Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 14, 2016
Romans 10:8b-13 Commentary
Romans 9-11 can make for tough reading. Paul is clearly tortured here where the question of the future of the Jewish people is concerned. In these three chapters it is almost as though Paul is thinking out loud, trying to write his way to a solution to a vexing theological question: now that God’s covenant people Israel has rejected God’s promised Messiah, what will become of God’s promise to save them? How will they get back in with God? Or do they need to get back in with God at all? Might God’s promise be enough to save even the unbelieving who missed God’s Christ when he arrived?
On and on the questions go until finally a seemingly exasperated and exhausted apostle just sings the doxology in Romans 11:33-36 and calls it good.
It may seem odd that Paul writes all this in plain view of the Roman Christians, many (most?) of whom were probably not Jewish. Maybe it was Paul’s way of not just revealing the passion of his own heart for his own people but also of helping the Romans appreciate all the more keenly the amazing gift of grace they had been granted. After all, if it really was an open question whether God’s millennia-long relationship with Israel was now in danger on account of their having missed the true Messiah, then isn’t it all the more wonderful and stunning that Gentiles have now been added to the family of God on account of having it revealed to them that Jesus is Lord and Christ!?
Well, in the midst of all that the handful of verses the Lectionary has carved out for the Year C First Sunday in Lent are mostly free of all the pathos and bathos of the surrounding chapters. True, one ought not read these verses without being aware of that context. That is, Paul’s talk about believing in one’s heart and confessing with one’s mouth that Jesus is Lord is not a free floating theological observation. This is part of what he HOPES will happen in the hearts of and on the lips of his fellow Jews.
And it is what we yet today should hope will happen to everyone we know. Believing in Jesus and affirming that God raised him from the dead is the only way to eternal life. Such a confession just IS life, in fact. And the reason is because it’s not something anyone will tumble to on his or her own. This is not obvious. This is not some easily accessed historical observation. Believing it is a gift of grace through faith (that much was abundantly established earlier in Romans).
Probably we are ourselves not sufficiently stunned by all this often enough. Faith can feel inevitable to us. Some of us “grew up in the faith” and cannot remember a time of unbelief. We don’t have any “Before and After” conversion stories to tell. Being a Christian believer and affirming the Apostles’ Creed become for some of us akin to why we vote Republican or Democrat: because Mom and Dad did and so I do too. That’s how I was taught to view things.
But faith is not inevitable—it is a sheer miracle of grace. What’s more, faith is a funny thing. On the one hand what could be simpler than to say “Just trust God and confess with your mouth and you will be saved”? Just say it. Just articulate it. There is a wonderful simplicity to that. On one level, then, the bar for baptism and the bar for admission to the Lord’s Table is pretty low: we’re not looking for sophisticated religious treatises or some Ph.D.-level depth of insight into theology. Say “Jesus is Lord” and believe he is Lord because the story of Easter is true and you’re in. It’s that simple.
And yet . . . it’s not simple at all. There is a depth to that confession that comes only from God and only by grace. Faith is like how I once heard someone describe the Gospel of John: on the one hand it’s like a shallow pool in which even a toddler can splash around safely. On the other hand and at the same time, it’s like the deepest ocean whose depths would take many lifetimes—if not all eternity—truly to plumb. A child can splash in it, an elephant can drown in it! That seems about right. Faith is at once wonderfully simple and wonderfully complex.
Perhaps it is what my friend Neal Plantinga has called a “second simplicity.” Most everyone knows—and anyone with a couple months’ worth of piano lessons can plink out on a piano—the simple little tune “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And yet in the hands of a master like Mozart, that simple tune can go through amazing variations that turn it into something majestic and profound (watch a highly talented 11-year-old girl play Mozart’s variations here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezvj-De6bxY ). There is a simplicity beyond simplicity, a second simplicity of nobility and depth. Faith is like that.
As a reading for the First Sunday in Lent, these verses gain in poignancy. Because in Lent we follow Jesus to his cross and watch the One we believe is no less than the very Son of God (God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made) die a hideous death. The Light that shines in the darkness was nearly snuffed out after all. Or it was snuffed out actually—by every human standard of life and death, Jesus was dead. Even his followers—to a person the New Testament makes clear—figured that was it. End of story. They thought they had found the Messiah but . . . well, we all make mistakes sometimes. Or as the Emmaus-bound travelers put it “We had hoped . . .” HAD hoped. All the heartbreak of the cosmos is in that pluperfect past tense expression.
Lent is that paradoxical and outrageous season when we celebrate the faith that only God can give that allows us to see past the pluperfect and into a glorious future tense where all hope is revived and every lost life is redeemed. Lent is when we make it clear that we believe in our hearts and now confess with our mouths that Jesus was raised from the dead as both Lord and Christ and nothing has been—or ever will be—the same again.
In Lent we celebrate faith: profoundly simple and simply profound.
Paul may have been in a painful frame of mind as he wrote Romans 9-11 but he was in touch with the mystery that just is grace and faith. In Lent and at all times we can but read Paul’s words, fall back in wonder, and say loudly and clearly “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The YouTube clip referenced in this sermon commentary could be an illustration. Or perhaps ideas will come by interacting with two quotes:
“One of the great confessions of the New Testament is Thomas’s ‘My Lord and my God!’ The new angle of vision that Thomas brings to bear on his faith inaugurates a new age for the church. With his newfound perceptions comes a fresh blessing for successive generations. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’ Jesus says. Physical sight is no longer requisite for faith. The old adage ‘Seeing is believing’ is reversed. Now you believe first. Afterwards you see. It is belief that provides the vision to see things differently and the perception to make new things happen.” Peter Marty
“Humor is concerned with the immediate incongruities of life and faith with the ultimate ones. Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence which threaten the very meaning of life. Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” Reinhold Niebuhr.
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