Monday, January 14, 2008

The Great Sadness of Paul

She leveled her clear gray-blue eyes into mine. “Darryl, you don't understand: I do hate my dad.”

It was one of those moments in my early youth ministry years when I got a picture of what a dysfunctional family looks like. This beautiful girl tells me she hates her father. She was the middle child--a good kid: one you would want to have in your youth group. She was sincere and committed. Her younger brother was another story. He was the black sheep—as if he could hold the family together by his bad behavior. He, too, hated his dad in a more obvoius way. He went around trying to destroy any physical property owned by dad. Even though he hated his dad, he was becoming more and more like him every day--abusing drugs and alcohol. The older brother acted like the care-free athletic star he was—maintaining good grades and showing himself disciplined and strong. He never said anything about dad. I suspect he was trying to be the good kid holding everything together.

Mom, though: she was different. You could see it in her eyes. She was tired and worried. It was as if her heart weighed fifty pounds. It dragged the corners of her eyes downward. Her heart was so heavy it tugged on the contours of her face. The gravitational pull of her heart made her look older than her years. She desperately loved her alcoholic husband. She loved her children, too. But the family was fraying. At least two people were heading on a collision course with self-destruction. And it weighed her down. It broke her heart.

In such a situation you find yourself wanting to do anything to rescue the ones you love. I’d give my right arm! I’d live in a shack. I’d give my life if it were necessary to rescue them! Can you identify with those feelings?

I know a man who could easily identify with this lady. He, too, had a family who was breaking his heart. He described his pain as a “great sorrow” and an “unceasing anguish of heart.” He says of his family: I wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. They had so much going for them, too! They had been adopted as sons by God, they had the glory of God revealed to him, the promises and agreements. Their story included the great men and women of faith from the patriarchs onward. The greatest honor of all was reserved for them: from them was traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

And yet they had missed it all. They had misunderstood God’s way of accomplishing the renewal of Eden! They pursued God’s covenant of justice and righteousness—but in their pursuit they made a fundamental mistake. They saw the justice of God as exclusionary. They thought the Law was about exclusion rather than embrace. They saw the rituals and requirements of the law, not as reminders of their calling to bring God’s light to the nations, but as badges of superiority over the nations. Israel was the promised people—but they missed the promise.

Paul is quick to point out in Romans 9:6-18 that Israel’s failure did not mean God’s promises or word had failed. The truth is: not every one descended from Israel is Israel. As one theologian
[1] says it: this isn’t about race: it’s about grace. You don’t have to be Jewish to be the Israel of God. You don’t have to be circumcised to be circumcised in the heart!

To make his point, Paul goes back to Abraham. After all, Abraham had more than one child. There was his first born, Ishmael and there was Isaac. Ishmael wasn’t chosen—Isaac was. Then there was Jacob and Esau. Esau, the oldest, wasn’t chosen—it was Jacob; even before they were born! Paul makes the point clear in verse eight: In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. Remember the words of John the Baptist to the Pharisees that came to see him baptizing in the wilderness? “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

Paul is saying when God chooses he does not choose on the basis of race, genetics, or even moral behavior! Honestly, look at Jacob and Esau! Which one of those boys would have made you proud as a parent? Jacob? That conniving rascal who even tried to bargain with God at Bethel? Was he better than his brother, Esau? And don’t forget, Jacob was chosen by God before he was born! Abraham was not more righteous than his contemporaries when he was called out of Ur. Israel was not more powerful, or faithful, or lovely than all the other nations of the earth when God chose Israel to be his people.

On a side note: it would be a mistake to think Paul is speaking of individual salvation or the issue of predestination. Paul is not making the argument that God arbitrarily decides this individual will be saved and that individual will be pre-determined to be lost. This is a discussion of God’s working throughout history with nation groups in order to bring about his ultimate goal of blessing the world through the Messiah.

Paul immediately anticipates the objections in Romans 9:14: Is God unjust? Is he arbitrary? No, God is not unjust. If he is going to select a people by which to enlighten the world then he has to make choices. The criterion God uses is the same criteria God will use today: grace. God is sovereign and wise: after all, as Paul has already demonstrated in the first three chapters, there is no one, no civilization, no people who are guiltless, perfect, or innocent!

Even so, the argument continues, why then, does God still blame us? How, if God chooses us to be an object of his wrath can he condemn us? Paul will deal with this more in detail in the upcoming chapters, but let me throw out a brief point here. Israel became an object of God’s wrath—as did the Gentiles before them. God knew Israel would get his calling wrong. He knew, they too would mess up as had everyone else. But they would produce the Messiah who would do what they could not: live out God’s righteousness and justice. Then he would bear their guilt and the guilt of the Gentiles upon himself. In so doing, he would secure justice and mercy for all of Israel—that is the people of God: those who accept by faith the Jewish Messiah, Jesus.

So what now? What do we do with all of this? There are several messages we can take from this passage. From the very first lesson we’ve maintained Paul was writing a church made of Jews and Gentiles who were divided. The Gentile Christians had the upper hand over the Jewish Christians and tended to look down upon them, their rituals, their traditionalism, and their conservatism. Paul is vitally concerned about their unity as Jesus followers. But that concern is ultimately a concern for mission. If the Gentiles think somehow they are better than the Jews are—that since the Jews have not en masse accepted the Messiah therefore the Gentiles supplant them as God’s chosen people—then God’s plan to unite Jew and Gentile as the new Israel is in danger of being undermined. Paul’s understanding of God’s mystery is the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been broken down so that together the two might become one in Christ.

This passage also tells us it is possible to be in covenant with God and to miss his point all together. That is what the Jews had done. They used the covenant and the symbols of the covenant as boundary markers to keep everyone else out rather than as reminders of their calling to shine God’s light in the darkness. They viewed themselves as uniquely special and superior to other nations. The Gentile followers of Jesus are in danger of falling into the same trap. If they aren’t careful they may view themselves as morally superior to the Jews and more deserving of God’s love. In fact, that scenario has played out in bloody detail throughout the centuries following Christ.

Another message we can walk away with from this passage is salvation is not by privilege, by ritual, or by genetics. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faithful acceptance. Just because your family members are Christian doesn’t put you on the inside track. Just because you observe correct ritual doesn’t put you on the inside track either. Remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5: I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink…Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered all over the desert.

But perhaps the most poignant message we can receive from this text is that mission is not merely intellectual; it is emotional. Do we really believe there are individuals and people groups who are truly lost if they do not embrace the message of Jesus? Does their plight crush our spirits? Are we broken up by their refusal to accept Jesus as Messiah? Paul’s heart is broken over the physical nation of Israel—his biological family! He loves them so much and so deeply that he would be willing to be cut off from God, to be counted as a curse if it would save them. Is there anyone we feel that strongly about? Maybe the biggest obstacle we Jesus followers face is our own lack of love. We live in a culture so self-obsessed, so self-concerned, so self-centered it is easy to be conformed to the same values. It is easy to let the world go to hell in a hand basket and do nothing to impede the head long rush into oblivion.

I never thought someone could really hate a parent. But there this sweet, beautiful teenage girl was—her clear eyes blazing with fury—hating her father. But then, there was her mother, who would give her very life if she could make everything right. She would gladly lie down in front of the bus if it would save her husband and her children. What about us? Will we give our lives to bring life to the world? Will we dedicate our lives to bringing God’s mercy and justice to a world going to hell in a hand basket? God has now chosen us to be the people of God. Not to act morally superior, not to exclude others, but to embrace anyone and everyone who is broken and hurts in order that they may encounter the Messiah.

So may your heart be broken. May it be broken by those who have yet to enter the rule of God. May it be broken by the injustice, hatred, outrage, and pain so prevalent in the world. And may it lead you to do whatever it takes to introduce others to the Messiah.

[1] N. T. Wright
[2] Luke 3:8 New International Version

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