July 28, 2014
Matthew 14: 13-21
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
John the Baptist was the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament herald of the Gospel.
And yet he dies because of a stupid, senseless, lusty, and boozy blank check promise made by Herod to a young girl whose provocative dancing had clearly stirred him on more than one level. John literally loses his head on account of a drinking party gone awry and on account of his public scolding of Herod’s larger family for their equally public immorality. He gets killed not because he heralded Jesus as the Christ and not on account of some big, cosmically vital theological issue but on account of having ticked off the wrong people by pointing out the sordid and lurid nature of their lives.
It doesn’t make sense.
But that’s often the way life goes. Gratuitous evil crops up so very often. Even the secular media frequently label any number of crimes as finally “senseless.” Killings are sometimes called “random” and “bizarre” and as having “come from out of nowhere.” Every day people get shot and stabbed and brutalized for the most stupid of reasons (many of which are in fact so stupid as to qualify for that oft-applied moniker of being “senseless” after all).
These things happen, and we all know this all-too-well. But we don’t necessarily expect a figure as important as John the Baptist to get caught up in such senselessness. Yet he did. And as this lection in Matthew 14 opens, Jesus himself is reeling in grief and shock that so great a figure as his cousin could be so easily cut down. The Bible generally does not include big descriptive paragraphs that details a given person’s interior moods or emotions. The text of Scripture contains huge gaps that a modern day novelist or even journalist would no doubt fill in. So as readers of the Bible, we sometimes need to slow ourselves down long enough to ponder what was probably really going on.
In one short verse Matthew dispatches with Jesus’ reaction to the news of John’s death. It’s not very descriptive. Yet Jesus’ immediate reaction of withdrawing privately to a desert-like, remote place speaks volumes. He’s hurting. He’s baffled. Evil won the day over the God-anointed prophet who was the harbinger for Jesus’ entire existence and ministry. Only if we decide to go the route of the heresy of docetism could we deny that the human heart within Jesus recoiled at this evil and broke over the loss of a cousin and friend. Jesus came to save lives. But now his presence on the planet had cost John his earthly life. It just didn’t make sense.
So Jesus withdraws to be alone with his thoughts and his sorrows.
It doesn’t work, of course. The eager crowds hunt him down like some Ancient Near East equivalent of paparazzi tracking down Britney Spears. Jesus would have a right to be annoyed, a right (given his emotional state) to turn his back and withdraw even more deeply into himself or into the wilderness. But, of course, Jesus ends up having compassion. He sees the people as needy and hurting themselves and so cannot possibly let them down.
We all know that the Feeding of the 5,000 happened when the crowds hounded Jesus out to a place devoid of food and resources. And we all know, too, that his feeding of the people, in addition to being a grand miracle, was an act of compassionate love.
But have we ever pondered how Jesus addresses the hurts of the people from right out of the middle of his own deep hurt? Maybe a fresh way to approach this exceedingly familiar story is to not picture—or proclaim—Jesus as the one who is serenely above it all, pulling the necessary levers behind the scenes to generate an abundance of bread and fish. Maybe we need to see Jesus as the one with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks and whose hands are trembling for the sorrow of it all. And yet out of his own scarcity, out of his own emotional trainwreck, he manages to bring forth an abundance of life and joy.
Viewing this story through that lens is a wonderful reminder of the entire trajectory of our salvation and of the gospel that narrates the story to us. Starting with the surprise incarnation of God’s own Son as a humble and helpless baby, the New Testament assures us that our salvation comes not from the abundance of divine strength and the flexing of divine muscle but somehow right out of the same poverty and weakness that led the Son of God to identify with us so sharply in the first place.
Throughout history and across many very different religious traditions there has long been a curious linkage between spirituality and food. The Old Testament has its share of dietary restrictions and laws, many of which to this day translate into what observant Jews regard as kosher or non-kosher foods. Although the Christian faith has largely left behind such strictures, we still regard gluttony as one of the deadly sins, and some Christians also promote strict vegetarianism.
Even some of the foods we eat each week have a religious background. In the mid-1800s there was a group of people in America known as the Millerites–a Christian sect firmly convinced that Jesus would return sometime late in the year 1843. He didn’t, thus setting off what was called “the Great Disappointment.” At least some of these folks, however, made the best of the situation by declaring that as a matter of fact Jesus had returned but that it had turned out to be an invisible, spiritual advent. Believing themselves to be living in an already-present millennial kingdom, these Adventists decided that as part of this new identity they should invent alternative foods as a sign of their not being fully in this world. So one preacher named Sylvester Graham invented a new kind of cracker for his congregation to eat–yes, the Graham Cracker. Peanut butter was also invented at this time, as was a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake,” perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg in a spiritual community located in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Food and spirituality have long been yoked, but aside from observing occasional periods of fasting, no religious group has ever said it would never eat anything again. We all know we must eat and drink to live. If we go much more than three days without water or a month or so with no food, we will die. Many organizations nobly work every day to get food to this world’s starving. The fact that thousands of children die of starvation every day is as vivid, and utterly tragic, a sign of this world’s broken condition as anything.
We need food to live. Those of us blessed enough never to have to worry about our food also have the luxury of being able to enjoy this creation’s bounty in all its manifold variety. We even celebrate those skilled at serving up particularly tasty cuisine, whether it’s Aunt Millie whose pot roast cannot be topped or Julia Child whose “Bouef Bourguignon avec Champignon” is so fine we’ll shell out thirty or forty bucks just to get a plate of it.
We need food, we appreciate it. The crowds around Jesus on that long ago day as reported in Matthew 14 were no different. They were hungry, Jesus fed them and so he quickly rose in their estimation because of this miracle. And it was quite a stunning spectacle. This must have been an occasion of great wonder but also of great joy and hilarity. As the basket of bread and fish kept going and going without being depleted, waves of laughter must have accompanied it. By the time the basket got to the fiftieth person you can almost imagine his shouting back to the first person in line, “Hey, Sherman! Isn’t this the same fish you ate?!” As astonishment gave way to joy, as growling stomachs gave way to stuffed bellies, the people realized Jesus truly was a great man of God. Only the Creator himself could “play” with the very stuff of creation as to pull off this feat.
Author: Scott Hoezee
This week, for a change of pace, I present an entire sermon I once wrote on this Old Testament Year A Lectionary passage. I hope it sparks something in you should you be preparing to preach on this same well-known story in Genesis. ~ Scott Hoezee ~
And so it has come to this. Jacob, the heel-grasper, the schemer, the wheeler and dealer, the sneak, the crook, the lie, the cheat: he’s coming home. Deception and wheedling stand on either side of the last twenty years, like bookends on Jacob’s life. He fled Canaan having deceived his old father, Isaac, and having robbed his twin brother Esau of the all-important paternal blessing. It had been an ugly little scheme, quite literally cooked up by Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, with Jacob’s sly complicity and help naturally. Esau wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and Isaac had been rendered vulnerable by old age and the bad eyesight that can accompany one’s later years. Both were easy marks for people as deviously clever as Jacob and his mother.
All it took to make Isaac think that Jacob was Esau was a little musk, a little goat fur, and the willingness to tell a bold-faced lie. It worked, of course. With palsied, trembling hands, old Isaac had reached out and fluttered his ancient fingers over Jacob’s treacherous head, giving him the blessing that belonged rightfully to Esau. Jacob got the blessing but he lost his home in the bargain. Esau’s fury was real and raw, and so before she would let her elder son turn her beloved younger boy into mincemeat, Rebekah sent Jacob packing.
Now Jacob is coming back home but he’s still running. Lately it had been Uncle Laban, now also Jacob’s father-in-law, whom Jacob had fleeced in a multitude of ways the last two decades. Of course, old Laban wasn’t exactly innocent–it seems as if pulling dirty tricks was something of a family tradition in this clan, and so Laban had scammed Jacob at least as often as Jacob had scammed Laban. But now, having recently wriggled out of a noose Laban had dangled in front of Jacob, this now wealthy man was coming home.
But what about Esau? Did he still bear a grudge? Had Esau whiled away his time the last two decades fantasizing ever-more creative ways to murder his younger brother (if only he could ever find him again)? Jacob would hardly blame Esau if this proved to be the case. Even so, however, Jacob figured that he could just possibly trick Esau out of even his desires for revenge. Jacob may have fled years earlier with nothing but the clothes on his back, but he was returning with vast flocks and herds. Jacob was convinced he could talk his way out of just about anything, and if you combined his slick rhetoric with a hefty bribe, why maybe it would all be enough to extinguish the fires of Esau’s rage.
Jacob is a man of conflict. He lived by his wits. He got ahead by scratching and clawing his way to the top, and he was by no means adverse to let the ends justify the means. He was an ancient Machievelli sort of fellow who would do whatever was necessary to feather his own nest, save his own hide, and outsmart his every opponent. He had gotten the best of Esau years earlier without even breaking a sweat. Somehow or another he’d figure out a way to get the best of him now, too. He was not about to die on the banks of the River Jabbok, impaled on the tip of some spear Esau had been sharpening for twenty years for just this occasion.
So as Genesis 32 opens, Jacob is like a military general in a war room. He’s got maps on the wall with pins stuck in them, schematics rolled out on a table in front of him. With a cigar clenched firmly between his teeth, Jacob starts to spit out orders to his soldiers and hired hands. “OK, we’ll divide up the whole clan into two groups. If one gets attacked, the other at least can survive by outflanking Esau while he’s distracted by the battle.” Meanwhile, one of his reconnaissance servants comes in from the field with some intelligence. “My lord,” the man says breathlessly, “we’ve scouted up ahead and Esau is heading straight this way with an army of no less than 400 men!”
Jacob gets a little green around the gills. “Time to pray, lads!” he exclaims. And so he goes before Yahweh in prayer, thanking him for his mercies in enriching Jacob in recent years but also recruiting Yahweh to his side of the conflict. “Don’t forget, O God, that you gave me a kind of blank-check promise back at Bethel years ago. You said you’d protect and prosper me, remember! Well, I’m cashing the check! Save me from Esau’s wrath!”
Having now prayed, it was back to the war room for General Jacob. He calls in five of his best herdsmen, assigns each of them to take a herd of animals, and then to proceed, in staggered formation, directly toward Esau. “When you see Esau, tell him that I am coming along, too, but that in the meanwhile, this herd of cattle is a gift.” Jacob very cleverly released these five groups such that for the better part of a day, Esau would receive yet another gift about once every hour or so. The idea seems to have been that he would steadily bombard Esau with goodness and so in this way, hopefully, chip away at any lingering anger Esau may have been harboring.
Again, Jacob is living by his wits. He has prayed to God but he has also very much taken matters into his own hands to see if he can concoct a way out of what was increasingly looking like a dangerous military encounter. Once these plans were all activated, all Jacob could do was wait. He felt the need to be alone, and anyway was desperate to save the lives of his wives and children. So he sends them on ahead while he stays at the River Jabbok, contemplating his life and his fate on what could just possibly be the last night of his life.
That’s when it happened: from out of the shadows of the night (which is another way of saying, from out of nowhere) a strange and strong man jumps Jacob. Was it Esau? A vagrant robber? A demon? Whoever it was was plenty strong. Jacob threw his best punches and wrestled the man to the ground more than once, but each time he wriggled free and sent Jacob flying back into the mud and the muck of the river bank. It went on like this for who knows how long but it was surely hours (and it seemed like forever). As the eastern horizon started to pink up with the first hints of dawn, Jacob’s hair was matted with blood and mud and sweat. His muscles ached and screamed for rest and relief. But he wasn’t about to be defeated. Yet just as he is getting ready to slug the man yet again, the man simply brushes his hand over Jacob’s hip, and immediately Jacob feels a searing, wrenching pain. His hip has been dislocated just like that, popped right out of its socket–he heard it go. Even still he doesn’t let the stranger go. But then the man at long last cries “Let me go before the sun comes up!” But Jacob says, “No. Not unless you bless me.”
What did Jacob mean by that exactly? Why ask for a blessing? You’d expect him to ask, “Who in the world are you, fella!?” You’d expect him to say, “If I let you go, do you promise to get out of here and leave me alone?” You’d expect him to ask, “Why did you attack me to begin with?” All such comments or questions seem logical. But a blessing? Who ends a wrestling match that way? Jacob does. Even in this encounter with this dark stranger, Jacob doesn’t want to come out empty handed. It wouldn’t be enough to pummel this man unconscious and so win the match. No, he wants something to take away from all this, something he can, as it were, put in the bank. And anyway, after that thing with his hip, Jacob was starting to wonder just who it was he had pinned to the riverbank here.
But he doesn’t get a blessing, at least not immediately. Instead the stranger asks, “What’s your name?” “Jacob.” “Well,” the man says, spitting a bit of sand out of his mouth, “not anymore. From now on your name is ‘Israel,’ the one who struggles with God.” “Who are you?” Jacob pleads. “What is your name?” “Why do you ask my name?” the man replies, which seems to be his way of saying, “I think you know full well who I am.” Indeed, Jacob does. This is God he’s been rolling around in the dirt with these past hours. Far from being upset by this rather gruff treatment, God winks at Jacob, says, “Bless you, lad,” and then disappears from underneath Jacob, leaving Jacob face down in the muck with one whale of a sore hip.
“Peniel,” Jacob says as he slowly picks himself up off the ground. “Peniel–I’ll call this place ‘God’s Face’ because I think I just saw God face to face and yet I’m still alive!” Hard as it was to believe after all this drama, Jacob had other business that was still pressing in on him. Esau was surely getting close by now, and so Jacob cleans himself up as best he can and then hobbles off toward the rising sun. He’s got a lifelong limp that would remind him of this bizarre encounter. With every step he took from that time forward Jacob would remember the night that forever put him in his place.
Because, you see, God waited until just about the moment Jacob thought he had won. God waited until Jacob was nearly certain that his own wits and strength had once again prevailed. God could have wrenched Jacob’s hip out of joint the moment he first leapt at him from the shadows. But he didn’t. He let this wrestling match go on for hours. He let Jacob think he was winning. And then, only then, did he defeat Jacob.
You know, it’s one thing to be defeated but quite another to lose after you had already started to savor the sweet smell of victory. If your basketball team loses a game by a score of 76 to 32, that’s a bummer of course but at least you saw it coming the whole game. But if your team leads by a comfortable margin the whole game only to suddenly lose the thing quite literally in the last two minutes, well, that’s when you see basketball players sitting on the bench looking not just defeated but dazed. They were so sure they had this one in the bag. In their minds, they had already won. “We can’t lose,” the players had been thinking for four whole quarters of play. And then they lose anyway, and it seems somehow worse than an ordinary defeat.
Jacob was like that. About the time he thought he had come out on top yet again, bam! He lost. And he lost in such a way that he knew the whole thing had been rigged from the start. He never had a chance. Not all the cunning, wits, brawn, and craftiness in the world could have won this match. And so Jacob is dazed by how easily he lost after all, dazed that it was God himself who did all this, dazed that even so, he got blessed.
He got the best blessing ever (far more important than the blessing he had snookered his father out of years before) not by earning it, not by capturing it, not by scamming it. He got the best blessing ever by grace. By getting defeated, he somehow won after all. This was, in Frederick Buechner’s memorable phrase, a “magnificent defeat” because by losing he won. By getting defeated, he realized that the best things in life are gifts of grace. And if he had to limp the rest of his life to keep on recalling that with each lurching step he took, that was OK. The lesson of grace was not something he wanted to forget in any event.
The Lectionary ends this famous story here, as do most considerations of it. But it would be a crying shame to not peer ahead into Genesis 33 to see the utterly moving, grace-filled, spectacular event that takes place next when Jacob encounters Esau at long last. As usual, Jacob begins with his wits, with careful posturing. And so he puts his wife and children up front, hoping that maybe even a completely furious Esau would think twice about slaughtering mothers and kids. Then Jacob himself steps forward, bows down to the ground again and again, and begins to speak in his very well-practiced, long-term habit of ingratiating, oily speech. He calls Esau his “lord” and reminds him of all the gifts Jacob sent on ahead.
But like his struggles with God the night before, so with Esau: all this posturing was for naught. It was unnecessary. The twin brother Jacob faced was not angry, was not bent on revenge, and had not come out to slaughter his brother or anyone else. He had long since forgiven his brother. He had even missed the squirrely little guy over the years. And so he greets Jacob not with a balled-up fist but with open arms; not with fiery eyes and sneering lips but with tear-filled eyes and laughing lips. They hug. They weep. And Esau says, “I don’t want your gifts. I don’t need your flocks or herds. It’s you I want back in my life, dear brother. Just you.”
And that’s when Jacob says it. He looks at Esau: ruddy, hairy, gap-toothed Esau. He looks at his brother: still not the brightest light you’d ever meet, a bit of a bumpkin, truth be told. He looks at Esau: good old Hairy, red hair and beard flying all over the place as though the man had never heard of a comb. He looks at Esau, this Esau, this man, this brother, and says, “To look at you is to see the face of God.” Jacob had just come from a place he named “God’s Face” and now, using identical words in Hebrew, he meets up with his brother and once again says, “God’s Face! You have God’s Face,” and considering what he had just been through, you get the feeling that Jacob knew what he was talking about in applying this lovely label to Esau!
Because what did he see in Esau that reminded him of what he had just seen at the River Jabbok, at Peniel? Grace. Mercy. Goodness. Jacob had spent days preparing for this encounter, making all kinds of plans and expending all kinds of nervous energy, just as he had done the night before in wrestling hour after hour with the stranger in the dark. But as with that stranger, so now with Esau: it had all been finally unnecessary. The grace of God and the grace of Esau meant that striving was unnecessary, cunning was of no use. Jacob couldn’t get the best thing in life by striving for it. He just had to receive it as a gift of grace.
The nation that would ultimately bear the new name God gave Jacob, Israel, would struggle to remember this in the coming centuries. The temptation to get ahead by one’s own power and wits is always real. We face it, too. And let’s just admit that when it comes to the goodies of this life–wealth, fame, power, prestige, glamour–the mentality behind the phrase, “the early bird catches the worm” works pretty well. If you’re willing to fight for them, you just maybe can get “happiness” and success the way the world defines those things. But love, joy, and peace at the last . . . well, those are gifts of God that all issue from the one font of grace. As our passage from this morning reminded us, you need to lose your life first to get that life back again from the hand of God–from the nail-pierced hand of the Savior. We need to be crucified with Christ, defeated with Jesus. But it’s a magnificent defeat. It’s a defeat as the world defines it but a victory as God and God’s gospel define it.
The face of God. It’s the face of grace, and it can be spied by us in all kinds of places. Sometimes it’s the mud-encrusted visage of the one we’ve struggled with our whole lives. Sometimes it’s the gap-toothed, silly grin of an Esau-type who doesn’t give us what we have coming to us for the dumb things we’ve done but who instead loves us and forgives us anyway. But mostly it’s that face framed by a crown of thorns with, as the old hymn says, “sorrow and love flowing mingled down.” That’s the truest face of God.
By the grace of this Savior, Peniel is where you and I live every day. Because even as one day Jacob hobbled away on a bum hip, limping into the sunrise of a new day dawning, so on another morning a most wonderful man limped into the Easter dawn, walking gingerly on still-pierced feet. He bore on his raised body the marks of this world’s defeat, changed by the alchemy of grace into our most glorious victory. In the face of what he did, we are all of us undone. We can’t do what he did but can only receive by grace what he gives. It’s the gospel way: the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of a loving God–the one defeat that alone gives victory.
(I acknowledge Frederick Buechner’s sermon, “The Magnificent Defeat” from the sermon collection by the same name, for some of the imagery and language, especially in the closing few paragraphs.)
Psalm 17: 1-7, 15
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 17’s poet seems worried. He has been persecuted and is, perhaps, still being attacked by persecutors. While the immediate context of this psalm remains unclear, some scholars suggest the oppressors have made false accusations against the poet.
Yet the very ambiguity of Psalm 17’s context makes it ideal for addressing all sorts of worshipers’ miseries. It could easily be the prayer of a beleaguered spouse, embattled student or harassed co-worker. Even whole nations or people groups might take this prayer, or something like it on their lips. So those who preach and teach this psalm will want to help worshipers and students envision some of the scenarios in which they might offer this prayer either for themselves or on behalf of others.
Once again, however, the Lectionary does preachers, teachers and worshipers no favors by its choice of verses on which to concentrate. The Lectionary appoints just the verses 1-7 and 15 for this Sunday, thereby leaving out the crucial description of the source(s) of the psalmist’s misery. So those who lead a study of Psalm 17 will want to at least keep the omitted verses 8-14 in mind as they do so.
Verses 1-5’s first stanza focuses on the psalmist herself. There the poet both asserts her innocence and begs God to intervene on her behalf. Yet a textual difficulty arises already in verse 1. “Hear, O Lord, righteousness (sedeq),” the psalmist literally prays there. Perhaps since it makes no sense to beg God to hear “righteousness,” modern translators assume the poet is asking God to hear something like her “just cause.” They deduce the poet is begging God to hear her prayer because she’s blameless, at least in the matter of injustice done to her to which she refers here.
Verses 6-12 address the reason the psalmist makes this plea to the Lord. “Show the wonder of your great love,” he prays to the One who saves by God’s “right hand those who take refuge in” the Lord “from their foes.” Perhaps the Lectionary omits verses 8-14 because of what it apparently views as the problematic nature of the psalmist’s pleas. “Confront them,” the poet prays in verses 13 and 14. “Bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword.”
Yet those who know the lengths to which God went in Jesus Christ to vanquish evil know that evil’s destruction is costly. Evil is so deeply embedded in both the human heart and parts of creation that it takes as much as the obedient life and death of God’s Son Jesus Christ to eradicate it. So while worshipers refrain from taking the sword against their tormentors themselves, they ask God to do everything necessary to restore God’s peaceable kingdom throughout God’s groaning creation. Worshipers also humbly remember how easy it is for God’s people to become the oppressors from whom our Christian brothers and sisters beg God for such relief.
Verse 15 ends Psalm 17 with a profession of faith: “In righteousness I will see your face; when I awake I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.” It reveals the poet’s confidence in God’s amazing grace. The psalmist closes not by focusing on her enemies who dominate so much of her current vision, but on the face of God that’s turned toward God’s adopted sons and daughters, day and night.
Old Testament scholar Eric Mathis points out Psalm 17’s structure and language suggest two things. First, the relationship between the Lord and the poet is an active rather than passive one. The psalmist is active in her prayers for God’s help. She also pleads with God to be active in listening and intervening on her behalf.
However, Mathis also notes that the language of Psalm 17 suggests the relationship between God and the poet is rooted in “vulnerability and honest communication between two living beings.” The poet expresses her vulnerability in her honest complaint about her dire straits. She, in turn, begs God to hear her cry with God’s ears and to see her misery with God’s eyes. The poet can plead with God this way because God is not some god made of wood or stone. God is a living God who remains intimately involved in everything God creates, including God’s world and people.
Psalm 17’s prayer reminds God’s people that we can bring our deepest misery and heaviest burdens to God with confidence. We can, for Jesus’ sake, be confident God will answer and hear our prayers (6). We can trust that God will show the wonder of God’s grace love, for Jesus’ sake. After all, God has done that, is doing that and will continue to embrace all who find refuge in God’s strong and protective but loving arms.
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)
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.