June 27, 2016
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Author: Scott Hoezee
All things being equal, would you consider it a good idea to interrupt Jesus? Does our Savior need cutting, a bit of shushing now and then, or perhaps some retrospective editing? The Lectionary seems to think so and with all due respect to the good folks who compile the Revised Common Lectionary, I can’t see how it became their job to leave certain things on “the cutting room floor,” as it were.
If you are Steven Spielberg, then you always shoot more scenes than can fit in the finished movie and it’s only after you see how they all turned out that you can determine which scenes slow the movie down, end up being extraneous, or just didn’t turn out that well. So you cut them. You sit with your film editor and begin selecting and slicing. Back in the day, real pieces of celluloid were cut and tossed aside. Today it’s all digital, of course, with the deleted scenes getting saved somewhere else on a hard drive, perhaps only to be revisited some day in case they decide to release an “Extended Edition Director’s Cut” on BluRay.
That’s all de rigeur if you’re Steven Spielberg. Because then, of course, the thing you are editing is your movie. But the Bible isn’t my book or a committee’s book and so just because in the middle of Luke 10 Jesus begins to sound some definite notes of judgment and condemnation for those who reject the message of the Kingdom’s approach, that doesn’t mean we can edit that out, skip it, pretend it’s not there. This wasn’t just a hiccup in Jesus’ teaching at this point—he hadn’t had a bad pizza that was coming back up on him for a few moments before he returned to the kinder, gentler Jesus the Lectionary tries to create by sequestering the other stuff.
At this point in Luke’s Gospel Jesus has now made his famous turn toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) and toward all that awaited him there in the balance of Luke’s gospel narrative. The cost of following Jesus was just detailed at the end of what we call Luke 9 and there it is clear that we are dealing with matters of eternal moment and import. Jesus is no hobby enthusiast helping people fill in the cracks of their lives by doling out how-to tips on fly fishing or rock climbing. He did not come to this earth—and is not now in Luke on his way to Jerusalem—to make suggestions for self-improvement or provide tips on how to grow one’s business prospects (despite how much contemporary preaching makes it sound like all of that somehow is the Gospel after all).
No, Jesus is here to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God and in Luke 10 he is authorizing a wider band of disciples to go out and do the same thing. He’s not sending them out to be door-to-door salespeople hawking magazine subscriptions or lawn care services. He doesn’t want them to look like moochers or give off even a whiff of being profiteers. He is telling them to go and bring peace, Shalom, to all who will receive it and the rest of their message is pretty straightforward and simple: “The kingdom of God is near you.” They are proclaiming a whole new way to live, a whole new way to look at life and this world, a whole new way to orient not just this or that sideline feature to one’s life but the whole ball of wax, every jot and tittle of one’s existence.
Because at the end of the day you cannot be in the kingdom of God just sort of or kind of. You don’t dabble in the kingdom. You don’t treat the kingdom like a salad bar at which you’re free to choose just some items to put onto your salad but leave be all the ones that look not quite to your liking (or those items that might challenge your palette to experience something new—something new but perhaps also something necessary and good for you).
All of which brings me back to the Lectionary’s abrupt full stop at the end of verse 11. And then its neat little jump overtop verses 13-15, too. The kingdom is serious business. Rejecting it has consequences that are on the grave side. And the simple fact is that those who had long been part of God’s covenant community—those, in other words, who had been given a gracious advantage in anticipating the kingdom and understanding its contours based on everything God had been revealing to Israel for so long—may well be held to a higher standard of judgment on such matters than people without those grace-laden advantages.
It’s not pleasant. It’s definitely not what people in the twenty-first century want to hear when the preference of many—including not a few inside the church—is to assume that getting saved is easy, that God trends toward being a softy, that we humans should never presume to know whether God has any particular standards when it comes to religious faith and so we should assume that any faith is good and that even those with no faith—but who are good folks—may well be just fine, too.
“Woe to you” is something only pastors on the lunatic fringe of the church ever say anymore and we surely don’t want to associate with those folks as they picket in front of a gay man’s house or protest at some military funeral. So if we happen to catch Jesus saying “Woe to you” to or about anybody or any place, we’d prefer to pretend it didn’t happen.
But listen: just beyond this lection we find Jesus being full of the joy of the Holy Spirit as he rejoices in the grace of God that has revealed his truth to the disciples and to so many others. Soon after that he tells everybody’s favorite parable of the Good Samaritan. But the point is that you cannot understand the joy of Jesus in Luke 10:21ff and you cannot understand Jesus’ perspective in the subsequent parable that everybody is your neighbor who deserves love and ministry unless you also understand that for Jesus the joy is deepened and the need to reach out to neighbors in love is heightened precisely because he’s not talking about a game of tidily-winks here.
Take away the prospect of judgment and the need, perhaps, to say the word “Woe” now and then and what you’re left with is shallow and generic joy and some lowest common denominator take on something like the Good Samaritan (which morphs into some DIY tale of public morality instead of being something deeply rooted in the very kingdom of God).
Now with all that said . . . it’s true that we must not be hateful and spiteful people, and if some of the people most prone to say “Woe to you” today tend to come off that way, most of us in the Church are right to want to put some daylight between them and us. But one can still be morally, theologically, and biblically serious enough to know that there is judgment, there is a difference between right and wrong, between being in the kingdom or dwelling outside of it and still be radiant with grace and mercy and love. We don’t have to check out the ethnic, moral, or religious credentials of the robbery victim at the side of the road before reaching out to him in love.
Even when Jesus tells his disciples to wipe the dust of the rejecting town off their feet, he still tells them to conclude their comments with yet one more reminder that “the kingdom of God is near” and who’s to say that we cannot speak those words through tears of love and compassion? Jesus does not tell these people to placard their message on signs that say “God Hates You!” but to speak the truth in love and to do it urgently and perhaps emotionally seeing how high the stakes are.
Luke 9 ends with joy even as the whole gospel does. But you can’t get to the truest and deepest joy of the resurrection by bypassing the cross and in Luke 9 you cannot get to the fullness of Holy Spirit-induced joy by bypassing some of the more difficult things Jesus has to say.
The question is whether we preachers today still have the courage to say just that.
Some while ago—I believe this was in a snippet included in Martin E. Marty’s newsletter “Context”—someone wrote of a conversation he overheard at some East Coast upscale party. The topic turned to morality and at one point a martini-sipping woman proclaimed, “Oh, those terms: adultery, fornication! Isn’t it a shame that people still talk that way in this day and age?!” To this another partygoer replied, “No, I think that what’s a shame is that people still do those things in this day and age.”
2 Kings 5:1-14
Author: Doug Bratt
Nearly everyone needs some kind of healing. It may be from physical or mental illness. Or perhaps it’s from haunted memories or grief. Yet while God’s people know to look to God for that healing, we don’t always get to choose its method. So we may not always particularly like the way God chooses to heal us.
Namaan is the commander of the Syrian army that his boss likes a lot. He’s also highly decorated for bravery in battle. In fact, Namaan is somehow so special that God has even helped him win his country’s battles. So he’s the kind of powerful person to whom you need to pay attention if you’re going to get anywhere in his Middle East. However, mighty Namaan also has even mightier leprosy. After all, diseases don’t pay much attention to their victims’ status or character. Sickness, with a few notable exceptions, is an equal opportunity tormentor.
So people may assume Namaan is so “great” that no one can ever touch him. Now, however, no one will touch him because they consider him unclean. Israel quarantined for seven days anyone with his disease that wasn’t properly treated. So Namaan, a foreigner who leads Israel’s nemesis’s army, is about as much of an outsider to Israel as you can get.
Nearly everyone feels leprous, marginalized from at least one group they’d desperately like to be a part of. So most people we teach and preach to can probably understand why Namaan, whom disease has shoved on to society’s margins, is so desperate for healing.
It’s the kind of desperation that sometimes pushes people to searches for unconventional solutions to serious problems. It drives some people onto the black market in search of medicines our society doesn’t sanction. It’s the kind of desperation that sometimes drives lonely people to marry abusers and materially poor people to take out rash loans.
Perhaps Namaan has even visited every quack and tried every herbal remedy his country has to offer. Yet since none of it has worked, he desperately turns to one of his wife’s slaves. This Israelite is, says Barbara Lundblad, as “small as Namaan is big.” She’s as weak as he is powerful. Yet the young Israelite has connections. She insists she knows someone who can cure leprosy.
When Syria’s king gives mighty Namaan permission to chase his desperation, the stricken soldier heads straight for his wife’s slave’s home country. But he doesn’t go to the home of the prophet who the slave had insisted could heal him. Namaan travels, instead, to Israel’s king’s palace. It’s almost as if you were bleeding to death but went to city hall instead of the hospital.
Apparently Namaan can’t imagine anything but a political solution to his disease. Where, after all, do people naturally turn for solutions to our problems? Toward powerful people and things. Sick people want the best doctors, hospitals and medicine that money can buy.
Sometimes, however, money can’t buy health. Sometimes, in fact, not even the most powerful people and things can heal people. Israel’s king can’t heal Namaan. In fact, he can’t even understand why an enemy soldier would show up in his throne room with all those gifts in the first place. He assumes Namaan’s just there to somehow make trouble.
Yet just like the desperate Syrian, Israel’s king doesn’t seem to think about turning to a prophet like Elijah. Thankfully, then, Elisha somehow hears about the incident anyway. “Why’d you go and do a silly thing like tear your fancy new clothes?” he asks the stressed king in verse 8. “Send Namaan to me so that I can show him where help really comes from.”
Israel has a fairly powerful king. That, however, doesn’t really help the monarch very much, since he has about as much power over leprosy as people have over gravity. So the sick Syrian soldier needs entirely different power.
When Namaan desperately turns to Elisha, he does so with another display of his might. That, however, doesn’t impress the prophet very much. Namaan had hoped the miracle worker would actually reach out and heal him. Elisha, however, doesn’t even to the door to greet him.
Maybe Namaan hoped Elisha would wave his hand over his rotting flesh or dispense some powerful medicine. The prophet, however, merely dispenses some advice. Perhaps Namaan hoped he could ride straight back home a new man. Elisha instead, however, sends him to take a bath in the Jordan River.
Doctors are supposed to call in prescriptions or perform surgery to make us better. Prophets are supposed to say some prayers or wave their hands to heal sick people. When Elisha does none of that, Namaan is furious. He assumes the prophet is just trying to make him look silly.
Namaan wants an elaborate spectacle that’s appropriate for such a mighty military hero. The soldier doesn’t yet understand that a far different might is at work here. So while Elisha remains silent and aloof, Namaan storms off in a huff like a child whose mom has told can’t have a cookie right before supper.
Yet while the Israelite prophet remains silent, the Syrian’s aides don’t. For the third time in our text, servants, whom their bosses expected to see and not hear, speak up. “Boss,” they plead, “If that quack had told you to do something challenging, you’d have done it in a heartbeat. So why not do this easy, little thing? Who knows? It might just work!”
We don’t know what changes raging Namaan’s mind. The text merely reports that he plunges seven times into the muddy Jordan, just as the elusive prophet’s messenger had told him. And, just as Elisha’s servant had also promised, Namaan comes up sparkling clean. God makes his body look like that of a young boy who’s just taken a shower. A healed and ritually clean Namaan may even look a bit like the young slave who’d first pointed him to Elisha.
The memory of this healing would later infuriate Jesus’ contemporaries. After all, while Namaan commanded the army of one of Israel’s most persistent and brutal enemies, God chose to heal him while apparently neglecting, similarly stricken Israelites. We don’t just, after all, always get to choose how God heals. You and I also don’t even get to choose whom God heals.
We sometimes wonder why bad things happen to good people. But do we ever wonder why good things happen to bad people? Why God, for instance, let someone like Osama bin-Laden live into old age, while letting people martyr young Christian missionaries like Jim Elliot? We worship a gracious God who treats us not in the way we naturally deserve but, instead, according to God’s sometimes mysterious kindness. Whether that’s good or bad news probably depends on just how we think of ourselves.
It was hard for Namaan to do the simple thing God required for his healing. He wanted something bold and dramatic, not a bath in Jordan’s murky waters. When we break bones or disease strikes us, it’s not easy to let God just do God’s work. We want something big. When someone breaks our hearts or bruises our souls, it’s not easy just to let God do God’s work. We want something bold.
It’s not easy to wait for healing. After all, we’re used to microwaved meals, instant oatmeal and digital cameras that show us our pictures instantaneously. Sometimes God heals in equally quick, dramatic ways. Doctors surgically remove malignancies. God has even used what we sometimes call “faith-healers” to dramatically heal people.
Sometimes, perhaps often, however, God chooses to work far more quietly. God uses a medicine to slowly lift depression. God uses a prescription to heal strep throat. God uses therapy to lighten heavy burdens. Yet whether it’s splashy or subtle, sudden or gradual, it’s God who gives all healing.
All of us also love big and bold stories of spiritual healing. People who have been Christians all our known lives, in fact, sometimes envy people who can point to the exact day and time God made them Christians. Sometimes, however, God simply works slowly and quietly through godly people to draw those who struggle to the Lord. Some conversions even seem messy and gradual, more like seven dips in the Jordan than a miraculous transformation.
So 2 Kings 5’s preachers and teachers may want to invite hearers to, like Namaan’s servants, stay with those who need spiritual healing. Like the Israelite slave girl, we also look for ways to point those who need it to the living God. Only God, after all, can heal any of us.
Glenn Tinder was raised according to the standards of Christian Science. He writes about his experiences in an article entitled, “Birth of a Troubled Conscience,” in the April 26, 1999 issue of Christianity Today.
Tinder insists Christian Science is nowhere near Christianity. It’s not even centered on healing, either, or on the achievement of health. What Christian Science says is that there simply isn’t any sickness. It’s an illusion. We’re all healthy.
Christian Science goes on to deny the existence of all evil, sin and fallenness. “They retain the crucifix, but without any point to it,” says Tinder. “We have never been lost.” To the main question, “How can there be evil in a world created by a good and omnipotent God? Mary Baker Eddy ‘answered, simply, that there can’t and therefore isn’t.’”
This, writes Tinder, “takes a lot of nerve. And causes bad consequences.” It “teaches you to avert your eyes from your own sin, and from your Savior. Teaches you to avert your eyes from the ‘troubles’ borne by others. Never ask, ‘Are you feeling better?’ for this implies that someone might actually have been suffering.’” No heartfelt expressions of shared grief or even of sympathy.
“This does not mean that no attention is paid to others. It means rather that those who are ill, bereaved, depressed, or in any other way afflicted are subjected to a silent process of reconstruction. They are seen as not ill, not bereaved, not depressed. This of course means simply that they are not seen.”
Author: Stan Mast
Even the staunchest believer sometimes wonders about the efficacy of prayer. Does it really work? Does God listen to our prayers and answer in identifiable ways? Not only our personal experience of apparently unanswered prayers, but also some of the more difficult Christian doctrines (the sovereignty of God manifested in predestination and election) make us ask those questions. Even when we are sure God has answered in miraculous ways, a skeptic could claim that we are interpreting events in wishful ways. Does God really answer our prayers?
The anonymous writer of Psalm 66 gives a resoundingly affirmative answer to that question. And he wanted everyone to know about it. “Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me. I cried out to him with my mouth… God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer. Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!”
I am well aware those verses are not part of the lectionary reading for today, but they should be. Cutting them out will give us a truncated sense of the meaning of our reading from verses 1-9. Indeed, I would argue that the entire Psalm was written because of a specific answer to prayer. That answer led not only to the Psalmist fulfilling his own vows (13-15) and declaring to the worshiping congregation what God did for him (verses 16-20), but also to calling the whole world to praise God for what God has done for Israel (verses 1-12). The Psalmist’s personal experience of answered prayer was not just a “Jesus and me” moment. It was motivation to call the whole church, indeed, the whole world to praise God for his “awesome deeds.” In this day of privatized religion, this Psalm gives us a wonderful alternative model to follow.
To be fair and balanced, I must say that no less an expert than James Luther Mays disagrees with my interpretation of Psalm 66. He thinks it moves in the other direction, beginning with the corporate and moving to the individual. He sees verses 1-12 as a processional hymn for the entire congregation (even the whole world) which leads to a moment in the liturgy when a representative individual gives personal testimony in identity with and on behalf of the congregation (verses 13-20).
Who am I to argue with an eminent scholar like Mays? But I do like my take because of the rule of end stress; it is finally the experience of individually answered prayer that spurs this call to universal praise. Whichever interpretation is right, it is clear that Psalm 66 combines the corporate and the individual in its call to praise, and includes the pagan world along with chosen Israel.
The inclusion of “all the earth” in this call to worship is not unusual in the Psalms, but it is still noteworthy, because a “chosen people” (including Christians) tend to think that it’s all about them. So it is helpful to be reminded that God’s reign extends far beyond Israel. Yes, God has acted for Israel in marvelous ways, but ultimately he will use them to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3). In anticipation of that worldwide salvation, Psalm 66 calls the whole world to praise God now. “Calls” is too mild a word. In fact, the opening verses bristle with imperatives commanding the whole earth to “shout, sing, make his praise glorious, sing,” because of his awesome deeds.
The whole earth instantly responds by bowing and singing. Indeed, verse 3 uses the politically incorrect word “cringe.” A number of scholars point out that such language is offensive in our global village that is working so hard at making peace between the great religions. It sounds like a threat to say, “So great is your power that your enemies cringe.” But the word “cringe” simply means “pay homage.” This is not a call for the pagan nations to cower in fear before the power of God, but to bow down in humility and praise his name. Yes, the permanently rebellious have reason to cringe in fear (verse 7), but what God really wants is for all his creatures to acknowledge him and sing his praise. In other words, there is something missionary and redemptive in this call to universal praise.
We see that in verse 5 where everyone in the world is invited to “come and see what God has done, how awesome are his works in man’s behalf (or among mankind).” That last interpretative twist reminds us that what God has done for humankind has occurred “among humankind,” that is, in history. God’s awesome deeds are historical acts. The great “I am” has broken into the cause and effect continuum of history and done something new and startling.
Back in Israel’s history, God’s saving acts were done in a particular place for a particular people. In verse 6 the Psalmist makes specific reference to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. “He turned the sea (yam in Hebrew) into dry land; they passed through the waters (nahar in Hebrew) on foot….” “Sea” undoubtedly refers to the Red Sea, while “waters” might mean the Jordan River. So then the Psalmist is referring to that entire 40 year act of deliverance that began at the Red Sea and concluded with the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land.
James Luther Mays adds a fascinating spin. “Yam and Nahar are the names of the personalized cosmic powers whom the Canaanite god Baal overthrows in the ancient myth of Baal’s ascent to kingship over nature. The Psalmist draws on that myth to speak of the primal saving event in Israel’s story as the revelation of the Lord’s rule over the nations.” No wonder the Psalmist calls all the nations as well as Israel: “come, let us rejoice in him.”
But God has done more than that for Israel. In verses 8-12 the Psalmist speaks not of one mighty act of deliverance, but of an ongoing corrective relationship between God and his redeemed people. While we could read these verses as a reference to Israel’s Exile, they probably also refer to the whole time between the Exodus and the end of the Old Testament. Israel was redeemed, but hardly perfect. So God tested them in the way a metallurgist tests metal, to purify them. God put them through very tough times to bring their salvation to completion, so that they would become the Holy Nation he designed them to be.
Israel didn’t always (or often) understand that. They wondered why God had forsaken them. Here the Psalmist reminds them that even in their hardest times, God was active, like a loving parent disciplining a child (cf. Hebrews 12:4-6). And he points out that God had finally “brought us to a place of abundance.” So, he calls Israel to praise God even, and perhaps especially, for those times of discipline that they found so agonizing. God loves us just as we are, but in his love God won’t leave us just as we are. As Beth LaNeel Tanner puts it, “This section reminds us that the post-salvation road is not an easy one. Israel had to learn very hard lessons. This is not, nor will it ever be, ‘cheap grace’.”
So the Psalmist calls the congregation and the nations to make a joyful noise of praise to God, because of God’s involvement in Israel’s national affairs. God has performed macro-miracles for his people as a whole. Then in verses 13-20 the Psalmist turns to the micro-miracles God performs in the individual lives of his people. “When I was in trouble…, I cried out to him… and God heard my voice from heaven….” God doesn’t just work on a large international stage; he works on the tiny stage of my life. Praise God with me, “all you who fear the Lord” and “all the earth.”
The early church made a uniquely Christian application of this Psalm. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, it added to the superscription of Psalm 66 these words, “a Psalm of Resurrection.” As early as the first and second centuries, the church began to sing this Psalm at the Feast of the Resurrection in celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. That was partly because of the phrase at the end of verses 8-12, “but you brought us to a place of abundance.” That can be understood as a cryptic prophecy of resurrection. And the early church noticed that an important Hebrew word was used to describe God’s rescue of his people. It is the word yasha, from which Yeshua or “Yahweh saves” derives. All Christians will recognize that as the Hebrew name of Jesus.
To God’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus and from the Exile and God’s corrective dealing with his people in the time between those two acts of salvation, we Christians must add the most awesome deed of God on behalf of and among mankind. God heard the cries of his people and answered their prayers by becoming one of us, a human, a Son of Adam, and an Israelite, the Son of David. The Incarnation, the Atonement, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for us individually, for the people of God as a whole, and for the nations of the world—those are the awesome deeds of God that call the whole world to “make his praise glorious.”
Small, individual, particular historical actions can make a huge impact on world history, as this well worn proverbial poem explains.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Some scholars think that this little poem referred to the death of King Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field, immortalized in Shakespeare’s Richard III. You may recall the King famously shouting, “A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a horse!”
For want of a nail, the whole world would be lost. Praise God for his mighty, little acts!
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Author: Scott Hoezee
As Paul brings this landmark letter in for a landing, he says a whole lot of things quickly. The whole letter gets summed up in two main themes: First, we need to do our best to glorify God in how we live and in serving one another in love. Second, there is nothing to boast about except the cross of Christ alone. It’s all grace and after that it’s all gratitude. You can create good momentum in your life by sowing seeds that come from the Spirit of God or you can create disastrously bad momentum in your life by sowing self-indulgent seeds that are all about satisfying your fleshly desires. But God is not mocked: you can’t do one and expect the other. There is a moral fabric to the universe and it does not bend according to whatever is convenient for you.
This is a pretty hard line for a letter that, as noted in the previous sermon starter article on Galatians 5, was mostly all about grace alone and the need to bracket out completely our human deeds. If you want to talk about how we get saved, Paul does not want to hear a single syllable about human achievement. But if you want to talk about the post-salvation life of discipleship, Paul likewise does not want to hear a single syllable about libertinism or self-indulgent living. You have to go with the flow of the cosmos and that flow is a tidal wave of grace. Grace catches you up in the tremendous, paradoxical power of Christ’s cross and then carries you along forever. You won’t be the same person after grace washes over you as you were before—that’s impossible. A new creation has taken root in each of our hearts now and it will issue forth in all new living.
We will be the distinctive people of God that God desired all along—indeed, the kind of people for whom God created a delightful world of flourishing in the beginning. That is why a tiny phrase in verse 16 is so important: Paul refers to the church as “the Israel of God.” This is a teaching that is reflected all over the New Testament but rarely stated with such direct precision as here. The Church is now the New Israel.
Way back in Genesis 12 God called out to a childless senior citizen named Abram and promised to make him the father of a mighty nation. That curiously unlikely promise was then couched immediately in a context as wide as the universe: not only would Abram be the wellspring of a mighty people, that people would one day spread the blessing of God over the whole earth. All nations would be blessed, saved, and so be a part of God’s program.
Flash forward a few hundred years and the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—now known as Israel—actually exist. In Exodus 1 for the very first time in Scripture Israel is referred to by Pharaoh as a “nation.” God will lead that nation out of Egyptian slavery eventually, and after a time of chastising wandering, into a land of their own eventually. And then for a long time the focus is all Israel all the time. The people themselves routinely forgot that they existed as God’s beachhead to the wider world. The Book of Jonah is the Old Testament’s premiere case study in Israelite ethnocentrism as Jonah initially disobeys God’s call to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh on the odd chance they’d actually listen and God would actually save them. Jonah was a card-carrying member of the Israelite “Members Only” club and was not keen to have greasy Ninevites get admitted to the clubhouse. But God declared his love for those people—and even for their cows—and did save them as one of many Old Testament hints and whispers and reminders that Israel as a single nation was never God’s end game scenario.
It was always to be bigger and once Christ came and reached out to all people—and once Pentecost came and universalized the message to all nations—Israel did not cease to exist but came into a whole new form called the Church of Christ.
This is an important biblical-theological point for a myriad of reasons, not least that it clears up the perennial confusion regarding how to interpret various Bible passages in the light of the current-day nation of Israel founded in 1948. The fundamentalist insistence that something salvific is tied to this one nation and government blows past the fact that political Israel is nothing and only the spiritual Israel of God / the Church matters now in God’s economy of salvation. Yes, with Paul (pace Romans 9-11) we can continue to hope for the salvation of the Jews but that is a separate question from some country in the modern day Middle East.
Paul’s almost in-passing mention of “the Israel of God” is a nice reminder for us preachers—and to remind our congregations of as well, therefore—of something we sometimes forget: The Bible narratives just one story, one grand narrative. Reality is, to God’s mind, one big Story and each of our individual stories finds its place nestled inside that wider drama. My story and your story has meaning not intrinsically per se or in and of itself. Rather my story and your story takes on a deeper meaning when we see it as part of God’s narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.
God set up this creation to be a place of flourishing and delight. He meant for us to help each other (bear each other’s burdens) and minister to each other because in shalom no one worries about his or her own needs—they will be cared for by others even while we are ourselves busy doing that same thing. And because the whole thing went terribly wrong, God took the decisive steps needed to set it back to right again and although doing that took no less than the horrid public spectacle of God’s Son dying on a cross, salvation was accomplished. A new day did come. A New Israel was formed that now includes every race, every skin color, every background, language, gender, socio-economic status you could name.
The conclusion of a letter like Galatians might look ho-hum from the outside looking in. But seen from the right angle, these closing lines in Galatians tell the whole Story in ways deeply redolent of all the hope we have through Christ Jesus our Lord!
From his wonderfully fanciful sketch of Abraham from the book Peculiar Treasures (Harper and Row 1979 p. 4) here is Frederick Buechner:
“In spite of everything, Abraham never stopped having faith that God was going to keep his promise about making him the father of a great nation. Night after night it was the dream he rode to sleep on—the glittering cities, the up-to-date armies, the curly-bearded kings. There was a group photograph he had taken not long before he died. It was a bar mitzvah, and they were all there down to the last poor relation. They weren’t a great nation yet by a long shot, but you’d never know it from the way Abraham sits enthroned there in his velvet yarmulke with several great-grandchildren on his lap and soup on his tie. Even through his thick lenses, you can read the look of faith in his eyes, and more than all the kosher meals, the Ethical Cultural Societies, the shaved heads of the women, the achievements of Maimondies, Einstein, Kissinger, it was that look that God loved him for and had chosen him for in the first place. ‘They will all be winners, God willing. Even the losers will be winners. They’ll get their name up in lights,’ say the old man’s eyes. ‘Someday—who knows when?—I’ll be talking about my son, the Light of the world.’”