Psalm 81, Jeremiah 22: 10 – 30 and Romans 11 25 -36
O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! Psalm 81: 13
O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord! Jeremiah 22: 29
So that you not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel shall be saved …. Romans 11: 25 and 26a
One of the disciplines of following a lectionary is that we are compelled to face up to some difficult topics. I mentioned last week that as we approach the end of the Church Year our readings take on an apocalyptic tone, thinking about the last days and judgement. Today’s readings tackle a major ‘mystery’ head on. Paul speaks of a hardening of heart among those of God’s chosen people, the Jews. Many, including some of the priests and religious teachers in Jerusalem, had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah following the Resurrection. The majority, however, had failed to recognise Jesus, despite the signs and wonders he had performed, the words he had spoken, and most importantly, his death on the cross. This apparent failure to establish God’s kingdom on earth and push back against the occupying Romans was clearly a stumbling block to belief. Jesus was not the Messiah many of them had conceived, ignoring the prophecies like Isaiah 53 that clearly pointed to the rejection and suffering the Messiah must undergo in order to bring about the redemption they were seeking.
The latter part of Psalm 81 captures the earlier lament of God for the stony hearts of His people, who time and time again went their own way in rebellion and sin. How different things would have been if only Israel had walked in God’s ways; then she would have had victory and blessings instead of defeat and misery.
This defeat and misery emerges in the reading from Jeremiah 22. The glory days of the reigns of David and Solomon had passed. Judah had split away from Israel, and now exile in Babylon was the fate of King Coniah (or Jeconiah or Jehoiachin) and the higher echelons of society (verse 24 on). The earlier part of the reading refers to King Shallum, who was deported to Egypt and King Jehoiakim, who used forced labour to build his palace at a time when the nation was paying tribute money to Egypt. All three kings were condemned for their godlessness and rebellion.
Returning to the ‘mystery’ Paul speaks of in Romans 11: 25, this continues to be hard for us to understand. Through the mercy of God, the door has been opened to the Gentile races to find the same salvation that was originally promised to Abraham. Abraham was promised that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed, and with the coming of Jesus this blessing became possible for repentant Gentiles, expanding the promise beyond Jews alone. The centuries of animal sacrifice for sins came to an end with the full and final sacrifice of the life of Jesus (Hebrews 5: 9 – 10; 10: 11 – 18). Through succeeding generations that revelation has continued, and many millions have been gathered into God’s kingdom. Paul explains that this opportunity will continue until God’s appointed day, and then he goes on to describe some of the hostility felt between Jews and Christians, which the Roman Christians experienced first-hand. Sadly, this antipathy has flared up from time to time in history, sometimes on specious religious grounds, where humans have taken it upon themselves to judge others. On one hand has been the historic Christian backlash against those seen to have crucified the Son of God (Matthew 27: 25 and Acts 3: 10) – although we recognise this was all part of God’s plan for salvation to become available to all. On the other hand, we have seen the evils of anti-Semitism on racial grounds (Nazism), or religious/political hatred (much relating to the existence of the State of Israel, the idea of Zionism and the fate of the Palestinians).
Through all the ugliness of sin that has characterised so much of human behaviour (some sadly dressed up in Christian guise), we need to hold fast to God’s promises and trust His intentions for the human race. In some way that we cannot understand (and to the extent of which theologians disagree), God will exercise mercy on Israel and gather in a harvest of Jewish souls, based on the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We cannot understand the mind of God, but praise Him for His all-embracing love. He does not want anyone to suffer eternal judgement, but that all might be saved (John 3: 16, 17). Only God knows how many will remain hard of heart and how many will repent, and only God knows when the door of mercy will finally be closed.