Monday, August 25, 2014

Sermon on Romans 11:33-12:8, for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, "Transformed for Service" Part 10

Part 10 of a sermon series based on Romans 6-14, "God's Greater Story". 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. As we enter Romans 12, a quick recap of where we have been so far in the book of Romans is in order. Chapter 12 marks a significant transition in the topic of the book, marked by a “Therefore.” And as we said before, a good rule when reading, is when you see a “therefore”…ask what is it there for? It connects what follows, with what came before. Starting from Romans 6, we talked about how we’ve been baptized into God’s Greater Story. In chapters 7-8 We heard how that Greater Story unfolds to us through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In chapters 9-11 we’ve learned about God’s Greater People, the community of His church. And in these final weeks we’ll see God’s Greater Plan for our lives—the way He desires us to be people of mercy in response to His mercy toward us in Christ Jesus. The “therefore” tells us that the Christian life that Paul will describe and urge us to follow, in chapters 12-16, is all circles in and out of God’s merciful work toward us in Christ. Our salvation is the sole accomplishment of Jesus Christ—but the working out of that salvation and its effects, takes place in your life, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
I can safely assume that probably all of you have watched a beautiful sunset before, living on Maui. Though we all know it’s not good to stare right at the sun, I’m sure many of us have also done this and had the experience of the bright “afterimage” of the sun momentarily burned into our eyes, so that when we looked away, we still saw the bright spot of the sun, and everything around us glowed until the light faded away. If you think about it, that can be a metaphor for the way that the apostle Paul saw the church. In the previous chapters he detailed in many different ways the depth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. He was staring at the Son—the Son of God. And now awed with the brilliance of His Light, and the unfathomable depths of God’s plan and His mercy, Paul bursts out in praise of God, “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 counselor?” “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.”
God’s ways are mysterious, they are beyond our understanding. Sometimes they fill us with simultaneous fear and awe. Sometimes they leave us grasping for answers; sometimes we mistakenly presume to know better. But God has revealed enough of His will and His heart to us in Christ Jesus, that we can know for a certainty that God is holy, just, and loving. We can see that sin, evil, and death were not His will for creation, but that He has countered sin, evil, and death, in the most unlikely way, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. While we cannot understand the how and why of individual circumstances and sufferings in this life, we can understand that Jesus’ cross is the key to God’s defeat of evil, and it’s His participation in our sufferings. By atoning for our sins, and rising from death, we can praise Him and have respect for all that we don’t understand, because He is God, and we are not.
So with eyes still aglow from staring at the Son—the Son of God, and all that he’s told us of salvation in Romans 1-11—Paul turns his gaze to the church, and the life God anticipates for us and gives us in Christ Jesus. And with the brilliant afterimage of Jesus Christ casting its glow on the church, Paul sees the church as it should be, and as God desires. Earlier in the year, in a series on the Beatitudes, I reflected on how we aren’t to look at the church through “rose-colored glasses”, but “Christ-colored glasses.” If you take what I mean by that, we don’t have an artificially rosy view or expectation of the church—we don’t see a perfect church free of real people, sinners, hypocrites, people wrestling with their sins. But rather we see sinners who are sanctified—forgiven and made holy in Jesus Christ. We see sinners who are struggling against their old sinful flesh, and striving to live in the new life of the Spirit that they have received in Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, we can see the Christian church made up of people who are at the same time saints and sinners, or simply forgiven sinners. And the glow that Paul sees lingering over the church is not artificial, it’s not a trick of the eye, but it’s genuine spiritual sight, that sees truly that Jesus is at work in the lives of His people the church—even when at times, things appear less than impressive. Christ’s work is often hidden, as at the cross, under things that the world sees as foolish, weak, low and despised, and the things that are not. Humble lives and humble people. But by God’s Spirit we can recognize that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, and this is most often where His glory is shown.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice. God’s mercy encircles our whole Christian life from start to finish. Your bodies are a living sacrifice. What does this simple phrase teach us? First of all, your body and how you use it matters! We’re in this world, in this body for a reason, and we don’t live our lives out on some “higher plane of consciousness” disconnected from the material world. Body matters. Spiritual is not “up here” and material “down here”, with nothing to join them, but all of our actions have spiritual significance, whether we see it or not.
Before we dig into what “living sacrifice” means, though, let’s first define “spiritual.” The word “spiritual” is given such a wide variety of definitions (or no definition at all) today, that it’s hard to know what people mean when they use it. Romans 12:1 says that presenting your bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is your spiritual act of worship. But the word “spiritual” there, is not the usual one found in the New Testament. The common word is “pneumatikos” like the word “pneumatic.” Breath, wind, or spirit. Spiritual—from the working of the Holy Spirit. But the word here in Romans 12:1 is “logikos”, like the word “logical”. Logikos can mean rational, reasonable, and here, can also be translated as “spiritual”. Now wait a minute. If we are working from the vague, fuzzy definitions of “spiritual” that are so common today, we probably think that words like “spiritual” and “rational or logical” should never cross paths. But if we are working from the words of the Holy Spirit, could Paul really mean that presenting our bodies to God as a living sacrifice, is both spiritual and reasonable?
Definitely! For Christians, the spiritual is not the realm of fiction or fantasy or superstition, it is the firm confidence that the material world is not the end all and be all of existence. We’re not just atoms and molecules sparked into motion by nothingness, but we are the creation of the rational, thinking, all powerful God of all creation. His order and design is written all over creation, if we do not blind our eyes to see it. And so what is “spiritual” is to acknowledge that we are not mere animals, but living souls made by God to dwell with Him and know Him. It is to know that living out this life on earth is not the only purpose of our existence, but to know that God wants us to live in an eternal destiny with Him—not as disembodied spirits or angels, but in physical bodies made new to enjoy His new creation. So it is “spiritual” to receive the work of the Holy Spirit in us, that directs us to Jesus Christ, God’s Son. To see Him as the One and only Door to Eternal Life, the One who died for our sins and gives us new life. What is “spiritual” for the Christian, therefore, is completely interested in both what we do now with our bodies, and what will happen to our bodies in the future.
So Paul tells us that committing our bodies to serve God and obey Him, is a rational, it is a spiritual act of worship. It is our logical response to the mercy of God, for what could be more appropriate for us to do in response to Jesus’ selfless life for us, than to try to imitate His love toward others? For we owe our very lives to Him, and there is nothing we can do to repay it—but there is everywhere the need for Christian love and compassion and service to be poured out on the world. Luther once wrote that the world is filled to overflowing with suffering and need, but that this is the very thing that makes our service to “Christ in His needy ones” so necessary. Using our lives, our bodies, in the service of others, is worship rendered to God. It is an act of praise in itself. Instead of God repaying us for something we have first done to Him, we are offering back to Him what He first gave to us. We surrender our lives to His calling and direction.
That’s a “living sacrifice”. Sacrifice, is by definition, something costly. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice of an animal was surrendering a costly part of your livelihood. The animal’s death served as a costly reminder that your sin left you in constant debt with God, and that it was only by His offering a substitute sacrifice, that you were spared the judgment your sins deserved. The value of that animal for work, for food, for income, was lost to you. You didn’t get to keep it. And sacrifice was the work of priests, in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when God in His mercy, atoned for our constant debt of sin by offering Jesus as the once for all, perfect sacrifice—the worldwide debt was forgiven. God paid in full, payable on the death of Jesus Christ. Like that, animal sacrifice was over. Unnecessary. A shadow that gave way to the reality that came in Christ Jesus.
But there still is a place for sacrifice. Not a dying sacrifice; not because there is any debt still to be paid. But a living sacrifice—of a life transformed after the image of Jesus Christ. Your life, given back to God—lost to yourself, but found in Christ Jesus. For a new and living purpose. Sacrifices made everywhere and by every Christian—man, woman, or child. Costly sacrifices of living not to yourself—to maximize the value your life can generate in income or material goods for you—but living for others, as Christ did. Devoting your time, talent, and treasure to others in need of your help. And this “spiritual” worship doesn’t take place only through impressive or dramatic acts of “super saints”—but it happens through the mundane, the ordinary, an often unnoticed or unappreciated acts of serving your neighbor.
The tired hands of a mother who washes her baby’s bottom and tucks her warmly into bed. The aching hands of a machinist who devotes his skill and craft to making reliable parts. The wounded hands of a soldier, carrying his friend off the battlefield. The tender hands of a child, comforting a friend who is hurting. There is no counting the acts or ways in which a Christian might show the kindness of Christ to their neighbor. But all of those opportunities surround you daily. Wherever your workplace is, your neighborhood, your church, even the narrow confines of a bed, where an elderly or suffering Christian calls on God in prayer. These are all the places, in our bodies, where God has given us a place to serve and praise Him in love. And whenever we do so, it’s not by our strength, which is so fickle and likely to fail. But it is by the strength of His constant mercies, which are new day by day, and which echo in every act of love done in this body. This is your spiritual worship. This is your living sacrifice. God at work in your life—transforming and renovating His people for His purposes.
And we will be tempted to reflect on our own progress—whether we are convinced of our success, onward and upward—or discouraged by our failures—setback after setback. And if so, we are reminded by Paul’s words, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). Don’t think too highly of yourself, don’t measure yourself over, against, or under anyone else—God alone is judge; He who distributed the measure of faith to each person as He assigns. We have nothing to prove, but only to think wisely and humbly, and our failures should only make it more obvious day by day that we are totally dependent on the grace of God that is given to us. To Him be all the glory, forever and ever, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. At the end of Romans 11, Paul bursts into praise of God, alluding to several Old Testament passages. Isaiah 40:13; 55:8-9; Job 36:22-23; 41:11. Why in the end, is the best and only final response to the mysteries of God to raise our voices in praise? What does it help us to realize about who we are in relation to Him?
  2. Romans 12:1 opens with another “Therefore.” This therefore marks a major turning point in Romans, from all the rich story of salvation in Christ Jesus that has been explained in chapters 1-11, to the implications of how we live that out, in chapters 12-16. What is the first description he gives of this new Christian life?
  3. Compare the sacrifices of the Old Testament, to what Paul means by “living sacrifices” in 12:1-2. Where are each performed? Who performs either? What is the goal of each? How did Jesus’ once for all sacrifice both end the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, and transform “sacrifice” into a new reality? Hebrews 9:11-10:18, especially 9:14, 24-26; 10:8-10. What New Testament sacrifices do we make? Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5, 9.
  4. In verse 2, compare the words, “conformed” and “transformed.” If we are “conformed to the pattern of this age”—what image are we taking on? Is this good or bad? What does it look like? If we are transformed, whose image are we taking on? Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 11:1; 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10. Whose work is this in us? Philippians 2:13; Romans 15:16.
  5. Why are Christians to strive to do the will of God in their lives? 1 John 2:17; 1 Peter 2:15; 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 5:18. Our frequent failures and sins turn us continually back to repentance and the “throne of grace.” Hebrews 4:15-16. Why is it necessary that the Christian life always circle back to the mercy of God in Christ Jesus? Romans 12:1. What comfort does it bring to know that Jesus is our complete salvation?

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?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sermon on Romans 10:5-17, 9th Sunday after Pentecost, "People with a Purpose", Part 8

Sermon on Romans 10:5-17, part 8 of a 13 part series in Romans, "God's Greater Story." This sermon is not adapted from the series.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Last week in Romans 9 we heard St. Paul’s impassioned love for his people the Jews, many who had hardened their hearts against believing in Jesus as Savior. Chapter 9 went on into the mystery of God’s eternal election—or choosing the people of His promise. While we did not delve into those mysteries of election, or how God chooses—we did hear loud and clear from Paul that God’s choice is not based on works, either good or bad, it is not based on our human will or exertion, but only based on Him who calls, in His mercy. We cannot earn our way into God’s favor, but rather it is entirely up to God and His undeserved love, who He calls to believe in Him and be saved.

It’s God’s sovereign right to do this, Paul argues, against any claims that it would be unfair. God’s gift is pure and undeserved, and it also included and brought salvation to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people). But this made it a stumbling block or offense to the Jews. Paul explains that this is because they tried to earn righteousness by the law and works. So in today’s reading, Paul contrasts the way of the law, and the way of faith—and that only faith can lead us to true righteousness. Even though the law offered righteousness—none gained it because none obeyed. Anyone determined to try that route, and earn God’s favor by even the smallest shred of their own worthiness or participation, still stumbles against this offense. On the other hand, when we swallow our pride and admit our total unworthiness before God, and receive His free gift in Christ—we’ll never be put to shame. And further, by abandoning our attempts to secure righteousness on our own—God give it to us freely and perfectly in Christ Jesus.

            So where chapter 9 left us wondering about the mysteries of God’s sovereign choice of His people—chapter 10 answers the practical question of how God’s election or choice “lands on the ground” so to speak. Chapter 10 displays the “toolkit” of the Holy Spirit, or the way that God’s calling or election reaches people here on earth. And instead of being mysterious, lofty, and uncertain, it’s surprisingly ordinary, and it’s completely accessible. And we don’t have to climb up to heaven to get it, but God brings it down to us in Christ Jesus. God’s eternal calling for His people comes through the humble, rejectable means of preaching and hearing. God sends preachers to tell the good news of His Son—people hear the word of Christ, and by hearing and the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, they believe and call on the name of the Lord.

            So the righteousness of faith that we can attain, is not something we climbed up to heaven to bring Christ down, it’s not something we raised Christ up from the dead to get—Jesus Christ is already here for us, God incarnate, in human flesh and blood, who walked the earth and suffered death on the cross for us. And Christ is here for us risen and alive, because death could not restrain the power of His immortal life. And that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven to rule over all things, does not place Him once again out of reach and inaccessible to us, that we would have to figure out a way to reach Him, but Paul tells us how near and close He is to us. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

            How near is Christ? He is in the Word that is in our mouth and our heart. The same Word which preaches Jesus Christ crucified, and the same Word we believe in our hearts. This is what I meant earlier, that God’s election or predestination doesn’t unfold in some mysterious or incomprehensible way—but it comes into hearts by hearing the Word of Christ. The Word is the primary “tool” of the Holy Spirit, to create faith in our hearts. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. And once created and given, faith comes alive and answers by confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. If you think of the Holy Spirit as breathing faith into us, our confession is like breathing out. One of the ways to tell whether a body is living or not is when they are breathing—in and out. The word “Spirit” also means breath, or wind—just like God breathed into Adam and “he became a living soul”. So also, one measure of our spiritual life is that we believe in our hearts and are justified, and confess with our mouths, and saved.

            And when we believe and confess, we also call on the name of the Lord, and are saved. We are promised—promised—that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will not be put to shame. Putting all your trust in Jesus—banking everything by faith in His death on the cross for your sin and rising up to life again—this is no gamble, no risky uncertainty, in which you might lose out. You won’t be put to shame. Trust in Jesus Christ our Lord is always well-placed, and He delivers as promised. His promised deliverance is not, however, a promise of earthly wealth or security. It is, however, a promise of God “bestowing His riches on all who call on Him.”

            What if we think, for just a moment, about the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, who in some cases are suffering dreadful and frightening atrocities, simply because they have believed in Jesus Christ? They certainly have not received earthly wealth or security. Hundreds of thousands, have been driven from their homes in Iraq (at least double the population of Maui from what I’ve read), and have been robbed of their few remaining possessions along the way. And this is for those who are able to escape with their lives. So how does God bestow His riches on these Christians who call on Him? I quote Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10–12).

            Those words and blessings of Christ are very near for the persecuted. They are gaining an eternal reward, an inheritance in heaven—not because they have done anything to deserve it, but because they have shared in the sufferings of Christ Jesus, who won for us the Great Reversal of forgiveness over guilt, of life over death. Truly no earthly, material reward could repay what some have lost in this life, or soothe the wounds that have been recklessly and hatefully inflicted. But God in Christ Jesus has promised that He is the refuge of all who call on Him.

            Hatred and opposition to the Gospel seem like such formidable obstacles to the kingdom of God and the good news that we are to bring. Even far weaker forms of opposition or ridicule, tempt us to hide like a turtle in a shell. But it is the very Word of Christ that goes out into all the world to break through stony hearts of unbelief and to create faith. In fact, one of our own pastors in the LCMS, by the name of Hicham Chehab, was once a Muslim extremist, determined to carry out revenge against Christians for the death of his brother, but through hearing the Words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, he eventually converted to the Christian faith and now has a ministry to Muslims based in Illinois. Hatred and opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ are no match for the Lord of all who hung on the cross, bearing all our hatred and sin in His body. They are no match for the eternal love that spoke forgiveness to His tormentors and continues to speak words of forgiveness to us—unworthy though we are.

            The Word of Christ might seem small and weak in the eyes of the world—preaching a word of life, of forgiveness, of love—it might seem impossible that this could conquer men’s hearts that so quickly turn to evil and bloodshed, or so easily extinguish a human life. But God has promised that His Word endures forever, and that His Word will not fail. So God continues to send preachers to go and speak the good news—to tell what Jesus has done—so that hearing, they might believe, and believing they might also call on the name of Jesus and be saved. Through humble and ordinary means—through the human voice and human messengers and our eardrums and hearts—God sends out the extraordinary message of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. A love that went to all lengths to come down to us, to redeem us, and to rescue us from our sin—no matter the depths of our blindness or the height of our sin. And there is no difference between Jew and Greek—the same Lord is Lord of all. So there are no two ways about it—there is no different path of salvation than the One Way, Jesus Christ.

            God has chosen to clothe the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit in the ordinary form of speaking, and in the ordinary lives of Christians. This power of the Holy Spirit changes lives and creates faith, making believers and confessors out of us. Whether we are a full-time pastor and preacher or whether we are a Christian layperson, child or adult, God gives us the name and the Lordship of Jesus to confess in our lives. He has given us that Word to speak, and this Word of Christ has the power to bring others to faith in Christ as well. We don’t have to be an eloquent preacher like Paul, but can simply tell the love of Jesus—to a child, to a brother, a sister, another family member, or a friend. And for some who are under persecution, it may finally be the word that disarms their enemies, and overcomes and turns their hearts to Christ.

            So we are a people of God’s calling, by His undeserved grace and mercy—but we are also therefore a people of His purpose—called to speak His Word to others. God has included us in His plan of salvation, both by bringing His Word to our hearts and mouths, but also giving it to us to speak, to participate in bringing that salvation to others. Once again we find that we live not only to ourselves, but to Jesus Christ our Lord—in whose name we have redemption—the forgiveness of our sins. Amen!

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. In Romans 10:5-17, Paul quotes several Old Testament passages to illustrate the difference between the way the law of God and faith function. In verse 5 he quotes Leviticus 18:5. What is the promise given by the law? Is it a conditional or unconditional promise? Are we able to attain what is promised? Why or why not? James 2:10
  2. In verse 6 and following, he begins to quote Deuteronomy 30:12ff, but introduces some new applications of the passage (specifically to Christ, and including a phrase from Psalm 107:26). Both passages speak of the total “accessibility” of, in the first case, God’s law, and in the second case, the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ. What is important about the fact that God has made His will and His plan of salvation so accessible to us? That it does not depend on some soaring, elusive knowledge or on great and impossible deeds?
  3. If we believe in Christ as Lord, and risen from the dead, what will this lead us to do? Romans 10:9-10. What is the relationship between faith and confession? To confess is to speak or publicly declare that we believe. When do we confess our faith? When might it be challenging or difficult? What comfort and encouragement do we have in doing this? Matthew 10:16-24.
  4. “Jesus is Lord” is probably the first and simplest confession of faith. 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11. What does it mean to call Jesus, “Lord”? Who is called by this title over 6,000 times in the Old Testament? So what does that mean about Jesus?
  5. What is the promise for all who call on the name of the Lord? Isaiah 28:16; Joel 2:32. The fact that God does not have “alternate plans of salvation” depending on who you are or where you come from, flows out of the same truth that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. How does Jesus’ universal Lordship extend its reach over all people whom the Lord God has called? Romans 10:14-17; Isaiah 52:7; 53:1.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Sermon on Romans 9:1-13, for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, "People of Promise", Part 7

Note: The following sermon is part 7 of  a 13 part series on Romans 6-14, adapted from the Series "God's Greater Story" by Rev. David Schmitt of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. I did not preach sermons 4-7 in the series, if you are following along on the blog. In the beginning of the sermon I allude the difficulty of Romans ch. 9, referring to the passages about election and specifically vs. 13. In this sermon I did not tackle that large and complex issue, which would require a whole sermon in itself. However, for the interested reader, I can commend no better summary of the issue of election and predestination than the summary found here or here  These are, respectively the Epitome (short version) and Solid Declaration (long version) of the Formula of Concord, from the Lutheran Confessions found in the Book of Concord. While not resolving all difficulties and potential questions, it faithfully lays out the Biblical teaching and shows that it is a doctrine of comfort and not fear. I encourage you to read it.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. You’ve probably used something like this before: the lists of Bible passages to look up in different situations in life. “When you worry . . . when you feel alone . . . when you struggle with temptation . . . when you have financial trouble.” So, “When you are worried” you read 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you.” It’s a quick, easy way to find a Bible passage that speaks to you. The last thing you want, when a person is worried, is for her to open the Bible and read about God striking Ananias and Sapphira dead in their tracks or Judas hanging himself in despair. It’s much safer to open the Bible to one single verse, pre-selected, and begin reading there.

While this approach can indeed be comforting and has brought many people a word from God who otherwise would be lost when they open the Bible, the difficulty is that sometimes people never get beyond this method of Bible reading. They open the pages. They find a comforting word. But then they set the Bible aside and they never find themselves entering through this door into the deeper, richer story of Scriptures. By telescoping in so closely on isolated passages of their interest, they miss the wider view—the greater story God’s Word has to tell. Indeed some Bible passages may be troubling or difficult to understand. Romans 9 here is one of the most difficult chapters in the Bible. But we won’t learn what God’s greater story means in its whole by only zooming in on isolated passages. We have to take the whole message of God together—i.e. the context of the whole story—to understand the difficult passages.

Christianity can easily become something it was never intended to be. A private, personal religion. It becomes something you turn to not when entering the world but when retreating from it. It’s something you read in your private devotional time and you look forward to that moment when it is “just me and Jesus.” God becomes something like our best friend, a person who supports us when times get tough, and someone who helps us accomplish our plans and fulfill our dreams. The problem, of course, is that we’ve reversed roles with God. Rather than us being servants in God’s kingdom, God becomes a servant in ours. Rather than God sending us into the world to be a part of His greater story, we confine God to our smaller story and personal needs.

The biggest realization that will steer us down the right track to understanding God’s greater story, is to understand that the main actor in that story is not us, but God. From the beginning of Creation to its coming destruction at the end, and God’s glorious recreation of a new heavens and new earth, God is here, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The story is of Him and His great love and His great reign over the ruins left by sin. The preceding chapters of Romans have guided us to see this. Starting in Ch. 9, we start to see God’s greater plan and promise for His people. While God certainly is present there for every individual person, able to be found in the Bible passage a lonely person reads in a hotel room, God’s vision is much greater than just a one-on-one relationship with us. God has come in Jesus Christ not only to save you and each person in the entire creation but also to join you into a greater people, the body of Christ—the people who live by his promise and for his purpose in his kingdom.

As you listen to our text this morning, you realize that we have come across Paul in a very private moment. Paul is engaged in prayer. His prayer is powerful and personal and very painful. I don’t know if you have ever prayed such a prayer before God on behalf of someone you love, someone you care about, and yet who will have nothing to do with the faith. You love them. You know that God loves them and wants them to be saved and yet that person wants nothing to do with God. And so you stand there, alone, not because you don’t believe in God. You believe in God. But you are alone because you stand there without your friend, your mother, your son who wants no part of the faith. If you have ever been there, you have a very small clue of what the apostle Paul is experiencing.

Paul cries out, “I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Paul is concerned about the salvation of his brothers, the Jewish people. In fact he is so deeply moved that he wishes he could trade his salvation for the salvation of the Jewish people, if that were possible. He’s heartbroken that so many of them had not yet turned to Christ Jesus.

Paul considers that they’ve had every advantage to believe in and know God’s promises, since they were the very chosen people of God. Paul recounts the blessings of God upon them: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” His words echo those of Psalm 147:19-20, which praise God because of the great honor He had given to Israel—to no other nation had He revealed His word and His commandments. It ought to have been a natural thing for them to receive and believe in Jesus as their promised Messiah. God has chosen Abraham to be the father of his people and to bless not only his people but all nations on the face of the earth. They would be blessed through Jesus, offspring of Abraham. Through the very ancestry of the Israelites, Jesus Christ was born of their flesh, of their bloodline.

What is amazing is that Paul in prayer is caught up in the heart of God’s story. Notice how Paul is willing to die for the sake of the Jews. Paul knows that not all of his Jewish brothers and sisters have believed in Jesus. And so Paul finds himself overwhelmed with pain and personal love and he wishes that he himself could be cut off from Christ, if that could save the Jewish people. Here, Paul’s heart is filled with the love of Jesus. Jesus is the very one who was willing to be cut off from God, who was willing to drink the cup of his Father’s wrath, who was willing to be forsaken by God and condemned to hell, that the kingdom of God might be opened to all people who trust in him. In Him is forgiveness, life, and everlasting salvation. In Him is the promise that your sins are forgiven and that you are now part of the people of God, people who live by that promise as part of God’s greater story.

In Paul’s prayer we actually see God’s greater story, God’s greater vision, transform his prayer and his life into a self-sacrificial love. How does this relate to us today? Consider how Paul reminds us that we are part of a greater people brought into the greater story of God. If we see our faith as only an personal matter, reduced to a private experience to help us get through the week, we forget our place in the greater story.

Paul awakens us this morning to the fact that we are part of a people, a much greater people, who live by the promise of God. Paul shows that it’s not the children of flesh—i.e. the physical descendants of Abraham, but the children of promise that are the offspring of Abraham, the children of God. We become part of God’s people not by ancestry, not by birth into a Jewish family, or even a Lutheran or Christian family, for that matter. But rather we become children of promise by God’s special calling and choice. Not because of our works, either good or bad, but because of Him who calls. Not even by our human will or exertion, Paul says—but only because of God, who has mercy. He is not our God because we chose Him, but He is our God and we are His people because He has chosen us.

That is to say that God’s people are a people formed by His grace in Christ Jesus. And our heart should go out as Paul’s did, with an unceasing, impassioned concern for the lost. For those Jews or Gentiles who have not yet believed in Christ, who is God over all. For those who despite being brought up or schooled in the faith, have abandoned God’s promises for the new or latest spiritual fad or fancy, or even the oldest and most mystical fad or fancy. Or for those who simply have reduced life to only what their 5 senses can tell them, and this narrow timespan from our birth to death. Whatever the reason, whatever sin or blindness isolates someone from God—we cry out with Paul that they might be saved, and that the Word of God might strike home in their hearts to awaken new faith and life. And we should not be surprised if we find that God sends and calls us to be those messengers and be those witnesses through whom they hear that Word of Life. For we have confidence that the Word of God has not failed and will not fail, and that it will always go out and do the work God intends for it.

Consider the Old Testament reading this morning. God’s Word calls His people to come and eat at an everlasting banquet served to many nations and many peoples. We can recall how God fed and cared for His people throughout the Old Testament, from the manna in the wilderness to the rich table that the Lord our shepherd prepares in the presence of our enemies, to the teaching that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” to the table that wisdom sets for her people. Jesus’ banqueting parables and pictures of heaven drew on rich Old Testament language like this, and pointed ahead to that heavenly gathering of God’s greater people from all nations. The people gathered by His promise. It’s not a table set for one, but for many, and God serves us freely with food and with grace that truly satisfies. It’s the heavenly feast, of which we have a foretaste here and now in the body and blood of Jesus, given for the forgiveness of our sins in the Lord’s Supper.

And there in that meal, just as in the heavenly banquet to come, we find ourselves in the company of God’s redeemed people. Called and chosen by His mercy—not for any worthiness in us, but solely for the sake of His love. So rather than shrinking our Christianity to fit into our personal lives, by figuring out how to fit God into our plans, we find that God opens the Scriptures and brings us into His story and make us His people in this world. We open our ears, our hearts, and our lives to see how God can use us in His plans and for His people. God continues his greater story of bringing about salvation in this world, and daily new lives are won over by His grace for us in Christ Jesus. May we with Paul and all the faithful saints that have gone before us, become loving servants of His kingdom, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. What is the potential danger of reading the Bible in ways that only gives us small, isolated verses, apart from reading the larger context and story? How can this habit influence the way we understand our Christianity, and live it out? What greater purpose has God intended for us?


  1. Who is the central actor in all of time and history? What do we lose when we forget our place in God’s grand scheme of things? How do we miss out on the importance of Christian community and also our responsibility to one another?


  1. Why is Paul’s prayer in Romans 9:1-5 so impassioned? What does he fear, and what does he wish he could do to change the situation? How was this in fact a Christ-like love for the lost? How did Christ Himself assume this position of being cut off from God, or of bearing the curse? Galatians 3:13-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21.


  1. Who is it that you long for or pray for to be saved? Have you spoken to them about God? How did you do it? When was the last time? Have you talked with your pastor or another Christian about it? Asked for their prayers or help?


  1. How did we become children of God? Reread Romans 9:6-16; John 1:12-13; John 15:16. How does this keep us humble? What had no place in our choosing or becoming God’s children? Since then, it is all for the sake of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, how do we respond?