Sermon ~ August 20, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Mercy & Mystery
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15: 21-28
“I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means!”
Those who study New Testament Greek (more that I have) will tell us that what is translated as I just read, Paul uses language that is much more emphatic. They suggest it needs to be read with hand thumping the table and shouting “Absolutely not!”
It is with such passion that Paul answers his own rhetorical question: Has God rejected the people of Israel, the Jews? Absolutely not!
In the some of the verses that follow, which the lectionary leaves out, Paul uses a rather confusing explanation that has to do with branches being grafted onto a vine as a way of explaining the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s overall plan.
Today’s reading picks up Paul’s words at verse 29, where the apostle emphasizes that “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” God is not in the business of rejection but inclusion. Looking back on the 2000 years of Jewish/Christian relations, and in light of the silence of many white Christians over the violence in Charlottesville, and the church’s role historically and today in racism, the church would do well to remember this. And we must do more than casually reflect on it, we must repent of our past sins of if not commission then silence and move beyond remembering to realistic actions. “We” being not the “the church” in the generic but you and I.
In a fuller reading of Romans, we can hear Paul in a perpetual struggle with the reality that not all his fellow Jews have accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Paul simply cannot fathom anyone – Jew or Gentile – not wanting the wonderful life such as Paul himself experienced. We need to note, however, that Paul’s desire that the Jews come to the same understanding as he does, does not mean that they must. I may say “this is the best thing in the world, and you ought to try it” but my opinion, while valid, is nonetheless mine and therefore subjective.
It seems that Jesus has a similar frustration as Paul did. Confronted by a Canaanite woman (a Gentile) seeking mercy, Jesus responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. At a glance this is rather unsettling for most of us. Isn’t this the same Jesus who accepts all kinds of people: men, women, children, foreigners, tax collectors, the rich and poor, the saint and the sinner? By all accounts, Jesus’ response implies that the woman is not deserving of God’s mercy.
Yet she persists, and Jesus relents.
I wonder if Jesus is actually out and out rejecting her, or is he merely venting his frustration. His own people, the very ones to whom Jesus has been sent, the ones he grew up amongst, have by-in-large not accepted him or his message. Now here he is, wandering in foreign territory, and this “outsider” recognizes and by virtue of her question, accepts his power and authority.
We can perhaps understand his frustration.
It is a little reminiscent of Matthews’ account of Jesus’ birth. Unlike Luke, who tells of local shepherds hearing the good news and proclaiming it to all who would listen, Matthew tells a different story. A story of foreign astrologers traveling a great distance to recognize the “king of the Jews.”
Foreigners and outsiders clearly figure into God’s plan for humankind. This is not the same thing as predestination, however. God does not have a specific plan for each individual, deciding long before our birth what our fate will be. Rather, God appears to have a plan, a dream, a hope for all humankind. How will we respond is pretty much left up to us!
If we read on a bit more in Romans in v. 36, we read Paul coming to an acceptance of a simple reality that would solve his dilemma. God’s ways are unsearchable and, ultimately, incomprehensible. God has ways of doing things that are beyond our knowing. We may not like the way things are going, but we can trust that God has things well in hand. (I know for some and for me at times this seems like a copout. But sometimes this is all we have and why we call it faith.)
Paul alluded to this earlier when suggesting that, just as the Gentiles were once nonbelievers, so now the Jews, and it’s all part of God’s planning. Using a rather circular argument, Paul suggests that God causes everyone’s disobedience so that, ultimately, everyone can receive God’s mercy.
In the Tuesday Bible Discussion group we’ve been considering the story of Joseph’s family. It is one of the longest stories in the Bible. A series of amazing events come together so that the people of Israel settle in Egypt. Some suggest that while there are many “teachable points” in this story, the long-term purpose was to set the stage for God’s profound act of mercy, the exodus. Without the people going into Egypt, they could not have been rescued out of Egypt.
The overarching lesson, we can trust God’s ways, even if we do not understand them or even like them.
But this begs the question, “does God make things – especially unpleasant ones – happen in order to teach us a lesson?”
Yes and No.
Some situations certainly fall within that category. Yet there is nothing to suggest that everything does. Anxiously trying to understand something beyond him, Paul comes to the conclusion that this – the Jews non acceptance of God’s new offer – is to teach people a lesson. We may tend to do the same thing. When we cannot understand what is going on around us, an easy explanation to which we can default is that God is teaching us something. It may be true, but there is no guarantee.
However, we can learn from all that happens around us, whether that was God’s intention or not, if we are open to God.
So I believe we might take for this passage two important lessons. The first is that God has not rejected the Jews or anyone else for that matter. What God has done is to widen the door to include all who wish to come in. All are welcome, all are included.
The second is that in the end God’s ways are often beyond our understanding, and that’s okay. Our faith in God can empower us to if not to accept then to work with what is going on in our lives – even when it’s not what we want, even when it makes no sense to us.
If we were to ask the question, “has God abandoned any of God’s people, ever?” we can give a resounding “Absolutely not!
Listen to the Audio version by selecting “Download File” and open on your desktop! Enjoy!