Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 26, 2013

Sermon on Romans 9:1-9

ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW DOOR!

  1. Don’t neglect the unique blessings God gives you
  2. Don’t forget the unique promise that saves you

Based on Romans 9:1-9

Introduction

I’m sure that many of you have had this conversation before with various people in your life. I’ve had this conversation many times before. The most recent time was just last week. As the topic of discussion turns to spiritual matters and eternal life and how you get to heaven, someone says, “I haven’t been that bad. There are lots of people worse than me. Of course God will let me into heaven!” Is that common view? Yes. Does that seem reasonable? Yes. Is that what God’s Word teaches? Not by a long shot!

In Jesus’ day, many people also had misconceived notions about how they got right with God. This was the case with many people who were a part of the same nation Jesus was a part of. God had chosen one particular nation, Israel, to be his chosen people, because through them the Savior of the world was going to come. But many people in God’s chosen ancient nation thought that since they had the special privilege of being the nation that the Savior came through, they were right with God based on that special privilege alone. Was that a common view among them? Probably. Does that seem reasonable? Yes, given the fact that God really did choose Israel for that special privilege. But was that perspective correct? Not by a long shot.

In the Gospel for today’s service (Luke 13:22-30), Jesus warned his listeners that they should not presume that their assumptions about how to enter heaven were correct. The invitation to be a part of God’s family was bigger than they assumed it was: It is meant for all people! And the criterion for acceptance into God’s family was different than they assumed it was: It had nothing to do with one’s DNA, and everything to do with faith in God’s promises. So Jesus warned his audience not to assume that they could casually coast into heaven by virtue of their ethnicity. He warned them that, in that sense, the door to heaven was narrow, receiving only those whose trust was placed in the promise of forgiveness directly attached to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In today’s Second Lesson (Romans 9:1-9), the apostle Paul makes a very similar point. And far from this being some hypothetical, theoretical discussion that only applied to first century Christians, there are some pivotal and practical lessons for us to learn from this discussion. In his own way, Paul warns us, as Jesus did, “Enter through the narrow door!” And if we wish to enter through the narrow door to heaven, Paul warns you: Don’t neglect the unique blessings God gives you, and do not neglect the unique promise from God that saves you. 

I.

I am a big fan of Logos Bible Software. I have owned versions of Logos Bible Software ever since I graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary a dozen years ago. It offers me study advantages and research capabilities that would take up hours of time otherwise. It does just about everything but brew your morning coffee! But until a few years ago, I really wasn’t using the program to its full potential. Then I went to a couple of different workshops over a three-year period that trained people how to use the software to its potential. That made a big difference for me. You see, you can have tools and advantages at your fingertips, but that doesn’t mean those tools and advantages are helping you.

(Keep that illustration in mind as we now work through our reading). The apostle Paul is the author of today’s Second Lesson. He was also a Jew. He knew that as a Jew, a member of God’s specially chosen ancient people, he and his fellow Jews had unique advantages or blessings that other people did not have. God selected Israel to be the one nation from all the nations of the world to be his specially chosen people. Why was that? God’s promise to send a Savior from sin into this world meant that the Savior had to be born a human being like one of us. If he is going to be born, then he has parents: God was his Father, but Mary was his mother. And if he has a human mother, he has a family. And if he has a family, he is going to be part of a nation or an ethnic group. So even though the Savior came for all, he came through one particular nation. God told that one particular nation, Israel, that the Savior would come through them. And then, as a part of this special privilege, God set them apart from other nations by their unique national laws and worship practices and their reception of God’s Word.

Paul lists the unique blessings God gave ancient Israel in verses four and five of our reading. “Theirs is the adoption as sons.” The Jews were chosen from among all nations to be God’s children. “Theirs [is] the divine glory.” The Jews were firsthand witnesses of the visible power and majesty of God as he led them out of Egypt and to the “Holy Land,” and as his glory visibly filled their place of worship. “[Theirs is] the covenants.” The Jews received God’s repeated promises of his future actions that would benefit his people, and sometimes those promises were accompanied by a symbolic ceremony. “[Theirs is] the receiving of the law.” The Jews were the direct recipients of the clear and concise commandments of God (the moral law) and of the “Torah,” the Hebrew word for “law” that refers to the first five, key books of the Old Testament. “[Theirs is] the temple worship.” God was the Old Testament “Commission on Worship,” and he prescribed all their worship customs with words and symbols and rituals that pointed forward to the coming Savior. “[Theirs are] the promises.” The Jews heard God’s repeated promises to send the coming Savior, promises woven in the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi. “Theirs are the patriarchs.” Israel’s history recorded the great heroes of faith who were their ancestors and who first received the initial promises of God that set them apart as a special nation. Finally, “from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!” All of the promises and worship customs and covenants and everything else already mentioned gave them the special advantage and unique blessing that through their blood line the Savior of the world was coming: Jesus Christ, God and man miraculously combined in one person.

If I didn’t learn how to use the Bible software I talked about earlier, it couldn’t help me. If the Jews didn’t understand or properly put to use the unique blessings and advantages they had as God’s Old Testament people, then those blessings couldn’t help them. And that was the case for so many of them. This tore at Paul’s heart so much that he suggests that he would trade places with them under God’s judgment if only that would lead his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus to turn to him in faith. “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 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.”

Do we have unique advantages and blessings as members of a confessional Lutheran church like St. Mark’s? Let’s not become conceited or speak in a disparaging way about other Christian churches, but can we sincerely ask if we have unique blessings or advantages as confessional Lutherans? Think about it. From little on, we are taught to look at Scripture from the perspective of law and gospel, sin and grace—and that perspective, which is taught in Scripture, really puts all of Scripture into its proper perspective, doesn’t it? In our weekly services, worship highlights the work of Jesus in a unique way on every page—from confession and absolution, to songs and hymns that proclaim Jesus’ work, to a rich selection of Scripture lessons each week, to law-and-gospel focused preaching, to celebrating Holy Communion and receiving Jesus’ very body and blood, to exiting with the triple blessing of God’s grace echoing in our ears. I think we can honestly say, without degenerating into sinful pride, that we have unique blessings and advantages in the confessional Lutheran church.

So how do we respond to the unique blessing of law and gospel preaching? Is our response when we arrive home, “What a blessing to once again be declared God’s redeemed and loved and forgiven children”? Or do we mutter something else to ourselves? “Here we go again: the same old same old. I’ve heard this before a thousand times. Say something else, please!”  And how do we respond to the unique blessings embedded in Lutheran worship? What are our first thoughts after worship? “Wow! After all I said and did last week, I should have been banned from the presence of God forever, but instead God brought me into his presence, covered my sin in the white robe of Jesus’ righteousness, and assured me that I am his redeemed and adopted child!” Or do our thoughts fail to see the great blessings we receive and focus only on the negative? “I didn’t like that song. The ushers made a mistake. Did you see what that person was wearing? Someone forgot to make the coffee! The church was too hot. The church was too cold. That hymn was too fast. That hymn was too slow.”

Ancient Israel had tons of unique blessings and advantages from God. Some of them realized that, and saw how those blessings pointed them to the coming Savior. Many more did not. Don’t we have unique blessings in our preaching and teaching and worship? Do we thank God for opening up the Scriptures to us and regularly pointing us to his Son’s saving work? Or are we so familiar with these unique blessings that we don’t see them as such, that we tire of the stupendous story of salvation and turn a blind eye to the rich blessings that are distributed in God’s house each week?

II.

The faculty and pastors have a staff Bible study each week during the school year. Our study this year is going to walk us through this book, Romans, section by section from now through May. We started last week, and our section covered this significant verse from Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” The Bible’s gospel message is described as “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” Chronologically speaking, the gospel was “first for the Jew” for all the reasons we’ve already noted: They received the Old Testament gospel promises directly before Jesus entered into the world. But if that’s the case, and if many of Paul’s fellow Jews had rejected the gospel, then it sounds like that key verse from the first chapter of Romans is wrong. Then it sounds like the gospel really wasn’t “first for the Jew.” That’s what Paul goes on to explain in our reading.

“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” Today we use the words “Jew” and “Jewish” to refer either to an ethnic group or to a religion. Paul is doing the same thing here with the word “Israel.” His ethnic use of the world is the same as our meaning today. But his religious use of the word “Israel” is different. Anyone who believes in the promises of God contained in the Scriptures belongs to “spiritual Israel.” Faith in the promises of God was the key aspect of Abraham’s relationship with God—the man who was the father of the nation of Israel. That is a summary of Paul’s point at the end of our reading (vv. 7-9). So when someone today realizes that God’s promises to send a Savior through Abraham’s offspring were fulfilled in Jesus, and when they believe that Jesus died and rose again to save them from sin and take away sin’s punishment as God had promised, then that person is a member of “spiritual Israel.”

I hope you will agree with me that we have many unique blessings as Christians and also unique blessings as confessional Lutherans. I hope you will confess with me that all too often we take those blessings for granted, ignore them, abuse them, and neglect them. But I especially hope that you will agree with St. Paul (and, ultimately, with the Holy Spirit!) that despite our sins and sinfulness, God has showered you with a unique promise that saves you!

He gives you a promise to save you that he first extended to Abraham, when he promised that through him and his family line all people would be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). He gives you a promise that he spoke through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah that the promised Savior would be miraculously born of a virgin and would be God in human flesh, united in one person (Isaiah 7:14). He gives you a promise that he again spoke through Isaiah that the Savior would suffer and die on behalf of our sins and take their guilt away from our record (Isaiah 53:4-6). He gives you a promise that he inspired in the Old Testament hymnal, Psalms, that the Savior would not remain and rot in the grave after his death but he would rise from death and open up the gates of eternal life to all who trust in him (Psalm 16:10-11).

The Lord gives you a promise that was fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ, and faith in that promise now makes you God’s sons and daughters and a part of his spiritual kingdom. He gives you a promise that you first received at the baptismal font and that he reaffirms to you in the Scriptures and in his Son’s holy Supper. He gives you a promise that is not contingent on your DNA, or your good deeds seen by society, or the frequency of your prayers, or how long you have claimed membership in a Christian church, or how much you do for your church. He gives you a promise that is built entirely on his undeserved love for you, but a promise that inspires us to praise God by living lives that express our gratitude each day for his unique promises to us.

Conclusion

While my family was on vacation in Wisconsin last month, we heard a news story on the radio about a concert by Paul McCartney. The concert was at Miller Park, the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium. The doors to the concert opened much later than expected, and it seemed that the 40,000 plus concert-goers all wanted to enter at the same time. There was a “bottleneck” problem. A sizeable amount of people could not get in until well after the concert started.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus spoke about the entrance to heaven as a “narrow door.” This doesn’t mean that heaven’s entrance is going to have a “bottleneck” problem, as if it is a literal matter of squeezing your way in before the gates are shut. But the door to heaven is narrow in this sense: If we neglect the words and promises of God, we will do so to our eternal detriment, and we will discover that the door to heaven is “narrower” than we had hoped.

Thank God that our entrance through that narrow door is promised to us, not because we have a special connection, but because God’s promises are sure. His promises have sustained our faith up until now and they will do so until the day of his Son’s return. So don’t neglect the unique blessings God has given you as his child. And don’t forget the unique promises God has spoken to you in his Word. Take hold of those God-given blessings and promises, and receive your entrance through heaven’s door, and into heaven’s eternity. Amen.

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