Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 20, 2017
Romans 11:1-2a, 25-32 Commentary
If you have read my posts here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website somewhat regularly over the years, then you know I am frequently a bit flummoxed at the text choices made by the folks who oversee the Revised Common Lectionary. Sometimes, though, when they skip over a chunk of a passage, you can sniff out the reason pretty readily. Often they skip over harsher words of Jesus, verses that traffic in darker themes of judgment and such. Other times it’s harder to puzzle out why they chopped up a given text the way they did.
But this reading from Romans 11 is a real doozy in this regard. We get a verse-and-a-half from the opening words of the chapter and then four more from near the end (but not the very doxological end) of this same chapter. One stops you mid-sentence and the other picks up mid-sentence. Even taken together, they do not quite get at the tortured drama of this final chapter in Paul’s three-chapter wondering about what will happen to God’s chosen people Israel now that they have rejected God’s Messiah.
So I don’t get this particular slicing and dicing of the text and I will leave it to my fellow preachers for how you might want to expand the passage as seems right to you.
In any event, this is the climax of Romans 9-11 and Paul’s deeply anguished puzzlement as to what will happen to the Jews if they cannot and will not acknowledge that the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul has tried to look at the conundrum from every conceivable angle and has, along the way and also in this chapter, parsed a variety of possible explanations both for what happened and what may yet happen in God’s good grace.
In this chapter Paul wonders if the inflow of Gentiles who have made common cause with former Jews like Paul who embrace Jesus as Lord might be some long-term strategy on God’s part to stir up a kind of holy jealousy among the Jews. What if God’s extending salvation to all kinds of people—people who had from time immemorial been way outside the bounds of the covenant—what if this is a divine tactic to generate conversation and consternation? And what if the discussions among the Jews that might ensue as a result of this actually led some people to examine this whole Jesus thing more thoroughly and what if THAT in turn led to conversion? Could be! Maybe! Here’s hoping!
Along the way, however, Paul has some admonitions for the Gentiles in Rome to whom he is writing. It seems as though Paul wants to say “Don’t be smug now! By the kindness of God’s grace you wild olive shoots have been grafted onto the one true vine. But if for now it seems that Jewish branches have been cut off, don’t be unconcerned about that and for SURE don’t think your in-grafting is on account of your own merit or something. Oh no! Here’s what you Gentile Christians need to think instead: pray to Almighty God that the same kindness that got extended to you will somehow, some way, someday get extended BACK to the Jewish branches too!”
Like I said, Paul tries to cover every possible aspect of all this. It makes for some hard reading in Romans 9-11. It also makes Paul look like a bit of a crazy man at times. He seems very nearly to be ranting and raving here and there. But as noted in a previous sermon commentary across this Year A Lectionary stretch when we have dipped into Romans 9, 10, and now 11, Paul’s agonized passion here is something we can all emulate. We should want all people to be saved—including those who rejected and helped crucify God’s Christ—and it should be about as upsetting to us as it was to Paul to ponder those who are not saved, starting with God’s covenant people who trace their ancestry back to Abraham.
But in this particular chapter—again, in verses the Lectionary would have you ignore—there is also a lesson in spiritual humility to learn. If we are believers, then at the bright center of our lives is that kindness of God of which Paul speaks. The Greek word is chrestotes and it is the same word for “kindness” included in Paul’s Galatians 5 list of the Fruit of the Spirit. Paul uses it elsewhere, too, including the landmark “saved by grace” passage in Ephesians 2 in which Paul again locates the source of grace in the “kindness” God has shown toward us.
Mostly in our lives we view kindness as a kind of soft virtue. Someone brings over a plate of cookies to cheer us up after some disappointment at work and we say “Thank you, that’s very kind of you.” Kindness is softy, fuzzy, and nice. It is not usually thought of as a strength. That is why in the rough-and-tumble places of life where hard decisions get made or where the machinations of politics are at work, we don’t think we want kind people but tough people, hardened people, decisive people. No politician would seek high office by coming up with a bumper sticker that said “Vote for Jones Because He’s Kind.” Probably “Make America Kind Again” would not strike most people as terribly robust either!
Yet Paul sees kindness as a fierce strength of God. Kindness is the spring from which saving grace flows into our hearts. Kindness is a disposition of God—that as a Fruit of the Spirit we are to imitate—that makes him prone to reach out to lost sinners such as we all otherwise would be. Yes, Paul also writes here, there can be a severity to God, too, and at the moment, Paul sees the Jews on the receiving end of that severity. But there is little doubting which of the two Paul sees as being the core driving force for God: it’s kindness. Kindness has already won the day and maybe, maybe, maybe even for Paul’s Jewish sisters and brothers it will finally win the day for them too. But for the rest of us: don’t forget that kindness has saved you. Let that set the tone for the rest of your life.
The Lectionary has us stop just short of it but these three chapters end in a doxology that praises the mysteries of God’s mind and his inscrutable ways. Yes, those mysteries and that inscrutability have been what was torturing Paul as he engages in these long ponderings about the fate of Israel. But in the end Paul flips the script and turns those things that can make us a little crazy into something that can make us very joyful after all.
That’s the response of someone who, at bottom, trusts and loves God. No, we may not puzzle it all out but we do trust that God will do right by and by. He just has to. He just will. God is finally too kind to let us believe anything else.
For some reason Romans 11 and its words about God as at once kind and severe put me in mind of the wizard Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Gandalf was often a bit of mystery to the Hobbits who revered him. He could be at turns deeply kind and mirthful and yet sometimes apparently rather severe and curt. Yet in the end the Hobbits learned a deeper truth about Gandalf: he was fundamentally kind and good and if at times there was a severity about him, it did not last long and even this was somehow rooted in Gandalf’s bottom line desire to see everyone flourishing. He was severe about what blocked delight and goodness but it was his basic kindness and love that drove everything he did.
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