Monday, August 18, 2014

Sermon on Romans 11:1-2a, 13-32, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, "People of Faith and Mercy", Part 9

Sermon on Romans 11:1-2a, 13-32, part 9 of a 13 part series in Romans, "God's Greater Story." This sermon is not adapted from the series.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in Romans chapter 11, we come to another challenging and often misused Bible passage, which is partly why I expanded the verses included in the reading, from what you find in the bulletin insert. Paul renews his discussion from Romans 9 about the make-up and identity of the church, the relation of Jews and Gentiles (non-Jewish peoples) in the church, and the mysteries of God’s eternal choosing or predestination of His people. Part of Paul’s aim in Ch. 11 is to reign in a dangerous attitude of pride or arrogance. From any Gentile Christians who might look down on or even ignore the Jews who had fallen away from God through unbelief in Jesus, and so were under the present “partial hardening” that Paul describes. Paul wants to teach us Gentiles of our place in God’s plan, but to keep us humble, and fill us with eager concern for the lost Jews as God’s chosen people, for whom God still has a plan.
Today it might seem as a forgotten issue to most Christians—the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Tension between Jews and Gentiles in the Christian church is not a problem today like it was in the first century. Most churches, like ours, are overwhelmingly made up of Gentile believers, and you might not even personally know any Jews. Even though there are prominent Jews in politics, business, and entertainment, they make up a very small slice of the population, and it’s easy to be completely unaware of their presence among us. Few stand out as practicing Jews. Among those who are more conscious of the Jewish people, a lot of interest centers around the political concerns over Israel, and its status as a political state in the Middle East. Romans chapter 11 has often been used to promote political support for the nation of Israel.
However, in chapter 11 Paul both stirs up our concern for the Jewish people, as heirs of God’s promises and the object of His special concern, but also directs that attention to the spiritual state or should I say status, of Israel—not the political state. Paul’s concerned with their salvation, their spiritual condition—not political goals. Of course millions of Jews live in the political state of Israel, which is presently in the midst of deadly conflict with Gaza, and facing regional threats. As Christians we should be deeply concerned and engaged in prayer for Jews and Gentiles on both sides of the conflict, that bloodshed and war would cease, and that the peace of Jesus Christ would have room to capture the hearts of all. We pray that the hearts of men would be turned from warring and the quest for power, to seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness. Wars and political conquests can accumulate power, wealth, or land—but these are fleeting, temporary possessions. Jesus, however, calls us to live under His eternal kingdom and power, and to receive His riches that are never destroyed or fade away.
Paul makes an analogy about Jews and Gentiles in the church. In the Mediterranean, olives and olive oil are a staple in everyone’s diet. Olives grow on small trees, and there are both a wild variety of the tree, and the cultivated variety. He compares the people of Israel, to a cultivated olive tree. This pictures God’s tending and caring for His chosen people, and His desire for their fruitfulness. In the practice of growing olive trees, there is a technique called grafting, where either the branches or root of a more desirable tree are joined to another, either to increase the olive production, to invigorate the plant, or to increase its disease resistance. Paul describes that this is what has happened to God’s people Israel. They are the root and the tree—cultivated and tended for, as in a garden. But some of their branches have been broken off. Paul tells us that this was because of unbelief. After the coming of Jesus, many Jews did not believe in Him as their promised Messiah. This is the breaking off of those branches.
But at the same time that they were being rejected for unbelief, Jesus was accomplishing the reconciliation of the world. By dying on the cross for our sins Jesus paid the debt of sin for Jews and Gentiles alike. So God began grafting in the “wild olive shoot”—the Gentiles. Paul himself was glorifying that ministry that God had sent him to do, to be an apostle or missionary to the Gentiles, to bring them into the church, the people of God. Apparently, from what I’ve read about olive cultivation, grafting in a wild olive branch would be unusual, because it would not be expected to improve fruit production—unless it was done to reinvigorate a dying or failing tree. Ordinarily, a cultivated branch would be inserted in a cultivated tree, or a wild tree would begin to be cultivated by inserting cultivated branches that would bear good fruit.
The Gentiles too were unlikely candidates for grafting into the tree of Israel. Our ancestry was not as the people of God, but originated in worship of many pagan gods and idols. The moral life of the Gentiles was a far cry from the upright lives of the Jews, who adhered to God’s commandment. As Gentiles, we would not be likely candidates as fruitful members of the cultivated tree. But Paul’s point is to highlight over and over, the incredible mercy and love of God, and how He calls undeserving sinners into fruitfulness and purpose in His kingdom. And by God’s grace to the Gentiles, the early church already began to see the marvelous fruit of the Gospel in the lives of these new Christians.
But Paul warns us against arrogance over the Jews or forgetfulness that we are rooted in them, and not the other way around. And who is it but Jesus Christ, the very descendant of Abraham and a Jew by birth, who is the nourishing root and life of the olive tree? Paul’s language makes it hard not to think of Jesus’ similar description of Himself as the Vine, and we are the branches, who must abide in Him to have life. Our Christian faith is not separate from, but organically connected to our Jewish roots and indeed our Jewish Messiah, Jesus.
Don’t forget, Paul urges, that despite the fact that some Jews have been broken out of the tree by their unbelief, this does not prevent God from grafting them back in again. This gets into something that has no agricultural parallel. Branches don’t get broken out to later be reinserted to the tree! But of course God is not limited by the analogy! Paul’s point is the remarkable mercy and continued faithfulness to the Jews, and that perpetual desire to graft them back into the people of God, the spiritual Israel.
Faced with human disobedience, whether from Gentiles or Jews, does God’s mercy end? No! Rather God displays His continued faithfulness to show mercy on all. Paul cited himself as a first example of God’s faithfulness to the Jews. He must have had in mind his own stubborn resistance to God and his violent persecution of Christians, before God stopped him in his tracks and made him do a spiritual “about-face” in Damascus. Paul held out the same hopes for the Jews, that even if just by jealousy for the ministry to the Gentiles, that they might be persuaded to believe in Jesus and come back to God. God always reserves a place in the olive tree for those natural branches, that they can be grafted back in.
God’s vision for the church is a fruitful olive tree composed of Jews and Gentiles, rooted in the Jewish faith, the promises made to Abraham, and the Messiah born from his ancestry. And that vision culminates in the full number of the Gentiles coming to be saved, and that all Israel will be saved. This He accomplishes, as promised, by the Deliverer—that’s Jesus!—who turns us from ungodliness and takes away our sins. Jesus is the hope of Jew and Gentile alike, or as Paul opened the letter to the Romans by saying, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and then the Gentile.”
That verse that “all Israel will be saved” is often the cause for confusion—especially about who is meant by “Israel,” and how they will be saved. Nothing else in Paul’s letter hints that he considers there to be any other way of salvation than believing in Jesus as Savior. In this very chapter he says that they can be grafted in again except if they continue in their unbelief, and also as just quoted, that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. So however the phrase is understood, salvation must still come through Jesus Christ. But what about the question of what “all Israel” means? Does it mean in this context, only the people of Jewish ancestry, or does it mean the spiritual descendants of Abraham, both Jew and Gentile, that believe in Jesus Christ? The second seems to fit better with Romans 9, which tells us that not all descended from Israel belong to Israel, but that it is the children of promise that are counted. There Israel means not just the blood ancestors of Abraham, but as the spiritual community that inherits Abraham’s faith—both Jew and Gentile. In the church, those distinctions of blood and ancestry are erased, and all are one in Christ Jesus.
So if “all Israel will be saved” means that salvation must come through faith in Jesus Christ, what does that mean for the end? Clearly God intends to restore many of the Jewish people to faith in Him. Will it be only those who are “spiritual Israelites?” Or will it be all ethnic Jews, through a miraculous mass conversion? I suppose some questions must remain unanswered—and remain part of the mystery to which Paul refers. But until we come to the day of perfect knowledge and face to face sight with God, we can be fervent in prayer and hope for the Jewish people, and earnestly desire that they come to know the Savior who was first promised to them, and through whom we have this most precious access to God our heavenly Father. And we can remain humble in our place and our calling, knowing that we were not saved through any goodness or merit of our own, but that we are above all a people of faith and mercy—recipients of God’s undeserved and out-poured gifts in Jesus Christ. And one day when we stand in heaven with Jew and Gentile and people of every language and nation, we will all be standing there together as a people of faith and mercy—people who can and will attest to God’s unbreakable faithfulness and promises, and praise His great and unending love, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Reread Romans 11. What reasons or examples does Paul provide, to demonstrate that God has not and will not permanently reject His people Israel? What, by God’s wisdom, has He accomplished by the present “partial hardening” (v. 25) of Israel? See vs. 5-6, 11-12, 14-15, 25-27, 32
  2. In vs. 13-14 Paul seems proud of his ministry, and desires to create jealousy out of the Jews. How should we understand this? In other places, what did Paul say were the only things he could boast about? 1 Corinthians 1:31; 9:15-16; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Galatians 6:14.
  3. In v. 17-24, Paul uses a farming metaphor of cultivating an olive tree, and grafting branches into it—a practice of inserting branches from one tree into another to improve fruit/olive production. What points does Paul make with this image? About the place of the Gentiles? About the reasons for being grafted in or broken out? About God’s mercy?
  4. Paul refers to a mystery in v. 25-26, that a “partial hardening” of Israel would occur till the full number of Gentiles came in (to the church)—and that “in this way all Israel will be saved.” What end time hope is there for the Jewish people, who have not yet believed? How does this parallel the conclusion of the olive tree metaphor in v. 23-24? What condition would be the only reason that would prevent their grafting in again? (v. 23).
  5. Whether for Jew or Gentile, salvation is always through Jesus Christ, and what factors are not the basis for our salvation? Romans 9:6-8, 11, 16; Romans 11:6.
  6. How does the fact that God imprisoned all people under disobedience (cf. Rom. 3:23) accent His great mercy on all? How does this reemphasize that no obstacle is too great for God’s love to reach us?

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