By Wes Hill
I wonder if you have ever had the experience of hearing a promise and then being totally caught off guard by how it gets fulfilled.
I remember one summer hearing my dad talk about what our family vacation in California would be like. We would start out, he said, in Southern California, in LA, and drive up Highway 1 — or “the 1,” as I’m told Californians call it — and finish our trip in Yosemite National Park. I was excited by Dad’s promise. I imagined it would be a fun and memorable trip. But when we finally stepped out of the family minivan and walked around among the redwoods, when I finally took in the sight of Bridalveil Falls, I felt as if I had landed on another planet. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve seen any scenery that has taken my breath away quite like these places. The fulfillment of Dad’s promised family vacation far exceeded — indeed it completely transformed — any sense I had of that promise at the beginning of our trip. Dad’s promise was certainly fulfilled, but not in any way I could have fathomed ahead of time.
I wonder too if you’ve ever had the experience of hearing a dreadful prediction and then finding yourself surprised and elated at how what you had been dreading turns out to be, instead, something wonderful. The fulfillment of what we are anticipating can easily catch us up short. It can cause us to rethink everything we thought we knew about a predicted outcome.
Consider a promise from the Old Testament prophet Amos. In this oracle, the prophet is looking ahead to a time after the death of Israel, on the far side of God’s judgment of exile, to a time when the dynasty of David would be restored and the redeemed people of Israel would triumph over their enemies. The prophet says it like this, according the Hebrew Masoretic Text:
On that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,
says the Lord who does this.
These words would have probably conjured up images of military victory for the first hearers of this prophecy. After suffering ignominious defeat and death, God’s people, says the prophet, will once again be great. They will have dominion over their enemies. One commentator says it this way: “[God’s people possessing] the remnant of Edom implies the conquest of neighboring lands instead of the Israelites themselves being invaded and overcome.” For God to rebuild the fallen house of David and assure His people that they would possess their enemies probably made the prophet’s hearers think of a scene like the end of The Lord of the Rings, in which Aragorn finally takes his throne, picking up the thread of a long lost dynasty and subduing the enemies of Gondor.
But is that, in fact, how God has chosen to keep the promise He spoke to Amos? Or could it be that the fulfillment of the prophetic word might catch us completely off guard, surprising us with how much more wonderful it is than we — or Amos’s first hearers — might have imagined?
Today is the feast of St. James of Jerusalem, sometimes called St. James the Just, and in our New Testament reading we find James interpreting for us God’s wonderfully, ironically surprising fulfillment of the oracle I’ve just read from Amos.
Let me set the scene for you a bit. Paul and Barnabas, after preaching about Jesus among the Gentiles and seeing Gentiles receive the Spirit of Jesus without getting circumcised, are appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this controversial mission activity with the apostles and elders there. There have been some Judean missionaries saying, “Unless [the Gentiles] are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, [they] cannot be saved.” So Paul and Barnabas have to go to Jerusalem defend their missionary work among the Gentiles, because they take the opposite view: Gentiles can and indeed are being saved without being circumcised. The Gentiles are exchanging their worship of worthless idols for worship of the true God of Israel, and Paul and Barnabas are eyewitnesses. The Gentiles are submitting to the gracious reign of Jesus Christ. And they are thereby being rescued — forgiven, saved, recreated.
As the council in Jerusalem listens to Paul and Barnabas tell this story, they hear about a heretofore unimaginable thing. The pagan nations, whom they once believed they would conquer and subjugate, are now joining them in the worship of the same Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The descendants of Edom, not to mention the Greeks and barbarians, are now joining the people of Israel around the same table to praise with one voice the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so, after Paul and Barnabas finish describing this new reality, James stands up and says this to his fellow Jewish believers: “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon” — that is, Peter — “has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name.” (Now to Peter’s testimony can be added that of Paul and Barnabas.)
And then James says something remarkable. He says that this new experience of watching the Gentiles come to faith in Jesus and join with the people of Israel in worshiping God is exactly what was prophesied in the book of the prophet Amos.
“This agrees,” James says, “with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
“‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’”
Notice how James has radically reinterpreted the reference to Israel’s possessing the remnant of Edom as Amos’s first hearers would likely have understood it. It turns out, in God’s strange providence, that the way the non-Israelite nations will be “possessed” is by being converted by the mercy and grace proclaimed in the gospel. Amos’s prophecy has come true — but in a way no one could have foreseen ahead of time. God has indeed allowed Israel to conquer the Edomites and the Gentile world — but that conquering has happened through the Jews Paul and Barnabas’s preaching of the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead.
One of my favorite images in the entire New Testament is of Jesus as a warrior in the book of Revelation chapter 19. The imagery John the Seer uses to describe him is all militaristic. He rides on a white horse. He judges and makes war. And the armies of heaven trail behind him on their own horses. And then John comes to actually describe Jesus’s warfare: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” Notice, the sword Jesus wields is not a literal one in his hand. It comes rather from his mouth. His sword is the Word — himself! — and with it he announces his death and resurrection as the reconciliation between God and humankind, and he thereby conquers the nations, redeeming them and making them — us! — submissive to his gracious rule. He conquers us by healing us. He overcomes us by reconciling us to himself.
That is what St. James celebrates in our reading this morning, friends. God has indeed been faithful to His word through the prophet Amos. God has indeed kept His promise that Israel would possess her enemies. The true Israelite, Jesus the Messiah, has indeed subdued us, the Gentile nations. He has disarmed us, turning our rebellion to faith through the word of His testimony. Anglican though I am, I love the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith: we, the pagan nations, have been “made willing by his grace” to welcome His free salvation. We Gentiles have been drawn to seek the Lord. Over us His name has been called.
Let us now eat and drink to that.
The Rev. Dr. Wes Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary.