Proper 13 · Romans 9:1–5 (6–13) · August 6, 2017
Editor’s note: the following homiletical help is taken from David Schmitt’s sermon series “God’s Greater Story: A Sermon Series on Romans 6–14,” which is available for download here.
By David Schmitt
As you listen to our text, you realize that we have come across Paul in a very private moment. Paul is engaged in prayer. His prayer is powerful and personal and very, very painful. I don’t know if you have ever come before God on behalf of someone you love, someone you care about, and yet someone who will have nothing to do with the faith. You love that person. You know that God loves that person. And you know that God would desire that person to be saved and yet that person wants nothing to do with God. And so you stand there, alone, not because you don’t believe in God. You believe in God. But you are alone because you stand there without your friend, your mother, your son who has walked away from the faith. If you have ever been there, you have a very small clue of what the Apostle Paul is experiencing.
Paul cries out, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
Paul is concerned about his brothers, his kinsmen, the Jewish people. Five years before, the Jewish people had been expelled from Rome. The Emperor Claudius was attempting to maintain law and order in the city. There had been civil unrest and so he acted as previous emperors had done (Tiberius in AD 19) and expelled the Jews from Rome. The expulsion was limited to the Jews and the expulsion was limited to Rome. When Claudius died, his expulsion died with him. The Jewish people were now returning to Rome and yet, the question was, how would the church receive them? What had begun as a movement of faith among the Jews was now predominantly Gentile. The Jews had left, but the church had remained and grown with Gentile believers. Paul was worried, not only about the Jews who did not believe but also about the Gentiles who may not have seen any reason to care about the Jewish people.
Earlier in the letter, Paul asked a very important question. As he revealed that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Paul asked, “Then what advantage has the Jew?” We would expect Paul to say, “None.” That is, “all are sinful and all are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.” Therefore, there is no advantage to being a Jew. But, surprisingly, Paul says something different. “What advantage has the Jew?” Paul asked. His answer was, “much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” That listing that Paul began in Romans 3, he continues now in Romans 9. Listen as Paul reveals the blessings of God upon Israel: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”
Paul is engaged in a moment of prayer, very personal and very private, and yet notice how his prayer is wrapped up in the larger story of God. Paul is not praying for himself but for God’s people. Paul is not setting before God his day and his plans and asking for God’s blessing. No, Paul finds God’s greater story set before him, and he is praying for fulfillment of what God has planned. God has chosen Abraham to be the father of his people and from Abraham God has chosen to bless not only his people but all nations on the face of the earth. From Abraham and his descendants, according to the flesh, comes Christ and Christ is the one in whom Israel and all nations of the earth are blessed. Paul knows this greater story of God and this story shapes Paul’s life and prayer.
What is amazing is that Paul in prayer is caught up in the heart of God’s story. Notice how Paul is willing to die for the sake of the Jews. Paul knows that not all of his Jewish brothers and sisters have believed in Jesus. Because of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, it would be very easy for the Christian church to become a Gentile church, that does not see or value or care about Israel. And so Paul finds himself overwhelmed with pain and personal love and he wishes that he himself could be cut off from Christ, if that could save the Jewish people. Here, Paul’s heart is filled with the love of Jesus. Jesus is the very one who was willing to be cut off from God, who was willing to drink the cup of his Father’s wrath, who was willing to be forsaken by God and condemned to hell, that the kingdom of God might be opened to all people who trust in him. In him is forgiveness, life, and everlasting salvation. In him is the promise that your sins are forgiven and that you are now part of the people of God, people who live by that promise as part of God’s greater story.
This is what the Apostle Paul is doing in his prayer. He is living by that promise, letting God’s greater story, God’s greater vision, shape his prayer and his life in self-sacrificial love.