Read or listen to Romans 9
In 1974 the Mangum High School baseball team was playing Weatherford in the playoffs. For a small school that did not play winter ball, we had a really good team. I was in left field for this game and had our team’s only hit—a first inning triple. By the top of the last inning, neither team had scored. Weatherford had a runner on second with two outs. The batter hit a high fly ball to straight away center field. It should have been an easy out. I ran to back up the play but noticed that the center fielder was not moving or even getting ready to make the catch. Other people began yelling at him but he didn’t respond. I ran as fast as I could directly to the ball and stretched as far as I could only to see it hit a yard in front of me. As I got up off the ground I saw the runner crossing home and the center fielder throwing the ball in that he had fielded on the bounce without moving a step. The next batter grounded out but we could not score in our half of the inning. The fulfillment of the promise of greatness in this season was lost.
In 1977 I was on a forced march at Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. This was the second half of my officer program known as the Platoon Leaders Class. Many had come the previous year, some succeeded, but fewer returned for this final six weeks of screening and evaluation.
As we hiked up the slippery mud slopes with roots jutting out of the ground and the light changing from shadow to shade to intense sunlight in the humid Virginia air, we would occasionally hear a cracking sound. Generally, this was a root that had been stepped on too many times.
On occasion, it would be the leg bone of a candidate whose foot had somehow become trapped in the roots and slipped. He would be evacuated safely, but as the rest of us marched on, we knew he would not finish the course he was on. He had come so far, but would not finish.
In 1986 I was preparing my company to deploy to the North Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea as part of the second Special Operations Capable Marine Amphibious Unit. This special ops stuff meant extra training, more exercises, and more evaluations. As a result, the Marines grew closer together.
As the time neared for deployment, the training intensified and we got everything out of our Marines and Corpsmen that they had to give. So when their training day was over, what do exhausted Marines do? They go play basketball. Unfortunately, you get a lot of sprained ankles and an occasional break in basketball. One of my young Marine severely sprained his ankle and was not medically qualified to embark on the ship. Needless to say, I outlawed basketball for the two weeks before the deployment. The passageways, ladders, and other nuances of a naval combat vessel make navigating it on crutches an impractical task. We had no more basketball injuries in those last two weeks, but the young Marine would not get to see the world outside of North Carolina in the year to come.
Many can relate to being a part of a group destined for greatness. There is exhilaration in achieving more than believed to be possible. But there is also great anguish in knowing the promise of greatness but not achieving it.
Paul was part of a very special group. He was one of God’s Chosen People. Chosen for what?
- Divine glory
- The covenants
- Receiving of the law
- Temple worship
- God’s promises
- The Patriarchs
Paul knew great anguish because he was part of a group that was special and he was special among them.
- Circumcised the 8th day
- Nation of Israel
- Tribe of Benjamin
- As to the law, a Pharisee
But Israel had not recognized the Messiah. She had interpreted her calling and privilege in too narrow and too restrictive a way. She had sought to save God’s blessing for herself and likewise sought righteousness through works. But Paul says that he would trade what is most valuable to him—salvation in Christ Jesus—that his people might have what he has.
How many of us have wished or prayed or even pleaded with God to let us go through something terrible instead of a loved one. Have you ever felt this sort of anguish that goes to your core? This is what Paul is expressing. His mission is to take the message of good news to the unbelieving world, a pagan world, the Gentile world. His heart desires that his own people would have known Christ as he knows him.
And he has great anguish.
But Paul does not stop writing. He doesn’t even seem to change tracks in his train of thought, for he knows there is more.
Israel has not failed. Note the genealogies that we find in two gospels. The lineage of Christ goes back to Abraham. Through Christ, the promise to Abraham is fulfilled. But surely, God’s own people could have seen this?
They saw only a bloodline and missed the promise.
But Paul takes us on a journey down Old Testament memory lane.
- The Promise to Abraham
- Realized through Isaac
- Continued through the younger son, Jacob
Paul poses the question; shall we say God is unjust?
- Through Moses we see God has mercy on whom he has mercy
- Through Pharaoh we see God will harden whom he will harden
Paul poses another question. How can God blame us? Who can resist his will?
Again it seems that Paul indirectly delves into some Old Testament antecedent seeking lessons from Job, Jeremiah, and an occasional psalmist.
- Who are you to talk back to God? Surely similar questions come to mind. Did you build any mountains? Did you tell the sea how far it could go, and no farther? Is the earth and everything in it not God’s?
- Can the potter not do what he wants with a lump of clay? Can he not make it for a noble purpose or for a common use? Can the potter not reshape it?
Then Paul poses another question, perhaps a more challenging question. What if God choosing to show his wrath did so with great patience with those deserving of his wrath—those headed for destruction so that those objects of his mercy could finally see the riches of his glory?
Many have speculated what the thorn in Paul’s side was: the ailment or affliction that he asked God to remove three times. Some guessed it was weak eyes. Others say perhaps it was arthritis. Since we are just speculating, I going to add my guess. Perhaps Paul’s thorn in his side was the run-on sentence.
Let’s break down this concept.
God is God.
He made us.
He gave us life.
He can use us as he desires.
He can take that life away.
He can judge us.
He can condemn us.
He can sentence us to everlasting torment.
He can leave us eternally separated from himself.
And in all these things he would be just.
He would remain righteous.
He would remain holy.
This is the God that much of the Christian world knows. This is the God that so many Christians proclaim to the world. This is the God that much of the world does not want to know.
- People live miserable lives hoping that they live good enough that God doesn’t send them to hell.
- People live ignorant lives thinking that if there is a heaven, I’m as good as the next guy and ought to get in.
- People live hopeless lives believing there is no way to please such a God.
But this is our God. He made us and can use us for whatever he desires. He is God.
It’s sad that this is all that some know about God. It is pitiful that some believe that this is all there is to God. We as God’s people should have great anguish as well whenever this is the God we present to the world. For our God is much more.
Consider Paul’s’ provocation once more.
What if to know this aspect of God is to open our eyes to the mercy of God?
What if to know that judgment is real, makes grace even more amazing?
What if to know that a separation from God is unbearable, makes the eternal relationship irresistible?
God did not restore our relationship by saying he would just overlook sin. No, he wants us to understand the gravity of sin in destroying the most vital relationship in our lives. He wants us to know that he alone removed sin from our lives.
God chooses whom he chooses so we know it is him. It’s not the bloodline. It’s not the size of the army. It’s not the position someone holds. God chose saints from Israel and from people who were not his chosen people. God wants all to know that he is at work.
God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the pivotal point in all of human history. It is the line of demarcation for all creation. Christ for some is a stumbling block. He is an obstacle in their path.
Yet for others, he is cornerstone, foundation, the rock of ages.
The 9th chapter concludes with the Jews in a sad state and Paul having great anguish. But Paul is not through with this discussion, and Israel has not been hung out to dry.
What should we garner from this early part of Paul’s discussion?
- It hurts when someone we love can’t come along. Even if we expect to see them again, there was great expectation in them coming with us now. Their absence can cause great anguish.
- God chooses whom he chooses.
- He has mercy on whom he has mercy.
- Our good standing with God does not depend on our desire or our effort, but on God’s mercy.
Let us be thankful, even more, let us celebrate that God chose mercy for us!