Of Homelands & Homes
Summer 2019: Places
Of Homelands & Homes
September 1, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
As we’ve journeyed this summer we’ve walked in the footsteps of Jesus, we’ve crossed the Jordan River and toured the streets of Jerusalem. Today, as we end our summer series, we’re going to look more broadly at the geographic region now called Israel.
Before we go a disclaimer: My goal in the next ten minutes is to discuss Israel from within the broad biblical, historical and political consensus. I’ll almost certainly fail, at least from the perspective of somebody, somewhere. Israel’s like that.
Long before Israel is a country it’s a man, a man called by God to inherit a divine relationship first bestowed on his grandfather. A relationship including the promise of a homeland located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea along the Jordan River.
Israel has twelve sons whose descendants form the twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes inherit the promise. They would, after being delivered from slavery in Egypt, come to occupy the land.
A clarification: the difference between an Israelite and an Israeli. An Israelite refers to someone who is a descendent of Abraham before around 587BC. An Israeli is a citizen of the modern nation of Israel.
Across scripture Israel refers either to the son of Isaac, the people descended from the son of Isaac, one of two ancient countries or the geographic region once occupied by those countries. The first of those countries emerges around 1,000 BC when King David unites the tribes and established a geographic kingdom occupying roughly the same area as the modern nation of Israel. After David’s son Solomon’s death the kingdom splits into two countries. The northern country keeps the name Israel. The southern country adopts the tribal name of Judea. Around 722 BC the Assyrians absorb the northern country called Israel, rename it Syria, and the name Israel largely disappears from geographic history. Judea remains independent until 587 BC when it is conquered by Babylon – but the name Judea remains a primary geographic term for the area around Jerusalem.
Trivia time: the people from Judea were called Judeans which, over the course of history, was shortened to Jews.
The fall of Jerusalem begins a time when the land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean would be controlled by a who’s who of world empires, many of which actively opposed Jewish values, culture and spiritual practice. Jews also become scattered across much of the connected world. Some of Israel’s descendants begin yearning for the original geographic promise – a homeland, a place where the children of Israel could be free, safe and in control. In time Israel becomes a hope, a vision, the longing for a home.
To go home is to sleep in your own bedroom and to know your way around the kitchen. To be home is to be able to drop pretense, act like you want, to always be welcome. I once heard an interview with an elderly Holocaust survivor. Even though he lived in New York City he rejoiced daily in the 1947 establishment of the state of Israel. “It means I have someplace to go,” he said. “I can always go home.” Not all that different from a much younger friend of mine who, upon losing her job, told me she figured she’d just go home to her parents’ house until she figured out her next steps.
I found myself flipping through a historical atlas during the process of researching this sermon. With each turn of the page, empires rose and fell, countries came and went, the politics and economies of those countries shifted back and forth. We find safety in being always able to go home until our parents die, or sell their house, or marry someone we don’t like. Our hometowns change until we no longer recognize them, or feel safe.
We can, of course, try to freeze time. Countries pass laws to preserve their culture and raise armies to preserve their borders. Communities use peer pressure to discourage new commers and zoning to shape their character. Acquaintances of mine, two sisters who lived with their brother in their parents’ home, once used every trick in the book to drive away their brother’s fiancée, lest she introduce change in their household. We can try to freeze time but it doesn’t work. The fiancée endured the sisters’ torture, married their brother, who moved out.
Jesus famously didn’t have a home. He also never pursued an agenda of Jewish nationalism. He was a king without a throne, without an army, with a kingdom whose presence came and went with his person, with the ministry of his followers. His disciples would scatter throughout the known world. Like Jesus they talked of a kingdom of the heart, a kingdom of the spirit, a kingdom made manifest by the actions and prayers of those who followed Jesus, a kingdom distinctly lacking borders, walls, fortresses or palaces, a kingdom able to exist across continents, cultures, races and ethnicities. A kingdom able to endure.
Israel inherited two promises. One was for land. The other for a relationship. Many have tried to build kingdoms on the first. Jesus chooses the second. For when you achieve oneness with God, when you build and sustain community on the foundations of love, grace and hope, you don’t need a house, a town, a nation, a home. Sure its nice to sleep in your old bedroom, to walk familiar streets, to have someplace to go where you’ll be safe, where you can be yourself, where you can be free. But while those homes can falter, fail, change, even be destroyed, our ever nurturing, ever supporting, ever transforming relationship with Christ can, and does, endure.