July 27, 2020
The Proper 13A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 14:13-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 32:22-32 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 9:1-5 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 101 & 102 (Lord’s Day 37)
Author: Scott Hoezee
John the Baptist was the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament herald of the Gospel. He is a unique figure, a pivotal figure, a figure very nearly without parallel in the history of redemption.
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). Arguments over the most trivial of things erupt in gunfire. In my city recently a drive-by revenge shooting over some dumb thing resulted in a 2-year-old child getting shot in the arm inside her own home. Senseless.
These things happen, and we 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 detail 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.
How often have we seen Christ-like examples of this during this time of COVID-19 pandemic? How often haven’t we seen exhausted and emotionally drained (if not also emotionally scarred) doctors and nurses soldier on in a desperate attempt to bring life in the midst of so much death? How often haven’t we seen friends and neighbors—themselves as scared of this virus as anyone else—reach out to help, to soothe, to comfort, to do what they could even if they had to do it from a social distance?
We all find ourselves metaphorically in a lonely, desert-like place of desolation these days. And even though we have not voluntarily withdrawn here due to our own sorrows like Jesus did, we find ourselves in such remote places filled with sorrow anyway. Jesus did this grand miracle by somehow reaching deep into himself to find the strength to go on in the face of so much that is wrong with this world, in the face of senselessness and disorientation.
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.
In this long season of uncertainty, doubt, fear, and so much death, the Lord Jesus provides inspiration for all of us to do as he did. But it’s more than even just that: in this sad season, we recognize in Jesus someone who joins us in our remote places of pandemic isolation and sorrow—he joins us as One who understand how we feel from the inside. And he comes to us with life-giving bread. Thanks be to God!
As Frederick Dale Bruner points out, the Feeding of the 5,000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that gets recorded in all four gospels. The only one! What is it about this miracle that makes it so important the evangelists clearly concluded that you simply could not have a gospel without it? Bruner suggests that it may be because of the tie-in of this miracle to the Lord’s Supper (is there any missing that rhythm of “taking, thanking, breaking, and giving”?) Jesus is revealed in this story as not only sufficient for spiritual needs but also physical ones but that somehow the “feeding” Jesus ultimately provides (and that we see again and again in the Holy Supper of communion/Eucharist) is food for not just the Church but for the world. Like the paltry amount of bread and fish the disciples initially discovered, so the food of the Lord’s Supper looks paltry and not up to the task of giving this hurting and broken world what it needs. But this story tells us it is sufficient and that this is precisely what the world needs. Maybe that is why–theologically, sacramentally, and ecclesiastically—the four evangelists knew that this story had to be included.
We should also note that the Gospels are all very careful in relating this story to remind us that the place to which Jesus withdrew was not just quiet, remote, serene, or even “lonely” as some translations put it. No, it was an eremos place in Greek: it was the desert, the wilderness, the place that biblically is always a symbol of chaos, of the devil’s realm, of the place that takes life. Yet Jesus came to transform the wilderness back into a life-giving place. In fulfillment of the prophets’ words, when salvation comes, the desert will bloom, streams will flow in the wilderness, myrtle and flowers will grow instead of weeds and thorns. Jesus’ mass feeding in the place of death prefigures the transformation of the whole world from chaos and back to the cosmos God intended “in the beginning.”
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” (you have got to love the understatement of that name!). 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: Stan Mast
When last we saw Jacob, he had finally won his second wife from his duplicitous uncle, Laban. In the ensuing years, Jacob has continued to work for his uncle, becoming a wealthy man because of God’s blessing on his efforts. After a total of 20 years working for Laban, Jacob is finally released from virtual bondage, when God tells him to return to his home territory (Genesis 31:3, 13). The man who had fled alone and emptyhanded from his brother’s understandably murderous anger will now return a wealthy man, married with children. But he must still deal with his angry uncle who has pursued him for 7 days and then that angry brother who looms off in the distance with 400 men.
When we meet Jacob in our text, he is in a place we understand all too well in this troubled summer of 2020—a place of strife between brothers, caused by the mistreatment of one brother by the other and the long simmering rage of the injured brother who has been cheated out of the life to which he was entitled. Esau is justifiably furious and Jacob is rightly terrified at the potential retribution from the brother he has wronged. Careful attention to this story will teach us a crucial lesson for these contentious times.
Jacob’s response to the threat of Esau’s rage is typically Jacob—he develops a plan, a cunning way to mollify that anger, thus protecting his family and flocks and, hopefully, preserving his own life. Jacob sends a message to Esau, explaining where he has been and what he has become, and then pleading for mercy. Upon hearing that Esau is approaching with 400 men, a terrified Jacob divides his family and animals into two groups in hopes of saving at least half of what he has in the event of an attack from his aggrieved brother. Then he sends gifts ahead to Esau, so they arrive before Jacob does, spaced out in a way calculated to win Esau’s favor and maybe even to impress him with Jacob’s wealth and power. Finally, Jacob sends his family and the rest of his possessions over the brook Jabbok to serve as a kind of shield between himself and Esau. Having carried out his complex plan, Jacob spends the night all alone by the brook Jabbok.
Oh, there was one more thing that Jacob did as he prepared to meet Esau, the one thing we don’t see him do very much, if at all. In the middle of all his wheeling and dealing, he prayed (Genesis 32:9-12). It’s a nice prayer, a proper prayer, in which he acknowledges the God of his forebearers, confesses his unworthiness, and begs God to save him from Esau, claiming God’s covenant promises to him.
It is not a stretch of the imagination to see our text for today as God’s answer to Jacob’s prayer. Indeed, the success of all Jacob’s careful planning will depend on God’s answer to his prayer. But God’s first response is one none of us would hope for; God attacks Jacob in the dark of night. This is surely one of the most peculiar and important texts in the Bible. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”
I say that this text is peculiar because it is full of strange and mysterious things, beginning with this “man.” Who is this? Some interpreters suggest that it was Esau, but there is no warrant for that in the text. Jacob doesn’t know who it is at first, but as they wrestle on through the night, it begins to dawn on him that this is God. And then God confirms it in verse 28.
But why would God in the form of a man attack this child of the covenant? And if this is God, why didn‘t he pin Jacob to the ground in a moment? Why did the fight last all night long? Well, perhaps this God/man laid aside his almighty power for this encounter, even as a later God/man would do (cf. Phil. 2). Perhaps for the purpose of saving his chosen one, God had to enter into human history and human flesh in order to experience weakness, as he did in Christ.
Well, maybe, but what is this business about God asking Jacob to let him go because daylight is approaching? Is God afraid of the light, like a vampire? Or, is God afraid for Jacob, because of the truth revealed later in Exodus 33:20. “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Desiring to spare Jacob’s life, God asks Jacob to let him go.
Jacob will not let go until this “man” blesses him. Somewhere in this wrestling match, Jacob became aware that he needed God’s blessing more than anything else, more than all his plans, more than all of his efforts. Everything depended on the blessing this God/man could give, so Jacob hung on for dear life, even after the man mysteriously touched him and permanently crippled him. In this peculiar detail we get a glimpse of the power of this man who couldn’t defeat Jacob. He could have beaten him in a moment, but for the sake of Jacob’s salvation the wrestling match had to continue. Jacob had to hold on for dear life in order to receive the blessing he needed.
When Jacob fairly demands the blessing, the man responds with a curious question. “What is your name?” It sounds irrelevant, until the man answers, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome.” Although God doesn’t give “the blessing” until a few moments later, those words are essentially the blessing. Jacob is given a new identity as “the man who struggles with God” (the meaning of Israel), or, better, the man who struggles with the God who struggles with man.
In that new name we see the complexity of the covenant between God and his people. The almighty, sovereign Yahweh reaches down in grace to take an unworthy people by the hand in order to bless them. But they, in turn, must hold on to God’s hand in order to receive that blessing. Salvation is totally by grace, but it is through faith. God could overwhelm, but chooses to enter our darkness in human form, sometimes attacking, sometimes comforting, sometimes convicting, sometimes converting, but always mixing it up with us. The way of salvation is always the way of incarnation. Yes, it is mysterious, sometimes messy, sometimes miserable, but always miraculous.
And it is the only way we sinful, weak humans can deal with the difficulties of our lives. Let me clarify that last sentence. Before Jacob can deal with Esau, he had to deal with God. He could not face the anger of Esau until he had wrestled with God. Without the blessing of God in the flesh, Jacob could not have peace with his angry brother, no matter how carefully he planned. As the New Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.” To put it in contemporary terms, this text suggests that we cannot solve the contentious issues of our times until we wrestle with God and hold on to God for dear life. For without God’s blessing, the problems of humanity will simply overwhelm us, leaving us angry and terrified.
There are more curiosities in this text that point to the complexities of the covenant and the necessity of incarnation. For example, when God gives Jacob a new name, Jacob responds by asking what the “man’s” name is. Why would he do that? Is Jacob just being polite or engaging in a tit for tat? I don’t think so. Rather, I wonder if he wants to know God’s name so that he can control God. In the ancient world, if you knew a God’s name, you could call on him and demand a blessing.
That’s part of the reasoning behind the Third Commandment about taking God’s name in vain. Don’t use God’s name the way the pagans use the names of their gods—to control and manipulate them. Wouldn’t that be like Jacob—to try to manipulate God. God refuses to tell Jacob his name. Instead he freely blesses him. God is unimaginably gracious, but he is also completely sovereign.
And God remains mysterious. Jacob’s last words are prophetic and a bit presumptuous. He names the place of his wrestling “Peniel” or “Penuel,” explaining, “It is because I have seen God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Well, not exactly. He didn’t see God’s actual face, because God was disguised as a man and it was too dark to see at all. Indeed, the text points to that in verse 31 when it says, “The sun rose above him as he passed by Penuel.” Before that the sun had not risen; this was all in the dark. That’s why John’s gospel, in its stunning introduction to the Word becoming flesh, says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” We know the God who wrestles with us and blesses us through the Son of God who wrestled in our humanity with all the enemies of human existence.
Even as the Son of God Incarnate is still marked by the wounds inflicted in his battle, so every child of God limps wounded through life, marked by God as one who has struggled with God and prevailed by faith. Our limp might not be as obvious as Jacob’s was, but if we’re honest, we’ve all been touched in some painful way by the God who blesses. Our wounds are a mark of victory, a badge of courage, old war wounds that remind us of C.S. Lewis’ famous words about Aslan: “’course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
In the midst of the racial tensions of this summer, the police chief of Grand Rapids spent much time talking with protesters who were angry about racial injustice. All the talk did not satisfy the protesters, until he took a knee in solidarity with them. That was a turning point in dealing with the complex and painful issue of racism in our town. But the ultimate solution to that and other vexing problems facing us today is to take a knee before our sovereign and gracious God. Or maybe it’s better to say that human ills cannot be solved until we all take a knee with the Son of God who knelt in solidarity with sinners.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Lectionary presents some mysteries for those of us who follow it closely. In this case we are getting a couple carved-out sections of Psalm 145 a scant four weeks after we had a carved-out section of this exact same poem as the Psalm reading for July 5 (and parts of the August 2 reading are identical to the July 5 reading). There are many psalms to choose from and yet this one we get twice in a month.
I suppose the reason is that the Lectionary folks were drawn to the part of Psalm 145 about God’s giving all creatures their food at the proper time since this could set up some sympathetic vibrations and resonance with the Gospel reading from Matthew 14 and the Feeding of the 5,000. Even so, since a month ago I chose to treat pretty much the whole of Psalm 145—and since no significant flashes of new insight into this wonderful poem have occurred to me since—what follows is a repeat from my July 5 post. Perhaps it will strike you anew this time—or perhaps in what follows there are items you did not use last time if you preached on Psalm 145 last month but that you can use this time. Or maybe you didn’t preach on the Psalm lection for July 5 and so did not read this sermon starter then. In any event . . . here goes:
Coming as this poem does near the very end of the Hebrew Psalter, we are definitely in the final exultation of singular praise with which this collection concludes. The Psalms have had ups and downs, laments and imprecations. Yet weaving in and through it all was praise and thanksgiving, including even in many of those darker psalms of lament and cursing of enemies. But as the collection prepares to conclude, the Psalter editors selected a half-dozen songs or prayers that ramp up gloriously into a final crescendo, ending of course with Psalm 150, which is a veritable shook-up champagne bottle whose cork flies off with great effervescence!
Psalm 145 celebrates the goodness of God throughout all generations. The breadth of things for which God is praised here is pretty comprehensive: God’s acts of creation and of sustaining that creation, God’s acts of salvation and mercy, God’s closeness to God’s people and how well he listens to their cries, God’s own character of holiness and righteousness. Just about anything you can think of—and just about every subject of praise and thanksgiving that comes up anywhere else throughout all of the 150 psalms—gets tucked into Psalm 145 somewhere. It would be difficult to identify any praiseworthy feature of God or of God’s work that gets left out. About the only thing not included here would be some of the specifics from the more historical psalms that rehearse things like the Exodus from Egypt, God’s presence at Sinai, and other narrative elements of Israel’s past. Outside of that, Psalm 145 is downright capacious.
And in its effervescence it is also downright un-nuanced. We have noted many times in the sermon starters on the Psalms here on the CEP website that we ought never take any one psalm and make it prescriptive for every person at every moment in their life. If you took a poem like Psalm 145 and insisted that every believer feel this way every moment of every day, then that would ignore all of those other psalms of lament (about a third of all the psalms) that indicate that there are other seasons of life when the sentiments of a Psalm 145 become longings, distant memories, the kinds of feelings and confidence to which the psalmist hopes to be able to return to someday but for now . . . not so much.
To insist that Psalm 145’s apparent blank check promises that God always hears our prayers and always answers them more or less in a heartbeat ignores all those prayers in this collection that indicate perfectly good and pious people can endure long seasons of apparent divine silence. So we note again the need to read each psalm in the context of the other 149 in the Psalter. Only when taken all together do these prayers reflect the full scope of human life before God.
That, of course, makes preaching on a psalm of singular sunniness a bit of a challenge. On the one hand, we preachers do not want to fail to acknowledge that on any given Sunday, there are plenty of people who, for the moment at least, see their lives and their attitudes reflected quite nicely in something like Psalm 145. And we do not want them to feel guilty for being so upbeat nor preach in a way that tells such people, “Just wait for it—the bottom will drop out for you again one day too!” No, no, that would never do.
Then again, neither can we preach this in ways that ignore those for whom the bottom has dropped out of late, and in these days of COVID-19 pandemic and racial strife, that might just include a few more folks in the average congregation than usual.
So what is the preacher to do?
Preach the Good News that the character of God as reflected in Psalm 145 is true. What’s more, if the poet of this ancient song sensed these truths about God’s character long ago already, then those of us who have now seen how far God in Christ was willing to go to be faithful to all of God’s promises have far more reasons to know of God’s faithful and righteous and compassionate nature. This is who God is! Psalm 145 is right. And if there are those in the congregation experiencing the truth of that already now, then that is reason for all of us to celebrate. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice, after all.
And to weep with those who weep. And for those weeping right now for all kinds of reasons, we remind them that the vision of Psalm 145 is ultimately right and will ultimately be our common reality when God’s kingdom—that eternal kingdom celebrated in Psalm 145—fully comes. COVID-19 will never have the last word. Racism will not rule the cosmos in the end but will vanish like a bad dream. As we live between the times, not only can we not always see the truth of all that, sometimes we have a hard time even believing the truth of all that.
Sometimes we have to believe on behalf of our suffering sisters and brothers. We extend our faith out to their faith to hold them up. But we do so in profound hope. The sentiments and the vision of Psalm 145 and its wonderful and comprehensive litany of reasons to be enthusiastic about our great God are all correct. These things about God have been true in the past, they are true in this present moment (whether we can see them plainly or not) and they will be eternally true.
Can we hold onto the glories of Psalm 145 in the teeth of so much that is wrong with our world and with our lives right now? Yes. It may seem a paradox. But then, central to the Christian experience is the most sacred of all symbols that is itself the ultimate Paradox: The Cross.
There is virtually no way to duplicate this in any translation into any language but Psalm 145 is actually an acrostic. Its 21 verses correspond to the letters in the Hebrew alphabet with each successive verse beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Verse 1 begins with A, Verse 2 with B, Verse 3 with C, and so on. So in essence Psalm 145 goes from A-Z. At the very least we think that some Hebrew Psalms were composed this way to make them easier to memorize. But there may also be a sense in which this literary structure reflects what is also contained in this poem—and as reflected on above in this sermon starter—and that is the sense that God is being praised here for every reason one could think of from A-Z, the whole kit-n-caboodle, as it were.
That structure is pretty interesting on both levels: first, this is to be memorized, to be carried in our hearts as a constant reminder of the nature and character of our God. These are the truths we must live by! But second, God is worthy of praise for the whole kit-n-caboodle of Creation, Salvation, and soon the Re-Creation of all things. Everything God is, everything God has done and continues to do, everything God will do through Christ Jesus the Lord and by the Holy Spirit—all of it from A-Z and beyond is worthy of all praise!
Author: Doug Bratt
Pain saturates this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. Romans 9 nearly overflows with what Paul calls his sorrow and anguish over widespread Jewish failure to faithfully receive God’s grace.
It’s grief that’s a close relative of what some of Romans 9’s proclaimers also feel. It’s similar to the sorrow we feel over the failure of some we love to love the Lord. It’s like the anguish God’s adopted children feel over the eternal danger that non-Christian co-workers, friends and acquaintances face.
While God created us for a close faithful relationship with the Lord, our first parents chose to trust Satan more than the Lord. Some of Adam and Eve’s descendants are able, by God’s Spirit, to trust God. Many, however, are unable to trust in the Lord.
The Bible repeatedly describes God’s grief over such stubborn unbelief. Genesis 6:20’s report that when the Lord saw the extent of peoples’ wickedness, God “was grieved . . . and his heart was filled with pain” echoes down through the ages.
So we’re not surprised that grief over unbelief hangs like a dark thundercloud over the book of Romans right from its beginning. Yet just before Romans 9 opens, Paul sings a happy song of victory. Nothing in all of creation, he celebrates, can separate us from God’s love. So Jesus’ followers wonder if those we love can somehow faithlessly separate themselves from God’s love.
Many Jews have not yet received God’s grace with their faith. Romans 11 at least implies that some Roman Christians were celebrating that. So Paul believes he should warn them that they should mourn and pray about rather than gloat over Israel’s lack of faith.
The apostle, in fact, seems so determined to express his grief that he repeats himself in verse 1 by insisting, “I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying.” In verse 2 he basically repeats himself again when he writes “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”
Paul may feel at least somewhat vulnerable to charges that he’s a religious fanatic. It’s a vulnerability God’s 21st century adopted children may also feel. After all, in a culture that preaches religious tolerance, Christians are in fundamental ways religiously intolerant. In a world that claims that there are many ways to God, we claim that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.
When Jesus’ followers make those and similar claims, our contemporaries sometimes charge us with being religiously prejudiced. When Christians insist that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ, people may accuse us of being anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim.
Those who proclaim Romans 9 might ask both our hearers and ourselves if we feel great sorrow over the potential plight of our unbelieving loved ones. We might explore the unceasing anguish that we feel for followers of false religions.
In verses 3 Paul illustrates the depth of his anguish by making an unattainable wish. There, after all, he writes, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of … the people of Israel.” Quite literally Paul claims that if could save his fellow Jews by going to hell, he would willingly do it.
So no matter how we understand Paul’s later insistence that “All Israel will be saved,” it’s clear that he feels deep pain over Israel’s widespread unbelief. He recognizes Israel’s dangerous situation and, like Moses before him and Jesus after him, is ready to die in her place if that will somehow result in her salvation. The Jews are, after all, what Paul calls in verse 3 his “brothers [and sisters],” those of his “own race, the people of Israel.”
Paul’s pain over Jewish unbelief is deepened when he considers the remarkable privileges God has historically granted them. In verse 4 he notes, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.”
God has graciously invested so much loving time and energy in the apostle’s Jewish siblings. When, after all, he wrote our text, God had already shared a relationship with and been faithful to the Jews for well over a millennium.
Scholars note that verse 4 contains a kind of parallel arrangement of Israel’s privileges. Israel’s “adoption as sons” and the “receiving of the law” are linked because God essentially adopted her as a nation at Sinai when God gave her the law. This was a unique privilege because while God loves both Gentiles and Jews, God uniquely chose to adopt Israel as God’s own.
Israel “divine glory” and “temple worship” are also related because the Jews generally assumed that God’s glory lived in the temple. Again this reflects a special privilege, because God generally showed God’s glory to Israel alone in, among other places, her temple.
Israel’s “covenants” and the “promises” are linked because God often made God’s promises in the context of God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham and David. Those promises were also unique privileges, since God largely made his Old Testament promises to and covenants with the Israelites.
Paul, however, sets apart two of Israel’s special privileges in verse 5. The Jews, he writes there, had “the patriarchs.” It’s almost as though “the patriarchs” are Israel’s defining privilege, the one from which all of her other privileges flow.
Certainly, as Paul goes on to write in verses 6-13, Abraham’s children include people that haven’t biologically descended from him. By God’s grace, he’s also the “patriarch” of believing Gentiles as well as Jews. Yet Paul can’t imagine how God will allow most of Abraham’s biological descendants to permanently ignore God’s promises.
Paul adds an eighth Jewish privilege in verse 5 when he writes that “From them is traced the human ancestry of Christ.” While Christ certainly doesn’t belong exclusively to one racial group, we can say that Jesus was thoroughly ethnically Jewish. Matthew especially reminds his readers that he was a direct descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.
Reflecting on this, Paul grieves at while how God has given Israel so much, she has largely responded by stubbornly hardening her heart and stiffening her neck. Israel has essentially faithlessly wasted all of her special privileges.
In this way Israel’s plight reminds Jesus’ followers of the plight of some unbelievers we know. Their parents raised them in Christian homes, churches and, in some cases, schools. At least some unbelievers once enjoyed the privilege of things like prayer and devotions in their homes, Sunday School and regular church attendance. Yet they’ve thus far resisted receiving God’s grace with their faith.
Such unbelief deeply grieves Christians wherever it flowers. In some cases, it is Jewish unbelief. For others it is Gentile unbelief. However, the great sorrow and unceasing anguish we feel over them are the same.
Is there, then, no hope? Are Jewish and Gentile unbelievers trapped on a one-way freeway to hell? Are God’s adopted sons and daughters condemned to lifelong sorrow and anguish for those who haven’t received God’s grace with their faith?
Paul makes it clear that God isn’t yet finished with the Jews. God hasn’t yet written the final chapter in the book that is his dealings with them. So the apostle passionately clings to hope for Israel.
As a result, Paul can end our text in subtle but bold hope. In verse 5 he insists “Christ is God over all. Amen!” It’s the apostle’s way of reminding us that Christ, not any other person, is God. So salvation isn’t finally up to people; it’s up to Christ who is God over all.
Certainly God calls people to receive God’s grace with our faith. But neither that faith nor anything else Christians do saves us. Only God’s grace through Christ who is “God over all” saves anyone.
So Jesus’ followers can remain hopeful about those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith. God’s salvation, after all, is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” In a real sense, then, it will be relatively easy for God to graciously “regraft” Israel back onto Abraham’s “tree,” if she doesn’t persist in her unbelief.
Yet God’s adopted sons and daughter also ought not worry so much about others’ eternal fate that we arrogantly neglect our own. Paul, in fact, uses Romans 11 to warn Gentiles that if Jewish branches could be broken off, Gentile branches might also be faithlessly broken off.
This suggests that those who have received God’s grace with our faith in Jesus Christ should not break our own branches off God’s salvation “tree” by becoming so proud of our salvation that we forget that only God’s grace saves us. By God’s Holy Spirit, God’s beloved people continually faithfully cling to God’s gracious promises to us in Christ.
However, both our anguish over and hope for those who don’t believe, whether they are Jewish or Gentile, also prompts us to continue to pray for them (and ourselves!). We know God has chosen for eternal life those whom God has gifted with faith to receive God’s grace. Christians don’t, however, know whom God has not chosen, whom God will eventually simply allow to harden their hearts against the Lord.
So neither Romans 9’s proclaimers nor its hearers “give up” on anyone. As long as people have breath, there is hope. God will have mercy on those whom God wants to have mercy. Nothing will stop God from saving “all Israel,” that is, all those, both Jewish and Gentile, whom God has graciously chosen for eternal life.
Ruth’s parents were devout Christians who raised her in a Christian home and church. Yet as she matured, Ruth abandoned her parents’ faith and church. Her wandering took her to the White House and halls of congress, as well as to some of the most famous and powerful people in the world. She, for example, played a huge role in establishing the United States’ Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
But Ruth’s wanderings never took her far from Christians who unconditionally “stuck with” her, loved her and prayed for her salvation. Long after some people had given up on Ruth ever becoming a Christian, people like Margaret, Mentey and Hilda mourned her unbelief and faithfully showed her God’s love.
As Ruth aged and some of her powers declined, she came to recognize her need for God and God’s church. In her late 70’s she publicly professed her acceptance of God’s grace with her faith in Jesus Christ. After all, Christ is God over all, forever praised, even by those who took a very long time getting around to it.