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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble. But the Lord will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.” (Joel 3:16)
On every page of both Old and New Testaments – behind every psalm, story, prophecy, and parable – there lurks a bedrock question that can be stated in two words.
Why aren’t the Aztecs God’s chosen people? Or the Magyars, Cherokees, Saxons, Huns, Shoshone, or Australian Aborigines?
The Bible’s answer may not be satisfying to modern hearts and minds, but it couldn’t be plainer: Israel is God’s chosen people because God said so. The book of Deuteronomy, in particular, makes it clear that Israel wasn’t better, brighter, or holier than any of the other nations God might have chosen (Deuteronomy 7:7-8, 9:6). The Jews certainly weren’t more lovable. But they became lovable, at least in God’s eyes, because – for reasons known only to God – he set his love on this tiny slice of humanity and promised he would never change his mind.
Consider the sheer audacity of Joel 3:16.
The prophet says that the Lord will thunder from Jerusalem (which at the time was just a second-rate city in the middle of nowhere) and roar from Zion (which was a funny little ridge, only a few acres in size, in the middle of the Jewish capital). The Lord announces that he has a special relationship with Israel: He is their refuge and stronghold. By calling them “his people” he’s more than implying that all other people groups around the world – from Maine to Madagascar to Malaysia – need not apply for special consideration.
For the Lord of the Universe, this seems stunningly undemocratic. And more than a little strange. In the words of poet and humorist Ogden Nash: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.”
Israel, at least, can revel in the fact that they are the chosen people, right? But history has been anything but kind to the Jews. As Tevye puts it in The Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But once in a while can’t you choose someone else?”
The answer to that question is No.
In Genesis 12:1-3, God selects one man (Abram, who will become known as Abraham) and declares that he is going to bless him. But there’s a second part to this announcement. Abraham’s blessing is not for himself alone. He is “blessed to be a blessing.” His call, through his many descendants, will be to share God’s grace, mercy, and peace with everyone else – specifically through a Jew who one day will be born in the hamlet of Bethlehem.
Thus all the world’s people groups are in the crosshairs of God’s love, after all. In a long, slow, and often painful process – three steps forward and two steps back for something like four millennia – God is blessing all of broken humanity by means of his specially chosen (and very much broken) people, the Jews.
Whether we are physical or spiritual descendants of Abraham, God’s call on our lives is exactly like his: (A) I am blessed (B) to be a blessing.
So how do people respond to that call? We can roughly divide the world into four camps.
First, there is the response of the Cynic.
According to the cynical person, neither (A) nor (B) of the Bible’s “blessing formula” is true. There is no blessing because there is no God (or at least a God we can know or trust). Therefore attempting to bless others is a monumental waste of time. People need to grow up and figure out how to get through life as best they can.
Second, there is the Idealist.
Idealistic people believe that statement (B) – being a blessing to other people – stands alone. Regardless of whether I myself am blessed, my goal is to change the world. And the world clearly needs to be changed. Bulldozers, bank accounts, and ballistic missiles rule the day. Change will undoubtedly require both legislation and revolution.
But history has demonstrated that even the best efforts of idealists are often disastrous. Every one of the great revolutions of the past century was sold as an attempt to bless people. In the end, entire populations were sold out. When statement (A) is left out of the equation – when we attempt to serve others from spiritual emptiness instead of spiritual fullness – we almost always do damage to others and to ourselves.
The third response is that of the End User.
According to this perspective, Statement (A) stands by itself. I was born into this world to enjoy the blessings of God. It’s all about me. Woo-hoo.
Author and evangelist Tony Campolo has told the story of a factory, humming along with an immense force of workers, all the employees doing their jobs. A visitor who tours the factory is greatly impressed. At the end of the tour, however, the visitor says, “Wait a minute. You never showed me the shipping department.” “What shipping department?” asks the guide. “You know, the place where you send out everything the factory produces.”
“Oh,” said the guide, “we don’t have a shipping department. The amazing thing about this factory is that it is entirely self-sustaining. Everything we produce is used to keep the factory running.”
The tragedy of all too many individuals, families, churches, and nations is that they fail to cultivate a vision larger than self-maintenance. It’s all about us. But God has not called to be spiritual cul-de-sacs, accumulating his best stuff and holding on to it for our own purposes. We’re all called to work in the shipping department.
That leaves the fourth option. We are to be Faithful to the Abrahamic formula.
Our experience of (A) – being blessed by God – should lead us to the fullest possible expression of (B) – offering our lives as a blessing for other people.
What stands in the way of embracing that vision? Sometimes we fear that there might not be enough blessing to go around. If I surrender too much care, love, and resources in the service of others, will I use up the blessing God has given to me?
God assures us that such a thing can never happen. As fast as we give away what God gives to us, our own supply will be restored. “My cup overflows,” says David the shepherd (Psalm 23:5). That’s something Israel had to learn through centuries of fear and failure, healing and restoration. Yes, the Jews are God’s uniquely chosen people. But their chosenness is not just for themselves, but for the whole world.
It’s incredible that God is willing to share his greatest treasures.
But’s there something even better than that.
God’s treasures have come to us because they are on their way to someone else.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.