Sunday, August 26, 2018

Offered Alive: Sermon on Romans 12:1-2

The warm December sun overhead was fittingly bright – fitting even for a day the man wouldn't live to see the end of. His heart thundered warmly in his chest, burning hot like a fragment of the sun to which it would soon be offered up in return. As he stood so near the height of the pyramid, he heard the conch shell blow, and saw a vision of his near future tumble unceremoniously down the steps. But no sense fighting it. If, after all, as he believed, the gods had shed their blood to restore life to the world under the fifth sun, the least men could do – the least he could do – was shed his blood to repay their debt and keep the sun and world in motion.

Not that he had much choice. Through a long train of tragedies, a month ago he'd found himself up for sale in a slave market at Azcapotzalco. The bidder – the buyer – was a merchant from Tenochtitlan in the east, eager to contribute to the upcoming Panquetzalitzli celebration. Nine days ago, the slave – like others bought with the same intent in mind – had been drenched in sacred water, stripped and clothed in paper vestments, coated in stripes of blue and yellow body paint. Forced to dance the serpent dance with his captors, and sing along with the song to Huitzilopochtli, god of war, the Dart-Hurler, in whose likeness the slaves had been dressed and painted.

He recalled, as the conch shells blew, how last night he'd been marched up and down these same steep steps. How he'd been drugged with fermented sap. And then the day came. The city, adorned in blue-striped banners and pennants from every tree and every cactus. While the masses raced in procession from place to place, he'd been forced to fight captive warriors, re-enacting the battle of Huitzilopochtli against his sister and brothers. The slave remembered the combat, the brutality, the close calls; then how the battle ended as the parade arrived, setting their adversaries to flight.

Then they'd stood marched to the pyramid, made procession around it, and stood at its foot, gazing up toward its unfathomable heights. A priest led a fiery blazing serpent, with tongue of parrot feathers, down to consume the bowl of sacred paper. The drums were beating; the trumpets were blaring. And at last, the slaves and captives were led up the steps – step by step, step by step – by those who'd bought them or caught them. It was a somber trek upward. The city, the lake, the plain stretched out to distant mountain horizons around Tenochtitlan, all too visible the closer he drew to the lofty summit of the Hueyi Teocalli and its twin temples. The steps were steep. He knew what awaited him. His heart rebelled. But the drinks he'd been plied with soothed and slowed him, curbing his innate fear of death in the face of Huitzilopochtli, the Deceiver, Lord of Battles, of “war, blood, and burning.”

Finally, it was his turn. The conch sounded; the man who'd been in line in front of him, or rather his open and heartless shell, tumbled down the steps below. With trepidation, fear, and obligation, he, too, now surrendered to the hands pushing him toward the stone circle. Sacrifice was demanded. Sacrifice would be had. Knocked to the ground, four tan-skinned priests in capes and loincloths grabbed his ankles and wrists, held him down tight. His last-ditch reflex to fight ebbed away. The rock beneath his back was sticky and slick. His eyes fixed, squinting, on the radiant sun – soon obscured by a high priest with a dark stone knife, glistening wet from use. The waiting victim's heart throbbed in his chest, as if protesting its impending manhandling and exposure in the open air. And soon it was all over.

So lived many lives and died many deaths during the age of the Aztec Empire. For them, human sacrifices like these were no rare occurrence. During their last century especially, they clung to the thought that their gods had undertaken great sacrifices for them, shedding their divine blood to fuel the world's motion and repopulate it; and as a result, they'd have said, they owed those gods a debt to sacrifice constantly for and to them – by gifts, by animals, by constant bloodletting, and ultimately by human bodies and hearts. It's not a pretty picture. Even in surviving watercolors by native artists, it comes through in all its repulsiveness. If I didn't have a point, I'd never have asked you to picture it.

Paul never visited the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan, far across the sea and not yet built in his day. But what if he had? If he'd traipsed into Tenochtitlan during the run-up to a festival like that, inspecting their temples and learning Nahuatl so he could understand their stories – what might Paul have said? Just like Romans 1, I think he'd proclaim them “without excuse; for although they knew God, they didn't honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they become futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:20-21). The Aztecs had, as their sayings went, no polished eye, and clearly their noses lost their power to sniff out the truth.

Grieving the emptiness of their achievements amidst such idolatry and violence, Paul would have frankly said that “they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23). Though not in the same way as the more familiar Greeks, the Aztecs, too, had been given over to “the dishonoring of their bodies” through the bleeding and the ritual killing and what came next (Romans 1:24) – all because “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). And so they became “full of … murder, strife,” as a city and empire (Romans 1:29), and were exposed as “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:31). The ugly reality is, “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery; and the way of peace, they have not known” (Romans 3:15-17). In this way and in the judgment to come, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

Paul would have found ways to connect with them. “I see you are a very superstitious people,” he might well have said, like he did in Athens (Acts 17:22). He would have looked for hints of mystery and longing. But he would have announced that, unlike their Huitzilopochtli, “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, … is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24-25) – least of all these bloody offerings. Paul would have agreed that the true God is a God who sacrifices for our good – but that sacrifice happened on the cross; that God appeared on earth in the humble Jesus and not as a violent warrior; and the right response to our debt had nothing to do with perpetuating the cycle of death and appeasing the flesh, for “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8), and everything to do with breaking the cycle and reaching something higher. So now this true God “commands all people everywhere” – in Athens, in Lancaster County, and, yes, in Tenochtitlan – “to repent” (Acts 17:30).

Paul would have charged that this whole Aztec system, all these festivals, were empty superstitions. And that meant they couldn't be the right sort of worship – not even a chance. How can the heartless offer their heart? And “what pagans sacrifice, they offer to demons, and not to God,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 10:20). Yet even if they said they did it for God, even then, it couldn't be the right way to worship. Because the only sort of worship worthwhile, Paul would say, is “rational worship” (Romans 12:1). That's the phrase he uses in our passage today. Most modern translations call it something else – 'spiritual worship,' maybe – but the actual words he uses are “logical worship,” “rational worship.” It's the kind of service to God that fits creatures with brains in their heads.

And Aztec worship wasn't that. Human sacrifice isn't rational worship; it's repulsive superstition. Idolatry isn't rational worship; it's the foolishness of exchanging God's truth for a lie and God's glory for petty things. Those foolish kinds of religion might be good enough for wild animals, but certainly not humans with working brains. And so far, that's probably very clear to us. There's nothing about the Aztec religion that resonates or appeals. But when Paul talks about “this age” in the present tense, he's talking about a network of values and structures and powers that hold sway in first-century Rome, fifteenth-century Tenochtitlan, and the twenty-first-century USA all the same. Sure, Paul would have said that the Aztecs had corrupted minds and darkened hearts – he'd call them out on their irrational worship – but he'd say the very same thing to today's America.

Here and now may look different from there and then. We sacrifice our minds and bodies slowly, stretching out the painful death, as we devote them to hungry careers and ambitions; as we let consumerism consume us, and fill ourselves with fruitless distractions, banners waving in the breeze; as we make idols of our families and causes and, perhaps above all, our pride. And that, no less than in Tenochtitlan, is human sacrifice. It just drains the life from us less slowly. It's easier to paper over our mess. But we convince ourselves that the world won't stay in motion unless we drain our lives out for it in overwork. We convince ourselves that the violence of our culture is normal, unavoidable; that sanctioned forms of it are necessary. And we convince ourselves that some people are expendable, can be turned into tools for what we call a greater good, or disposed of altogether (like the unborn, the disabled, the immigrant, the elderly, and plenty of other lives in between). We reduce God's image-bearers to labels we've made up, so that we can better treat them as mere objects. Even in the church, we dedicate ourselves to maintaining the status quo of America as it used to be, or as we imagine it used to be; we make the 1950s our god, perhaps, and sacrifice the Lord's vision for our future to the 'divinity' of a defunct decade.  In and out of the church, so much of what we do, we see its real ugliness only in Tenochtitlan's smoky mirrors.

Paul would tell us that irrationality is a hallmark of this age. Everything characteristic of this age is, at its root, tied up in subhuman thinking. And even if the Aztecs were right, their hearts – and our hearts – are too dark to be offered. We've been naturally socialized into this darkness and foolishness; most of the time, it doesn't even register to us as unnatural – our fear, our defensiveness, our pursuit of power, our patterns of consumption, the standards for the Aztec or the American Dream. And so much of that superstition, so much that's unthinking, so much that just ignores or refuses the truth of God, creeps into our worship and our lives. Because we've been naturally socialized into it. Paul calls on us to open our eyes and resist. He urges us to stop “being conformed to this age” and all its unthinking lies (Romans 12:2). He longs to see us break free of everything unworthy of the kind of thinking creatures God made us.

Because all those bloody superstitions just don't suit us. They aren't reasonable, aren't rational, don't logically add up – for Aztecs or Americans. What is appropriate, what does suit us, is the kind of worship that uses reason – that reflects actively on God's truth and God's deeds. That's what we try to do here. We try to reflect, with our minds and hearts, on God's truth and God's deeds. When we steer clear, we surely fall short; when we get lost or doze during the sermon, we may fall short; when we get distracted and don't even focus on the words we're singing, we likely fall short; when we pepper our church world or personal devotions with unbiblical theology and pointless fluff and feel-good filler, we surely fall short. We lapse into less rational worship, the kind that doesn't suit who God made us. We were made as thinking beings, who string words together in our mouths and minds, who add and link ideas and move toward conclusions – and God wants to see that in our worship and in how we live. He yearns for us to offer worship that opens our vision and stretches our minds as it glorifies him and proclaims the rich depths of his whole truth to his whole world. God calls for our “logical worship,” the proper fruit of our reasonable faith (Romans 12:1).

What suits us is the kind of worship that's holy – that's set apart (Romans 12:1). Not compartmentalized in time – not limited to Sunday mornings – that isn't what holy is. Holy is pure; holy is different from what's all around. Holy is connected to and reflective of a God far above and beyond. The Aztecs would've seen their festivals as holy occasions, perhaps – would have pointed to the banners, the sacred bathing, the sacred dramas, the eating of a dough image of their god, and so many more rituals. But it wasn't holy, because it mirrored gods who were made in the people's image – or, at least, the elite warrior-class people's image – rather than mirroring the one God in whose image they were made. Worship appropriate for human beings isn't recursive; it doesn't just feed us back into ourselves, as if we could live and grow off of our own output, as if a series of copies and reflections could make an original clearer. What suits us is a worship free from distortion, a worship that actually opens us up to something different, to a God who may well change us and break us and remake us.

And what suits us is the kind of worship that's “pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). Which might be hard for us to figure out. We're so steeped in our ways. We cling to our flesh. We're naturally socialized, like we said, on the unthinking ways of an irrational culture. There are assumptions we make, instincts we have, that are like second nature to us as Americans – just like there were assumptions and instincts that were second nature to the Aztecs before us. What we need is a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world. We need to break free from those old assumptions and thought-patterns, we need more light shed in our noggins, in a way that changes and breaks and remakes our brains, our minds. “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). That's what we need.

What can a renewed mind do? Paul says that, with a renewed mind, “by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We make so much hay about figuring out what God's will is, when it comes to what we should do, how we should live, how we should worship. But for a mind made new, a mind shedding old habits and open to real change, we make it so complicated (or, as the Aztecs would say, we make a stew of all the chameleons we catch!). First, is the thing good? Does it have value? Is it virtuous? Then it might be God's will for us. Second, can we realistically imagine it putting a smile on God's face when we do it? Is it pleasing to him? Then it might be God's will for us. And third, does it express maturity? Is it something we can honestly say is mature, the action of a complete person living rationally and well? If it's all those things, give it a test, and you may well find it's the will of God.

What does a lifestyle lived like this look like? What kind of worship does it generate? What does our “logical worship,” our “rational” or “reasonable worship,” look like, if it's to proceed from a renewed mind that seeks God's good and pleasing and perfect will, if it aims to please him, if it aims to be holy? What kind of worship, what kind of life is that? We know what the Aztecs thought worship should look like. They believed in gods who sacrificed their blood; that we owed a debt; that the present world just needed to be kept in motion; and that violence and bloodshed were what their gods wanted, what their gods needed. So many people in ancient Mexico – men, women, even children – were routinely called on to offer their bodies in a very radical and ultimate way: as sacrifices that would be killed to maintain the status quo of the age.

Is that what God wants for us? It's true that all our hope is founded on a divine sacrifice – the Aztecs had some insight there. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” for us (1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice...” (Ephesians 5:2). “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22), so Jesus provided “his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). And for that, we do owe a debt, like the Aztecs suspected: “We are debtors,” Paul confesses (Romans 8:12).

But it's the third key idea where the parallels break down.  See, it isn't the present world that needs to be kept in motion, but a new world that needs to break through. That world isn't the domain of Huitzilopochtli, a strife-stirring and deceitful god of war, but of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who eternally live and reign as one God of Love, Peace, and Truth. God has no need for our blood, our violence, our deadly zeal, our destruction, or our death. He has no interest in human sacrifice of that kind (cf. Leviticus 20:1-5; Hosea 13:2; Ezekiel 23:39). But God is looking for sacrifice. In Aztec festivals, the slaves were bathed in sacred water and clothed in new vestments resembling their god before they were sacrificed. Well, we were bathed in sacred water at baptism, and we've been clothed in Christ Jesus and his righteousness (Galatians 3:27). Why? The Aztecs would see the obvious reason: to be a sacrifice. But what kind of sacrifice can we make of ourselves, when God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezekiel 18:32)? Only one kind, Paul tells us. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your rational worship” (Romans 12:1). That is the kind of worship fitting for thinking people – a sacrifice that keeps on living.

God calls for the sacrifice of our bodies, your bodies, but his aim, he tells us, is to “give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). God isn't looking for a sacrifice that wipes us off the map; that destroys us; that leaves us worse off than we were when we came. Oh, it may look like that for a while, because the road is hard. But he wants a sacrifice that leaves us more alive, more complete, than we were before. He wants a sacrifice that doesn't drain us dry, used up and thrown aside; he wants a sacrifice that we can make day after day.

Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought” – what, from life to death, like the sacrificial victims in Tenochtitlan, or like the casualties of modern American consumer culture? No! “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life,” Paul directs us, “and your body parts to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13). We're told to “not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). But God wants more than just what we have; he wants what we are. He wants our bodies given to him by rational minds – he claims ownership, use, consecration, devotion of our bodies and all the parts of them. To sacrifice them, we give them up to him.

How thankful I am that our way of sacrificing our bodies looks nothing like the ancient ugliness in Tenochtitlan. God never takes a heart out of us without putting a better one in (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26). Our “struggle against sin” might, in a climate of persecution, ultimately lead up to “the point of shedding [our] blood” (Hebrews 12:4) – but that's not the idea. It isn't a bloody sacrifice of death, but a full-on living sacrifice that God is looking for. We sacrifice our bodies – offering them alive – to the God who is the head of the Christ who is the head of his body, the church (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23). So don't be surprised when he insists on using your bodies for the service of Christ's body – but we'll get more to that next week.

What matters now is this call. Paul urges us, appeals to us, to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your rational worship” (Romans 12:1). It isn't automatic. God has bought our bodies, but it's our choice whether to rob him – as we so often do – or to offer ourselves alive on his altar. It's our choice whether to cling to the superstitions of our Aztec or American way, or to rise higher into rational worship, the appropriate sort to come from the thinking creature God made you.

It will be difficult. (That's kind of the definition of sacrifice, isn't it?) We have to let God break the way we were raised and brought up. “We've always done it that way” is no excuse; it's just a definition of the problem. “I don't get it” is no excuse; it defines the problem. “That's ignorant,” “That's crazy,” “That's folly” – that's just the defensive way our irrational minds react to God's reason, which to us looks upside-down (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23-25; 2:14). We have to let God make our new hearts bright and our new minds clear. It's a process; it can take time. Tradition, upbringing, age – doesn't matter, because we're “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Only as God changes our minds can we see the beauty of what he's done for us, and the real depth of our debt, and the kind of God he really is. Only as God changes our minds can we appreciate his radical summons. But now, while it's in process, we have to choose to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Doing it will be costly – again, check literally any definition of the word 'sacrifice'!

For the Roman house churches Paul was writing to, coming out of such a terrible time of turmoil, they were understandably afraid that welcoming Paul and living this Jesus way would be the end of them – that it would get them in trouble, force them into unnatural positions, and spell their doom. Paul, facing their fears without blinking, tells them to go ahead and sacrifice their bodies – and watch God give them life. For us, breaking away from tradition and culture and all our old ways of thinking, and accepting change – well, it's a frightening prospect. Could get us in trouble. Could break us apart or shove us uncomfortably together. Could produce friction and heat. Could make a big stink and a big mess. Paul faces our fears, too, without blinking. And he says, “Nevertheless, present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

Everything you've got, everything you are – put it at the disposal of the God whose Son is the Head of the Church. Put your whole body sacrificially at the service of his Body – and watch God multiply life. The Aztecs offered human sacrifice by killing bodies to maintain their age's status quo. Paul urges us to sacrifice our bodies as living offerings that defy everything about the status quo. And our sacrifice is more radical than anything that happened during any Aztec festival, and it uses no obsidian knife but just “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).

We sing songs with questions like, “Is your all on the altar?” Well, is it? Jesus – not Huitzilopochtli, nor our coveted American idols – is the God who “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). He “came that [we] might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). To that end, Jesus died for us, shed divine blood for us – we are “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). So “we are debtors” (Romans 8:8). But what will you do? Will you choose to present your bodies as a living sacrifice? Again, it costs; again, it hurts; again, it is no easy or comfortable thing. It is a radical thing, a total thing. But for a thinking church, for a church who knows “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), it's the only thing that fits. It's the only “rational worship” – this “living sacrifice” of your bodies and all they've got (Romans 12:1).

Will you put your all on the altar? Will you present your bodies as a living sacrifice? I can't make that choice for you. I can tell you it's the only worship that makes rational sense in light of who the true God truly is. I can tell you that the life Jesus gives is worth so much more than our jobs and our pensions, our trends and our traditions, our resistance and our recreation, our agendas and our stubborn desires. I can tell you all that. Paul can make his appeal to the mercies of God. But what will you do with it? This sermon is done, and in a few moments you'll have the choice: back to life as it was before, or on to life as a living sacrifice; further away from reason, or further into reason. But that choice is yours. Yours. Here. Now. “Choose ye this day...” (Joshua 24:15).

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Depths of Riches: Sermon on Romans 11:33-36

In the far northwestern regions of Russia, a short distance from the tiny border they share with Norway, there is a modest town – a couple thousand people more than Ephrata, I reckon – a town called Zapolyarny. It used to be bigger; it's been losing population for years. It isn't, I suppose, in the most hospitable surroundings. And if you set out from there through the brown and barren landscape, and you go in the right direction, you won't have to walk or drive more than a couple miles before you come to what's left of what looks like a disaster zone. Just the ruins of a building. Debris strewn all over the place. Looks like a little plot of land that had dreams of being a landfill when it grew up. Walk through the debris, and in the middle of it you'll find a rusted metal cap, no more than a foot wide, bolted firmly into the ground. Now, if I were to drop something valuable down most holes, I could probably hire some experts to help me recover it – if it were, say, the Hope Diamond, it'd be worth it to fish it out from the bottom of a well. But if you could unbolt that cap and drop the Hope Diamond through a nine-inch hole in the ground beneath it, the Hope Diamond would never be seen again – not 'til Jesus comes back, at least.

If the Hope Diamond tumbled into the hole under that cap, it'd have an interesting journey on its way down. It would pass by microscopic plankton fossils, endless layers of granite soaked in water, mud boiling with hydrogen. It'd get hot at the bottom – over 350 degrees. That hole is the Kola Superdeep Borehole. And it goes down quite a ways. Not a hundred feet. Not three hundred feet. Not three thousand feet. No, the Soviets had higher – or, should I say, lower – aspirations than that. It goes down over forty thousand feet into the earth – over seven and a half miles – deeper than the deepest ocean trench. Drop the Hope Diamond into that, and it's goodbye to the Hope Diamond. Unrecoverable. There are a lot of holes we think of as deep. But they're jokes next to the Kola Superdeep Borehole. It's in the name – now that's deep.

Hold that thought. If you've been here the past week or so, you know we've been pressing our way through the incredibly dense and complicated arguments Paul's been making, trying to unpack the mystery of God's plans for history. Most places in his letters, he's had to deal with Jewish groups who think that non-Jews – Gentiles – only get into the kingdom as second-class citizens, if at all. He calls them 'Judaizers.' Here, in Rome, Paul's met the opposite problem: non-Jewish Roman believers who harbor all the traditional Roman prejudices and think that God's done with the Jews, has changed plans.

Paul sees something different at work. He says that all of history from Moses to the end can be split in three, and here's where God gets clever. For that long first stretch we read about in the Old Testament, Israel had a lot of special privileges it usually kept to itself. They were in the spotlight, the center of God's plan to bless all the world. All the other nations were lost... waiting. If it were a race, Israel was way ahead, and nobody else even got the memo. Which was what Israel expected: when they crossed the finish line, then the last generation of the nations could cross and join in the after-party. But as it turns out, that's not the way God wanted it. After Jesus came, most of Israel tripped over him like a stumbling stone, got broken off like branches from a tree. But Paul explains that God's just leveling the playing field. Israel's stumble is just to give all the other nations a chance to catch up and get ahead! Which is what we're seeing now in the second stretch: disciples from all nations, joined together with Israel's small but faithful remnant, are out in front. That's what the Romans see, and they assume that God just doesn't want Israel to make it. Paul tells 'em to hold their horses. Because the idea is that, when Israel sees so many nations getting ahead of them, it'll motivate them to get back up in the third stretch, get into Christ, get with the program, catch up with the rest of God's church – and then Israel and all nations can cross the finish line together. A photo finish, but it's a real tie: Israel and all nations tied for first place. Gold medals all around. That, Paul says, is what God's aiming at.

Last week, exploring what Paul's saying here could be pretty rough. Paul is, after all, taking aim at our ideas and our prejudices and trying to deflate them; he's poking our balloons 'til they pop, which is never pleasant. I bet it wasn't pleasant for the Roman churches, either. It's humbling to see how God's plan is bigger than us, and nobody really likes being humbled that way. God is acting in a way nobody could've expected, nobody could've predicted. How should we feel about everything Paul's just unpacked?

Paul, for one, will tell us how he feels. He points at God and falls to pieces in overwhelmed worship. “O depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!” Paul shouts, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33)! Looking at this whole plan, Paul says that God is deep – deep, deep, deep. Really deep. “The depths of God” are deep like the Kola Superdeep Borehole is deep, and deeper still (1 Corinthians 2:10). The depths of God have many dimensions, and Paul highlights three here in his song of worship.

First, God is deep in his knowledge. “O depth of … the knowledge of God!” The knowledge of God goes so much deeper than any hole we've ever dug or any hole we could ever dig. It stretches from the heights of the heavens to the heart of the earth and back. And for Paul, Exhibit A of how deep the knowledge of God must be is this: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2). God knew, all the way back when he was talking to Abraham, exactly what Israel would be like. All their successes. And all their failures. All their moments of tenderness. And all their hard-headed, stiff-necked, hard-hearted scenes of rejection. All their virtues and all their vices. All their credits and all their foibles. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Israel's rough and rocky heart, like the heart of any nation or any person, is a disaster zone shrouded in mud and darkness and storm, spinning wildly in its sickness. It's hopelessly murky. The heart is the least knowable thing the prophets can think of. But God knows it. He knew it long already. He knew the heart of Israel, what made them tick. And he knows the heart of every nation. He knows how we will or will not respond to good news.

Best of all, he knew us – he knew we'd run the race, knew we'd need all the help we could get, so “those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). The knowledge of God is so much deeper than we can imagine; you could pile it in a stack all the way down the Kola Superdeep Borehole, and the knowledge of God would be infinitely deeper still. So why should we be surprised when God outsmarts us? “For who has known the mind of the Lord?”, Paul quotes Isaiah asking (Romans 11:34a). His knowledge is too deep for us to get a handle on. So often, we think we can outfox God. We think we can get ahead of him. We think we can see what he's up to, can crunch the numbers and predict where he's headed. Get real! Who knows all that's going on in the Lord's mind? Not me! Not you! Nobody but the Son and the Spirit, who alone “searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10).

And if that's true, who's to say that, whatever comes your way, God doesn't know something you don't? Who's to say that, when you just can't see a way forward, it isn't plain as day in front of God's sight? Who's to say that, when you can't explain what's going on, it isn't elementary, dear Christian, the way God knows it? With as deep as his knowledge is, as deep as his knowledge goes, we cannot possibly give God enough credit. He knows so much that we can't fathom. Nothing takes him by surprise. Nothing hasn't been factored into his calculations. His knowledge is deep enough to encompass everything you're going through. His knowledge is deep enough to know what you can handle and what you can't – and, more relevantly, what Christ can handle in you. All we can do, all we need to do, is get down on our knees and trust him.

Second, God is deep in his wisdom. “O depth of … the wisdom … of God!” (Romans 11:33a). We're told all over the Bible that God is wise. Paul will call him “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27). “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). “In wisdom” did God make all the things he created (Psalm 104:24), for “the LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19). The prophets tell us that God is “wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (Isaiah 28:29). To God “belong wisdom and might” (Daniel 2:20).

In particular, what brings this home for Paul is looking at the way God organized history. It would have been so easy to just let Israel win the race like they always figured they would: for them to come crashing through the finish line, get the gold medal, but then pal around with a couple silver- and bronze-medal nations who came streaming to Zion in the last day. That would've been easy. It also would've been easy to trip Israel up, let them stumble and fall, disqualify them from the race, and then have gold medals for 'civilized' nations like the Roman churches figured. But God had something wiser in store. He figured out a way to stretch his mercy so much further than any of us ever dreamed. In his wisdom, he skillfully wraps his mercy around Jews and non-Jews, around Israel and every nation, that none might be left second-class.

That's the wisdom of God. The wisdom of God is so deep that there is no division, no hostility, that he doesn't have a plan to bring together. White and black, red and blue – in his wisdom, in Christ that “dividing wall of hostility” can be broken down (Ephesians 2:14). Broken families – God's wisdom has a plan. Broken countries – God's wisdom has a plan. Broken lifestyles – God's wisdom has a plan. And his plan will unfold especially in his church, “so that,” like Paul says, “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).

So how dare the Romans try to second-guess God? How dare they think that they can dictate to God who is and who isn't acceptable to him? “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Paul asks them. He's quoting Isaiah, and Isaiah was talking about how, in spite of their apparent downfall, God was planning to restore Israel. And Isaiah asks, “Wait, do you really think God needs to come to you – to your nation, to your people – for advice on whether he can or should pull this off?” And Paul's got the same question for the Romans: “Do you really think God needs your advice? Are you his counselor?”

So often, we think God needs our advice! We think that God needs to conform to our ideas, our wisdom, our prejudices and agendas. When we hear God tell us to “abstain from sexual immorality,” and that “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” – well, there are plenty of churches and plenty of professing believers who want to be God's counselor, who want to advise him to loosen up on that (1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). And then, when we hear God tell us that “when a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong; you shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you the same as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34), and when God tells us to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2) – well, again, there are plenty of churches and plenty of professing believers who want to be God's counselor. And then when we hear Jesus say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34) – again we want to be God's counselor. And when things just aren't working out for us, and we can't understand what God is doing or why, and we think he's making a mess of things, and we start doubting, we want to be God's counselor. But we can't. He doesn't need our advice. His wisdom is too deep for that. “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD (Proverbs 21:30). His judgments are unfathomable; his ways are untraceable – we've got no view behind the scenes (Romans 11:33b). We can't track his footprints, can't piece together the clues, can't get ahead of him. Just trust and be amazed at his wise plan as it unfolds.

And then third, God is deep in his riches. “O depth of the riches … of God!” (Romans 11:33a). And there is so much in that statement, because God is rich in so many ways. God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4), he has “riches in glory” (Philippians 4:19), he's got “riches of kindness and forbearance and patience” (Romans 2:4). God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). All the food you eat – that's from God. All the water you drink – that's from God. All the air you breathe – from God. All the warmth you feel, and every cool breeze – that's from God.

And what this means is, for one thing, God is far too rich to ever be in debt. Which means he is far too rich to ever be in our debt. “Who has given a gift to him, that he might be repaid?” (Romans 11:35). Paul is quoting what God said to Job: “Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?” (Job 41:11a). “We are debtors,” Paul would tell us (Romans 8:12), but God never is. Which means that God will never owe you anything. All he gives, he gives as a gift, as merciful grace. We can never be so good that we entitle ourselves to extra special treatment. We cannot get God into our debt. His riches are just too deep for that to happen.

But the other side of that is that God is richer in blessing than we are in imagination! “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). We know that verse. God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). We know that one, too. But think about that! God is richer in blessing than you are in imagination. When you pray for this thing or that thing, your imagination is consistently coming up short of what God really aims to give you. And you can trust that he will.

God is far more eager to forgive you than you are to be forgiven by him. God is far more eager to comfort you in your distress than you are in your distress to be comforted. God is far more eager to prosper you than you are to be prospered. Only remember that his value system is higher, and his timing is more far-sighted – see, again, the depths of his knowledge and the depths of his wisdom. But know that he is far more rich in blessing than we are in imagination. Try as hard as you might to conjure up a picture of what he'll give you some day – and you can rest assured that your mental picture doesn't hold a candle to what he's planning. And even now, even amidst our trials and tribulations, God richly blesses us under our radar; we only have to wait in patient faith to see his rich blessings blossom richly. He could pile his stack of blessings with your name on it into the Kola Superdeep Borehole, and it couldn't hold them all.

And for another thing, the depth of God's riches means that his 'divine holdings,' if you will, are vaster and more diversified than any stock portfolio known to man. We've heard him say that “every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills; I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine; … the world and its fullness are mine” (Psalm 50:10-12). Like he said to Job, “Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 41:11b), and not only that, but like Moses said to Israel, “to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it” (Deuteronomy 10:14). “For from him … are all things.” He's the Creator of every thing that's out there – every cat, every plant, every person, every mountain, every far-flung galaxy. “And through him … are all things.” He's the Sustainer who keeps all things in existence – they owe their being to a continual, moment-by-moment grant of mercy from the mind of the Lord. “And to him are all things.” He's the Goal it's all aiming toward, and the Owner. No wonder Israel couldn't fall by the wayside. It was and is his, and “to him are all things.” Same with the nations. The greatest diversity there is, is in what belongs to God. Turn away from him to what you have and what you know, and immediately you're limited, you're reducing the variety and richness. God's riches are deeper and more diverse, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36a) – so is there anything he can't provide, if it's wise for him to give it to us? So shouldn't we trust him to provide all he says he'll provide, and give us all he says he'll give us?

O depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). There is so much about God that is far beyond our ability to explore. The only appropriate response isn't arrogance, and it isn't doubt; it's humble faith. And yet a humble faith that reaches out to what can't be searched out. Because God is determined “in the coming ages” to “show us the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). His aim is that we might “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden on the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3). “Unsearchable riches of Christ” are God's plan for us in “the manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:8-10). This “mystery hidden for ages and generations” is “now revealed to his saints,” and presents us with “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27).

So the only response to the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” that make possible to us this “hope of glory” whereby mercy in Christ is stretched over all, is to glorify God: “To him be the glory forever!” (Romans 11:36b). So often in our lives, so often in our society, so often (sad to say) even in churches, we're content to relegate God to the margins, to the sidelines – there if we decide we need something from him, but otherwise a sideshow. But to glorify God is to acknowledge him as the center – as the one “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (cf. Romans 11:36a). And here's Paul's point: a God so deep must be a God so central! A deep center, a center deep in riches and wisdom and knowledge, is exactly what's needed in our world and in our lives. The Kola Superdeep Borehole is closed up and sealed off; but God can never be closed up and sealed off. His depths are greater, and we cannot get to the bottom of it. So in all humility and all faith, let us forever glorify this God so knowing, so wise, so rich, so superdeep. “Amen” (Romans 11:36c)!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Riches for the World: Sermon on Romans 10:18--11:32

At least it was a dry heat. The weary crowd stood and fidgeted beneath the desert sun, a few miles south of the ruins of Sodom. They were tired. But they listened closely. They knew they didn't have long yet. All their lives, they'd looked up to him. Revered him. The oldest man they'd ever seen. Their only leader all their days. And he was dying. With what little strength he had left, he wanted to impart final wisdom until he was no more on this earth. He'd just come out of the big tent in the heart of the camp, so they gathered around to hear what he'd learned. And in a wavering voice, he began to sing. Line by line. “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak...” He sang of the greatness and faithfulness of the God who led them. He sang of how one God had found them in a howling waste, had circled and hovered like a mama eagle. He sang of prosperity, satisfaction.

But he sang, too, of abandonment and idolatry, mockery and faddishness: “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers never dreaded.” And the old man sang of the response of an offended deity: “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols! So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation” (Deuteronomy 32:21). Oh yes, the old man warned – if they persisted in provoking their God to jealousy, he'd return the favor and use the power of jealousy and punishment to get them on the right track again. The old man sang. And he – old man Moses – explained why he sang; for in the tent of meeting, the LORD God shrouded in clouds and swirling mists had told him of how they were itching for affliction, and how “when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness, for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring” (Deuteronomy 31:21).

And so it did indeed. Over twelve hundred years after Moses sang the song and was shortly 'gathered to his fathers,' as the saying went, the descendants of the audience that day in the Jordanian desert were in the rather sad state he'd foreseen and foreknown. The promised one had come. The God that birthed them as a nation, the Rock of their salvation, had stooped to walk among them. This Messiah, this long-awaited hope, “came to his own... and his own received him not” (John 1:11). After his death and resurrection, though, there was a wave of hope. Of gathering. All of a sudden, thousands of scattered Israelites believed (Acts 2:41). More repented on a daily basis (Acts 2:47). Before long, it was five thousand (Acts 4:4). The pace increased, got faster, picked up more steam (Acts 5:14). They “multiplied greatly, … and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). The long-awaited acceptance was here!

Until it wasn't. Things began to shift, change. Wherever the missionaries went, some believed, but then the others, the masses, didn't. So some missionaries like Paul and Barnabas announced, “Behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). In time, in places like Rome, a few churches had a Jewish presence, but not all of them did. And during the season when many Jews were exiled from the city by imperial decree, the Gentiles – non-Jews – learned how to get along by themselves. And when the suffering Jews, believing and unbelieving, returned to the city, it got messy. We talked about that the other week: how some Roman Gentile Christians got a new idea. And their new idea was this: that if the door was wide open for them, it might be closing for the Jews; and if they were in God's favor, it meant they, the Gentile Church, were taking Israel's place; and all that Jewish stuff was so old-fashioned now, so obsolete, so out-of-touch with the real condition of the modern-day world. Clearly, they thought, God – and Paul – had rejected the Jews and turned to the Gentiles.

And so Paul has to wade into the muck and mire and do some explaining. And boy, does he have a lot to say! We've been listening to him for some weeks now. And he wants them to know, when it comes to opportunity to be rescued and brought into the heart of God's work now, “there's no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him; for 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (Romans 10:12-13). It takes just two things: confessing and believing – both centered in Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, and the good news about his arrival, his sacrifice, his rule (Romans 10:9).

God, Paul says, sent out messengers to preach this good news to Jews and Gentiles alike. But he has to admit that, at the national level, Israel has ignored them, shot them down, rejected the good news, refused to join in the celebration. “They have not all obeyed the gospel” (Romans 10:16). So what's the problem? Didn't the messengers reach them? That can't be it: “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world” (Romans 10:17). Well, didn't they know the consequences? Sure they did. Not only had they heard the song of Moses, which now confronts them as a witness just like God said, but even Isaiah contrasted God's overtures toward this “disobedient and contrary people” with God being “found by those who did not seek me” (Romans 10:20-21). On that note, it sure sounds like the Gentile Christians of Rome are right: they've replaced a rebellious and thrown-out Israel with their Church.

But Paul explains that the story is way more complicated. “Has God rejected his people? No way!” How can that be? What's the proof? Paul says he, and other Jewish Christians like him, are the proof: “For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknow” (Romans 11:1-2) – whom he foreknew even in their rebellion and their apostasy. The way it's always worked is that, even in those moments when Israel was most astray, when Israel as a body was just totally dead-set against God – even then, like in the days of Elijah, God had kept a remnant, an elite mini-Israel, who stood in as a placeholder for the whole until better days (Romans 11:2-4). “So, too, at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Romans 11:5). And because of that, historic Israel is split in two: “The elect obtained [what Israel was seeking], but the rest were hardened” (Romans 11:7).

Why? Why save a remnant of a failed nation? Or why let there be such failure in a nation with a future? Those are the questions on the minds of the people hearing this letter read in all the different Roman churches – some more, some less Gentile-dominated. “Did they stumble so as to fall? No way! Rather, through their trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Romans 11:11). It's just like Moses said long before! Because Israel clung to their ignorance, God wanted to make them jealous with a 'no-people,' a foolish nation, by lavishing his attention on them, so as to provoke Israel into waking up. Israel's stumbling, bumbling non-response to the gospel isn't the failure of God's plan; actually, it's part of God's crafty plan – God's crafty plan to save the Gentiles and the Israelites.

And that, Paul says, is what his ministry is all about: ministering to the Gentiles with an eye toward making his fellow Jews jealous, so that all can be saved. History moves in three stages. Once Israel had rejected the gospel and been set aside from the limelight, it paved the way for massive success in the Gentile mission. But the idea is that that's only step two, because it'll provoke step three: Israel's jealousy, with their acceptance and their full inclusion again – not just a little remnant, but the main mass. That's what Paul is after (Romans 11:12-16).

So Israel isn't obsolete. Israel isn't old-fashioned and outdated. Israel isn't the permanent loser – some second and now-discarded thing alongside the Gentile Church. Israel's salvation is still the end goal that God's driving at. And the whole thing – yes, even the thing that Roman Gentiles have joined – is rooted in God's covenant long ago with a man named Abraham, whom Jewish texts had started to call Israel's 'root.' That's true – and “if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Romans 11:16).

Paul wants to chase that image. He says, Imagine Israel as like an olive tree – a cultivated, cared-for olive tree. But things went a little topsy-turvy. Many of its branches got chopped off. Why? Unbelief – a lack of the fruit of faith. So now there are two things, you could say: a growing tree, with just a minority of its original, natural branches; and then, over in the corner, carefully stacked, a pile of broken-off branches. All are, in a way, Israel. But then, because of how roomy and bare the tree is, God goes and gets branches from wild olive trees, and he grafts them onto this cultivated olive tree of Israel. But once this tree's sap starts flowing into them, they come to life and are fruitful. Lest they get smug over that heap of Israelite wood in the corner, though, they need to remember, they aren't a natural fit. The only life that flows through them, comes from the holy root of the patriarchs. And if they still aren't fruitful, God won't hesitate to chop 'em off again. And whenever God chooses to graft natural branches back in, won't they take to it naturally? After all, it's literally in their DNA. “For if you were cut from what by nature is a wild olive tree, and grafted (contrary to nature) into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree!” (Romans 11:24). It's their own – not like this outlandish Gentile experiment that somehow works. No room for pride.

In fact, Paul says, it's still all God's plan: “A partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and in the same way, all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26). It's all so topsy-turvy. Jewish thinkers tended to envision the final turn of events something like this: Israel is in hard straits, but then God restores his people to glory, and the fullness of Israel is saved, and then the Gentiles will see that and be drawn to Zion. Paul flips it on its head: the Gentiles are already coming to join the Israelite remnant, and when their full number is saved, and when mainstream Israel is finally fed up with a view from the bench, they'll join the game again, and all will be brought to glory together. In the meantime, the Gentile Romans are right to the extent they see Israel's hostility to the gospel, but so wrong to think it means God's done with them. He can't be – his gifts and calling can't be taken back (Romans 11:28-29). But it's all been God's plan to close both kinds of people up under disobedience at one major stage of history, so that when all's said and done, God “may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:30-32).

That's a big message. And it might seem a bit... I don't know... academic? Is that how maybe it seems to us here, now, today? What are we – us here, right here – supposed to get out of this picture Paul is sketching? Is it relevant? Does it have a practical cash-value for how we think and feel and act? Before we close, I want to propose to you eight lessons – and maybe there are more – but eight lessons, eight points, I think you and I alike should be drawing from this.

First of all, there's this. This is how God sees history. This is history according to History's Lord. The entire sweep of human history over the past few thousand years, and whatever we're adding now, all the way until it wraps up, is about this: God first locked up the Gentiles in disobedience, but when it was Israel's turn, the Gentiles got mercy; but in the end, by the mercy shown to the Gentiles, all Israel will discover mercy afresh. That's what history is about: Israel and the Gentiles, and God's determination to save both in mercy. Everything else is secondary.

Here in America, and especially in the American church, we're so obsessed with the idea that history's about all our stuff. A few years ago, a popular TV show finished its run, and there was a character on it who humorously gave voice to the way we really think in our hearts. He said: “History began on July 4, 1776. Everything before that was a mistake.” But here's the reality. America is not what history is about. The White House, the legislature, the courts; our Declaration, our Constitution – none of it is what history is about. We are either a sideshow, or just some footnoted details as an example of one mainly Gentile nation within which some of Israel is scattered. America is not a defining feature of God's vision of history.

And that means that all the things that worry us – all the major obstacles and problems and temptations of the day – they aren't the main show either. The rise of secularism in America may not be great. But the fight between secularism and religion in America is not a key part of how God tells history. The role of other major religions in the world today, especially Islam, is a topic that we can't seem to avoid. And God has his purposes, because he's a God of details as much as of the main thing. But when God lets us in on the mystery of history, neither Islam nor any of those others fit in the title. Same's true for the big political questions. 'Conservatism,' 'Liberalism,' 'Capitalism,' 'Communism' – those conflicts aren't the way God tells history. And we'd do well to retrain ourselves to see history – even the history we're still living – the way God narrates it, and less in terms of our own self-appointed anxieties. And the way God tells history is about natural Israel and the now-grafted Gentiles having turns in the limelight, 'til all Israel – re-grafted natural and grafted wild branches, too – will be saved.

Second, what Paul says here should retrain how we think of the Church. What is the Church? Fundamentally, what is the Church? Is it a separate, new Gentile body that came into being as the torch passed out of Jewish hands? No. The Church, as we know it today, is Israel between surgeries. But note the key feature: what we're calling the Church is not a second entity alongside Israel, or a second entity replacing Israel; the Church just is Israel. We have been grafted into Israel by being included through faith in the life of Israel's Messiah – who, as it turns out, is the main trunk, the whole tree. I don't mean the Middle Eastern country that calls itself by that name, but which is mostly part of the pile of broken branches. The living Israel is the Church of Jesus Christ.

Which means that you, you once-wild branches, are, in a sense, adopted Israelites. That's us. Which means that the Old Testament story isn't some other story, some old and foreign story. It's our story. When we read the Old Testament, we shouldn't be saying 'they.' We should be saying 'we.' Think of it like this: When we talk about the American Revolution, don't we American citizens like to say that “we fought the Crown for independence”? Not that we personally enlisted, but identifying ourselves with the same national whole who fought? And when an immigrant comes, and becomes a naturalized citizen, don't we celebrate when they start referring to the American heritage as 'we,' not 'they'? Same thing here. When we read the Old Testament, that has become our new backstory, our new heritage. The patriarchs are our root, so long as we're grafted in through faith.

Which is why we keep the Old Testament in our Bibles. It's not just for background research, not just reference, but as living scripture. The Old Testament scriptures are ours, just as much as anything the apostles wrote. And since it's all our story, we'd better get familiar with it all. But too often, when we tell people the gospel, when we explain to them who Jesus is and what he's all about, you'd get the impression he was crucified in Genesis 4! Too often, we hop immediately from the Fall to the Cross, from our problem to Jesus' solution, without seeing that Jesus on the cross is the organic center of the whole story of God and his mission-carrying people. The story of pre-cross Israel isn't an optional add-on; it's what we imply when we call Jesus 'the Christ.' There's no such thing as a Christian to whom the Old Testament is irrelevant, only Christians who are ignorant of how.

Third, Jewishness remains highly relevant to God's church. The Church is Israel with wild branches grafted in, and temporarily missing most – but not all – natural branches; which God promises to re-graft once all the wild ones meant to be added have found their spot. The church grows from Jewish roots. And the church's present life is predicated on having a Jewish remnant living in our midst. Unlike what the Romans were thinking, and unlike the ways we've tried to normalize it, a totally un-Jewish church would be a bizarrely unnatural thing. And to tell the truth, some big stretches of church history have been major failures here. We've tried to banish Jews and Jewish culture; we've horribly mistreated Jews inside and outside the church. We have to be honest, brutally honest, about those atrocious failures. Whenever that has happened, we've betrayed the gospel.

But on the flip side, when we've embraced our Old Testament heritage (while standing firm in New Testament liberty), and when we've welcomed the 'natural branches' still among us, it's a fruitful blessing to any local body of believers. When we have members who are in fact descended from the patriarchs – members whose ancestors physically stood and heard Moses sing his song for the first time; members whose ancestors lived under the rule of David and Solomon; members whose ancestors stood in covenant with God during long eons when many of our families were still lost – well, when we have members who are descended from the patriarchs like Paul was, we need to cherish and celebrate that! They are living proof of God's promises to all of us. They are the rare surviving natural branches. They are the remnant who let the church be what it is. In fact, here in this church, we are enormously blessed to have at least one family, maybe more, of such 'natural branches.'

Fourth, all that said, we need to remember this: It really is all about grace, not works. Even for the remnant of natural branches, it isn't an entitlement. It isn't something earned. It's mercy. It's grace. Paul calls them “a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it's by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5-6). Not earned. Not entitled. A free gift of God – even for the remnant. And just the same for the wild branches grafted in – the Gentiles. Wild branches don't bring any productivity. Wild olive trees are notorious for that – it's partly why Paul used that image. It can't be by works, for any of us. It has to be by grace, for all of us. God doesn't want anyone to get in under the illusion that they earned a spot. No, no: he wants to be very clear about this. Whether you're a Jew or a Gentile, it's nothing you worked for, it's nothing you achieved; it's grace, conditioned on your perseverance in faith.

Fifth, just look at this strategic mind our God has! This careful balancing of Jewish and non-Jewish interests – this millennia long scheme to lure and entice both into the realm of his mercy – I could never come up with this. I'm just not that smart. All of us, putting our heads together, would never in a million years have come up with this plan. And yet the whole cycle, its full orbit, leads to everyone being treated on even footing. Neither will have room for boasting. Neither will have any excluded who could otherwise have been saved. It's literal divine genius. I urge you, just spend some time looking at how God's mind works – and trust him.

Sixth, note what Paul is expecting people to see in us. He expects that, as mainstream Israel sees the Gentiles enjoying with the remnant all their historic blessings, all the closeness with God that was theirs, they'll be provoked to jealousy and want back in on what they're seeing us having. The entire plan ultimately hinges on that. Think about what we're saying. Paul expects us to be enjoying so much of God that his historic people get jealous over how much deeper into God we're getting through Jesus than they can get outside of Jesus, so that they'll see how much they need Jesus. Is your relationship with God something practitioners of other religions have reason to be jealous over? Because that's the plan. Think about that. Cultivate that. Dive into that.

Seventh, look at the way Paul talks about what the gospel has brought, right here, right now. Israel's failure means what for the rest of us? “Riches for the Gentiles” (Romans 11:12). What does their rejection mean? “The reconciliation of the world” (Romans 11:15). And what about the consequence of Israel's trespass? What do we get because of it? “Riches for the world” (Romans 11:12). We so easily get caught up in the problems of our lives. Our sickness. Our bankruptcy. Our jobs and our schedules. But do we have our eyes open – open to the fact that, in receiving the gospel, in having the opportunity to be grafted onto the tree God is tending, in encountering grace through Jesus, we're being made rich beyond our wildest dreams? Do we understand, do we see, that the gospel is in fact – right this moment, right here in this sanctuary – “riches for the world”? Jesus came, and the good news is, it's so that “you … might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, he says, was “making many rich” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Not with money, but with “the riches of [God's] kindness and forbearance and patience” (Romans 2:4), with “the riches of his glory” (Romans 9:23), with “the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7), “the riches of his glorious inheritance” (Ephesians 1:18). For Paul was called “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). And exactly that is what you have received and can enjoy this very moment, through faith in him, because the Lord Jesus is presently, here and now, “bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). Do you see the value? The preciousness of the gospel?

Eighth, the last thing I want to share: All that, everything I just said, is like a trickle, a drip from a clogged hose. But there's a flood in store. “If [Israel's] trespass means riches for the world..., how much more with their full inclusion mean?” (Romans 11:12). “For if [Israel's] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15). What we're getting now are the blessings as filtered through the remnant – the apostles and the Jewish believers in every age joined to them. It's certainly proven to be riches for the world. But it's a pittance next to the flood of wealth and blessing and life set to be unleashed when the narrow channel of the remnant is expanded wide to 'all Israel.' There's something more than these presently experienced 'unsearchable riches' yet in store. Not just more, but “much more,” Paul says. It's beyond reconciliation. It's resurrection. It's life from the dead. It's the fullness of seeing face-to-face, of knowing as we are known, of beholding the Father with unshrouded eye and walking in glorious victory in an incorrupt new creation with a resurrected Christ. It's more than words can tell. But it's the “how much more,” it's the “life from the dead,” that's waiting in store for when 'all Israel,' the general collection of natural branches, are graciously grafted in again by faith, accepting and accepted, fully included beyond the trespass – and when God has his way of mercy for all. And for that, we hope and pray – and, like Paul, we hope to “magnify [our] ministry” (Romans 10:13).

Thanks be to the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of the olive tree that grows by grace from its Abrahamic root of richness into the unsearchable riches of Christ! Thanks be to God for the remnant of Israel he's preserved, thanks be to God for the wild branches he's grafting in from all nations, and thanks be to God for the miracle he'll yet do to save all Israel and bring life from the dead. Thanks be to this God in Jesus, the Messiah, our Lord. Amen.