2/4/2019 9:47:04 AM
God Works by Grace - February 3, 2019
Pastor Kyle Bitter
Text: Romans 10:18 - 11:6
With the wintery weather conditions over the past couple of weeks here in southeastern Wisconsin, I’m guessing most of you took the time to watch weather reports on T or look up forecasts on the internet just to see what exactly was coming. Maybe as you were doing that, you happened to see some of the weather forecasts from other parts of the country. I don’t know about you, but I always find it kind of entertaining to see how the warmer parts of the country respond to cold weather. For example, I saw a clip of weatherman from Florida warning people to bundle up and stay indoors because…the temperature might dip below freezing. I was talking to my brother who lives in Atlanta, and he was telling me how traffic in the city is usually paralyzed and school is often called off by a dusting of snow and a little ice. In the middle of a Wisconsin winter, it’s easy to laugh at that kind of stuff, but it also makes some sense. Most people in Florida don’t have a lot of heavy winter clothing…and so temperatures below freezing do present a significant challenge. According to the public records, the city of Atlanta owns just 40 salt trucks to clear the ice from a metro area populated by 6 million people. For comparison, the City of Wauwatosa owns 41…with 100 times fewer people. Having the right tools for the job makes a huge difference when challenges arise in any part of life, whether it’s extreme weather, home repair projects, or just about anything else!
Have you ever wondered if you have the right tools, so to speak, for the spiritual storms that arise? After all, it’s not hard to find them! These past couple of weeks, we’ve seen several states in our country pass laws that display a casual disregard for unborn human life – and in most cases they were met with celebration by a lot of people! Do we really have the tools to deal with that? Or maybe you have a family member or a friend who just doesn’t seem interested in spiritual matters. Do you have the tools to deal with that? Or maybe as you’ve come to know more about God and his will and tried to live life as he wants it lived, you’ve found yourself just becoming ever more aware of just how short you’ve fallen, and the Christian life feels like one step forward and then two steps back! Do we really have the tools to deal with all that?
We are far from the first people to have questions like those. God’s children living in first century Rome, while the culture was outward different, faced the same spiritual storms as God’s people of every age. Today’s second lesson is from the letter written to these Roman Christians, one segment of a three-chapter section of Romans describing God’s activity in the world, and through this whole section the same theme keeps coming up. No matter what era of salvation history you’re talking about, God works among his people in the very same way. God Works by Grace – his undeserved love for sinful people. Today we see that God’s grace is Persistent and it’s Powerful – making it exactly the tool we need to face the spiritual challenges in our own hearts, among our families and friends, and in the world around.
Grace is Persistent (v. 18-21)
Let’s start with the situation in Rome. The Christian community in Rome likely started around a community of people of Jewish background who had heard the good news about Jesus at Pentecost. They saw the Holy Spirit poured out on Peter and the other apostles, and they heard their testimony about Jesus. They recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises way back to their ancestor Abraham, they saw how their God-ordained culture and worship rituals pointed ahead to Jesus, and then they returned home and one can imagine their frustration in finding how many of their fellow Jews, perhaps in many cases family members and friends, wanted nothing to do with Jesus. He just wasn’t the kind of Savior they were hoping for. You and I can probably sympathize with that to some degree. Whether it’s a family member or a neighbor or classmate or a friend, I’m guessing most of us here today know someone who has heard about Jesus but just doesn’t seem to care.
That’s not a new challenge. You heard in today’s gospel how the very same thing happened to Jesus himself, in his hometown – and they didn’t stop with verbal rejection. They tried to throw him off a cliff! And how does Jesus respond? You don’t see frustration. You don’t see him showing any signs of giving up! Jesus moved on to another place for a time, but he isn’t deterred. He keeps on doing miracles. He keeps on preaching and teaching. He keeps on showing love to people who don’t seem to want to be loved, again and again, and being rejected again and again, until finally he is rejected not only by people, but by God himself as he pays the price for everyone’s sin. And that shows us how God deals with the world when he Works by Grace. Grace, God’s love for undeserving people, is Persistent! It’s not damaged by sinful rejection. It’s not limited by human responses. It’s undeserved love, and so it’s not depending on anything! It never runs out.
Paul applies this to the spiritual challenges in Rome. Paul wrote: “But I ask, did [the Jewish people] not hear? Of course they did.” By this time, it was hard for anyone in the Roman world to have not heard, at least in passing, about Jesus, and this was especially true of the Jewish people! The psalm writer had prophesied that this would be the case. “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Romans 10:18 – NIV84). Paul continues. “Again I ask: Did not Israel (the Jewish people) understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; (an Old Testament way of referring to the non-Jews who were not known as the people of God) I will make you
angry by a nation that has no understanding.” And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” (Romans 10:19-20 – NIV84).
In quoting these prophecies, Paul was pointing to a series of events that would have been well-known to the Roman Christians. Because so many of the Jewish people displayed little interest in Jesus, Paul and the other apostles were able to spend more of their time teaching the non-Jews about Jesus. As a result, people who had no concept of a coming messiah, people who, to use Isaiah’s words, “were not seeking [God]…who did not ask for [God],” found out about their Savior because, rejected by the Jews, Paul and the other apostles had come to them. God had not given up on humanity because of the rejection by his Old Testament people, he send his witnesses to a different group! And, he hadn’t given up on his Old testament people either, despite their rejection! God intended that this would come full circle and give the Jews yet another chance when they saw how many Gentiles were interested in the Messiah! Perhaps there were some in Rome who had come to faith in that way. Grace is Persistent! God doesn’t give up! The story of the bible is, in many ways, just that: God approaching sinful people with his promise of a Savior again and again. Paul wrote, “But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (Romans 10:21 – NIV84). Grace is Persistent. God doesn’t give up.
That’s the kind of persistence God shows in dealing with you and me. We should know better, we do know better, but sin remains an ongoing struggle, and God persistently holds out his hands, inviting us to return to our heavenly father. And the same thing is true for family members and friends. As long as a person lives, there still is reason to hope, no matter how many times they’ve rejected Jesus as their Savior, because God’s Grace is Persistent! His promises don’t change. They aren’t damaged by the rejection of sinful people. He offers them day after day, because God Works by Grace – his undeserved love for sinful people. His Grace is Persistent, and what’s more, God’s Grace is Powerful – exactly the tool we need for spiritual challenges.
Grace is Powerful (v. 1-6)
Paul points to himself as an example of just how that works. “I ask then, Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendent of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” If you wanted to see an example of what a person of Jewish background who rejected Jesus looked like, you didn’t have to look any further than Paul, who had rejected Jesus so thoroughly that he spent his time hunting down Christians, persecution them, imprisoning them, and even killing them. But, God had chosen Paul to be his child and his missionary to the world, and God’s Grace is Powerful enough to make that happen. God saw to it that Paul found out the good news about his Savior, and God turned his life around. Paul concludes: “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.” God knows ahead of time who his children are, and he stops at nothing to bring us into his family.
Paul was no isolated example. God has worked in the same powerful way throughout all of history. Many bible stories could illustrate this, but Paul points to events in the day of God’s prophet Elijah. “Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah – how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? Elijah looked around and saw nothing but idolatry. Everyone had rejected God. But, God’s grace had been at work and there were still people who looked forward to Jesus as their Savior. And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (Romans 11:1-4 – NIV84). The good news of God’s love in promising to send a Savior was the only spiritual tool needed, and that’s the way it has always been! Paul said, “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:5-6 – NIV84). God’s Grace is Powerful. You and I don’t have to go searching for anything else to do other than share the good news about Jesus, and God promises that will have an effect and his children, no matter where they might be found, will hear and believe. God Works by Grace.
And that’s exactly the tool we need to face spiritual challenges. Just as our city had the tools needed to dig out from the snowfall and survive the frigid temperatures, so also the good news of God’s love provides exactly the spiritual tool you and I need – reassurance of our Savior’s persistent love in our times of struggle and a powerful message to share with family members, friends, and society more broadly when we have the opportunity, knowing that through the testimony of his people in word and action, God Works by Grace to bring his people home to heaven. May God bless us with ongoing opportunities to put this powerful tool to use in our lives. Amen.