August 14, 2011

Questioning God’s Promises

Passage: Romans 11:1a & 32

“Has God rejected his people?...God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

In a film entitled – ‘It Could Happen to You`, Charlie, a New York police officer, doesn`t have enough money in his pocket to leave a tip for his morning cup of coffee.  As he apologizes to the waitress, he promises her that if the lottery ticket he’s just purchased, is a winner, he’ll split the prize money with her.  In the film, (presumable based on a true story), the waitress and everyone else in the coffee shop who hears this promise, assumes the officer is just having fun with the girl.  But, a few days later, when the officer`s ticket wins him a tidy $4 million dollars, he becomes an instant media hero when he returns to the restaurant gives the startled waitress her $2 million tip.  Having simply fulfilled his promise, Charlie is bewildered by all the fuss the media makes about his generosity.  ``I made a promise to the girl, so I kept it.  Isn`t that what anyone would do?``, says Charlie naively.  That it isn`t what most people expect, is evident by the hype his generosity stimulates.

Being skeptical of promises made to us which seems too good to be true; is common today, especially when we don’t know or trust the one making the promise.

I received an email, recently, claiming to be from Canada Post, saying there was a parcel waiting for me which they’d been unable to deliver.  The message asked me to click on a website, (which they conveniently provided), to arrange for delivery.  Being somewhat suspicious, I first checked if this was another email scam and discovered, on the Canada Post website, that was.  Had I clicked on the website this email had provided, my computer might have been infected by a virus, or my personal information compromised.

A few months earlier, I received a phone call from a person claiming to be my Grandson.  The caller said he’d had a car accident while on holiday in Montreal and desperately needed some money to bail him out.  He claimed he was afraid to call his parents for fear of punishment.  The fact that my Grandson lives in States, - doesn`t have a drivers license, - and that the caller didn`t use his name, was an immediate clue that this wasn’t my grandson.  So I suggested to the caller, that if he`d gotten himself into this trouble, then he`d have to find his own way out of it.   – Of course, had it really been my Grandson on the line, my response would have been quite different.

With so many scams in circulation, it`s very natural for us all to be skeptical.

Centuries ago, around the year 600 B.C., (shortly after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had defeated the armies of Judah, and taken all the survivors captive), - two Jewish prophets, Ezekiel and Daniel, announced that God had promised them, that one day He would send His people a Messiah to rescue them.  The prophets declared, that this Messiah would re-establish His chosen people as a great nation, respected and feared by all other nations.

But then when that promise failed to materialize, over many years and then many centuries, the people of Israel began to doubt God’s promise, and to give up hope that a Messiah would ever come.  Their nation’s long history of disobedience to God, merely fuelled their skepticism, since it was becoming evident that God had simply had enough of their disobedience and had terminated His relationship with them.

Today, in our generation, much the same kind of skepticism has spread across the Christian community in both Europe and North America, causing many to drift away from the Church, and abandon their faith.  In England, there’s been a 40% drop in church attendance in the three major Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist) over the past 20 years.  Today, fewer than 11% of the population attend Sunday worship services.

Although the decline of Christianity in North America is far less serious than it is in Europe, nevertheless our churches are suffering as well.  And when you add to this the steady decline in morality which is occurring in our society,  it’s very easy for people to become discouraged.  You may even wonder, if there really is a loving God, why would He allow all this to happen?

For those who require tangible proof of God’s presence, it’s particularly depressing.  And many of them simply respond by abandoning their faith in a loving God.

It was just such skepticism expressed by would-be Christians in the Roman empire, which the Apostle Paul was tackling in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  “Has God rejected His people?”, he asks rhetorically, then promptly answers the question, he says:- “By no means!”

Paul is 100% sure that God will remain faithful.  He pins this certainty upon, what he calls, ‘the remnant’.

His argue goes like this.  So long as there are any believers who remain faithful to God, there isn’t the slightest possibility that God will abandoned His people; even though the majority reject the Messiah He sent.   So far as Paul is concerned, as long as there is one person who’s faithful,  God’s promises will be fulfilled.

He then proceeds  to use himself as living proof, saying - that as a Jew, born of the tribe of Benjamin, he has committed his whole life to the service of Jesus Christ; - and so, even if everyone else abandons God, his faith alone will ensure that God remains faithful.

Paul’s enthusiastic belief in the power of a remnant, is not new to the Bible.  Nine centuries earlier, the prophet Elijah, (during an extremely low period in Jewish history), also despaired, because all around him he saw nothing but unfaithfulness.  For awhile he thought he was the only faithful person left in all Israel.  But in the midst of his depression, God revealed to him that there were 7,000 others who’ve remain faithful.  Then God reassured him, saying that so long as there was a remnant, He would fulfill all that He had promised to the people of Israel. (I Kings 19:10)

So then, the message of this chapter of the book of Romans is this; God will most certainly fulfill His promises.

But there is another issue here which Paul felt compelled to address.   If God can, (as we all believe) see the past, present and future all at the same time, surely then He must have known that the Israelites were going to be unfaithful.  So, if He knew this, why did He promise to make them a great nation and to send them a Messiah?

Answering this dilemma Paul says, God has allowed the Jews to stumble in their faith, but they haven’t completely fallen.  (To use a modern analogy from the boxing ring, they may have stumbled but they haven’t been knocked out.)  For God has no intention of allowing His chosen people to be ultimately defeated.

Let’s pause here for a moment before we go on to consider Paul’s explanation of why God has let the Jews be unfaithful.

Those of us who happen to be Gentile Christians and who read the Old Testament have every right to feel excluded, perhaps even demonized, because all through the pages of the Old Testament, Gentiles are denigrated.

Consider for example, the way God instructed Joshua to deal with the people who occupied the promised land, before the Jews arrived.  The Bible says, God told him to utterly destroy those Gentiles; to literally wipe them from the face of the earth.  Later, when the Israelites took over their promised land, they were instructed never to have any dealings with their Gentile neighbours.

Gentiles were seen as pagans, who worshipped other gods; people who would corrupt their Jewish community, if they had any dealings with them.  The Jews were God’s chosen people.  The rest of humanity was not.

It’s strange then, isn’t it, that in spite of their elite position in the world, the Bible records that over and over again, the people of Israel disobeyed God and began to worship the idols of their Gentile neighbours.

But let’s go back to Paul’s explanation for this blight in Jewish history.  Paul says that God has allowed the Jews to stumble in their faith in order to open the door for the salvation to the rest of humanity.  He tells us, that God is trying to make His chosen people jealous, by offering the same promises He made to them, to the Gentiles.

In other words, God is using the same strategy as parents might us in rearing their children.  He’s treating the Jews as though they were still in their childhood.  He’s giving His other children  the benefits He’d originally promised to His first born, - in the hopes that eventually the first born will turn from his wayward ways.

We might be uncomfortable with the thought that God treats us like young children, but if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that there are many times in our lives when our behaviour is very much like that of a disobedient child.

God wants us to grow up; so that we can take hold of the benefits and privileges of adult membership in His Kingdom.  And our journey of faith is meant to be one of learning how to be mature.

But there is a danger here.  Having made this dramatic contrast between Jews and Gentiles, and having shown how God is provoking the Jews to jealousy, Paul realizes he could be setting up a dangerous competition between the two groups;  one in which the Gentiles consider themselves superior to the Jews.  But that’s not the outcome he wants.

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters,” he writes, “I want you to understand this mystery.” (verse 25)

In other words, while we can’t possibly fathom the mind of God, nevertheless it is fairly obvious what God has done.  He’s hardened the hearts of the Jews, first, in order to welcome the rest of humanity into His fold.  And then, to demonstrate the power of His forgiving love.

By extending His blessing to the Gentiles, He’s preparing for a new day of opportunity both for Israel and the rest of the human race; a day so momentous that it will see all Israel being saved.  Paul is speaking about the end of the world when God’s Kingdom will be finally fully established.

There is verification for Paul’s line of thinking, in the Gospel passage we read this morning.  Although most of Jesus’ ministry was performed among the Jews, the woman who came to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter was a Canaanite, - a Gentile.  And while it at first it may look like Jesus is ignoring this woman’s desperate pleas, He actually uses this moment to demonstrate to the Jews that even the faith of a Gentile is acceptable to God.  For Jesus treats this Canaanite mother just like any other child of God’s family.

So then, what does all this have to do with us here this morning?

There are essentially three messages which we need to hear and understand from this chapter of Romans.  The first is, that as Gentile Christians we’ve been adopted into the family and household of God; and as such, we are entitled to all the rights and privileges of God’s kingdom.

Secondly, in spite of our stubbornness and rebellion, God can and will accomplish His eternal purpose for humanity, through the powerful demonstration of His grace and forgiveness.  In other words, there is forgiveness for our sins, and God is always ready and willing to forgive us.

And finally, no matter how bad things may appear, we are assured that God will remain faithful, and so we should never give up hope.

I’d like to leave you with one story.

It is a story about a husband and wife caught in a marriage where there was very little love.  The husband was extremely demanding; so demanding in fact, that he had prepared a list of rules and regulations for his wife to follow.  He insisted that she read these every day, and obey them to the letter.
After many long years of marriage, the husband died.  And as time passed, the woman fell in love with another man; one whom she truly loved, and who loved her in return.  From the beginning of their marriage, the husband did everything he could to make his wife happy, often showering her with tokens of his appreciation.

One day, as the woman was cleaning house, she found, tucked away in a drawer, the list of demands her first husband had created.  As she looked over this list, it suddenly dawned on her that, even though her present husband had made no such list and was not demanding, she was doing for her husband, virtually everything that was on the old list.  But because of her love for her new husband, she was doing these things simply because she wanted to please him.

The subtle message of Romans 11 is this.  As adopted children of a loving God, we are beneficiaries of all God’s promises.  And in order to benefit from these promises all we have to do is respond to God love with love.  And when we do, we’ll discover that we’re naturally obeying the 10 commandments and living as God wants us to live, not because we fear punishment or rejection, but because we choose to live this way.