Israel's plight – the Church's plight
Even the title of this sermon could by some, be interpreted as bias. It is not 'The Plight of the Palestinians', for example, as some would say it should be. Certainly the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council would say so. Its report to the 2013 General Assembly questioned the idea that Jews should have a state at all or that Jews had a divine right and history to the piece of earth where they live. The report caused such offence to Jews in Britain that it had to be withdrawn and edited before the General Assembly. The report questioned whether it was true that the formation of Israel in 1948 was the fulfilment of the Biblical promise to Abraham and that it is the unconditional right of Jews to live there. It said 'Does the Hebrew Bible really sanction future occupation of the land, which involved the driving out of some 750,000 people already living there, and the present injustices and humanitarian issues we see today?' The Report says that the land is granted to God's chosen people as a gift, not a right. Guardianship of the land brings obligations, most particularly to practice justice and to dwell equitably with the stranger; in the Hebrew Bible this means obedience to God's laws concerning the widow, the stranger and the orphan. The Church and Society Council was actually attacking Christian Zionists in America and those in the Church of Scotland who hold the granting of the Promised Land by God to the Chosen People in the time of Joshua to be for all time. They in response suggested that this report was another example of the Church of Scotland departing from its own Biblical foundations. The report concluded 'Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory'.
On the other hand, it is generally recognised that Israel is surrounded by historical and contemporary enemies. The most uncompromising is Hamas. On December 8, 2006, several months after becoming Hamas’ leader, Ismail Haniyeh spoke to thousands of worshippers at Tehran University in Iran, calling for the next intifada against Israel. 'We will never recognize the usurper Zionist government and will continue our jihad-like movement until the liberation of Jerusalem'. On September 18th, 2011, in the wake of the Palestinian bid to gain recognition in the United Nations, Haniyeh reiterated his refusal to recognize the Jewish State. 'We repeat today that we are with the establishment of a Palestinian state on any liberated part of Palestinian land that is agreed upon by the Palestinian people, without recognizing Israel or conceding any inch of historical Palestine'. On December 14th, 2010, Haniyeh spoke at a rally to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Hamas terror group’s founding. 'Palestine is from the sea to the river, from Rosh HaNikra to Rafah. The siege will not change our belief, wars don’t cause people give up resistance and resistance leaders. We will not recognize! We will not recognize! We will not recognize Israel!' Exactly one year later, on December 14th, 2011, Haniyeh addressed more than 100,000 Hamas supporters gathered in Gaza City’s al-Katiba to celebrate the 24th anniversary of Hamas’ creation. This was his message of violence to the audience: 'The Hamas movement will lead Intifada after Intifada until we liberate Palestine – all of Palestine, Allah willing'.
This is where we are today. Israel is supported by America particularly for theological reasons based on its own Christian tradition and the fact that there are many Jews living in America. Britain was instrumental in the formation of the present state of Israel and supports the existence and continuation of Israel as a homeland for Jews so that there can never be another Holocaust. Some have argued that the concept of a 'Promised Land' as described in the Old Testament which entailed military conquest over nomadic tribes living there at the time is itself mistaken, wrong and immoral. The New Israel - that is - the Christian Church as understood by Jesus and Paul is not specific to any land or territory at all. It is a global community of the mind and spirit. And so some say that what the present day Israel does to survive as a national entity contradicts the divine purpose in the light of Christianity and even in the light of the best of Judaism. It comes down specifically to the issue of the disproportionate killing of Palestinian civilians, especially children in the current war.
Israel invokes its right to life and self-defence in face of an implacable foe. It is surrounded by nations and peoples taught by Islam from childhood to hate Israel. It is an outpost of western style democracy with an elected parliament and a civilised society. If it does not fight, it says, it will be obliterated. 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. Israel does not turn the other cheek; it does not hope for a heavenly city of Jerusalem. It fights for actual life and survival against overwhelming odds. Will it even be there in 100 years time? But Israel's critics compare it to the former South Africa in the era of apartheid with unacceptable discrimination against Palestinians, a 'Berlin' type wall of separation and countless injustices and indignities foisted upon them backed up with an iron hand of superior military might.
My own view is that Jews generally and Israelis in particular are rational people. They will make a deal and stick to it. They made peace with Egypt and they made peace with Jordan. It is their own interests to make peace with the Palestinians. They came close to doing so in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords but the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat reneged on the deal and went back to intifada – armed uprising. The Israelis departed from their settlements in Gaza in 2005. It then became Hamas's base against Israel. If Israelis leaves the West Bank settlements they fear that the same thing will happen there. In 2012 the Palestinians tore up agreed mutual security agreements with Israel. We have seen that Hamas has broken all the cease fires in the present war. It is my view that Israel's enemies today are not rational people, capable of making the kind of agreements that Egypt and Jordan have made in the past and sticking to them. We see every day the irrational conduct of the Islamic State in Iraq. It is my view that Christians and Jews share the Old Testament and its theology and ethics. We do not share the Koran. It is not a development of the Old and New Testaments but a radical departure from them in another direction altogether.
And so to our New Testament reading for today from Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul was heartbroken for his race and people who had not recognised their Messiah and had crucified the Son of God. He says that it is his heart's desire that Jews might be saved through Jesus Christ. The problem is, he says, they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own. In other words, they just wanted to do things their own way. This is a good description of parish church life in Scotland today. You might remember some years ago in the days of butter mountains, grain mountains and wine lakes in Europe that farmers were paid not to plant and harvest crops. As traditional farming waned, farmers began to diversify in order to use the land and make a living. So they built stables for horses owned by city people and looked after them; they allowed people to keep their caravans on the ground over winter; they set up animal shelters; they opened farm shops; they entertained school-children and guests who wanted to learn about farm animals; they did bed and breakfast and they built holiday cottages to let.
Churches are trying the same kind of strategy in order to survive. The core mission and purposes of the Church – to worship the living God in perpetuity, to proclaim the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, to maintain a House of Prayer for everyone and to be good neighbours in communities are not attracting sufficient numbers any more for sustainability. We ourselves are struggling here at present in that respect. So congregations are trying to diversify. Where possible, they offer venues for community activities unrelated to Christianity's core purposes. This does make contact with people but it does not necessarily make them Christians. Ministers are becoming more like local entrepreneurs and facility managers than ministers of Word and Sacrament. Some churches specialise in charity organisation, running food banks, gathering up clothes for children in eastern Europe or Africa and raising money for churches and communities in poorer parts of the world. This is noble and good work but it does not necessarily connect anyone to Sunday worship. Some churches are thinking about abandoning Sunday worship and just having tea and biscuits fellowships here and there during the week. However well intentioned much of this is – I fear that it conforms to what Paul was saying – if you don't know God – you just do things as best you can your own way. What is missing is the living power of the Risen Jesus Christ in people's lives. What is missing is the power of the Holy Spirit moving in congregations and communities.
We are part of a national Church which has lost its nerve. Have you ever heard a Moderator talk about God? Have you ever heard a Moderator speak clearly and distinctly about Jesus Christ? You will however hear Moderators telling prime ministers and first ministers and governments what they should be doing. You will hear Moderators expressing views on all matters of the world's ills. You will not hear any Moderator recalling the nation to Jesus Christ. As Paul says 'they do not know the righteousness that comes from God and seek to establish their own'.
At local level no matter how much activity we generate – how much busyness – if we are doing our own thing and making up our own rules we are not being true to the core purpose of Christ's own Church. I have been saying this here for more than sixteen years. It seems that hardly anyone has been listening. As Paul grieved for his Jewish brothers and sisters who were blind to what God was offering through Jesus Christ, we should evaluate whether we are much different.
Paul goes on to summarise where people should actually be as individuals and as congregations. That 'if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved...Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'.