The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 19, 2020, Tim O’Leary, Seminarian
Sermon preached by Tim O’Leary, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday after Epiphany
The consistent theme throughout all three readings today is calling. I want to talk about the calling of Israel, God’s chosen people. By Israel, I do not mean the church; I mean the Jews, the Jewish people. I mean that nation with ancient Near Eastern origins which continues to flourish today; which was established millennia ago through God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. We need to come to terms with this fact: without Israel, without the Jewish people, there is no such thing as the church; there is no such thing as Christianity; there is no such person as Jesus Christ. Without understanding the calling of the Jewish people, the church will never understand its own calling. As outsiders to the nation Israel, we have been invited by Christ into the story of God and Israel. We do not deserve to participate in this story; but God has mysteriously and generously invited us in. This means that we need to attend very carefully to Israel’s story and calling. Today I want to talk about Israel’s calling and how it relates to the church’s calling. Then, I want to suggest two practices we can take up today that will help us understand Israel’s calling, and therefore our own calling, more deeply.
In the passage from Isaiah, we hear that God has called Israel to a special task: to glorify God. This calling was determined by God before Israel emerged as a unified people. Israel’s calling is to recall itself to a loving relationship with its God. This is the function of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible: they point out how Israel has wandered from its loving relationship with God and how it can restore and re-kindle this loving relationship.
But God gives Israel an additional calling, an even harder one: Israel’s loving relationship with God must not be for itself alone, but also for “the nations” – that means, the Gentiles, all the non-Jews of the world. Israel is called to make the Lord known to all those who live outside the nation of Israel. Only this particular people, from this particular place and time, can show the world its Creator and Redeemer. The Jewish people are called to be a “light to the nations,” to spread the knowledge of God so that God’s salvation may be generously extended beyond the Jewish people. And this is key: this salvation is a generous, unprompted and wholly undeserved extension of the salvation that God had always promised to the Jewish people.
Isaiah says that God’s extension of salvation to the non-Jews of the world will dramatically change the nations’ relationship with Israel. The Jewish people, despised, abhorred, gassed-to-death and burned in ovens by the nations of the world; the Jewish people, the slaves of those in power, will finally be seen as the royal people they truly are. The nations will bow down before them and alongside them, before God. But note: they are royal not because of any inherent virtue, but because they have been called and chosen by God to love God.
Now you might be wondering: what does the story of the Jewish people have to do with us, with Christians, with the church? Well, the simple answer is that we, the non-Jews, the non-chosen ones, have been graciously welcomed into this story of God and Israel. We have done nothing to deserve this welcome. We are not a “new Israel”; we have not replaced an “Old Israel.” No, we are blessed because we’ve been invited into the one and only Israel that always was and always shall be. To use Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree, which he uses in the letter to the Romans, we, the Gentiles, have been grafted onto the olive tree of Israel. We are not naturally growing branches; the Jewish people are the natural branches, and also the root. We are artificial branches, peripheral to the main story; we do not sustain the tree, the root does. So without the root, without the Jewish people, we the Gentiles, we the Church, are cut off from the tree, cut off from God.
Where does Jesus fit into all this? Jesus is, to stick with Paul’s imagery, the farmer who grafts us onto the tree; Jesus is the one who welcomes us into God’s story with Israel. But how?
In John’s Gospel today, John the Baptist is described as the one who points to Jesus; he points out who Jesus is. But here is the tough question: to whom is he pointing out Jesus? According to today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist’s mission of baptizing and calling people to repentance has a single purpose: that Jesus will be revealed to Israel. To Israel – that’s the key phrase. John was baptizing in the wilderness in order to prepare Israel for the arrival of Jesus. The conclusion is unavoidable: Israel is the intended audience of Jesus’s message and the primary object of Jesus’ mission.
So where does this leave us, those who do not belong to the nation Israel? Are we excluded from Jesus’ message and his mission? Remember what Isaiah says: Israel will be a light to the nations. Israel was always called to make God known to the whole world. We are not excluded. Jesus’ message and mission, although it is emphatically and primarily addressed to Israel, to the Jewish nation, is not exclusively addressed to them. Gentiles, by the grace of God, are invited to join the conversation, to begin to envision themselves as part of this story of God and Israel. This was always God’s plan for Israel – to invite the nations into a loving relationship with God through God’s chosen servant – the Jewish people.
But there’s a catch, and it’s a big one: it is only by joining this particular story, this conversation between God and Israel that we non-Jews can see Jesus and know who he is. Only if we first become disciples of John the Baptist, a Jewish prophet – only then can we enter into relationship with Jesus. God’s relationship with Israel has been going on since the beginning of time and especially since God’s interactions with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This story includes the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; the Kingship of David; the Exile to Babylon and return to Jerusalem; the message of the prophets. Jesus is the climax of a long and complex story, a long and complex relationship which Israel has with God. We, the Gentiles, are just entering into this story at the climactic moment of this relationship. We don’t know the characters or the plot. We are tuning in to a conversation that has been going on for a long, long time.
Here’s a metaphor for our experience. It’s like we are a group of tourists who have stumbled in to a wedding party in a small village in a foreign country, at the climactic moment when the bride and groom are about to enter the party. We don’t know anyone at the party, we don’t speak their language; but everyone at the party has known everyone else since they were children. They all know their ancestral stories, their history; they know each other’s flaws, pains, triumphs, personalities. And the bride and groom know everyone as well, because this is their community too. Everyone is there to rejoice with the bride and groom, to fulfill the community’s deepest longing to see love blossom, flourish and last. We – the tourists – want to have a personal relationship with the bride and groom. But we don’t yet know anything about the community. Before we can meet the bride and groom, we need to talk to everyone else, we need to learn about this community’s history, its pain, joy, and fear. We can’t understand the bride and groom at all without learning about the community of the bride and groom.
In this metaphor, we – the non-Jews – are the tourists. Israel, the Jewish people, is the community of the bride and groom. Jesus Christ is both the bride and the groom.
Regarding our readings for today, I want to suggest that John the Baptist is a symbol for the Hebrew Bible and for the Jewish people. We the Gentiles, can only see Jesus for who he is if we first become disciples of John the Baptist. Only if we immerse ourselves in the history, the beliefs, the story of God and Israel which is revealed in the Hebrew Bible – only then, can we have the slightest chance of getting to know Jesus – the bride and groom.
Finally, I want to propose two crucial practices we need to take up if we want to see who Jesus really is and who we really are as his followers. The first is that we need to immerse ourselves in the story of God and Israel which is told in the Hebrew Bible. This is the only way we can begin to understand the story of Jesus, which is the climax of God’s story with Israel. That’s the first practice. The second is just as crucial. It’s not enough to know the history of the Jewish nation up until Jesus’s time and no further. We need to know the entire history of the Jewish nation up to today. We need to know what’s going on in the Jewish community in our own neighborhood. Remember, they are the root, they are the natural branches. If we, the church, fail to know them, to know their struggles, beliefs and joys, then we risk withering, drying up and falling off the tree. If a branch is disconnected from the root, it dies.
Reading the Hebrew Scriptures and engaging in dialogue with our Jewish neighbors – two essential practices we need in order to see Jesus. If this seems intimidating, start small: read the story of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2; then learn one interesting thing about a Jewish holiday from a practicing Jewish friend. Without such attention to God’s story with Israel, we will never see the light of Israel; we will never understand God’s story in Christ, God’s story with us.