April’s apocrypha lessons: Telling the old, old stories

given on Sunday, April 21, 2013

Apocrypha Lesson:  Stories of Faith

         Have I a story to tell you!  I have been swamped by all the stories I have heard around town.  Granted some of the stories may be a bit exaggerated since they are spreading like wildfire, but still the stories are absolutely amazing.  I want to go see for myself.

There is this community that is doing all kinds of things differently.  They are just like the rest of us, at least they appear to be, but there is something unique about them.  They go to the stores, like we do.  They all have jobs, like we do.  They have families no differently than we do.  Their houses look no different than anybody else’s around here.  I really cannot see anything different, yet there is something special about them.

The stories they tell are something else. . . the officials are always going through the neighborhood like they are looking for something.  There are certain times during the week that they all get together for some reason.  When they walk out the buildings just about noon on any Sunday, they seem so happy.  They are chatting with each other, the kids are running around their parents and playing with friends, and teenagers just stand around smiling, talking, even laughing.

What is this all about?  This is the story that I hear—they are Christians.  They talk about how God was born as a man, a man they called Jesus, Christ, Messiah, even Savior.  They still have the same illnesses, the same ups and downs in their businesses, and sometimes they have troubles—really big trouble like car wrecks, fires, health issues, and even broken families or relationships.  Yet there is this unique quality about them that makes me want to know more about these Christians.

Whenever you meet people who are open about their faith in God, you begin to notice some of the common characteristics that seem to make them happier than others.  They seem to handle the trials and tribulations of life with a certain finesse that others don’t.  In fact others may just give up and call it quits, but not Christians.

Growing up, my mom had unusual ways of adding her faith into the daily routines.  Living on a farm, we always had cats and dogs around.  In fact that is probably one of the best parts of farm life.  Many hours of my week were spent sitting on the step playing with the kittens, or looking for them in the barn.

One year we had a litter of kittens while I was in college, so Mom ended up naming them.  She called them Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  I tried to figure out why, but the Old Testament story is the key.  I am sure you remember the story:  the three refused to worship the King’s god, a pagan god, and he threw them into the furnace.  When he looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around.

The King could not explain it, so called the men out of the flames.  Sure enough, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were not harmed at all.  Who was the fourth man?  Well, he was God.  Certainly the story sounds like a tall tale, but the story had the desired outcome.  And the King is transformed.  He abandons his pagan god and praises the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  The story concludes

Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. –the NRSV

Now Daniel tells that story.  He, too, was a close friend of the King, and he stood up for his faith.  Faith protected him and faith continues to protect us throughout our lifetimes as we meet challenge after challenge.

The apocrypha tells more stories, too.  In fact the set of books in the apocrypha are filled with novels, folktales, poems, and instructions.  These books may not have been ‘canonized’ and excluded from the Bible structure that is familiar to most 21st century Christians, but that does not mean they are not acceptable religious readings for us.

The stories found in the apocrypha book, “Bel and the Dragon,” are sometimes published as Daniel 14.  The stories in Daniel are considered to be folktales, rather like those in Aesop’s Fables or some of the tall tales we have in American folklore.

The story of Bel is a great lesson to share with those who may be following false gods.  Daniel was refusing to follow the King’s order to pray to Bel, a pagan god in Babylon.  Being a friend, the King simply could not get rid of Daniel.  Instead there developed this challenging scenario (This is the full text, but for storytelling purposes, I will paraphrase it.):

Daniel was a companion of the king, and was the most honoured of all his friends.

            3 Now the Babylonians had an idol called Bel, and every day they provided for it twelve bushels of choice flour and forty sheep and six measures[a] of wine. The king revered it and went every day to worship it. But Daniel worshipped his own God.

So the king said to him, ‘Why do you not worship Bel?’ He answered, ‘Because I do not revere idols made with hands, but the living God, who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all living creatures.’

            6 The king said to him, ‘Do you not think that Bel is a living god? Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?’ And Daniel laughed, and said, ‘Do not be deceived, O king, for this thing is only clay inside and bronze outside, and it never ate or drank anything.’

            8 Then the king was angry and called the priests of Bel[b] and said to them, ‘If you do not tell me who is eating these provisions, you shall die. But if you prove that Bel is eating them, Daniel shall die, because he has spoken blasphemy against Bel.’ Daniel said to the king, ‘Let it be done as you have said.’

            10 Now there were seventy priests of Bel, besides their wives and children. So the king went with Daniel into the temple of Bel. 11 The priests of Bel said, ‘See, we are now going outside; you yourself, O king, set out the food and prepare the wine, and shut the door and seal it with your signet. 12 When you return in the morning, if you do not find that Bel has eaten it all, we will die; otherwise Daniel will, who is telling lies about us.’ 13 They were unconcerned, for beneath the table they had made a hidden entrance, through which they used to go in regularly and consume the provisions. 14 After they had gone out, the king set out the food for Bel. Then Daniel ordered his servants to bring ashes, and they scattered them throughout the whole temple in the presence of the king alone. Then they went out, shut the door and sealed it with the king’s signet, and departed. 15 During the night the priests came as usual, with their wives and children, and they ate and drank everything.

            16 Early in the morning the king rose and came, and Daniel with him. 17 The king said, ‘Are the seals unbroken, Daniel?’ He answered, ‘They are unbroken, O king.’ 18 As soon as the doors were opened, the king looked at the table, and shouted in a loud voice, ‘You are great, O Bel, and in you there is no deceit at all!’

            19 But Daniel laughed and restrained the king from going in. ‘Look at the floor’, he said, ‘and notice whose footprints these are.’ 20 The king said, ‘I see the footprints of men and women and children.’

            21 Then the king was enraged, and he arrested the priests and their wives and children. They showed him the secret doors through which they used to enter to consume what was on the table. 22 Therefore the king put them to death, and gave Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed it and its temple.  –the NRSV.AC version listed in Daniel 14

Such stories of faith are found throughout the Bible—old and new testaments.  And even as we listen to the stories of our own families, we can discover the stories of faith being passed down from one generation to another.  Jesus told stories, he even asked the little children to gather around him so he could tell them stories.

Stories of faith have not been kept out of schools, either.  Look at the literature from that shared with preschoolers to those in college anthologies.  The stories of faith continue to spread the news of Jesus Christ.  Are we continuing to share our own stories of faith?  Do your children and grandchildren know why you believe?  Do you demonstrate your faith to them when life challenges you?

Paul shared stories, one being his own transformation from Saul the Jewish leader punishing the earliest Christians, to Paul the first traveling Christian missionary.  He was eager to share the stories of Jesus’ work and he did not ignore the ancient Jewish stories of faith.  In Hebrews 11, Paul lists or refers to all kinds of faith stories listing them from the Old Testament right through the New Testament:

Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. The elders in the past were approved because they showed faith.  . . . 36 But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37 They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38 The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.

39 All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. 40 God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.  –the NRSV

Whether the stories you tell are your own, or whether you tell the old, old stories of Jesus Christ, tell them.  Make sure that your children, your grandchildren, your neighbors, and all know how God is your strength, how faith makes life manageable, how even when the clouds cover up the sun, your faith keeps the light of God’s Son shining bright.

Dear Holy Father, writer of the greatest stories ever told,

Thank you for those who told the first stories of faith

   and those telling the stories today.

Thank you for demonstrating your grace, your love,

   and your forgiveness time and time again.

Help us to hear the stories of those today

     whose faith is strong and ever growing.

Help us to share the stories of others who know you

     and stories we know because we believe, too.

May those who still have not heard the stories,

     hear them now.

May those who first hear the stories be transformed

     and discover they, too, have stories to share.  –Amen

 

 

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