Proper 15 · Romans 11:1–2a, 13–15, 28–32 · August 20, 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
Have you ever noticed how some art museums post guards near the paintings? If they don’t post a guard, they might put a red velvet rope in place to prevent people from coming too close to the paintings. The curators have told patrons, “You can come this close and no closer.” If you reach out your hand to point to a detail, a guard may correct you and ask you step back. Art has a way of drawing us in. We find ourselves moving closer and closer to the painting, examining small details.
The only problem with this way of viewing art is that sometimes you can be so close to that you lose sight of what it is really about. We have an old saying that describes this experience—“you can’t see the forest for the trees.” Because a person is so immersed in the trees, they can’t step back and see the forest. Being immersed in the details sometimes prevents you from seeing the larger picture.
Consider a piece of art created by Willem Vrelant, a manuscript illuminator living in the fourteenth century. At first glance, his work is confusing. It is a picture of King David in an open-air chapel, surrounded by a proliferation of vines and flowers. You know you should look at David but your eyes are drawn to the flowers. Some flowers are deep blue. Others are brilliant gold. The leaves literally sparkle. Upon closer glance, you see two birds and, above them, what look like strawberries. There is so much to see that for a moment your eyes get lost. You are tracing a maze of vines and flowers, catching a bird here and a berry there.
Something like this can happen in reading this chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. One is drawn in by the strangeness of Paul’s words. Paul is discussing the status of Israel in God’s plan of salvation. At some points, Paul speaks of the hardening of Israel. He voices claims that God has rejected his people, hardened their hearts. At other points, Paul speaks of the salvation of Israel, their election and being beloved for the sake of their forefathers. When read up close and out of context, his words can become confusing.
They have led some theologians to argue that Paul here lays the foundation for anti-Jewish sentiment in the Christian church. Since God has rejected Israel and chosen the Gentile nations, the church now lives the same way. After the Jews were expelled from Rome, the Gentile church survived and now would have little reason to welcome back their brothers and sisters in the faith. Other theologians have used these verses to argue for a future day when God will restore the Jewish people and to fight for that restoration as a prelude to the return of Christ. This concern for Israel gets expressed in political action and becomes a way in which the church can hasten the return of Christ.
Has God rejected Israel or not? Will God save Israel or not? These are the questions arising from the text. Even more troubling, however, is the picture these verses can give you of God. God seems unfaithful—one time calling a people to be his own and then rejecting them only to call another. What is to keep God from rejecting the Gentile church? Can God be trusted when he makes promises . . . when he claims people . . . any people . . . Gentile or Jew?