The 1st Sunday in Lent, Series C
March 10th, 2019
“But What About the…”
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you, from God our Father through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text for today’s message is the epistle lesson, Romans 10:8b-13.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
Whenever I look ahead at the assigned readings in order to choose a text to preach on, I am always intrigued by the ones that begin as the one from Romans: Verse 8b. 8b? What about 8a? What are they trying to hide? What don’t they want you to know?
That’s where your neighborhood pastor comes in! I take the 8bs of the weekly lectionary readings and seek to unveil the secrets behind them. Truth be told, there is nothing nefarious going on, just a particular accent or highlight that over the years reflects a theme or season in the Church. But our smaller reading is pulled out of a very large letter (16 chapters!) and is part of a specific unit in that letter. Chapter Ten of Romans is in the center of Romans 9-11, which is the section that Paul begins with the question: What about the Israelites? What about all that was given to them? Are they lost? Paul, himself a Jew, says that he bears great anguish for the sake of his brothers. But Paul begins this section of the letter with the assurance: But it is not as though the Word of God has failed. By no means! So, the question that our reading is contending with and set in is: How can the Gentiles, who were not looking for the righteousness of God, have received it freely, and the Israelites who were trying to pursue it, did not succeed in attaining it? How can this be?
8a: The Big It
That’s where we come to 10:8a. “But what does it say?” It is referring the OT and specifically Deuteronomy. It is the sermon that Moses was delivering to the people of Israel and it is referring to the Word of God. It is what Paul is speaking of and Who that Word points to and Who came to fulfill it. And as Paul says, it is the word of faith. More questions. Faith in what? Faith in whom? Who receives faith? And back to initial question: what about the Jews?
Answer, Part One—the Law
In verse five, just before our reading, he says that “Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” Righteousness is a big, fancy word that gets used all the time in church and bible study, and well…Scripture, but it just means the state of being right with God. Being square. Kosher. Sympatico. Righteousness refers to one’s standing with God. The question concerning the Israelites is a question about the law—they were given the law, that they might be righteous by doing it. However, as Paul has pointed out earlier in his letter, no one can keep it and all people, without distinction, have fallen short. All have fallen under God’s wrath. So, no matter what one does, there is no way to have right standing before God.
Have you ever owed something to someone…a debt, money, a turn, a favor? There are some among you that have told me that you cannot stand being in someone’s debt. “I pay my own way!” one of you said to me a few weeks back. Well, with God…you can’t! What can you give Him? What can you do for Him? How can you square your debt with Him? You can’t!
This is where redemption comes in. Another big word. This one means the act of buying something back. Paying the price to make things right. The theme of redemption is a huge one if you watch any movies or T.V shows. Books too. Redemption stories, as stories, are very attractive. But they always talk of redemption as something that man can do, that they can balance out, that if they do enough good they can redeem themselves. Redeeming one’s self. But they can’t! Ever. That’s why shows like 24 go on for so long. Jack Bauer never redeems anything! And that points to the underlying problem: sin. Sin, brokenness, corruption, warfare, all keeps us from ever paying the price to square things up, especially with God. In fact, the law functions to show us this very fact. We can never stand before God and claim redemption based on what we’ve done. That is, keeping the law. Because we can’t keep it. No matter how many acts of bravery and self-sacrifice Jack Bauer does, he can never be righteous…before his fellow man. Certainly not before God.
Answer, Part Two—Faith
And that brings us to another part of the answer to Paul’s question, “What about the Israelites”. He says that the word is near you, but not a word of law, but a word of faith. Belief and trust. He says, “the word of faith that we proclaim.” In verse 5, he speaks about the righteousness based on faith. This is “in your mouth and in your heart” and is what Paul says that “we proclaimed”. Faith is part of the answer to the Jewish question. Earlier in chapter four, Paul had pointed to the faith of Abraham as that which made him all-square with God. Faith. “He believed…and it was counted to him as righteousness.” But faith in what?
I was walking through a nursing home the other day, and I walked past one of the rooms they use for physical therapy. And there was a sign on a door that said, “Belief is the missing ingredient to healing.” Okay…but belief in what? That you can do it? In your own ability? That anything is possible? Now, I don’t doubt that a strong sense of belief (a positive attitude) is a powerful motivator, but faith is only one half of the equation.
One of my favorite TV series of all-time is the show Firefly. Fantastic show. Ran only one season. Cowboys in space. The main character, Malcolm Reynolds, is your classic misanthropic, lovable-loser-on-the-run (think Han Solo) and he doesn’t hold to any creed but his own. Believes in nothing. They pick up along the way a sort of spiritual guide, called the Shepherd. He serves to counter-balance Malcolm. Things go bad for Malcolm, and he begins to despair. He is challenged by the Shepherd to… “Believe, Malcolm, just believe.” A very pivotal moment in the show. But again, believe in what? In whom? And that is the point Paul makes. It is faith…but not just faith. It’s not the power of faith, or faith-as-a-force. The Word of faith that Paul proclaims that is centered on Jesus. It is faith in Christ, and the confession that Jesus is Lord. Faith always has to have an object. That’s Jesus.
Answer, Part Three—Jesus
So, in response to the question of, “What about the Jews? What about God’s chosen people?”, the answer is always faith in Christ. I withheld a key word in the quote from Romans Four I mentioned earlier. “And Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” The children of Abraham, the people Moses led out of the wilderness, had the promise. Believing in that promise that God had given is what made him right with God. To believe in Who was to come. Paul cites two other key OT verses to make this point: Everyone who believes in Him (Jesus) will not be put to shame and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
For there is no distinction. No difference between who falls short and receives God’s wrath, and also no distinction who receives the Gospel. For it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But Christ is the object of that faith, both for Jew and Gentile. Same Lord. Same Jesus. Salvation for any who calls on His name.
So, to ask the question again, “What about the Jewish people? Are they lost?” Heck no. Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ, who confess Him as Lord, will be saved. Any. There is no distinction. It was not as if the Word of God failed. For the law was given as a placeholder until Christ came. The law had to be kept to attain righteousness, but the Israelites couldn’t. But Christ did. He kept the law. All the way to the cross. He fulfilled all righteousness. Jesus Christ is the end of the law—the goal and the cessation. Everything is centered on Him.
For us, we have this same comfort and assurance based on faith in Christ. We do not fear a God Who condemns. We do not wonder, “What about us?” What Paul says applies without distinction through the ages. “For with the heart one believes and is declared righteous, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” The faith Paul speaks of, to quote Lutheran theologian Martin Franzmann, is the voice of righteousness that says not “Do” but, “It is done!” We revel is this righteousness of God, for it is a gift of faith done for you. A gift without distinctions. Any one who calls on the name of Jesus, who has faith in Jesus, will be saved. God’s word is not a threat to us; it’s a promise of life eternal in Christ. And that is the answer to the question, “What about the…anybody.” Amen.
St. Paul's Lutheran Church