The God of Israel


Randall Tremba
 November 25, 2012
Christ the King/Reign of Love Sunday
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

2 Samuel 23:1-7
The God of Israel has spoken.

John 18:33-37
Jesus answered Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

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This past week while reading the appointed lessons for today, I was glued to the news from the Middle East. I had one eye on the Bible and the other on the Israelis and Palestinians raining rockets and bombs down upon each other until a ceasefire was established.

In case you hadn’t heard, this sort of tit-for-tat has been going on over there for 64 years. It’s been eye for eye, tooth for tooth and often 10 to one. In this last round 140 Palestinians were killed and five Israelis. (And before you get too judgmental consider how long some of your grudges have been running and how many verbal bombs you hurl at people you dislike.)

Anyway, back to the Middle East. It’s been tit for tat over there ever since the Arab League of Nations attacked the state of Israel on the day of its United Nation’s mandated birth May 15, 1948. The idea at the time was for two states; it never happened. But where there’s prayer there’s always hope. And where there is great love there are always miracles.

Since 1948 Israel has been on military alert against neighboring states, many of which advocate its complete and utter annihilation. Consequently, Israel has created the most powerful military in the Middle East and the most powerful lobby in Washington. Israel is sometimes called the “51st state” because in the halls of Congress it’s virtually impossible to oppose, let alone cut, the billions and billions and billions of dollars sent to Israel every year.

For two thousand years in Christian lore “Israel” was a quaint symbol of a homeless, downtrodden people longing for light in the darkness, longing for exodus from oppression, longing for a way home, longing for Emmanuel. “O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.”

Over a long period time, many centuries at least, the warrior God of Israel evolved into a God of tender mercies and steadfast love. And then in the 20th century, this Israel of biblical lore became the name of a modern nation state with nuclear weapons.

For many Jews, after the holocaust, the tenderhearted God of Israel could be trusted no longer. Only guns and bombs could be trusted to protect them. Who could blame them?

Israel is no longer the 12 wandering tribes we heard about in Sunday School. It is no longer little David with a slingshot up against Goliath. Israel is now Goliath. Palestinians can’t drive from point A to point B in the West Bank without Israel’s permission. What Israel wants, Israel takes. Houses, farms, orchards.

What happened to the God of Israel, the God who cares for the oppressed and sets captives free?

For 15 or so years the opening proclamation of our Sunday morning service included “the Holy One of Israel.” Every Sunday we proclaimed our trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.

I for one never thought that the “Israel” in that statement was the same as the “state of Israel.” But, lo and behold, some of you heard it that way and thought we were making a partisan political statement in our worship service every Sunday. It appeared as though we were in the same camp as those evangelical churches that host pro-Israel rallies and urge the President and Congress to give unlimited financial and moral support because, according to the Bible, God favors Israel above all other nations.

That’s one way to read the Bible. But it’s not the only way.

It’s not the way I or many other Presbyterians see it. As far as we can tell, Israel has no monopoly on God, and certainly not on the “triune God.” In fact, the inference that the “triune God is the Holy One of Israel” would be offensive to Jews. So last summer the Session (our church council) decided to drop “the Holy One of Israel” from our opening proclamation because it was misleading to say the least. It did more harm than good.

You see, the state of Israel doesn’t get a pass just because it claims to be chosen or exceptional. Nor does America get a pass just because the pilgrims claimed themselves to be “The New Israel” which turned the Indians into the Canaanites and Palestinians standing in the way of Joshua and old Israel. This land is your land, said the LORD God of Israel. Destroy them all. And so they did.

The state of Israel doesn’t get a pass; nor does the United States of America get a pass for being chosen or exceptional. Israel like all other states must be judged by the same standard as other nations: kindness, justice, and humility. That, as one of the prophets of Israel put it, is what the Holy One requires of all peoples and nations. No exceptions. And true to their prophets many Jews and Israelis today courageously and boldly oppose Israel’s occupation, racism, and militarism.

All nations, said Jesus—who, by the way, was a child of Israel and prophet of Israel—shall be judged on the basis of love—how they treat the poor, the hungry, the sick and the prisoners. (Matthew 25). That is to say, it’s about peace not war. It’s about healing, not fighting. It’s about building, not destroying. It’s about sharing, not stealing. It’s about love, not hate.

My kingdom is not from this world, Jesus said to Pilate who was a puppet of the vicious and violent occupying Roman Empire. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting, fighting to keep me from being handed over. But my kingdom is not from here, it’s not like yours. Which is to say, it is not built on the premises of violence, greed and fear; it is built on the promises of love, healing and justice.

The Beloved’s kingdom, you see, is not a “king-dom” after all. For one thing, male domination and hierarchy have no place in it. This kingdom is not a place but a way. It’s a certain way of being in this world, of being in love with all, including one’s enemies.

So maybe, just maybe the people of Israel and the people of Palestine will one day discover that the God of Israel and the God of Palestine is the same God. One God. One people. One heart. One love—even if they happen to live side by side in two different states.

As it turns out, love, like God, is not the monopoly of any one religion or ethical system. The Golden Rule is everywhere. The rule of compassion is universal. Love shall reign forever and ever.