Are you going to object, "So how can God blame us for anything since he's in charge of everything? If the big decisions are already made, what say do we have in it?"
Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question? Clay doesn't talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, "Why did you shape me like this?" Isn't it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans? If God needs one style of pottery especially designed to show his angry displeasure and another style carefully crafted to show his glorious goodness, isn't that all right? Either or both happens to Jews, but it also happens to the other people. Hosea put it well:
I'll call nobodies and make them somebodies;
I'll call the unloved and make them beloved.
In the place where they yelled out, "You're nobody!"
they're calling you "God's living children."
Isaiah maintained this same emphasis:
If each grain of sand on the seashore were numbered
and the sum labeled "chosen of God,"
They'd be numbers still, not names;
salvation comes by personal selection.
God doesn't count us; he calls us by name.
Arithmetic is not his focus.
Isaiah had looked ahead and spoken the truth:
If our powerful God
had not provided us a legacy of living children,
We would have ended up like ghost towns,
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
How can we sum this up? All those people who didn't seem interested in what God was doing actually embraced what God was doing as he straightened out their lives. And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their "God projects" that they didn't notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so they stumbled into him and went sprawling. Isaiah (again!) gives us the metaphor for pulling this together:
Careful! I've put a huge stone on the road to Mount Zion,
a stone you can't get around.
But the stone is me! If you're looking for me,
you'll find me on the way, not in the way.
Once again we find ourselves confronted by the Bible challenging the religious and those who consider themselves “God’s people.” The easy thing to do for those of us who are Christians is to try and ignore the obvious parallels between the the Jewish people of Paul’s time and the Christian people of our time.
Let’s be clear. The context of Romans 9-11 is Paul working out his theology of what it means for ethnic Israel and the gentiles to both be “elect.” He is working out some huge theological issues here and that is why there are so many books and pages given to these issues in commentaries.
With that said, one of the things that we do with the text as we study and interpret it, is to find parallels between their time and our time. Remember, we are always reading someone else’s mail when we read the New Testament letters.
The parallel that jumps out at me this morning is this idea in verse 32, “Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their "God projects" that they didn't notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so they stumbled into him and went sprawling.”
This one hurts.
It is one of those things that when we deeply consider what Paul is saying we wonder how we could have missed it.
The NIV renders this verse this way, “Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.”
When I read the NIV I know why I missed it. It’s because when I read over that I think to myself, “I don’t believe in works based salvation.” It’s cold and calculated. I know what I think I believe. But, there is often a gap between what we think we believe and what our faith actually is.
When I was on staff with CRU we would often ask students and one another, “How is your relationship with God?” This typically meant going down through a list of things that we knew we were supposed to have done. This mental checklist served as the report card for our relationship with God. It always started with, “How many ‘quiet times’ have I had this week?” Four or more then I would get a positive check mark, less than four a negative check mark. The list would go on from there.
Could you imagine if someone asked you, “How is your relationship with your partner?” And you had a mental checklist of things to determine the health of your relationship? As the old lady in the commercial says, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.”
For much of my Christian life I had missed God. I was so focused on my “God projects” that I wasn’t actually with God. I had made a decision about what God wanted me to do for him to please him and I gave all I had to making those things a reality.
I didn’t notice God right in front of me.
Until I ran smack into God and he sent me sprawling.
It was the scariest, hardest, and most awful experience. It turns out it was beautiful and glorious and left me free and full of joy.
I hope you get to experience that too. If you have, I’d love hear your story.