- Numbers 6:22–27
- Psalm 8
- Galatians 3:23–29
- Luke 2:21
We will ignore the Gospel today — the Gospel reading anyway, and, even then, only until the end of this homily. Instead, let us, somewhat appropriately, begin with the first reading:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, / and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, / and her salvation as a burning torch.
— Isaiah 62:1 (ESV)
Before we turn to the Christian understanding of this verse, let us look at how a Dispensationalist or a so-called American ‘Evangelical’ might interpret it. First, they will typically conflate Zion and Jerusalem — this is sometimes permissible and so of only minor concern. Second, they will interpret both terms as referring to physical locations: the city of Jerusalem and the hill on which David built his city. This is the heart of their error, but they go further. Third, they will restrict both of these terms by making them refer explicitly to the Jews. This, of course, gives away the game even more obviously than the second point: They are simply rank Judaizers.
From a little earlier in Isaiah:
It shall come to pass in the latter days / that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
— Isaiah 2:2 (ESV)
The Judaizers would have us believe this is a literal, physical mountain. Well, we have survey data and satellite imagery. How tall is ‘Mount’ Zion? It is a hill outside Jerusalem and it is approximately twenty-five hundred feet above sea level. There is a peak nearby, under which the Appalachian Trail passes; that peak, Clingman’s Dome, is the tallest peak in Tennessee, and it is six thousand, six hundred, and forty-three feet tall. It is more than two and a half times the height of Mount Zion, which the Judaizers would tell us is literally the tallest literal mountain. I have included in the written (which is to say online) version of this homily a picture of my dog from one of my camping trips with him; the picture was taken on a rock outcropping just north of Big Baldy, which is the same height in meters as Mount Zion is in feet, which is to say that Big Baldy is more than eight thousand feet tall. The claim of the Judaizers is laughable, but is is even more pernicious. If the Old Testament is meant merely for the Israelites — the ‘Jews’ —, then it is not actually good news at all. But the Old Testament is good news and it is not the ‘book of the Jews’ or any other such nonsense. Was Adam a Jew? Was Noah a Jew? Was Japheth a Jew? Was Job a Jew? Was Abraham a Jew? The answer for all of these is, of course: No. The Gospel was first delivered to Adam and Eve (and Satan, but it is not good news for him, or for his children); neither Adam nor Eve was a Jew.
When Scripture speaks in terms of promises and ultimate things, ‘Jerusalem’ is the true city of God — the heavenly Jerusalem, the new Earth. Similarly, ‘Zion’ is the gathering of all believers into the presence of God; where God is, there Zion is. These terms are, thus, somewhat interchangeable, even if there is a difference in nuance. As a Christian, you should find comfort and truth in the Old Testament; and you should read the Old Testament with the sure, certain, and firm faith that the promises therein contained apply to you as an adopted son of God. We, the Church, are the true Israel of God, the promises have always been ours and will always be ours.
Thus, let us turn to the twin issues of adoption and inheritance. A central part of the Christian religion is the adoption of Christians as sons of God. Now, there are some very important differences between Roman adoption (the context of Scripture) and modern adoption (a false lens), but I will write more on that in the near future. For our purposes, it suffices for us to recognize that what is in view is inheritance. To be an adopted son of God in Christ is to inherit eternal life. This, of course, is the heart of the Gospel. Christ’s work, His life, His death, and His resurrection are good news because they enable us to become adopted sons of God and inheritors of eternal life in Paradise — in Zion, in the new Jerusalem.
But what do we say to those who would draw some distinction between Israel and the Church? On the one hand, we should not forget that mockery is a Christian option, but, on the other hand, we should also give a substantive answer, if not to the Judaizers, then at least for our Christian brothers. One of God’s names in Scripture is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For now and here, I will not focus on why this is one of God’s names; rather, I will focus on what it means, in the context of Scripture, to be a ‘son of Abraham’. Hear the words of Christ as recorded by St. John:
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.
…. “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
John 8:39b–41a, 42b–47 (ESV)
He calls those Jews sons of Satan instead of sons of Abraham, and He says that true sons of Abraham would follow in his works. Now, we must remember that the works for which Abraham is praised were undertaken in faith — only those works undertaken by the faithful have any value. But let us turn to the great Epistle to the Galatians to see what Scripture says about the ‘sons of Abraham’:
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; / break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more / than those of the one who has a husband.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
— Galatians 4:21–31 (ESV)
It is not those who are born “according to the flesh”, sondern those who are “born through promise” who are these true sons of Abraham. How is one born through promise? Look no further than the baptismal font. To be born through promise to be born again — it is to have faith. It is those who believe whom Scripture calls sons of Abraham. But what of the physical, blood descendants of Abraham who have no faith in Christ? Christ Himself calls them ‘children of their father, the devil’. For Christians, then, the matter is closed. Christians (i.e., those who believe in Christ) are children of Abraham according to the promise, and the Jews are children of Satan.
But let us look at another aspect of this. Naturally, adoption and inheritance are matters of headship and to be children of Abraham means to be inheritors of the promised Seed (i.e., Christ), but the promise did not come first to Abraham. The promise traces to the Garden:
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head, and you will strike His heel.”
— Genesis 3:15 (LXX)
It is to Adam — the father of us all — that the Gospel is first delivered — from the very mouth of Christ, no less. We speak often of ‘the old Adam’, but we would do well to remember that there is also ‘the new Adam’, which is often used to refer to Christ, but is also true of Father Adam. Adam was no dullard — he heard and believed the promise of God spoken in the Garden. Adam believed; Adam was and is a Christian. With regard to this new, reborn Adam, you and I and all Christians are sons of Adam — both literally by blood descent and according to promise, for Christ is His head as well as ours. Adam in his day was prophet, priest, and king and he taught the faith to his sons; not all were faithful, but the one true faith was preserved down the line to faithful Noah, who taught his sons: faithful Japheth, faithful Shem, and faithless Ham. (We could draw, here, an interesting parallel: Satan took one-third of the angels with him and one-third of man found damnation in Ham’s wickedness, but let us leave that aside for now.)
We — and I mean my European brothers and sisters — are true sons and daughters of Japheth, for we share his faith. It is no less correct to call ourselves sons of Japheth than to call ourselves sons of Abraham, for the promise was for Urvater Japheth no less than for Shem, the father of Abraham.
When we are brought to faith, we are restored into the godly line that descends from Adam through Noah to his sons and then into all the world where believers may be found. The believing Shemite may look to Shem as a true father of his great race. The believing Hamite may not be able to look to wicked, faithless Ham, but he may look to Grandfather Noah. And we, sons and daughters of Japheth and Europa, may look both to our many faithful ancestors before the fall into paganism and after the restoration of Christianity. None has a spotless genealogy; even Christ must count the pagan, the unbeliever, the apostate, and the prostitute among His ancestors. We do not honor our ancestors — a demand of the Fourth Commandment — by following in their unfaithfulness, but by faithfulness to the one true ancestral faith — Christianity.
When we are adopted as sons of God, we do not cease to be lineal, blood descendants of our forefathers — the African remains a Hamite and the European remains a Japhethite; rather, we return to the faith of our godly forefathers. The Christian is no rootless cosmopolitan, sondern one who honors both God and his forefathers. God does not play with dice and God does not make mistakes; He Who formed you in the womb and knew the number of your days even before you drew your first breath is also He Who set the times and the boundaries of the nations. What God does, He does not do idly or without purpose. Scripture tells us that the kings of the nations will bring the glory of the nations into the new Jerusalem. You were born into a body, a time, a place, a nation, a people. Your blood is neither accident nor incident, but essential and immutable. If you were born a man, then you will be a man in and for eternity; if you were born a woman, then you will be a woman in and for eternity; and the same holds for German, French, Dutch, Russian, Japanese, and American. Faithful sons and daughters do not deny or denigrate their ancestry or their ancestors, and Christians are true and faithful sons and daughters, for this is commanded by God:
Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother [that it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long upon the earth].
Let us end, then, as promised, with the Gospel reading, or, more accurately, a (very close) paraphrase of a portion of it:
Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the nations and the glory of Thy people Israel.
We end our Service of the Sacrament with these words, for they express the hope of all Christians: To depart in peace and grace, having seen and believed the promises of the Lord. We see these promises every Sunday in the Sacrament and we confess our belief every Sunday in the Creeds. It is the Gottesdienst, the Divine Service, that prepares each and every one of us for death. God knows the number of our days, but we do not; the Christian takes from this comfort instead of fear or anxiety. I am Christ’s and He is mine. And the Good Shepherd has never yet — and never will — lose one of his sheep. He is the Light to lighten the nations and we are His people — the true Israel. Whenever — and however — death may come — and it will certainly come for each of us —, we know that Christians depart in peace, for our eyes have seen the salvation of the Lord, and will behold His face when they open on the other side of the veil of death, for our God has defeated death and the grave.