the country, so the stories were a little different – depending on where they had lived, but they all had heard basically the same stories. And they told them to each other as they sat there beside the rivers in that prison camp.
And then one person, or maybe a small group of people, compiled all the stories and combined them and wrote them down for the very first time. Over the years, other parts were added. (Now you realize, I’m simplifying a bit.) But the result of it all is that now we have these very precious documents, these wonderful stories for ourselves. In our Old Testament. They are the stories of the faithfulness of God with people. They are the very word of God to us.
So here’s what those young men discovered when they sat there in that camp and told their stories to each other. They discovered their God, whom they hadn’t known. They discovered that their God had a long history with their ancestors, and they discovered the pattern of God with the people. They realized that God had come to their ancestors again and again, through hundreds of years, and had said to them: “I am your God. I will love you lavishly and care for you tenderly. I’ll give you land, and I’ll make you a great nation and I’ll protect you from your enemies, and I’ll always be your God.” And they discovered that again and again, their ancestors had turned their backs on God, and done things that God had specifically told them not to do, and had forgotten God altogether.
And then these strong, healthy, wealthy, smart young men sat there in that camp and said, “And then all those prophets came to us, for a few hundred years. Prophet after prophet came to us, and spoke to us. They warned us to return to God, and obey God – for hundreds of years they warned us, and we didn’t. But after all of God’s promises to us, and after all of those warnings, we continued to go our own ways, and turn our backs on God. So it’s no wonder,” they said, “that here we are sitting in this camp so far away from home. It’s no wonder at all.”
And they said to themselves, “Now we know who our God is – the one who came and made promises to our ancestor Abraham so many years ago. The one we abandoned over and over again. The one we couldn’t manage to be faithful to over hundreds of years. Now we understand that our God is a God of infinite patience and infinite love, no matter what we have done. Our God keeps promises even though we don’t. Our God remembers us when we forget. Our God does not give us what we deserve.” They said to each other in that camp year after year.
So why have I told you this story this morning? What is the point of it all?
I tell you this story because I want so much to tell you - in the time I have with you – I want so much to tell you who our God is. You may have been wandering through your life thinking that God is an angry God who is out to get you at every turn. Or that God sneaks around after us, hoping bad things will happen to us because of what we have done. Or giving us cancer or tragedies in our lives to punish us for what we have done. When people you love have died, or when hard things have happened to you, maybe you thought that it was God punishing you. Or maybe you wondered where God was in the worst times of your life when you felt utterly alone.
But will you look at hundreds of years of evidence. Will you look at the hundreds of years’ worth of stories told to us in the Bible, and will you will you see that God is Good, and loving and patient and everlastingly faithful?
But maybe you are thinking about all this now and you’re saying to me, “Paula, those are pretty little stories you keep telling us, and they are in the Bible. But how do I know these people ever actually lived and how do I know their stories are even remotely true after all these years? And what in the world difference can their stories possibly make to me?” Maybe you are asking that this morning.
Or maybe you are saying to me, “Don’t try to convince me of something you think about God, Paula. That’s not the way I know things – when somebody else tries to persuade me what is true. I know things are true when I experience them for myself.”
So then - let me give you this assignment. And this may take you a while. Will you sit like those strong, healthy, wealthy young men in that camp and will you think back on your life, with all its twists and turns and good times and hard times. Will you sit with Psalm 40 in your lap, that Psalm that we read earlier this morning, and will you gather up the stories of your life? Times when you lost your job, or there was trouble in your family, or you moved and started your life all over again in a new place? Times when you were worried sick about a son or daughter, or someone you loved died or your best friend betrayed you. Or times when you were afraid for your finances. And will you rediscover the hand of God in your life? Will you find the ways that God has been faithful to you through it all? Ways that God has stood beside you even though you may not have realized it at the time? Or maybe something truly amazing happened to you and you laughed and called it a “God thing.” Maybe you will remember ways that other people have been the loving hands and feet and voice of God to you though you had no idea. Maybe you have sat very quietly early in the morning watching the day arrive and have said to yourself in awe, “There must be a God.”
And when you have done all that, when you have discovered the loving pattern of God in your life, then will you fall down on your knees in front that God in thanks. In life-long thanks.