Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on August 20, 2017.

I do not think it will be a farfetched assessment to say that we live in a culture in which people desire and seek after the spectacular.  People are looking to buy homes that have eye-catching curb appeal and exude “charm.”  Developers want to build the amusement park that has the “wow” factor to draw in visitors.  Technology companies continue to build “flagship” devices for consumers who desire “premium” gadgets.  The news media is seeking the next spectacle, whether an event or person, to drive up ratings.  It is fair to say that there is an insatiable appetite for the spectacular and many have found ways to cultivate this desire, feed it, and profit from it.  As a marketing website puts it, “Why hire a conference center when you can have a castle?”  It is fair to say that we are all chasing in some ways after the next spectacular thing that will bring happiness or the next dramatic event or encounter that will leave long-lasting impressions.

It may be worth asking how this desire for the spectacular affects believers’ relationship with God.  Thus, it is perhaps not sheer coincidence that our lectionary passage falls in the season between Pentecost and Advent, what Christian tradition has referred to as “Ordinary Time.”  Ordinary Time stands as a corrective to desire for the spectacular and dramatic that our culture is trying to cultivate in us.  Our passage invites us to think about the various ways in which God moves in the ordinary.  In Romans 10, Paul details Israel’s rejection of the gospel.  As Paul sees it, this rejection stems from willful disobedience on the part of Israel to pursue its own path for righteousness based on works, rather than the divinely initiated path that is based on faith.  Thus, while Israel—the people of God—have failed to achieve righteousness, the Gentiles have obtained this righteousness that is based on faith (Romans 10:5-13).  Concerning Israel, however, Paul quotes Isaiah 65:2: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

The quotation from Isaiah 65 is the verse that concludes the discussion of Romans 10, but it raises the question of the status and future of Israel.  It opens God to the charge of not being faithful to his promise to Israel (cf. Romans 9:4-5).  “Has God rejected his people?”  In other words, will Israel’s disobedience have the last word in the salvation-historical plot?  Paul’s answer to this question is an emphatic, me genoito (“Heck NO!”; Romans 11:1).  How can Paul answer this question with such emphasis in the face of strong evidence to the contrary?  The answer may lie in Paul’s understanding that God often works and moves in subtle ways.  So, yes, Paul can affirm that Israel’s rejection of his gospel is indisputable and even overwhelming.  Yet when we might think that God is not working—often because we are waiting for the spectacular—Paul sees God working in ordinary ways.  Has God rejected his people?  Absolutely not, if we remember the plain fact that Paul himself is an Israelite.  “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin,” Paul reminds his challenger (Romans 11:1).  That there exist some Jews, who have accepted Christ suggests that God continues to be faithful to Israel.  But Paul is not the only Jew who has accepted Christ.  As a matter of fact, all the twelve apostles and leaders of the Jerusalem church are Jews.  In addition, most of Paul’s congregations in the Mediterranean had Jewish members (eg., 1 Corinthians 1:1; 1:14; cf. Acts 18:8; 18:17).  The Roman church to which Paul is writing is no exception (e.g., Romans 16:3-23).  All these Jewish Christians confirm God’s subtle ways in the world; their presence in the church shows that throughout history God has always preserved a “remnant” for himself.  Paul points to the example of Elijah who also reached a point of frustration and disappointment with Israel.  “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life,” Elijah expressed to God (Romans 11:3; 1 Kings 19:10, 14).  But God’s reply to Elijah is that he had preserved a remnant for himself: “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11:4; 1 Kings 19:18).  In other words, God was saying to Elijah, “I am always working behind the scenes, even when you cannot see it.”  Just as with the prophets, so also it is with the nation of Israel.  Paul’s own salvation and that of other Jewish Christians confirm that God is working in subtle ways to keep his promise to Israel.  And once we realize what God is doing in the midst of Israel’s willful disobedience, we cannot help but acknowledge that all this is the work of grace (Romans 11:5).

We may not see God at work because we are focused on the spectacular.  But we should not let the spectacular distract us from seeing the subtle ways in which God works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).  Off course, unlike the spectacular, the grace at work in the ordinary can be easily missed.  It is not always apparent and may require a special kind of lens to see.  This is the lens of faith.  It is that lens of faith that caused Paul to express with confidence, despite all evidence to the contrary, that God has not rejected his people.  It is this same lens of faith that allows Paul to look for positive aspects in Israel’s rejection of the gospel; for just as God’s gracious election overrode Gentile ignorance and disobedience (Romans 11:30), so also God’s gracious election will override Jewish disobedience (Romans 11:31).  Grace and mercy will ultimately triumph.  In this Ordinary Time of the Christian calendar, that lens of faith is needed now more than ever to see the tables of grace prepared before us daily in the ordinariness of our lives.

 

Robert Moses
Assistant Professor of Religion
High Point University, High Point, NC
rmoses@highpoint.edu

 

 

 

Tags: spectacular, ordinary, israel

2 comments

  1. Eric Iversen

    “sophronismos” comes to mind, as in II Timothy 1:7, and in Luke 8:35, as gifts from God, “sober”, “in one’s right mind”.

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