Sunday, July 3, 2022

I Am A Hebrew

Every eye in the New Hampshire state legislature is looking at him. Rev. Joseph Buckminster, the 35-year-old pastor of Portsmouth's First Church, wasn't supposed to be here, but the usual preacher had broken a bone, so... here Joseph was. It was the year 1787, the first Thursday in June. It's been four years since the close of the war against the British crown, but things hadn't gone as smoothly as hoped for the nascent nation, already in default on its debts and wracked with controversy. Representatives from each state, Joseph's included, were just now meeting down south in Philadelphia, striving to hammer out a new constitution to adequately serve “the interests of this new empire.”1 But Rev. Buckminster's concern was here. And so he preached. And preach he did to the state's legislators. “Our political situation,” said he, “is not less hazardous or threatening than was the real situation of the mariners with Jonah, when Heathen could exclaim, 'Awake, O sleeper, and call upon thy God!' Our sins, our neglect of God, and forgetfulness of him, are the Jonah that have raised the tempest, and however hard we may row to bring them to land, they must be cast overboard, or the ship will sink.”2

Turning back to the Book of Jonah, we do find those 'heathen' mariners, the Phoenician sailors, realizing theirs to be a hazardous and threatening situation. A storm surrounds the ship. Practical efforts to lighten the load have at best delayed the inevitable. None of their gods are heeding their desperate prayers; they feel spiritually abandoned. And it occurs to the sailors that this can be no ordinary storm. Its behavior suggests an intention, a purpose to punish them. But why? Or, more to the point, whom? Most of them are collateral; who's the target?

Giving up on talking to their absentee gods, the sailors start talking to each other. They agree on an approach: “Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whom this evil is upon us” (Jonah 1:7). So they cast lots, and it directs their attention to their passenger: Jonah the runaway prophet – though they don't know that yet. They wouldn't have even needed to resort to casting lots if he'd come forward! But he's a prophet who will not prophesy, a witness who will not give witness. But despite him, the LORD is honoring their sincere desire to understand, and he wants to back Jonah into a corner, till at last he can be made to break his silence.

So the lot has fallen on Jonah, and the whole crew takes it for a divine sign that Jonah's the reason why they're all endangered in a guilt-by-association situation. Now they know who the target is. But they don't yet know the targeter, nor why the targeter targets his target, nor even if the target knows why he's targeted or who targets him. Remember, these sailors are pagans. In their worldview, there are plenty of gods – each people they visit have a different set – and they're so inscrutable that it's easy to offend one unknowingly. To that end, the sailors turn into detectives, interrogating their witness in an effort to narrow down the pool of suspects and motives.

They ask Jonah about his occupation. They've got no clue yet that he's a prophet, but his line of work might tell what kinds of obligations he could've failed or what specialty of gods might be interested in his life. They ask about his origins, his hometown, where he grew up, because the gods there might be involved. They ask what country he lives in, because then a different set of gods might stake a claim on him. They ask what ethnic group he belongs to, since the customs and traditions of his people could show a different range of possibilities. With nary a wasted word, the sailors are intent on prying their way to the bottom of Jonah's identity – which is the very thing Jonah's been running from. In fleeing the face of the LORD, Jonah's been fleeing himself, but now he'll have to grapple with the basic questions that add up to who he is, and who he's supposed to be (Jonah 1:8).

And the same is true of ourselves. These are all good questions. Tomorrow, our neighborhoods will offer some fine festivities and rituals that aim to give an answer. The question of ethnicity they might answer by pouring forth an American identity from a melting pot. The question of origins they might answer by rehearsing the story of the overlooked and overtaxed caught in the onerous grip of an overseas overlord, rising up to wrangle the reins of self-rule. The question of homeland they might answer as a patchwork of diversity drawn together in common cause, on soil sanctified by soldier-savior blood, a refuge from tyranny if we preserve it so today. And the question of job they might answer as stirring the spread of that liberty, reckoned as popular sovereignty.

Those are answers some of our neighbors might give tomorrow if Jonah's sleuth shipmates questioned them now as they questioned him then. But they question Jonah. So what answers does Jonah give? The book offers only one sentence out of what he says; his other answers are muted. But let's hear what we're told he says.

The words we're told Jonah tells them, breaking his silence, are these: “I am a Hebrew, and the LORD, the God of heaven, I fear, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). That's a fairly unusual choice of words – only in a few places in the Old Testament are people referred to as Hebrews, and it's out of date since before the time of King David. Jonah's suddenly an anachronism, as if I'd showed up this morning in a three-corner hat and breeches. The word 'Hebrew' is mainly reserved for scenes where Israel shares screen time, as it were, with Gentiles. Israelites are “Hebrews” seen through Philistine eyes in 1 Samuel, “Hebrews” seen through Egyptian eyes in the stories of Joseph and Moses, “Hebrews” when the Law works out the memories of slavery in Egypt. But before all that, the first time somebody's called a “Hebrew” in the Bible, it goes all the way back to Genesis. One time, and one time only, in the midst of his Amorite allies, we meet “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13).

To be a 'Hebrew' became, of course, to be a citizen of Israel, a child of the covenant, shepherded by Moses and the prophet. But before all that, it was a claim to solidarity with Abraham, a descendant of Eber from before the world was so divided. It was to live Abraham's life, as a stranger and sojourner in the world (cf. Hebrews 11:13). And as Jonah stands on deck among the Phoenician sailors, he sees himself as an outsider, looked on in the same way Philistines and Egyptians and Amorites saw his ancestors. But he especially sees himself as an heir of Abram the Hebrew, likewise snatched from home and land, an identity in progress. And he views himself as not merely an Israelite but as an exemplary one – much as Paul described himself as “a Hebrew of Hebrews..., as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6).

But Paul understood something deeper about his and Jonah's identity – and that it wasn't theirs to hoard. For in fact, Jonah – who was certainly far from blameless – was no exemplary Hebrew. Paul had greater credentials still, but even he ceded that crown: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, who sums up in himself everything Israel as a nation was ever meant to be. He becomes a one-man Israel, the pure and perfect example of his people's identity. He gives Abraham joy to foresee his day (John 8:56)! And he calls the world back to the unity it had before the nations were divided. Jesus Christ is the True Hebrew who, without place to lay his head, fulfills every dream of patriarch and prophet. Jesus is the pinnacle of what it meant to be a Hebrew.

And in Jesus the Hebrew, we who become his branches become Hebrews at heart, Hebrews in soul. For in the Messiah, it pleased God to make us all sons and daughters of Abraham's faith, even if we're no more related to Abraham's blood than were Jonah's shipmates (Romans 4:11). From every background, we were “grafted in” and so “share in the root of richness” (Romans 11:17), and the nourishment flowing from Abraham's root is a Hebrew heritage better than Jonah's boast and Paul's birthright. Paul can tell you himself: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29). Paul could easily rephrase: “A real Hebrew isn't just a Hebrew in outward things. But a true Hebrew is Hebrew on the inside – be his outside Hebrew or Galatian or Greek or Roman – who is Hebrew through God's Spirit circumcising his heart, conforming him to the Messiah's Hebrew life, enabling him to do Abraham's works from the heart. Now that's a true and spiritual Hebrew.”

So when we were baptized into Jesus Christ, we were grafted onto Israel, because he is Israel; and the Church that takes life from him is the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). When we believe in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, we believe in him with the same faith Abraham showed God in expecting to see Isaac sacrificed yet living again (Hebrews 11:19). And when we truly live by this faith, we live as spiritual Hebrews, “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), passing beyond what's seen to gaze on what's unseen.3

Outwardly, we're Americans. And that gives us plenty to remember, observe, cherish, and celebrate tomorrow. But our answers to those questions of identity are more complicated than some of our neighbors', for we have a different inner identity we have to preserve and put first. Tomorrow, we honor the history of flesh and blood that brought us here. But inwardly, we must say: “I am a Hebrew. The story of my soul begins, not with the uprising of the overtaxed, but with the exodus of the redeemed. I've been sheltered by the blood of the Lamb, I've been led through the sea, I've tasted the heavenly manna, I've been healed from the serpent's bite. Where the history of my flesh and blood says nothing contrary, bless it, O LORD; but where it would lead me astray, rewrite my history, circumcise my heart, LORD, for I am a Hebrew.”

Tomorrow, as on other American holy days, we reflect on our nation's ideals, on its promises of impartial justice and universal liberty, on their sustenance through sacrifice and the enduring mission to set captives free. And outwardly, there is truth to those ideals and goodness to those promises. But inwardly, we must also say: “I am a Hebrew. I am sanctified on the altar of God, which is the cross of Christ. He is the one who 'has set us free' (Galatians 5:1). He sits on David's throne to rule the kingdom of God, and only he will achieve justice for all (Isaiah 9:7). Not popular rule, not a king, but the Spirit is sovereign and supreme. The Spirit of the LORD is my constitution, and 'where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty' (2 Corinthians 3:17). I have not been set free to govern myself or please myself, but to fear the LORD and to serve him in my neighbor (Galatians 5:13). That is my mission all the days of my life, for I am a Hebrew.”

Tomorrow, our community will nurture its identity as American, with everything that means. Bands will play those rousing tunes from days of yore. Fireworks will light up the sky in wonder. Flags will wave in the open breeze, and pride will swell our hearts. And outwardly, that is exactly who we are, just like our neighbors. It binds us together with them, and deserves to be celebrated and enjoyed. But inwardly, we must say: “I am a Hebrew. I am a child of Abraham, whose faith in a God of resurrection lives now in me. I'm prepared to count everything as loss – even flags and fireworks – for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord (Philippians 3:8). My flesh has prospered in a God-blessed nation, but God has 'chosen... the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom' (James 2:5). Jesus the Hebrew, with nowhere to lay his head, is heir of all things, and I'll be his co-heir if I choose him as my lot. I am a son or a daughter of God: I am a Hebrew.”

And tomorrow, we'll likely laud America's “rocks and rills,” her “woods and templed hills.” We might sing of “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain,” and of “a land so fair...,” a “land that I love.” And outwardly, this is the native land of our flesh and blood, the beautiful soil from which we've grown and to which we belong. Its beauty is a blessing that deserves to be loved. But inwardly, we have something more to add: “I am a Hebrew. I am a stranger and sojourner in the earth. I can be no more home here than I could across the globe, for God made this land and that land alike. If this land treats me justly, if her laws are righteous, if her ways are true, I rejoice for this land. If this land treats me unjustly, if her laws are wicked, if her ways are false, if here I am estranged and find no rest, then I weep for this land and not for myself. For I am still seeking a homeland. I cannot be content with this country, for there is a better one prepared for me – a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:14-16). For the LORD, the God of heaven, is my Father, and he would have me home with him. So let me love this land for the sake of loving my neighbors, O LORD, but let me not confuse it for home, or myself for more than a foreigner here, for I am a Hebrew.”

As good Hebrews, we know whom we worship. Jonah forthrightly named him, as we did: “The LORD.” Jonah could have described the LORD as “the God of Israel” – after all, many did, all the way back to Moses (Exodus 5:1). Jonah could have even described the LORD as “the God of the Hebrews” – after all, Moses and Aaron did (Exodus 10:3). But Jonah calls the LORD “the God of heaven” (Jonah 1:9). It's an expression that resonates with the sailors – after all, one of their gods is Ba'al-shamem, the so-called 'lord of heaven,' so Jonah corrects them and points them toward the true lord of heaven. But Jonah's choice of words implies that God's sovereign status isn't subjective – he's my God, I believe in him; he's our God, we believe in him – but objective – he's the God who oversees the world whether you believe it or not. And in this day of privatized religion, Jonah's words are shocking. They challenge a nation that thinks it can reduce reality to a matter of taste.

But more to Jonah's point, perhaps, is that the expression “God of heaven” goes back before Moses and Aaron. For it was the title by which Abram the Hebrew knew the LORD: “The LORD, the God of heaven,” who “took me from my father's house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me...” (Genesis 24:7). This God speaks, he acts, he takes, he calls. He's a God who displaces as well as who settles, a God who does as he wants and who watches over the wanderer far from home. He's a perfect God for pilgrims, for exiles, for Hebrews.

Jonah goes on to assert his relationship to this God of heaven: “I fear” (Jonah 1:9). Now, a person in Israel might fear a bear, in the sense that it can hurt you, so its presence might fill you with anxiety lest you provoke it – and a person in Israel might fear a king, in the sense that he can hurt you, but also because his majesty calls for an attentive respect. The line is a bit blurry between those senses of fear. The fear of the LORD is a healthy respect, a reverent awe, a sense of being overwhelmed by something beyond the limits of our wisdom. To know that and appease that and revere that – that's one of the core ideas of worship. Israel was commanded “to fear the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 10:12), a fear that could be expressed by meticulously obeying his word and rendering him the service of sacrifice in the temple. In that worship, they were to be awestruck by God in an amazement that makes your hair stand on end and takes your breath away.

Jonah says that the LORD, the God of heaven, is whom he fears. But I wonder, is that true? Does Jonah really treat God with reverence? He won't talk to the LORD, won't obey the LORD, won't worship the LORD – does that look like a God-fearing man? Jonah's words are a mere reflex. He's so used to being a prophet that all the stock phrases are stuck to his tongue. But now to him, they're strings of sounds he says. His mouth's muscle memory is evangelizing the sailors, but they expose Jonah's as hypocritical religion: he talks all the God-talk but flunks all the God-walk. His hollow claim to fear the LORD reveals that he's fundamentally fearless – not good.

And he follows it up by declaring that his God “made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Up until now, the sailors could try to give Jonah the benefit of the doubt. But now Jonah admits the God he's resisting is the same God who made the sea they're sailing on. He's not a local god whose claims can be challenged in court. There's obviously no boundary to bolt for, no appeal to apply. Over what he made, he has ownership and jurisdiction and sway. No wonder the sailors “feared a great fear” (Jonah 1:10). No wonder they're indignant at Jonah. To use Rev. Buckminster's phrase, they see him as “a miracle of stupidity.”4 They're clear-eyed enough to see that Jonah sailing for Tarshish makes as much sense as a child trying to escape his parents' rules by sitting one seat over at the dinner table and declaring his independence. Jonah has much to learn about being a true Hebrew. And so the sailors are left sandwiched between the anger of a God bigger than all their dreams and, on the other hand, his idiot prophet whose coerced cooperation is their only hope of survival.

It's to that tempest that Rev. Buckminster compared the political crisis of his newborn nation. And though he longed for “the future glory of America,” he admitted that even at her best, she'd yield to the day when “the kingdoms of this world shall all be blotted out.”5 In the meantime, he urged us to “arise and call upon God, in sincerity and faith, amend our ways and doings that are not good, and give ourselves up to his guidance in the practice of piety, righteousness, and virtue.”6 We can surely do no less in our own days, no less tempestuous than then. We know the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land – and who can, if we seek him, guide us to terra firma once more. And this is the God we should fear, the God we should revere with an overriding awe and devotion, a burning desire not to escape his mystery but to be forever entranced in his mystery – a “mystery” that makes us, once alien to the Hebrew unity, now to be “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise of Jesus Christ through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). This mystery saturates the sea and the dry land; it drips down from heaven above. Though we are wanderers, we cannot wander away from it, wherever we roam. May we live in this beautiful, holy, faithful fear all our days. For this is to do the works of our father Abraham from the Hebrew heart, not in hypocrisy but in spirit and truth. Amen.

1  Joseph Buckminster, A Sermon, Preached Before His Excellency the President, the Honorable Council, and the Honorable the House of Representatives of the State of New Hampshire, June 7, 1787 (Portsmouth, NH: Robert Gerrish, 1787), 20.

2  Joseph Buckminster, A Sermon... (Portsmouth, NH: Robert Gerrish, 1787), 27-28.

3  Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Matthew 11.5

4  Joseph Buckminster, A Sermon... (Portsmouth, NH: Robert Gerrish, 1787), 10.

5  Joseph Buckminster, A Sermon... (Portsmouth, NH: Robert Gerrish, 1787), 27, 29.

6  Joseph Buckminster, A Sermon... (Portsmouth, NH: Robert Gerrish, 1787), 28.

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