Monday, May 15, 2017

A Heart Burning to Make Christ Known: Romans 9:1-5

On YouTube, there are a whole lot of videos titled “Fails.”  They are kind of like America’s Funniest Home videos without commercials.  One after another, you see people crashing skateboards, bicycles, and cars.  One after another you see people diving into the water and belly flopping or landing on their backs.  One after another you see people trying to do gymnastics and landing on their head, back, or belly.  And oftentimes, you can see it coming.  Oftentimes, you can see exactly where the video is headed, and you wonder, “Why in the world would people be doing this kind of stuff?  Why in the world would they be putting themselves in a position to get hurt or even worse?  Why doesn’t someone try to stop them?”

And I would like to ask you this morning, “Would it do any good to try to stop them?  Even though you know the potential and likelihood of someone getting hurt doing such things, even though you see that the behavior could lead to destruction and pain; even though you know that it would be best to change course and walk away; do you think it would do much good to try and convince someone otherwise?”

I do not ask this question lightly because it is a question that I am oftentimes faced with, and I know it is a question that many folks are oftentimes faced with.  And I know how frustrating it can be.  Do you need an example?

I can’t tell you how many times I have watched the behavior of a bride and groom to be and thought, “This is not good.”  The way these two act; the way they think about the future; the way they talk about relationship; it’s not good.  They need to wait.  They need to think about what they are doing.  They need a cooling off period.”  But there is no stopping what is happening–such folks are infatuated with one another, and there is nothing you can say or do that will prevent them from carrying on with their plans.

I can’t tell you how many families I have seen dealing with an alcoholic.  They see the destructive and abusive behavior.  They hold their loved one to account.  They try to get rid of the alcohol.  They try to reign the behavior in.  “I DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM!”  And the downward spiral continues damaging the whole family until everyone just goes into survivor mode.

Perhaps as a parent you have watched your kids making choices that are not in their best interests.  And no matter how hard you push; no matter what discipline you institute; no matter how reasonably you try to explain things to them; they keep doing things that will hurt them in the long run.

And you get frustrated.  You get angry.  You get annoyed.  And as time passes, you become exhausted; beat down; depressed.  Eventually, you wonder if there is any point in fighting; any point in arguing; any point in caring.  Is the struggle even worth it?

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, sometimes in life we run into situations where it looks like no matter what we do or say, we don’t make any difference at all.  It’s so easy to give up.  It’s so easy to walk away.  Help us today to see that we are not the only ones at work in such situations and that ultimately, we look to you to bring change not only in others, but especially in ourselves.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Today, we start chapter nine in the book of Romans.  There is a definite break in the letter, so much so that some scholars have thought that chapters nine through eleven could easily be set on the margins–that these chapters are not really a part of the letter’s main argument or theme.  For in the next three chapters, Paul turns his attention to the problem of Israel.  God made specific promises to Israel throughout the Old Testament.  Are these promises now null and void?  The short answer is no.

But on a more practical level, I had some concerns about preaching through these three chapters.  I mean, does this problem that Paul is dealing with have any relevance to our lives today?  Does Paul’s wrestling with what God is going to do with Israel after the coming of Jesus have anything to say to our situation as Christians and the church today?  This week, as I sat down in sermon preparation, I read through these three chapters, and I didn’t have to go too far for the answer.

In the opening verses of chapter nine, Paul is experiencing exactly the feelings and emotions that I began this sermon with.  He is in anguish as he watches his countrymen–his kinfolk–travel down a path that leads to danger, destruction, and alienation from God.  To show you his anguish, it actually might be better for us to handle these first five verses kind of in reverse.

You see, Paul loves his fellow Israelites.  He know how God has acted in their past.  He knows the promises that God has given through the years.  He knows how God has worked to set the Israelites apart to bless them that they might be a blessing.  In verses 4-5, Paul lays all of this out, “4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever.”  This is an impressive list of gifts that God has given.  Each term deserves consideration and careful dissection.  Unfortunately, we don’t have time to delve into each one and give it justice, so I am simply going to do one giant brush stroke–Paul lays out eight highly significant blessings that God has bestowed upon the Israelites–eight highly significant blessings that show just how much God cares for His people.  And in Paul’s mind, these blessings; these manifestations of God’s love should have led them to see the inevitable conclusion: that God has sent Jesus to be the suffering servant; the Messiah; the Savior of the world.  But, alas, Paul’s kinfolk have not come to see this.  By and large they have rejected the Gospel.  By and large they have not come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.  Most have flat out rejected this notion.

And it’s not that Paul hasn’t tried to reach them.  When we read through the book of Acts, we see clearly that when Paul went into a city, he oftentimes started in the local synagogue–that is the place of Jewish worship.  He would begin preaching the Gospel there, and more often than not, he was rejected.  He was considered a blasphemer.  He was cast out of the synagogue and sometimes shunned, verbally assaulted, beaten, and even stoned.  His message simply was not accepted by his fellow Jews.

And it hurt Paul deeply.  The first three verses of chapter nine testify to this, and these verses are almost beyond comprehension.  “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”  Paul begins by doubly emphasizing, in both a positive and negative fashion that he is telling the truth.  It’s like swearing on the King James, New Revised Standard, New International Version, and English Standard Translation of the Bible all at the same time.  Paul wants to leave no doubt that what he is saying is true.  And what he says is astounding for someone who has just written what he has written in chapters 1-8.

Paul says: If it were possible, I would suffer eternal separation from Christ; I would suffer the torment of hell for eternity if it would bring my kindred–the people of Israel–to Jesus Christ.  Stop and think about that for a moment.  Stop and think about what Paul is saying in that statement.  He is willing to give up his everlasting salvation; his everlasting place in heaven; his sure foundation and security in life and death–if it would bring his countrymen to faith in Jesus Christ.

Think about this on top of all the persecution and hatred he has received from preaching to his countrymen.  Think about what Paul has just said given that he has been rejected time and again by his fellow Jews.  Think about this in light of how many times he has had the authorities called on him; has been arrested; has been whipped and even stoned.  He has suffered tremendously at the hands of his fellow Jews, and yet, despite this, there isn’t a hint of apathy.  There isn’t a hint of resignation.  There isn’t a hint of wanting to give up.  The fire of the Gospel runs so deeply within him that he would even give up his own salvation to bring his fellow countrymen to faith in Jesus.
The fire of the Gospel runs so deep, that he would sacrifice what is most dear to him, so that his fellow Jews might find salvation in Jesus.

I look at Paul’s fire here, and am put to shame.

I mean, in a very real way, I am like Paul.  I grieve that people don’t seem to come to belief and trust in Jesus in our culture.  I grieve that the ELCA is a shrinking church.  I grieve that our congregation is essentially a stagnant congregation within that larger church.  I grieve that we don’t have pews filled with people who are wondering about the Christian faith and what kind of impact it might have in their lives.  I grieve that it seems like more and more people are becoming irreligious or becoming Christian in name only instead of the deep down conviction and heart changing faith that Jesus
Himself calls us to.  Oh, yes, I grieve these things deeply.

But, what am I willing to do about it?  What am I willing to give up to change things?  The answer shames me.

You see, I look at Paul’s fire here and see my own reluctance to give up anything precious to myself for the sake of the Gospel.

I look at Paul’s fire here and see how selfishly I guard my self and how I shy away from argument and trial and tribulation.

I look at Paul’s fire here and see how willingly I give up and become resigned that folks will not change.

I look at Paul’s willingness to give up his salvation for others and see how I get jealous when I have to give up my day off.

The Gospel does not consume my heart like it did Paul’s.

I would argue the Gospel does not consume most of our hearts’ like it did Paul’s.

I would argue we don’t have near the passion for bringing people to faith like Paul did.  It’s easier to simply let things go.  It’s easier to stay away from conflict.  It’s easier just to do our own thing and let others do their own thing.  It’s too easy to buy the modern day cliche, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are kind to others.”

But the problem with that cliche is that even though we know we should be kind to one another, we aren’t.  Even though we talk about being kind, we see what goes on in our nation. We see what goes on in the world.  If people think they can get away with it: People lie.  People cheat.  People treat one another badly.  I was reminded of this when I saw a video posted on Facebook of a baseball player intentionally missing third base to score.  The desire to win; the desire to be ahead; the desire to put myself in front of others is simply too strong.  As Christians, we know this.  As Christians, we have had it all laid out in front of us by Paul in this letter to the Romans. We know that belief matters.  We know that if you don’t have faith in the right things, the wrong actions will transpire.  The power of sin–the power of self-love is too strong.

And it is the Gospel which takes us out of ourselves.  It was the Gospel that took Paul out of himself.  It was the Gospel which inspires us to sacrifice; to commit; to avoid depression; to give of our time, talent, and treasure for the sake of the world–for the sake of our kindred who do not believe.

For if we know that we are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God;

If we know that we deserve God’s wrath instead of His love because of our sinfulness;

If we know that instead of giving us wrath, God sent Jesus into the world to live the life that we should live and die the death that we deserved;

If we know that it should have been us on that cross instead of Jesus, and that He willingly took our place there;

If we know that Jesus did that of His own free will not because we deserved it, but precisely because we didn’t;

If we know that Jesus died there because He loved us even in our brokenness;

Our hearts of stone melt because of the love that has been poured out for us.

Our hearts become full of thankfulness and love for the One who gave Himself for us.

Our hearts deeply desire Him, and we long to live for Him.

Our hearts long to bring others to the saving grace and love poured out on the cross.

Our hearts burn to tell others the good news of Jesus, and we are willing to do so even at great cost to ourselves.

If you are like me and are not quite there yet, then we need to hear what Jesus has done for us over and over and over.  We need to hear that God so loved us that He gave his only begotten Son so that all those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.  We need to have the Gospel pounded into us so that our hearts become inflamed–so that our hearts burn with the desire to bring people to Jesus; so that our hearts desire to share the love of God with those who reject us time and time and time again; so that we never become apathetic or depressed because we know that it isn’t about us.  It isn’t about us at all.  Paul knew this.  We need to know it.  It’s all about Jesus.  Let us tell the story of Jesus.

Let’s pray.  Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.  Renew our hearts by the power of the Gospel.  Help us to remember what Jesus has done to redeem us, and may our hearts burn like Paul’s burned that we may sacrifice ourselves to bring others to the saving grace of Jesus.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

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