You Who Have So Much

I wish I myself were damned from Christ in place of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh – they are the children of Israel;
they had the adoption as sons; to them was shown the divine Glory;
they had the Covenants; to them was entrusted the law;
they had the privilege of the temple; to them great promises were made;
they had the fathers of faith; to them was born, according to the flesh, Christ Jesus,
Who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

Romans 9:3-5

Romans nine begins a very sad interlude in St Paul’s best work on basic theology, the book of Romans.  For three chapters, although it does fit within the greater context of his argument, still he goes just a little off the track he had been following in all the previous chapters.

It is as if in the midst of a theological essay, his heart explodes with the pain and anguish of frustration. In the opening chapters of Romans he has emphasized how all have sinned, all fall short of God’s Glory.  But this only paves the way for the marvel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  In chapters four through eight, like a symphony rising to it crescendo, chapter upon chapter mounts higher and higher upon the freedom and new life, the privileges and blessings that are ours through the cross of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Then just as he completes this awesome picture of such splendid connection to God, almost a gasping sob escapes from Paul as he realizes that there is an empty hole in this picture: the very ones who should be right in the middle of all this grace are nowhere to be found.  Just at the moment when Paul should be able to sit back with a smile on his face as he thinks about the commanding portrait he has just described, instead he is filled with enormous sadness because the Jews as a people – who have a central role in the Good News – have rejected all this wonderful goodness of God.

What made Paul almost writhe in pain, was that everything that Israel had and was formed the foundation for this picture he has just described.  Everything in their past, spiritually and physically was building to this climax of the salvation of Jesus Christ. No one on earth could more equipped to appropriately understand and share in this capstone of history than Israel.  Yet it was as if all their thousands of years of experience with God had evaporated.

I was reading an article on the Hassadim – the ultra-conservative Jews – in Montreal, and I was struck with the same kind of sadness that Paul must have felt.  What a tragedy to see this very devout group of people cling to a now empty religion, who have missed out on the vast freedom and life that are available in Jesus Christ.

How sad to read about how they must leave all necessary lights on from Friday evening to Saturday night, because they cannot turn on an electric switch during Sabbath; therefore also the stew pot has to be turned on on Friday before the evening.  They cannot even tear toilet paper during the Sabbath, so they have to use the industrial kind that comes as individual squares.  All of this because they think that this pleases God, whereas what pleases Him is only to be found in one’s relationship to His Christ, His Messiah, His Son Jesus.

Yet Paul is still mindful of his readers, because in these three chapters of Romans he warns us not to become too self-satisfied with ourselves.  As he talks about his fellow Israelites he states that his belief is that one day God will break through and the nation of Israel will come to Jesus.  We are to be thankful because their resistance has opened the door to all rest of us.  And Paul warns that quite easily we could travel the same route, getting sidetracked from what God says pleases Him to our own ideas, and we too can find ourselves cut off as the Jews presently are.

This is most important for us to listen to.  As we go down the list of all that the Jews have as a foundation, that same list can apply to us as well! We also are now the chosen People of God:

we have the adoption as sons (in the Holy Spirit);
to us is shown the divine Glory (of the cross and empty tomb);
we have the New Covenant in the Blood of Jesus;
to us is entrusted not only the law, but also the Gospel;
we have the privilege of the temple of the Holy Spirit IN US;
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we have the fathers of faith, all the way back to Abraham and Noah;
and to us was born a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.

But now comes a most interesting question: back when I was in Concordia Senior College, apparently some Christian natives from New Guinea came as missionaries to North America, because they felt that already at that time, this so-called Christian continent needed to become re-acquainted with Jesus.  They made one comment about the Christian churches which has always stuck with me: “You who have so much, why do you operate from such poverty?”

That was what Paul wrestled with, with the Jews of his day.  Are we any different?

It would seem that Peter in Matthew 14[:22-33] comes uncomfortably too close to us.  When the disciples finally realize that it is Jesus that is out there walking on water, Peter is eager to jump out of the boat and be like Him at His command.  At least according to the Gospel, there isn’t the slightest hesitation on the part of Jesus – it is almost as if He were waiting for someone like Peter to come along.  Perhaps he was disappointed that no one else also volunteered.

If I were Jesus, how happy I would have been at Peter stepping forward into a whole different relationship with his God.  Peter would graduate from being merely “disciple” into being a “partner” with his Lord.  Not that it would make Jesus any less, and it would not make Peter God the Son like Jesus, but that there would be a new depth of relationship between the two; Peter would have a more intimate understanding that comes from working side-by-side with Jesus, the like which had never happened with any of the disciples.  Can you imagine what the relationship between Peter and Jesus could have been, had Peter never gotten afraid and sunk!

I can see Jesus so very disappointed when Peter crumbled when confronted with strutting waves and a wind that made a lot of noise.  After all, Jesus knew that the storm was only show – it had no real power.  As soon as he entered the boat the ineffectual storm give up.  And yet it had turned Peter into a whimpering fool.  I don’t think Jesus was disgusted with Peter’s lack of faith, but He was disappointed and saddened – because what could have been did not happen.

The New Guineans question us, “you who have so much, why do you operate from such poverty?”  After all, look at all you possess as a heritage, look at all you receive in the abundance of God’s mercy and grace, you who continually see the Glory of the Lord displayed before you in the church year and in Word and Sacrament, you who are so quick to affirm your allegiance to Jesus, who so daringly profess that you want to follow Jesus – what has happened to you?  Have you been intimidated like Peter was?

Elijah was [I Kings 19:9-18].  Just after his – or rather, the Lord’s – tremendous victory over other prophets of Baal, we find Elijah running away, sniveling in his beer about how nobody cares, nobody listens to him, he might as well as die.  All this because Queen Jezebel had threatened him with death – confronted with “strutting waves and a wind that made a lot of noise”, Elijah crumbled in the face of a storm that was nothing – just like Peter did.

But what’s neat about all three lessons is the message that God won’t, didn’t and will not give up on such timid people.  For Elijah, the Lord must rock him back on his heels with displays of tremendous power, and yet it was in the still small voice where the presence of God is to be found, along with the command to get back to work for there was much yet to be done with the people who needed him.

For Peter, he also had to be rocked back on his heels by a crucifixion, a resurrection and a Pentecost before he would discover the amazing delight and privilege of being partner with Jesus in bringing salvation to the world.  Peter indeed would experience the remarkable mystery at seeing people come to life and freedom in Jesus.

And, Paul solemnly affirms later in Romans, even the Jews, somehow, will also be rocked back on their heels and they also will discover their Messiah in Jesus.

So what about you?  Can the Lord rock you back on your heels?  Through the eyes of Jesus, look at that storms around you, with their parade of waves and empty noise – Jesus knows that they have no real power.

Look again at how you have been gifted by God – yours is adoption as a son, you have seen God’s Glory; you have the New Covenant and the Gospel; you have the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit attached with great promises; you have the pacesetters of faith, and you have the Savior Who was born to you.

This Jesus is no empty, powerless noise-maker; He walks undisturbed toward His destination, and He would just love to have you as His partner.  He has already said, “Come,” in His Word to you and especially in His presence in Holy Communion.  Will you experience a whole new and deeper relationship as you and He work side-by-side?  or will you be staying in the boat?

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