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This is the sermon I’m preaching Sunday, August 3, 2008, from Romans 9:1-5. And, check out Holy Fools, by Matthew Woodley — I quote from Matthew’s new book in this sermon, and I think you will find the book helpful and encouraging.

Good News for the Jews…and Us, Too!
Romans 9:1-5

1 I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

I Would Give Anything

As a pastor I have sat with families who are grieving the loss of a beloved member of their family. I have heard husbands and fathers, wives and mothers say the same thing, “I would give anything if it could have been me.” Those words are especially poignant at the death of a child or young person. Parental love is so great, and grief so overwhelming, that the desire to take the place of someone we love to save them from death is a common desire.

Paul expresses a similar thought here, when he says,

“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”

Paul is not saying this lightly or carelessly, and he has the credentials as a Jew to back up his statement. In Philippians 3:4-7, he says:

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ (the Messiah).

Paul was an outstanding Jew, an aggressive Pharisee, and scrupulously righteous, but he scrapped all of that when he met the risen Jesus on the Damascus road. Paul’s fierce devotion to Pharisaic Judaism was quickly overshadowed by his new-found commitment to Jesus, the Messiah of God. Amazingly the one event that all Jews looked forward to was the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah of God, in Greek known as Christos, or the Christ. So, Paul is not relinquishing his Jewishness when he encounters the Messiah, he is actually finding fulfillment as a Jew.

For Paul to say then, “I would gladly be considered accursed for my people the Jews,” is profound. And, to make his point unmistakably clear, Paul explains that to be accursed is to be cut off from the Messiah. Paul is willing to give up his own knowledge of Christ if the Jews could then discover Christ. Paul is convinced that Jesus is God’s Messiah and he wants his people to be convinced as well.

When Others Don’t Share Our Passions

Have you ever had this experience? You’ve read a book or seen a movie or heard a song that you just love. In your enthusiasm you tell your family, your friends, your co-workers — anybody that will listen. And when you do, you say things like –

  • “You’ve got to read this book. It’s the best story I’ve ever read.”
  • “This song is amazing. You’ve got to hear it!”
  • “That is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. You’ve got to see it!”

Seldom does our enthusiasm for the book or movie or song transfer easily or quickly to others. And when our friends and family and co-workers just look at us and say nonchalantly, “Okay, if I have time,” we are crestfallen, crushed by their inability to see how wonderful the book, movie, or song really is.

Several years ago, Debbie and I saw the movie, Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The movie is a quirky, fun, dramatic, musical, comedic one-of-a-kind film. It was nominated for Best Picture, but didn’t win. And, I loved the movie! I liked it so much, Debbie gave me the DVD, we had friends over to see it, and I raved about the story line, cinematography, and cleverness of the film. I liked it so much, that on a trip to Shanghai, I found a bootleg copy of it at the DVD knock-off store across the street from my hotel, and watched it again in Shanghai. Which beat watching the Chinese warrior movies on CCTV. Unfortunately, outside of Debbie, few shared my enthusiasm for the movie. I was a frustrated fan of a really great movie.

Paul felt a similar frustration. He said he was in “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” because the Jews don’t get it about Jesus. Few other Jews, other than the original disciples, were as enthusiastic about Jesus being the Messiah as Paul was. So, why didn’t the Jews get it?

The same reason that our family and friends and co-workers don’t share our enthusiasm for a book or movie or political candidate: they don’t see it the way we do. Paul, you remember, encountered the risen, living Jesus in a blinding light on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus. The encounter was not a vision or an apparition or a hallucination — Paul’s experience was a real face-to-face meetup (to use the modern jargon) with a man thought to be a failed revolutionary, put to death by the Romans, buried in a borrowed grave, and relegated to the refuse heap of history. But Jesus was alive! He was a living, breathing, talking person who appeared to Paul a couple of years after everyone in Paul’s Pharisee circle thought they had put an end to the self-proclaimed son of God. Paul was on a mission to rub out the few remaining disciples of this dead, false prophet, when he met Jesus face-to-face. Up close and in person.

Fear eventually gave way to wonder, and Paul realized with the help of others that God was at work, and that this Jesus whom he had despised, whose followers he had killed and terrorized, was God’s Anointed One, the Messiah promised to the Jews. Now, Paul wanted everyone else to see it, to understand it, to follow this Jesus, too. But, they didn’t get it, couldn’t see it, were closed just as he had been.

So Paul wishes that if it took his being cut off from Christ to bring the Jews to Christ, he was willing to do it.

The New Based on the Old

Paul begins to make a case for why the Jews should embrace Jesus as the Messiah –

  1. Theirs is the adoption as children of God.
  2. Theirs is the divine glory.
  3. Theirs are the covenants.
  4. Theirs the receiving of the Law.
  5. Theirs the temple worship.
  6. Theirs the promises.
  7. Theirs the patriarchs.
  8. And from them the ancestry of the Messiah, Jesus.

And so there it is — a chronological, historical, rational walk through the history of the Jews to prove why the Jews should get it about Jesus.

Too often, Christians have given the impression that we are the new thing God is doing, and the Jews were about the old thing. We even refer to the two divisions of the Bible as The Old Testament and The New Testament. We have believed that Jesus came to save the world, and when the Jews rejected Him, He moved on to the Gentiles. We are as blind to our connection to the Jews, as many of them are to the Messiahship of Jesus.

But, if we read Scripture with seeing eyes, we read, not two stories, but one. Not two ways that God dealt with people, but one. Not two means to salvation, but one. Not two promises for the future, but one. All bound up in the plan of God for all people — Jew and non-Jew alike.

Let’s look more closely at what the Jews have going for them:

When Paul says that “the adoption as children” belongs to the Jews, he reminds us that God called Abraham out of paganism, adopted him as a father adopts a son, and promised to make him the father of a great nation.

When Paul says that “the divine glory” belongs to the Jews, he paints mind-pictures of the shekinah glory of God leading the nation of Israel with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, the presence of God settling over Mount Sinai, the manifestation of God over the Tabernacle, and the glory of God inhabiting the Temple.

When Paul says that “the covenants” belong to the Jews, he means God’s first agreements with his people — with Adam and Eve in the garden, with Noah and the flood, with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob. And always, the covenant was the same — God promises to be their God, and he asks that they promise to be His people. God always keeps the covenant, even when his people break it. God always repairs the covenant, even when the breach is the act of His rebellious children.

When Paul recounts that “the receiving of the Law” belongs to the Jews, he conjures up memories of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. Those stone tablets became the emblem for how God’s people would be different from all other people. How God’s people would love, worship, and obey the one true God; and, how they would treat others. The Law, God’s Law, was a radical way to live. God outlawed idolatry, invoking the deity’s name in vain, working on the day set aside to honor God, disobeying parents, coveting the relationships and possessions of others, taking human life, violating marital commitments, and so on. Radical laws that set God’s people apart from the “do whatever it takes to survive” culture in which they lived.

When Paul says “the Temple worship” is theirs, every Jew instantly sees the image of the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. Gleaming white stone, the glistening solid-gold cluster of grapes hanging over the massive entrance, the crowds at Passover, the priests that ministered in the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, and the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. Jews would know the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Lights, the ritual, the ceremony, the bustlel of temple stalls and vendors, and the calls to prayer three times a day. This was truly God’s house, the place where heaven and earth met. The Temple of the One True God, YHWH, the God of the Jews. There was no other building like the Temple, there was no other worship experience that came close, and every Jew who did not live in Jerusalem, and could not get there for Passover, said, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Theirs are the promises, Paul also says. Promises for what? Promises contained in the covenant God made with his people, but promises that God continued to fulfill. Promises to Abraham to make him father of a great nation. The promise to Moses to take the nation back to the land of promise. The promise of prosperity, if God’s people would obey and observe God’s law. The promise to be their God. The promise of forgiveness and atonement for sin. The promise of relationship. But, ultimately the promise to send One who would make everything right. The promise of the Messiah. The ultimate promise, the promise to end all promises, not because God was tired of dealing with his people, but because the Messiah would stand between God and nation, between Perfection and imperfection, and make all things new.

And the patriarchs. The “fathers of the nation.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham who followed God. Isaac who became the child of promise. Jacob who wrestled with God for his blessing. Not perfect men, but real men who struggled in their obedience, failed in their humanity, and most of all, loved God passionately. These were the forebears, the examples, the inspiration, the first triad of generations that forged the familial bonds between God and his people.

And finally, the Jews are the family from which Jesus, the Messiah, comes. Jesus is no stranger, no foreigner brought in from the outside. This is and has been God’s plan all along. This is why God called Abraham. This is why God spared Isaac’s life as Father Abraham was about to sacrifice him to God. This is why Jacob was allowed to wrestle with God. This Jesus is the root of Jesse, the likeness of King David, the wisdom of Solomon, the power of the prophets, the simplicity of the shepherds, the strength of a Samson, the gentleness of a child, and the salvation of his people, and God’s creation. How could the Jews miss this? Were they too close to Jesus? Was his hometown of Nazareth too plain a place? Did they expect something else?

Whatever the reasons, Paul is amazed that the Jews don’t get it, and he’s will to give up that for which he has “counted all things loss” in order that the Jews might know Jesus as their Messiah.

What Is It That We Don’t Understand?

Okay, so we all know that as a people, the Jews to this day still don’t accept Jesus as their Messiah. And, because of that, Christians have said a lot of unkind and outrageous things about the Jews.

  • The Jews for centuries were called “Christ-killers,” even though Jesus was put to death under the Roman system of capital punishment. The Jews were blamed for Jesus death, even though Jesus himself said that no one was taking his life, that he laid down his own life freely. But, still that insidious lie persists.
  • The Jews have been reviled and the evil that has fallen to them has been explained as their punishment for rejecting Christ. The Holocaust, when 6-million Jews died, was too often seen as the judgment of God on an unbelieving people.
  • The Jews have been portrayed as scheming, dishonest, money-grubbing charlatans since Judas betrayed Christ for a bag of silver. Even Shakespeare got into the act with his character Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice.
  • As the Christian Church gained ascendancy in the Roman Empire, Jews replaced Christians as the minority to be persecuted and discriminated against.

Next week we’re going to discover that God isn’t finished with the Jews. That God hasn’t cancelled his covenant with the Jews. And, that even the disobedience of the Jews becomes the occasion for God’s mercy toward them and the rest of the world. But, that’s for next week.

This week, however, we have to put ourselves in Paul’s place for a moment. And, we have to ask ourselves,

Are we passionate enough about Jesus to give up our lives so that someone else might know God’s Messiah?
In his new book, Holy Fools, Matthew Woodley, pastor of Three Village Church on Long Island, reminds us of several people who gave up their lives of comfort, or privilege, or wealth, or even health, so that others might know God’s Messiah, Jesus. These people followed Jesus “with reckless abandon” according to Woodley, and because of their self-sacrifice, made the cause of Christ known to others. Listen to some of their stories:

  • A young man named Hudson Taylor shaved his head except for a long pigtail, donned Chinese robes, and ate with chopsticks to win the hearts of the Chinese among whom he served. Accused by his friends and fellow-missionaries of losing his mind and abandoning his own culture, Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission, opening the door for the gospel in a land that less than a 100-years later would close to outside missionaries.
  • A young woman in France named Christiana had an aversion to foul smells. But, ignoring her own nauseating discomfort, she felt compelled to bring the love of Christ to the peasants of France, even to the point of caring for them in illness and injury and dressing their festering wounds.
  • And then there’s Damien the Leper, although he was not always called that. His name was Joseph de Veuster, born into a Belgian farming family. Joseph studied for the ministry, sailed to Hawaii, where served a comfortable church as pastor. In 1866, Hawaii experienced an outbreak of leprosy. Those afflicted with this disfiguring, ultimately fatal disease were shipped to the island of Molokai to live in isolation and die a solitary death. At his own request, Joseph asked to to move to Molokai to minister to the lepers. He addressed them as “my fellow lepers” and ignored the counsel of his superiors never to touch a leper. Joseph moved among the outcasts, hugging them, encouraging them, touching them. He taught them how to build houses, play instruments, and they even formed a band to play in worship. Eleven years on the island and Joseph so identified with the lepers that he was truly one of them. One evening while soaking his feet in hot water after a long and tiring day, Joseph noticed that he could not feel the water on his feet. He had truly given up his life that his fellow lepers might find eternal life.

The point of Matthew Woodley’s Holy Fools is summed up in a quote from Soren Kierkegarrd –

The greatest danger to Christianity is…not heresies, heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism — no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet.
Kierkegaard continues –

Christianity does not oppose debauchery and uncontrollable passions as much as it opposes this flat mediocrity, this nauseating atmosphere, this homey, civil togetherness, where admittedly great crimes, wild excesses, and powerful aberrations cannot easily occur — but where God’s unconditional demand has even greater difficulty accomplishing what it requires: the majestic obedience of submission. — Holy Fools, p. 164-165
Are we so excited about finding Jesus, that we would give up our knowledge of him so that others could know him? Are we excited enough about Jesus to give up even our comfort, or our possessions, or our time, or our energy, or our preferences for worship so that others might know him?Fortunately, neither Paul nor we have to give up Christ. There is plenty of Jesus to go around. And our giving up our own faith would not lead others to faith, and Paul knew that. But Paul also knew that he had discovered God’s plan for the world, starting with the Jews. He wanted others to know the promise of God. He was willing to do whatever it took. Are we?