Proper 13A

July 28, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 14: 13-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 32: 22-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 17: 1-7, 15

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 9: 1-5

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    In the space of one verse, Paul moves from the soaring poetry of Romans 8 with its bedrock certainties of the Christian life to the sorrow and anguish of Romans 9 with its hard rock difficulties of the “Jewish problem.”  The contemporary preacher has to decide how much she wants to pound away at that hard rock difficulty.  The Lectionary lesson for today basically sidesteps the great theological problems of Romans 9 by focusing on the personal issue of Paul’s passion for his fellow Jews.

    If you decide to preach on the Lectionary lesson, you can preach a rip roaring sermon about evangelistic passion, exegeting Paul’s sorrow and anguish over his lost brothers and sisters and encouraging your congregation to have that emotional commitment to their lost family and friends.  That is a legitimate use of the text.  But verses 1-5 are really only the beginning of a fantastically complicated and difficult explanation of God’s master plan for history.  To skip over such a huge subject is, in my opinion, a big mistake.

    It is entirely understandable why the Lectionary would omit verses 6-29.  This is not the kind of “glad text” we preachers are always looking for.  Paul says things here that are theologically awkward, pastorally embarrassing, and arguably anti-Semitic.  That is precisely the reason we should attempt to explain them to modern Christians.  They are not, as some scholars say, the great parenthesis in Paul’s magnum opus; they are the whole point.  This is where he has been heading all along.  So in all honesty we must deal with all of Romans 9-11.  Today I’ll try to help you preach a good gospel sermon on verses 1-29.

    Above I spoke of the “Jewish problem.”  Of course, I didn’t mean what Hitler meant. I was talking about the problem that confronted Paul.  Paul was a Jew and all his life he had been taught that salvation is of the Jews and for the Jews.  God had chosen Abraham and all his descendants not only to be his saved people, but also to be the source of salvation for the entire world.  Accordingly, as Paul says in verse 4, God had showered the Jews with salvific blessings: adoption as children, the revelation of the divine glory, the covenants (with Abraham et al), the law of God, temple worship, the promises of the Messiah and other promises, and the patriarchs.  And “from them [the Jews] is traced the human ancestry of Christ….”  The Messiah would be the culmination of God’s saving work with and for the Jews; he would come from the Jews.

    Now Paul has met that Messiah, risen from the dead after his crucifixion.  He is preaching all over the Roman Empire that the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  His preaching is summarized in the theme verse of Romans: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentiles….”

    The problem was that the Gospel had been preached to the Jews first, but the great majority of them did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  What’s more, they believed that Paul was a traitor to his people and to his God.  (Cf. Acts 21:27-28 for an example of their opposition.)  That presented a huge problem for Paul and his fellow Christians, the Jewish problem.  How could they explain that massive unbelief?  Did this mean that it was all over for Israel?  Had God’s Word failed?  Could Paul be wrong?  How could Israel’s present situation be explained?  That’s the problem that occupies Paul here in Romans 9-11.  How do you account for the brute fact that so many of God’s chosen, privileged people have not accepted God’s Messiah?

    As I said above, Paul answers by explaining God’s master plan of salvation—not just what you and I must do to be saved, but God’s great plan for all of human history and for the entire human race.  His explanation presents us with some of the hardest stuff in the entire Bible.  Paul’s argument is hard to understand, first of all.  But then even when you do understand it, it is hard to accept, hard for the Jews, surely, and also hard for us Christians.  In the midst of all this difficult theology are passages that are like landmines that will blow us off track.  So when we come to them, I’ll point to them, the way scouts point to IED’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, and carefully step around them so that we can stay on the path of clarity regarding Paul’s major point in these chapters.

    Just because these chapters are so difficult, it is absolutely imperative that we understand the spirit in which Paul wrote them, and in which we should read them.  As I said above, Paul wrote with “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”  Paul does not say these hard things easily.  He writes with a passion for his lost kinsmen, a passion few Christians have ever felt for lost people.  Indeed, he even says in verse 3 that he would sacrifice his own salvation if it meant that they could be saved.  That was not possible, of course, but that was the Christ-like, sacrificial love Paul had for his unbelieving Jewish brothers and sisters.  He is not, therefore, sitting on his high horse as he writes these hard words, looking down on some despised strangers.  He is talking about people he loved so much that he would die for them, would be damned for them.  But they have not accepted the Messiah.  Why?

    In those few words of verse 6 we have the first part of the explanation—“not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.”  Everything hinges on this distinction.  Paul is not talking about the nation of Israel here, that geographical and political entity.  He is talking about the people of Israel, people who were Jews by birth.  And he says, not all of them are really Israel. What does that mean?  Paul explains with a history lesson.  From the very beginning of God’s dealings with Israel, way back in the days when Israel was only the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God made choices.  As a result, not all the physical children of Israel were his spiritual children, his covenant children, his saved children.

    Look at Abraham, he says in verse 7.  Abraham had two natural children, Isaac and Ishmael.  Both of them came from his loins, but only one of them, Isaac, was his seed, in the sense of being part of the covenant God had made with Abraham.  In other words, says verse 8, “it is not the natural children, children by birth, who are God’s covenant children, but it is the children of the promise,” the children God had in mind when he promised Abraham that he would save him and his children.  God made a choice between Isaac and Ishmael, and only Isaac and his children can be considered Israel.

    What’s more, when you look at Isaac’s children, God made a choice between them, too, even before they were born.  Before they had done anything either good or bad, God chose Jacob to be the child of the promise, the heir of the salvation promised to Abraham and his children.  Now, here is one of those landmines I mentioned above, this whole business about God “hating” Esau.  We’ll step around it, so that we don’t miss the point, which is that “not all descended from Israel are Israel.”

    All Jews knew these stories and believed they were true.  And that’s how Paul explains their rejection of Messiah.  It’s not as though God’s promise to Abraham has failed; rather, it is that God made the promise only to some of Abraham’s children, only to Israel according to the promise, only to the elect remnant.  Indeed, says verse 11, God made this choice so that his “purpose in election might stand.”

    That raises an obvious problem, the very problem Paul addresses in verse 14, the problem of justice.  If God only chose some of Abraham’s children to be in his covenant and to be saved, is that fair?  Is it just to make such choices, before those children were even born?  It sure doesn’t seem like it, does it?  Let’s listen to Paul’s response.  “What then shall we say?  Is God unjust?  Not at all!  For God says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’”

    Do you get that?  Paul says, “When you talk about justice, you are using the wrong term.  As long as you want to focus on the justice issue, you will be hopelessly confused by this election business.”  Indeed, it will cause you problems in your relationship with God.  Because, you see, it’s not a matter of justice; it’s a matter of mercy.  Justice means getting what you deserve, what the law says you ought to get. And the law says, “The soul that sins shall die.”  So if it’s justice you want to talk about, then everyone should die eternally, because that’s what we have deserved.  From a biblical perspective, that’s justice.  If God were only just, then no one would be saved.

    The fact that God chooses to save some is not unjust; it is simply merciful.  He is under no obligation to save anyone.  So if he saves someone, that is not unjust, it is merciful.  And, says God, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.  It is my choice.”  He doesn’t explain the reason he shows mercy on anyone; he simply says that if someone gets saved, it is because of mercy, pure and simple.

    Here again we encounter another of those landmines, this difficult business about hardening Pharaoh.  We’ll step around it, so that we won’t get blown off track.  Paul’s point is that much of Israel has not believed in Jesus Christ because not all Israel is Israel, and that can be traced to God’s merciful choice of some to be his saved children.  Others he leaves in the hardness of their hearts and, in so doing, hardens them.  “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”

    That raises the obvious objection, the one every thinking person has raised to the biblical teaching of sovereign, unconditional election—“Then why does God still blame us?  For who can resist his will?”  If it all depends on God’s choice, then our choices don’t have any significance, and we aren’t at all responsible for how things turn out.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?

    The fascinating and troubling thing is that Paul doesn’t even attempt to answer this objection with anything approaching a reasonable answer.  He doesn’t explain God or defend God.  In fact, he stands in God’s place and basically puts the questioner in his place. “But who are you, a mere human being, to talk back to God?”  And he picks up that famous Old Testament metaphor of the potter and the clay.  As one wag put it, God says, “I am God, you’re not, so shut up.”

    Of course, the Bible is full of people who talk back to God.  There’s Abraham himself, and Moses, and Job, and the writers of the Psalms.  God doesn’t tell them to shut up.  That’s because there are two ways of talking to God when we don’t understand him.  One is the way of a confused and hurt child who looks up to her heavenly Father with tears in her eyes and asks, “Why, Daddy?”  The other way is the way of a proud prosecutor who hauls God into court and demands an accounting of his ways with us humans.  That’s the spirit of the questioner here, and so God says, “I won’t explain my sovereign choices to you. I am God, your creator.  And I have a right to do as I please, just because I am God.”

    If that sounds terribly harsh and heavy (and it does to modern ears that have been raised on the bumper sticker “question all authority”), think for a moment about who God is.  Hardly anyone talks about God this way anymore, so it is jarring to recall this classical theological language spoken by Adam Clarke.  “God is the eternal, independent, self-existent Being; the being whose purposes and actions spring from himself, without foreign motive or influence; he who is absolute in dominion; infinitely perfect; illimitable in his immensity, inconceivable in his mode of existence, and indescribable in his essence…. In other words, a Being who, from his infinite wisdom, cannot err or be deceived, and from his infinite goodness, can do nothing but what is eternally just, and right, and kind.”  That God has reached into the human race, which is in full blown rebellion against him, and chose some to be his people.  His plan for them is bigger and more complex than the Jews or we Gentiles could ever understand.

    Rather than complain about it, and challenge God over it, says Paul, we ought to be grateful that God has chosen us, whether we are Gentiles or Jews.  Because, he says in the closing verses of this section, once you Gentiles were not “God’s people.”  But now you are.  And regarding Israel, if God had not made his merciful choice way back then, there would never have been an Israel at all.

    What can we do with all this hard stuff?  We should do what Paul did.  He did not look up at God in rebellion and shake his fist under God’s inscrutable nose.  And he didn’t look down on the Jews in pride because he thought he deserved salvation.  Instead he stood in the breach for them, caring so much about their rejection of Christ that he was filled with great sorrow and anguish.  He would not give up on them just because they had rejected Christ up ‘til then.  Rather, he carefully and passionately explained the way of salvation to them, no matter how hardened they were.  He knew that God wasn’t done with them and that God’s plan for the salvation of the human race is more complex that we could ever comprehend.

    We can preach the Gospel to hardened unbelievers today because the Bible teaches us over and over again that God’s mercy is wider and more powerful than we can imagine.  Throughout history the mercy of God has taken many who are “not his people” and turned them into “the children of the covenant.”  And he will continue to do that until “all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26)

    Illustration Idea

    Do you recall those recesses back in elementary school, when the two most athletic kids appointed themselves captains and picked kids for the softball game?  Do you remember how you always hoped you would get picked first, or how awful it felt to be picked last?  Everyone wants to be a first round pick in the recess draft.  But what if no one wanted to play with one captain?  What if they hated him because he was so much better than him, and they all decided they would join another team and clobber him because he didn’t have a team at all?  In their grade school rebellion, they walked away from him, calling him names, making horrible faces, and hurling pebbles at him.

    That is exactly what the human race has done with God.  He could just let them all go.  He has no obligation to draft anyone and persuade them to play on his team.  And yet, God chooses some of those who didn’t want to play on his team and very effectively enlists them to play on his team.  Is that unfair to those who didn’t want to play with him?  No, they freely chose to play elsewhere, and he simply let them have what they wanted.  His choice of some of the rebels to be on his team was an act of free mercy.