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Deep Grace: Grafted In To The Vine



Grafted In To The Vine

Romans 11:1-32


We all like rooting for the underdog, don’t we? The team that shouldn’t win, but does. The person who shouldn’t be successful, but is, in spite of the odds. Well, the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, takes that idea to a whole new level. For years, the competition has taken place to “celebrate the imperfections of man’s best friend.” Many of the dogs were rescued from harsh living conditions and have issues like acne or tongues that refuse to stay in their mouths. For their devoted owners, however, such superficialities hardly matter – with one owner referring to her eight-year-old Chinese Crested, (that’s a weird-looking almost hairless dog) Zoomer, as her “sexy boy.”


The contest event lineup includes “a red carpet walk and ‘Faux Paw Fashion Show’”; the dogs are sized up based on “first impressions, unusual attributes, personality, and audience reaction.” The winner receives prize money and a trophy – but another award, the Spirit Award, “is presented to a dog and owner who have overcome obstacles or provide service to their community.” I guess you could say these dogs are literally underdogs.


We love to root for the underdog. During the NCAA basketball tournament in March, no story is as compelling as that of a “Cinderella” story, a low-seeded team that barely makes the tournament that knocks off one, or more, of the big boys.


The Miracle on Ice, when the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team knocked off the Russian team that was arguably the best hockey team in the world on their way to winning Olympic gold. The Russian team had won the previous 4 Olympic gold medals and destroyed the American team 10-3 in exhibition play just before the Olympics. And somehow our boys beat them when it mattered most and won the gold medal.


The successful business person who comes from an incredibly horrific, poverty-stricken background. Hallmark holds our attention for weeks at Christmas time with movie after movie in which the unexpected, poor, less impressive person wins the heart of the successful, more polished one. We love underdog stories. We eat them up.


In many ways, the people of Israel were huge underdogs. On the surface, there was nothing spectacular about them. Perhaps with the exception of Solomon’s reign, they really weren’t all that much to look at when compared with the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian empires. The land God had given them was significant, basically the nexus of ancient trade routes in the middle east. But it wasn’t expansive, and they weren’t huge in numbers. The Old Testament is clear that God chose Israel to be his special people not because they were amazing and caught his attention, but because he in his grace chose them out of all of the peoples of the earth. And God delighted in showing up their enemies not through their strength, but through their weakness.


For 40 years the Israelites wandered the wilderness surrounding the land God had promised them as they experienced God’s judgement, God used that time to give the Canaanites the opportunity to welcome and create room for his people, which they refused to do. Eventually it took force to create that space. But even then, the fall of Jericho at the hands of the Israelites, using less than typical military strategy (if one can even call marching around the city once daily and then seven times on the seventh day and blowing trumpets and shouting a military strategy) was intended to serve as a reminder to Israel and to the Canaanites that God was with his people. He was revealing his grace and power to the world. God had Gideon pare his already smallish army down to a miniscule 300 men before using them to defeat the Midianites. Their greatest king, David, was himself not the oldest but the youngest of his brothers and was overlooked even by his own father and by God’s prophet at first. God wanted it to be very clear that Israel’s military success and economic prosperity were the direct result of his hand upon them, of his grace, and not of their own doing. They were God’s people because God has chosen, in his sovereignty, to make them his people.


Fast forward to the New Testament, and now we have the people of God, the Jews, rejecting God’s messiah while the pagan gentiles, heathens, were coming to faith in Christ in huge numbers, to the point that they far outnumbered the Jews in most churches around the Roman empire, and that was true of the church in Rome too. And this typically led to quite a bit of conflict. The Jewish Christians, who had accepted their messiah, saw themselves as grafting the gentiles in to their faith, and wanted the gentiles to observe the Jewish law. But the gentiles far outnumbered the Jews and began to look down on them, believing that God had rejected his Old Testament people in favor of them – these gentiles who were flocking to Christ.  What was God doing? Had he turned his back on his own people? Why weren’t they coming to faith in Christ, their own messiah? Would God’s promises from the Old Testament hold? Turn to Romans 11:1-32.


If hope is faith standing on its tiptoes, the Jews seemed to be hopeless. They were rejecting Christ as messiah at every turn. Sure, there were a few who placed their faith in Christ. Paul himself was evidence of that. If anyone could seem hopeless, it would have been Paul. In his own description of himself prior to following Christ he says, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Eph. 3:4-6). He was basically a self-righteous terrorist, imprisoning, torturing, even threatening to murder Christians with the full support of the Jewish council, until God got ahold of him as he traveled to Damascus. If God could turn around a heart that far gone, he could turn around anyone.


Look at Vv. 2-6. Yes, the people of Israel had often turned their backs on God. They killed those who spoke God’s truth to them. They stopped worshipping God and worshipped the false gods of the peoples around them. But there had always been a faithful remnant. Within the physical children of Abraham, the people of Israel, there had always been spiritual children of Abraham, people of faith, along with those who refused to put their faith in God and insisted on going their own way. And they had really stumbled over Christ. In Paul’s day, they were the ones relying on their religiosity and their religious heritage to save them.


So here’s the point: there is no situation and no person too far gone for God to save. The kingdom of God is marked by hope, not hopelessness. We are a people of hope, not hopelessness. We are loved by and filled with the spirit of a God who raises the dead. If the dead aren’t too far gone for God’s spirit to enliven, if Paul wasn’t too far gone for God’s spirit to awaken, then neither were his people too hardened, too far gone. And neither are you or your situation too far gone.


The problem in Rome was that because the gentile Christians viewed the Jewish people as basically hopeless, they began to look down on them. Instead of seeing themselves as being grafted in to the vine of God’s people, the descendants of Abraham, they began to think that they were the chosen ones and the Jews were no longer God’s special people. They became proud and arrogant, and that led to a deep ethnic division in the body of Christ. So Paul actually takes a minute to put the Gentile believers in their place. Look at Vv. 13-24.


Paul uses this weird analogy where he compares the people of Israel to a cultivated olive tree, and the gentile believers to a wild olive tree. The problem is that Paul seems to get things a little bit mixed up. He has wild branches being grafted in to a cultivated tree. That’s backwards. Wild olive trees were incredibly hardy but they didn’t produce usable fruit. Cultivated trees weren’t as hardy, but they produced fruit suitable for eating and for pressing to make olive oil. So if grafting was done, cultivated branches that produced good fruit were grafted onto wild olive root stock, which was hardier. The result was a tree that was more hardy but also produced good fruit. Paul has it the other way around. He has wild branches that don’t produce good fruit being grafted on to less hardy cultivated root stock. Some have decided that Paul was most definitely a city boy and just got the details wrong, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think Paul meant to write exactly what he wrote. He’s sort of using a parable here. Parables are stories using common, day to day things people are familiar with to make a spiritual point. Jesus taught almost exclusively in parables. And one thing common in parables is that they take a common thing but introduce an unexpected twist to the story. That’s usually where the point of the parable can be found.


Paul is actually putting the proud and arrogant gentiles in their place here. He’s reminding them that the Jews aren’t being grafted in to them, they’re being grafted in to the Jewish root stock. And if God was willing to break off Jewish branches to make room for them, he would also break them off to make room for the Jewish branches. In other words, “Don’t get cocky. It isn’t about your worthiness. It’s about God’s grace.” And the difference between branches broken off verses branches kept on or grafted in was faith. Belief versus unbelief. Trusting what God had done in Christ versus not trusting. You see, within physical Israel there had always been a smaller, spiritual Israel that was actually faithful and believed God, trusted God. And that “true Israel” is what the gentile believers were being grafted into. Paul made the change he made to highlight once again God’s grace.


Now, we can see the gentile arrogance really clearly in V. 19. “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Remember, the Bible wasn’t written in English. This is an English translation of the original Greek text, right? And in the original Greek, the “I” here is really emphatic, really emphasized. Like all caps in a text message on your smartphone today, which I keep telling older people is the text equivalent of yelling.


As followers of Christ, we have to be very careful to make ourselves aware of our own pride and arrogance, which often shows up as a prejudice of some kind: sexism (women are weak and emotional), ageism (old people are a burden), racism (always be suspicious of black people), ableism (people with a disability of some kind aren’t as valuable). Arrogance was killing the church in Rome, and it will kill our churches too. Now, we DO still see blatant, overt “isms” today. Think about the Nazi signs being held up by a few at the protests recently, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia back in February while he was jogging. But most of us aren’t blatantly THAT racist. Or sexist. Or ageist.


We have more the subconscious attitude that there are first class and 2nd class citizens in society, and in the church. The church has, for years, arrogantly taught that women are second class citizens in the Kingdom of God, good for teaching children and other women and cooking in the kitchen, but not for teaching or serving on the board. I’ve made the case from the beginning that that isn’t actually what the Bible teaches, and you may have noticed that I put women in the pulpit when I can. We have women on our board of elders. And think about ableism. How many of us roll our eyes when a developmentally disabled adult makes a comment or does something during worship? We’re afraid it makes us seem less sophisticated. And racism? We’re perfectly comfortable with other races as long as we don’t have to interact with them outside of sports and big stores. We’re fine with black churches and latino/a churches and Ukraine churches and white churches (especially middle and upper class white churches), but mixing gets hard, doesn’t it. It gets hard because other kinds of people have life experiences and perspectives that challenge us, sometimes to the core of our beings, and we don’t like that level of discomfort. We’re more comfortable with people who are more like us. But the body of Christ knows no such boundaries, and when we see them perpetuated, even inadvertently, it is up to us to speak out, to lovingly but firmly confront the ism, as Paul did. I mean, he basically told the gentiles that in spite of their greater numbers, they were the outsiders, not the Jewish worshippers. And we weed out derogatory comments about Jews, about people of other races, the other gender, of differing cognitive or physical abilities from our vocabularies and we recognize the value they bring to our lives.


Take this as an example. Angela, my sister in law, is severely hearing impaired, and she doesn’t sign. She relies heavily on hearing aids and other devices and also on reading lips. Obviously, with everyone wearing masks these days, communication in public has become, for her, all but impossible. And of course those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I’ve been largely supportive of the measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19. I have a wife who is asthmatic, so I’m pretty sensitive to people with weakened lungs. But I forgot about people who depend on seeing the entire face in order to communicate. I forgot about Angela. And some of my posts about “What does it hurt to wear a mask” hurt her. I didn’t mean for that to happen, but it did. And what was my first response? To apologize? No. To feel and act defensive. It took me a while to set my pride and arrogance aside to see things from her perspective. But that’s one of many things she brings to my life: a real and legit perspective that I would not otherwise have. Pride and arrogance divide. Love heals. And we are called to be a people of love, strong enough to be exposed to experiences and opinions that painfully challenge us to our core.


So what’s up with Israel anyway? Look at V. 26. What does it mean that “All Israel will be saved?” There are actually 3 verses that we have to understand together here: Vv. 12, 25, and 26. So the fullness of the Jews and the fullness of the gentiles, the word translated as “fullness” here doesn’t mean “all that ever existed.” It’s the same word for both. It means all who will come. In other words, all of those who place their faith in Christ will come. So when Paul then says “All Israel will be saved” it has to be understood in a way that is consistent with what he’s already taught. And what he’s already taught is that salvation will happen through Christ alone, and that those who place their faith in Christ are the spiritual Israel within the physical Israel.


We know that not all gentiles will ultimately come. The same is true of the Jewish people. To say otherwise would be to teach universalism, that ultimately all will be saved. What Scripture teaches is that all who trust in Christ are saved. Christ is the way that God in his sovereignty has made. But in using words like “fullness” and “all,” Paul is indicated that it won’t be a small remnant. It will be a great number of both Jews and gentiles, greater numbers than we see even today. But we as gentiles, non-Jews, are grafted into the tree that is the true, spiritual Israel, which is the natural tree for those Israelites who place their faith in Christ. Even within Old Testament Israel, there were those who were men and women of faith, spiritual descendants of Abraham, and those who were not, and the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament apostles, and Jesus himself speak of the necessity of faith, not genetic descent.


But the truth remains that there are no second class citizens in God’s Kingdom, here and now on earth or in eternity with Christ. There are none who should be made to feel less than. We must set aside our pride and arrogance, actually embrace the discomfort that comes from different experiences and perspectives, and love one another, because the truth is, we are called to be collectors of discarded pennies, the ones this world no longer values, maybe never valued.


Steve Sjogren was the pastor of a Vineyard in Cincinnati, Ohio. One Monday morning he was feeling particularly discouraged and announced to his wife Janie, “I’m quitting the ministry! And this time I mean it.” Janie had heard this kind of talk before so she suggested, “Why don’t you go for a drive and think things through? Usually that helps when you’re stressed out. And while you’re out, could you be a sweetheart and pick me up a burrito?”


Steve drove around for about an hour, complaining to the Lord the whole time. Finally, he was in the fast-food drive-thru to pick up Janie’s burrito when he sensed the Lord speaking to him. He is very careful to say, he did not hear an audible voice … nothing came over the drive-thru speaker. In a subtle, quiet way he sensed the Lord impressing this message on his heart, “If you open your door I will give you a gift.” Even though he felt silly, Steve figured he had nothing to lose, so he opened the car door, looked down and saw embedded in the asphalt, a tarnished penny. This is what he wrote about the experience:


“I reached down to pry out the coin and held in my hand feeling less than thankful for this ‘gift.’ The Lord spoke to me again: ‘Many people in this city feel about as valuable as discarded pennies. I’ve given you the gift of gathering people who seem valueless. Though these are the people that the world casts off, they have great value to me. If you will open your heart, I will bring you more pennies than you know what to do with.” God’s heart beats with passion for discarded pennies. Those beaten up, used, and abused in this life. Those considered beyond hope, beyond repair. The God-forsaken. The abandoned. If you feel like that this morning, I want you to rest assured that God’s heart beats for you. You have not been forgotten. You have not been forsaken. You matter. Your life matters. God’s heart beats for the underdog. Let us pray.