O my people, give ear to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the glorious deeds of the Lord to the coming generation; and his might and the wonders God has done…
Thus begins the marvelous Psalm 78 as the psalmist sings a history of God’s people in Israel.
“Teach your children…” Deuteronomy commands.
The poet reminds how crucial it is to share our faith with the next generations.
God established a decree in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel and commanded our ancestors to teach to their children: that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep God’s commandments.
Our failure as Church in America
In the United States, during the tumultuous 60’s, young people in our churches wondered what was going on in our world and how they should respond as people of faith.
Protests, marches, riots and assassinations challenged this nation to our core and young people looked to the church for guidance as they pondered what would be an appropriate faith response to war and injustice.
In many ways, in many churches, we failed them.
And we lost them.
Hundreds and thousands of youth in the 60’s completely gave up on church because they didn’t find the values of institutional religion to be relevant to their real lives.
Tell them to your children…so that they should not be like their ancestors:
a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.
Now – more than fifty years later – we see a gaping hole.
The youth of my generation who thought faith was irrelevant now have children and grandchildren of their own, and these later generations, in large part, were never even introduced to faith.
Demographic categories for faith in America now include the “Nones” and the “Dones:” people who have given up on religion.
A nation of people that thought of itself as a “Christian nation;” that once assumed some sort of wide spread faith commitment now sees an increasing percentage of Americans who are committed to secular values rather than being shaped by values of religious faith.
A similar shift must have happened in Israel.
Some scholars place this psalm in the historical period of David or maybe of a later king such as Hezekiah. Others see how Psalm 78 would clearly speak to a generation after the Babylonian Exile.
Either way, passion to tell the story of Israel and its journey with the LORD would have been crucial to the people who returned from Exile committed to rebuild their nation and re-establish their ancient faith.
Exile taught them the ongoing truth that faith is only one generation away from extinction.
Therefore Psalm 78 recites to the generations the old, old story of God’s great faithfulness.
And at the same time, the psalmist owns up to Israel’s historical unfaithfulness.
Stories of all our various faith journeys must consider the Divine Balance: both justice and mercy.
Psalm 78 acknowledges the rightness of God’s judgment but still celebrates the Divine Grace that continues to draw God’s people back into covenant relationship.
THIS is The Story of God with God’s people throughout the ages:
- amazing grace
- persistent (and sometimes painful) redemption
- surprising faithfulness
Training the next generations in rules and rituals or in doctrine and dogma is useless unless the foundation of faith is authentic relationship.
Faith in a relationship is so much more than a belief system; rather this faith trusts and obeys in a Living God who is in real relationship with real people.
God rejected the tent of Joseph…but he chose the tribe of Judah: Mount Zion, which he loves.
The Lord built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever.
God chose his servant David and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel, God’s inheritance.
If this psalm came from the post-exilic period, then the references here to “Zion” and “David” would be messianic since the psalmist of the Exile would had experienced the loss of the Davidic monarchy and the Temple.
Even so, hope remains.
The prophetic vision seen here holds on to hope that there will be time when God’s presence will once again be known among God’s people.
It is eschatalogical hope, future hope.
The hope, the confidence that – in spite of all the evidence to the contrary – the Creator remains faithful to the work of Shalom throughout all creation.
Psalms scholar Clinton McCann says this:
To be sure, Psalm 78 is a reminder that knowledge does not guarantee faithfulness, but it insists that knowing the story is the foundation for faith and hope and life.
The church in recent years and throughout its history has often been so self-absorbed and preoccupied with institutional maintenance that it has forgotten what God has done.
It has failed to tell the old, old story that is so full of new possibilities for responding with gratitude and service to God’s persistent and amazing grace.J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996, 993.
We who are the 21st century church must pay attention.
Indoctrination is not the same as handing down the faith.
Our own children and grandchildren must see and hear authentic witness from us. They must hear us confess our mistakes and foolishness as well as experience our journey of faithfulness – no matter how flawed and tentative it may be.
We – and they – are ongoing chapters in this remarkable story of grace.
The Story is our story too.
See here a recent Barna research study on why adults do not talk about their faith.
See here a troubling article from The Atlantic: “Breaking Faith.”