Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 17, 2013

Sermon on Romans 11:11-21

A LENTEN REALITY CHECK…

  1. With hope for the fallen
  2. With warnings to the faithful

 Text: Romans 11:11-21

Introduction

He thought his grades were just fine. He was an honor roll student in high school, and it didn’t take much effort to maintain a strong grade point average. He enrolled in a challenging major at the state university, and figured that the same amount of work he expended in high school would get the job done in college. In his first semester, one of his professors asked to meet with him. “Son, I can tell you are an intelligent young man, but your grades so far aren’t reflecting that. You need to buckle down and study more if you’re going to make it here.” That was the reality check he needed if he was going to succeed as a student.

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, just a week away from the start of Holy Week, our Scripture lessons provide us with a Lenten reality check. This reality check is not about grades, and it’s not about finances. It’s about our spiritual status. It’s about the condition of the faith in or hearts. And it’s a reality check that we would do well to heed. In today’s Second Lesson, St. Paul has a Lenten reality check for us to consider. This reality check has hope for the fallen, but also warnings for the faithful.

I.

Our Second Lesson today comes from the letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the Christian congregations in ancient Rome before he had had the opportunity to visit them. It’s a letter that is full of Christian teaching and practical spiritual information for people that Paul had not yet become personally acquainted with. In this section, Paul talks about an issue that might not seem especially applicable to us today. He’s talking about God’s Old Testament chosen race, the Jews, the unfortunate reality that many of them had rejected Jesus as the Savior, and the fact that many Gentiles came to believe in Jesus and were added to God’s family even as many from Israel rejected Jesus. It sounds like an academic discussion, but as we work through these verses, we’ll see that their practical application is much stronger than we might expect at first.

Paul begins: “Did [Israel] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring! I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministryin the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” 

Paul starts out this discussion with a rhetorical question. Did the Jews, God’s chosen people from the Old Testament era, fall away from the Lord to the point that they could no longer come back to faith in the true God and believe in Jesus as the Savior that had been promised to their ancestors? Paul’s answer is a clear, “No!” Yes, it was true that many Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus and were added to God’s spiritual family after many of the Jews had rejected Jesus as the promised Savior. But in Paul’s missionary journeys, he had seen how the acceptance of the Gentiles had caused some of the Jews to become jealous that they were no longer being treated as God’s one, specially-chosen nation. Paul hoped that this jealousy might actually draw some of them back to God—and if it did, what a blessing that would be!

Any time you teach an abstract concept, it’s a good idea to use some illustrations to get the point through. Paul’s discussion about the Jews’ and Gentiles’ relationship to God is a somewhat abstract discussion, so he uses two illustrations to advance his point. The illustrations are a bit foreign to our way of thinking, but we’ll still benefit from deciphering what Paul means in verse 16. If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.” Paul’s first illustration came from Old Testament ceremonial (worship) laws. The ancient Jews were supposed to bake a loaf of bread made from the first grains that were harvested each year. They were then to give that bread as an offering, and when they did, God promised to bless or sanctify the rest of their harvest. Paul’s argument is that some people from God’s chosen race did, in fact, remain faithful to the Lord. And if that was the case, if that group represented the small “batch of dough” that was holy, then wasn’t the whole group, the whole “batch of dough,” also somehow special?

Paul’s second illustration made the same point. This time he used the picture of a tree. The roots of the tree would be the fathers of the nation of Israel, men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If these men, these “roots,” were holy or special, doesn’t that also say something about their descendants?

I said before that this is going to seem at first like a very academic discussion. We will see the practical application in just a moment. But before we get there, it is important to make sure that we truly understand what Paul is saying here. God’s choice of the Jews as his special Old Testament chosen people needs a proper perspective. The Savior God promised was going to be a real human being, born of a woman. That meant he would have a family, and that family would naturally be a part of a particular ethnicity or lineage. Just as it was a great honor for God to choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus, so it was a great honor for the people of Israel that God would chose them to be the particular nation through which the Savior of the world came. And that honor remains true whether or not the Jews all recognized Jesus as the Savior. But that honor does not mean that someone with Jewish blood is saved just by their ethnicity, apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Paul’s point of emphasis here is simply that the Gentiles shouldn’t assume that God’s Old Testament people had fallen away from faith merely to let them into God’s family, or that God’s Old Testament people had fallen away so badly that there was no hope for them to come back to faith and be restored as members of God’s spiritual family.

The first part of our Lenten reality check contains hope for the fallen. All this talk about the spiritual condition of ancient Israel falling away from God and possibly returning to him has a very real, practical message. Sometimes we think that we have sinned beyond the point of recovery. Sometimes we page back through our life’s story and we come across a page with something embarrassing or shameful, and as much Scripture tells us otherwise, there is a part of us that thinks that this particular thing from our past is the unforgiveable sin. “God couldn’t possibly accept me because I’ve done that, or I’ve said that.”

Here’s where the academic rubber meets the real-life road. It might seem as if Paul’s words have little to do with us today. He’s talking about religious racial issues in the first century. But if God could forgive the very people who rejected his Son and called for his crucifixion, if God could wipe away their sins by the blood Jesus shed for them, if God would inspire these words of Paul hoping for the return of his Old Testament people, can’t God do the same for you? Is there some sin that the blood of Jesus is not powerful enough to forgive? Is there some fault of yours that somehow was not paid for at the cross? Is there some reason why you are not part of the world God loved when Jesus said that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son”? Of course not! That’s the Lenten reality check we need to hear, a reality check with hope for the fallen who look to Christ for forgiveness and eternal peace.

II.

We left our reading right as Paul expressed his point with the illustration of a tree. As we return to the Second Lesson, Paul is going to expand that illustration to give us a second Lenten reality check, this time with warnings to the faithful. “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root,do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”

We’re used to talking about our family tree, so Paul’s expanded illustration is one we can relate to. God’s Old Testament people are compared to an olive tree. The roots of the tree are patriarchs, or the ancient fathers of the nation. The branches are the generation that Saint Paul was a part of. When people in his day rejected Jesus, it was like they were a branch broken from the tree. And when Gentiles came to faith in Jesus as the Savior, it was like they were a branch from a wild olive tree that was grafted into the “tree” of God’s people.

Now, should the Gentiles who were grafted into the tree think of themselves as something special just because they were grafted in? Was it a blessing for them to be a part of God’s family? Yes, of course! But was there some sort of credit they could take for that? No way! Branches don’t graft themselves into trees; they are grafted into a tree. And branches don’t produce their own nourishment; they are nourished through the tree’s roots.

Paul carries his illustration further: “You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” Paul’s Lenten reality check ends with a warning to the Gentiles who might have improperly taken pride in their status as “spiritual branches grafted to the tree.” Hypothetically speaking, someone could argue that braches were broken off this tree we call the church that made room for the Gentiles. In a sense that was true. But in another sense it was not true. The braches that were broken represented people who had rejected Jesus as the Savior. They had rejected the saving gospel nourishment that came from the tree. There was no reason for Gentile believers to think highly of themselves. Yes, they were a part of the “tree,” but they didn’t graft themselves in. God called them from unbelief to faith; they didn’t choose to believe by themselves. God nourished their faith through Word and Sacrament; they didn’t nourish themselves. Paul reminds his hypothetical Gentile objector that if God didn’t spare the “natural” branches, the Jews, when they fell away from Christ, then God certainly also was not going to spare the Gentiles, the “grafted-in branches,” if their sinful pride led them to fall away.

The second part of our Lenten reality check contains a warning for the faithful. There is no automatic guarantee that believers who become infrequent with their spiritual nourishment or who take the gospel for granted can’t fall away from faith. There is no “get out of hell free card” if you were born to Lutheran parents and were baptized in a WELS congregation. There is no automatic entrance into heaven because you were confirmed as an eighth grader or have a copy of the Small Catechism on your shelf at home. Physically attending worship while you’re spiritually checked out is no formula for staying grafted to Christ.

Truth be told, that is a warning that every believer here today needs to take to heart. Every one of us entered this world as a spiritually dead and broken branch, ready to be burned as kindling in the fires of hell. But you have been grafted to Christ. When Christ hung on the tree of the cross, he endured the very flames of hell that should have burned us up eternally. And now connected to him, you are nourished by the forgiveness that comes from the nourishing sap of his shed blood. Instead of remaining a decaying and dying branch, you were brought to life at your baptism and connected to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Instead of becoming a malnourished twig that could snap in an instant, you are a healthy and growing branch because you are fed by the very body and blood of Christ at this altar. So when the reality of our sin hits close to home and strikes at our conscience, the answer is not to despair, but to delight that Christ has already spared us from sin’s fiery consequences and that the Holy Spirit has grafted us securely to Christ through God’s Word and baptism and communion. With that connection in place, you will remain well-nourished branches attached to Christ.

Conclusion

Reality checks aren’t always fun, but they are important. Sometimes those reality checks come when you read your report card and realize that you have to study harder. Sometimes they come when you open your credit card bill and realize that you have to become more frugal. Sometimes they come when you have an appointment with your doctor and he expresses concern about your health. Reality checks aren’t fun, but they are important. And there can be no more important reality check than the one St. Paul has given us this Fifth Sunday in Lent. Paul offers gospel hope in Jesus for the fallen sinner, and he offers a loving admonition for the person who assumes that he can coast in his faithfulness. In both cases, Paul shows us a tree: the tree of the cross, where Jesus suffered and died to remove sin’s guilt, and the tree of the church that the Holy Spirit has made you a part of. Stay focused on the tree of the cross, and when you do, know that the Holy Spirit will nourish you with God’s grace daily so that you remain a healthy branch through life and to eternity. Amen.

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