A Heavy Burden
In the early days of aviation, planes were not yet equipped with gyroscopic turn indicators. When pilots flew through clouds or fog, they would often become disoriented, and because the inner ear does not accurately perceive a banked turn, they sometimes got caught in steep spiral dives called “graveyard spirals.”
In December of 1925 a young Army pilot named Carl Crane got caught in the clouds at 8,000 feet directly over Detroit while trying to fly a congressman’s son to Washington, D.C., in a biplane. Crane later said, “In a short time I was losing altitude, completely out of control. I could not fly the airplane at all – it had gotten into a spiral dive. Halfway down I looked around at my boy in the back, and he was enjoying the flight to no end. He was shaking his hands and grinning, and I was slowly dying because I knew we were going to crash….”
Crane did not know which wing was down, let alone by how much. If he tried to level the wings, he was just as likely to roll upside down as right side up. If he tried to raise the nose, the effect would be exactly the opposite: the turn would quicken, steepening the descent.…
“Finally it got down to under a thousand feet, and I said, ‘Well, here we go. I’m going to look at my boy once more.’ And as I turned around to look at him, a sign went by my wing. It said ‘Statler Hotel.’ I had just missed the top of the Statler Hotel. In all the mist and rain, I could see the buildings and the streets. I flew down the street and got over the Detroit River, and flew about ten feet high all the way to Toledo, shaking all the way.”
In life as in flying, it is all-important that we have our bearings.[i]
As we continue our journey through St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, what we today call the Epistle (which really just means letter) to the Romans, or just Romans, we’re coming to a section of 3 chapters, chapters 9-11, that a lot of people just skip over. We typically don’t read them, and few pastors preach them. We skip from the incredible promise of God at the end of chapter 8, that in Christ we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us,” and that absolutely nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” up to Paul’s challenge at the beginning of chapter 12 to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” and to “be transformed by the renewal of our minds.” And we just kind of skip over chapters 9-11. In the past, scholars viewed them as an independent section unrelated to the rest of the book. In these three chapters, Paul really focuses on his people, the Jewish people, and what God is doing among them. So aside from an interest in the nation of Israel today, most of us just don’t read them. We think they just don’t have that much to say to us today. And that’s sad, because nothing could be further from the truth.
Because the truth is, and this is the dominant perspective among scholars today, that these chapters, far from being an unrelated side-note by Paul, are actually a powerful conclusion to the first section of Romans. Paul’s letters typically go from theology in the first section to practical application in the second. And these three chapters close out the theological segment in a powerful way. They’re actually a literary crescendo. They speak to the faithfulness of God, the trustworthiness of God, and the power and sovereignty of God in a world in which God seemed to be anything but trustworthy.
It’s easy to lose our bearings in the world we live in today, isn’t it? There are voices shouting at us from all directions, aren’t there? In the newspaper, if you still read one. On the news on television, if you still watch. On social media for sure. On talk radio and political television. And those voices ARE shouting, demanding to be heard. Usually those voices come from the extreme political left and the extreme political right, each offering their own perspective on the problems we’re facing and what they see as the “only” right course of action for us as a nation. So how do we as disciples of Christ, followers of Jesus, keep maintain our bearings, keep the plane on course, in all of this confusion and the voices that are shouting everywhere? As American followers, we ARE American citizens, but we are first and foremost citizens of God’s Kingdom, and our loyalty lies there before any other place. And God’s kingdom, unlike ours, has a truly global perspective and an eternal rather than a temporal one. But we are called by God to live as citizens of his eternal kingdom right here, right now, in the confusing times we’re in, among all of the voices shouting at us from all directions. How do we live as citizens of his kingdom among the kingdoms of this earth today? Turn with me to Romans 9. We’re going to look at this whole chapter today, so I’m going to read it all here, and then we’ll go back and walk through it together. READ TEXT.
From the last words of Romans 8 to the first words of Romans 9, Paul’s mood changes dramatically. He goes from the heights of praise for the wonder of God’s saving and sustaining grace in Christ to the depths of lament, and his lament is for his people, the Jewish people. We know that Paul was primarily a missionary to the Gentiles, to non-Jewish people, so we forget that Paul was himself a Jew, and that prior to his conversion he was a passionate member of a Jewish sect known as the Pharisees, a sect that was passionate about Israel’s role as the people of God and who believed that their way back to freedom lay in the ability of God’s people to keep God’s law. Paul was a passionate and well-educated Pharisee who carried that passion with him into his life of following Christ. In fact, whenever Paul went to a new city, he taught in the Jewish synagogue first, until they rejected the Gospel, and then he went to the Gentiles. And it broke Paul’s heart that while the Gentiles were following Christ in droves, he was able to lead only a handful of his own people to faith in Christ.
Look at Vv. 1-5. He feels a heavy, heavy burden for his own people. So heavy that he wishes he could be cut off from salvation in Christ if his own people could be saved. And what makes his concern heavier is their knowledge of God. Notice that he calls them Israelites, not Jews. When they’re referred to as Jews, the Bible is typically referring to their physical descent from Abraham, to their culture and ethnicity. But when the word “Israelites” is used, it’s referring to their role in the world as the people of God. The people whom God, in his sovereignty, in other words, simply because he wanted to, and not because of anything especially deserving about them, chose to be his people in the world, revealing to the world his goodness and grace. They have been adopted by God, as a people, to be his people, and the presence of God has visibly been with them. It was with them that God made his covenants and to them that God made promises. It was to them that God gave his law and the privilege of worshipping him. And it was to an Israelite named Mary that that the Messiah was born. Jesus was an Israelite, a Jew. And yet, by and large they rejected him. They knew God. Their heritage was a godly one. They had the Old Testament. They knew what it said. As far as knowledge of God and his ways goes, they had it all. And yet, they rejected Christ, the Messiah of whom the Old Testament spoke and to whom it pointed.
These are religious nonbelievers. These were people who went to worship, who knew the Scriptures, who had the law of God, who were a part of the chosen people of God, and yet … they didn’t believe. Now, even in the Old Testament, there were those who were ethnically part of Israel but who spiritually were not. Israel had always dealt with unbelief in her midst. There has always been a spiritual Israel who chose to follow God from within the ethnic people of Israel, and there were those who did not. Look at V. 6.
We see the same dynamic at work in our churches today. At best, its people who were raised in Christian homes, who still to this day go to church, not because of their love for Christ or faith in Christ, but because it’s what their family does, or because they want to be seen as good people, pillars in the community. At worst, its politicians try to associate themselves with churches because they know it guarantees them votes or people hoping for better business or community connections. So we go to church every other week, or every few weeks, and we sing the songs, and we sit quietly during the sermon, maybe we serve on a committee or board from time to time, and then we go about the business of life as if nothing at all has changed, is if we’ve gone to a club meeting, not sat in the presence of the creator, savior God of the universe in worship. We go to church and try not to cuss, as Francis Chan says. That isn’t life in the kingdom of God! That isn’t life following Jesus.
Arthur Burns, a Jewish economist of great influence in Washington during the tenure of several Presidents, was once asked to pray at a gathering of evangelical politicians. Stunning his hosts, he prayed thus: “Lord, I pray that Jews would come to know Jesus Christ. And I pray that Buddhists would come to know Jesus Christ. And I pray that Muslims would come to know Jesus Christ.” And then, most stunning of all: “And Lord, I pray that Christians would come to know Jesus Christ.”[ii]
Your physical heritage cannot save you. Just being a part of a certain people group cannot save you. It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white or yellow or olive skinned. It doesn’t matter whether you are American or British or Nigerian or Brazilian. We get that. The kingdom of God is an eternal, global movement of God. But neither does your spiritual heritage save you. It doesn’t matter what kind of family you were raised in, what kinds of schools you attended, or how well you know and can quote the Bible. What matters is your experience of God in Christ. John 17:3 says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” These are the words of Jesus spoken to the Father in prayer. Jesus says two things here. First, he says that eternal life isn’t just something that happens after we die. Eternal life is the Kingdom of God breaking into our spiritually dead selves living in this spiritually dead world in and through Christ. Jesus says that knowing God IS eternal life. To know here means more than just knowing about God or knowing of God. It means to have an interactive, experiential relationship with God, and that happens in Christ. When we know God through Christ, our life is caught up in God’s life, our lives become eternal lives now because they are caught up in God’s life. And that life will continue when we die physically in the world and will be consummated, appear in its fullness, when Christ returns to establish God’s kingdom, God’s reign in its fullness.
As human beings we tend to build walls – between genders, between cultures, between races. And the world’s religions have for the most part played into that human tendency. That’s why there have been so many religious wars, and why human religion has tended to create conflict. Jesus came to set us free from all of that cultural, ethnic, and racial baggage. Jesus’ gospel is simple: you can enter into his life, life in the kingdom of God now, regardless of your gender, regardless of your ethnicity, and regardless of your sinful past. But you must enter his life through him, again regardless of your gender, your ethnicity, and your past.
Now, Paul asks a really important question here. Look at V. 6 again. Has God’s Word failed? Has God failed? Has God proved to be unfaithful? Why does he ask that? Because the Old Testament is the story of God’s undeserved calling of a people, Israel, to be his people, to live his life for all the world to see, and to be the means through which the entire world would be blessed in Christ. And yet, the refused to accept and receive Christ as the promised Messiah. If these are really God’s people, the people with whom God made covenants through Abraham and Isaac and David, the people to whom God entrusted his law through Moses … if those promises held, why weren’t they believing in Christ in droves? Why was the influx of people into the Kingdom of God a trickle of Jews and a flood of Gentiles. Have God’s promises failed? Did God promise to do one thing, and then turn around and do something else?
The answer to that question is a resounding “NO!” All of Israel had a significant role to play in salvation history. They were the people with whom the covenants were made, and to whom the law was given. They were the ones through whom the whole world would be blessed. And yet, throughout their history there were those in their midst who were faithful to God, who, in spite of their sin, placed their faith in God, and those who did not and would not. At times pretty much the entire nation turned their backs on God. And yet, in spite of their unfaithfulness and disobedience, God’s promises held. He honored his covenant, and was continuing to honor his covenant. Israel was indeed the people through whom the world had been blessed, and one of David’s descendants, in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, will sit on the throne of God’s kingdom forever. And now, in Christ, citizenship in God’s kingdom was being defined once and for all as coming in and through Christ. Through faith in Christ.
Within the people of Israel there had always been a people who followed God and a people who didn’t, and the difference between them had nothing to do with their gender, or their ethnicity, because they were all members of Israel. The difference was in their faith. Genesis 15:6 tells us that Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” The foundation upon which physical Israel was built was being descended, humanly speaking, from Abraham. But the foundation upon which the spiritual Israel was built has always been and will always be faith in God. In fact, throughout Israel’s history, even in the human line of descent that led to Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father, outsiders who showed faith in God were grafted in – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and probably Bathsheba as well, since her husband was a Hittite.
You see, every command of God is built upon a promise from God. Every divine call to action (obedience) is, at the same time, a divine summons to trust in God’s promises (faith). The promises of God are commands in disguise, and vice versa. God commands what he commands because he promises. After the Exodus, God promised Israel that it would rain bread from heaven every day except the Sabbath. God therefore commanded Israel not to gather more than their daily ration, except on Friday. God’s promise was inextricably linked with a prohibition. Conversely, trust in God’s promise would
[i] William Langewiesche, “The Turn,” Atlantic Monthly (December 1993), pp. 115-22
[ii] Mark Buchanan, “Singing in the Chains,” Christianity Today (February 2008), p. 33