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)!

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