A God Not Thwarted
Scriptures: Romans 9:1-5; 11:25-36
This morning I am doing part of the sermon before reading
the second scripture. I will get to the second scripture in a few minutes, but the second scripture will make more sense after I explain the first. [Prayer]
A Lutheran pastor once told me that the best known Lutheran
theologian in America is Garrison Keillor. In his book Lake Wobegon Days Keillor says that as a child he believed firmly in predestination. He writes,
Before the world was made, when it was only darkness and mist and waters, God was well aware of Lake Wobegon, my family, our house, and He had me all sketched out down to what size my feet would be (big), which bike I would ride (a Schwinn), and the five ears of corn I'd eat for supper that night.
But his faith was shaken one day when his father happened to mention
that in 1938 the family almost moved to Brooklyn Park, a town north of Minneapolis. They didn't only because his grandfather offered them a house in Lake Wobegon. Keillor writes,
I was fourteen when I got this devastating news: that I was me and had my friends and lived in my house only on account of a pretty casual decision made about real estate, otherwise I'd have been a Brooklyn Park kid where I didn't know a soul. I imagined Dad and Mother talking it over in 1938-"Oh, I don't care, it's up to you, either one is okay with me"-as my life hung in the balance. Thank goodness God was at work, I thought, because you sure couldn't trust your parents to do the right thing (pp. 12-13).
At times in the book of Romans, the apostle Paul sounds a
lot like Garrison Keillor. In Romans, chapter 8, a section I read in church three weeks ago, Paul says,
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
This is the source of the idea of predestination, which in
history has more often been associated with Presbyterians than Lutherans. As I said two weeks ago, predestination is the idea the God has a destiny for us, a plan that God is working out and of which we are a part.
In our first scripture reading from Romans 9, Paul applies
this to the people of Israel. In verses 4-5 he says,
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 forever. Amen.
Paul's point is that the Israelites-the Jews-are God's chosen people.
They are the ones to whom God made that unconditional promise to Abraham, promising to give Abraham many descendants who would become a great nation and bring God's blessing to the world. These are the people to whom God promised to send the Messiah, the Savior. The Israelites did not earn this distinction. Later in chapter 9 Paul points out how Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, was chosen to be the ancestor of God's people before he was even born. That is predestination.
However, something happened to this plan. When the Messiah
came, most of God's chosen people, most of the Israelites, rejected him. That was not how it was supposed to work. At the beginning of Romans 9 Paul says, "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." It disturbed Paul deeply that his relatives, the Jews, the chosen people of God, had by and large rejected God's chosen king.
God may have a destiny for people, but that destiny does not
eliminate human freewill. God has a plan for each of us, but we are still capable of screwing it up.
But even then God is not finished, and now we are ready for
our second scripture reading. [Read Romans 11:25-36]
[Slide 1] This is a picture of St. Mary's church in the
heart of Berlin, Germany. Its original structure dates back to the 13th century. Then it was of course a Roman Catholic church. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century it became a Lutheran Church. In the 20th century near the end of World War II, this part of Berlin was seized by Soviet troops and became part of communist East Germany. More than many other communist countries, the East German government worked hard to suppress religion and replace it with communism. So in the 1960s the East German government built a TV tower next to the church. [Slide 2] It was designed to dwarf the church and show the church's outdated insignificance. This TV tower was and still is the tallest structure in Germany, and in the 1960s it was a symbol for the triumph of communism over religion.
Then a funny thing happened. The sun came out. [Slide 3]
And when the sun came out the mirrored panels on the ball reflected light in the shape of a cross. Because it was so high up, this cross was seen for miles, [Slide 4] and as the sun traveled across the sky, the cross reflected out in many directions across the city. Berliners nicknamed it "The Pope's revenge."
To me, this is a perfect example of the interplay between
predestination and freewill. God has a plan to show God's love to the world. But people in their freewill try to thwart that plan. They try to replace God with technology, wealth, power, political ideology, or just their own drive to control of everything. We try to make ourselves God in place of God, but God is still not thwarted.
Paul demonstrates this in his discussion of Israel and the
Gentiles. Yes, the people of Israel, by and large, rejected Jesus, their Messiah. But because the Jewish leaders persecuted the followers of Jesus, those followers were driven out of Jerusalem and began sharing the good news of Jesus among Gentiles all over the Middle East and Europe. And that is how the gospel got to Rome and eventually to us. It is just like that TV tower in East Berlin. When the people of Israel rejected Jesus, they became a light to the nations without knowing it. God's plan for them was fulfilled in spite of themselves.
But even that is not the end of the story. Just because the
gospel has been accepted by Gentiles does not mean that the Jews have been rejected by God. As Paul says in our first scripture: [Slide 5] "They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises." God promised to make Abraham's descendants a great nation who would bring God's blessing to the world. That promise was unconditional. Even if we Gentiles, who are not descended from Abraham, have been grafted into Abraham's family tree, that does not mean the natural branches are forever rejected. Paul goes on to say, [Slide 6]
I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, "Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob." "And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins."
Then Paul says in verse 29: [2nd click] "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." Which is another way of saying, "God will not be thwarted."
[Slide 7 Blank] So here is what this means to us. God is
going to win. God is not thwarted. God's purpose for us and for our world will be accomplished. That's predestination. But we still have freewill. So here is the question: Do you want to be one of the obstacles God must overcome to get where God wants to go? Or do you want to be one of the vehicles God uses to get there? Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Do you want to keep swimming upstream against the river, wearing yourself out? Or do you want to get in the raft with God's people and discover how much fun the river can be? The choice is yours, but the destination is God's.