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, these formerly wild branches come to life and are fruitful. A successful operation, restoring fruitfulness to the olive tree called Israel! Yet, lest these recently-introduced branches get smug over that heap of native-Israelite wood in the corner, 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 (native-Israelite 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 (wild branches) are already coming to join (i.e., be grafted onto) the Israelite remnant (the trunk of the cultivated tree), and when their full number is saved, and when 'mainstream Israel' (the heap of natural branches severed from the tree) is finally fed up with a view from the bench, they'll join the game again (i.e., be re-grafted onto the tree), and all will be brought to glory together. In the meantime, the Gentile Romans are right to the extent they see mainstream natural Israel's hostility to the gospel, but so wrong to think it means God's done with Israel. 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 (Parks and Recreation) 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 all 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 (sadly) 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 that we're 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 present 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, still fruitfully drawing life and health from the tree. They are the remnant who let the church be what it is. In fact, here in this congregation, 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 that 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.

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