In a previous session we looked briefly at a verse from 2 Chronicles which is often taken out of context in order to suggest a blessing from God on the United States of America. This morning, as a precursor to what we're talking about, I'd like to look at another such verse.
To properly understand this verse, you need to know a little bit about ancient religious history in the Middle Eastern part of the world. Each country had its own god that they worshipped, and claimed led them into battle. Egypt had Ammon, Babylon had Ba’al and Ashteroth, Moab had Chemosh, Philistia had Dagon, and so forth. But there was one, and only one nation whose God was the Lord Jehovah. That was Israel. The Psalmist is not making a generic statement for all nations, but a specific one; he is saying “Israel is blessed because God is our Lord.”
Keep in mind that in Hebrew poetry, every thought consists of two lines which help to clarify or elaborate on each other, so quoting “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” by itself is to take it out of context. The next line is key to understanding what is being said here. “Blessed is Israel because the Lord has chosen us, and he is our God.”
My point is not that there are no verses promising blessing to nations which live righteously, but rather, that when we claim verses like 2 Chronicles 7:14 for our nation, we are claiming a special covenantal relationship with God which our nation does not possess – that covenantal relationship was reserved for Israel alone.
This notion of Israel as chosen people is important to understand, in order to understand the significance of the “alien” passage we’re looking at today.
If we say, “The US is God’s chosen nation,” we would be regarded as arrogant. But when Israel said it, they were speaking a literal truth that dated back to that first alien we looked at -- Abraham.
Here are some verses that talk about that covenantal relationship:
This led to a very different way of viewing races and peoples. In our modern society we say that there are more than five thousand ethnic groups in the world, but the ancient Israelites had it greatly simplified down to two: Jews and Gentiles. The chosen people and the not-chosen people.
One of the cultural consequences of this split was a strong sense of Jewish superiority, and a sense that other nations and people didn’t actually matter. Like all of us, they had a tendency to hear what they wanted, and turn a deaf ear to what they didn’t want to hear.
And there were plenty of indications that God's coventantal relationship with Israel had a purpose that encompassed all the nations of the world:
God chose Israel for a purpose, and part of that purpose was to cause blessing to be poured out on the rest of the world. But by Jesus’s time, generations of celebrating their status as “chosen” had resulted in strong enmity between the Israelites and any other people groups. The people of Israel referred to gentiles as “dogs,” and when they wanted to be even more insulting, “uncircumcised dogs.” Even people who were “half-Jewish” (Samaritans) were considered sub-human.
And then, along came Jesus. And Jesus changed everything. Consider these verses from the book of Ephesians, and remember, as we read them, that this letter was directed to the church of Ephesus (maybe to all the churches in that region). What did all those churches have in common? They were Greek, through and through. They were the outsiders, the non-Jews, the Gentiles, the "dogs." Paul lays this message on really thick.
Notice that all of this is written in the past tense, as though something has changed. And indeed, something has changed!
One of the key ideas that we see here (and we're going to see it again in one of our future messages in this series) is the word reconciliation. This word means “the restoration of friendly relations.”
Christ’s role was two-fold reconciliation. First, there is the reconciliation we see in this passage – the breaking of the Jew/Gentile barrier. The breakdown of the wall culminated in Christ's death and resurrection, but even in his earthly ministry, Christ gave a foretaste of that reconciliation:
As the passage says, this reconciliation was purchased with blood; it was through the cross that he broke the ultimate barrier between God and man – the barrier of sin, and in so doing he didn't just bring about our reconciliation to God; he also also brought about the reconciliation of man to man.
Paul inextricably ties these two things together: We are reconciled to God in one body.
This notion of reconciliation doesn’t just extend to Jews and Gentiles: Christ broke down the barrier between black and white, between rich and poor, between slave and free, between male and female.
The theme of reconciliation within the church, even when it isn’t explicitly mentioned, is found repeatedly in the gospels and epistles.
Think for a moment about two of Jesus's most idealogically extreme disciples: Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. One (Matthew) served the Roman government and was therefore hated by all his countrymen. The other (Simon) was part of a radical political group that traditionally carried knives with them for the purpose of doing away with Roman collaborators like Matthew.
Yet for all of their differences, Christ expected these two political enemies to put aside their politics and work together. After all, Christ was king of a kingdom so far above theirs that it made their political bickering and grandstanding look petty and insignificant.
Here's another example of Jesus discussing the importance of reconcilliation -- Jesus:
When we carry bitterness and fear and hatred against a brother or sister, we damage our own relationship with God. Think of it this way: if I pick two of you from opposite sides of the congregation, and ask both of you to come up front to be with me on stage, there is no way the two of you can get closer to me without also getting closer to each other.
Paul continues this emphasis on reconciliation in 1 Corinthians 1:12 and following chapters when he points out and addresses the divisions between people who are fighting over whether one should follow Paul, Peter, or Apollos. Later, as a follow-up to this, he declared he was glad he hadn't baptized any of them, for that would have put him even deeper into the controversy in the church.
Later, Paul devotes a letter to Philemon, a Christian and a slaveowner. Paul writes to Philemon to encourage him to receive his escaped slave back not as a slave but as a brother. To Philemon, Paul is saying that Christ has broken down the barrier between slave and free.
Reconciliation can sometimes be costly to someone other than the two who need to be reconciled. In the case of Onesimus, Paul promises that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon, Paul himself will pay that cost.
And then there is James, who writes extensively about the fair treatment of poor and rich. Social classes do not matter in the kingdom, and poor and rich must learn how to worship side by side in love and reconciliation.
And let's not forget Paul's message to Euodia and Syntyche, two fellow laborers in Philippi who couldn't get along. The breakdown of that relationship must be addressed, and reconciliation achieved. And again, as with Philemon and Onesimus, we see that a third party is needed within the church to intervene and serve as intermediaries to help these two sisters reconcile.
Reconciliation may begin with, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you,” but it’s rarely that simple to achieve.
As an example of that, this summer while we were ministering at camp, my son [just under four years old at the time] was playing with another child. He did something that she didn't like. Instead of asking him nicely to stop, she grabbed his arm and twisted it to keep him from doing whatever it was he was doing. The girl's mother made her apologize, but that didn’t create reconciliation. The girl sat in a fuming pout, and even though my son wanted to go back to playing with her, every time he got close, he veered away – obviously nervous about getting near her.
For four-year-olds, the passage of a few minutes or hours is often enough to heal wounds, but it isn’t always so simple for grown-ups, is it?
Reconciliation forces us to deal decisively with anger, fear, distrust, and even bitterness. It can be a long process, a painful process, but it is a necessary process. When we reject that process, we reject the power of the gospel in our lives.
In his book With Justice for All, John M. Perkins wrote this: "The only purpose of the gospel is to reconcile people to God and to each other. A gospel that doesn't reconcile is not a Christian gospel at all. But in America it seems as if we don't believe that. We don't really believe that the proof of our discipleship is that we love one another. No, we think the proof is in numbers -- church attendance, decision cards. Even if our "converts" continue to hate each other, even if they will not worship with their brothers and sisters in Christ, we point to their "conversion" as evidence of the gospel's success. We have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation."
But what does this have to do with aliens? I hope you're still in Ephesians 2 -- take a look at the next verse:
We belong together. We belong together! We belong together in a way that we will never belong in the world.
We all have different loyalties – to a restaurant we like to eat at, a sporting team we enjoy, a political party we belong to, a social club…
But here's the thing: if we feel more at home at a Red Sox game than among our Christian family, something is wrong. If we feel more at home at any political rally than we do among our Christian family, something is wrong.
If our loyalty to our Kiwanis, Rotary or Key clubs outstrips our loyalty to our Christian family, something is wrong.
This is why I keep coming back, week after week. Not just because of singing praise to God. Not just because of hearing the word of God. Not just to give gifts to the work of God. But because, of all the places in the world that I could go, this is the place where I belong!
I fit here like nowhere else.
When I see you, you remind me where I belong. And I remind you. When I see you, you remind me what a citizen of the kingdom looks like. And I remind you. When I hear you speak, I remember what a citizen of heaven sounds like, and I delight again in hearing the language of heaven, spoken by its natives. And, I trust, I remind you of these things as well.
When I gather together with my brothers and sisters in Christ, we create a little island of heaven in a dark world.
This is who we are – the people who receive reconciliation with God and with man, and who continually work out that reconciliation with fear and trembling, both with God and with our brothers and sisters.
Why? Because we belong to God, and because we belong to each other. Because we are no longer aliens. Because no matter what this world throws at us, they will not tear us apart, because we are joined together by the love of the crucifixion, the power of the resurrection, and Christ’s daily strength for life in this world.
Because no matter what we might throw at each other, we are still brothers and sisters, and will not let the weaknesses and frailties of our family tear us apart. The power that reconciled us to God is the same power that makes reconciliation possible when we hurt one another.
Because we have received God’s grace, and we pour out that grace on one another.
We belong together.
We are, according to the apostle Peter, a “chosen people” – brought out of this world by the grace of God.
We are a royal priesthood -- a line of royalty in this world that can come directly to the throne of God, because we are the princes and princesses of His kingdom, joint heirs with Christ of the heavenly kingdom.
Look to your left and right, behind and before. Here is your family. We joke that the Bible calls us a “peculiar” people, and for some of us that’s more true than for others, but that’s an old translation – it simply means that we are a people possessed by God.
He has gathered us to himself, and in so doing, has gathered us together.
We are no longer aliens, and we belong together!
Look at these wonderful, glorious, imagery filled verses:
Consider for a moment the following descriptions of some beloved literature:
What makes all of these interesting is not that they are sort of rags-to-riches stories, but that in each case the hero of the story, in spite of humble, even tragic beginnings, discovers that he or she has been chosen for greatness.
This is a recurring plot element in literature simply because it is a universal hunger in the heart of people, to know that our lives are more than just the painful, tiring drudgery of this world’s existence.
Life is a painful journey from birth to death, with a seeming dearth of meaning and value along the way, and every one of us wants to know, “I matter.” Every one of us wants to know, “My life has meaning and value, and I have been chosen for something great.”
If you can imagine, in these stories, the astonished joy of having your life transformed from a life of drudgery and pointlessness to a life of meaning, value, purpose and worth, this is the sense with which you should read 1 Peter 2:9-10.
But the trade-off is this: every one of those literary heroes went through trials, griefs, torments, and loss. Why? Because they had been chosen for a purpose. That’s the difference between a rags-to-riches story and a “chosen one” story. In a rags-to-riches story, the hero moves from poverty to riches for no other reason than for his own advancement. We celebrate the hero’s victory for the hero’s sake. In a “chosen one” story, the chosen one is always chosen for a great purpose, and that great purpose is of more importance than the hero’s own life and well-being. We celebrate the hero’s victory, and honor the hero for the sacrifice and sorrow he or she has overcome along the way.
This is what we need to understand. We are not here just because God has taken us out of the poverty of our sin and made us rich in Christ. We are here because we are a chosen people, and through all the trials and the difficulties and loss and grief, God intends to do something great through us, the church.
Out there, we are aliens. But here, together, we are no longer aliens.