August 04, 2014
Matthew 14: 22-33
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.
That was the title some years back of a popular book written by John Ortberg. And the title reflects what is doubtless the most common “take” on this story. Over and again this well-known story comes to mean something like the following: Peter had the right idea getting out of the boat and quite literally “stepping out on faith.” Indeed, in all of our lives, we can see Jesus standing out on the stormy waters of this world, bidding us to “Come” unto him. Like Peter, we must heed this invitation, find the courage of faith needed to swing our legs out over the boat’s side, and then step out onto the waters. If we do, then we will walk to and with Jesus, trusting him alone to help us do great things for God!
But beware of doubts, be wary of fears! Don’t pay any attention to the winds that howl or the waves that lap against your shins. Keep your eyes fixed on the Master. For if you do, then in his loving and confident gaze, you will find the strength and courage you need to stay upright. Peter failed to have enough faith, but you can do better! So if you are facing some big decision, if you sense God calling you to the mission field, or if you’re wondering how you can witness to your co-workers, then you need to have the guts to get out of the boat, to take risks, to put your full faith in Jesus alone, and then to walk upon the waters!
Dearly beloved, here endeth the lesson.
Or maybe not . . .
Interpreted this way, Matthew 14 becomes a kind of model for Christian behavior, a classic piece of moralism. Peter’s initial faith is to be emulated, his subsequent failure of doubt is to be avoided. “Do this . . . Don’t do this . . .”
But the bottom line is that if you do it right, then you, too, can walk on water. Jesus even wants you to walk on water, he wants you to be just this bold in the faith. The alternatives are fear and doubt, and we all know that those things ought to have no place in a true believer’s heart.
“Walking on water” is about courage, faith, and boldness. Indeed, this phrase has come to mean something like this in even non-Christian settings. If you do an Internet search on the phrase “walk on water,” you will find a number of consulting firms and motivational speakers who use the image of walking on water as the goal to which businesses and individual workers should aspire. In this sense, “Walk on water” is on a par with other adages like “The early bird gets the worm,” “Grab the tiger by its tail,” “Think outside the box” (or the boat in this case), or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
And at the end of any sermon with this focus, I’d wager (if I were a betting kind of guy) that 90% of the people listening to the sermon will feel worse about themselves, their faith, their commitment to Christ. Oh, they will perhaps feel motivated to give this whole ‘walking on water’ thing a whirl but they sense even before driving out of the church’s parking lot that they will probably bow out before they actually make the attempt (or if they do attempt it, they will sink immediately).
Too much preaching these days just makes people feel worse. (Or preaching makes people feel motivated but the whole focus centers on human effort and achievement.) Either way or both ways, the sermon does not radiate with the grace that constitutes the Good News we are called to proclaim.
So is that moralistic, “Try harder!” way of getting at this story the only—or even the best—way to interpret Matthew 14:22-33? Perhaps not. Before getting to some new angles on this familiar story, we should be clear about a couple of things up front. First, it surely is right that Christian faith should be characterized by courage, zeal, and a firm resolve to stay true to the Lord in all situations. Whether or not this particular story teaches that is something we will ponder, but let’s be clear up front that gaining the ability to trust Jesus fully is certainly something to which we all quite properly aspire.
But that broader theological point aside, what is going on specifically in Matthew 14? Well, like the other gospel stories having to do with boats and storms and disciples, I suspect that this incident is a kind of acted-out parable of and for the church. Probably the boat is a metaphorical symbol of the church in which disciples travel with Jesus across the storm-tossed seas of an unbelieving world. But if so, then what about the role Peter plays? How do his actions and words relate to the rest of us as we, too, reside in the ecclesiastical ship of faith?
The answer to that emerges from the story itself. This lection comes immediately after Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. That was basically a Lord’s Supper kind of story, showing Jesus as the true bread of life. Although the food and drink the church offers to the world looks rather modest, if not meager, in the hands of Jesus this becomes utterly satisfying and even abundant fare. As it turns out, we in the church have more than enough to offer to the world if only we believe the power of Jesus’ word to us.
No sooner is that Eucharist-type meal complete and Jesus sends the disciples out into a boat. He doesn’t go with them at first, but the implication is that he would indeed catch up with them soon enough. Meanwhile he wants to pray. He has just found out that his cousin, friend, and gospel co-worker, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod. After hearing this sad news, Jesus wanted to be alone right away, and so took that boat to a lonely place where presumably he could weep, mourn, and pray to his Father in private. The crowds followed him, however, and so Jesus delays his time of grieving long enough to do some more teaching and healing, followed by his feeding those same crowds.
His ministry got in the way of his personal feelings for a little while, but the delay hardly made everything all better and so Jesus is still hankering for some quiet time. So he sends the disciples on ahead so that he could pray. We don’t know how much time Jesus managed to have to himself even on this second attempt at some private devotions, but before too much longer one of those unpredictable Sea of Galilee squalls had blown in. In this particular story we are not told that the boat was in danger of sinking necessarily, but then again, getting buffeted by wind and water in the middle of a very dark night is surely a frightening, if not a very dangerous, situation to be in.
So Jesus comes to them and, once he assures them he is no ghost, seems poised to get into the boat to reassure them further. But before he gets there, Peter intervenes. “Lord, if it is you, then command me to come to you on the water.” “Come on, then!” Jesus replies, and so Peter does. We don’t know precisely how far Peter got before he started to sink. A gust of wind knocked him off balance, a larger-than-usual swell made straight for Peter, and suddenly the logic of the situation was just too much for Peter to discount and so he yielded to the inevitable tug of gravity. Jesus saves him, of course, chiding him for his doubt (but loving Peter as always even so). Then they both climb into the boat, the storm stops even more quickly than it had started, and the disciples who had remained in the boat all along end up doing the utterly proper act of worshiping Jesus as God’s Son.
We have now seen back-to-back incidents in which Jesus’ Lordship over all creation has been abundantly displayed. Jesus is Lord of creation and so can manipulate the sustaining things of life like bread and fish to feed people even in a place of desolation and death. And now we see Jesus as Lord of creation in having control over the water, winds, and waves. Jesus can subside the elements of nature in this fallen world that threaten our lives as well as provide the things that nourish those same lives. Taken together, those with eyes to see recognize in Jesus the almighty presence of one of Matthew’s main theological themes (begun in Matthew 1 and rounded out again in the final verses of Matthew 28): namely, the theme of Emmanuel, of “God with us.”
And that is Good News. Jesus remains with us. He remains with us and is the Lord of all Creation as well. Whether or not Peter succeeded in imitating his Master’s neat trick neither adds nor subtracts from the core revelation that whether we stay in the boat with the 11 disciples or hop out of the boat with the 1 disciple, Jesus is with us. He’s with those of us who stay in the boat and will calm the storm that threatens. He’s with those who try some grandstand move and fail, forgiving the failure and, again, calming the storm that tempted Peter to do something miraculous. Jesus’ presence and power are the key to this story, not whether we are bold and courageous and impressive.
To take the focus off Jesus so as to put it onto our own moral pluck and courage seems, therefore, (forgive me) to miss the boat.
When he comes to them on the water, Jesus quickly calms them in a verbal triple-play that packs quite a theological wallop: “Take courage! I am! Fear not!” As commentator Dale Bruner notes, this is something that could well become the inscription over the doorway to every church in the world. Because Jesus’ call for courage and his command not to be afraid are both rooted in the second thing he said: “I am!”
For the sake of good English sense, most versions of the Bible do something similar to what the NIV does in verse 27, and that translate Jesus’ words into something like “It is I” or “I am here” or, “It’s me!” But the Greek says only ego eimi: “I am.” Here, and elsewhere in the gospels, this simple designation powerfully connects Jesus to the Yahweh of Israel. When Moses asks God in the burning bush for his name, God says that his name is “I Am.” Yahweh is the great “I Am,” and Jesus more than once connects himself to this very same God. Jesus is God, and that’s why his presence gives us cause to take courage and, in turn, to not be afraid.
As Barbara Brown Taylor said in a sermon, if there is a miracle worth savoring in this story, then it’s maybe not that Jesus could walk on water (after all, if Jesus is God, then his ability to walk on water is no more surprising than your or my ability to walk up a flight of steps.) And the miracle is not that Peter managed that same trick for a moment or two. No, the miracle is that when it was all said and done–while a soggy and chagrined Peter sputtered seawater out of his lungs and as the boat continued to bob around in the dead of that rather dark night–somehow in the midst of those humble surroundings way out there in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realized that no one less than God’s own Son was sitting right in front of them. So they worshiped him. They believed.
If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat. True enough. And here and there, now and again, the church maybe needs visionary and courageous folks who step out on faith to do some new and bold thing. But maybe there are far more times when life in the “boat” that just is the church involves no more than faithfully pulling on your oar against the winds that howl, believing that Jesus is near, and so pressing on. You press on in faith not because you’ve tested Jesus and found that he lived up to all the hype and not because Jesus has enabled you yourself to do something quite grand and eye-catching. No, you press on because you believe Jesus when, through the Spirit, you hear him say, “Chin up! It is I! Don’t be afraid!”
Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Life would have been better without the dreams. Things would have gone more smoothly, life would have been easier for all concerned without the dreams. Dreams of a better, brighter, or even just a different future are always a two-edged sword. We love to celebrate those who lived in such a way as to realize their dreams. We laud the entrepreneur who had the dream of inventing a better product, who did so, and who then went on to become spectacularly rich in overseeing the company that mass produced just that hot selling commodity. But for every person who realized his or her life’s dream, there are maybe a hundred folks who face the latter years of their retirement embittered because they never came anywhere close to seeing their dreams and ambitions fulfilled.
Who needs dreams? Joseph would have been better off without them. His brothers would have been happier without them. Ultimately even father Jacob would have been happier without his young son’s silly delusions of grandeur. The dreams brought suffering. The dreams fomented anger and fostered resentment. The dreams caused Jacob years and years of grief over a beloved son he thought was dead and gone forever.
So who needs dreams?
Maybe God does.
The God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, the Yahweh of Jacob’s Bethel and Peniel is nowhere mentioned in Genesis 37. God is not even hinted at. God is neither the subject nor the object of any verb. No title or word for God is recorded in these 36 verses. But even if you didn’t know the end of this larger story, you still would be hard-pressed to deny that throughout this text, you just know that God is behind the dreams.
By now in the Book of Genesis the pattern is clear: God is always raising up the younger sibling to be the key providential player over the older siblings. So you sense from the get-go that if Joseph has a dream, then it is a dream borne somehow of God. But we’re not told that directly. Joseph himself makes no divine claims for his adolescent fantasies of greatness. Indeed, throughout these closing chapters of Genesis, right on through to chapter 50, it is the hiddenness of the divine hand that is key.
We sense from the start that this is of God, but if Genesis 37 is typical of what can happen to a person as a result of being given a divine dream of things yet to be, then some of us might just as soon not receive such a vision! The dream exacerbated the dysfunction of this family. Resentment was simmering nicely as it was, so God gave some dreams that cranked up the heat and brought everything to full boil.
Not once but twice Joseph tells of a dream in which he is the most honored one of the family. Dream #1 went over like the proverbial lead balloon. Dream #2 caused so much grief, even Jacob had to intervene to tell his favorite son to put a lid on it. Talk like this was simply going to lead to something bad. Jacob could see that bad thing flickering in the eyes of his older sons.
Still, verse 11 (which is such an important verse it is a crying shame the Lectionary technically skips over it) tells us that Jacob did keep the matter in mind. Jacob had learned a thing or two about God’s ways over the years. He was himself the younger sibling who rose to prominence, after all. Although Jacob couldn’t quite put his finger on it, there was something about the very possibility of Joseph being the chosen one that smacked of God’s work.
Still, life went on. And the day finally came when Jacob thought Joseph was old enough to take a solo trek out into the wilderness to see how his older brothers were doing. Maybe the brothers had been drinking when they saw the figure of Joseph approaching from a distance. There was no mistaking that silhouette on the horizon. You could see that miserable flowing robe of many colors quite literally a mile off. So in what may have been a wine-induced, tipsy plan, they say to each other, “Let’s get ’em! Let’s end both the Dream Master and the dreams right here, right now!”
So they rough Joseph up, toss him into a dry well, and then decide both to rid themselves of his miserable company and make some cash at the same time. So they coldly betray him for pieces of silver and send him off to Egypt.
The text does not tell us if Joseph cried, pleaded with them, but you suspect he did all of that and more. But the dreams have hardened the hearts of these brothers. The dreams had cinched things for them. There would be no sympathy. There would be no compassion. There would be just a cold transaction in silver. Joseph, like another beloved Son later in history, was betrayed for pieces of silver even as an innocent goat gets killed to make the whole thing look like a terrible accident that resulted in Joseph’s death my mauling.
That’s the story. And it leads back to the question: Who needs the dream? Why must this God-inspired vision of Joseph’s future make his, and his family’s, present life so unhappy and miserable?
We enter here the mysteries of providence. Mostly we ponder providence as a tender, lovely thing. Providence is getting the job you prayed for, providence is meeting Mr. or Miss Right at just the proper time in your life, providence is being saved from a terrible accident, or providence is the myriad of others ways by which the strong but sure hands of the Father maintain the functioning and order of this world and cosmos.
All of that is true, of course, but among the things Genesis 37 and the Joseph cycle of stories have to teach us is that these dimensions of God’s providence do not tell the whole story. Sometimes the world resists God’s work, and so also the people in and through whom God is working. Because of the nature of this broken world, sometimes it is the work of God itself that brings a degree of unhappiness.
At other times, although God’s work is steady and sure, God does this work in the midst of some of the worse things life dishes out to us. God did not have inspire the evil plot of the older brothers. Since we rightly affirm that God is not the author or instigator of sin, we’d have to say that God does not help people cook up rottenness. That does not mean, however, that God is unable to work toward a greater goal even in the midst of the rottenness.
But if there is one thing Genesis has been making clear thus far, it is that conflict and a sometimes difficult life can, and often does, result from becoming the recipient of the covenant’s promises. All through Scripture the beloved son, the chosen heir, the called prophet, the appointed disciple turned apostle suffers as a result of the divine vocation. Eventually Joseph will be able to connect the dots.
But the ability to see the meaningful, larger patterns to it all is not guaranteed to believers, and let’s just admit that there have been any number of people who have lived and also died without being able to look back, as Joseph one day will, and declare it all good because it was all of God (or at least it was all used by God). Genesis 37-50 does not tell us that we will always know the whys and wherefores of what’s happening to us. Instead, these chapters bear witness to the faith-informed hope that in the longest possible run, it will make sense. God will not be undone, outsmarted, outwitted by the events that may come. We are frequently undone, baffled, and so maybe even angry at how things go and turn out. There is a reason why the voice of lament and protest is a proper biblical mode of praying.
But still the witness of Scripture remains: somehow God can and will make all things new, will right all wrongs, will return all things to how they should have been all along. Scholars believe that the Joseph story as we now have it was perhaps first set into written form during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon. If so, then the original audience of readers and hearers of Joseph’s story were people well-acquainted with grief, with disorientation, and with the collapse of what they thought were the fondest dreams of their faith. Whether or not that original context is correct, certainly this story has been read by any number of Israelites, Jews, and Christians who found themselves in some measure of exile, at some remove from God, at some crisis point of faith. It’s a story for all of us, in other words.
Starting in chapter 38, the narrative text of Genesis is going to take a surprising detour. Joseph is going to disappear altogether for a brief time. And if Genesis 37 had concluded at verse 35 with the inconsolable weeping of Jacob over his apparently dead son, then as readers we might suspect we’d never hear of Joseph again. Instead we begin to hear stories about the remaining brothers, starting with Judah and his tawdry dealings with Tamar. Had verse 35 had the last word, then we readers would conclude that as far as Joseph was concerned, it’s over. We’re moving on now.
Too bad about the dreams, though. So too bad indeed.
But the author of Genesis 37 is more clever than that. He has sown two seeds of hope: the first came in verse 11 (which the Lectionary skips) when Jacob, despite having just chided Joseph for his chutzpah, has the nagging sense that there will yet be something more to these dreams after all. The second seed is in the verse that actually does close out this account, verse 36 (which the Lectionary again stops shy of, alas!) The verse opens with the tell-tale little transition word “Meanwhile . . .” In verse 36 we discover Joseph has landed in Egypt, alive, and is sold to someone quite closely associated with no less powerful a figure than the Pharaoh himself. Both verse 11 and verse 36 are little nudges into the reader’s ribs to say, “Pssst! The dream is still alive! God is not dead, and neither is Joseph! Keep reading!” Those two verses remind us that even when people take matters into their own hands, with often disastrous consequences, faith is always still there on the sidelines to say, “Yes, but . . .” There is ever yet another word to be spoken. So long as God lives and is faithful and gracious and full of lovingkindness, the story will go on.
Make no mistake, however: the story has taken a difficult turn. Joseph is now out of the land of promise, and before Genesis closes, the entire clan will likewise be in Egypt. That will be a long-term situation the final solution of which will require enormous work on the part of God and some latter-day figure who will one day be named Moses. As has been true virtually from the beginning, the story of God’s providence in history cannot be traced out with a straight-edge. It has zig-zags, peaks and valleys, high points and also low points. Yet Genesis 37 bears witness that God is ever and always still God, and so the dream doesn’t die, the promises are not at an end, and the universe still has a future. We must keep reading. We must keep following.
Because as verse 36 nicely reminds us, when it comes to God and his people, in and through even life’s darker moments, there is one more word that can always be spoken: and that word is “Meanwhile . . .”
Who needs dreams? Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, but it made his life difficult right up until someone killed him for his dream. Some of us have perhaps seen the film Mr. Holland’s Opus in which a bright young man graduates college with the grand dream of becoming a great composer, with the bright hope of one day composing an American symphony that would be beautiful enough as to establish him as a kind of latter day giant in the music community. But first he needs to make a living for his wife and himself, and so he takes a “temporary” job as a high school music teacher. But years melt into decades, a son is born, life gets busy and complicated, and his temporary job becomes his career. But he is tormented throughout that whole time by the unfinished symphony, by the unrealized dream of being seen not as a teacher but as a world-class composer. It makes him miserable, it makes his wife and son miserable, and even though the movie has a kind of “happy ending,” you’d still be hard pressed to claim the man’s dream had been realized.
Dreams can have a way of really messing up a person’s life!
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 105 recounts Israel’s story from Abram’s wanderings to Israel’s settlement in Canaan, the land of promise. That story begins, however, according to verses 8-11, not with Abram or any other human’s action, but with God’s promise. That great promise of the land, and the way God acts to keep it, forms the basis of the praise that floods this psalm. Israel’s memory of God’s dramatic acts in her history motivates this psalm’s effusive thanksgiving.
“Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,” it begins in verse 1. “Make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.” This, however, isn’t just the Israelites’ doxology. It’s a song of praise that modern worshipers also seek to join them in living out, not just on Sundays, but throughout the week. After all, at all times and in every part of our lives, Christians seek to give thanks to the Lord and call on God’s name. Somehow, in every place, at every moment, we try to make tell of all God’s wonderful acts. Like Israel, after all, we find our primary identity, not in what we’ve done, or ourselves, but in what God does.
Now Psalm 105 may seem like nothing more than a long and not particularly exciting Israelite history lesson. However, a closer inspection reveals that very few of its verbs actually refer to Israel. So Psalm 105 is not primarily a story of Israel’s political, cultural or military accomplishments. It’s not even mainly a story about remarkable people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
No, Psalm 105 insists that Israel’s story is actually largely God’s story. God, after all, is almost exclusively the actor in this psalm. Psalm 105 dramatically and repeatedly describes God’s power persistently at work to both save and protect Israel. God is the one who both “called down famine on the land” and “sent Joseph” ahead of the Israelites into Egypt. God is the one who then made Joseph “master of his household, ruler over all he possessed” in Egypt.
So what does this long history lesson have to do with the praise and thanksgiving that soaks this psalm? Psalm 105 gives content to Israel’s praise and thanksgiving. The Israelites aren’t, after all, just thankful in general. They thank God for very specific things this psalm describes, for the very specific ways God saved and protected them. The Israelites thank God for things like freeing them from Egyptian slavery, as well as providing food and protection while Israel wandered in the wilderness.
In a similar way, Christians aren’t just generally thankful. God’s children aren’t even just thankful to God in some generic ways. God has done and continues to do very specific things in their lives. So God’s people try to be very specific in our thanksgiving. Christians give thanks to the Lord, most of all for the gracious gift of God’s Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit by whom we trust him for our salvation. We give thanks to the Lord for the way God works in his church to spread the gospel of joy and peace to the nations.
However, Christians also give thanks to the Lord for concrete things like friends and relatives, and like food and drink. We give thanks to the Lord for specific things like the freedom to worship and vote as we see right. People who forget what God has done easily forget to thank and praise God. So Psalm 105 reminds of what God has done, partially so that we may properly praise and thank the Lord.
Something more, however, is also at work in this remarkable history lesson that is Psalm 105. This psalm also serves, by God’s Holy Spirit, to encourage God’s children to continue to trust in God’s good purposes. Israel can, as verse 4 calls her “look to the Lord and his strength” precisely because she remembers the wonders the Lord has done throughout her history. The Lord is the one who has done miracles and pronounced judgments. By God’s Spirit, Israel’s memory of the wondrous things God did in the Exodus builds her confidence in God’s ongoing work.
We too remember God’s faithfulness in order to cultivate confidence in God’s ongoing faithfulness in our lives. You and I remember God’s work in our past in part so that we may believe in God’s good plans and purposes for our future. Christians also talk to each other about what God has done in order to encourage trust in the Lord.
So why did God graciously did all of the dramatic things Psalm 105 describes for Israel? God did them, the poet insists in verse 45, “that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws.” So Psalm 105 isn’t just a call to praise and thanksgiving or a summons to ongoing trust in the Lord. It is also an invitation to thankful obedience to the Lord.
After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God wanted a people who would live in godly ways in the midst of the world’s ungodly people. The Lord created, protected and cared for Israel so that she would publicly “keep his precepts.” God carried Israel out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into the land of promise so that she would “observe his laws.” So God, one biblical scholar eloquently writes, “quite literally moved heaven and earth not just to fix Israel up all nice and pretty in a land where the people could kick back and lead a rich, fat life of milk, honey, wine and cheese. No, God had orchestrated cosmic events with the goal of establishing a little colony of heaven.” In other words, God the King of the universe basically wanted to establish a group of obedient people in the midst of the world’s disobedience. The Lord created, protected and cared for Israel so that she would publicly represent and display God’s reign over God’s creation.
Psalm 105 doesn’t mention just how this heavenly colony fared. It doesn’t describe Israel’s largely faithless response to God’s gracious care and protection. The poet leaves it to Psalm 106 to mournfully detail Israel’s disobedient response to God’s wonders and miracles. Yet the rest of the Scriptures show that God didn’t give up on our world or God’s idea of establishing a heavenly colony. So God sent God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, to be the New Israel.
And where the old Israel fails miserably, God’s Son succeeds completely. Jesus Christ is, in fact, a colony of heaven on earth. In the midst of the world’s blatant disobedience, that eventually includes his own murder, he is perfectly obedient. Jesus perfectly represents and displays his heavenly Father’s reign over his creation.
Now, however, that Jesus Christ has returned, in body, to heaven, he leaves Christians with the task of being a colony of heaven. God graciously saves God’s adopted children, in part so that we will be an enclave of obedience in the midst of the world’s depraved disobedience. God lovingly created, protects and cares for God’s people in part so that we may represent and display God’s reign over God’s creation. Quite simply, God calls you and me to be different and distinct. God calls us to be holy.
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.
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.