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The Miracle of the Method


The Miracle of the Method

Romans 11:33-36


When was the last time you were left in awe, completely blown away, like totally speechless? You know … mind blown. I think we as human being are wired to be in awe of certain things. Things that we cannot do or never would have thought of. Whether it be something incredible out in nature, or an amazing piece of music or art or an amazing performance of some kind, or a feat of great strength or courage, or an idea that someone has that you would never have thought of, or could never have thought of. When someone or something leaves us in awe, we say “you’re amazing,” or “that’s awesome” or “that’s incredible.” What we mean is, that is so perfect, or so powerful, or so beautiful, the timing too good to be true, that I can hardly believe it. When we’re young, the simplest things can fill us with awe. But as we age and grow in experience and education and in our ability to think and to imagine, we become harder to impress. It takes more and more to create that sense of wonder, of awe, in our hearts and minds. Take for example the incredible beauty of this area. We’re used to it. We drive by some of the most incredible views our country has to offer every day, and often we hardly notice. But someone from out of town comes up here for vacation and drives along the bay, or watches a sunset from Sleeping Bear Dunes or the west side of Old Mission Peninsula, and they’re left speechless.


My mom, who lives in Ohio, came up to visit for a few days over spring break several years ago. And we got one of those late season snow storms, maybe 6” of snow. Mom heard that on the radio and panicked and actually hit me. She yelled “We’ve gotta go to Wal-Mart to get bread and milk and water!” I said, “Mom, it’s only 6”. I’ll take you out to lunch tomorrow.” She yelled, “No you won’t. We’re going to be snowed in for a week!” Well, we weren’t, and we took her out for lunch the next day. Where she lives, 6” of snow is a lot. But here? Not such a big deal. What is commonplace for us was extraordinary for her. As we grow and move and change, it takes more and more to create a sense of wonder.

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias used this example: If I were telling my children the same fairy tale, notice the different reactions. If I took Sarah at age 8 and said to her, “Sarah, little Tommy got up and walked to the door and opened the door and a dragon jumped in front of Tommy,” Sarah’s eyes go wide. But now imagine me telling little Naomi, age four, the same story. “Naomi, little Tommy got up, walked to the door, and opened the door.” Naomi’s eyes go wide. Now let’s imagine I tell a story to Nathan, aged two, whose entire worldview is exhausted in one word—cookie. All I have to say is, “Nathan, little Tommy got up and walked up to the door” and Nathan’s eyes get wide with amazement. Ravi concludes, “You see the difference? Sarah needed the dragon. Naomi needed to open the door. For Nathan it was a pretty big deal to walk up to the door. The older you get the more it takes to fill your heart with wonder, and only God is big enough to fill it.”[i]


In Romans 11, Paul’s mind and heart are filled with awe as he thinks about what God has done in sending Christ to be born as one of us, to live among us, to die for us, and to be raised again to life, and that awe spills over onto the page. In the first 11 chapters of Romans, Paul has given an incredibly comprehensive account of God’s plan for saving not just us but the entire cosmos. For the first three chapters, he described in painstaking detail the sinfulness of the human heart and the brokenness that pervades creation itself and so much of our life here as created beings. And then for several chapters he describes God’s salvation in Christ, our response of faith, and the transformation that happens in our lives as in Christ we exchange our citizenship in this world for citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And then he goes into an incredibly complex discussion of the way in which God had moved in human history. That in the beginning, all was as it should be and humanity was innocent before God and in a relationship with God that was so close that it is described in Genesis as God and human beings walking together on this earth. But then the human heart turned away from God, satisfied no longer with being “the people of God,” or more accurately, “the people with God,” they wanted to BE God. To be equal with God in status, masters of their own fate, captains of their own destinies. And so sin entered into the cosmos through humanity’s choice. And then, people no longer desired a relationship with God, God chose for himself a people, Israel, the people of Abraham, through whom God would reveal himself as a God of love and grace and mercy and holiness. God would bless the world through them by revealing himself through them. But Israel consistently rebelled, and so came the exile and destruction of the land, followed by the return to the land, but rarely freedom from exile. And so God had sent Christ, born as a Jew under the law, to fulfill the law by being the only one not to break it in some way, and then die as a sacrifice for the rest of us, paving the way through his righteousness for us to be reunited with God. And then Paul appears to simply fall on his knees (while still dictating, he typically dictated his letters to a scribe) in spontaneous praise. He goes from theology to doxology.


Theology is deep thinking about God based on God’s revelation of himself in his creation, in his Word, and in Christ. Healthy faith engages and challenges and stretches the mind, but it also pushes beyond the limits of the mind. And every human mind has limits, those points beyond which God continues to be and act and I can no longer comprehend. And at that point, the heart wells up with praise for a God incomprehensible, indescribable, unfathomable. And it is at that point that we fall on our knees in real, authentic worship, as Paul does. Let’s look together at Romans 11:33-36.


Can you sense Paul’s awe? His wonder? His amazement? He is completely and totally in awe of God. Good theology should always lead to good doxology. Theology should always lead to worship. Amazement at the greatness and the goodness and the wisdom of God. And that is where Paul finds himself. What has brought him to this point? In this case, three things. The first is the depth of the richness of God. The riches of God. What is Paul talking about here? Is he talking about the infinite resources available to God? Well, yes and no. That is certainly a part of what Paul is thinking about. But specifically he’s thinking about the depth of the richness, the unending well … of God’s kindness. You see, he’s been weaving that strand throughout the first 11 chapters of this letter. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (2:4). “… in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory …” (9:23). “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (10:12). He has been and now continues to talk about the riches of God’s kindness. The limitless resources of God extends to his kindness!


It’s the same picture that Jesus paints of God in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s gospel. Jesus pictures God as a loving and wealthy father of a wayward son (actually its two wayward sons, but that’s another sermon for another time). The son, who has benefited from the wealth and comfort the father has provided him, decides he no longer respects his father’s authority, no longer loves his father, and so he demands his inheritance early and leaves home. That’s the modern equivalent of spitting in your father’s face, screaming I hate you, and slapping your father, and then leaving. Now, if I’m that father, I’m like, “Fine, you want to do things your way, be my guest. You’re on your own buddy. Forget you. You’re dead to me.” But not our heavenly father. While the son is out carousing, drinking, drugging, whoring, partying, blowing his inheritance, the father’s heart is breaking, and he’s keeping an eye out for his lost son. And when the son comes home, he rightly expects to be reprimanded, punished, held to account for what he’s done. Instead, he’s welcomed home as a son. It’s as if he’s never left.


Spit in my face, I’m like to spit back. Slap me, I’ll likely slap you. Sure, our hearts break for wayward children. But we welcome them home cautiously, knowing how they’ve treated us in the past. Not so with God. His kindness flows from the depths of a well that has no limit. In fact, that’s why Christ hasn’t returned yet. Because God wants many, many more prodigal sons and daughters to come home. So he waits. The riches of God’s kindness, God’s loving heart, should leave us speechless.


Second, Paul is in awe of the depth of God’s wisdom. Who but God could have come up with this way of saving us from our sin? Every world religion relies on goodness being born in the hearts of human beings, of us managing somehow to be good, better than most, save one, and that is Christianity. Only the Christian looks outside of himself or herself for a gift of goodness and a gift of righteousness that we cannot develop on our own. And what is a Christian? The word literally means “Little Christ.” Many call themselves Christians, but could we call them “Little Christs?” And Paul, who has just spent 11 chapters of this incredible letter to the persecuted church in Rome expounding the incredible gift of grace and mercy God has given us in Christ, and he comes to the point where he simply drops to his knees in amazement at the wisdom of God.


But it doesn’t seem like wisdom sometimes, does it? Two weeks ago we talked about the miracle of the moment, about God’s perfect timing for the sending of Christ into the world, but from that point on, the story somehow seems to wrong. I mean, think about it. Imagine that you are God. And you’re going to act once and for all to save from sin and its impact all who will come in faith. Where are you going to send Christ? If I want to reach just Israel, I send him to a wealthy, influential, well-positioned family in Jerusalem. If I want to reach the world, I am probably going to send him to the house of Caesar in Rome. If it has to be a Jew who lives under the law, I’m back to choosing a well-connected family in Jerusalem, and from there I’ll garner the attention of the rest of the known world. But that wasn’t what God did, was it?


For starters, Mary and Joseph weren’t exactly well-connected and influential. In fact, when Mary got pregnant, they weren’t even married. Joseph wasn’t a lord, he was small folk. He was a carpenter. And how old was Mary? Twelve? Thirteen? Maybe fourteen? So here is Mary, young, unwed, and pregnant. So in the eyes of the people, she’s loose. And she’s claiming that God put the baby there, not Joseph? So now she’s loose and a little bit crazy too. In the eyes of the people around her. I mean, come one, medical advancements weren’t great at the time, but people knew how babies were made. We figured that out pretty quick, pretty early in the process.


And Joseph? Well, either Mary cheated on him (again, loose), or Joseph slept with her before marrying her (so they’re both loose). Either way, it isn’t a great picture. And they’re both from Nazareth. Near enough to Jerusalem I suppose, but not exactly a thriving metropolis. And certainly not a well-respected little village. It was small, and the people had a saying, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It was a backwater town. There were roads that went to Nazareth, but not from there to anywhere else. And Joseph wasn’t even a leading citizen of THAT small, backwater, dirty place. He was nobody, and he was from nowhere. Most of the world didn’t even know Nazareth existed. But that’s exactly where God sent Christ to live.


And a little over three decades later, he would die as a criminal on a cross up the road in Jerusalem. He didn’t come as we’d imagine, as a conquering hero, a great military leader or politician, an influential person in the eyes of his contemporaries. He was born in Bethlehem, was raised in Nazareth, and died as a criminal in Jerusalem. And then his movement was continued by a small group of peasants who claimed that he’d been raised to life and that they’d seen him, talked to him. Yeah, at one point, the masses flocked to Jesus, but then they left, because Jesus didn’t look, act, or talk like a Messiah. When he was nailed to the cross, what, were there his eleven remaining disciples, his mother, and a few others? Less than 50 for sure. Not exactly the way you’d expect a world-changing movement to start, is it? Who would have made that up? No human mind, that’s for sure. Only God in his wisdom. Yet a few decades later that number had exploded to thousands of followers in the Holy Land and the movement was spreading rapidly through the Roman Empire, to the point where within a couple of centuries the known world had been impacted by Christ’s followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (1 Cor. 1:18). And we are left in awe of the richness of God’s kindness, and the depth of God’s wisdom.


Third, Paul is in awe of the depth of God’s knowledge. Now, Paul isn’t talking about just any knowledge here. He isn’t talking about God’s knowledge about the human race, as deep as that knowledge runs. Paul is talking about God’s knowledge of … me. He’s talking about a personal knowing that is born of personal experience and participation in our lives. He isn’t talking about knowledge the way you and I KNOW ABOUT Abraham Lincoln. He’s talking about knowledge the way I know Becky, Aubrey, Sterling, Eli, my best friends. A knowledge that comes from doing life together. It is not the knowledge of an absent God who created all that is and then left it to run itself. It is the knowledge of Emmanuel, God with us. It is the knowledge of a God who is present every day in our lives. God knows us. Knows you. Knows me. Knows your triumphs and your tragedies, your joy and your pain.


The depth of God’s kindness. The depth of God’s wisdom. The depth of God’s knowledge. These three things launch Paul into a song of joy. That’s what scholars say this passage is – a hymn, composed by Paul as he sees for the thousandth time and yet as if for the first time the indescribable, unfathomable depth of God’s kindness, wisdom, and knowledge made real in Jesus.


God is not absent. God is not distant. God is right here, always present. In the birth of Christ, God is screaming, “I am with you.” In the death of Christ, God is yelling, “I am for you and I will make it right.” And in the resurrection of Christ, through our faith in Christ, God’s voice rings through the ages “and absolutely NOTHING will ever separate you from me again.”

[i] Ravi Zacharias, “Created for Significance,” Part 1 (3-7-15)