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"Israel then and now in the purposes of God"

"Israel then and now in the purposes of God"

By Canon Dr Chris Sugden
Dec 3, 2023

Isaiah 5 1-7 and 11 1-5 and Mark 12 1-11

Our readings today (at St Andrew's Dean Court, Oxford) were set some time ago but are very relevant to what we are seeing and hearing on the news everyday about the lands where the events of the Bible took place.

We all know what the current situation is and what the aims of both sides in the current middle east war are. Hamas, the radical Palestinian Government of Gaza want to get rid of the State of Israel completely, The Prime Minister of Israel wants to wipe out Hamas completely in order to ensure the state of Israel's security.

There are Christians in Israel -- I have been to Christ Church Jerusalem the vicar David Pileggi is a valued friend. They are working to provide war relief to those affected by the crisis. The Churches Mission to the Jews have also opened up its guesthouses to provide food and lodging for families who cannot return to their homes or want to get out of conflict areas.

And there are Palestinian Christians. They have recently issued a letter, signed by 16,000 people which speaks of the Israeli occupation of Palestine -- referring to the fact that contrary to the so-called Oslo Accords of 30 years ago, there have been illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank which is properly a Palestinian territory.

How do our lessons today help us understand this situation?

Isaiah writes of a vineyard, that belonged to a loving person. "My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside." This owner dug the ground and cleared away the stones. He planted it with good vines and protected it with a watchtower. He provided a winepress to process the grapes that he hoped would come.

This clearly refers to the people of God. Jesus in the parable in Mark chapter 12 uses almost the same language. He speaks of the owner of the vineyard planting it, digging a pit for the winepress and providing a watchtower.

The vineyard clearly refers to the people of Israel. Mark tells us that when the Jewish leaders heard this parable they 'looked for a way to arrest Jesus because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.'

So what is the Bible telling us? It is telling us that God called Abraham to undo the sin of Adam and its effects. God had commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and care for the garden of Eden. God's promise to Abraham, even though he and Sarah were beyond childbearing age, "I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and give you the land of Canaan to look after". Abraham's descendants in the land of Canaan would be his vineyard.

This is what was then accomplished through the Exodus. God rescued Israel from slavery, led them to their promised inheritance with the pillar of cloud and the tabernacle as his presence with them. But Canaan was only a first stage, a forward looking signpost.

The problem with the Vineyard for Isaiah was not that it produced no fruit, it produced wild grapes. Now wild grapes are bitter, smell foul and are poisonous. The vineyard had been carefully built, protected and tilled. But the result was as though nothing had been done to it at all. All the owner's hard work was wasted.

These are clearly criticisms of the people of Israel by Isaiah and by Jesus. In our current 'cancel-culture', if you disagree with anyone you are causing great offence and are guilty of 'hate-speech'. So if you criticise any actions of the State of Israel you are anti-semitic; if you criticise the actions of Hamas you are being racist on the side of Israel.

Who was to blame for the wild grapes? God says through Isaiah that he did all he could, apart from making the people of Israel robots by acting apart from or against their will. And he asks the question:
"You dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, what more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for you?'

So what did God do? Isaiah 11 looks forward to what God will do. From the seemingly dead stump of Jesse, from the vineyard that produced only wild grapes, will come a new branch. Even though God brought judgement on his vineyard, God will still bring life from them. The Messiah would come, the true Israelite, the successor to King David, the house of Jesse. He would be wise, give counsel from his understanding and his knowledge, will give honour and respect to the Father and do the Father's will.
With the failure of the people of Israel to be the people of God, God's purpose for the world will still be carried out, but through the Messiah and his people. The God whose purpose it was to make himself known to the nations through Israel will now be made known to the nations through the Messiah, who embodies Israel in his person and fulfils the mission of Israel to the nations.

And as the parable of Jesus in Mark 12 makes clear, by coming to the people of Israel first, God was giving the people of Israel one last chance. So in the parable the vineyard owner sent his son last of all, saying: 'they will respect my son'. But they did not.

Those who are the people of the Messiah Jesus are the new people of God, the new Israel.

The Old Testament is still relevant for us however. It is given to us so that we might know who we are as followers of Jesus -- we are followers of the Messiah of Israel. We are part of the people of God going back to Abraham. So it is important that we know the history of the people of Israel to know who we are.

2023 is the 400-year celebration of the first publication of Shakespeare's plays. We are told that his history plays were written to tell the English people who they were. They had recently left the Roman Catholic Church and all the links it gave to Europe -- a sort of religious Brexit. So the English needed to know who they were.

The same is true of us. The Old Testament helps us know who we are. As Christians, the people who put their trust and identity in Jesus the Messiah, we have become the people of God.

On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God was poured out and people from all around the ancient near east heard the good news of the gospel in their own languages. Paul emphasised this in his letter to the Galatians that among the people of the Messiah, there was neither Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free but all were one in Christ Jesus.

This means that God has no favourites. As he said in Amos 9:7: Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Aramaeans from Kir?" Deuteronomy 10:17 says that God is Lord of the nations who shows no partiality.

This means that the present nation of Israel having failed in its original calling cannot claim to have exclusive access or rights as the people of God. They cannot and should not be given any special pass, or their current actions justified by any biblical texts.

But If we are the new Israel then we have to heed the Lord's words. We as God's vineyard are called to work with the grace of God. So that his grace is not received in vain. God does not give his grace because of what we do. A vineyard does not do anything. But God did the work to plant and protect his vineyard, his people, to encourage our work, not to say that our work to produce fruit is unnecessary.

So Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:1 "As workers together with him, we plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain". And Jesus said: "To whom much is given shall much be required." God has redeemed us to work with him in the redemption of his creation. Paul writes in Romans 8 19-21 that creation will be liberated into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

What do we look forward to? The Bible looks forward to a new heaven and new earth where righteousness will be at home. There will be a new created order where the redeemed people of God will carry out God's purpose to care for it. This is the hope of the resurrection. And the process has begun now -- already God's kingdom has come to this earth through Jesus and his Spirit, and already we are members of it. It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we are told when Jesus returns again we shall be like him.

Paul does deal with the unbelief of Israel in chapters 9 to 11 of Romans. His conclusion is that one day people of Israel will respond to God through Jesus Christ. -- not with some special Jewish salvation.
And what should we hope and pray for in the current war?

Personally, and it is probably much more complicated than this, is that at least some important elements are that we should pray for a ceasefire above all, the release of hostages and a resolution based on a two state solution that allows both sides to live in peace, namely that the state of Israel be recognised and be left to live in peace; that their illegal occupation of part of the land of the Palestinians be ended, and the Palestinians be able to govern the west bank and the Gaza strip.

Archbishop Hosam Naoum, the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, calls for prayer

We pray without ceasing, for justice, reconciliation, peace, and an end to hatred and war.

We also pray for God to change the hearts of all leaders and decision-makers in our countries and around the world.
For we are in dire need of hearts that love, show mercy, and are willing to live in unity with others, hearts that respect human dignity and choose life rather than death.

God of peace and justice, hear our prayers.


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