I Love To Tell the Story
I recall from Sunday School days in a small Minnesota church that it was always one of my favorite songs. Somehow our group assembled for "opening exercises" always got cranked up singing the refrain: "I love to tell the sto-ry, 'twill be my theme in glory." I was disappointed when the "green book" (Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, 390) left out that word, "'twill" replacing it with "I'll sing this theme in glory"). But now I'm happy to see that "'twill" is back in the 2006 red book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 661). Twice the singer of this Psalm invites the congregation to pay attention to a story he has to tell. First, the psalmist invites listeners to "come and see what God has done," (verse 5) and then he tells what God has done for God's people. Second, the psalmist invites the congregation to "come and hear...and I will tell what God has done for the psalmist (verse 16). In what follows I will outline the movement of the psalm and then make some comments about preaching on this text.
Calling Planet Earth (66:1-4)
Psalm 65 ended with a picture of Planet Earth with its blue seas, amber grain fields, green pastures, abundant harvests and flocks of cattle. These hills are alive, says the psalmist, with the sound of music (65:9-13).
With Psalm 66 the psalmist continues the "earth" theme but now addresses the inhabitants of this beautiful blue planet, all of them! ("all the earth" occurs twice, for emphasis, verses 1 and 4). The psalmist invites all citizens of the planet to praise God. God's people respond to this invitation with joy, while God's enemies cringe in fear. In both cases the human inhabitants of the earth recognize the awesome-ness of God!
Telling the Story: What God has Done for God's People (66:5-12)
After a general declaration about the awesome-ness of God, recognized by all the "children of Adam" (Hebrew), that is, all "mortals" (NRSV), the psalmist gives a specific example of what God has done for Israel. Here he refers to the exodus and the crossing of the river Jordan (Joshua 3:14-17). Since both events are well-known to the congregation, the psalmist only alludes to both stories. The difficulties of the time of the exodus and the testing in the wilderness are recalled in verses 9-12. But the bottom line, says the psalmist, is that "you have brought us out to a spacious place." (verse 12)
Telling the Story: What God has Done for Me (66:13-20)
In the first segment of this psalm the focus was on the awesome deeds God has done for "all the earth" (verses 1-4). One could think of God's blessings on the entire earth, the "just and the unjust," (Matthew 5:45 RSV) as described in Psalm 65:9-13). Part 2 of the psalm recalled God's awesome deeds on behalf of Israel (verses 5-12). And now the psalmist makes it all personal. First, he reports that he has made certain offerings that he promised to make (verses 13-15).
Then he issues an invitation, similar to the one made in verse 5. There it was "come and see." Now it is "come and hear." He announces that he will "tell what [God] has done for me" (verse 16). Like a warm-hearted evangelical Christian, the psalmist gives his personal testimony. The story is a simple one, told here in the barest outline. "I cried aloud to him...truly God has listened, he has given heed to the words of my prayer." Put simply the one giving testimony says, "I prayed. God answered my prayer. Praised be God!"
Tell Me a Story
When the Bible speaks about God, it most often does so by telling what God has done. In other words, when the Bible speaks of God, it tells a story.
The Bible as a whole follows the pattern of a story, beginning in the Old Testament with creation and continuing through the call to Abraham and Sarah and the ancestors. It goes on with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the commandments, the wandering in the wilderness, the conquest of the land, the monarchy and finally the exile. The New Testament picks up the story, telling about Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and spelling out the meaning of his death and resurrection. The book of Acts picks up the story of what God has done, climaxing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Peter preached at Pentecost time in Jerusalem, some in the audience said of the preaching of the apostles, "Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." (Acts 2:11 RSV)
It was Elie Wiesel who concluded a short anecdote with the line, "God made man because he loves stories." Inclusive language would dictate that we re-phrase it something like "God made humans because God loves stories."
Now that my wife and I are grandparents we often get the request from one of our grandchildren, "Tell me a story." Of course we always comply. In fact, I made a point of writing up a number of the Bible's stories in a short form to be read to grandchildren. When possible, I would throw Ben or Eleyna, Kai or Elin or Mara into the story. Once I asked Ben, age 8 at the time, if he liked the Bible stories that I had written and his parents were reading to him. He gave the answer he knew I'd like, "Yes, Opa, I like the stories." Then he paused. "But I like them best when they're about me!"
Ain't it the truth! And isn't that the task of the preacher and teacher? To tell these old, old stories -- in ways that make them about you, or me?