“It’s All About Mercy” (Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32)
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (August 16, 2020)
This past week, amidst all the bad news of the spike in Covid 19 cases around the country, more oppressive overreach by governors and others with their arbitrary and heavy handed dictates robbing us of even more freedoms, the caustic political rhetoric, and news of more senseless rioting in the streets of many of our nation’s largest cities, there was a bit of good news. It seems Israel and the United Arab Emirates have signed a peace accord which for a change offers some real hope to positively lessen tensions and improve relations between Israel and her Arab neighbors. If this accord can live up to it’s ideals, we can expect to see some real improvement in race relations and the whole world can sleep a lot more comfortably.
Sadly, racial tensions, bigotry and hatred of anyone who doesn’t share our race, color, or ideology have plagued our world since the division between us occurred at the infamous Tower of Babel. Just as we Americans thought race relations in our country were getting better, we are again embroiled in riots, bloodshed, and calls to tear down our whole country which some are charging is built on systematic racism. Everywhere we hear the cries for racial justice and even the calls for reparations to be paid for our country’s past sins of slavery and racist policies.
I think we can all agree that racism of any sort; that is, treating people of other ethnicities, colors, cognitive abilities, or even economic levels, differently then we would treat those like us, is more than simply unjust it is wickedness and sin. However, can you ever correct such injustice with more injustice. Making one person pay for the sins of their ancestors or others of their race will never achieve the justice one seeks to gain. In fact, such demands for reparations are just as unjust as is the injustice you are seeking to correct.
There is only one cure for injustice and unfairness. We learn also from our Epistle text from Romans that cure is from only one place: the Eternal Judge’s dealing with us sinful human beings. Four times in just two sentences the Lord’s apostle Paul refers to God’s method of dealing with injustice, whether it be between human beings or elsewhere. He says God deals with it by having and applying mercy.
There is one ethnic group in particular that has always been and continues to be in the crosshairs of the bigotry of other peoples. They are the Jews, the people of Israel; the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In a sense it was God who made them the centerpiece of the world’s hatred. He had set them apart, made them a peculiar people, by imposing upon them unique religious rules, dress, and ceremonial laws that made them separate from everyone else, and in fact, forbade them from intermingling with other peoples.
What further incurred the wrath of their neighbors, of course, was that the LORD removed the Canaanites and gave the people of Israel the Canaanite land. The Jews, however, made themselves all the more the loathing of others when they, as a nation, put to death their own Messiah, whom God had given also as the very Savior of all the nations.
Present animosity and outright hatred of the Jews today have their roots in Israel’s history. This, of course, does not excuse the atrocities that others have committed against the Jews over the years. The Romans, the Nazis and even the present day Islamic Fundamentalists will all be held accountable by God for their own wicked treatment of the Jews. But we can not fully understand how others relate to the Jews without first understanding the Jews’ unique relationship with God.
Jesus had promised “This generation will not disappear” before He comes again. The Jews will be among the peoples of the world until the end. So, how ought we, especially us Christians, relate to them? On the one hand, do we treat them as one of us, as some say, insisting that even though they reject Jesus as the Messiah, God will somehow still save them? Some justify such notions by even using what Paul is saying in our text as proof that the Jews will be saved without faith in Jesus Christ. They especially hone in on the phrase, “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” But this assumption is not only unbiblical, it’s dead wrong. As Jesus Himself clearly testifies, “He who does not have the Son does not have the Father who sent Him.” Or again He says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes unto the Father except through me.” No one is saved apart from Jesus, even the Jews! When they as a nation rejected Jesus as their Messiah, they rejected God and His salvation of them.
On the other hand, do we despise the Jews and consider them our enemies since their forefathers rejected Jesus and then killed Him? I don’t know about you, but I sure would not want people to treat me according to what my German ancestors have or have not done!
How then do we relate to the Jews? How does God want us as Christians to deal with them or any other people?
In essence, our text this morning is an opportunity to go to God’s race relations school. Our teacher is the Lord’s premiere apostle Paul, an ethnic Jew himself. We might say that the course is titled, “Race Relations 101”. Here Paul addresses people just like us, Gentile Christians.
First, and foremost, our instructor Paul teaches us to recognize that God has not totally written the Jews off. Yes, to be sure, since the nation of Israel rejected their own Messiah; that is; the very anointed One whom God had promised to send to them to save them, the end result was that God rejected them as His “holy nation.” They forced His hand to remove His banner of divine protection and doting love. The LORD allowed the nation along with its capitol, Jerusalem, to be totally destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. The people, however, were not all destroyed, but scattered among the nations.
God no longer favors one nation over the others. In fact, it was on account of His mercy toward all that God, as Paul says, “elected,” called, the descendants of Abraham to be His Holy People in the first place. Since Adam’s fall into sin and under the wrath of God, all descendants of Adam were under God’s curse. All were headed to hell. But in His mercy God elected one race to preserve and keep safe the one descendant of Adam who would save all the rest. We know this descendant; this promised seed. His name is Jesus, “the supposed son of Joseph, the son of Eli, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam, the son of God (Lk 3:23-38).
Accordingly, as Holy Scripture declares, God now accepts people from every nation who embrace Jesus as the Christ to be His “holy nation…a people for God’s own possession” (I Peter 2:9). This means, as Paul clearly points out also in this 11th chapter of Romans, that even the Jews who repent and come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah, will be “grafted back in” to God’s holy vine (v. 23).
God’s mercy for all men, all sinners, is further seen in that God appointed Paul, a “Jew of Jews… a bonified Israelite, being a descendant of Abraham and specifically a member of the tribe of Benjamin, to be His apostle to the Gentiles. Paul’s whole ministry was a living testament to God’s mercy toward Gentiles, as well as, His mercy in reaching out to the Jews.
As Paul notes, God greatly magnified his ministry among the Gentiles. No other apostle, not even Peter, holds a candle to Paul’s missionary service and travel, establishing Christian congregations throughout the Roman Empire. Outside of Jerusalem, very few people knew of Peter, James, John and the company of the Twelve. But people throughout the Roman Empire had heard of Paul of Tarsus. Paul was brought to testify, not only before the governing rulers and king of Israel, but also before the local Roman Governors, as well as the elite philosophers of Athens. Paul was a world renown preacher. God made Paul’s ministry greatly effective in converting thousands of Gentiles.
Besides being merciful to save all people through Paul’s ministry, God was mercifully appointing Paul to save Gentiles through His ministry of the Gospel so as to “make the Jews jealous” and therefore want the same salvation God was offering the Gentiles.
So, what initially looked like God was being unfair to the Jews by rejecting them as His people consigning Israel to disobedience (placing them under the judgment of His Law) was really God acting in mercy. Just as God had formerly in His mercy consigned all Gentiles to disobedience that He might then have mercy on them by giving them a Savior through the Jews, so now God in His mercy was consigning the Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah to disobedience that by seeing His mercy toward the Gentiles in Jesus, the Jews might become jealous, repent of their sin and return to Jesus is repentance and faith and be mercifully saved in Him.
In order to undergird his argument that in His mercy God had always wanted to save Jewish people, Paul further reminded His hearers that God’s calling is irrevocable. The word translated irrevocable literally means “unrepented.” In other words God has not repented His calling of the Jews to be His Old Covenant people. He has not relented that He bestowed on them His gifts of grace.
His gifts still are and always have been valid. Despite their rejection of Him and His Messiah, in His mercy toward them The LORD was not about to “change His mind toward them.” His promise and gifts of grace were still valid. Of course, if they continued in their rejection they would on their own forfeit those gifts. If, however, they would repent, return to the mercy of God offered them from the beginning in the Seed of the Woman, those gifts would again be theirs.
In a similar vein, dear Friends in Christ, in accordance with God’s mercy, your baptism into Christ is also irrevocable. No matter what you do, even if you should deny Christ and the calling and blessings given you by God in your baptism, you would not negate what God has done for you in Christ, gifted to you in those holy waters or change how He feels toward you in His heart. Now, of course, should you reject what Christ did for you on His cross… and reject the forgiveness and life God has given you in your baptism, you will not benefit from your baptism. We can not appeal to the Eternal Judge on the final day and say, “Even though I turned away from You, Lord, I was baptized. Therefore, You must take me to be with You in Heaven.” One, Jew or Gentile, can not be saved without faith. But God’s work, Your baptism, remains forever valid. The gifts of forgiveness and life He mercifully gave you there remain yours. Should you fall away and then later return to Christ in repentance and faith, it all becomes your possession once again.
So, does this sound fair? Of course, it’s not fair! You can, like so many today are doing and scream at the top of your lungs that you are being treated unfairly. But remember death, present and eternal, is the wage you earn by your sin. You really want what you deserve? Thanks be to God His justice cries out mercy not fairness. Just as in our human way of reckoning God was not fair to the Jews, but merciful, so He does not treat you fairly; that is, with perfect justice, so that He can deal with you as He does with the Jews, purely by and through His mercy!
Our instructor Paul wants us to understand that in a very special way we Gentile Christians have a symbiotic relationship with the Jews; that is, we not only live in close relationship with each other but God causes us to be dependent upon each other.
First and foremost, we share the same Word of God, the Word that became flesh in Jesus. Through that Word God has revealed His plan of salvation for all people. Through that Word given us through the Jewish Prophets, called by God, He has given us all His promise of a Savior. Jesus has clearly testified that the Jewish Scriptures: The Law, the Writings and the Prophets… testify to Him. As Jesus told the woman at the well, “Salvation of the Jews.” Jesus is a Jew, like Paul. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham…of Judah… in fact, the direct descendant of King David. If God had not mercifully called and preserved Israel as His holy people, you and I, as well as all other Gentiles, would not have a Savior from sin and death.
Additionally, the Jews rejection of Jesus has brought “reconciliation of the world.” If not for the Jew’s rejection, there would have been no crucifixion… no atonement for the sin of the world. In this way, the Jew’s rejection has brought us mercy. We are truly indebted to the Jews. Paul says it this way, their transgression is riches for the world… their failure is riches for the Gentiles (11:12).
Now, in the opposite direction, the Gentiles, you and I, can become the richest of blessings to the Jews. By God’s grace we now possess the Way to salvation… the Truth that saves… the Eternal Life that is for sinners in Jesus Christ. Now the Jews can eternally benefit from our witness to the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the Gospel we share, proclaim, teach and preach to them, the Holy Spirit works to bring back the erring and delinquent… to give faith… to graft in again to the Vine those branches who had been cut off.
In this way, all of Israel will be saved; both those of us who are not “natural Israelites”; that is, the Gentiles,” as well as those “natural Israelites;” the “Jews,” who are re-grafted in through the Word of the Gospel and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
So, how do we relate to the Jews or anyone different from us? We thank God that on account of His mercy toward sinners He has redeemed us all, Jew and Gentile, White and black, from sin and everlasting condemnation in the same blood of His only begotten Son Jesus Christ. It’s not about bigotry, settling scores, or reparations. It’s all about having mercy as God has had mercy on us. We look upon all others with merciful eyes, knowing that without Christ they are lost… We look upon them in love as those for whom Christ Jesus also died… We pray for them that God would turn their hearts toward Him… And, yes, we look upon them with the compassion that is zealous in bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them.
Race Relations 101 is concluded. Class dismissed! Amen.