I wonder sometimes about those people who buy into what those televangelists say about God. Maybe you’ve been exposed to some of their garbage before. You know, the ones who say, “God wants to bless you financially. God wants to pour down his blessings upon you, but you have to show God something first. You have to commit to God to prove that you are sincere. You’ve got to take the first step, a step of faith. God wants to bless you, but in order for him to do so, you’ve got to plant the seed first. And that seed is $1,000. All you need to do is send in $1,000 and God will bless you and pour his blessings upon you.”
Now, these televangelists wouldn’t be on saying such things if people weren’t actually sending in money. There have been documentaries showing how wealthy some of these so-called preachers have become. Someone somewhere is sending in such donations, but we rarely get to see the fallout in those peoples’ lives. We rarely get to hear a word from them about what happened after they sent in their “seed.” And I wonder what became of their faith if and when the blessings of God didn’t fall into their lap. I wonder what became of their faith when their $1,000 gift didn’t all of a sudden become $10,000. What did they think of God then? Did they question God’s faithfulness? Did they say, “God, I’ve done my part. How come you didn’t do yours?”
And it’s not just folks who have sent money to televangelists who ask such questions. I mean, I’ve heard all sorts of other comments that are very much related. “Doc, I’ve never drank or smoked. I’ve tried to eat healthy and live an active life. Why do I have cancer?” “I’ve tried to live my life as a good person. I help people wherever I can. I treat people with respect and dignity. Why did I lose my job?” “I’ve worked hard to provide for my children. I’ve given them love and affection; clothes and food; toys, a phone, and computers, why do they treat me with contempt?” Sometimes, these questions are directed at God, and the unspoken part of each of those questions is: God, I’ve done my part. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. Why aren’t you doing your part? Why aren’t you holding up your end of the bargain? Why aren’t you being faithful?
Oh, and there is a rebuttal. There are those who have worked to squash this kind of questioning. Maybe you’ve heard it. Maybe it is ingrained deep within you. I’ve heard it numerous times as well. “I know we’re not supposed to question why...” Ever hear that one? And so you work to bury the questions. You work to cover them up deeply, but the problem is, they never quite go away. They are always there nagging. Is God faithful? Does God keep His promises? Can I really count on Him to come through?
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, there are times when we wonder about you. There are times when we wonder if you really do care. There are times when we wonder if you really will take care of us like you said you would. During those times, reveal yourself to us. Help us see just how you work. Help us to see that indeed you are faithful and that we can put our full trust in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The issue of God’s faithfulness is an old one. It can be found deeply embedded within the Bible in both the Old and New Testament. And what is most interesting about our text from the book of Romans today is that God’s action in Jesus Christ has presented a problem of God’s faithfulness to the early church. The problem comes in the Old Testament promises that God made to Israel. Paul summed up the blessings that God had bestowed upon Israel at the beginning of Romans chapter 9, “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. Amen.”
The problem was, that the vast majority of Israel was rejecting Jesus. The vast majority of the people did not see Jesus as the Son of God or the Messiah. The religious leaders had rejected Jesus and were persecuting the church. The political leaders were simply puppets of Rome and could care less. Even the Jews who did not live in Israel proper and who lived throughout the Roman empire were not flocking to Christianity. This caused no small amount of consternation in the early church because God’s consistency was on the line. God had made these promises to the Israelites. They were considered unbreakable. Were they now null and void? Would God keep these promises?
Paul knows he has to answer this question because it cuts to the heart of the character of God. If God can revoke a promise, then how do we know He will keep the promises given though Jesus? If God can take away this promise, then He can certainly take away another promise. Then, all our hope will be in vain. Paul now will take great pains to show that God is faithful and that He has and will keep His promises.
He begins with these words, “6 It is not as though the word of God had failed.” Paul begins by turning our attention to the Word of God. Paul knows the Old Testament backward and forward, and he is going to begin with God’s promise to Abraham. That covenant is front and center now for Paul. If you remember the promise God made to Abraham, it went like this: I will be your God, and you will be my people. From you will make a great nation. Your descendants will be more numerous than the stars of the sky and the grains of sand in the sea. I will bless you so that through you all the world may be blessed. It is this covenant that Paul is now defending.
And what does Paul say about how this covenant was passed down throughout the generations? For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, 7and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 8This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9For this is what the promise said, ‘About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.’ Paul digs into the story of Abraham to show that the covenant is not passed down to someone simply because of genetics. Abraham has two children that the scriptures focus on: Isaac and Ishmael. Both are genetically his children. One is born through a slave, the other is born through Abraham’s wife Sarah. The covenant promise, as every good Jew knew, went to Isaac.
But it is also important to notice what Paul says about children of the flesh and children of the promise. He references the promise made to Abraham when God visited and said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” Now, remember, Sarah was well past the age of child bearing. Abraham was an old man himself. There was no way they should naturally have been able to conceive and bear a child...but they did. There is a strong element here of God’s work in the passing down of the covenant. Paul is pointing out that God is ultimately responsible for how the covenant is passed down because something supernatural had to take place for the promise to move on. Please keep that in mind as we move on.
For Paul now knows the next objection that will come his way. As I said before, every good Jew knew that the promise should go to Isaac instead of Ishmael because Sarah was Abraham’s wife. Hagar was a slave. It’s only natural to believe that the covenant would go to the son of Abraham’s wife. One could come to the conclusion that there is nothing mysterious or God driven about this despite God’s supernatural intervention.
Therefore, Paul goes to the next generation to show how God operates in the passing on of the covenant. 10Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ 13As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’
Now, we have to remember the story of Jacob and Esau. These two were twins, so they both have the same mother and the same father. Genetically, they are the same, however, the covenant promise was not given to both of them. It was given to Jacob, and this was decided before these two were even born. God had declared that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). God had declared that the younger of the two would receive the covenant promise even before it was shown what kind of character or moral standing each boy would have.
This defied the cultural wisdom of the time!! In that culture, the oldest son always inherited the most!! Hands down!!! But here is God defying cultural wisdom. And God is also defying what most would expect out of a just and moral God. We would expect God to choose the person who was the most upright; the most moral; the one of the highest character. If you know the story of Jacob and Esau, you will remember that Jacob was an absolute jerk. That’s not actually the term I would prefer to use, but I am in church. Jacob was a conniving, sniveling, scoundrel. And yet, God’s covenant promise rested on him. “That the election might continue not by works but by his call.” That statement is of utmost importance in the big scheme of things. We will come back to it shortly.
But first I must deal with that last sentence of God loving Jacob and hating Esau. This statement has caused no small amount of controversy. How could a loving God hate someone even before they are born? How could a loving God be so callous in this manner? Take a deep breath. What is being said here has nothing to do with the emotions of love and hate as we know them. The story itself bears this out because God actually blesses Esau. What is being used here is a quotation found in the book of Malachi. It is a Hebrew idiom that would be better translated, “I chose Jacob and not Esau.”
Now, let’s start tying all of this together to understand what Paul is saying about God. Paul is delving deep into scripture to show that who you were born to doesn’t give you any privilege when it comes to receiving the promises of God. At the very beginning of the transfer of the covenant promises, God would choose one child over another. The second thing Paul is showing us about God is that He will willingly defy cultural norms in accomplishing His work. God operates by a different standard–a different set of rules than we tend to, so just because the culture around might accept something, it does not mean God will operate in the same manner. Finally, Paul shows us that our performance doesn’t affect whether or not the promise is handed down. God passes down the promise by grace not by works.
What do all of these things say when put together? I think it says this: when we question God’s faithfulness, we are often doing so because we misunderstand how God works and are often putting our own expectations on God instead of understanding who He is. Let’s go all the way back to those televangelists that I started with. They make the claim that God will bless you if you take the first step. If you plant the seed of giving, then God will give you more. This train of thought leads you to believe that you can actually make some sort of claim on God. This leads you to say, “God, I’ve taken the steps, now you are supposed to follow through. You owe me something because I have done the right things.”
A similar thing happens when we say things like, “God, I’ve worked really hard to be a good person. Sure, I’ve made some mistakes, but I generally try to be nice. I generally try to do the right thing. I don’t intentionally hurt others. Why are bad things happening to me?” At the heart of this question is the idea that I’ve done my part; I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, now, God you are supposed to follow through. You are supposed to bless me.
And that train of thought would be appropriate if God actually worked on the basis of performance and status. I mean, if God rained down blessing upon you because you were born a Christian–and not just any Christian but a Lutheran Christian for good measure, then you could claim your birth status as a right. But God doesn’t operate that way.
If God rained down blessings upon you because your cultural norms demanded it, then you could claim your culture as a right. But God doesn’t operate that way.
If God rained down blessings upon you because you were morally superior to everyone else,
then you could claim your performance as a right. But God doesn’t operate that way.
God operates by grace. God operates by blessing you first. In the covenant laid out to Abraham, God says, “I will bless you that you may be a blessing.” God’s blessing came first, and then Abraham’s obedience followed. And God then kept His promises to Abraham–and will continue to do so. But He will do so by grace.
And, of course, that grace is made purely evident through the actions of Jesus. For Jesus became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by dying on behalf of sinners–by dying on behalf of us. There was nothing that we ever did that warranted the Son of God dying for us. Not our status. Not our ability. Not our performance. In fact, our status, our ability, and our performance would actually lead to our condemnation. But instead of condemning us, God saved us by sheer grace as a gift. God has already blessed us. God has already been faithful to us because He loves us–so much so that He was willing to die for us.
And so when things start falling apart; when we feel like we aren’t receiving the blessings that we think are due; we need to be reminded, that it this isn’t a failure of God. We need to be reminded that God has already blessed us, and that in the future, God will make all things right. We need to be reminded of what God has already done on our behalf and trust that He will act again in the future. The real question then is not a matter of God’s faithfulness, it is a matter of ours.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you that you remain steadfast in your promises. Thank you that you will never revoke them or take them away. When things happen that might lead us to question those promises, lead us to the cross. Lead us to Jesus so that we may see how much you love us and the length that you have gone to make sure that your promises will remain true. Lead us to your love that we may have faith; that we may trust in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.