Monday, January 21, 2008

Something To Take Your Breath Away...

Romans 10:1-11:36

Have you ever run across something so intricate, so beautiful, so complex that you just had to step back and catch your breath in wonder? For Simon, Danny Glover’s character in the movie, Grand Canyon, it is the canyon itself that makes him step back in wonder—makes him feel small, even insignificant. I love his description of the canyon to Kevin Kline’s character, Mack. He says:
"You ever been to the Grand Canyon? Its pretty, but that’s not the thing of it. You can sit on the edge of that big ol' thing and those rocks... the cliffs and rocks are so old... it took so long for that thing to get like that... and it ain't done either! It happens right there while your watching it. Its happening right now as we are sitting here in this ugly town. When you sit on the edge of that thing, you realize what a joke we people really are... what big heads we have thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much..."
What is it for you? Some painting by a great master like Leonardo or Michelangelo? Perhaps it is the human body itself or a piece of music. Whatever it is, not only does it take your breath away but it gives you this humbling sensation whoever created it must have a mind more vast and superior to your own.

In Romans 9-11 we run into this kind of thing. Paul calls it the mystery*. It is something so amazing, so complex and yet so simple, too. This mystery is filled with irony and paradox. It’s big, beautiful, designed by an incredibly superior mind and it is nothing less than God’s unfolding plan to save the creation itself.

Paul has been taking us to this point throughout the entire book of Romans. In our last discussion we examined chapter 9 and discovered Paul’s incredible sadness for his Jewish brothers and sisters who had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. He continues with this thought in chapters 10 and 11. Paul talks about how Israel sought after the justice and righteousness of God but they missed it.

Let’s do a little background here, ok? Throughout these three chapters we see phrases describing how Israel sought after God’s righteousness and how the Jews earnestly sought after God’s justice but did not obtain it. What is this all about? You have to go back to Deuteronomy 30, a passage Paul will quote later in this passage. Moses is describing how Israel will go into exile if she proves faithless to God’s covenant. But after she is in exile there will come a time when God will circumcise their hearts**—he will clean them from the inside and restore them. Although the Jews had returned from Babylonian exile—they still thought of themselves as under exile because they were under the rule of the pagans. So the Jewish people still sought after God’s deliverance. They longed to be delivered from Roman oppression. They earnestly sought after God’s righteousness. They thought the way to do it was to emphasize their differences from the Gentiles. To use the rituals and commands of God as a means of exclusion, to set themselves apart from the nations.

But the righteousness described by Moses is summed up in Jesus. In 10:4 Paul describes Jesus as the “end of the Law” or the goal of the Law, or better yet, the embodiment of the Law. He then paraphrases Moses’ statement from Deuteronomy 30—
Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the deep?” (that is to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is the word of faith we are proclaiming: that if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:5-9 NIV)
You want to discover the justice of God? You don’t have to go up to heaven to bring the Messiah down! You don’t have to raise him from the dead either! (You're too late, anyway--that's already happened!) The justice of God is as near as your heart, it’s on the tip of your tongue! Accept Jesus as the Messiah! Call him Lord (as opposed to calling Caesar "Lord"). God will save you by your trusting acceptance of Jesus!

He then nails his point: It doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile—there is only one God! He blesses all who calls on his name—in fact, they will be saved!

And here (vv. 14-15) we see Paul’s ultimate concern, his ultimate passion: the mission of God. How can Jew or Gentile call on the name of the Lord if they’ve never heard? How can they hear if no one tells them? How can anyone tell them if there is no one to send him or her? We’ve good news to tell—it is a beautiful thing to announce that good news!

Paul is not suggesting the good news has been unavailable. The message has gone out—but the Jews, who earnestly sought God’s righteousness, have rejected it and those who weren’t even looking for God’s justice, the Gentiles, accepted it! What irony!

The surprises keep multiplying! Paul asks in 11:1—Did God reject the Jews? Is Israel now unreachable? Absolutely not! After all, Paul himself is an example. He is a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. God has rescued him. There is also a parallel in Hebrew history: the prophet Elijah. Elijah was running for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel. He cries out for God to take his life because all of the prophets have been killed, Israel worships idols such as Baal and Asherah, and he is the only one left who is faithful to God. But God tells him: There are 7,000 other Israelites who have not bowed down before Baal. There is always a remnant that trusts God. There is still hope for Israel.

Although the Jews rejected Jesus, they have not stumbled beyond recovery. Now are you ready for something really bizarre? Israel’s rejection of Jesus and Israel’s being rejected by God parallels the rejection of Jesus himself. Through Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion God opened the door of salvation for others. He was rejected so others could be accepted. Paradoxically, by rejecting Jesus—and by being rejected of God, the Jews opened the doors for the Gentiles! Listen and see if you can catch the parallels in 11:12-15:
But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring! I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (NIV)
Paul hopes the Jews will see the Gentiles enjoying the benefits of God’s covenant that they were supposed to be enjoying! As a result perhaps some of the Jews will say, “Wait a minute! That’s our promises and benefits. We’re now on the outside! We need to turn to Jesus and re-enter the covenant of God!” Maybe the door that opened to the Gentiles will be the door the Jews will re-enter!

But there is a problem. It is the problem of reverse discrimination. The Roman people tended to look down upon the Jews as barbaric and exotic. They thought they were second class citizens and inferior. It would be easy for the Roman Christians to think the Jews were no longer reachable and were totally rejected by God. In this way the Gentiles would become God’s chosen people to the exclusion of the Jews. But this is merely reversing what had been going on for centuries in Israel! Paul says, Wait a minute! The trunk and roots of Christianity is in Israel. You are like a wild olive branch that’s been grafted into a cultivated tree. Yes, some branches were trimmed, but don’t get arrogant thinking you’re better than the trimmed branches. If God would not spare the natural branches because of their arrogance, do you think he’ll spare you? Besides, the mystery of God is that all people: Jew, Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, men and women would be part of the new Israel of God. That’s God’s design. The mission is to bring all peoples to God—not to try to exclude people!

So what is the point of all of this, then? I think, quite simply, it is God’s desire to reconcile as many people to himself as possible, to reconcile people to each other; to rescue his creation. He planned this from the beginning in an incredible way. God used even people’s prejudices and rejection to make possible the great reconciliation.

And what do we do as a result of all of this? Perhaps the best thing we can do is first ask ourselves some questions: Is there any group: racial, social, cultural, or whatever category you chose whom I avoid reaching? Is there any group of people I consider less than me—that I would feel much more comfortable if they weren’t in my neighborhood, visiting my church, or playing with my kids? Are there certain races I view as dangerous? I lock my car door the instant I see someone of this particular color or descent?

I can’t help but think of a graduate student at a school of Theology. He was a white guy. One day he volunteered to help move some furniture out of a warehouse in mid-town Memphis. He wore his dirty and torn up clothes. He had a couple of days growth on his face. He was standing on the street corner when an African-American couple pulled up. The woman in the passenger seat took one look at this guy and locked her door! He wanted to say: But lady, I'm a ministry student! I'm just helping people out right now…Then it occurred to him how often he did the same thing based only on someone’s color.


In the 90s there was a young lady who dressed in the "goth" style (I guess it's called Emo, now!). She dressed all in black, wore dark make up, black lipstick, and black fingernail polish. She went to a religious conference for young adults. The popular evangelical youth speaker walked up to her after the conference was over and said, “I feel God is telling me you have a lot of darkness in you and you need to come to Christ…” She leveled a piercing look and said, “How dare you judge me by my looks? Do you know I’ve been a Christian for several years now? I pray and study my Bible every day. I lead a Bible study for goth girls and have led many to Christ. In fact, I’ve brought several of my girls with me today.”


God has been working throughout the ages to reconcile people to him and to each other. What he has done is so powerful, so complex, so beautiful—like the Grand Canyon, it's breath taking. He calls us to join him in this mission to bring reconciliation to the world; to bring people to him through Jesus and to bring people together in peace. What a beautiful invitation! Not only is he creating a masterpiece, but he’s making us a part of it.

Now that's something to take your breath away.

What can we say to all of this? I think Paul says it best at the end of this section (Romans 11:33-36):

Oh, the depth of the riches
of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has ever been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God
that God should repay him?
For from him and through him
and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!

*Paul uses the word Mystery in his other writings, too. In Ephesians 3:6 he spells it out succinctly: This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
**So, Paul isn't the first one to come up with this idea of circumcision in the heart!

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