August 16, 2020
On one of these past Sundays… they are all blending together right now… on one of these past Sundays I was going to speak to you from Romans and I changed my mind the day before because the sermon from that particular passage would say to you exactly what Paul is going to say to you today in the first two verses of our reading. So I think on that Sunday we went to a story in Matthew instead. But today, I’m preaching online from Matthew so I’m a bit boxed in because the other passage in the lectionary today is about Joseph and I pretty much did his story last week online and don’t have much more to say there either. So… that’s the long way around to say to you… I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
READ Romans 11:1-2a, 29-36
So… in case you missed it last time… or are still wondering after hearing Paul’s own words. God’s promises and covenants are not based on short-term conditions, but are from everlasting to everlasting. The election of the Jews is God’s unchanging choice. And that’s it. There’s nothing else to say there. There are no qualifiers or addendums. There is no fine print that might change those conditions. And Saints… that is a good thing. It’s a good thing to reaffirm God’s steadfast love. It’s always good to reaffirm God’s love… but it’s especially good to reaffirm God’s steadfastness.
That’s the word that the NRSV uses again and again in the Old Testament to describe God’s love… steadfast. And it is a good word. All of those covenants… all the promises God makes throughout scripture… without God’s steadfastness… all those promises… those commitments… aren’t worth anything. Every promise God makes, God’s steadfastness to that promise is what gives those covenants any everlasting to everlasting value. Through the covenants it is God who is binding God to the terms of the covenant. That was one of the first things I learned in Old Testament class long ago. All these covenants we read about in Genesis… or the promise that God makes with David… all those promises are based upon the steadfastness of God, not the steadfastness of the person… or later the people… with whom God has made that promise or covenant. The promises God make are not conditional upon our being able to fulfill a certain aspect or a certain point within the covenant. God doesn’t make a contract with God’s people where if the people are able to maintain a certain level of commitment or holiness as defined by the rules of the religion of the day… then God will fulfill God’s part of that contract. The steadfastness of God’s love is the basis for every promise made by God. The Old Testament is full of stories of the people being close to God and the people falling away from God. The people embrace God and God’s ways. The people turn their backs on God and God’s ways. Faithfulness in the people rises and falls again and again. And yes, while the story told contains punishments… or God not interfering with the consequences of the peoples’ sin… God never abandons… God never forgets… God never revokes any covenant. God’s steadfastness is always there and the prophets come and the prophets go encouraging the people to repent… to return to God and God’s ways. And now God’s steadfastness has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Fulfilled. Not revoked through… nor made null and void by. Christ is the fulfillment of the steadfastness of God’s love… and God’s love will continue to save.
This is the message Paul has been sharing in this letter to the church in Rome. We heard that a few weeks ago when he hit a rhetorical peak… “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There is Paul’s absolute trust in and assurance of God’s steadfastness. Paul whose knows righteousness from his Jewish heritage and what it means to be convicted through the love of God in Christ Jesus.
In this letter… and throughout his ministry… Paul was having to talk about God’s steadfastness because there were those who were already trying to negate God’s promises through the cross… negate God’s promises because they were uplifting their own faith… their own faith as somehow superior or more deserving of God’s attention than these others who had not followed in the same path as they had… who were not becoming followers of Christ like they had become… like they were becoming. I mean, if you look at it from the other side, if you look at it from the point of view of these newly minted Christians, God’s steadfastness seems illogical doesn’t it? How can God save different people who don’t believe the same thing? How can God save people who are not of the same religion? Don’t the old promises have to be let go in order for the new promises to be in effect? Otherwise… what was the point of the new promise? What is the point of the new covenant as long as the old covenant is still there? It doesn’t make logical sense, does it?
So people are boasting… and they are feeling superior to others on many different levels. Yet, rather than us immediately cast these boasting folks as evil, though… let’s be a bit more understanding of them. It is easy to imagine the excitement of these new Christians… their excitement at becoming aware of God’s love through the grace that has been given to them. Excitement… and that feeling of being in… being in the know… being connected to the good news of God in a way that they had not been before. It is easy to imagine people whose lives had not contained such messages… who perhaps did not know such hope before… so their enthusiasm… and I think Paul captures that enthusiasm in his letters… their enthusiasm for this new faith is great. Enthusiasm then mixes with ego… and the desire to differentiate ourselves from others. I see the same move in myself. Presbyterian pride… personal ego… trying to understand how God can tolerate those lesser Christians who don’t understand to the level I do… or live out their faith to the level that I do. Boast boast boast. How easy it is to claim that we are wiser than we are. Hadn’t that also been the basis for another of Paul’s long running arguments… his fellow Jewish Christians arguing that these new Gentile Christians must embrace, at the very least, some level of Judaism in order to be acceptable. Why wouldn’t it suddenly move the other way around and the Gentile Christians claim that it is the becoming like a Gentile Christian that brings true salvation because God the promises that made the Jews God’s chosen people… the time has expired on those promises.
How easy it is to take credit for our own salvation… forgetting the forgiveness… forgetting the mercy… forgetting all those who came before us who told the story of the steadfast love of God in their own imperfect way just as we tell the story of the steadfast love of God in our own imperfect way as a link in the chain to the ones who will follow us in their own imperfection. Let me put it to you this way. Think about what you know about Christian history. All the different branches of Christianity today are able to live together today in relative peace. I say relative… because yes, we do cast aspersions and lob the verbal grenade filled with pride and ego and our own sense of superiority. I can’t deny it. I am guilty of it. I am very guilty of it. But… because we are able to live in relative peace with one another… does that mean that those Christians who have come before… who fought wars against each other… who killed one another over doctrinal differences… who burned people at the stake… who wiped out whole sects of Christianity because they were deemed heretical… has God removed from them God’s steadfast love? Has God reversed course on God’s grace because a later group in time of faithful people were able to boast that they were better Christians than the likes of those Christians who so clearly did not understand that God’s grace meant no killing of your Christ believing neighbor over religious differences. What in the future… what sin of ours in the future will become the cause for our elimination from God’s steadfast love? If we boast of our deservedness… then surely we ought to own up to it when others become more deserving than ourselves… when others become better at this Christian thing than we are… surely we ought to own up to it when our own deservedness reaches its expiration date and we are replaced.
If old covenants and promises… as well as new covenants and promises… if the foundation of both is God’s steadfast love… then there is nothing in which we can boast… then there is only gratitude and response… then there is only thankful for God’s ongoing mercy as we grope around in our own blindness leading the blind… then there is the understanding that all people… all people at all times in all places of all shapes, sizes, sexes, colors, economics, religions, political persuasions, sins, delusions of grandeur… what have you… all are under God’s judgment… and if God’s judgment is grace so that God may be merciful to all… O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To God be the glory forever. Amen.