Note: This is part 3 of 5 in a series looking at the overall story of God’s plan, or redemptive history, as told across the breadth of Scripture and ancient Near East history. I am preaching this series as the beginning of my time serving as pastor of Foundation Baptist Church in Rosebud, Texas. Follow these links to read week 1 and week 2.
In my last post, we looked at the can’t-be-overhyped moment when God looked down on humans, His rebellious children who had marred the beauty of Creation, and decided to enter covenant and community with one of us. Rather than letting us wallow in our destruction, the Creator of everything reached across from divinity to humanity in order to overcome the conflict of all human history, our separation from God. The only righteous One even decided to set in motion His plan by befriending Abram, a man known to have been involved in tribal power struggles, violence, and the bondage of human beings. God promises to make Abram a great nation, powerful and famous, through which He will bless the whole world.
If we didn’t already know the broken reality in which we live, it would be easy to think this was the resolution of the story. Unfortunately, we’re a stubborn lot, and the path back to joy grew rough and difficult as our brokenness pushed back against our only hope. Literary scholars point out that the best stories go through a time before the climax in which the story becomes more complicated, pushing the protagonist to rise. Humanity has always staggered under our separation and pain, but what could truly present an obstacle to God’s desire to be our God and for us to be His people? A flat out, verbatim rejection of His plan.
After Abram is renamed Abraham and has a son (plus a lot of trouble in the process), the children of Abraham, eventually known as the Hebrews, spent centuries toiling in Egypt before being led out by Moses. Once they reach the Promised Land of Canaan, they survive for a time as a confederation of sorts, only coming together in the interest of emergency defense. But when faced with the growing threat of the technologically advanced Philistines, the tribes of Israel demand to be like the other nations and have a king to lead them. God warns them that they will indeed be like the other nations, now toiling under the yolk of one of their own, and that such a desire is a rejection of His lordship. Yet they persist. Humans reject God’s plan throughout the Bible, but I believe this is one of the most important rejections in all of Scripture. Like someone wanting to stay married while adding another spouse to up the family income, Israel completely declines to trust God. After working so hard to reconnect with us, God watches as we flee in a moment of fear.
This is also one of the most important rejections, however, not simply for the depth of our failure but also for the depth of God’s grace. Too often preachers, writers, and readers see this text as a closed story. God gives in, the people suffer, end of story. But the action is only rising, not ending. Israel weathers the storm of the Philistines, but pays for it dearly. The Jewish kings become increasingly wicked, holding their subjects further and further under the water in order that they might climb to greater heights. The worship of God becomes mixed with and even replaced by the worship of local pagan deities. Tangled alliances are made with nations God had warned against, even the Egyptians who had once ruled the nationless Hebrews. Royal oppression increases and national righteousness decreases until the system breaks down entirely. Assyria routes the northern splintered Kingdom of Israel, while Babylon takes the southern Kingdom of Judah, taking their leaders and nobility into captivity hundreds of miles away from home. Israel, the promised kingdom, is no more.
But even the darkness of a captivity the Israelites themselves caused could not hold back God’s plan. Persia pushes aside Babylon, freeing the Jews to restore Jerusalem and the Temple. Their leader, Cyrus, is even named as a messiah (anointed one) by Scripture despite his pagan background. The Persians, once God’s tool to free His people, in turn are overcome by the seemingly unstoppable drive of a young Macedonian. Dying before he can truly rule his empire, Alexander the Great left the Eastern Mediterranean to anguish in the throes of border struggles between the descendants of his followers. It is in this time that some Jews rebel, attempting to restart the kingdom in an effort known today as the Maccabean revolution (the origin story of Hanukkah takes place in this time). This squabbling cultivated fertile soil for the rapid Mediterranean expansion of Rome. So, other than briefly freeing the Jews from Babylon, what was God up to in this time? At the end of all this fighting, all of the lands surrounding Israel shared the common language of Greek, thanks to Alexander. The known world was connected in spectacular fashion by the shipping routes, advanced roads, and hegemony of Rome. And centuries of oppression endured by the Jews had placed an unquenchable longing in their hearts for God to send one great and final Messiah who would restore their nation and rejoin the covenant God had begun so long ago with a man named Abram. Despite their rejection of His lordship in favor of a human king, God had been working the whole time to create the perfect circumstances for a King to unite Jew and Gentile, a man whose anointing was craved by the Jews and whose Name could spread like wildfire through a common language and a united empire. And that King would be the descendent and true heir of the very kings God had warned Israel against.
Our God is not a God who is only willing to aid the worthy. He is not a God who is only willing to love those who always follow Him. He is not a God who quits when the action rises and the path grows more complicated. He is not a God who will only work to overcome the evils done to us. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and even of the Israelite peasants lost to history is a God who is willing to use even our mistakes. And He is willing to work while we run from Him to bring us back to Him. He is willing to do this in order that He might take up our pain and walk among us, an act of love that forms the very climax of God’s story.