by Fr. Jack McArdle
Throughout the Old Testament, God spoke to his people in many ways. He spoke through the prophets, and he spoke through nature. The words spoken through the prophets were sometimes words of condemnation, at other times, words of encouragement and promise. He spoke in the wind, he spoke in the rain, and, as the Psalmist puts it, the mountains, the seas, and the skies proclaimed his presence, and his glory. The Hebrews had a sense of God being very near to them. The Old Testament is chock-full of accounts of how God intervened in their lives, either to rescue or to punish. Essentially, they were a pagan people, who, even after accepting the Ten Commandments, were still reluctant to let go of their pagan gods. They complained alot, and were continually putting God to the test. They were a 'head-strong people', to use God's own words. They were 'stubborn and stiff-necked', which was another of God's opinions about them. God was continually calling them to turn back to him with all their hearts. Through promise, invitation, reprimand, and threat, God endeavoured to keep them in line. He had given them free-will, so no way would he attempt to compel them, or to coerce them into anything against their will.
The message of God was, essentially, an invitation to return to the Garden. It is important to understand how our relationship with God is set up. God loves us. That is the core and the nub of the message. An essential ingredient in creation is love. Love, by definition, is always creative. In an ideal world, all babies would be conceived and procreated in love. God is love. In other words, God cannot do anything but love us, and 100% at that. If a problem comes into the relationship, it always comes from us. Each one of us is the loose cannon is this relationship. I could predict that, at a certain moment, on a certain day, during a certain year, the sun, moon, and earth would be in a straight line, forming an eclipse. I could not predict how a particular person might act or react, with anything like the same accuracy! Only God is constant, only God is consistent. It is part of our nature to always be in a constant state of change. Alice in Wonderland begins her story with the words "I could tell you my story beginning this morning. I could not begin yesterday, because I was a different person then." When I was learning my catechism many years ago, I was told that 'God is immutable'. I hadn't a clue just what that meant! I now know that it means: 'God does not change'. God is the same yesterday, today, and always. God is Creator. He will never destroy this world of ours. We're on the way to doing that ourselves! God's original offer is still there, even if we have walked away from it, or turned our backs on it. The Garden is still there for us. In other words, we are invited to return to the Garden, and to walk humbly with our God. The prophet Micah told the people 'The Lord has already told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.' God is love, and a central ingredient of love is forgiveness. Just as God's love is infinite and unconditional, so is his forgiveness. Time and time again, through the prophets, God called his people to return to him. "Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them white as snow." Through the prophet Hosea, God made the following appeal to his people, which I quote at some length, because of the beautiful insight it reveals : "Return to your God, O Israel. Your sins have caused your downfall. Return to God with humble words. Say to him 'Oh you who show compassion to the fatherless, forgive our sin, be appeased'......I will heal their wavering, and love them with all my heart, for my anger has turned from them."
I believe it is well worth while listening to the words of some of the prophets, in order to appreciate God's deep longing for his people to return to his love and friendship. In doing so, we notice once again the basic stubbornness of the human heart. The prophets were accepted as being the voice of God, and yet their message was so often ignored, and went unheeded. The words of the prophets are with us to this day, so they were not just the verbal meanderings of some individuals. Because I am a teacher, I never presume that another understands every word I say! Therefore, I wish to preface my quotations from the prophets with the following clarifications: Because the Hebrews considered God's name to be holy, they always referred to God as Yahweh, which literally means I am who am. When God spoke to them he called them Israel, Judah, people of Zion (a holy mountain), or he spoke to their leader on their behalf. Isaiah spoke the following words on behalf of Yahweh, the all-holy God: 'Yahweh waits to give you grace; he rises to show you compassion. For Yahweh is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him. O People of Zion, who dwell in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. When you cry, he will listen; when he hears, he will answer.....the Lord will hide no longer. Your own eyes will see him, and your ear will listen to his words, whispering: This is the way, walk in it.' Perhaps the most hope-filled message from Yahweh, and one that clearly predicts the coming of a future Messiah, is found in Isaiah 35. 'The widerness and the arid land will rejoice, the desert will be glad and blossom. ...... Give vigour to weary hands, and strength to weary knees. Say to those who are afraid: Have courage, do not fear. See, your God comes, demanding justice. He is the God who rewards, the God who comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unsealed. Then will the lame leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing and shout. For water will break out in the wilderness, and streams will gush forth from the desert. The thirsty ground will become a pool, and arid lands springs of water. In the haunts where once reptiles lay, grass will grow with reeds and rushes. There will be a highway, which will be called The Holy Highway. No one unclean will pass over it, nor any wicked fool stray there. No lion will be found there, nor any beast of prey. Only the redeemed will walk there. For the ransomed of Yahweh will return,with everlasting joy crowning their heads. They will come to Zion singing, gladness and joy marching with them, while sorrow and sighing flee away.'
I would like to stick with Isaiah for another while, because it contains so many messages of future hope. 'You are my servant, I have chosen you, not cast you away. Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will give you strength, I will bring you help, I will uphold you with the right hand of my justice. .......For I, Yahweh, your God, take hold of your right hand, and say to you: Fear not, I will help you. .............The poor and the afflicted seek water, and find none. Their tongues are parched, with nothing to drink. But I, Yahweh, will hear them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open up streams over the barren heights, and let the rivers flow through all the valleys; I will turn the desert into lakes and brooks, and a thristy earth into a land of springs........that all may see and know, consider and understand, that the hand of Yahweh has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created this.' I must now resist the temptation to quote more and more such powerful messages of hope, spoken through the prophet Isaiah. The Old Testament is like coming events throwing their shadow. The Old Testament is like radio, while the New Testament is like television. The promises of the Old are fulfilled in the New, and the words of love are accompanied by hugs and tears.
Jeremiah spoke these words on behalf of Yahweh : 'If you return, I will take you back, and you will serve me again. Draw the gold from the dross, and you will be as my own mouth. I am with you to free you and save you. I will redeem you from the wicked, and free you from the hands of tyrants.' In a passage more easily connected to the coming Messiah, who would call himself the Good Shepherd, Yahweh says 'Alas for the shepherds who mislead and scatter the sheep of my pasture. You have scattered my sheep, and driven them away, instead of caring for them. Now I will deal with you because of your evil deeds. I will gather the rest of my sheep from every land to which I have driven them, and I will bring them back to the grasslands. They will be fruitful, and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will care for them. No longer will they fear or be terrified. No one will be lost. The day is coming when I will raise up to David a righteous offspring, a king who will rule wisely, and govern with justice and righteousness. Then Judah will enjoy peace, and Israel will live in safety.'
The following passage from Jeremiah is worth quoting for its poetry as much as for its loving invitation to the people to come back to God. 'Hear the word of Yahweh, O nations, proclaim it on distant coastlands: He who scattered Israel now gathers them together; he guards them as a shepherd guards his flock. For Yahweh shall ransom Jacob, and redeem him from the hands of his conqueror. Shouting for joy, they will ascend Zion; they will come streaming to Yahweh's blessings - the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and the herds. They will be like a well-watered garden; no more will they be afflicted. Maidens will make merry and dance, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness. Instead of sorrow I will give them comfort and joy.' I'm afraid I must move on, and leave Jeremiah behind! It is so full of promises for the future that I would like to add one more quote: 'The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel, and the people of Judah; not like the one I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand, and led them out of Egypt. They broke my covenant, even though I was their Lord. This is the covenant I shall make with Israel: I will put my law within them, and write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not have to teach each other, saying 'Know the Lord', because they will all know me, from the greatest to the lowliest, for I will forgive their wrongdoing, and no longer remember their sin.'
And now we turn to the prophet Ezekiel to hear some more of the Lord's promises. 'As the shepherd looks after his flock when he finds them scattered, so will I watch over my sheep, and gather them from all the places where they were scattered in a time of cloud and fog. I will bring them out from the nations, and gather them from other countries........I will search for the lost, and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak......They will know that I, Yahweh, am their God, and that I am with them'. Perhaps the most reassuring promise of all is contained in the following words: 'I will gather you from all the nations, and bring you back to your own land. I shall pour pure water over you, and you shall be made clean. I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you. I shall remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and move you to follow my decrees and keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you shall be my people, and I shall be your God.' Ezekiel was given a direct commission in the following words: 'My people say " it is the end of us, our hope is gone". Prophesy! Say to them: "this is what Yahweh says:'I am going to open your graves, I shall bring you out of your graves, my people, and lead you back to the land of Israel. You will know that I am Yahweh, O my people, when I open your graves, and bring you out of your graves, when I put my spirit in you, and you live. I shall settle you in your land, and you will know that I, Yahweh, have done what I said I would do.'
Before drawing this chapter to a close and to a conclusion, I would like to quote a few words from the prophet Hosea. Through this prophet, God said that Israel had prostituted herself, and no longer could be called his spouse. However, in his great love, he desires to lure her back to him and to his love. 'I am going to allure her, lead her once more into the desert, where I can speak to her tenderly. Then I will give back her vineyards.....Yahweh says: she will call me my husband....You will be my spouse forever, betrothed in justice and integrity; we will be united in love and tenderness. I will espouse you in faithfulness, and you will come to know Yahweh.' The final words of Hosea form a strong plea to return to God, Yahweh: 'Return to your God Yahweh,O Israel! Your sins have caused your downfall. Return to Yahweh with humble words. Say to him: 'Oh you who show compassion to the fatherless forgive our sin, be appeased. Instead of bulls and sacrifices, accept the praise from our lips.' I will heal their wavering, and love them with all my heart, for my anger has turned from them. I shall be like dew to Israel, like the lily will he blossom.'
Thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me thus far! I felt it necessary to paint some kind of backdrop to the main theme of this book. Throughout history God continued to call his people to return to him. His final messenger was Jesus himself. Jesus would accuse them for ignoring the prophets, and for killing many of them. He would tell a story about a king who sent messengers, one after another, and each was rejected. The king then decided, "I will send my son. Surely they will heed him."
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.