Proper 14A

August 04, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 14: 22-33

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 10: 5-15

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                In the deeply troubling science fiction novel, The Sparrow, the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church launches a space probe to make contact with and evangelize the inhabitants of a planet in another galaxy.  Once of the scientists, an especially devout Christian, dies while he and his fellow space travelers are exploring that other world.  His friend Anne asks, “Why would God bring him all this way, only to let him die?”  To which the expedition leader replies, “It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne’s and to receive no plain answer.  Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answer, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts.”

    Unaided human reason is incapable of knowing God’s ways, but here in Romans 9-11 we have the Apostle Paul’s Spirit-inspired explanation of the ways of God with us.  He lays out God’s master plan for all of human history.  He does this in response to an embarrassing problem—the unbelief of vast portions of the Jewish people.  In his theme text for all of Romans, Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, for the Jews first and also for the Gentiles.” (Romans 1:16)  But, in spite of the covenant blessings God had given the Jewish people, most of them don’t believe in Jesus the Christ.  Why not?  Paul has a three part answer—the Election of Israel, the Rejection of Israel, and the Salvation of Israel.

    Last week in Romans 9 we heard about the election of Israel.  Paul explained that this widespread unbelief is fully in keeping with the fact that from the very beginning of Israel’s history, God made choices between Abraham’s children.  The result was that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.”  It’s not that God’s promises of salvation for the Jews failed; rather it is that God’s promises were not for all the Jews, just for those who are the children of the promise.  God has not elected all of them.

    On the surface of that, it sounds as though those who are not elect are simply victims of God’s mysterious choice. They had no responsibility in the matter at all.  That is precisely where our reading for today picks up Paul’s argument.  What about those who don’t believe?  Do they have any responsibility for their own unbelief?  Listen carefully as Paul explains another mystery, the mystery of Israel’s rejection of God’s salvation.  To understand Paul’s explanation we’ll need to cover more than the Lectionary selection (10:5-15).  We’ll follow his argument from 9:30-10:21. (I feel a little awkward violating the boundaries of the Lectionary, but this is the only time in the three year cycle that the Lectionary treats these three important chapters.)

    “What then shall we say” about the fact that many Jews don’t believe and many Gentiles do?  Just this—“the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not obtained it?”  Now, that’s crazy!  One group just sat there, while the other frantically pursued righteousness like a hound dog on the trail of a rabbit.  The Gentiles got what they didn’t pursue, while the pursuers came up empty handed?  Why?  Very simple, says Paul—because the Jews were on the wrong track, on a dead end street, literally speaking.  They pursued the right thing the wrong way—“as if it were by works.”

    This is very unpopular talk in our post-modern world, where it is enough to be in the hunt, so to speak, for spiritual fulfillment and meaning.  (It’s no wonder the Lectionary skips all of the verses surrounding verses 5-15.  They are simply too politically incorrect to preach in most congregations.)  But then post-modern spirituality doesn’t usually take into account the reality of Christ, whom Paul in verse 32 calls “the stumbling stone.”  That’s exactly what Jesus has always been for those who won’t believe in him.  They pursue religion, they chase down righteousness, they try to save themselves one way or another, and they stumble over Jesus, who is God’s only way of salvation.  “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”  But most of Israel won’t do that, so they do not obtain the very thing they so zealously seek.

    This is obviously some pretty negative talk about a whole race of people.  Indeed, if we Gentiles were to say these kinds of things today, we could be accused of anti-Semitism, and with some justification.  Perhaps that’s why Paul reminds us of his passion for his own people in 10:1.  “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.”  That’s where he is going with all these hard words—not to pronounce condemnation on his fellow Jews, but to announce the way of salvation to them, once again.

    But the fact is, says Paul, that they are misguided in their religious zeal.  “They are zealous for God.”  But as is the case with so much spiritual fervor today, “their zeal is not based on knowledge.”  You can be absolutely on fire for God and be dead wrong, says a politically incorrect Paul, if your zeal is not based on knowledge.  What the Jews didn’t know was what Paul continually calls “the righteousness that comes from God.”

    As a result, says verse 3, they tried to establish their own righteousness by keeping the law of God on their own.  And because they were so intent on making themselves righteous, they didn’t submit to God’s righteousness which had been achieved for all of us by the work of Christ.  Christ has done the very thing they were trying to do.  That’s where my fellow Jews went wrong, says Paul.  God has gone to all this trouble to give them the very thing they seek, but they are so intent on earning it for themselves that they reject God’s gift of salvation.

    That’s the essence of the second part of Paul’s explanation.  In the rest of this tenth chapter he wrestles with the mystery of that rejection.  Maybe they rejected Jesus because the Gospel was too hard, or because Christ was so remote.  No, he says, the Gospel is as simple as this:  “If you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Jesus is as near as your mouth and your heart.  All you have to do is open both by faith in Christ and you will be saved.  It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Gentile. God richly blesses all who call on him, “for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [obviously meaning Jesus] will be saved.”

    God’s own people have rejected such a simple Gospel, such an accessible Christ.  How can that be?  Earlier in chapter 10, Paul has said that Israel didn’t know about the righteousness of God.  It’s easy to imagine someone objecting to Paul’s argument with something like this: How in the world could God hold them responsible for not believing it if they didn’t know it?  How can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have never heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent?  Maybe the problem is that the Jews haven’t heard, and that’s why they didn’t know this Good News about the righteousness of God.

    No, that’s not the problem, says Paul sadly.  Verse 18, “But I ask, ‘Did they not hear?’  Of course they did.”  In fact, quoting a Psalm about the way the entire universe praises God, Paul says the Gospel has gone all over the world, to the ends of the earth.  The Jews have heard the Gospel.  That’s not the reason for their unbelief.

    Well, maybe they didn’t’ understand it when they heard it.  Verse 19, “Again I ask, ‘Did Israel not understand?’”  Here Paul points at the Gentiles who didn’t have the benefit of all those centuries of God’s covenant blessings, but have come to faith in Jesus anyway.  Quoting both Moses and Isaiah, Paul says, “They [the Gentiles] were not God’s people.  They had no understanding of God. They did not seek God or ask for him.”  But they have understood and accepted the Gospel message.  If those Gentiles understood, surely the people of the covenant could understand.  A lack of understanding is not the reason for the unbelief of my Jewish countrymen and women.

    The reason for their unbelief is simple.  Verse 21 is God speaking.  “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”  Out of sheer disobedience and stubbornness they have rejected my offer of grace.  They have had the Gospel of Christ preached to them persistently and clearly, but as verse 16 says with devastating simplicity, “not all the Israelites accepted the good news.”  That’s why such a large portion of Israel has not believed in Jesus the Christ—they simply would not accept the Gospel.  God hasn’t done anything to them; he simply left them alone in their own disobedience and stubbornness.

    I opened my comments with an observation about God’s mysterious ways, and they surely are.  But here is another mystery, a great mystery, the mystery of unbelief that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Why would perfect people enjoying a perfect relationship with God in a perfect world ever distrust the word of a perfect God and turn away from him?  It makes no sense at all.  Saying “no” to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus is the epitome of irrationality.

    But this text does us give some insight into the mysterious way of unbelief.  Paul says it’s because they think they have a better way of doing it, a self-directed, self-motivated way of achieving salvation that seems right to them.  As Paul puts it in verse 3, they seek a righteousness of their own.  If you can speak of a reason for Israel’s rejection of the Gospel, then this is it.  It just seemed like the right thing to do.  That reminds me of an ancient Jewish proverb. Proverbs 16:25 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”

    This, of course, is not the end of Paul’s answer to the problem of Jewish unbelief.  Thank God.  Paul isn’t done, and if we decide to preach on this text, we shouldn’t leave people with Paul’s grim conclusions about Israel’s rejection.  Paul will end all this with the absolutely shocking claim that not only will “all Israel be saved,” but also the God who has “bound all men over to disobedience” will “have mercy on them all (11:32).”  Was Paul a universalist?  After all his stern talk about sin and faith and the necessity of Christ and election, does Paul conclude that God will finally save everyone, Jew and Gentile?  More on that next week.  But it’s a good reminder to preach in context.

    For now, I’ll end with this.  Romans 10 reminds us of the seriousness of human responsibility.  The apostle who preached about God’s sovereign choice in election more than any other biblical author also believed very strongly in the eternal consequences of human choice.  Whether we’re Jewish or Gentile, says Paul, we are all responsible to let go of our futile attempt at righteousness and accept the righteousness of God.  The most fundamental fact of life is that there is one way of salvation.  It is the way of faith, “for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Though our text is filled with material that will offend many sensitive 21st century Americans, a text like this, if handled with care, can give us an opportunity to passionately call people to faith in Christ and firmly inform them that their response to this call has real consequences.

    Illustration Idea

    Poll after poll tells us that the “nones” are growing in numbers.  Upwards of 20% of the American public identify themselves as having no religious affiliation.  On surveys asking about their religious connections and beliefs, they mark the box labeled “None.”  Further exploration of their beliefs reveals that religion simply doesn’t matter to them. It plays no role in their lives.  They have dismissed religion as being of no consequence, even though most of these “nones” have their own self-invented spirituality that “saves” them in some way.  In our congregations are young and not-so-young people who are slowly and silently drifting away from their childhood faith.  Our text for today gives a courageous preacher a perfect opportunity to warn them that, even if “religion” doesn’t matter to many people, Jesus matters to everyone.  Our personal attempts to be good people won’t ultimately work.  That’s why we all need to take Jesus seriously, and call on his name.