A Light to the Gentiles
Sermon of September 19, 1993
The Japanese Christian Church of Philadelphia
Thomas F. McDaniel, Ph.D.
Translator: Masaaki Shiraiwa
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen
I want, first of all, to express my thanks to Reverend Fujita for inviting me to share in this special worship service celebrating the 49th anniversary of the Japanese Christian Church of Philadelphia. I bring you greetings on this joyous occasion from the Dr. Brauch, the President of the Eastern Baptist Seminary, and the entire seminary faculty. Eastern is very happy, indeed, to have the Japanese Christian Church of Philadelphia as a seminary neighbor and this year to have a member of your church in our student body.
We pray God's continued blessing upon your ministry in Philadelphia and in Overbrook!
At the seminary we have a rich diversity in our student body -- Asian, African, Latin American, European -- and we are pleased to be in a neighborhood which reflects the same rich diversity in the church-at-large. The seminary itself acts as the host for two ethnic churches: a Haitian church meets every Sunday in the seminary dining room, and a Korean church meets every Sunday in our chapel. Some of us from the seminary will be worshipping and walking with you in the ecumenical service on Sunday afternoon, October 3. We want to affirm and celebrate with you and the other churches in Overbrook in an ecumenical spirit the richness of our ethnic churches: Japanese, Korean, Haitian, African American, American Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and all the rest!
My message today will focus on the issues of ethnicity and ethnocentrism. The Bible can be used to legitimate both: ethnicity and ethnocentrism. But, in my opinion, the Christian faith will permit us to legitimate only ethnicity—such as is enjoyed in this church—and that faith will require us to renounce ethnocentrism wherever it is found, be in the church, in the mosque, in the synagogue, in the temples, at the shrines, or in the beer-halls that cater to "red-necks" and bigots. My text for this sermon is the 19th chapter of Isaiah, verses 18-25.
However, before, looking immediately at Isaiah 19, permit me by way of introduction to take you to St. Luke's nativity narrative, focusing on the Simeon's shocking words (Luke 2:29ff.):
"Lord, now let thou thy servant depart in peace . . .
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation . . .
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to thy people Israel."
I say "shocking" words of Simeon, not because I, as a gentile, find them shocking, but because Joseph and Mary, pious Jews with whom God was well pleased, found them shocking: "And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him." After the virgin-birth, one would not expect Joseph and Mary to be surprised about anything; but they were surprised by Simeon, for he included the gentiles as a part of God's "messianic package." Simeon, you see, was ethnic but not ethnocentric! He boldly maintained his identity as a Jew and Israelite; but at the same time he was inclusive, welcoming the fact that the messianic child would be a revelation to the gentiles, as well.
Joseph and Mary were not alone in their ethnocentrism, certain that God would again "help his servant Israel . . . as he spoke to Abraham and to his posterity for ever" (Luke 1:54f.), as though this was the sole intent of messianic mission. Their ethnocentrism had its roots in the Abrahamic covenant as it was remembered in the traditions reflected in Genesis 15 and Genesis 17, where nations would be dispossessed of their lands so that Abraham's progeny might take possession of the lands from the Euphrates to the Nile.
For the gentiles of Canaan, the covenant of God with Abraham was something more than an ethnic affirmation; it was experienced by them as being painfully ethnocentric. Gentiles had to perish that Israelites might live. However, the covenant with Abraham recorded in Genesis 12:1-3, recalled a significantly different covenant agenda. It replaced ethnocentrism with ethnicity and universalism: "In thee shall all the families of earth be blessed!" No hint here of ethnic-cleansing and the dispossession of the Canaanites.
The covenant was intended to be a blessing for everyone: Abraham's family [kazoku] and his neighbors [minzoku].
Joseph and Mary, like most of the Jews of Jesus' day, were influenced more by Genesis 15 and 17 than Genesis 12. They were ethnocentric, and understandably so, for they had lived under gentile rule (Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman) for more than 500 of their last 600 years. They had enough of the oppressive pagans and gentiles! A messiah would certainly exclude the gentiles; yea, he would certainly rid them from the sacred land of Israel. They were unashamedly ethnocentric! But Simeon, surprised them all! "And his father and mother marveled at what was said about him!" But where was Simeon coming from?
I think he was coming from Genesis 12; certainly not Genesis 15 and 17.
But not Genesis 12 only. He was coming from Isaiah 19, as well. But not from all of Isaiah 19; just the last half! Isaiah 19 is an amazing chapter in the Bible! The first half of Isaiah 19, in rich poetic imagery, is out-right ethnocentric, filled with more violence, hate, and bigotry than most of us will want to admit.
Yet, the second half of the chapter—read in part as the scripture lesson—is in standard Hebrew prose but with a beautiful mix of ethnicity and universalism. There they are in the same single chapter, as though they taunt each other in contradiction. Listen to the differences:
19:2 I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians,
they will fight every man against his brother,
and everyman against his neighbor . . . .
19:3 They will consult the idols and the sorcerers,
and the mediums and the wizards . . . .
19:4 I will give over the Egyptian into the hand of a hard master
and a fierce king will rule over them . . . .
19:14-15 The LORD has mingled with her [Egypt] a spirit of confusion . . .
and there will be nothing for Egypt
which head or tail, palm branch or reed may do.
19:20 When they [the Egyptians] cry to the LORD because of oppressors
he will send them a savior . . . .
19:21 And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians
and the Egyptians will know the LORD on that day . . .
and will make vows to the LORD and perform them.
and [LORD] will defend and deliver them.
19:22 they will return unto the LORD
and he will heed their supplications and heal them.
How can one account for such differences within one chapter of Isaiah? I think it is easier for me to explain the differences this Sunday than it would have been to explain it last Sunday. On Monday September 13 -- just 6 days ago -- the world witnessed two handshakes between Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Rabin. They were handshakes that may well reshape the history of the Near East (and, as we all well know, they were handshakes that could cost both men their lives). If we substitute the name "Palestine Liberation Organization" or "Arabs" for "Egypt" or "Memphis" in Isaiah 19:1-16, and the text could well have been Prime Minister Rabin's message to his cabinet any time up through September 12: "I will stir up Arab against Arab / PLO against PLO." Or, if we change the name "Egypt" or "Zoan" to "Israel" or "Jew" and these words would ring true for Chairman Arafat: "they will fight every Israeli against his brother and every Jew against his neighbor." But something happened on September 13, and something happened in Isaiah 19 between verses 16 and 18. It was a change from the terror of war to the path of reconciliation.
I think the change in Isaiah 19 actually occurred in verse 17, which I would translated from the Hebrew (contra the English and Japanese translators) as follows:
"And the land of Judah shall be for the Egyptians
(a place of) pilgrimage for the Egyptians,
and everyone to whom it is mentioned will stand in amazement
because of the purpose of the LORD which He has purposed concerning them."
My disagreement with other translators centers on the Hebrew word hag, here translated "terror" [osorerare]. "Hag" is actually the Hebrew word which would be used today for the anniversary celebration of the church. It means literally to celebrate an anniversary, a birthday, a feast, to make a (periodic) pilgrimage. It is the same word pronounced in Arabic as haj, used by Muslims for making the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is a word of joy, happiness, pleasure, and laughter! This joyful word hag/haj was translated "terror" to accommodate the ugly mood of verses 1-16.
But it really verse 17 initiated an entirely different mood -- away from violence and hate -- away from ethnocentrism -- to ethnicity mingled with universalism! I can now imagine Chairman Arafat or Prime Minister Rabin willing to contextualize Isaiah 19:23: "In this new day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians." Arabs (Christian and Muslim) and Israelis, Muslims and Jews -- except for fundamentalist extremists in all three religion -- seem ready to guarantee the freedom of the highways for food and faith, for work and worship, for religionists and the secularists. Ethnocentrism is giving way to a new inclusiveness: all deserve peace and freedom!
As Isaiah envisioned an altar to Yahweh in Egypt (19:19), as he envisioned a "City of the Sun" in Egypt were the Hebrew/Canaanite language would be heard and appreciated (19:18), we can now hope that Jerusalem may now become "a City of the Sun" where Hebrew and Arabic will be mutually appreciated, where one will not to be nervous when saying either Hebrew shalom! or Arabic salam!.
(I recently greeted a visitor from Egypt who was visiting our nearby Overbrook Presbyterian Church with the greeting in Arabic as-salam alaykum "peace be with you!" The visitor became angry with me, wanting to know why I would greet him in the language of Islam in a Christian church. For him, Coptic was the language of Egypt, not Arabic, and if I must use Arabic it should not be salam "Peace!")
Let me now move from the exegetical study of the text to the experiential implications. On August 3, last month, I was engaged at Temple University in the Department of Religion in the oral examination of one of my former students who was moving ahead in his doctoral studies. It was an impressive exam, lasting for about three and a half hours, instead of two. The three of us who made up the "faculty committee" for this student, Mr. Ward, were not the only faculty members present. Present also were Professor Mahmoud Ayoub. the professor of Islamic Studies and Professor Shigenori Nagatomo, the professor of Japanese religions.
Also present were about 10 other doctoral students. There were the customary technical questions raise by those of us on Mr. Ward's committee. I asked him about archaic Hebrew grammar, ancient Near Eastern myths and poetry to test his expertise. He was giving very good answers to me and my committee colleagues.
Professors Ayoub and Nagatomo listened, but asked no questions, until I asked Mr. Ward to address the issue of Hebrew/Israelite/Judean ethnocentrism and nationalism -- i.e., Israelite "ethnic cleansing" perceived to be the will of God. I wanted to know how he would handle Abraham's covenant, how he would handle the "tensions" in Isaiah 19.
At this point Professor Nagatomo raised his one and only question. Precisely summarized, he wanted to know what was the nature of true religion? Given the fact that Israelite religion, like every other religion, is a composite of ethnocentric nationalism called upon to legitimate all kinds of violence, ethnic cleansing, and hate; and given the fact that Israel, like other religions, had its sublime statements of peace, love, reconciliation, and universalism, which of these two polarities is the nature of true religion? To all of us present, this sounded like a "Japanese" question. Professor Nagatoma was being so ethnic at this point! So beautifully Japanese, we thought. His question moved us from mundane questions, which experts could answer easily, to the profound question about the essence of religion, which required not knowledge alone but a statement of faith and a declaration of values.
Mr. Ward answered Professor Nagatomo, with hesitation given the profound quality of the question, with his Christian faith statement, renouncing ethnocentrism and religious nationalism as being "religious behavior" but not true religion. Nagatomo Sensei was satisfied with the faith statement. Then, just a few moments later, Professor Ayoub did his ethnic thing! Being blind he felt his watch to check on the time.
It was late, almost noon, we should have stopped an hour earlier. Therefore, he interrupted our questioning saying with true Arab affection: "We must stop soon, enough questions for Mr. Ward. He's a friend of mine and I want to take care of him!" Imagine that! A Muslim professor of Islamic Studies coming to the fair defense of a Christian clergyman when his fellow Christians are tiring him out in overtime, for what Professor Ayoub charged were our "Christian games." (How well he remembers Christian inquisitions and heresy trials.)
Here was ethnicity in action: Christians in debate, a Lebanese Muslim being gracious and caring, and a Japanese professor, the Head of the Department, being profound, tolerant, and gentle! The academic exercise was enriched by the ethnic input! Three nationalities: American, Lebanese, Japanese. Ethnicity? Yes! Ethnocentrism? No!
Isaiah 19 concludes with some of the must profound words of universal inclusiveness in the Old Testament:
In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt
and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth,
who the LORD of host has blessed, saying,
BLESSED BE EGYPT, MY PEOPLE!
AND ASSYRIA, THE WORK OF MY HANDS!
AND ISRAEL, MY HERITAGE!
We can substitute the names without doing a disservice to the prophet:
Blessed be the Palestinians, my people!
Blessed be the Arabs, the work of my hands!
and the Israelis, my heritage.
Or more to the context of this church:
Blessed be Japan, my people!
And all of Asia, the work of my hands!
And the whole human family, which is my heritage!
May God richly bless the Japanese Christian Church of Philadelphia as it exercises its ethnicity in the household of faith and thereby demonstrates to all who will notice, that
God so loved the world!
He intends for all the families on the earth to be blessed!
God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself!
Simeon, the Jewish saint, was right!
The Christ is "a light for the Gentiles and for the glory of Israel!"