Date: July 18, 2010
Texts: Num 9:15-23, Jer 29:4-9, 1 Pet 2:9-12
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
We are wanders—all of us. Most of us did not grew up here in North Carolina. Even if we did, our ancestors didn’t. We live in a foreign land. I’ve been here for seven years, and I’m still not quite sure if I am at home. How do we know when to go and when to stay? When will we ever feel at home in one place? Should we ever feel at home where we are?
Israel is a wandering people. In our passage from Numbers, Israel wanders as God leads the people through the desert. “Whenever the cloud lifted above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped” (Num 9:17). They live by the word of God. The fire of God’s presence leads them. There’s a rhythm to their wandering–and we can hear the rhythm in the repetition of the passage: they set up camp, then they pick up and follow God’s presence, and after wandering around for a while they set up camp again only to pick up camp and start wandering again. Also, notice that their house of worship is a tent—a wandering site of God’s presence for a wandering people.
Even when they finally set up more permanent camps in the Promised Land, neighboring powers invade Israel and displace them, just as Israel displaced the previous inhabitants of the land. Israel is still a wandering people, even after a phase of settling in the Promised Land.
When the Babylonian forces come and take them into exile, the prophet Jeremiah tells the people of Israel to be at home wherever they find themselves. They can be God’s people among whichever nation holds them captive. Jeremiah gives us the words of God to the people in exile: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Mary and have sons and daughters…. seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jer 29:5-7).
Their life as God’s chosen people, as Israel, must go on even while in exile. They aren’t supposed to take up arms and fight their way back to the Promised Land. Babylon is now their home. Exile doesn’t change God’s plan for their lives. They can be at home even in a foreign land—building houses, planting gardens, seeking peace. Israel can go on without a homeland.
Now I want to be careful here. God makes commitments to Israel that involve the Promised Land. I don’t doubt God’s ability to make that happen somehow at some point in history. But I also believe that Israel’s return to the Promised Land will not involve armies and wars and security checkpoints and bulldozing Palestinian homes and burning Palestinian gardens.
Israel will be a presence of peace, a people of peace—Jerusalem literally means, “the abode of peace.” The people of Israel will be a blessing to the nations, to their neighbors, not a curse to the other inhabitants of the land. The nation-state called Israel in the Middle East is not same body as the chosen people God calls to be a blessing to the nations.
It’s important to notice that in the biblical story, Israel comes into existence without a land. While land is very much important to the people of God, Israel is not born in the Promised Land. They become Israel as they are called out of places—like Abraham being called out from Ur, the land of his ancestors, and Moses calling Israel out from Egypt, the land of slavery. God gives birth to his people while they live elsewhere, while they are homeless. They become Israel without setting foot on any land of their own.
This is a remarkable fact, especially if we consider the way nations are usually formed. It usually has to do with land. You are an American because of the land of America. But Israel becomes Israel while living among other people, in someone else’s land, while wandering in the deserts, while living as slaves in Egypt.
And Israel can go on and be Israel while living without a land, while living in exile. That’s what God says through the prophet Jeremiah: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” They are a homeless people who can make their home anywhere—because God goes with them. The God of Israel is not bound by geography. God lives in a wandering tent, a moveable house of worship, as a renter in a land that ultimately belongs to God.
That’s what I experienced on my recent visit to the Mennonite church in San Francisco. They rent space for worship from a Jewish Synagogue, Israel in exile among the Gentiles of California. The people of Israel can be God’s people anywhere, even in San Francisco, even in a building that used to be a Lutheran church—and before that, it was a funeral parlor, a house for the dead.
At first the Jews of that synagogue did not like the idea of letting Christians meet for worship in their building. And that’s quite understandable. In the name of Christ, people have persecuted and killed Jews throughout history. There are good reasons why Jewish communities would want to keep their distance.
But the Mennonites and Jews continued to talk and think about the possibility. After they developed some healthy relationships, the Jews allowed the Mennonites to use their space for worship. Now there are several Jews from the synagogue who come back for worship with the Mennonites on Sunday morning. And a few months ago, the pastor of the Mennonite church was invited to preach at the synagogue.
Their distinct lives as separate peoples are blurring together as they worship in the same building on different days: Gentiles living as renters among the Jews who are living in exile. Together, they are learning how to be a blessing for the world, for their city, for their neighbors.
Gentile Christians have a lot to learn about how to live as exiles. It only makes sense for us to turn to the Jews for help. Israel knows how to live in exile. But our reason for turning to Israel involves more than simply asking advice from people who are knowledgeable. For us as Gentile Christians, we can’t help but be linked to the Jews because we build our lives around Jesus, who was born of a Jewish mother, and was circumcised on the eight day. Our savior was and is a Jew, a child of Israel.
We have heard the call of the God of Israel, through Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And now we follow Jesus into the house of Israel, even though we are not Jews. We are in a strange position of being outsiders to God’s promises to Israel, yet also claiming to worship Israel’s God. Israel wasn’t supposed to be our home, yet we have built our home within this chosen people, as renters who have found that we can’t help but belong to God and with God’s chosen people.
This is what’s at stake in our passage from 1 Peter. The author writes to the churches and tells them about their strange identity: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (I Pet 2:10).
For 1 Peter, through Jesus Christ, Gentiles have become part of the chosen people of God—we have received mercy, we have received our peoplehood, our identity. “You are a chosen people,” he says, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (v. 9). We belong. We are at home in God’s presence.
But being at home with God does not mean we live as people who possess the land, who own the world, who wield power, who control other people. As it says in 1 Peter: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles in the world to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul” (v. 11).
We are exiles, aliens, foreigners, strangers. We don’t belong, we don’t possess, we are not a people in control. Yet we build houses and plant gardens wherever we go. We seek the peace of the people all around us. We live as God’s blessing for the world, in whichever corner of it we may find ourselves.
The month of July is a tough one for us as a church, as God’s people who have set us tents of worship here in Durham and Chapel Hill. Just as we have wandered here from all over, people will wander from us over the next week weeks. This will be the last week Emily and Lee will be with us, and over the next weeks five other people will also leave: Emily Wilson and Matt Hauger, Jen Coon and Matt Thiessen, and Jessamine Hyatt.
It will be sad to watch them go, but we know that God wanders the earth with us. God can make homes for us anywhere, as we build houses and plant gardens, as we work and pray for peace wherever we find ourselves.
God’s communion can happen to us anywhere. This meal we will soon enjoy together is the way God dwells with us, within us, even. As the one loaf of bread is broken and passed along, we also see how we are broken and scattered throughout the earth—the body of Christ wandering the earth, making homes for God’s presence everywhere we go.
We come together and we depart always in faith, knowing that we are sustained by the grace of God, a power we cannot possess, but a gentle power of love that possess us, that holds us in God’s eternal embrace, through Jesus Christ, amen.