Eighteenth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

What a Mystery


Scripture reading: Romans 11:1-12.

Sermon text: Romans 11:13-36.

“I do.” With those 2 words, I began the best human relationship of my life, my marriage to Angie. Those words declared my pledge to remain faithful to her and to love her for the rest of my life. Nineteen years later, I can’t think of 2 other words that have enriched my life as much as the words I used to declare my acceptance of my marriage vows before Almighty God.

The Old Testament often referred to the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage relationship. Time and again, the prophets referred to God as the loving husband to faithless Israel, a nation constantly forsaking the God who loved her and ceaselessly turned to false gods for worship. The prophets also constantly emphasized God’s faithfulness to Israel in spite of her rebellion. The destruction of Israel occurred only when it became obvious God had no choice but to fulfill the worst parts of the covenant, the parts referring to the penalties for disobedience.

In the previous 2 chapters of Romans, St. Paul had clearly described God’s faithfulness to Israel. God had chosen Israel as His nation, a people to serve as an example of His expectations of humanity (Deuteronomy 4:6). Many Gentile Christians erroneously believed God had turned from Israel to the Church when Israel refused to recognize their Messiah, Jesus. St. Paul needed to finish his thoughts on this error and better describe the relationship between God and Israel. In chapter 11, St. Paul clearly proclaimed the truth. God had never forsaken Israel, both before and after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Even in the Gentile era of grace, God still loved Israel and would fulfill His promise to the nation.

St. Paul used his own birth as living proof God cared about Israel: “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was a Jew. As he stated, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”

How, the question became, could God remain faithful to a faithless people?

God had chosen the nation of Israel for His purposes, but most of the nation rebelled. In one of the worst times of apostasy, God called Elijah to take His message of repentance to the nation. Elijah concluded that he alone remained faithful to God; he believed Ahab and Jezebel had wiped out true worship from Israel. “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life” (1 Kings 19). However, St. Paul recorded God’s reply: “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Among apostate Israel, God had preserved a remnant who remained faithful to Him when most of the nation turned from Him.

St. Paul used this example to refer to the present time of his book (c. A.D. 57). “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” God had preserved a remnant of Israel even in the Christian era. Many Jews rejected Jesus, but large numbers turned to Him as well. God’s grace extended to all who chose to confess Jesus as Lord.

St. Paul had already argued in one letter that the Jews who confessed Jesus as Lord had no reason to continue living by the Mosaic Law. He reaffirmed this to the Romans: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Relationships with God have never relied on works; humans have always come to God through faith, believing He would accept us according to His promises to do so.

“Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.’” Most of Israel felt far too confident in the law to awaken themselves to the fulfilled promises Jesus represented; they chose to rely on their own works by the law, thereby remaining in sin.

While the book of Romans clearly teaches God’s desire to show mercy, it also clearly teaches that God chooses nations and people to fulfill His plans for humanity. When Israel refused to confess Jesus as Lord, God did not reject Israel; instead, “Through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.”  History records the Jewish frustration as Gentiles claimed the Jewish God as their own, a frustration increased as the Gentiles cheerfully declared their freedom from keeping the law as the Jews had always insisted. When God chose to turn the Church toward the Gentiles, He again opened salvation beyond all imagination. God’s predestination has always increased opportunities for salvation, never the contrary.

Yet, God still cared about the Jews. “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” A time will come when the Jews will recognize Jesus as their Messiah; at that time, the entire Jewish nation will turn to Christ. If Jewish rebellion opened salvation to the nations, the result of their acceptance of Christ will bring blessings unimaginable.

Following this explanation, St. Paul turned to the Gentiles. “Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” The book of Acts reminds us that St. Paul never began a church in a new city without first preaching in the Jewish synagogue. He hoped that his success among the Gentiles would cause some Jews to reconsider their rejection of Jesus and turn to Him for salvation.

Then, lest the Gentiles begin gloating over the Jewish rejection of Jesus, St. Paul used an object lesson. Many of the Gentiles knew at least something about growing olives. The olive tree ranked as one of the Mediterranean world’s most critical plants. St. Paul described Israel as an olive tree and the Gentiles as a “wild olive shoot.” God had “grafted” the “wild shoot” onto the tree, causing the wild shoot to grow in the cultured tree. The Church has always accepted the Jewish Scriptures as her own (contrary to Marcion’s dogged insistence to the contrary in the second century A.D.). We inherited the Jewish Scriptures and history. The Old Testament remains crucial to our understanding of God and His relationship with humanity.

Thus, if any Gentile tried to boast about “broken branches,” St. Paul cautioned, “if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” Instead, the Gentiles should see the Jewish rejection of Jesus as a “kindness.” The day will come, St. Paul confidently declared, that following “the fullness of the Gentiles, all Israel will be saved.” God will not turn away from Israel; instead, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” God will not break His promises to His chosen nation. Just as the Gentiles “now have received mercy because of their disobedience,” God’s mercy to the Gentiles will lead to mercy for Israel.

In all this, we must again recognize God’s offering of free will to humanity. The Scriptures consistently prove God’s merciful offering of salvation to all who will believe, who confess Jesus as Lord.

Many vehemently deny that humans have any say in their salvation, as if any rejection of God’s free offer of grace denigrates His sovereignty. I would just as vehemently declare that God knew the result of free will; He knew someone would inevitably rebel. Adam’s rebellion merely hastened the inevitable. However, love is only love when freely offered. God didn’t create mindless automatons, although He could have done so. I found an excellent description in a book I’m reading: “I love God because I am His creation. I am not his creature” (David Drake & Eric Flint, Belisarius I: Thunder at Dawn). Love freely offered brings joy and ecstasy beyond description; this is the joy God offers, and which He wishes for us to offer to Him.

So what about all the predestination talk in so many Christian circles?  St. Paul gave the best explanation you’ll find at the end of this chapter:

  1. Oh, 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 that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

These chapters clearly describe God’s work in the salvation history of humanity. Yes, Adam sinned in the Garden, bringing sin into our reality. God graciously called Abraham and His descendants, the Jews, to bring blessings and joy to the world. The nation of Israel failed in its responsibility, but in His covenant faithfulness, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to fulfill the covenant on behalf of Israel and all humanity. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the covenant and brought the offer of salvation to everyone who hears the gospel: Christ has come, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, receives the salvation Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection. The new believer then becomes a member of the holy catholic Church through Christian baptism.

In this service, New Hope will again celebrate Christian Baptism and Holy Communion. This service celebrates the mystery of God’s love for us, both through our death to sin represented by baptism and through the Body and Blood of our Redeemer through Holy Communion. If you’ll accept Jesus’ gift of salvation, you, too, can celebrate the greatest mystery of God — and the promises He will keep — throughout all eternity.