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People of the Promise

July 31st 2011 by Joel Schultz

Often as God's people, we seek to bring God into our story... what can He do for me? Did He answer my prayers? Will He help me as I do this? This, however, is a huge role reversal. in our test today we see how God has made us part of His people and brought us into His greater story. What does that mean for your day to day life? Well, read this message to find out more...

Pentecost 7A (Proper 13A) – “People of the Promise” – Romans 9:1-13 – July 31, 2011

You may have seen it before, on a laminated card in a Christian bookstore or on the back page of a bible. It’s a listing of passages to look up in the bible when you are in need of a word from God. On the left hand side of the card are different situations in life. “When you worry... when you feel alone ... when you struggle with temptation ..., etc…” Then, on the right hand side of the card are the passages that you should look up for each situation.

So “When you are worried” you are directed to look up 1 Peter 5:7 and there you read, “Cast all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you.” It’s a quick, easy way to find a bible passage that speaks to you. The last thing you want, when a person is worried, is for her to open the bible and read about God striking Ananias and Sapphira dead in their tracks or God sending bears to kill 42 youths for mocking the prophet Elisha. It’s much safer to open the bible to one single verse, pre¬selected, and begin reading there.

While this listing of passages can indeed be comforting and has brought many people a word from God who otherwise would be lost when they open the bible, the difficulty is that sometimes people never get beyond this kind of reading of the bible. They open the pages. They find a comforting word. But then they set the bible aside and they never find themselves entering through this door into the deeper, richer story of God’s loving promises.

Christianity becomes something it was never intended to be – a private, personal religion. It becomes something you turn to not when you enter the world but when you retreat from it. It’s something you read in your private devotional time and you look forward to that moment when it is “just me and Jesus.” God becomes something like our best friend, a person who supports us when times get tough, and someone who helps us accomplish our plans and fulfill our dreams. The problem, of course, is that we have reversed roles with God. Rather than us being servants in God’s kingdom, God becomes a servant in ours. Rather than us being brought into God’s greater story, God is brought into ours.

In our text today, Paul shows us how this greater story of God, that we have been brought into, involves people not simply individuals. While God certainly is present for every individual person, able to be found in a small bible passage a person reads when lonely in a hotel room, God’s vision is much greater than that. God has come in Jesus Christ not only to save you and each person in the entire creation but also to join you to a people, a people who live by His promise and for His purpose in His kingdom. This is what the apostle Paul reveals in our text and this is what God calls us to rejoice in today.

As you listen to our text this morning, you realize that Paul is engaged in very painful prayer. I don’t know if you have ever come before God on behalf of someone you love, someone you care about, and yet someone who will have nothing to do with the faith. You love that person. You know that God loves that person. And you know that God would desire that person to be saved and yet that person wants nothing to do with God. And so you stand there, alone, not because you don’t believe in God but because you stand there without your friend, your mother, your son who has walked away from the faith. If you have ever been there, you have a small clue of what Paul is experiencing as he prays these words: “I am speaking the truth in Christ - I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit - that 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 brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

Paul is concerned about his brothers, the Jewish people. Five years prior to writing this letter, the Emperor Claudius had all Jewish people expelled from Rome due to civil unrest. After Claudius died, Jewish people began returning to Rome. The question was: how would the now predominantly gentile church receive them? Paul was worried, not only about the Jews who did not believe but also about the Gentiles who may not see any reason to care about the Jewish people.

The reason that Paul’s heart cries for the Jews is that historically the Jews had all the advantages in coming to the faith. Listen as Paul reveals the blessings of God upon Israel: “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 their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

Paul is engaged in a moment of prayer, and yet notice how his prayer is wrapped up in the larger story of God. Paul is not praying for himself but for God’s people. Paul is not setting before God his day and his plans and asking for God’s blessing. No, Paul finds God’s greater story set before him and is praying for the fulfillment of what God has planned. God chose Abraham to be the father of His people and from Abraham God had chosen to bless not only His people but all nations on the face of the earth. From Abraham and His descendents, according to the flesh, comes Christ and Christ is the one in whom Israel and all nations of the earth are blessed. Paul knows this greater story of God and this story shapes Paul’s life and prayer.

What is amazing is that Paul in prayer is caught up in the heart of God’s story. Notice how Paul is willing to die for the sake of the Jews. Paul knows that not all of his Jewish brothers and sisters have believed in Jesus. Because of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, it would be very easy for the Christian church to become a Gentile church, that does not see or value or care the Jewish people. And so Paul finds himself overwhelmed with pain and personal love and he wishes that he himself could be cut off from Christ, if that could save the Jewish people.

Here, Paul’s heart is filled with the love of Jesus. Jesus is the very one who was willing to be cut off from God, who was willing to drink the cup of His Father’s wrath, who was willing to be forsaken by God and condemned to hell, that the kingdom of God might be opened to all people who trust in Him. In Him is forgiveness, life, and everlasting salvation. In Him is the promise that your sins are forgiven and that you are now part of the people of God, people who live by that promise as part of God’s greater story.

This is what the apostle Paul is doing in his prayer. He is living by that promise, letting God’s greater story, God’s greater vision, shape his prayer and his life in self-sacrificial love.

How does this relate to us today? Consider how Paul reminds us that we are part of a greater people brought into the greater story of God. Sometimes we can lose sight of this larger story. Faith can become a personal matter, something that we reduce to a private experience to help us get through the week. Paul awakens us this morning to the fact that we are part of a people, a much greater people, who live by the promise of God.

So what does that look like to be part of a people, a much greater people, who live by the promise of God? First of all it shapes our prayer life. Our prayers, although rightly containing petitions concerning our needs, even more focus on the needs and joys of those around us – we pray for the faithfulness of our pastor, the health of our sick neighbor, patience for the stressed mother, joy for those who celebrate God’s gifts, forgiveness for those who hurt us, provision to those in need, courage to the parents sending their child to college, peace to the troubled co-worker….

Then those prayers are put into action as we live lives of care and compassion for those around us – speaking kindly, serving their needs, speaking words of witness to those outside the faith, encouraging and supporting those in distress, rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn… And then we also worship together and grow together as the people of God – as the family of faith. This is how we experience the fact that we are part of a people, a much greater people, who live by the promise of God. This is how God brings us into His greater story.

There is a painting that captures what this looks like – a moment in the work of God for this world. The painting is of the annunciation – that moment when Mary received word from the angel Gabriel that she was chosen to bear the Savior. Mary is seated, alone, in a room. Before her stands the angel Gabriel bearing a message from God.

When you look at the painting closely, however, there is something amazing. The artist has taken this story and placed it in a much larger story of God’s work in the world. As you look outside the house where Mary is sitting, you see that the artist has placed this house at the edge of the Garden of Eden. There, outside her window, are Adam and Eve being banished from the garden. They have sinned against God and brought His wrath upon all of creation and now they are subject to death and must live in a fallen world.

However, as God the Father extends His arm to banish them from the garden, you see that God is pointing from that Garden to the Virgin Mary sitting in this room. God sends Adam and Eve out of the Garden but He does so with a promise that there will come a day when the woman will have an offspring who will bruise the head of Satan and rescue His people from sin.

Adam and Eve and all of those who lived after them, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, David and Solomon and Isaiah and Malachi, were people of this promise. And now, here in this small room, in this private moment of prayer, God brings Mary into this story…. and into her words of love and self-sacrifice, “Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” God continues His greater story of bringing about salvation in this world.

Mary in that moment of prayer did not try to use God as a servant in her plans. No, she humbly offered herself as a servant in His. Her private prayer was a moment when God brought her into the story of His people. It was true for Mary. It was true for the apostle Paul in Romans. And it is true for you, this day. You come here to receive a foretaste of God’s eternal feast. Come rejoicing that God has chosen to bring you into His larger story, to be part of a people who live by His promise and, with self-sacrificial love, seek to serve Him in the world. Amen.

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