The promised land

St Mary's Church, Epiphany 2, 15th January 2006
Isaiah 60: 9-22; Hebrews 6:17-7:10
The Promised Land

The story of the people of Israel from the very earliest beginnings to the present day is tied up with the Land, the promise made in various ways to various people at various times that they would be God's people, and God would be their God, and that they should be given a Land flowing with the milk and honey of God's blessing. No matter where you look, that theme recurs, and when we talk about the Covenant between God and his people, that third element is often forgotten.

'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house and I shall show you a land, I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.' So promised God to Abraham in a text that resonates through history, and is echoed in our New Testament reading this evening.

And unless we understand the depth of that resonance we will never begin to understand the complexities of today's Holy Land and the relationship between the modern nation of Israel and her neighbours. The story of the people of Israel – whether you take that to begin with Noah in the flood, or with Abraham journeying through the desert, or with the Israelites in captivity in Egypt – is always coping with homelessness, with wandering, with exile and captivity, and with that the longing for a place they could call home.

Lost and homeless today

Walter Brueggemann, for me one of the most convincing of Old Testament scholars of the 20th century, wrote a book that explores the theme of 'The Land' that helped me to get my best mark in Old Testament at theological college. He begins the book with this statement:

The sense of being lost, displaced and homeless is pervasive in contemporary culture. The yearning to belong somewhere, to have a home, to be in a safe place, is a deep and moving pursuit. Loss of place and yearning for place are dominant images....This of course is not a new struggle, but it is more widespread than it has ever been. Nor is this sense alien to the biblical promise of faith. The Bible itself is primarily concerned with the issue of being displaced and yearning for place.

The Jews and homelessness

If that is so about modern society generally, and Brueggemann makes a strong case for it pervading the whole of society, even those who by most material barometers would be thought to be successful and well-rooted, how much more strongly must it pervade the Jewish people whose whole history has been bound up in rootlessness, in exclusion and in terrible, terrible persecution. What sort of image of God can they possibly nurture in their hearts who makes such lavish promises to their forbears but seemingly allows – or at least does not prevent - such awful suffering and destruction of his chosen people? Judaism as a religion seems to have rationalised this conundrum in a remarkable way and has over the centuries reached an understanding that the 'Promised Land' that so often seemed almost within their grasp physically, might actually be something more spiritual and familial than geographical. But such has been their experience of diaspora and separation that it is not altogether surprising that deep down many Jews nurture a sense of longing for the security of a land of their own; and that longing has of course fuelled a political movement that has appealed to the faith and sensitivities of Jews across the world to pursue a focussed and at times deeply oppressive campaign to claim back 'their Promised Land'.

It would be hard for anyone to deny the legitimacy of longing for a homeland. The international community, in the wake of the holocaust, acceded to the demand that such a land be created or recreated. The problem was that elements of that political movement that founded the State of Israel also pursued pseudo-religious policies based on the idea of being Chosen People of God to assume exclusive right to land ( with it seems indeterminate borders, because scripture certainly offers no hints about where the boundaries of this Promised Land might be) and to power, in a place where other indigenous people also claimed rights. This premeditated subjugation of others, described as 'betrayal' by one Jewish theologian, undermines the credibility both of the secular State of Israel and of those religious traditions within Judaism that support and justify those policies. As Marc Ellis, the theologian I have just referred to says, in a book written some years ago now, “The choice between fidelity and betrayal arises from the history of our people, guided as they are by the image of “enslaved ancestors” as Walter Benjamin once wrote. To be faithful to our ancestors, particularly those who have struggled, suffered and died in the Holocaust, is to be attentive to their cries, which must guide us. But fidelity to our own values and history is intimately connected to the struggles for liberation of others; the brokenness of our past is betrayed, our political empowerment made suspect, when others become our victims.”

Restoration, defence and oppression

This is a timely reminder both to combatants in the Holy Land as yet more political changes appear on the horizon, but equally to all societies and communities that seek to address social injustice. It is certainly relevant in the current debate in this country about anti-social behaviour. What is an awful scar on our community – and Nottingham knows about it – is not solved by scapegoating the most vulnerable, indeed by scapegoating anybody. It is easy to blame, and then to subjugate the weak, but it resolves nothing. Forced removal of beggars off our streets and labelling them with the blame for funding drug dealers in this city, as the official campaign did two years ago, is superficial in the extreme – as a group of clergy tried to say to the City Council. It may have made our streets more comfortable for us to walk down, but the fact that the rough sleepers drop-in provided at St Peter's over the past year has had to open for a second day and is now dealing with over 70 people a session, right there in the centre of the city, demonstrates that, whilst we may feel superficially better about ourselves – our longings for a clean, pleasant and uninterrupted shopping trip may generally be fulfilled, the world underneath remains the same. The drugs are still circulating, and the anti-social behaviour continues (and it has little to do with rough sleepers).

There are many ways in which we nurture a longing for a promised land, and a belief that we are the chosen people, a concept that inevitably others are not chosen, and therefore are of less value and can be marginalised or at worst removed.

It will hardly take a profound study of history to find that concept somewhere at the root of most of the power-seeking and oppressive regimes that have littered the human story, and there it is enshrined in our own religious tradition. And our Old Testament reading this evening is all about promise. Taken from the third distinctive section of Isaiah, written following the Restoration of God's people to Jerusalem, after their enforced exile in Babylon, it is full of promises. It sounds like a charter for subjugation and exclusivity. That is until the last stanzas. And that is the bit that gets lost in so much of our longing. We long for peace, for comfort, for security, for wealth, and we elect or appoint those whom we think will bring those gifts. But in Isaiah's vision, it is the Lord, not the sun or the moon, but the Lord who will be our glory and our everlasting light. It is in the longing for the Lord's day amidst the confusions and the sufferings of the present day that the amazing courage and creativity and steadfastness of humanity blossoms most freely. It is when we are lulled into the security and confidence of our own abilities that we come a cropper.

Andrew Deuchar

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Last revised 17th April 2006