Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 6, 2017
Romans 9:1-5 Commentary
Just five brief verses in this Lectionary reading but this short passage—all of 85 words in the original Greek—is more than enough to choke you up. It is very nearly to weep. These verses kick off a larger three-chapter section in Romans in which half of the time Paul seems to be talking to himself, and the Romans just get to overhear his internal debate. But these five verses preview all of what is to come as Paul agonizes over the status of his own people, Israel, given their rejection of the One he now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt is the long-awaited Messiah of God.
In one sense all three chapters boil down to Paul’s thrusting his arms outward and crying out, “Now what!!??” Just possibly the worst thing possible to happen to God’s covenantal people has taken place. The bottom has dropped out. And few if any knew better than Paul just how decisively the bottom had dropped out: the Jews had not just rejected Jesus as the Christ, they had VEHEMENTLY rejected him to the point of—as the former Pharisee Saul of Tarsus knew from his own experience—actively persecuting and killing those who believed in Jesus.
The only thing worse than such active persecution was the absolute worst thing in all history: the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of his own people.
Israel had had it all, Paul writes in swift strokes. They had the gift of the law, the gift of the covenants, the gift of God’s own glory dwelling in their midst once upon a time. They had had the Temple, the worship, the relationship with the Creator God of the whole cosmos. What more could have God given to his own people? It had been rich, lavish, hyper-abundant. And it all had the character and nature of a sheer gift. Undeserved. God had been relentless with his lovingkindness, with his chesed, that core characteristic of God for which God is praised more than for any other reason all through the Psalms and the rest of the Hebrew Scripture.
But now even as Paul will tell the Philippians that he regarded his past alleged accomplishments as a steaming pile of cow poop, so all of those good things God had given to Israel are also now in tatters, blown quite probably to smithereens by Israel’s rejection of God’s Christ. “Now what!!??” Paul plaintively screams. Make no mistake: this is killing Paul on the inside. It is tearing him up, keeping him up nights, haunting him even during daylight hours.
It’s a pity that the Church has not always—or maybe even typically—followed suit. As it stands, God’s people have a grim legacy of anti-Semitism. And even to this day—aside from some mistaken dispensationalist ideas on the role modern-day Israel may play in the End Times—one seldom encounters this kind of passionate hope for God’s covenant people. A very great shame, that. A very great sin.
Ultimately Paul will not come up with any easy answers other than to keep preaching the Gospel to all people—including the Jews—and see what comes of it. He cannot prove it but he believes deeply and ardently that there is a future for God’s covenant people despite the colossal nature of their failure in recognizing the Christ. And at the end of chapter 11, long about the time Paul’s tortured ponderings reach fever pitch, he straddles the fence and sings the doxology in hope.
But there is one line in these brief five verses that is absolutely gripping, and so deeply telling as to Paul’s fundamental grasp of Gospel basics. Or it’s not really just the basics—it’s really more Paul’s grasp of the very deep core of the Gospel, that which makes the Gospel Good News, that which made the work of Christ WORK.
What do I mean? It is when Paul says that if it could save his people the Jews, the Israelites, he would let himself be accursed to eternal hell. If sacrificing himself would do the trick—and alas he senses it won’t—then he would be willing to take their place, to become cursed the way they deserve to be cursed. I am not sure there is another passage in the whole New Testament that reveals such utter transparency to Christ Jesus. I cannot think of another verse from any Bible writer that shows how very, very well he “gets it.” Because to save all people, this is exactly what JESUS HIMSELF did.
Jesus let himself—who had no sin—to become sin for us. Notice: not just get blamed as a sinner, not just to get treated as though he had some sins after all. No, it is more radical than this: Jesus BECAME sin, became the very enemy of God that lies behind each and every sin in human history. In so doing, he also of course became cursed for this and died an accursed death on the ignominious cross. That is how far Jesus was willing to go to get salvation done.
And that is how far Paul would be willing to go if it would save his own people from their own just deserts. The disciple is not greater than the master, of course, but seldom has a disciple displayed such a keen sense for what makes Jesus the Master than Paul. It is all about love—self-forgetting, self-sacrificing love.
The example Paul sets here is a lesson for us all. Or maybe less a lesson than a very profound spiritual role model to which to aspire in our own devotion to Jesus and yes, to his people.
Frederick Dale Bruner has told the story that he heard via a German theologian. The story is apocryphal if taken literally but when thought of as something those with eyes of faith could see, it has a literal application and meaning. The story says that as the Nazis strengthened their grip on Germany, there came a time when a Nazi-leaning Christian pastor stood up in his Lutheran Church and thundered from the pulpit, “If there is anyone here with Jewish blood in him, leave now.” And for those with eyes to see, the Christ figure on the crucifix in the church’s chancel climbed down from the cross, walked up the center aisle, and exited the building.
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