Our text for today reminds us that Jesus had a family. He had a mother and a father, or at least a step father, Joseph.. Jesus also belonged to another family—though—an extended family. That extended family was “the Jews.” For that reason, Mary and Joseph have Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth. Circumcision for the Jews is sort of kind of like baptism for Christians—a demonstration that Jesus’ parents claimed their son’s Jewish ancestry. Ditto when in compliance with Jewish law and family tradition, they bring him to the temple so that they might offer the required sacrifices.
That Jesus’ parents were Jewish and that Jesus himself was a Jew has stuck in the craw of good Christians for as long as there have been Christians. That is because if Jesus was a Jew, that fact complicates our own relationship with Jews. They are certainly NOT part of OUR family, in the same way that our fellow church members are—But they ARE related to we who are Christians, religiously speaking, in a way that Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus are not.
That is what I want to discuss today, especially in light of our president’s announcement that the US will be moving its Israeli Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is controversial, what our president has done, because, it seems as if he, and by extension, our country, has taken a side in the ongoing struggle between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. Some people think that such a move, could set off increased hostilities between these two peoples.
So let us begin.
First, as I have already said, Jesus was a Jew. Add to that, that our Old Testament, which derives from the Jews, is authoritative for us, just as it is authoritative for the Jews, just as it was authoritative for Jesus. We are grateful to the Jews for giving us Jesus AND at least the first part of our holy book. So right there, is a reason for us to have a favorable disposition toward the Jews.
On a look through that Old Testament, though, we discover a lot of passages that suggest that the land the Jews want to occupy in totality today, belongs to them. So for instance, in Deuteronomy, Moses is leading his people toward the Promised Land. God tells Moses, “See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I* swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them.”
God actually tells Moses to take the land. That idea that the Jews have a God-given claim to Jerusalem and the surrounding territory, is embraced by a lot of Christians, and not only evangelical Christians.
But there is still another reason that Christians may be in favor of the Jews ownership of the disputed land. Christians are compassionate. Jesus, in fact, taught compassion.
Christians feel sorry for the Jews. Why? Well, Rome destroyed Jerusalem, including the Jews’ precious temple in 70 AD. When that happened, the Jews scattered like pool balls on a pool table--to the corners of the earth. That scattering is called the Jewish diaspora. The Jews stayed scattered into the 20th century. Then, as you know, the Nazis committed unspeakable atrocities against them. Some people, including Christians and Christian politicians felt guilty. They had had at least a notion of what the Nazis were doing. And horror of horrors, some of the Nazis themselves claimed to have done what they did because they were committed Christians. So, after the war, the world’s leaders united in trying to return to the Jews the land that they lost so long ago-to allay their guilt, to distance themselves from the Nazis and also out of a sincere compassion for the Jewish people.
So, to recap: some Christians believe: 1) they owe the Jews for giving us Jesus and our Old Testament 2) God gave the Jews the land, so it belongs to them 3) The Jews have suffered a lot. Giving the Jews a land to call their own is the compassionate thing to do.
But we are not finished with this discussion yet—not by a long shot, actually.
A look at the New Testament offers a different perspective. So hold on to your pews. I am about to do a 180.
In Luke, in chapter 19: beginning with verse 41, Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, remember that scene? People are laying palm branches on the ground for Jesus’ donkey to trod on, and everyone is cheering Hosanna! The part of scripture that hardly ever gets read on Palm Sunday morning is this: “As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you [meaning the Jews], even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
Jesus was that visitation from God.
So, if we go with this passage, and others like it in the NEW TESTAMENT, then it would seem that the Jews blew it. They blew it, way back in the first century. It’s like football. At the start of the game God put the football of chosen-ness into play. The Jews ran with the ball down the field, but then they fumbled it. The ball was picked up by Christ’s followers who are now running down the field in the opposite direction to the end zone. CHRISTIANS are the new chosen people. The Jews’ right to a homeland ended when they fumbled, that is, they failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah! What do you think? Yes? NO? You have a headache yet?
But it gets even MORE confusing! There are still OTHER Christians-they call themselves Christian Zionists—who believe that the New Testament, especially Revelations, reveals God’s ultimate plan for humanity. They say that Revelations predicts a time when the Jews will re-possess Jerusalem. Only then, after that repossession, will Christ come again. So it behooves Christians to hasten that along. Some popular Christian Zionists you may know are: the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Some Christian Zionists, maybe even Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, although I’m not sure about that, take this idea of God’s ultimate plan for humanity one step further. They believe that:
1) The Jews will (with a little help from their Christian friends) retake Jerusalem
2) After that, Christians will be taken up into heaven—you know one minute we are here, the next we are, poof, up there—the rapture.
3) Three, with Christians safely up in heaven, Christ will draw his sword. He will smite the forces of evil—that is everyone who is NOT Christian-- in a time referred to as the great tribulation; we’re talking blood bath, folks.
4) After the winning of good over evil—aka the winning of Christians over everyone not Christian, the world will be ready for Christ’s kingdom on earth.
I hope this last scenario sounds at least a little bizarre to you. Lest you think this is all made up—a revenge fantasy invented by anti-semites and anti-everyone not Christian— there IS a scriptural basis for this. In 2 Thessalonians, for instance, we read:
“When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
Yikes! So much for gentle Jesus, meek and mild Jesus. Loving Jesus—You know, the one who says to his disciples, “Let the children come to me!”
Now, we have not yet considered one other group of people who claim rights to Palestine, including Jerusalem. We have not yet, considered the Muslims. Some Christians say that the Muslim Arabs who live in the Middle East have rights, too. And they say, that as Christians we are called to be compassionate to them, too. Compassion means putting yourself in the place of the other—attempting to feel as they do. So, let us do that, now. What if, back after WW II, instead of resettling Jews in the Middle East, the Allied powers had settled the Jews in Palestine, Illinois. I’m not making this up. There really is a town, Palestine, Illinois. Would the people in Palestine, Illinois have moved aside and let the Jews have their land, and build houses and all the rest?
We should not be surprised then, that the Israeli/Palestinian situation is so tense.
Our own Presbyterian Church, USA, which supports Jesus’ mandate, Love your neighbor as yourself, suggests that Muslims also have rights—and our church has condemned Jewish/Israeli aggression as contributing to the violence in that region.
So that is it! I have only just touched the surface here, of this complicated issue, but it’s enough to get you going, maybe. I will be happy if I’ve prompted you to study the issue in more depth.
Now, I have one more consideration for us today—from our scripture reading. Remember that?
Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are at the temple, remember. An elderly man, who is described as righteous and devout, his name is Simeon, is led by the Holy Spirit into the temple. It is there that he sees Jesus. He is so taken with this baby, that Mary and Joseph allow Simeon to hold him. I say that, because I’m not so sure I would let a stranger hold MY newborn baby. Anyway, as he holds the baby Jesus, Simeon makes a prediction. He predicts that this baby is God’s salvation. He continues, “[this baby] will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
We hold on to the hope that Jesus is savior of us ALL. Amen