1st in Lent
February 18 2018
Genesis 15.1-6, 18-19; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Peter 2.4-10; Mark 1.9-15
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland: St Andrew’s Galilee
“The God of Abraham praise.”
But how, exactly, are we to do that?
It was probably in 1770 that Thomas Olivers wrote The God of Abraham Praise, immediately after he heard Meyer Lyon, a chorister in the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, London, sing the Yigdal, the Jewish confession of faith, composed by Daniel ben Judah Dayan in 1404.
Olivers showed his new hymn to a friend, saying “Look at this – I have rendered it from the Hebrew, giving it as far as I could a Christian character, and I have called on Leoni the Jew who has given me a synagogue melody to suit it.”
Few Christian hymns are as biblical as this, for almost every line contains an allusion to Scripture. It’s instructive, however, to compare Olivers’ text with the Hebrew original. The Yigdal makes no mention of Abraham. Instead, it focuses on Moses and the Torah, the Jewish law.
“Exalted be the living God and praised… Behold! He is master of the universe… He granted his flow of prophecy – to his treasured, splendid people. In Israel, none like Moses arose again… God gave His people a Torah of truth… God will never amend nor exchange his law – for any other one, for all eternity. By the end of days he will send our messiah – to redeem those longing for his final salvation.”
Olivers’ text is thoroughly biblical, but it’s also thoroughly Christianized. That is scarcely surprising, for Christians and Jews read our bibles differently. And sometimes the Jewish reading seems the more obvious and straightforward.
Take our Genesis text this evening.
God promises Abraham that he will have a son, and that his offspring will be as uncountable as the stars. It seems natural to assume that the text is talking about the Jewish people.
God also promises Abraham a gift of land. The extent of the land promised varies widely throughout the Old Testament. We should be grateful, perhaps, that today’s religious Zionists confine themselves modestly to claiming the whole of mandate Palestine, between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean.
That is, we may think, the natural reading of the text: God’s chosen people are the Jews, and the promised land is the land of Israel, however much doubt there may be as to its extent.
But that is not how Paul reads the text. For Paul, Abraham is the second most significant figure in the history of God’s salvation, second only to Jesus the messiah. The descendants of Abraham are not just Jews, but also gentiles: they are us. And the land promised by God is not one corner of the earth: it is the whole inhabited earth.
For Paul, after his strange experience on the road to Damascus, Jesus of Nazareth is the messiah promised by God. He’s not at all the messiah many people expected – Paul himself included. He doesn’t triumph over evil by trampling down the evil-doers. Instead, he takes the world’s evil upon himself and goes trustingly to his death at the hands of Romans and Jews who, if we look carefully enough, are very like us.
In this paradoxical way, he does indeed triumph over evil – by reversing it, by returning good for evil, love for hatred.
But if Jesus is indeed the messiah, this means that “the end of days” does not lie in some distant future. It begins now. It begins with Good Friday, and Easter, and Pentecost. And part of what this means that salvation is no longer for Jews only but is finally extended to everyone – Jews and gentiles alike.
This is why Paul insists so vehemently that gentiles who respond to his preaching need not – indeed, must not – become Jews. For that would mean that salvation was still for Jews only, and not for all God’s peoples.
Paul himself was a Jew, as were most of those in the first generation who preached the good news. But fast forward a century or so, and we find a Christian church that has now become almost entirely gentile; and this gentile church, reading Paul, thoroughly misreads him.
Paul insists that God in offering salvation to the gentiles has not given up on the Jews – not even on those Jews who are not followers of Jesus. In Romans 9, Paul even says that he would willingly give up his life in Christ for the sake of his own people.
But a gentile church, only a little later, sees itself as a third race, neither pagan nor Jewish. It competes with the Jews for the promises of God. When Paul writes about branches being broken in the olive tree that is God’s chosen people and wild branches being grafted in (Rom 11.16-24), the gentile church reads this as meaning that God has rejected and excluded those Jews who do not believe in Jesus.
Similarly, the gentile church reads our passage from First Peter as meaning that the Jews who do not believe in Jesus are no longer a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. They are no longer the people of God.
Christians and Jews are now like Rebecca’s children – Jacob and Esau quarrelling over their inheritance. And so begins the conflict between church and synagogue that has had disastrous consequences right down to our own times.
The holocaust was a wake-up call for many Christians. They asked how something like this could happen at the heart of Europe, and they looked at their own history, and they did not like what they saw. They went back to their Bibles to ask with fresh eyes how we are to understand chosen people and promised land. This evening I want in my own way to do the same.
Why does God choose Abraham? At the beginning of Abraham’s story we read that God chose him and his descendants to be a blessing for all the peoples of the earth (Gen 12.2-3); and six chapters later, we read that God chose him “so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18.18-19).
As part of this choice, God promises Abraham land. The promise to Abraham therefore addressed the most basic problem of the human race, the problem of finding a home.”
But here is where sin enters in. Our libraries bulge with the narratives of territorial conquest in every age and on every continent and island on earth. Much of human history assumes that we acquire and maintain territory by force and violence, conquest and military defence.
That is not what Abraham does. He lives peacefully with his neighbours in the land. He shares the land with them. When Sarah his wife dies at a ripe old age, Ephron the Hittite offers him a plot of land to bury her – the field and the cave of Machpelah that is in it; but Abraham insists on paying for the plot (Gen 23.1-20).
Christians and Jews have not been very good at getting the point: read the book of Joshua or the history of the crusades, or the more recent history of colonial and imperial adventures. Or consider the irony that the cave of Machpelah in the heart of Hebron is today one of the most controverted places in this land.
But we can say that God chooses Abraham and later sends us his Son to show us an alternative to fallen humanity’s way of acquiring and possessing territory by force, to show us a new way of living with land, a way in which land is not to be conquered but shared.
What then should we say? Jews and Christians alike are stuck with the notion of a chosen people. Reject it, and we may as well throw away our Bibles.
But Jews, if I may say so, should not claim to be a light to the gentiles, especially when behaving badly towards their gentile neighbours. They should simply get on with being a light to the gentiles, by doing what is just and right. And Christians should waste no time claiming to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We should make no claims at all – at least, none for ourselves. We just simply get on with being light and salt.
As for this promised land, whatever it may have been in the day of Abraham or David or Jesus of Nazareth, it is today a land of two peoples and three faiths. We need today to cast aside all idle arguments and figure out how best it may be shared.
That, I want to say, is how we praise the God of Abraham.
The God of Abraham praise (CH4 162)
Lord, teach me all your ways (CH4 21 i)
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy (CH4 187)
Lord, you have come to the seashore (CH4 532)
Be thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart (CH4 465)
 Our opening hymn
 See James Moffatt and Millar Patrick, Handbook to the Church Hymnary (OUP, 1935) or John M Barkley, Handbook to the Church Hymnary Third Edition (OUP, 1979). “Leoni” is Meyer Lyon.
 Marlin Jeschke, Rethinking Holy Land. A Study in Salvation Geography (Herald Press, 2005), 29.
 Jeschke, 33.
 See Jeschke, 20-21.