Proper 16 · Romans 11:33–12:8 · August 27, 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
Consider Paul’s vision.
You know how sometimes when you look at the sun and then look away, your vision is touched by an afterimage of the light? You see the people around you but they look different. They are bathed in the glow of the light. This is what happens to the Apostle Paul in our text. He has seen a brilliant vision. The glorious work of God, extending to all nations. And then, when Paul turns and looks at the people of Rome, he sees them in a different way.
Listen to the wonder of Paul at the beginning of our text. Paul is in awe at God’s story of salvation fulfilled in the world. Paul writes, “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and inscrutable his ways!” (11:33). Paul has seen a vision of the end of the story. The restoration of all peoples in the church. The new Israel of God. That vision is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy from our Old Testament reading today.
Isaiah prophesied of a time of “joy and gladness” of “thanksgiving and song.” Isaiah promises that when “the ransomed of the Lord will return and come to Zion . . . everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” and “sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (51:11). This is what happens for the Apostle Paul. He sees the day of restoration, when God brings about a gathering of nations, all nations, Jew and Gentile, into the church, and Paul’s sorrow turns into singing, his sighing into praise. It is as if Paul has seen the light of a beautiful sunset, a glorious ending to a long and difficult day; his song changes from sorrow to joy, from sighing to gladness. He offers praise and thanksgiving and glory to God.
Then Paul turns his eyes to the church in Rome. Now, the Roman Christians would not have been glorious to the world around them. Not many of them were rich. Not many of them were powerful. They gathered in small house churches, their lives a far cry from the glories of Rome much less the glories of heaven. Yet, as Paul looks at these people, he sees earth crammed with heaven and he writes so that they join him in celebrating the wonder of God.
Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1). Notice how Paul uses the language of sacrifice. The sacrificial worship of God’s people, that glory of the temple in Jerusalem, is suddenly transformed. God’s people become sacrifices, outside the temple, outside Jerusalem, hidden inside the small house churches gathering in the heart of the large empire of Rome. These people are God’s people, transformed into sacrifices, living, holy, acceptable to God. Paul knew that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ put an end to temple sacrifices. His death was the perfect sacrifice. He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. By his sacrifice, God’s people were freed from offering sacrifices for sins. By his sacrifice, they were freed to become sacrifices. Living sacrifices of praise. As they poured out their lives in service in the world.
As Paul looks at the people in Rome, he sees an afterimage of God’s glory. They are the body of Christ, at work in the world. Paul begins to see gifts of the Spirit poured out upon the people—prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy. Not only does God freely forgive all sins he also freely bestows all gifts, so that people have a purpose and a place in God’s greater story. God has a greater plan for each person in his story of salvation.
This is the vision Paul sees. It stirs his heart with wonder. It opens his mouth with praise. Earth is crammed with heaven as God gathers his people and transforms them for spiritual service in the world.