Our text this morning is Romans chapter 9, and not just the first few verses. Our reading this morning is a bit like reading a menu but never getting the meal. Or reading the introduction, but never getting to the book. I don’t know what goes on in the beady little minds of the people who put together lectionaries, but you would think they’d at least read the chapter before they hacked it into pieces. So we’re just going to take in the whole of chapter 9, of which you heard the opening verses read earlier.
This is about Israel. Not really the “Israel” we hear about on the news that is bombing Gaza and being pestered by Hamas. That Israel is a 20th century invention. The Israel that Paul is talking about are the blood descendants of Abraham, the descendants of that group of people who came out of slavery in Egypt, whom God Himself made into a people through water and wilderness, to whom God made covenant promises, gave the Torah, swore on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom He sent the prophets, and from whom, in the fulness of time, came the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Abraham, son of David, son of Israel.
Paul is talking about God’s chosen people, His treasured possession. And Paul is agonizing over it. He has deep sorrow and even wishes that he could be cut off from Christ, were that possible, for the sake of his fellow Israelites. That’s how deeply Paul feels this anguish.
The question on the table is this: What went wrong? Why did Israel, through whom came the Christ, reject the Christ? Why didn’t Israel believe? Why, given their special status as God’s priestly people with all the covenants, promises, worship, legislation, prophets, why did Israel not believe and get behind Jesus, the true son of Israel? It’s a tough question. And an important one, for us here today. Most of us know someone who is Jewish, whose ancestry goes back to Israel and the patriarchs.
First off, it’s not as though the Word of God failed. Not all who are descended from Israel are “Israelites.” Abraham had two sons, you will recall. Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was the son Abraham had with his wife’s servant (with her permission), a kind of surrogate mother arrangement precisely because Abraham did not believe God’s promise that he would be the father of nations. So Abraham took matters into his own hands, as we are wont to do when God doesn’t do things on our timetable, and he arranges to help God along a bit by having a son with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Well, that didn’t work out so well. Ishmael is the son of the law, the firstborn by law, but denied the inheritance because he is not conceived of faith but of Abraham’s works.
That’s the point. Isaac, Abraham’s son with his wife Sarah, is the son of the promise. The one conceived by the Word of God, the one conceived in faith not in works. And even though Ishmael is the first born son and entitled to be heir, he isn’t. The second born is the heir. Isaac, the son of the promise. And so, just because you are descended from Abraham doesn’t automatically put you into God’s Israel. It’s by faith, not by works. Trust in the promise, not taking matters into your own hands or being born into the right family. So in that sense, not all Israel is Israel. It depends on faith.
Again, consider Rebecca’s twins, Jacob and Esau. Esau was the firstborn. Jacob came out second, grabbing the heel of his brother, and you might say that he made an entire career of grabbing his brother’s heel, to the point of tricking father Isaac into blessing him as the firstborn. But even before the twins were born, while Rebecca was wondering about all the kicking going on in her womb, God told her that the older would serve the younger. Before either of the boys could prove themselves or do anything, right or wrong, God chose the second born to carry the promised Seed of salvation over the firstborn.
It takes two points to make a line; two examples make a theme. The second serves the first. Gospel over Law, grace over works. Jacob I loved, Esau I hated, God says. That doesn’t mean that Jacob goes to heaven and Esau goes to hell by the arbitrary sovereignty of God. This isn’t about their election but about God’s selection of who gets to carry the promised Seed of salvation forward. And God’s choice is Jacob.
Our choice would have been Esau. The man’s man. The hunter, strong of will, body, and appetites. He’s the kind of man who would work salvation our way. But Jacob? The heel grabbing mama’s boy who preferred the kitchen to the great outdoors and duped his nearly blind father into blessing him by dressing himself to smell and feel like Esau? I don’t think so. And you don’t either. But God does. And that’s what counts.
Or consider Moses and Pharaoh. Was one guy better than the other? Moses had blood on his hands. He was hiding out in the countryside tending his father-in-law’s flocks when God tracked him down. And Moses didn’t even want the job. He would have been happy running sheep in the wilderness instead of a whole nation. If you looked at resumes, Pharaoh had the better skill set to run a nation. But Moses was the man for God’s nation. God does what He wants. He’s like a potter who makes fine vases, coffee cups, and flower pots. Everyone has a place and purpose as God molds the course of history like a master potter. He has a Moses and a Pharaoh, a Jacob and an Esau, and Ishmael and an Isaac. He has believing Israel and unbelieving Israel, and all are like clay in the hands of master craftsman.
What? Are you going to tell Michelangelo how to paint a ceiling? God knows what He’s doing. He has a plan and purpose. He makes examples of wrath and examples of mercy. He shows the world the futility of earning His favor by works. He even made a nation and gave them more works than they could shake a stick at, which they didn’t do. More commandments than the federal tax code, which they couldn’t keep. And He did that to show the world that a religion based on good behavior and commandment keeping is destined to fail. It’s dead on arrival. Literally dead, in trespasses and sins.
So what’s God up to? In a word: salvation. Salvation in His Son Jesus. That’s what God wants. That all be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. He’s willing to take a people who were not His people, the Gentiles, you and me for the most part, and make them His people. He’s willing to take those who were not loved, in fact they were loveless, His enemies, and call them “my beloved.” Is God crazy? No! He’s merciful and gracious for Jesus’ sake. And that mercy and grace simply don’t follow rules – whether the rules of the firstborn, our rules of “fairness” or any other rules. And that’s the point of it all – salvation is by grace, a free gift, undeserved, unmerited, granted for the sake of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This is what God has been up to since the Fall, teaching the world that it can’t dig itself out of the hole it’s fallen into, but God Himself will dive into that hole Himself and raise it all in His own resurrection. Essentially, God made an object lesson out of Israel and said, “Here’s how it works – Trust me and my promises and you’re in; try to do it yourself and you’re going to fail every time.”
The point of God having an Israel is the same as the point of God sending His Son. He reduces Israel to a remnant, a tiny bunch of faithful believers who trust in God’s promise and not in themselves. And in the end, God reduced Israel to the smallest of remnants – one man on a cross. One perfect Jew who kept Torah as no other could. His only-begotten Son. Everything of Israel is focused like a laser beam on Jesus. He goes through the water and the wilderness. He is God’s beloved Son and Servant as Israel was God’s son and servant. He wrestles with God, which is what the name Israel means. “One who wrestles with God” as Father Jacob wrestled with God. He goes to His exile and returns, His death and resurrection. Out of this one man Israel comes salvation for the world.
The apostle Paul concludes this chapter of Romans by saying this:
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Did the Word of God fail because many of the Israelites didn’t believe? Paul’s answer: No. In fact, it succeeded beyond expectations. From one man Abraham came a nation, Israel. From a nation Israel came one Man – the Christ. From one Man named Jesus the Christ came salvation for the world and your forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Word never fails to accomplish its purpose. You’re the evidence of that.
In the Name of Jesus,