“I speak the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience is testifying to me with the Holy Spirit — that I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. The ancestors are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, praised forever. Amen.” (Romans 9:1-5 HCSB)
Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong or didn’t fit in? Growing up, I always felt like the odd man out. I wasn’t particularly gifted for sports, though I enjoyed playing. I was never the most intelligent kid in class, though I usually did fairly well. I love to read, write and think but I’m not very gifted in math. In addition to all of those things, I was usually the biggest kid in class (back then they even labeled our clothing – husky). My older brother was tough, I was just… well, not very tough. I wasn’t physically weak. In fact, I have always been fairly strong. I just wasn’t prone to fighting or getting punched in the face. Of course, all of that might help explain why some folks in my graduation class didn’t even recognize me at our class reunion. So, I’m not sure whether I didn’t fit in or if I just blended into the background. Unseen. The Invisible Man.
It didn’t help that I had an unusual last name, Nickerson. At least, I thought it was unusual. I didn’t know anyone else with that name, except my immediate family. If you looked our family up in the phone book, we would be the only listing. The ONLY listing for the entire city of Tulsa. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I had family all around me when I was growing up. My mother was one of eight children. I had lots of cousins on my mother’s side of the family, we just didn’t share a last name. Then we made a trip to Boston to see my dad’s family. While we were there, I looked up our family name in the phone book. Holy cow! The name Nickerson went on for page after page after page of listings. While my name may not have been common in Oklahoma, it was everywhere I looked in Massachusetts. That’s when I began to learn about the origins of my dad’s family. I not only had cousins all over the Boston area, most of them shared my last name. Wow, that made a difference in my opinion of myself and of my family’s place in history.
That was a long time ago and I’ve learned a few things, since then. I’ve learned that there’s more to family than just a common name or even DNA. I’ve also learned that you can be miles apart physically from someone you love but very, very close to someone emotionally. I’ve also learned that family is much, much bigger when you remove some of your personal limits and restrictions on just who is family and that’s really the focus of this week’s focal passage. Let’s take a look…
It is really easy to step back from our study of Romans and view chapters 9 – 11 as an afterthought or parenthetical insert into Paul’s letter to the Roman church. But to do so, would be to overlook his reasoning and argument. Especially as it flows out of Romans 8 and the grand statements we studied over the last few weeks. Paul has just told us that NOTHING in all of creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ. But the primary target audience for this letter is comprised of a large number of Jewish Christians in the Roman church. How can God’s love and promises be withdrawn from the Israelites but extended to the Gentiles? How is it possible for us to never be separated from God’s love, but it is possible for them to be cut off from the covenants and promises? That’s the focus of these next three chapters and I will attempt to keep true to Paul’s intent while also trying to keep it relevant to our lives and faith walk.
First, Paul calls several witnesses to support his next claim. He declares that his statements are the “truth in Christ.” So, the testimony and words of Christ support what he’s about to say. Then he restates it, “I’m not lying.” So he states it in the positive form, I’m telling the truth. Then he restates it in the negative form, I’m not lying about this. Then he calls upon the testimony and witness of the Messiah, for that’s what the term Christ references, to emphasize and support his claim. Next, he calls upon the witness of his own conscience in conjunction with the testimony of the Holy Spirit in support of his claim. In essence he says, my conscience bears witness to this fact and the Holy Spirit confirms it. Why is it so important for him to call all of these witnesses in support of his statement? Because it is so incredulous…
Paul has intense sorrow and continual anguish over the estrangement of his brothers, the Israelites, from the Messiah. To put it simply, Paul is grieving over his kinsman rejecting the promised Messiah, Jesus. He’s heartbroken over this situation. Why is it so important for him to establish this fact? Why did he need to call upon the Christ and God’s Holy Spirit to step in and witness to the truthfulness of his claim? Because he has become the Apostle to the Gentiles and his preaching of the Gospel, with its emphasis on saving grace for Gentile believers, is being challenged at almost every turn by many “hard line” Jewish Christians – the Judaizers. Their stance is that to believe in and follow the Israelite Messiah then you must convert to Judaism, first. Then and only then, you can become a disciple of the Messiah while observing and keeping all of the Jewish rites and rituals of worship. Judaism first, then relationship with God through the Messiah.
But here’s Paul’s main point: if it were possible, I’d pray that God would curse me instead and cut me off from the Messiah for the sake of my flesh and blood brothers, Israel. That’s a really strong statement, considering how anti-Jewish (anti Semitic) Paul is considered to be by many of his “brothers.” He’s the Gentile Apostle and his mission has been to reach them for Christ, but his heart is crying out for the salvation of his kinsmen. To say that some of them would doubt and question this statement is probably laughable. In fact, I think some would even “spit” after saying the name Saul of Tarsus. That’s how much he is despised by many of them. Remember, they’ve tried to kill him on several occasions. But his heart just won’t let go. It continues to cry out in sorrow and moan in anguish over their rejection of the Messiah.
How much sorrow and anguish exists in your heart over the spiritual condition of your brothers? Let me start by asking that question on a very personal level. How much anguish and sorrow do you have in your heart over the condition of your family? Does your heart break when you think about those who reject the Messiah and the teachings of God? I suspect that you may have some sorrow and anguish over those family members close to you that reject Christ, but what about those who aren’t?
For the past 40 years, I’ve not lived near or spent much time with my brothers. We’ve lived far apart physically and have only been able to see one another on an occasional basis. In fact, my brother Len and I were talking about this very thing just a day or two ago. I wish I could call them and say, “Hey, let’s go fishing, play a round of golf, or just go have dinner together.” But I haven’t seen Len or Jerry since our mother died over seven years ago. I see my youngest brother, David a bit more often. We both live in Oklahoma. The four of us talk regularly. We exchange texts or phone calls. But I haven’t seen two of them in recent years. But my heart aches for them and I pray for them, their families and their spiritual well being on a daily basis. I suspect you probably do something similar for your family.
But that’s not exactly where Paul is coming from. It is usually easy to pray for our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our mother, father, brother or sisters. But what about praying for those who despise you? What about those who curse your name or who “spit” every time they say it. Paul is grieved in his spirit over the spiritual condition of those who have expressed bitter hatred for his very life. If it were possible, he would take God’s curse upon himself so that they might experience the blessings of the Messiah and know Him intimately.
This is where the call to Christlikeness gets really, really challenging. In my mind, it is fairly easy to make the call to holiness a matter of personal morality. I’m quite a bit like the man in Luke 18 who claimed to have kept God’s commandments “from my youth.” It is easy to look at others and justify my own actions from a moral perspective. I’m not evil. I have never killed anyone, stolen anything of value, cheated on my wife, or lied under oath. But Jesus didn’t call Christians to develop a sense of fake moral superiority.
He has called us to be radically different from the world around us. Instead of acting like we’re better, He challenged us to being different in our actions and our speech. We’re not supposed to just claim faith in Christ, we are to act like Christ. We are supposed to love God supremely and to love the folks around us as much as we love ourselves. And yes, we are even supposed to love those who hate us, those who speak badly about us, those who slander our reputations, lie about us in public or on social media and even love those who might despise and “spit” on us. Oh, and not just love them passively… but pray for their salvation, actively.
How does that translate into your life? I’m not stupid. I know that each of you has someone different in mind when I describe those difficult people you’re called to love. They never look the same or have the same characteristics. They’re all very, very different and you have some reason in your mind and heart as to why you shouldn’t pray for them. But God sees them differently than you do. You see, when He looks at them they look a lot more like YOU than you’d ever admit. They are sinful and deeply in need of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness just like you are. Just like I am. And that’s why Paul could say, “I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. For I could almost wish (pray – if it were possible) to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers.” How can he say that about people who despise him, who want to kill him? Because he can see himself in their rejection. He could remember his hatred for Jesus and His followers before his encounter outside of Damascus.
Can you see yourself in those who reject Him today? Can you see yourself in the people you encounter each day who are struggling, hurting, and are just trying to survive? So often, we listen to the words of those who reject Christ or His Word, today, but we don’t see their brokenness…
“When He [Jesus] saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:36-38 HCSB)
They are weary, worn out and like sheep without a shepherd. So, pray! Pray for the Lord to send workers! That’s Paul’s response, too. He knew he was called to go to the Gentiles, but he was praying that the Lord would send workers into the fields to harvest believers among the Israelites. They had so many advantages, but they didn’t know the Messiah. They have been adopted, experienced God’s glory, were recipients of God’s covenants, knew the instruction and guidance of God’s laws, the beauty of the sacrifices and Temple worship, and the power of God’s promises. In fact, through them and their forefathers God came into humanity as Jesus, the Messiah. But they turned away, rejecting His authority and denying His lordship. And Paul grieves… he grieves and prays.
Do you? Do you grieve over the lostness of your family, friends, neighbors and even your enemies? You would, if you could see yourself in them. You would if you recognized their sin in your own. Go back and read that last sentence, again. Do you? Do you recognize their sin IN your own sin? In other words, are you able to see yourself in their failures? If you don’t, then you aren’t seeing your sin the way God sees it.
I want to end this week, by telling you a personal story of redemption and forgiveness with the hope that you’ll see yourself when you look intensely at the sin of others.
I mentioned above that I have not seen or been with two of my brothers since my mother’s death. One of them lives in California and the other lives in Sicily. Not exactly overnight trips from central Oklahoma. My mother’s death was due to complications caused by Alzheimer’s and all four of us boys spent that last week caring for her as she lay on her deathbed. It is a horrid disease and it stole our mother from us several years before she physically died.
Without going into the details, my mother and I became estranged several years before her death. I loved her, but she wasn’t very receptive to my visits or my expressions of love. The disease had created a barrier that was difficult to breach. About a year or so before her death, she was living in a nursing home and was unable to communicate or provide any care for herself. I decided that I would attempt to breach that wall, so I planned a visit to go see her. I didn’t tell anyone I was going and I didn’t plan on seeing anyone but her during my visit. My wife and I arranged for a hotel room near her care facility, I had contacted the care facility staff to arrange my visit and I asked my wife to just drop me off that morning and to plan to pick me up later that evening. I would spend the entire day with my mother, whether I was welcome or not. I’m not sure I was prepared for what I experienced.
My mother was confined to a wheelchair, completely unable to interact or communicate and unable to do anything for herself. My day was spent quietly talking to her, singing to her, feeding her, cleaning up after her, and holding her hand. I sat next to her and told her stories about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she had missed out on. I wanted her to know that I loved her and any misunderstandings or conflict between us was all in the past. To be honest, I felt like I did this more for me than for her since she was uncommunicative. Late that afternoon, I sat next to Mom talking to her and telling her stories, wiping her mouth as I fed her a snack. Then I just sat quietly holding her hand, as I told her that I loved her. I glanced over and I saw a tear running down her cheek. I kissed her on the cheek and wiped the tears away.
As I said, my Mom had not known me (or anyone, for that matter) in quite some time. She was unable to communicate and, thus, I have no idea if she was able to understand who I was, what I said or what I meant. But that tear… that tear told me everything I needed to know.
Let me state this very clearly. God loves you and His heart is broken over your rejection of His love. Paul taps into those emotions in this passage and reminds those of us who have accepted the Gift of God’s Love – Jesus, the Messiah – that we must be like our Heavenly Father and be compassionate, loving and seeking the redemption of all mankind, even the redemption of those who have despised and rejected Him. So, I call you to pray like Jesus commanded… “Pray. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers into the fields.” Now, listen carefully. He may be answering that prayer through you.
On Sunday, May 12, Americans will celebrate Mother’s Day across our country. We will give flowers, fix breakfast in bed, give cards and candy, cook Sunday dinner or do any number of other things in our attempt to say, “Mom, we love you!” I’m not a mom, but one thing I know about them is that they always seem to forgive and look for the best in us. I think they get that from God. God made moms very special. In fact, I saw a sign earlier today that stated: If being a Mom was easy, Dads would do it. Being a Mom is the toughest job, anywhere. Hands down. So, God bless our moms. Happy Mother’s Day!