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Imprisoned by God’s Mercy

Romans 11:1-2, 29-32

11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.

11:2a God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?

11:29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

11:30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,

11:31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.

11:32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.


Life Doesn’t Always Work Out Like You Plan

Have you ever had a vacation that didn’t turn out quite like you’d planned it? You had imagined a wonderful time at the beach, or in the mountains, or whatever your dream vacation was, but when you got there it rained, or snowed, or the plumbing stopped up and flooded the cottage, or some other disaster happened. We had a trip like that to Ridgecrest Conference Center when Amy was just 4-weeks old. I was pastoring a small rural church near Tifton, Georgia, and this trip to Ridgecrest during Sunday School week was our combination vacation, and church conference time.

Did I tell you we were really poor? The little church paid me $125 a week, plus a house. Needless to say, with two preschoolers even 30-years ago, that didn’t go very far. We had everything we needed, however. Church members were always bringing by vegetables or fresh fish they had just caught, or some meat from their freezer, so we were doing fine. Debbie made most of the girls clothes, and our life was fairly simple. My parents lived in Tifton, where my dad was Minister of Education at First Baptist Church, so we got to see them every week, and worked in some free meals on occasion.

But we never had much money for vacation, so we decided to combine church work and time away at Ridgecrest, which we had both grown up going to at our church in Nashville. To save money, we rented the only cabin we could afford. “Mildew Manor” is the name we affectionately gave it, after we got there. To say it was a little musty is an understatement. Plus, we couldn’t afford a meal ticket, so we ate cereal for breakfast and bologna sandwiches for both lunch and dinner. But, on the last night we were there, we decided to splurge. I went down to the meal ticket window and bought meal tickets for the entire family. We would finally have a hot meal. Of course, to encourage folks to eat in the dining hall, they didn’t post the menu, so you took your chances. But, what could they possibly have — fried chicken, or country-fried steak, or roast beef — the possibilities seemed safe and appealing.

The dining hall was family-style seating. So, as they opened the doors, we found our way to a table, and got the girls all settled in. Student waiters and waitresses brought the food to the table in platters and serving bowls, so everyone passed them around the table. The blessing was said, and here came the waiters, trays held high. But when they reached our table, our hearts sank. On the trays were baskets of white sandwich bread and stacks of bologna! We were so disappointed, that it actually became downright funny. And, we’ve talked about that week ever since. The “bologna sandwich meal” has entered the folklore of our family and is one of our funniest memories.

That’s exactly the point Paul is making here. God’s relationship with the Jews has not exactly turned out like either God or the Jews planned. But, God is still at work and the Jews are still God’s people. Let’s see how Paul describes this, because there is something we can learn from this passage.

Some Theological Heavy Lifting

The problem with Romans, when you’re trying to preach through it as the lectionary is having us do this year, is that Romans is a deep, highly theological letter. Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, most of whom are non-Jews, and explaining a whole lot of things to them, not the least of which is, “What happens to the Jews?”

Paul has already told us that his heart is broken for his people, the Jews. And, he has made the statement that he is willing to be “accursed” if his people could come to know Christ. So, this concern about the Jews is not academic argument for Paul, nor should it be for us.

When we lived in Nashville, I started going to the YMCA, and working out on the weight machines under the guidance of a personal trainer. When I first started, I was a 90-pound weakling. Okay, maybe not 90-pounds. Maybe a 200-pound weakling. The point being, I was a weakling. Anyway, I would spend a hour twice a week working out with this guy, Jim, who would push me to do things I didn’t think I could do, or particularly want to do. But, after several months I could leg press over 400-lbs, bench press about 200, and do a bunch of other stuff that I couldn’t do today on a bet. Why? Because Jim’s technique was to lift a much weight as you could possibly lift for only a few seconds. It was hard, excruciating, sweaty work, but it only lasted about a minute. Gradually, I was able to lift heavier and heavier weight, and had the muscles to show for it. I was never a threat to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I was pretty proud of myself.

So, let’s do a little heavy lifting right now. Paul makes 6-points in this passage we read, and in the verses that we didn’t read. Here they are:

  1. God hasn’t forgotten the Jews.
  2. There is a remnant of Jews who believe.
  3. God has used the unbelief of the Jews to create an opportunity for Gentiles.
  4. God will bring the Jews back in.
  5. Gentiles should not use the mercy of God as a bragging point.
  6. God’s mercy imprisons people, Jews and non-Jews alike, in disobedience until God can show mercy to all people.

Let’s take these quickly, one at a time.

1. God Hasn’t Forgotten The Jews

Paul says that God hasn’t forgotten the covenant he made with the Jews:

“God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” Paul asserts in verse 2. Foreknowledge just means that God has had the Jews on his heart since before they existed.

God hasn’t forgotten the Jews because they are his people. They are the “olive tree” that Paul refers to later on. They are in a peculiar place. Paul says in verses 25:

“A hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles has come in.” Romans 11:25b

Then he says, “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” So, God hasn’t forgotten the Jews.

2. There is a remnant of Jews who believe.

Some Jews get it. Some like Paul are responding to the gospel message, believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Jews have waited for, and have followed him. Paul is one, Peter and the apostles are others, and the great outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost brought hundreds and thousands of Jews to Jesus the Christ. Paul reminds his readers that Elijah felt like he was all alone — “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they’re seeking my life.” Translation: “Lord, I’m all you’ve got and they’re trying to kill me!”

Paul reminds us that we are not alone, the Jews are represented by a remnant, a small group that carries the seed of faithfulness to God. Just as a remnant returned after each exile, to rebuild Jerusalem, to reestablish the temple, to again build the nation for God, so there is a remnant of Jews who are representative of the nation, of God’s people. There are some who believe.

3. The Jews unbelief is an opportunity for the Gentiles to believe.

Did you ever miss out on something you really wanted to do? Only to find out that somebody else got to go in your place, or eat your piece of cake, or play the game you wanted to play? There’s always somebody in line behind us, it seems, and in this great plan of God, it’s no different. The Jews were first in line. From the time God called Abraham, covenanted with him, promised to make him the father of a great nation, God placed the Jews first in line. They were the chosen people. Plan A, the first team, the God-squad, which would bring the presence of God to all the world.

Problem was, somewhere along the way, the Jews thought they were hot stuff. That they had a lock on this God-thing. And, they became so arrogant, that they added the worship of other gods to their religious experience. They presumed upon their standing with God, created theologies that fed their egos, and assumed that nothing would ever change.

But, their failure to believe in Jesus gave the Gentiles, the not-chosen peoples, an opportunity. Paul says, as apostle to the Gentiles, this is your chance. God has been gracious to you because the Jews missed their turn. Stepped out of line, didn’t hear the dinner bell, didn’t show up when God sent Jesus.

4. God will bring the Jews back in.

Just in case there is any doubt, Paul says in verse 26 — “And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with then, when I take away their sins.” To further illustrate this point, Paul talks about the Jews being grafted in — the wild olive branches grafted in to the solid olive tree. Which is not the way it was actually done in the olive vineyards. Usually, the domesticated olive branches would be grafted on to the hardy stock of the wild olive tree, so they would produce fruit, but be stronger and hardier than the domesticated version alone. But, Paul turns this around. Israel is the steady, domestic olive tree, standing in the orchard. The Gentiles — the wild olive branch — are grafted in, which defies both nature and common sense, but that’s the mystery of this whole business. The Gentiles join the Jews, growing together in the kingdom of God. And, God will show mercy to Israel, for the sake of their ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and David and Solomon, and a host of others. God will bring the Jews back in.

5. Gentiles should not become proud in their new relationship with God.

We, Gentile believers, got at chance at bat because Israel forfeited theirs. Our opportunity for faith is not our doing, but God’s mercy. We get the opportunity to know God now, to be part of his kingdom now, but it’s not our doing. We don’t get the credit. God does. Paul says, “They (the Jews) were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, stand in awe.” Good advice.

6. God’s mercy imprisons the disobedient so that God can be merciful to all.

Here it is from Paul himself:

“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” v. 32

What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that God wants us to be disobedient. Nor does it mean that God causes us to be disobedient. The idea here is that God’s mercy “holds” us in our disobedience, rather than pronouncing judgment on us immediately. Let me put it this way: God is showing us mercy, allowing us to live as we do, patiently waiting for us to recognize who he is, and respond to his love.

All of us have a story about ourselves or a family member or a friend who lost their way, did some pretty bad things, but eventually came to God, or came back to God. That’s what Paul means here. If we got what we deserved when we deserved it, we’d all be dead. But, Paul says God’s mercy holds us in our disobedience, until he can be merciful to everyone.

What This Means for Us

So, right about now you’re thinking, “Okay, great for the Jews, but what does this mean for us here and now?” Very simply, it means this — When things don’t turn out like we planned, God is still there.

So, if your life has taken some bad detours, maybe of your own making, or someone else’s, God is still there. If you have family members or friends whose lives are not what you wish for them in their relationship with God, God is still there. For nations who lose their way, for people who have no hope, for communities where all seems lost, God is still there. Holding us in the midst of our circumstances, whatever they are, waiting until he can show his mercy to us.

And for those of us who are experiencing the mercy of God is positive ways, we become part of the remnant, the demonstration team, living out our faith so that others can see God in our lives, can find hope for theirs, can be held by God’s mercy and experience God’s grace. All of which comes through Jesus the Christ — the Jewish Messiah — who we get to know now, because others are being held by God’s grace, waiting their turn to know him, too