Yet we witness a strange phenomenon. While it is a matter of deep embarrassment to be found wearing the same clothes as someone else at a function, in other ways we are still most comfortable with sameness. To the surprise and concern of many, the One Nation Party is ahead of the Australian Democrats in opinion polls. Are we racist? Not necessarily in the ugliest sense of that term, though we do need to listen to the concerns of all groups in our society if we are to avoid extremes.
I have read that there is an exclusive golf club in America that refuses to allow golfers in even if their families came over on the Mayflower. The families have to be descended from the owner of the ship.
One day a couple of the members invited a business acquaintance out to play golf with them.
"I'm Jewish," the man said. "They won't let me play here."
"With you they'll never know," he was assured.
It was a challenging course, and he really wanted to play. He went despite advice from his wife against it. Soon he was back home.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Everything was fine for six holes. It was beautiful. On Number Seven, they found out."
"I hit my drive into the lake. I walked down to play a penalty shot. As I got to the shore, the water parted."
In Genesis 12 we hear the Lord saying to Abram, "Leave your country, your relatives, and your father's home, and go to a land that I am going to show you. I will give you many descendants, and they will become a great nation. I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but I will curse those who curse you. And through you I will bless all the nations" (vv. 1-3).
Abraham (as we better know him) and his descendants became the chosen people, but why were they chosen? The reason is clearly given, "I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing... And through you I will bless all the nations."
Did God love Israel? Most certainly he did. It was expressed in his covenant-love for them. The Hebrew word is chesed, and English versions have translated it "mercy, loving-kindness" - the Good News Bible has "constant love". They were the Lord's covenant people. He had chosen them, forgiven them, blessed them, and they had responded to him, come to him, been obedient to his will. All of this so that they could be the means by which the whole world could come to know God, know God's forgiveness, live under God's blessing... They were blessed for their own sake, but also in order to be a blessing to the other peoples and nations of the world.
This is what Israel forgot again and again. In Deut. 7.7-8, we hear Moses saying to Israel, "It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt" (RSV).
In Micah 7.18-20, we read, "There is no other god like you, O Lord; you forgive the sins of your people who have survived. You do not stay angry for ever, but you take pleasure in showing us your constant love. You will be merciful to us once again. You will trample our sins underfoot and send them to the bottom of the sea! You will show your faithfulness and constant love to your people, the descendants of Abraham and of Jacob, as you promised our ancestors long ago."
An unknown poet has commented:
But the Lord loves all people and wants a blessing to flow on to others too. The "foreigners who live in your country" are to keep the Sabbath too (Exodus 20.10) and the Passover (Deut. 16). Every third year these foreigners were to be included in the ones who received the second tithe (Deut. 14.28-29; 26.12-15). They were expected to hear and obey the law of the Lord (Deut. 31.12).
But the blessing is not just for those who happen to live within the borders of Israel. Through Israel the Lord would bring light to the nations (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6).
When God sent his Son, Jesus, to be the Messiah, he came to seek out "the lost sheep of the people of Israel" (Matt. 15.24). That was all he could do in three-and-a-half short years. But now, with the work of redemption complete, "in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem" (Lk. 24.37).
However, the early Christians were slow to grasp that they weren't a Jewish sect, but now had a mission to the whole world. At the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the crowd consisted of Jews and proselytes who had come to Jerusalem for this important Jewish feast. Proselytes were people of other nations who had submitted to circumcision and adopted the Jewish religion.
But the early Christians still hadn't grasped that the Good News was for all people. It took a special vision to prepare Peter to respond to the call to go to the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius and to share the gospel with that household. He announced the gospel to these people, testifying that "God raised [Jesus] from death and caused him to appear, not to everyone, but only to the witnesses that God had already chosen, that is, to us who ate and drank with him after he rose from death. And he commanded us to preach the gospel to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God has appointed judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets spoke about him, saying that all who believe in him will have their sins forgiven through the power of his name" (vv. 40-43).
Peter had come into a Gentile house and that was amazing enough. But there was still a little reserve in what he said. "[Jesus] commanded us to preach the gospel to the people." The Jews thought of themselves as "the people" (Gk. ho laos). Everyone else was "the nations" (ta ethne) - the word is usually translated in the New Testament as "the Gentiles". Peter believed and affirmed that "all who believe in [Jesus] will have their sins forgiven through the power of his name". But he seemed to hesitate over the implication of the Great Commission to "go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples" (Matt. 28.29a) - where, interestingly, the word "peoples" is . (Elsewhere in the New Testament it might have been translated "Go then to all the Gentiles everywhere...", but the commission of Jesus was to include us all, without excluding the Jews!)
It took the display of the same signs as on the day of Pentecost in these Gentile believers ("they heard them speaking in strange tongues and praising God's greatness") to convince Peter that they had genuinely responded to the message and received the Holy Spirit. None of the Jewish Christians present with Peter could object to their baptism. When reporting to the Church in Jerusalem, Peter said, "It is clear that God gave those Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ; who was I, then, to try to stop God!" (11.17)
The Good News is truly for everyone. Jesus has died for our sins! Jesus is alive! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News! That is still the only condition. It was on that basis that dishonest Zacchaeus came to know salvation. It was on that basis that good-living Nicodemus could be born again. It was the only way the criminal dying on the cross next to Jesus received the promise of Paradise. In Jesus God has done everything. All is prepared - it is for us to respond.
But the Word still needs to be spread throughout our world. When Paul was addressing the Athenians, he said, "God has overlooked the times when people did not know him, but now he commands all of them everywhere to turn away from their evil ways" (17.30). Commanding people to repent... God has a strong expectation and demand for all people in the world. We have a soft laissez-faire attitude. We need to regain the urgency that Paul expressed in 1 Cor. 6, "Listen! This is the hour to receive God's favour; today is the day to be saved!" (v. 2c).
For all who have not yet responded to the call, the present imperative is to repent and believe. For all who have, there is the urgent need to heed the commission to take the Good News out to our families, our acquaintances, our neighbourhood...
Where do you stand? Christ calls us all to go forward together with him.
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