Sermon: Romans 11:13-15, 28-32
Pentecost 13 - September 3, 2017 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
If I asked you to name three or four aspects of God’s personality that make you want to be a part of his kingdom, what would you say? In other words what characteristics of God attract you to him and make you want to be one of his people? Many of you would probably say his love and mercy and forgiveness. And you’d be right. Love, mercy, and forgiveness are what draw people to God’s kingdom. And there are of course many other characteristics of God that we could mention.
But what’s interesting about our text today is that the Apostle Paul talks about how God brings people into his kingdom, but he doesn’t talk much about love, mercy, forgiveness, or any of the other gracious characteristics of God. He mentions mercy, but only at the end. What he does mention is envy, rejection, and disobedience. And only God in his perfect and profound wisdom could in some way use envy, rejection, and disobedience to bring people into his kingdom.
Today we’re going to consider that irony:
ENVY, REJECTION, AND DISOBEDIENCE
- HOW GOD BRINGS PEOPLE INTO HIS KINGDOM
The Apostle Peter in his 2nd letter makes an interesting reference to the letters of the Apostle Paul. He says that Paul writes some things that “are hard to understand.” And Peter is right. And I think that this text today from Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of those portions of Paul’s words that are hard to understand. How do envy, rejection, and disobedience fit into God’s plan to bring people into his kingdom?
Paul spends about three whole chapters in this letter to the Romans about a topic that brought him a lot of sadness. He regretted that the most of his fellow Jews rejected the gospel message of Jesus.
For Paul in his day there were two groups of people. There were the Jews. They were the remnant of the Hebrews or the people of Israel from the Old Testament.
Then there were the Gentiles. They were all the rest of the people. The gospel was meant for the Gentiles too, but it was given first of all to the Hebrews, to the Jews.
Logic would tell us that Paul’s fellow Jews would have overwhelmingly believed the gospel. But they didn’t. In this letter to the Romans Paul earlier noted that the people of Israel had all the spiritual advantages. He wrote, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised.”
In other words the LORD God of Israel had set everything up for his people to know the Messiah, the message of salvation, and to be his people for time and eternity. But it didn’t happen that way. Sin and unfaithfulness has a way of messing everything up.
In my daily Bible reading I’m currently reading the book of Judges. The contents of this book have the people of Israel occupying the Promised Land in those very first years. But sadly from the very beginning the people drift away and begin to worship the gods of the new land they were living in. The LORD would discipline them and bring them back, but it wouldn’t be long before they wandered away again. There were brief periods of faithfulness, but by the time Jesus came the real message of the Messiah and salvation was almost lost.
Again logic might cause us to argue that God should have picked a different nation of people - a nation that would have been more faithful and receptive to the gospel. Maybe he should have chosen Greece or Persia. But the truth is that any nation of sinful people, and that includes any nation, would eventually have turned away from God. It’s the nature of sin, and that sin exists in the heart of each one of us.
What is profound about Paul’s words in this letter to the Romans is how sad he is, how sorrowful he is, that his fellow Jews for the most part have rejected the gospel. We might understand Paul’s sorrow when we look at our own nation. It’s clear from history that God has blessed our nation with a superabundant blessing of the gospel. Christians in this country have built churches almost literally on every street corner. The gospel has been abundantly proclaimed. Over the years our nation has sent out thousands of missionaries to proclaim forgiveness and salvation in Jesus’ name.
But look at us today. Less than 20% of Americans go to worship on Sunday morning, and some of those are not hearing a very clear gospel message. We are a nation that has turned its heart and head to other interests and philosophies that deliberately go against God’s word. We see this tragedy in our nation’s immorality, our materialism, our irreverence, our godlessness, and two or three generations of young people who have been led astray by college professors and so-called intellectuals and philosophers of our day who decried and denounced the truths of Christianity and the moral values of the Bible.
We might understand Paul’s sorrow because of an individual we know who has fallen away from the gospel message. We all have friends and relatives who just aren’t faithful. They knew the gospel of Jesus once, but have not interest any longer. And in some case they’re fiercely opposed to what the Bible says. Like Paul we want to say, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”
But leave it to Paul and the Holy Spirit to bring something good out of this tragedy of rejection. God will still build his kingdom. Paul writes, “I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” Envy. Paul is actually saying that envy could bring some of his own people back into God’s kingdom. In other words, as Paul preached the gospel to the Gentiles, some of his fellow Jews, merely out of envy, will come to believe and receive the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
To me the idea that envy would attract people to Jesus Christ doesn’t even sound logical. But God knows what he’s doing. Down through the years many Jews have believed in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Savior. Many still become believers today. They want that blessing of forgiveness that was always meant for them, and they find it in Jesus Christ.
And isn’t envy, envy in the best sense of the word, what still attracts any person from any nation into the kingdom of God? It’s a desire to have what other believers have. It’s a desire to have the forgiveness of sins, a relationship with God, and the hope of eternal life. Each month the periodical Forward in Christ has an article, a personal testimony, from an individual or a couple who, after several years of searching, found a church where they heard the gospel. They envied what the people in that church had and wanted it too. Envy, good envy, turned them to Jesus and eternal salvation.
Rejection. How can rejection bring people into the God’s kingdom? Paul writes, “If their rejection [the rejection of the Jews] is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” In other words in the days of Paul when the Jews, for the most part, rejected his preaching, he turned to the Gentiles. From that point on the gospel message spread far outside of Israel to Syria and Africa and Europe. The rest is history. The rejection of the gospel by one nation of people brought it to the rest of the nations of the world.
You and I fit very well into this blessing. We are all Gentiles. In God’s infinite wisdom and mercy the gospel message of Jesus Christ has come to us because it was first rejected by Israel. And don’t forget that gracious truth. We Gentiles have a tendency to imagine that we are God’s chosen people and Israel is not. No, Israel will forever be the nation that God chose to be his people. They received the gospel first. Humanly speaking, we have received the gospel message by chance, because of the rejection of others.
But note that Paul says that rejection isn’t absolute for Israel, or any nation: “As far as the gospel is concerned, [the Jews] are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” Jews, and Gentiles, who oppose the gospel are our enemies. But the door remains open always for Jews to listen and believe. They were God’s chosen people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were their ancestors. The words of the prophets still stand. Anyone can still listen and believe.
But for now any Jews, or Gentiles, who don’t believe the gospel are being disobedient. But God still finds a way to bring people into his kingdom by means of their disobedience. Paul writes, “Just as you [Gentiles] who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of [the Jews’] disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
What’s Paul saying with these words? Jews have been disobedient. Gentiles have been disobedient. But God has allowed them all to fall into disobedience so that he could have mercy on them all.
You and I were born sinful and disobedient into this world. But God has had mercy on us. In Jesus he has forgiven our sins, brought us to faith in Jesus, and made us a part of his kingdom.
Envy, rejection, and disobedience. Only God has the wisdom to bring eternal salvation to people in spite of envy, rejection, and disobedience - even more amazing - to use envy, rejection, and disobedience to build his kingdom.
It’s no wonder that Paul writes this hymn of praise to God: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” People who envy those who have the gospel will believe it. You and I are believers because one nation rejected the gospel. And even though we have been disobedient, God has had mercy on us all. Only a very wise and gracious God could accomplish that. Amen.