Sermon for 08-28-11: “Roman Road, Part 12: God Who Shows Mercy”

September 3, 2011

We conclude our 12-week sermon series on Romans by looking at one of the most difficult and often misunderstood passages in all of the New Testament: Romans 9:14-24. In this sermon, I talk about the relationship between God’s sovereignty (which means that God is in control of Creation) and human freedom. 

As he says in the sermon, the “troubling thing about today’s scripture isn’t that we aren’t free to make their own choices; the troubling thing is that we are! Because this is a terrible kind of freedom! It’s as if God were saying, ‘You can be a little Pharaoh if you want—working against my purposes at every turn. But you will suffer a spectacular defeat. My will is going to be done, with you or without you. Wouldn’t it be easier and better for us to work together?'”

Sermon Text: Romans 9:14-24

The following is my original manuscript.

You can practically see Neko getting into trouble!

I’m sure many of you remember the continuing adventures of my dog Neko. She’s the one who likes to chew up everything in the house except those items specifically designed for her to chew. Well, she was at it again last week. This time, while Lisa and I were minding our own business, watching TV, Neko got hold of Lisa’s new pair of Auburn flip-flops. Lisa had just bought them at a bookstore in Auburn a few weeks ago! And now they were ruined just like that. Lisa snatched the flip-flops away from her, and Neko actually had the nerve to say to her, “Roll Tide!” Can you believe that? No, Neko didn’t say “Roll Tide!” but she could tell that Lisa was very angry, and she was in trouble. So she turned her little ears down and ran away from Lisa. And guess where she ran to?

To me! To get away from Lisa, she jumped into the chair I was sitting in and buried her head in my lap. It was as if Neko were saying, “Protect me!” I appreciated this gesture a little bit more than my wife did! But it was kind of sweet! Neko was afraid and wanted to feel safe, so she came running to me. She trusted me to take care of her.

The main question that Paul is addressing in this very difficult Romans chapter 9 is this: Can we trust God? Can we trust God to keep his word? Did God lie to Abraham and Moses and David and others when he made promises to them and to his people Israel?

Let’s remember where we were in last week’s scripture: Paul has “great sadness and constant pain” because the vast majority of his flesh-and-blood fellow Jews have rejected the gospel—even as Paul’s mission to the Gentiles—non-Jews—has been wildly successful. How did that happen? Jesus came from Israel; He preached, taught, and healed in Israel. He was the promised Messiah and Savior that Israel was waiting for. He was the fulfillment of the promises that God made to Israel, as his resurrection made clear—and as his apostles were loudly proclaiming.

And yet… most of Paul’s fellow Jews didn’t receive him. So… Did God’s word fail? Is it unfair of God that most of Israel who—unlike these new Gentile believers—at least tried to be faithful to God now stood on the outside looking in? How has God remained faithful to his covenant with Israel in the face of the glaring fact that most Jews—the very people with whom and through whom God made these promises—have failed to believe that Jesus was the Messiah?

And what is Paul’s answer?

Paul says that God is dealing with ethnic Israel now the same way God dealt with Israel in the past: When faced with Israel’s sin and rebellion, God spared a remnant of Israel and carried forward his plan of salvation for the world.

Do you remember, Paul reminds us in v. 15, what happened at Mt. Sinai, at the very moment when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses? Israel was worshiping the golden calf! God could have judged them all and wiped them out right then and there. But what did God do? When faced with Israel’s sin and rebellion, God spared a remnant of Israel and carried forward his plan of salvation for the world. When Paul quotes the Old Testament, he’s not just proof-texting a verse because it puts into words what wants to say. He’s counting on his readers to know their Bibles, and know the context of the original verse. The golden calf experience was the context of God’s words to Moses, “I’ll have mercy on whomever I choose to have mercy, and I’ll show compassion to whomever I choose to show compassion.” God didn’t let Israel’s sin stand in the way of his plan to bring salvation to the world.

Or, as another example of the way God deals with Israel, think of the time of the prophets, which Paul brings to mind in verses 20 to 24. The context of the image of potter and clay comes from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Back then, Israel was warned repeatedly that unless they repented, they would lose everything. And they did! They lost their land. They lost the Temple. They were scattered and sent into exile. Many of them lost God. So what did God do? What he always did: When faced with Israel’s sin and rebellion, God spared a remnant of Israel and carried forward his plan of salvation for the world. The point is the same as before: God didn’t let Israel’s sin stand in the way of his plan to bring salvation to the world.

So now, in rejecting the Messiah, Israel has once again rebelled against God in the most flagrant way of all. So what has God done? When faced with Israel’s sin and rebellion, God spared a remnant of Israel and carried forward his plan of salvation for the world. But in a paradoxical way, God is using even Israel’s rejection of the Messiah to serve God’s purposes: after all, Israel’s rejection led to the cross and resurrection, which means that the world is now invited into a saving relationship with God through Christ.

But even this strange twist is nothing new. God has used people’s sin and disobedience to serve God’s purposes in the past. After all, remember Pharaoh when he flagrantly defied God’s command to set God’s people free… God could have brought swift judgment and death upon Pharaoh right away, but what did God do? Paul reminds us in verse 17: God says that he let Pharaoh stand—as opposed to judging him immediately for his sin—in order that Egypt and the surrounding nations would learn who God is, see God’s power on display, and even have the opportunity to repent.

Israel, Paul says, has now become a little like Pharaoh. God is enabling Israel to stand right now—instead of judging them immediately for their rebellion—to accomplish the greatest good of all: to give everyone in the world, not just a small group of people, the chance to be reconciled to God. No one expected God’s plan to come together like this—even though the plan is consistent with God’s word. As in the time of the prophets, Israel the pot is asking God the potter, “Why did you make me like this? Why did you do it like this? This isn’t how I would have done it!” Who are we to second-guess God? Hasn’t he proven himself faithful? Hasn’t he proven himself trustworthy?

O.K., in a nutshell, I believe that this is what Paul is saying in today’s scripture. Any questions? 

Well of course we have questions! First, doesn’t it seems like Paul is saying that Pharaoh didn’t have a choice—that he was simply God’s puppet, that God was pulling the strings? And we’re afraid that if God is pulling his strings, then God might be pulling our strings. We’re afraid that we human beings really don’t have free will—that the choices we think we make, even the most important choice of all, to accept Christ as Savior and Lord, is really God’s choice made for us. Isn’t that the fear? After all, as Paul says, echoing Exodus: God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart. How do we deal with that?

First by asking, When did this hardening take place? Was Pharaoh innocent as a lamb, pure as the driven snow, happily obeying God prior to God’s hardening his heart? Of course not! He was already enslaving and abusing God’s people. He had already resisted God’s will and defied God’s command! God didn’t have to “flip a switch” inside of Pharaoh’s heart to make him something he wasn’t already. Pharaoh made himself that way. God simply drew out of Pharaoh the sin and evil that was already there, and let him suffer the consequences for it.

O.K., but what about the “vessels of wrath made for destruction”? Because of Israel’s prior sin and rebellion, these vessels are made for destruction. But pottery is a two-step process. The potter’s hand is still at the wheel, and until the pots are fired and glazed, that clay is not capable of being broken beyond repair. The defective, misshapen vessels can still be remolded—and that will be the case until the Second Coming.

One reason God has “patiently put up” with rebellious Israel instead of judging them and condemning them immediately is to give them time and breathing room before judgment to repent. Paul has already told us in Romans that the reason for God’s kindness, including his patience, is to allow room for people to have a change of heart. And Paul expects many of these same vessels of wrath to have a change of heart. Paul uses a different image in Romans 11 to say that unbelieving Jews haven’t stumbled in such a way that they’ve fallen permanently. And Paul will spend Romans 11 talking about how ethnic Israel will continue to come to faith in Jesus. God hasn’t given up on them.

The problem we often face when it comes to questions about human free will versus God’s sovereignty is the same problem we face when when some Christians debate atheists over things like evolution. The atheist says, “If science can explain how we got here or how something happened, then God obviously had nothing to do with it. It’s either God or science, but not both. Something that occurs through natural processes is something not also done by God.” But that’s a two-dimensional understanding of the how God operates in the world; it’s not a Christian view. When we go to a doctor, for example, and the doctor heals whatever ails us, that’s not one less thing we have to thank God for—because, after all, the doctor did it, not God! We understand as Christians that, by all means, the doctor uses all the training and intellect and resources at his disposal to heal us. And we also understand that God heals us. God’s healing power is working through that doctor. It’s not either the doctor or God but not both. It’s both/and.

And it’s both/and when it comes to human free will versus God’s sovereignty. Today’s scripture tells us that God is in complete control of the universe. But God doesn’t run the universe, for example, the way Muammar Gaddafi ran Libya. God, unlike humans, can be all-powerful and completely in control and not also be a some kind of divine dictator. We are free, and God is free, and God has the power to accomplish God’s will without running roughshod over our own will—without compromising our own freedom. He can do that because he’s God and we don’t understand it because we’re not!

There’s a Christian singer-songwriter and pianist named Ken Medema, whom I’ve seen in concert several times. At each of these concerts, Medema composed a song for the audience—on the spot. He does so by asking the audience to call out notes to use. And they’re a random assortment of notes that don’t fit together easily. But no matter what the notes are—whether they fit together or not—after a few moments of dissonance, a not-bad melody emerges. While he’s playing around with the melody, he asks the audience for words to use in his song. And this is where the audience gets creative and attempts to trip him up. They call out strange words that don’t fit together—one performance included both “aardvark” and “metamorphosis.”

But despite the audience’s best efforts to thwart Medema’s desire to make music, by giving him dissonant notes and ugly, un-poetic words, Medema still weaves them together into a beautiful song… all in the space of about ten minutes. Showoff! Still, think of what he could do if he knew in advance what notes and what words the audience would shout out!

I hope you see where I’m going with this. The audience is completely free to shout out any old note and any old word they want, whether they fit together or not. Yet look how the composer puts them to use! See, the troubling thing about today’s scripture isn’t that we aren’t free to make their own choices; the troubling thing is that we are! Because this is a terrible kind of freedom! In today’s scripture, it’s as if God were saying, “You can be a little Pharaoh if you want—working against my purposes at every turn. But you will suffer a spectacular defeat. My will is going to be done, with you or without you. Wouldn’t it be easier and better for us to work together?”

A lot of people hate Paul’s image of a potter and the clay. It goes against grain of our American DNA. [The song “My Way” is so much worse than anything ever written by AC/DC.] We want to do what we want. We don’t want to have to answer to anyone. We want to call our own shots. We want to be our own person. We want to be able to say at the end of our lives, “I did it my way!” We want a little bit of Jesus now and again when it suits us, on our terms, but the complete dependence on God, the utter helplessness before God, the lack of bargaining power that we have before God, which is implied by the image of potter and clay offends us. Are we Christians really like clay in the potter’s hand?

I hope so! I hope so! I need God to be like that for me! I’m tired of so often trusting in myself, so often living my life like a little Pharaoh, so often working against God’s will. It’s not working for me! It doesn’t make me happy. I need God! Besides, being a Christian is an all-or-nothing proposition. We’re supposed to be all in for Jesus. [Triathlete who said, “I left it all on the course!] Stanley Hauerwas, one of my favorite Christian thinkers, said that he aspires to live his life in such a way that it will no sense if the God of Christianity isn’t true. I’m not there yet, but I want to be. I want to have that kind of total trust in God! God has done nothing but prove time and again that he’s earned my trust.

When I feel afraid, when I feel unsure, unsafe, unsteady, insecure—I want to be like my like my dog Neko and go running into the welcoming arms of the One I trust with my life—my God, my Father, my Lord, my Savior, Spirit of the living God. How about you?

One Response to “Sermon for 08-28-11: “Roman Road, Part 12: God Who Shows Mercy””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great sermon, Brent. Good to see “flip a switch” in there! I think even the tougher part is about loving Jacob and hating Esau. That’s where “foreknowledge” comes into play for me. God, even though not forcing us (or anyone else) to do what they do, yet still foreknew what everyone’s heart would be like, and “planned” accordingly, even loved and hated accordingly. Pretty difficult to parse through. Anyway, a very good sermon. Sometimes I’d like to crawl up in Jesus’ lap! “Let the little children come to me, and forbid them not, for of such are the Kingdom of Heaven.”


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