Tuesday, November 8, 2011

God's Power: Undaunted Mercy

Preached Sunday, November 6, 2011
Scripture readings: Job 41:1-11; Matthew 23:33-39; Romans 11:25-36

One of the places where I often wish I had brought my camera is a stretch of the road between Ritzville and Washtucna. The place is just a few miles south of Ritzville. There are a couple of spots along that stretch of road. You don’t see them when you are driving north. If you try you will run off the road.

You can only see them when you are driving south. And you have to look at exactly the right spot and time.

There are two views (two elevations) that I have in mind: one looks to the southwest and the other (a bit further on) to the southeast. At certain times, on a clear day, with a particular light, I clearly see vastness.

I don’t see anything in particular, except for the vastness, and I would like to take a picture of it. I am not sure it would be possible to capture it in a picture, because it is simply much too big.

There are a lot of photogenic big things that are easy to catch in a photograph: a mountain, a canyon, a waterfall. Those things have a center that you can use as a target, or a focus. But there are certain places where there is nothing to see but pure, simple, unadulterated vastness.

Some people have a strange and strong dislike for it. Wide, open places make them nervous; make them afraid. But vastness makes me peaceful, and thankful, and even joyful.

There is a vastness that the Apostle Paul talks about in Romans, in chapters nine through eleven. This vastness first made him nervous, and anxious, and afraid. But, in the end, it made him peaceful, and thankful, and joyful. “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33)

The vastness he has in mind is the plan of God for uniting all things in heaven and earth in Christ. (Ephesians 1:10) The vastness is the plan of God for the ages of restoring harmony to a fallen world; restoring humanity and nature to a relationship with him in such a way as to bring them all into the enjoyment of his love and goodness.

The plan is vast because it covers the whole extent and the whole history of the world (and possibly even the whole universe) as we know it. Paul calls it a mystery, but mystery had a specific meaning in the ancient world. It didn’t mean a thing you couldn’t know. It didn’t mean a puzzle or a predicament that was up to you to work out.

Mystery, in the ancient world, meant a great truth that God had revealed. Seeing the mystery meant seeing the truth that holds everything together and makes sense of everything. And even if it doesn’t make sense of everything at once, you see the mystery clearly enough to know that it will keep it promises.

Paul summarized the mystery in the first few paragraphs of his letter to the Romans. He called it “the gospel”, which means “the good news”. It was the good news of Jesus.

Paul summarized it like this. “I am not ashamed of the good news, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For, in the good news, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

This is the vastness that Paul wanted to share with everyone because God had revealed this good news to him through Jesus. Jesus is the center of the vastness that Paul wanted everyone to see. He found that Jesus is the center that makes sense of everything.

Yes, the center has a name. We can call the center the good news, because that is what Jesus is. We can call it the power of God for salvation, because that is what Jesus is. We can call it the righteousness of God (or right relationships with God and through God) because that is what Jesus is. Jesus gives us all of this. So we can call the center that holds everything together by the name of Jesus.

In chapter eleven Paul also calls the center of God’s plan by the name “mercy”. So we can say that, when the world seems most baffling, and confusing, and scary, and brutal, and when the world seems most unacceptable, the mystery is that, in Jesus, the mercy of God can be trusted to do its work; and do it perfectly. Everything can be explained by the mercy of God, according to Paul.

But this happens in the oddest ways. For instance, it works, “For God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

Paul grieved at the thought that the mercy of God might fail to do all the work he hoped for. Paul grieved at the thought that the whole of God’s plan, which had been carefully built upon the foundation of Abraham and his people, was in danger of losing its foundation. The people of Israel, who were groomed for centuries to become the people of Jesus’ birth and upbringing, and who became the people among whom Jesus taught and did wonderful and amazing things, seemed to be dropping out of the plan.

Paul was full of grief because his people now seemed to be left out of the picture for not accepting Jesus as their king and Messiah. They did not accept Jesus’ humble and sacrificial way of bringing his blessing to the whole world through the cross. They did not accept Jesus’ pattern of dying and rising as God’s way of life for them.

Paul always tried to reach out to his people with the good news of Jesus, but he had very little success. He had much more resistance and rejection than success.

The people of Israel were more than a nation. They were a family. In losing them Paul felt the loss of his family. It broke his heart every day. He wrote: “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers and sisters, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” (Romans 9:3)

The people of Israel, including Paul, had enjoyed a special insight into the work and the plan of God over the centuries. They saw that the promises of God go on, and on, and on, in faithfulness, and hope, and mercy. Suddenly, when all their hopes were coming true, they didn’t seize the moment. They shrank back from it. They pushed it away. It was like walking through a wonderful vastness with your friends and suddenly they vanish (as if in a nightmare), or (much worse) they start yelling at you like crazy people, and they run away from you.

“Cut off from Christ” is the phrase Paul uses for the offer he would make to God, if he could win his friends and family. It is a desperate thought!

Then, in chapter eleven, Paul tells a kind of parable or story about a domesticated olive tree which is the tree of God’s people. It is the tree of those who belong to God by faith. He says that there is something strange that God is doing with this tree. God is cutting off the true branches that are of the same variety as the domesticated tree and grafting wild branches onto the tree.

No good farmer, no smart farmer, would do that. Grafting the branches of a wild olive onto a domesticated tree is totally wrong.

Paul says that those who are not part of Israel, but believe the good news, become a part of the tree of God, the tree of Israel. It is faith that makes the wrong branches become a living part of the tree of God.

There is a twisting of faith, a malignancy of faith, a distortion of faith that Paul calls “unbelief”. It happens when faith stops being content to be nothing more than faith, because faith seems to be dependent and needy, and we do not want to be dependent and needy, not even toward God.

Paul gives this distortion of faith the name of arrogance and conceit. Paul says, “They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.” (Romans 11:20)

Paul talks about continuing in God’s kindness. (Romans 11:22) Continuing in God’s kindness is a way of walking dependently; walking and living by faith in God.

The good news is about God, in Christ. The mercy is about God, in Christ. Faith is about God, in Christ.

When we become discontented with faith we may still want to be God’s people. But we want to have fellowship with God in a different way; not just by faith, but by our merit, by our work, by our effort, by our commitment, by our own righteousness, instead of by the righteousness of God. We want to stop owing our fellowship and partnership with God to his sheer mercy.

Paul is saying that this discontent and pride is no way to stay in a condition of faith. If you want to stop depending on mercy then you don’t understand faith at all. You don’t understand the righteousness of God because righteousness means right relationships, and those relationships depend on mercy and grace, whether toward God or toward others.

When God came to his people, in Jesus, he told them: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God’s people didn’t want to love their enemies but to judge them; not to pray for them but to defeat them.

Somehow, they built an identity that was based on their rightful place as God’s people, and not based on their place as the receivers of God’s mercy; mercy for themselves with mercy for others, but not mercy for themselves without mercy for others.

God’s people had made their faith and their holiness into a kind of disobedience that insulated them from pure grace and simple faith, which are the only way to find our true meaning in life. They used the beautiful traditions and laws which came from their history with God as a defense against the life to which they were called by God, in Christ.

God had called their father Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. The Lord had told Abraham: “I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing….and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

God’s people held themselves together and survived by enclosing themselves and insulating themselves inside a shell. It all looked very pretty, in its own way, but it actually protected them from the real meaning of their life.

Bad things had happened to them. Some of those things were their own fault, some were not. But what God found in his people’s unwillingness to listen to him, when he came to them in Jesus, and what Paul found when he spoke to them on behalf of Jesus, was what you find in a person who has responded to their hurts and their hard times the wrong way.

Some people respond by growing in compassion and love. Others respond by always trying to prove themselves, or by going around with a chip on their shoulder, or by not getting involved. We can grow tender or we can grow hard. God’s people grew hard.

It was a kind of disobedience and, as Paul said, they needed to see what they had done to themselves. Even the best of people need to know themselves as people in need of grace and mercy.

There is no other way to live as a true blessing to others. That is why Paul warned his readers (and warns us) against arrogance and conceit, for these are often the greatest sins of good people and they are destructive.

Paul talks about God hardening the hearts of his people. It is basically the same thing we saw God do in the first chapter of Romans, where people did not accept what God was trying to tell them about his power. They did not want to accept what God was showing them about his image that was supposed to shape their lives and change them. Paul says that, because they would not listen and learn, God “gave them up”. (Romans 1:24, 26, 28)

But, as we thought about that terrible fate, we also thought about how it could be a strategy of love. Loving parents always have to let their children go. Sometimes, they must let them go the wrong way, to do what they are driving themselves so hard to do, so that they can, hopefully, learn how to come home from the depths of their heart. Maybe, in a smaller way, it is like a parent ignoring their child’s tantrum, until the child sees that tantrums are no good.

Paul, here, is talking about God’s mercy. There is no mention of judgment here; only mercy. The only judgment taking place is what Paul calls the “the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” (Romans 11:33) How will God, in his wisdom, plot out the hidden way for those who need his mercy most to discover it, even against their will?

According to Paul, God, in Christ, has a plan to bring mercy to those who reject it. Jesus hinted about it in the middle of his anger at those who were rejecting him. “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:39)

Jesus is clear that they will see him again and that they will say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But he doesn’t say how that change will come, and he doesn’t say when.

Paul only gives a measurement that makes us wonder more than it answers our questions. The people of Israel will come in when “the full number of the Gentiles (the nations) has come in.” (Romans 11:25)

The Bible is pretty clear about this mystifying promise. Peter writes about it in his second letter. “The Lord is not slow about keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) But how can you even measure that? When will the growing human race finally include “everyone”?

Well, God may be patient, but Paul was often impatient. He wished that he could be cut off from Christ for the sake of his own people.

There is this odd thing that we must see in God’s promises. They are about life and death, and life and death are going on around us all the time. Life and death is going on in everyone we know.

At the same time, Paul takes stock of things and warns us against the conceit that comes from thinking we are rightfully inside and those who are against us are rightfully outside. Or we are inside and those who are just not with us are outside.

In this matter of life and death, we think of people we know. And we think about who we are, and where we are, in this matter of life and death. Paul was not thinking in the abstract about imaginary people, but about the people he knew; very often the people he loved most.

But God is telling us, through Paul’s writings, and through the rest of the scriptures, how to think. Paul struggled until he was able to think about the ability of God to accomplish his mercy. That is how we ought to think.

Our freedom, in response to God’s promises and God’s offer of mercy, is a scary freedom. What we need to think about is how we are to live with the knowledge that God is strong enough to accomplish his purpose in the long run and, then, to apply our faith in that future strength to God’s strength in the present.

If God is able to accomplish his plan of mercy in the long run, will he not use his same power for mercy for those who concern us now? Can we confidently entrust those whom we know, now, and everyone in our present generation, to the mercy of God now? Can we live, and speak, and think with confidence in that mercy now?

Paul was able to overcome his fears and anxieties about the faith or the unbelief of others, because he knew “the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” Paul could be faithful to the life and death issues that are involved in our choices and priorities in life. At the same time he could entrust the lives of those he knew and loved to the mercy of God.

Somehow even our disobedience is for the future purpose of our entering the mercy of God. There are warnings and cautions about presuming on this, or taking advantage of this. We don’t want to forget that caution.

In my own life, I can look at times when (maybe) God had given me up to my resistance against him and his purpose for me, and I learned to love the Lord more, and to know him better, as a result of the trouble I had caused myself and others, and all the precious time I had wasted. With God, nothing is wasted; not even the jealousy that Paul talks about; and few things cause more harm than jealousy. But, with God, nothing is wasted.

In war, there is a thing called “collateral damage”. It has come to mean civilian deaths and injuries caused by military action.

In our life as Christians, and as the Body of Christ (the family of Christ) in the world, we sometimes seem to cause collateral damage in our effort to be faithful to God, in our attempt to be holy. We wear people out. We allow our brothers and sisters to be unjust and unkind to others.

We need to grieve for that. We also need to trust that (in the mercy of God) the collateral damage will be healed and overcome.

But there is another fear that, in the plan of God, in the progress of the kingdom of God, all will come right in the end, but only at the expense of unacceptable levels of collateral damage. We fear that, along the way (even in God’s strategy), there will be the collateral damage of those who did not receive the mercy of God, and therefore lost it.

I believe there is another way the Bible gives us. It is true that there are those who receive God’s mercy and do not welcome it. They say “no” to the mercy of God. But in God’s scheme of things, in God’s time, or in God’s eternity beyond time, those people never cease to be offered the mercy of God.

I went to a high school that had a rigid “pecking order” (social order) and I was low down in that order. As low as I was, there were people lower on the scale than I was. Sadly, I would have been embarrassed to have them as my friends. I would have been embarrassed to be seen with them.

The mercy of God is the opposite of that embarrassment. The friendship of God may be unwelcome because it comes in a shape, or in a condition, that seems unacceptable to you, or to someone you know.

But God is like that most un-cool person in your school, who is so not-cool that they are completely blind to what others think of them. They are completely unfazed and undeterred by the clearest forms of rejection. They simply don’t know when to stop being the way they are. It isn’t in their nature to stop.

God doesn’t stop. God’s mercy, in Christ, does not stop. It is just like Jesus, praying for those who were crucifying him. We cannot know God as he truly is, in Jesus, and live as if anyone living or dead has stopped being the object of the mercy of God.

I believe in hell, but I also believe in the mercy of God, in Christ. I believe in not being afraid of anyone’s destination.

Let us believe in living as if everyone we know, and everyone we meet, and everyone in the world, belongs to God. God is doing everything to prepare that person for his mercy and love. It is the mystery revealed in the good news of Jesus that makes us say, “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”


  1. God has a plan for each os us...I bealive so.
    many times we do not know what plan is that...but we have to have faith.
    Today, I'm in a hurry, Pastor,because i'm going to drive with my husband to Coimbra , to an appointment os cirurgy, in the oncology institut. Doctores are going to decide whether(? spelling is wong, i suppose) he's going to have a second cirurgy or not.
    I'm worried...I'm so sad...my hand are trembling...my eyes are full of tears.I pray, every day, several times a day...
    I feel my stregh is over....

    Sorry...today I do not comment your deep and nice speach.

    God Bless you, and all your belovd ones.

  2. I will pray for your husband and for you. I am sorry to hear that you must mace this great danger and fear.

  3. thank you so much for these inspirational words/thoughts!

    as a christian i've notice that as time passe by the values of religion are diminishing...(alas), so your posts are so valuable, pastor Dennis.
    makes us all realizing that we all need God's strength and help in the midst of life's storms...
    i liked those pictures you paired with this post, too.

    Thanks SO much for posting this!

    Have a great day!

    p.s. i always love reading your wonderful and meaningful comments on my blog. i'm so grateful for your continued support as well.
    thanks so much again.

  4. Your gracious responses are always encouraging to me. The photos in the sermons are always accidental. I go out taking pictures for the fun of it and they form a resevoir that I take more or less in order. The collection from my summer vacation lasted quite a long time.