What About Israel?

As Christians, we often wonder about our relationship with Jews.  Oh and if you didn’t notice, Israel is in the news quite a bit these days.  So, what about Israel, anyways?


8th Sunday after Pentecost – August 3, 2014

Romans 9:1-5, Isaiah 55:1-5 – Pastor Evan Davis

8th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) – Sunday, August 3, 2014 – Romans 9:1-5, Isaiah 55:1-5

St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia

What About Israel?” – Pastor Evan Davis

Paul’s anguish

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” Paul’s own people, the people of Israel, had a long history with God. How could it end like this?

Paul wasn’t talking about the ongoing political and military struggle between Rome and certain Jewish rebels over who would control the Holy Land. He wrote this letter somewhere between 55-58 AD , and in less than 15 years Jerusalem would be burned to the ground by Roman armies. Then and now, Jerusalem, which means “city of peace,” was anything but.

You may have many thoughts about the current conflict in Israel and Palestine, and since we’re talking about Israel today, I thought I’d acknowledge them. But Paul’s great sorrow and unceasing anguish weren’t about politics or armies. Because, as Paul knew, for God, Israel was never defined by a Jewish king on the throne. I think Paul would be heartbroken about the plight of the people there, but he wouldn’t be too theologically concerned about today’s political crisis in Israel, which is nothing more than a tragic cycle of fear, violence, and revenge, all in the name of planting a flag in the ground and establishing an fleeting sense of security. While Israelis reel from terror and rocket attacks, the Palestinians live as captives in their own neighborhoods – their lives defined by Israeli rules, walls, and bombs. Despite how often his name is invoked, this conflict has nothing to do with God and everything to do with human fear and lust for power.

story of Israel – promise and call

You see, Israel was never about a kingdom. It was and is about a promise and a call. Israel is about God choosing a man named Abraham and saying to him, “go to the land I will show you…I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3). But that promise – to be God’s blessed and chosen people – and the call that came with it – to be a blessing to all the families of the earth – was never easy. Abraham’s descendents were human beings, and they acted as human as anyone else. After all, Abraham’s grandson Jacob, the great trickster and usurper of his older brother’s inheritance, received the name Israel after an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious figure that turned out to be the very presence of God. And after that all-night bout when his hip was knocked out of place, the God-figure gives Jacob a new name – Israel, meaning “the one who strives with God.” And that’s who Israel would be – the people who strive, who wrestle back and forth with God. The history of Israel is a ten-round tussle – here are some of the highlights: Jacob’s sons beat their brother Joseph, left him for dead, and let him be sold into slavery, but God used that as a means to save them from famine and multiply their numbers. Moses was a murderer who didn’t like to stand up in front of people, but God used him to lead Israel into freedom and the promised land. The liberated Israelites were whiny, fearful, and ungrateful, but God gave them daily manna and taught them faith and trust. The newly settled Israelites had the promised land, were called to be different and live by a divine law, but they just had to have a king so they could be like the other nations. God warned them that kings would take their money and their sons for his armies (1 Sam 8), but gave in and raised up Saul and then David. David turned out to be a murderer and adulterer himself, but God exalted his bloodline and allowed his son Solomon to build the Temple. The people had been given everything, but then they started worshiping other gods and allowed some to become rich and some to be poor, neglecting the widow and orphan. But still God did not give up – God sent them prophets to guide them back to the torah. They tried to fight wars with the major powers of the day and were conquered and sent into exile, but God used Ezekiel, Daniel, and Esther to maintain the faith while they were exiled in Babylon. God used Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. God maintained Israel through occupation by the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. Israel had wrestled back and forth with God for a thousand years, through ups and downs, and every time they failed, and they always did, God. was. faithful. The entire Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is the tale of God keeping the story, the relationship, the promise going when it was dead-to-rights. Why? Because God always keeps God’s promises. It is the nature of God to be faithful. Because God has a purpose for them – Israel is to bless the world and to reveal the Creator to the creation.

So Paul could say in his letter “to them [his Jewish kindred] belong [present tense!1] the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, [and] the promises; [and] the patriarchs.”

Paul needed to remind the Church of that because after all that history, the strangest, most unexpected thing happened. God decided to finally deliver on all the promises – that Israel would bless the world, that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars, that the dividing line between Jew and Gentile would melt away and as we heard from Isaiah this morning, “nations that do not know you shall run to you.” God did all that not with a Jewish king, not with the greatness of the Temple, but by the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, a poor Jewish teacher from a one-horse (one-camel) town called Nazareth. And before long, those foreign nations did start running to the synagogue, to the call of the church, the ekklesia, those called-out Jews who witnessed to the resurrection and the lordship of Jesus Christ. When the Gentiles, you and me, were finally added as beneficiaries of the promises, nobody expected that in the process of welcoming the guests they’d lose the hosts. Nobody expected that Abraham’s new Gentile offspring, in becoming a blessing to all the nations of the world in such a previously unfathomable way, would thereby cut ties with most of Abraham’s literal descendants.

By the time Paul wrote this letter, it was becoming clear, to his total shock, that the majority of Jews would not accept the Christian gospel.2 Nobody expected this. This was when God was going to unite them! Here is Paul’s sorrow and anguish. But it’s not as if “Christian Paul” is looking at a bunch of Jews and asking, “what’s wrong with them?”3 No, Paul the Jew who had been stopped on the road to Damascus by the Christ whose followers he’d previously persecuted, Paul who’d just written eight chapters of a letter preaching that salvation in Christ was a total gift for sinners like himself was in crisis because God promised to bless Israel. God promised that God would be their God, and they would be God’s people. No matter what. So what was going on? What was God doing?

and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah

This part of the letter is ultimately not about Israel at all. This is about God. This is about what kind of God we have. It’s about whether the God who has made promise after promise after promise can be trusted. Because if God can just ditch God’s promises to his chosen covenant people, people he’s birthed and loved and blessed and wrestled with through the good times and the bad, if God can just revoke his promise to THEM, then what have we got to trust in?

We Gentile sinners are hanging by the thread of God’s promise. As Luther said, we’re beggars who simply hold out our hands for a piece of bread. The people of Israel may not be anything more than beggars themselves. They too have been sustained by the sheer grace of God. But beggars sure can’t tell other beggars they definitely won’t ever eat again just because they’re not in the same bread line as us right now, especially when the host of the meal has promised they will be fed.

In the end, Paul would rather lose his own salvation, than see his Jewish kindred lose theirs. Paul reminds us today that “from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all.” “The Son of God comes in Jewish flesh.”4

Paul says later on in the letter “but if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (11:17-18). We share the life that comes from the root, we do not take it only for ourselves.5 We may not understand how we can have the final fulfillment of all things in Christ, and how the people of Israel do not understand Christ the same way, but we are merely the wild shoot grafted onto the tree, and we’ve got nothing over the natural branches. If God is faithful at all, to them belong the promises, now and forever.

We can say only this – thanks be to God that we have been welcomed into the family of Abraham, into the people who strive with God. And no matter how many twists and turns our story takes, no matter how many rounds we go with God, God will be faithful to us. Amen.

1Matt Skinner, Commentary on Romans 9:1-5, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=953 (accessed August 2, 2014).