It is easy to carve out these verses from Romans 10, sheering them off from their original context and making them only about the importance of preaching just generally. Don’t do that. We are still in this tortured section of Romans 9-11 wherein Paul’s overriding concern is to figure out what will become of God’s chosen people, Israel, now that they have rejected God’s promised Messiah.
As noted in the Year A sermon commentary for the previous week’s text at the beginning of Romans 9, Paul throughout these three chapters evinces a pastoral and personal pain that is almost heart-wrenching to read. His fellow Jews really have done the unthinkable and—all things being equal—they have done what could also be construed as the unforgiveable: rejecting God’s Christ. Killing God’s Christ. Or at least approving of his murder and now likewise approving of anyone in the Roman Empire who persecuted and imprisoned and murdered the followers of this Messianic wannabe and pretender.
Horrid stuff. And it’s killing Paul’s spirit.
We jump into Romans 10 in this lection at verse 5 but the first four verses are important: Paul notes the zeal of his people, the Jews, but then has to confess that their zeal is wrong-headed. They are zealous for all the wrong things, including chiefly a righteousness they believe can be of their own manufacture by keeping the law. Thus when in these verses Paul talks about the need to confess Jesus as Lord and affirm the belief that God the Father raised God the Son from the grave, he is not musing in the abstract about what goes into the salvation of just anybody. Rather, he is pointing to those things that his fellow Jews will NOT say, confess, or affirm at the present time. And it all boils down to the same question: Now what!!?
For Paul the answer is in part: Keep trying. We don’t give up on God’s covenant people on account of their unbelief. So keep preaching, keep reaching out, keep proclaiming the Word of the Gospel. That way even if the Jews persist in unbelief, at the very least they can never justifiably say it was because they had never been exposed to the alternative. They can believe in their hearts and confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord or not. But for goodness sake let it never be said that they had not been given every opportunity possible to consider otherwise.
Of course, the Lectionary stops in verse 15 even though Paul’s own train of thought on these matters clearly continues in verse 16 when he says “But . . .” and then goes on to note that preaching does not always work. In fact, Paul reaches for the most famous biblical example of ineffectual preaching in the task given to Isaiah by God: preach your heart out to people who will never believe your message. Those same people in the Israel of Isaiah’s day would get judged for that unbelief. But the fact is that Isaiah’s preaching would become the way by which God justifies his judgment. It was a dismal assignment!
But it may serve as the Bible’s biggest reminder of something that those of us who preach for a living would just as soon not admit but know deep down is true: preaching is a precarious activity. We throw words out into the ether and the wait to see if the Spirit makes them effective in any given person’s life.
Anyone who preaches knows other truths: sometimes people seem unfazed by sermons that by most objective standards were very fine. And at other times people are deeply moved by sermons that were flawed and structurally wobbly. People hear in sermons—and sometimes thank the pastor for at the church door after the service—things the preacher is quite certain she never uttered. Or someone is comforted or challenged because he took the words the pastor really did say in a direction the pastor could never have guessed would have happened and most assuredly did not anticipate.
The Spirit blows where it will in the preaching moment and you just never know or can predict what will happen next.
But here’s the thing: it’s all we’ve got. This often messed-up activity of the church and all those words floating on thin air after they leave the preacher’s lips are what God has given us to proclaim the most important message ever known: Jesus is Lord! Yes, we have the sacraments too but those also finally come down to a little water, a little bread, a little wine. Words, water, bread, wine: these are the Spirit’s chosen tools by which to build a Kingdom.
I suppose that the real wonder of all of this is not finally that preaching frequently does not take hold but that it ever actually DOES! After two millennia and untold millions (or could it be billions?) of sermons, so very many of which were utterly forgettable, there is still a church, there are still people thriving in their faith because of the nurturing word of the weekly sermon and ever more people who come to faith because of a sermon they hear somewhere.
Will it finally work for Israel? Will they hear something that at long last opens their hearts and their eyes to embrace what until now they have rejected? It is, as Paul knew painfully well, hard to say or predict. What we know for sure is the obvious answer to Paul’s rhetorical question: How can they hear unless someone preaches to them in the first place?
Fans of Marilynne Robinson’s luminous and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, know that a refrain in the novel-long reflections of Rev. John Ames—addressed to his young son—is what will become of all those boxes of his old sermons in the attic after he is gone (which he anticipates will be sooner rather than later). Were they ever worth saving in the first place? Would anyone have the slightest inkling to read them in the future? What finally is a sermon once it is delivered? In the end his musings come down to the following:
“I’ll just ask your mother to have those old sermons of mine burned. The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow. Of course she can set by any of them she might want to keep, but I don’t want her to waste much effort on them. They mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” (Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004, p. 245)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 13, 2017
Romans 10:5-15 Commentary