The promises of God

Epiphany 2011

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose love embraces all people. Amen.

The book of Genesis tells us that God chose Abraham to father a people of his own. God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God and the God of his children. This made the Israelites distinct from those around them. In the first instance, the children of Abraham believed in only one God – a living God, not an idol made by human hands. Yahweh, the God of Israel was, in contrast to the God of the neighbouring nations, believed to be God of all the world, not just the God of the nation. Other things set the Israelites apart. The sign of the covenant was the circumcision of all males over eight days old and the people of God were distinguished by their observation of the Sabbath, their dietary laws and cleanliness rituals. The Israelites saw themselves as the chosen ones. Others might acknowledge their God, but they could not be inheritors of the promise.

That said, there is a great deal of evidence not only that non-Jews played significant roles in the history of the Israelites, but that the Jews harboured a belief that one day the whole world would believe in Yahweh – their God. The OT books of Ruth and of Jonah are both stories that indicate a less exclusive view.  Ruth a Moabite woman not only demonstrates a great depth of faith in the Israelite God, but through marriage becomes the grandmother of David and therefore a direct ancestor of Jesus and Jonah is instrumental in saving an entire Gentile town from the wrath of God. Cyrus, the king of Babylon is called “messiah” or anointed, and his invasion of Judah is seen as an act of the God of Israel. In the Psalms in particular, there are numerous references to the whole world flocking to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. So while the Jews understood themselves to be chosen by God and set apart from the nations, they still harboured a view that if Yahweh was THE God, then at some stage all people would come to believe.

By the turn of the eras, the Jewish nation had been in exile for centuries and having returned to their own land been subject first to Greece then to Rome. The effect of this was to strengthen and confirm their sense of identity and exclusiveness. Food laws and cleanliness rituals were strictly enforced as these were a means by which the Israelites could distinguish themselves from those around them and could build a sense of national identity and pride. While this built their sense of who they were, it had the effect of making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for anyone else to belong.

It was into this environment that Jesus burst with his agenda of reforming Judaism.  His death and subsequent resurrection led a number of people to believe that he was the promised Christ and to form a movement which declared this to be true. For decades this movement remained primarily within Judaism, maintaining the practices of Judaism and adding to them the belief that the Messiah had come. By the time the gospels were written however, those who believed in Jesus could not longer comfortably co-exist within the faith that had given theirs birth.

At the same time it was increasingly obvious that those to whom Jesus had been sent had not responded to his message while those considered to be outsiders – the Gentiles – had responded. This created something of a dilemma for the emerging church and for the writers of the gospels in particular.  How could it be explained that those whom God had chosen were now “out” and those who had been previously excluded were not only “in”, but were the inheritors of the promises of God? A secondary, but no less important concern was whether the promises of God could be trusted if they had failed where Israel was concerned.

The gospel writers approach the dilemma from different perspectives, while Luke is at pains to demonstrate that God is faithful, Matthew is determined to show that Christianity is the logical progression of Judaism and therefore the rightful inheritor of the promises. Furthermore, the writer of Matthew is quite clear that not only has Christianity grown out of Judaism but, as the inheritor of the promises, it has now supplanted it. God’s promises to Abraham included the promise that Abraham that in him all nations would be blessed.  This promise has now been fulfilled through Jesus.

The gospels develop this theme in a number of ways. John the Baptist tells the Pharisees not to count on their descent to secure their salvation, saying that God is able to raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones. Jesus commends the faith of the Gentiles in comparison with that of the children of Abraham and Jesus’ many confrontations with the leaders of the Jews are intended to demonstrate their lack of understanding and therefore to explain their failure to believe.  Jesus commends the Gentiles and condemns the Jews.  In other words, the failure of the Jews to believe relates to their hardness of heart and the belief of the Gentiles is a part of God’s overall plan.

Matthew’s gospel begins then with the coming of the magi – the first fruits of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles. While all Jerusalem trembles at the news of a king, it is these outsiders who not only realise that something significant has happened, but who come to bring gifts and to worship the child who is born. Their presence so early in the gospel is a sign of things to come – the Gentiles will come to Jesus whereas the Jews will not.

Jesus opens the door to all nations. In him all God’s promises have been fulfilled. The God of the nations is now known and worshipped by all people, the faith that was confined to a few has been made available to the world.  Our task is to continue to ensure that God’s promises are extended to all nations in every generation. We need to be constantly alert to the way in which our attempts at self-definition create barriers to faith for others and by our practice and our proclamation, we must ensure at all times that the welcome God extends is the welcome that we give.

God’s promises cannot be contained, nor can they be limited to a chosen few. If we attempt to hold them to ourselves, we can be certain, that God will find ways to extend them to others.



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