In our time and place
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! 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 foreknew.
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. (Romans 11:1,2a,13-15,28-32 ESV)
I remember growing up wondering what it would have been like to have been in the first World War or the second – maybe at Gallipoli or Kokoda in PNG. Would I have lived or died? But that wasn’t to be my fate. I wasn’t born into those generations that were the fighting age for those conflicts. I remember at seminary going through class after class and learning theology and history and the Confessions and thinking at times with the arrogance of youth or the hubris of the modern that if I’d been there things would have gone better or the teaching would have been clearer. But again I wasn’t born speaking Aramaic, Greek or Latin – nor was there going to be a reformer – a side kick of Martin – named George Samiec who signed the Augsburg Confession. My role is to faithfully preach and teach God’s Word in the 20th and 21st centuries. Why not the 30th and 31st centuries? Such are the interesting ‘what ifs?’ we might play and they highlight two dimensions of living – that we are individuals who live in certain times and places but we can be categorised by time or location or historical event. So today we recognise the terms ‘Baby Boomer’ and ‘Gen Y’; and we can appreciate that Samuel, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were all prophets – they all had God’s message to give to the people – they all had their ups and downs – but only Jeremiah faced the destruction of Jerusalem and only Ezekiel lived in the exile.
This is what Paul is talking about in chapter 11 of Romans as he continues his argument that God has not abandoned or repudiated the people of Israel for they were selected through whom the Messiah was to come so that all the world can be blessed. They also become a living lesson for the Gentiles that works righteousness and self righteousness are not the basis of the relationship with God which is always based on his Word, his promises, and thus it is by faith because God is gracious. So looking at the big picture it might seem now that Jesus has come – that Gentiles are being saved – and that the people of Israel had served their purpose and were now doomed to damnation as part of God’s plan.
The last thing Paul wants as he prays for his people – the people of Israel – to be saved is for the Gentiles to become cocky and arrogant over against the Jews and in doing so find justification in themselves and … because that’s what happens when you take your eyes off Jesus and compare yourselves to others, self delusion, pride, arrogance (or despair) starts all over again because people are sinners and we don’t, by nature, handle grace and mercy well. We live nearly 2,000 years after Paul and now there is all that history between Jew and Gentile that has occurred that Christians can’t ignore.
Today the terms we might use – Jew, Israel, Israeli, Palestine, Palestinian, Arab, Jewish – needs to be unpacked and contextualised whether it is being used religiously, politically, historically, to describe nation states, a religion, a culture. We need to know how the terms are used to understand the message. People who hold to what Christians call the Old Testament and who are still waiting for the Messiah will call themselves Jew and Israel as they believe the promises of God written there. People who follow the Old and New Testaments who believe that Jesus is the Messiah – the fulfilment of the Torah, of righteousness, of worship, of glory – and thus they, too, see themselves as the people of God and the fulfilment of the names and terms listed – so theologically Christians are Israel and it has nothing to do with passports, circumcision, gender, location, even the Middle East. But yes, it is complicated when people use the same terms to mean different things.
We get a sense of this already in the Gospel for today – Jesus and the Canaanite woman who cries out, embarrasses the disciples to get them to advocate on her behalf but then you get what most people say is Jesus’ reluctance to help. I know hundreds of books say that the Canaanite woman ‘taught’ Jesus to expand his horizons. I don’t buy it. For a person who has the cross as his destination – who knows God’s intention from the beginning that all the world be saved – my understanding is that Jesus cared for this woman and her child because she, too, was ‘a lost sheep of the house of Israel’ – the ones Jesus had come to rescue. Ok, his words to her seem harsh and rude for sure but we are dealing with God’s mysterious way – that he would kill his Son on a cross, that crucifixion – the scandal of that age – for shame and humiliation was to be the throne from which the Messiah would defeat all powers that enslaved and killed his people –
and the fact that this cross would become the sign of God’s love and his followers response – a sign of our discipleship – yes, that’s mysterious. We worship God who comes to us in apparent weakness – words, water, bread and wine – and yet does the mightiest and most powerful things on earth – kill and make alive, strengthen and empower so that the forces of sin, death, and the devil no longer dominate. Yes, they can and do attack but they don’t win because there is an empty grave that is God’s nah-nany-nah-nah – God’s permanent raspberry – on them. My point is that even in his ministry Jesus broke the nationality boundaries – as he did ones relating to women and sinners – and so we can see already that the idea of Israel and the lost sheep was more than a certain nationality, DNA, family tree, or good works. And similarly we should be careful of casting Jesus’ ministry in terms of what we think is appropriate – after all – and this is challenging for us to contemplate – is God the potter not able to make his pot and treat his pot as he chooses?
Paul picks up another mystery however in talking about Jews and Gentiles and that is that God does seem to have rejected the people who follow Moses and the Law because they don’t follow Jesus the Messiah. Paul says ‘Hello! – excuse me – before you run with this idea too far – look at me – I used to follow Moses better than most but now I follow Jesus by God’s grace’. And he mentions Elijah’s lament that Elijah is the only one left to which God replies, ‘Rubbish – there are 7,000 men, that is households in my understanding, who hadn’t bent their knee to Baal’. In each season, in each generation, in each moment of history – tough as some of them really are – terrible as some are and we really are glad we didn’t live through such times – God always calls people to himself and it is always possible for people to come to faith in him, to trust his promises, and to follow Jesus – whether in affluence or when the bombs are falling – and we’d prefer the affluence but spiritually it might be better to have the bombs! I don’t want to play them off as such just to say that people can’t go to God at the end of their lives saying, ‘I would have liked to love and follow you but you put me into too tough a period of history or you placed me in this nationality and it’s your fault, I didn’t trust Jesus’. Yes, people can live and go through terrible suffering but there is no time or place that can create a barrier to faith, love, grace, and mercy; to Jesus’ presence; nor to Jesus’ call and challenge.
The mystery Paul sees is that while his people are not rejected by God – no individual is outside God’s love and wanting to them to be saved – it is so that God has hardened those who follow Moses – so that the Gentiles might be saved – as Paul was thrown out from the synagogue he then went to halls and market places – and with the Gentiles’ salvation those who follow Moses might be goaded, made jealous to look again at their Scriptures and a cross and empty tomb. It is like in a family of many children that the eldest child paves the way in all sorts of things largely showing how the parents respond to each first time event and so the younger siblings learn what to do and not to do – or as the eldest often says ‘they learnt what they could get away with!’. We understand this dynamic – there are differences in upbringing and experiences even in families – and yet God’s love is for all – and no one is pushed aside.
The English translations mightn’t help here for Paul says at the beginning of our reading that God doesn’t reject his people at all – he wants them all with him – but later when Paul is saying that the Gentiles heard the Gospel and Paul is concentrating on them to make the Jews jealous the English says ‘For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?’. And we have this idea of a mass conversion in the end times emerging. But that’s not what Paul’s saying because the word in Greek in v.15 means jettison while in v.1 &2 it has more of the idea of reject, repudiate – so Paul’s not being inconsistent and it is God’s plan that in each generation the 7,000 so to speak – not a literal number – like Paul, those who hear Paul’s message and all messages about Jesus – ‘some’ in each generation – to say ‘all’ is to deny reality and history – some receive and accept this message of Jesus is the Messiah and it is life from the dead for them – it is Ezekiel 37 the dry bones coming to life in each generation as the Spirit moves and blows.
Why are you and I saved? Why is anyone saved? Because of Jesus and what he did. And because of what the Holy Spirit does through Word and Sacraments by which we are pointed to Jesus who leads us to the Father and we discover of the Trinity of love and grace. That’s the deep truth – it is by grace people are saved – and this not our own doing – lest anyone should boast. As we keep our eyes on Jesus and his grace we then look around to serve those next to us – in the time and place God has put us. Of course it isn’t easy – all times have their challenges – but no one is meant for destruction, God wants all people to be saved – yes, and that includes you and me!
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 ESV)
- Romans 11:1 - 2
- Romans 11:13 - 15
- Romans 11:28 - 32