Essay / Theology

Israel and Advent

Yesterday Joe and I were driving to Sports Authority in Cerritos. In the middle of catching one another up on our lives, he took a conversational detour to ask what I thought about Israel. It’s partly a political question, partly a spiritual one; it concerns at once Scripture, revelation, Jesus, the church and, of course, the last things.

All of which makes it a hard question, filled with more complexity than any of us would like. At times, a cavalier church has jettisoned Israel as some excess ballast the absence of which only speeds her along in her journey. Here it is wise to remember Paul’s description of ‘my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.’ (Romans 9:3-5) We, the largely-Gentile church, should be ashamed of our amnesia on this front.

Then again, many are tempted to simply identify the people of God without remainder with the modern nation-state of Israel, as if the mere occupation of territory plus lineage sufficed to identify God’s people, whose true identity is constituted by the saving and sustaining action of God and a response of gratitude and worship from a faithful people.

David Bosch offers a sustained, subtle treatment of this question in Transforming Mission, arguing that we have to hold, together, two equally basic claims:

1) Salvation and incorporation into the people of God comes about through trusting in Jesus.
2) God keeps his promises and will not abandon Israel forever.

Now, Paul does refer to the church in Galatians 6 as ‘the Israel of God’, so maybe we can think of (2) that way. One way in which God is faithful to Israel is to draw Gentiles who worship the God of Israel through Christ into his people. The New Testament does not, after all, envision the church as the ‘new’ Israel, but as an extension or expansion of Israel and, insofar as it meets YHWH in Christ, the ‘true’ Israel. Bosch notes the significance of this, and Paul’s preoccupying wonder at God’s inclusion of the Gentiles. Israel, then, is revealed to be that people chosen by God, rooted in Abraham and God’s covenant to bless the nations in him, whose life is gathered around worship of Abraham’s God as he is found in Christ.

It would seem a strange faithfulness, though, were the God of Israel to be content with casting off Israel according to the flesh entirely. In fact, though at this point I’m thinking out loud more than expressing a firm conviction, for God to simply and fully transfer the meaning of ‘Israel’ away from Israel according to the flesh to a fully spiritualized Israel seems to come close to equivocation. At one point is this still Israel? What are we to do with Israel according to the flesh? Really, this is a poor way to put it. The church’s history of doing things with Israel according to the flesh has usually involved a doing things to Israel according to the flesh, and those things have too often been an ugly history indeed. Better to ask what God will do with Israel according to the flesh.

Here Paul’s passionate fumbling in Romans 9-11 comes in. The pattern goes like this: To Israel belongs the good things of God, but they were cut off from the root due to their lack of belief, making space for the Gentiles to be included in the people of God. But ‘God is able to graft them in again,’ and finally ‘all Israel will be saved…’ (11:23, 26) We ought not think this final salvation will occur apart from faith in Jesus (see Bosch’s first claim), but neither ought we neglect the hope to which it invites us.

While all of the promises of God are confirmed in Christ, and many of them are fulfilled in Christ, and while Christ will ever be at the heart of God’s promise-making and promise-keeping as the one in whom God is with and for us (Emmanuel!), Paul strains toward a day in which Israel will return to her Lord.

All of which to say, we do well in Advent to wait for more than Jesus. Or as we wait for Jesus, we do well to find our place among the waiting saints of Israel (holy ones like Simeon and Anna) who seek the consolation of Israel. Jesus is that consolation, but many in Israel remain, as yet, unconsoled. And so we do well to befriend them – first, in the humble gratitude of those who were strangers to the promises of God and who remain wild branches only lately grafted onto the root of Jesse; and second, in the hopeful prayer of those who have known the consolation of Israel’s God in Christ, await the final consolation on the day of his return and desire that all of Israel according to the flesh might be grafted back in, to enjoy the fulfillment of their long hopes in the Messiah and King, Jesus Christ.

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