Children of Israel


Randall Tremba
December 2, 2012
First Sunday in Advent
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Luke 21:25-36
Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

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Whether you know it or not, we are children of Israel. No, that doesn’t make us citizens of Israel. Same name, but two entirely different situations. We are children of Israel spiritually; not politically.

Jesus himself was a child of Israel. And all Christian traditions, including Presbyterianism, have arisen from Jesus, a child of Israel.

That is to say: our roots go back through the one holy catholic apostolic church through Judaism and into a promise held in the heart of Abram and Sarah, the father and mother of Israel. It was a promise that someday they and their children would find a way to bless all nations and peoples of the whole earth. That possibility of being a blessing to all nations and peoples is at the heart of our tradition. To say we are children of Israel is to say we are children of a certain promise, of a certain longing, a hope that comes out of struggle.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and that one shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

The days are coming.

This morning I’d like to highlight three stories from ancient Israel that are formative to the promise of which we are the children.

Here’s the first. According to the Great Ancestors, God spoke to Abraham some 4,000 years ago. God spoke to Abraham. Even though God gets the credit, if you know a few things about Abraham’s wife Sarah you can guess it was she who spoke to Abram and said: Abraham, there’s got to be another way to live on this earth with all these many tribes and peoples. Cutting each other’s throats just isn’t right.

According to the tale in Genesis, Sarah and Abram left their kindred, their clan in Mesopotamia to search for a new way of being in the world, a way that would bless all families and tribes. Our Christian roots are in that ancient mythic story. Sarah, Abram along with Hagar (the legendary mother of Muslims) were on a quest for a beloved community, a community that blesses all people. And to this day, that quest is foundational to who we are and what we aspire to be.

O come, o come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.

Like the children of Israel we too mourn in lonely exile, away from home, longing for light, longing for freedom, longing for justice and peace, longing for a new day.

And so we journey by faith, by trust in a power greater than ourselves. As the gospel lesson for today puts it: when the world is falling apart all around you—not just the geo-political worlds, but also your own small, personal world—be on guard, be alert, for something is aborning in the darkness. Joyful is the dark. A new day is coming.

The days are surely coming, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel. I will. I promise.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is the first story. The second story of Israel that forms the promise within us is the story about the twins, also in Genesis. Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac married Rebecca, a woman of Mesopotamia. She gave birth to twins.

Esau was born first by a minute. He was not only first but also strong like a warrior and thus favored over the slightly younger, weaker Jacob. It was a favoritism based on the accidents of birth, typical of tribal societies.  Come to think of it, it’s typical, common, and universal of all societies. None of us are born into a world of equal conditions, circumstances and opportunities. Some are always favored over others.

Some people accept that as the way it is. Others see it and ask why. Why should it be that way?

Rebecca did not accept it.

Rebecca planted a seed of justice in Jacob’s heart. Just because you’re second-class, or marginalized by custom or culture or law, doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. You can make a name for yourself. You don’t have to be defined by others. You can protect yourself by being smart. Violence is powerful, my child. But it’s not the most powerful thing on earth. You’ll see, my child. You’ll see.

Now to be sure, Jacob was unsavory in many respects. But if we’re waiting for perfection to save us, forget it. It ain’t gonna happen.

It took a while but Jacob would eventually find a way to turn his bother Esau’s violent hatred into friendship. As the story goes, along the way to meet his estranged brother Esau, Jacob wrestled with something. He grappled and struggled all through the night with some force within him that he wouldn’t let go until he got a blessing out of it.

Jacob was thereafter named Isra-el, which means, “one who struggles or wrestles” with “el.” El, in Hebrew means god. You can hear it at the end of other Hebrew names: Gabriel, Raphael, Nathanael and so on. And if “God” is love as we say, what is it that we struggle with day and night?

Jacob became Israel, father of 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel.

Those tribes wandered here and there, camped here and there, one thing led to another and just like that the tribes of Israel, also called the Hebrews, ended up in Egypt as refugees and then slaves for hundreds of years under Pharaoh’s brutal oppression. The Hebrew slaves multiplied. Their birthrate soared. The ruling class panicked, felt threatened and ordered Hebrew male babies killed.

And then along came baby Moses. And this is the third story that forms the promise within our tradition and our hearts.

Moses’ mother and sister cleverly outwitted violence to save Moses. And surprise, surprise he was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and just like that he became a prince of Egypt living in luxury and privilege, not unlike the way some of us have lucked out, winning the birth lottery with a buckets full of privileges. And if that is so, if we have privilege like few others, how then shall we live?

At night before bedtime Moses’ mother told him stories of the great Hebrew ancestors that the royal tutors, the guardians of the status quo, never told in the daytime.

One day young Moses saw a guard beating a Hebrew slave, you know, the way certain people today are beaten down by sticks or words or laws. And if you see such things, what are you going to do?

Moses flew into a rage, killed the guard and ran away as fast as he could. He lived in the Sinai wilderness in exile, far from home, for 40 years not unlike Nelson Mandela in prison on Robbie Island.

Though his people were out of sight, they were not out of mind. A longing to set his people free from oppression just kept burning and burning in his heart. It was a fire that would not burn out. Moses had the rage. He lacked a plan.

One day he heard a voice in the blazing fire. Moses, Moses, Moses. Moses, I have heard my people crying in the night. Go and set them free and I will be with you. I will. I promise. That’s my name and you can count on it. As it turns out, it’s a name not unlike Emmanuel. Manual. Hand. El, god. God at hand. God nearby. Emmanuel.

And so in the power of that promise Moses stood up to the mighty Pharaoh. Let my people go.

Until that Moses moment, historically people assumed that the gods favored the powerful and the status quo. And then just like that, something new arose in human consciousness—a sense of righteousness, fairness and justice. The God of nature, the maker of heaven and earth, was also the God of history, the God of peoples and nations. Apparently, the line between human and divine, between spirit and matter, is very thin.

That vision of justice, of a new day dawning for the poor and oppressed passed on from one generation to the next. It was often neglected, even perverted, but it was never lost. It flowered in the prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah. It found its way into laws, poetry, parables, dreams and songs. It’s a story that still goes on.

Sarah passed it to Rebecca who passed it to her children who passed it to their children who passed it to Hannah who passed it to Ruth and on through generation after generation until it reached Mary who sang that ancient hope to Jesus who lay upon her breast.

There’s got to be another way, my child, to live on this earth with all these many tribes and peoples. Cutting each other’s throats, stabbing each other in the back and bombing each other’s cities just isn’t right. Violence only breeds violence. The Holy One of Israel will show you the way, my child. I believe it in my bones. And when the Holy One calls, my child, listen, listen, listen. Listen with all your heart.

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HYMN “Here I Am Lord”