Telling a Good Story
My father tells the story of being a kid and visiting his family on Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama. The family and nearby neighbors would sit on the front porch and play music, talk about the events of the wider world, and tell stories. I cannot begin to count all the stories passed down and cannot imagine the number I have never even heard. Most of them were humorous anecdotes about life on the farm, in the mills, or old family stories.
One thing that always struck me about these stories and many others that I have heard through the years is that they all seem to have a certain feel to them, a certain flow in the narrative. They start with phrases like, “Well your uncle JW had joined the army…” or “Uncle Burl had gone fishing at the lock and dam with your grandfather…” There was always the same sense of change from the ordinary, moving into a new landscape, new circumstance, experiencing an adventure of some sort, and returning to share the story with the family and friends.
Scholars have developed an understanding of these types of stories and in 1949, a college professor and comparative religious scholar named Joseph Campbell came up with the name for it: the hero’s journey. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell expresses the simple idea as this – all stories are a variation of the same basic story. It goes something like this:
A hero leaves from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Campbell makes the case for all stories and especially all mythological or culturally foundational stories being the same basic story. The hero is introduced to a character or situation that opens the door to a journey, the hero leaves on the journey, along the way, the hero faces adversity and difficulty and has to overcome the obstacles before them, and finally the hero returns to share the adventure and its wisdom with their community.
These stories resonate because there is a truth to way our heroes in the real world experience similar life events and overcome. Abraham Lincoln growing up in poverty in Kentucky and Indiana, overcoming one political defeat after another, and finally becoming President of the United States. Anne Frank secretly writing her diary in hiding while avoiding the Nazis during World War II. George Washington Carver being born into slavery and rising to become one of the foremost agricultural minds of his time.
The one constant, the one thread throughout all these stories is that throughout the hero’s journey there is hope, the hope of overcoming, the hope of surviving, the hope of rising above to new and higher ground. The narrative from scripture this week is the story that Jews the world over celebrate as the greatest moment of deliverance in their history, the Passover from the Exodus story.
God is the God of Deliverance and Hope
Remember back in Genesis 15 when God says that Israel will spend four hundred years being oppressed slaves? Remember that God had made a covenant with Abraham to give them a land that would be their own? In Exodus, we see the people as oppressed slaves on the verge of beginning their journey to the promised land. Israel has lived in Egypt for four hundred years now and at some point, they began to grow as a people and rival the Egyptians in number. The beginning of Exodus says, “Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” The people of Egypt no longer remembered Joseph and the great things he had done for the Israelites, the Egyptians, and all of those who lived in the Nile Delta. In fear of their growing powerful and joining other nations against Egypt or simply taking over the land of Egypt, the pharaoh enslaved the Israelites. And now for four hundred years, the Israelites have languished under the abuse of their Egyptian masters.
God, however, has not forgotten them. He has called one out of the house of Levi, a survivor that was delivered to the house of pharaoh and learned the ways of the oppressor, yet still retained the blood of his kin, the blood of Jacob. This deliverer, Moses, came to understand the truth of his lineage as a man, defending a Hebrew who being beaten, killing an Egyptian in the process as he began to identify with being a Hebrew, and escaping to the wilderness. While there in the wilderness of Midian, Moses has a vision of God, a conversation with a burning bush and receives a calling to go and demand the release of Jacob’s people.
Reluctantly, and with a great of prodding and proofs from the one called, “I am Who I am”, “the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob”, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, goes to the court of pharaoh. Moses demands the freedom of the Egyptians and the ruler of Egypt refuses him, going so far as to punish the Israelites because Moses asks. The one called “I am Who I am” sends Moses to the court of pharaoh to announce plagues coming to Egypt. Nine times a plague is inflicted on the people of Egypt and nine times pharaoh denies the messengers of God. Which brings us to the text at hand and the final, pivotal plague.
God has Moses and Aaron go to the house of pharaoh and deliver this final message,
At midnight I’ll go throughout Egypt. Every oldest child in the land of Egypt will die, from the oldest child of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the oldest child of the servant woman by the millstones, and all the first offspring of the animals. Then a terrible cry of agony will echo through the whole land of Egypt unlike any heard before or that ever will be again. But as for the Israelites, not even a dog will growl at them, at the people, or at their animals. By this, you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”– Exodus 11:4-8
Pharaoh would not listen. He had not listened before and he would refuse to listen this time as well, despite the terrible tragedy that awaited.
God is giving hope to the Hopeless
When we come to Passover, we have come to the moment most associated with deliverance and salvation for the Jewish religion. No other moment, no other story expresses more thoroughly the understanding of who God is or what he has done for Israel. It is the seminal moment that expresses the understood love of God for the children of Abraham.
It is the offer of hope to the hopeless. Imagine being a Hebrew in Babylon when this story was most likely written down and finished. Imagine hearing the tale of Moses and Aaron from your grandfather as a child, lying beneath the sky of a foreign land with only the memories passed down to you of your true homeland. Hear with the Israelites the startled gasps of Pharaoh’s court as Moses and Aaron say to the ruler of Egypt, “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says: ‘Let my people go so that they can hold a festival for me in the desert,’” the hissing of snakes at court, the sight of the Nile turning blood red, the invasions of frogs, lice, insects, and locust. Feel the panic of the Egyptians as they their livelihood – livestock – dies off before their eyes and skies flash with lightning, roar with thunder, and pour out the destructive power of hail on the land, its animals, and its people.
Finally, come to the greater moments of the story. Those moments when God shows his care for and salvation of the children of Abraham. The Passover, the moment when God redeemed his own and struck down the enemies of Israel, is born as a reminder to be passed down to every generation that comes after the last.
You should explain to your child on that day, ‘It’s because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 “It will be a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead so that you will often discuss the Lord’s Instruction, for the Lord brought you out of Egypt with great power. 10 So you should follow this regulation at its appointed time every year. – Exodus 13:8-10
And that is the greater point of all. That God has called the Israelites to remember and pass that memory onto the next generation, to all generations that come after. Theologian Jacqueline Lapsley writes,
One of the most important elements in the story occurs in Exodus 13:8: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” Telling the story in every generation — that God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the world — is a central task for those who trust in God. The Bible itself puts forth the idea that the testimony of those who have experienced the benefits of God’s saving power is vital and necessary for God’s work in the world to go forward.
Every year while we who call ourselves Christians are celebrating the Easter story and remembering the cross and resurrection, our Jewish forbearers are recounting a story with similar meaning. It is called the Haggadah and the central theme of it is this,
“And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers,” as it is said: “During that long period, the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned because of the servitude, and they cried out. And their cry for help from their servitude rose up to God. And the Lord heard our voice” as it said: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And he saw our suffering,..God saw the children of Israel and God took note.” – The Haggadah
We too, cried out to the Lord. We too, groaned under the weight of slavery to life without the presence of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of Jesus the Christ. We too, have known separation from God and lifting up our cries to be heard before the throne of the Almighty.
And God heard us. And God remembered us. And God engaged us in covenant relationship as the Lord took note of our pain and distress.
We are living hope (Christ in us, the hope of glory)
The story we have entered into and been given to pass down is no different from the story that the Hebrews were given to pass down. God saw us in the pain and suffering of our lives, in the distance of our lives without the Almighty, in the lack and need of life disconnected from God. For many years the story of reconciliation was that of God redeeming the Israelites from bondage and delivering them to a new land of promise, fulfilling the covenant. Now, we have a story to tell along with that.
The story of one born a refugee, in poverty, in a land of promise now conquered by foreigners. The story of one with the Spirit of the Lord upon him, one anointed. One sent to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed. One called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the deliverance of those who have lost or perhaps never even found their way. One who came to be the Way, show the truth, be the light.
Our calling in this is to be the living hope of Christ in us before God, to each other, and to the world. We are the hope before God that we may worship as we remember. We are the hope to each other that we may stumble with, carry, and journey together through this life as we share in the memory and the life of the story of God’s redemption. And finally, we are the living hope before the world that the world may have hope. That the world may look beyond all the heartache, devastation, and pain that weighs heavy on our souls. That the world may look into the joy, love, and peace that exists within those with eyes to see and ears to hear the message of truth and the light of Jesus and know that hope is still real.
So what do we do now? We remember. We remember and we share the memory.
All of those family stories mentioned earlier have one thing in common: they are all memories, shared memories that keep the people in them alive to those of us who knew them. Though many of the people in those stories died years ago, they live again in the telling of their stories.
Every time we recount the stories and teachings of the life of Jesus, he lives on to another generation of people who can embrace, reject, or respond however they choose. But he lives nonetheless. And for those of us who hear and answer the call to follow, we carry the story onto another generation that they too may find redemption, restoration, and reconciliation with God and with neighbor as they follow in the footsteps of the life of Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
 Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 30