Thursday, February 27, 2014

God Has Been Faithful

Paul begins Romans 11 with this question: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” It sure seems that way. Paul finished chapter 9 talking about how Israel has stumbled because they pursued the law incorrectly. He expanded on that idea further in chapter 10 and concluded by echoing Isaiah’s words that they are a disobedient and contrary people. So surely Israel’s time has come to an end, right? They will be replaced by God’s new people, a mostly Gentile people, since his old people have failed to respond to his Messiah, won’t they?

Paul’s answer is a resounding “No!”. We’ve noted many times throughout Romans how central Paul’s own experience - the experience of persecuting the Church out of obedience to the law only to have Christ directly intervene and call him to true obedience and faithfulness - has been to his understanding of all that God is doing through Christ with both Jews and Gentiles. We find he is doing the same thing here as he puts himself on display as exhibit A in his own people’s defense. He is himself an Israelite and God has not rejected him even though God had every reason to do so. Paul had not only rejected Christ but was actively persecuting his followers, entirely “ignorant of the righteousness of God” (10:3). But God in Christ intervened on the road to Damascus to show Paul the way. This is what Paul means when he says it is by grace and not by works. It had nothing to do with what Paul was doing. It had everything to do with Christ stepping in.

And Paul says that the same thing has happened for many other Jews just like him. Perhaps their stories were not all as dramatic as his but it could be no less a matter of God revealing God’s own righteousness to them through Christ. Just as God had reserved 7000 in Israel who had not bowed to Baal in the days of Elijah, likewise God was now preserving a remnant in Paul’s own day even when it looked like all of Israel was rejecting God’s work in Christ.

But neither is this remnant the end of God’s work with Israel. In v. 25, Paul finally spells out for us what he has been hinting at and building up to for a couple chapters now. He says “ Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Despite all that Paul has said in these chapters about his fellows Jews and their failure to perceive God’s purpose or to pursue the law properly, he still believes that God is not done with them. God has only hardened his countrymen to give the Gentiles a chance to respond. This response by the Gentiles along with the remnant of Israel that is responding to God’s Messiah will in turn provoke his fellow Jews to jealousy. This, Paul believes, will ultimately cause them to come to Christ as well. God has not abandoned his people.

Somewhere along the way, however, we begin to realize that this is not merely about Israel, as vastly important as that is to Paul. This runs much deeper than just a concern for Israel. It is a concern about the very character of God. It is a concern with whether or not God has kept his promises. So many hundreds of years before, God had made a promise to Abraham. God renewed that promise with Isaac and with Jacob and with the slaves freed from Egypt. Generation after generation of people, of families, of a whole nation depended upon those promises. Their faithfulness was founded on the idea that God would be faithful to them and the promises God had made to their fathers. Paul has told us repeatedly in Romans, from the first echo of Habakkuk but especially in chapters 9-11, that even though God has done something radically, cosmically new and unexpected in Christ, that newness has not negated the old promises. It has fulfilled them. God kept his promises to Israel and that is a point that bears repeating because it means that God will keep his promises to us. It means that God is faithful.

That single idea, the faithfulness of God, is like a character who has been hovering in the background almost unnoticeable through all of act one only to be revealed as the main character here in act two. Without having realized it at first, now that our character has come front and center we realize that he is the one who has been driving the plot all along. Paul hinted at it in his reference to Habakkuk in 1:17. He highlighted the need for faithfulness in light of human unfaithfulness. He told us a new righteousness had been revealed through the faithfulness of Christ. He told us that God had been faithful to deliver from us our exile in sin. Paul told us God had been faithful to deliver him in spite of all he had done. He told us that nothing could separate us from the faithfulness of Christ. Now that Paul has specifically brought to the forefront of our minds that God is faithful to keep his promises, we realize that is exactly what Paul has been saying one way or another throughout Romans. Despite the strangeness of the almighty God working through a crucified Messiah, despite the distressing lack of response by Paul’s fellow Jews, despite it being in a way no one would have ever expected, God has been faithful to keep his promises through Messiah Jesus.

It is fitting then that this unit of Romans 9-11 and the intense theological reflection of chapters 1-11 conclude with a poetic reflection on the mysterious ways of God.

 “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things.

God promises a nation of descendants to an elderly and childless couple. Then when they finally have a child, God asks for the child’s life. God promises to cleanse his people but decides to do it by a pagan and godless horde of vicious Babylonians. God promises deliverance through a Messiah only to see that Messiah executed like a shameful criminal. God chooses a people only to have those people reject God while others find God. Over and over again, it seems there can be no way forward with the promises of God. Surely this is the moment when the present circumstances will force God’s promise to bend to the breaking point. Then impossible conception happens. Then resurrection happens. Then revelation on the road to Damascus happens. And God’s promises move forward in ways that we never could have imagined were possible. Unsearchable and inscrutable, indeed. But it is out of this faithfulness that the righteous will live. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Kindergarten Student Claims School System Is Failing Her

After having to cancel six days of school because of snow already this winter, some New England school districts are considering the implementation of what they are calling the Alternate Transportation Plan. The ATP involves retrofitting current school buses with certain modifications that will allow them to travel safely in any weather conditions. These modifications include upgrading the vehicles' tires to 8 feet in size and fixing flame throwers to the front of every bus so that the drivers can melt any snow in their path. Due to the appearance of the retrofitted buses, some residents are referring to them as the "Monster-truck buses." Commenting on the plan, one school district superintendent says "Of course, we are concerned for the safety of our students but even more so we are concerned with maintaining our snow superiority over the rest of the country. We have a reputation to uphold."

Local residents agree with the superintendent's assessment of the situation. While they recognize the bus modifications will be paid for by their tax dollars, they believe it is the proper price tag for continuing to practice their snow snobbery. One mother with school age children stated: "We've all posted that meme on our facebook walls about Southerns closing everything down for 1/4 inch of snow while Northerners go to work with three feet of snow on top of their cars. I can't keep posting stuff like that if we are canceling school along with the rest of the country! Something has to be done!"

A Taxachussetts resident commented "My sister in Atlanta is already calling to say that her kids have missed fewer school days for snow than my kids. I've already started a petition showing support for a raise in taxes if that is what it takes to pay for these new buses."

When kindergarten student Hannah Young was asked what she thought about missing another day of school because of snow, she said "But we were supposed to have our Valentine's party today!" fighting back tears. Clearly, this school system is failing its students.

Other New England news outlets are reporting that the whole idea of "school buses" may have been a long term conspiracy by certain groups in the South to humiliate the North after the War of Northern Aggression (sometimes referred to as the Civil War). This comes as the most recent piece of evidence that the deepest divides in our country truly have centuries of history behind them. All Things New will not keep you posted on developments in this story as this is not an actual news website.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Word Is Near You

In my last post, I argued that Paul was not setting up “faith” as an alternative to keeping the law. Neither is “faith” the opposite of works in the sense of trying to earn one’s own salvation, since no first century Jew had in mind to attempt that. Instead, Paul was arguing that faith(fulness) was actually the way to maintain and uphold the law all along because the law’s goal was always the faithfulness of Christ as opposed to the law being an end in itself.

Paul continues this train of thought throughout the rest of Romans 10. We see it almost immediately in v.6 when he writes “the righteousness based on faith says….” and he goes on to quote the law. It wouldn’t really make much sense to be quoting from Deuteronomy, itself a part of the law, if everything written in it were contrary to the faith Paul has been talking about. But since Paul has been arguing that faith(fulness) is actually the right way to pursue the law, it is perfectly logical to think that we might be able to find that idea somewhere in the Torah itself. So Paul quotes words from Deuteronomy that speak to the nearness of this law. It is so near in fact that “It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

“That is the word of faith” - the one that is so near that it is actually in your mouth and heart rather than something that is external to you - “that we proclaim.” For so many chapters Paul has been talking about this righteousness that comes out of faithfulness and often he has only hinted at what that means, what that looks like in everyday life. It is submitting ourselves to righteousness, in chapter 6, walking by the Spirit in chapter 8. He will give us many more details in that regard starting in chapter 12. But here is another important hint - this “law of faith” is not something external to us but rooted deeply within our very being. Although Paul does not quote it here, one easily thinks of the words of Jeremiah 31 which are so often quoted in the New Testament where God promises to put his law within his people and write it on their hearts. This, I think, is why Paul can say “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It is not because a few words passing through your lips once is all God wants. It is because the law of faithfulness is not something outside of us. It is something that is imprinted on our innermost being leading us to confess our allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

All this, however, only seems to make Israel’s rejection of Jesus all the more troubling for Paul. He acknowledges that perhaps not all have heard the message about the Messiah preached specifically to them but he says it is not as though haven’t heard at all. Psalm 19, which Paul quotes in v. 18, says that all of creation declares the glory of God. In Romans 1, Paul said this was the same reason that Gentiles were without excuse. Surely, his fellow Jews can not get off any easier. Neither is the problem that they haven’t understood. Isaiah describes his very own people as “disobedient and contrary”. As a result, God is using others who do not know God and have not sought God to incite his own people to jealousy. It is this idea on which Paul will expand in Romans 11.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The End of the Law

In the preceding verses, Paul has retold Israel’s story so as to show that God has always been making and remaking Israel, forming a remnant from Abraham descendants with the result that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Now in 9:30 Paul pauses as he often does to ask a rhetorical question.

            “What shall we say then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it; that is, a righteousness that is by faith(fulness); but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law?”

The implied answer here is “Yes, that is exactly what we should say!”. In fact, it is what Paul has been saying through most of Romans 1-8. And it is that argument in Romans 1-8 we must remember if we are to understand what Paul is saying here. He is not merely advocating for faith over works as those of us raised in the Protestant tradition might expect at first glance. Instead, he is saying that Israel has done the same thing that Paul described himself as having done in Romans 7. Even as Paul “followed” the law by persecuting the Church, that pursuing of the law actually led Paul away from where God really wanted him to be. Likewise, Paul is saying here,  Israel sought righteousness through the law but even in keeping the law Israel did not succeed in really reaching the law’s goal (more on that in a moment).

In the next verse (32), Paul says that the reason Israel failed to reach the law’s goal is because they didn’t pursue it by faith(fulness) but as if it were by works. Once again, it is important to remember how Paul has used this language throughout his letter and not simply impose our own meaning on these words. When Paul has talked about “works” in Romans, he has had in mind specifically the works of the Jewish law; things like circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance, things that marked Israel off as Israel. So when he says that Israel pursued the law by works he is not admonishing his fellow Jews for trying to earn their salvation.  Instead, he is saying they’ve missed what it means to really fulfill the law; that truly reaching God’s law is not about ethnic identity markers. Similarly, when Paul has talked about faith(fulness) in Romans he has been referring to God’s faithfulness through Christ (often followed closely by faithful human response). Likewise, here Paul would be saying the law’s real goal is found not in maintaining Jewish ethnicity but in the faithfulness of God. And it is no coincidence that this is the same thing Paul has just been saying in the preceding verses (whereas arguing that righteousness comes by faith as trust or belief rather than works would have very little to do with anything Paul said in 9:1-29). Paul has just spent the whole chapter claiming that being Israel is not about ethnicity but about God’s faithfulness to his promises.

By pursuing the law as if its goal was maintaining the purity of Israel, Israel has stumbled over the stumbling block of God’s faithfulness in Christ. They failed to see that Christ was actually the law’s goal. That is what Paul means in 10:4 when he says “Christ is the end of the law.” Like its English counterpart, the Greek word telos does not always refer to the termination or cessation of something. It can also mean “end” in the sense of a goal or purpose and that is Paul’s meaning here. Christ is the point to which the law has been leading all along. Jesus is the summit of Israel’s story that Paul has been telling for the last 37 verses. Faith in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ are not the antithesis of the law. Paul is not arguing that Israel should give up the law and just “have faith” instead. He is saying that the way to really fulfill the law is through faith in and the faithfulness of the Messiah. He said as much all the way back in 3:31: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith(fulness)? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law!”.

Once again, we hear the echoes of that old friend who has always been close by as we’ve journeyed through the pages of Romans; the prophet Habakkuk. We are reminded of his assessment of Israel in his own day to which Paul alludes at the opening of his epistle. “The law is paralyzed; justice goes forth perverted” Habakkuk claims but “the righteous out of faith(fulness) will live.” In these verses of Romans 9 and 10, Paul has claimed that the law has essentially been paralyzed for Israel because they haven’t pursued it properly. The law was always meant to be fulfilled by living out of faith(fulness). In the remaining verses of Romans 10, Paul will enlist some of the passages of Scripture most central to Israel’s identity in the first century in order to argue further for this very point.