Children of the Promise – Sermon on Romans 9:1-8

Bruce and I traveled to Boone, Iowa this week, to ride the scenic railway. We splurged an extra five bucks to ride in the two-level, air-conditioned first class car, and it was worth five dollars to sit above the trees we passed, as we looked out over the Des Moines River valley. The Iowa Railroad Historical Society only owns about 12 miles of track, so we had a 10-minute layover at the end of the line, while the engine disengaged from one end of the train, passed us on a siding, and re-engaged at the other end of the train to take us back to the station. During this break, we were encouraged to change sides and reposition the seats so we could see what we’d missed during the first half of the ride. As we headed back over the Des Moines River, I was suddenly reminded of this passage from Romans we are about to read. One side of the train faced a beautiful river valley, with lush cornfields tucked between high hills covered in dark green forests. The other side of the train faced piles of dead trees that had been uprooted during the spring floods, and other evidence of the devastation those floods had caused. One side of the train looked out on a fruitful valley teeming with life. The other looked out on destruction and death. What you saw depended, in large part, on which side of the train you found yourself.

Last week, we heard one of the most beautiful and uplifting passages in all of scripture, Paul’s declaration that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Today, we look out the other side of the train. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter nine, the first eight verses.

am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For  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. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This 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.

This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

The letter to the Romans has often been used to promote the erroneous idea that Paul thought God had rejected the Jews, because they had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Nothing could have been further from Paul’s intention. Paul’s lament here in chapter nine opens a new train of thought that will continue through chapter 11, and Paul’s focus turns from the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God to the more troubling question, “What will God do with the Jews, his chosen people, who have rejected his promised Messiah, Jesus?” These three chapters really serve to clarify that the promises of God to all God’s people will be kept. God is faithful. One commentator[1] says the key to this passage is in verse six: God’s word has not failed.

This isn’t about tearing the promise away from one ethnic group and handing it over to another. It isn’t about paying the Jews back for killing Jesus – remember that in every single gospel account of Christ’s crucifixion, it is the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus. “Just because you have been included in God’s family as children of the promise,” Paul tells his Gentile readers in Rome, “don’t look down on your Jewish cousins.” God will be faithful to honor his promises to the people he set apart. God’s Word is sure, even for those who don’t want to hear it. But the fact that his own people have chosen not to hear the good news is very troubling to Paul.

Paul expresses his deep anguish by repeating himself in stronger and stronger language. Since Paul was well trained in scripture, it’s not surprising that his lament follows the poetic structure of many psalms crying out to the Lord. That Hebrew poetic structure, called parallelism, repeats an idea to give it emphasis. Just look at the first two verses: “I am telling the truth, I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit.” Paul isn’t defending his own integrity by affirming his honesty three times; he’s “swearing on a stack of Bibles” to make a point. Piling “great sorrow” on top of “unceasing anguish” adds to the poetic despair Paul feels for the people of Israel, his own flesh and blood.

Anglican theologian N. T. Wright explains Paul’s grief like this: “He was like someone driving in convoy who takes a particular turn in the road and then watches in horror as most of the other cars take the other fork. They think he’s wrong; he thinks they’re wrong. What is worse, he really does believe that the road he has taken is the only road to the fulfillment of God’s great promises. What will happen to them? Why did they go that way, ignoring the signs that made him take the other fork?”[2]

To put it another way, Paul has been desperately trying to get his own people, the descendants of Abraham, to stop looking at the dead debris left behind on the riverbank after the floods have receded, and turn to see the broad vista of a fruitful valley that beckons from the window on the other side of the train. But they won’t stop looking at the dead trees piled in the dry mud. And it grieves Paul’s heart.

It grieves Paul’s heart because he knows that they got it wrong. They thought God’s promise was for a people, a select ethnic group, but God’s promise was for the whole world, to be fulfilled through the nation of Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul weeps over this mistake, and would go so far as to give up his own salvation, if it would make any difference at all.

The point is not that the Jews should be rejected because they rejected Jesus. The point is this: “Who means so much to you that you’d be willing to give up your own salvation so they could come to know Christ?” In other words, whose distance from God breaks our hearts, and what are we willing to do about it? Is your heart burdened for someone, maybe in your family or your circle of friends, who needs Jesus? Does it bother you enough that you would, like Paul, offer yourself in their place?

And if they are worth that kind of sacrifice, aren’t they at least worth telling about Jesus? If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t know how to do that. I’m not comfortable talking about faith with people. I don’t want to offend them.” Would you rather see them spend eternity separated from the God who loved them enough to send his own Son to die for them?

To be a good witness, you don’t have to sit people down with a Four Spiritual Laws booklet and force them to pray the sinner’s prayer. You only need to invite them, just as you would invite them to dinner, to join you in following Christ with all the rest of us.

Remember a few weeks ago, when we heard the Great Commission? Jesus commands us, as his disciples, to make disciples. “Go, baptize, teach,” Jesus says. Making disciples is a process that involves reaching out to others, including them in the fellowship of believers we call the church, and then spending the rest of our lives on earth together, learning how to be more and more like Jesus. It isn’t the same thing as mentoring. You aren’t sharing your own wisdom and expertise with someone who knows less than you do about following Jesus. It’s walking together, encouraging one another as we seek to follow our Lord. It doesn’t take a theological degree or years of Bible study to make disciples – the original twelve had no theological training at all – it just takes the deep desire to follow and obey Jesus, and the willingness to help someone else do the same.

This week we will have an opportunity to share God’s love at the Brown County Fair, through our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station. If you haven’t already signed up to serve as a host, welcoming parents and making sure the station stays well stocked and inviting, there is room for you to put your name on the sign up sheet in the narthex. We particularly need hosts to help on Friday, since it’s “Kid’s Day” at the Fair. Or maybe you’d like to help with Vacation Bible School next week, introducing children to Bible stories, or helping them with craft projects or music. Chris B. would love to talk with you if you can be a disciple by making disciples. There are other ways you can follow Jesus by inviting others to follow Jesus. Pray for God to point you toward a person who needs to draw closer to Christ, and invite that person for coffee or a walk. Be present. Ask God to let your mundane conversations become holy ones, as you seek to share Christ’s love with others. Paul writes, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [who] are counted as descendants.” We are those children of the promise. Let’s help others turn from looking at death and destruction, so they can see what lies on the other side of the train, and become children of the promise, too. Amen.

[1] Kyle D. Fedler, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 306.

[2] NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2, 3.

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