For the week of July 25, 2009 / 4 Av 5769
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Chosen To Fail
Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. (Isaiah 1:4; ESV)
The Bible is primarily the story of God. We learn the story of God through the life experiences of a particular people group: the nation of Israel. While the purpose of the Bible is to make the true God known to all peoples, he is revealed for the most part through this one people. This is summed up in the first book of the Torah, where God says to Abram, "...in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Bereshit / Genesis 12:3; ESV).
As the story of the Scriptures unfolds, there are many wonderful accounts of God's magnificence demonstrated through ancient Israel: Moses standing before the world power of his day to lead his people out of slavery; Joshua leading the nation in conquest of the Promised Land; David defeating the giant; Elijah calling down fire from heaven. But these and other shining moments are actually the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, Israel failed in its mission to be God's light to the nations. Isaiah's words that I began with don't only apply to the time in which he spoke. They are rather a reflection of much of Israel's experience right through the Scriptures.
This doesn't mean that Israel did not fulfill its purpose to which it was called. Even though Israel did fail to live up to the standards God set for them, God revealed through them one of the most important truths that we as human beings must learn in order to know God - that on our own we cannot live up to his standards. Hundreds of years after Isaiah indicted Israel for its failure to follow God, another member of the nation of Israel wrote, "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God (Romans 3:19; ESV).
Israel was indeed chosen to reveal God to the world, but a component of that was to make it clear that all people, whatever our background, cannot, on our own, be what we were intended to be. Israel's failure to live up to God's standards is no reason for other nations to point their finger at Israel as if they could have done better. Israel was chosen to demonstrate what we all really are - sinners in need of God's forgiveness and grace.
God's purpose in choosing Israel is only truly fulfilled as we recognize this need. It is when we stop pretending that we are better than we are and accept our dismal human state that we will be in a position to know God. Later in this week's Haftarah, Isaiah says, "'Come now, let us reason together,' says the LORD: 'though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool'" (Isaiah 1:18; ESV). God desires to change us, but unless we recognize our sinful condition, we will never avail ourselves of his offer to do so.
In a day when self focus is expected, self fulfillment is encouraged, self improvement is assumed possible, and personal autonomy is viewed as a right, it is difficult to see ourselves reflected in the failure of ancient Israel. But our refusal to do so doesn't change reality. Until we humble ourselves to accept that we, like Israel of old are "laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly", then that is exactly what we will be.
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