08/03/14 Sermon (August 3, 2014)

posted Nov 6, 2014, 12:00 PM by David Hawkins

"Whose Covenant Is It, Anyway?"

Scripture Reading: Romans 9:1-5

I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit —I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

Sermon: "Whose Covenant Is It, Anyway?"        Rev. David Hawkins

For the next few weeks, we are going to exploring some of the most theologically challenging parts of our Christian faith. In these chapters 9-11 of the Apostle Paul Letter to the church in Rome, we will encounter God’s desire to save the world, our faith in Jesus Christ, and the tension this creates in us when we consider our own beliefs about salvation, covenant, promise, redemption, faith, and above all, what we believe to be true about our savior.

In other words, as my friend Chris Lewellen likes to say, Paul is going to take us by the hand, and walk us through some pretty tall weeds.  

Paul ends the previous chapter of Romans, chapter 8, with perhaps the most sweeping and heartfelt words ever written about our hope in the faithfulness of God. Paul is “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.”

For Paul, this is the heart and soul of the promise of the Gospel. That in Jesus Christ, we see God’s love and forgiveness poured out for us, that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can know that God is with us, God is for us, and that God loves us. In Jesus Christ we find the fulfillment of the law, the prophets, and the covenants of God. Everything that God has promised his people from the very beginning has been accomplished in Jesus.

There’s one small problem, however. And Paul puts his finger right on it.

God’s chosen people, the Jews, haven’t accepted this Good News. Paul’s own family, his flesh and blood, his people, do not rejoice with Paul that the Messiah has come, that our debts have been paid, that we are freed from our captivity to the law.

And Paul is sick about it. Paul is overwhelmed by the idea that his own people don’t feel the inexpressible joy that Paul has experienced ever since he heard his name being called on the road to Damascus. His heart is broken at the idea that his people are somehow separated from this promise that has been kept by God, the promise that was made to the Jewish people millennia ago, the promise that was fulfilled through them, and yet a promise that they, for whatever reason, do not believe.

Paul is so distraught at the idea of his people being unable to be a part of this new understanding of God, that he says that he would offer himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people, that he himself is willing to be cut off from Christ, if only his flesh and blood might be welcomed into the embrace of God in the same way that he has been.

And this is profound grief. That Paul, having tasted the joy of salvation, after having had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, would give up that experience for the sake of his people speaks to the depth of his pain.

But the reality is, Paul is not able to substitute himself for them. He is not able to offer himself on the altar for their redemption. Paul’s willing sacrifice is not going to save Israel. In other words, Paul is not Jesus. And despite Paul’s deep grief, despite all his evangelistic efforts, despite everything he goes through to preach the Gospel, he is unable to make his people believe in Jesus Christ.

And it’s killing him.

And we know all too well his pain.

We all have, in our own families, beloved brothers, or sisters, or children, or parents who have walked away from the faith. We all have loved ones who do not share our belief in the welcoming, loving, forgiving, saving, arms of God.

And it’s hard for us to accept that. It’s hard for us to accept the fact that people we were brought up with, people we know and love do not have the same sure knowledge of grace and salvation that we do.

Some of our family and friends never were a part of the faith. For whatever reason, they never did go to church, never did hear the Gospel, never did profess any kind of faith whatsoever.

And some of our loved ones walked away from their faith. We had to stand by, helplessly, and watch them. And like Paul, we would have done just about anything for them. We would have done just about anything to help them believe and trust in God’s love.

And so we know what Paul is saying in our scripture today. He is articulating every Christian’s despair of watching people we love walk away from the promise of salvation that is revealed in Jesus Christ. And it kills us as well.

But Paul’s grief is not just for individuals in his life. It’s not just reserved for particular family members and friends. Paul’s grief is for an entire people. And his words today require us to face this reality as well. Because salvation is not just about individuals. It’s also about peoples. It’s more than just you and me. It’s also about us and them.

Specifically, its about the question of whether or not the Jewish people are included in the salvation that is promised to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the question simply is this: are the Jews, as a people, part of God’s plan for salvation, or not? This is the question that is pressing on Paul’s mind, and therefore, it is pressing on ours as well.

And this is a question that has bedeviled Christians for centuries. Can the Jews be saved, if they don’t profess faith in Jesus Christ? And to our very great shame, we have, as the Church, done some extraordinarily cruel things to the Jews in order to settle this question in years past. We have kidnapped their babies and baptized them. We have tortured them into confessions of faith. We have persecuted, arrested, and killed them in in effort to convert them to Christianity.  

In fact, I would argue, at this point in history, that it would be difficult, if not impossible for the Jewish people, as a people, to confess faith in Jesus Christ, especially considering that the holocaust was committed by a nation who considered themselves to be Christian. We have, in the name of Christ, erected nearly insurmountable walls to reaching the Jewish people with the message of the Gospel.

Let me put it this another way. Right now, as we speak, Christians are being persecuted in Mosul, in Iraq. The ISIS group of insurgents has moved into the town and are forcing Christians to renounce their faith, convert to Islam, or be killed. There used to be over 60,000 Christians in Mosul, now there are none. All over Iraq, Christians are losing their homes, their belongings, their churches, and in many cases, their lives.

Can you imagine any Christian, anywhere in the world, after hearing about or experiencing this kind of persecutions, confessing, of their own free will, faith in Muhammad? Is it even possible for us to imagine that coerced faith is faith at all? Can any of you imagined converting to Islam, or any other religion at the point of a gun?

And yet, this was the position of the Christian Church regarding the Jews for hundreds of years. And now, we find ourselves in the 21st century, wondering why Jewish people are, for the most part, unwilling to to talk about accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. I think that they have every reason to resist our evangelistic efforts, because they have no reason to trust our motivation.

And so, what do we do now? How do we come to terms with the fact that God’s own chosen people, the people with whom he first made covenant, do not, and in some cases, cannot, accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ? This is question that plagues the Apostle Paul, and it’s the question that haunts us as well.

But even as Paul confronts us with this question, we find hope in the way he asks it.

Paul grieves the apparent separation between God’s chosen nation and the promise of Jesus Christ. But he doesn’t stay in that grief forever. Paul reminds himself, and his readers, of the very special connection that God has with Israel, a connection which has stood the test of time.

Paul remembers that it was God who adopted the Israelites, not the other way around. God chose them, not according to birthright, not according to bloodlines, but according to God’s own choosing. It was God who chose Isaac over Ishmael. It was God who chose Jacob over Esau. It is God who chooses, not us. God chose Abraham to be the father of all nations. God chose Mary to carry his son. God chose Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. God chooses, not us.

And Israel worships the same God we do. Israel as a nation, has time and time again called on the name of God for deliverance, and every time, he has answered their cries. Paul reminds us that God has made promises to his people. Promises that predate the promises made to us. It was God who promised that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. We may not completely understand how all this works, but God can save whoever God wants to save. That’s why he’s God.

It was God who made covenant with Israel. It was God who saved them from the Egyptians. It was God who gave them the law. And these laws, these covenants, are not ours to make or break. They are God’s. And God doesn’t break covenants.

And so, in the midst of Paul’s grief and sense of helplessness, he reassures himself that regardless of the seemingly unsolvable dilemma that he faces with his own people refusing the free offer of grace and salvation, it is God who offers it to them; the very same God who has always offered it, the very same God who has always promised it, and the very same God who has always kept his promises.

We can’t help, sometimes, to feel powerless and hopeless when we think about those in our lives who don’t share our faith. And, especially this month, as we get ready to say goodbye to graduating seniors as they get ready to go out into the world, we can’t help but worry about their spiritual journey. They are getting ready to go out into a world where church and faith are not a priority. And the reality is, we no longer get a say in their choices about things like faith.

But like Paul, we can take comfort in the fact that to them have been given the promises, not by us, not by the church, not by me, but by God. It is God who has made covenant with them, and like Paul, I am convinced that nothing can come between us and the love of God.   

And so, when we are torn up by the thought of people we love walking away from their faith, by people we love who, for whatever reasons, are not able to share in the sense of peace and joy that we have in the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, all we can do is place them in the ever-loving hands of God, and trust him with the details of how that all works out.

And like Paul, I believe that it will, somehow.

Because when God makes a promise, he keeps it.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.