Why Can’t They Understand?
This is the second sermon in our series, Faith is a Group Project. In order to best prepare to hear from the Apostle in this sermon, first read Follower of Christ Explained. This sermon has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy!
A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with a reporter who lived and worked in Israel for most of his whole career. He was telling a story about trying to check out from his hotel in Tel Aviv and, as he was about to pay, turn in his key, and leave, he noticed that there was about $100 worth of phone calls on his room’s bill. He hadn’t made any phone calls and he was livid.
In order to better understand what he was going through, it is important to know that, as he told this story, he admitted to having two different personalities that have developed over the years. He said that he has one personality that speaks English and another that only comes out when he speaks Hebrew. He said there is something that happens to him when he speaks Hebrew that he doesn’t really understand. He finds himself being more aggressive and, for lack of a better word, macho.
Now, back to the hotel desk. He finds himself screaming at the clerk, “I’m the customer. You don’t get to tell me that I have to pay these charges.” And the man behind the counter is yelling back at him, “This is my hotel. You don’t get to tell me that you don’t have to pay these charges.” They went back and forth like this for several minutes until this reporter realized that neither of them wanted him to pay the wrong bill. What they were screaming about was: “Who wins?” Who gets to feel like the winner and who gets to feel like the fool?
I have witnessed arguments like this and, at times, have even found myself in the middle of them. We all want the same things and, yet, we scream, loudly, over who is the winner and who is the loser, as if there always has to be one of each. Even when we want the same things, we look for how letting our guard down might benefit the other person and then we seek to stop that from happening. Because, of course, we can’t let that happen, even if we want the same thing.
That’s why Paul has to begin this next section of his letter with the words, “So I tell the truth and I am not lying” (9:2, CEV). This is a classic rhetorical method for getting people to listen and to believe. A method that has been used since the first days of public speaking. It has been used for thousands of years to make people believe public speakers. We know, from our view of those thousands of years, that, much of the time, those public speakers, and politicians who quickly claim to be honest, that say that they are not lying, are often in the middle of telling their biggest lie. We are pretty used to being lied to.
But, this a church conversation; why does Paul need to remind them that he’s not lying? I find myself doing the same thing with this church. I do it because I want you to know that I take honesty very seriously. Some of you laugh a bit when I say it because you assume that pastors shouldn’t lie. Others of you might already be listening with a bit of skepticism based on your experience with pastors.
Remember that Paul is writing to diverse people just like you. They have had a lot of different kinds of experiences with their pastors and leaders. There are genealogically Jewish people who will hear this read and, maybe, they were used to having scrupulously honest rabbis and priests. Maybe not. There were also a great number of Gentile people hearing this letter read. Maybe they were used to lying politicians… or not. But whatever their experience had been, as a result of Paul’s experience with them, we find him reminding them of his own conscience and honesty.
By chapter 9, Paul has said a lot of things about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God, and it might rub these “real” Jews the wrong way. Of course, they knew from scripture that the purpose of Israel, the reason that God chose them to be Israel, was to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). Or, as Jesus restated it, they were meant to be “a city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). In the depths of their hearts, they know that this is what they are supposed to be, but it had been happening. Or, at least, it had not been their practice for a long, long time – maybe never. Think of the barriers that were in place to stand in the way of a person becoming a member of the people called Israel! As they hear Paul’s words, they think to themselves, and possibly even shout it out, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Sounds familiar, right?
To get them ready to truly build a Church that is for everyone, to ready them for sharing the universal message of the gospel, Paul has to begin laying out how Israel has failed to live out their part of God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses. He’s going to explain how God has not failed, but will instead show how Israel has failed. Of course, that does not mean that the covenants with Abraham or Moses are now nullified or void. God’s promise for Israel still stands to this day, but Israel’s role within it has not been upheld. A major problem for many of those who have been listening to this letter is that they would believe, at that very moment, as Paul spoke these words of inclusion, that he was cutting himself off from his “Jewish heritage [and from the tradition] and had lost all connection” (Jewett, 557). They would have judged Paul’s words quite harshly.
But, they both want the same thing. They both want Israel to be a “light”… to be a “city on a hill.” They both want that. But Paul has to tell them that they have not been faithfully living out their part of the covenants. And so God sent Christ Jesus, who they likewise rejected. As he begins to explain this fact, in the very middle of his letter, he begins to mourn because he just can’t believe that they still don’t understand that this Christ, who came from Israel, is the one to fulfill it all. “Why can’t they understand?”
So, Paul says, with great sadness, “I wish it could be me. If only I could be the one to reject Christ, instead, so that Israel could believe and live in him.” Like Christ before him, he wants to be a sacrificial lamb for them, laying himself down for them so that they might believe now. Paul spends an enormous amount of time and energy asking himself and attempting to explain, “Why can’t they just understand?”
Every Sunday, our church looks out the front doors and sees people with kids and dogs and happy families and we ask ourselves, “Why can’t they see that Jesus loves them and we love them and that we want them to be here with us?”
I want to encourage that feeling. It is a really healthy thing for us to believe that we are supposed to a city on a hill, that can be seen from miles, and that we should want everyone to want to come here and be a part of the family of God. We should want that, but, the way we go about seeing it fulfilled reminds me of a scene from a movie that came out in the 90s called Office Space, a comedy about a company that is restructuring and, as a result, everyone has to interview for their own jobs.
One character, called Tom Smykowski, is in the middle of his interview and it becomes increasingly clear that he doesn’t have a lot of work. And he keeps saying, over and over again, that he is the face of the company for the customers until he finally has a huge outburst and screams at his interviewers, “I deal with the… customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What… is wrong with you people?” And he storms out of the room and into unemployment.
Our neighbors aren’t asking to hear how God loves them and that we love them. They don’t know us. They need us to show them with our actions. Together. We need to be out there in North Park, seeking transformation, as a sign of what God is doing inside of us. Instead, we’re out here shaking our heads in wonder, saying: “We love people. We have people skills. What’s wrong with them? Why can’t they understand?”
Paul might begin that way, grieving for those who aren’t listening. But he doesn’t stay in his sorrow. He continues his telling of the story of Christ with his words and his life, describing the truth that is: faith is a group project. You don’t get to leave people out. Paul wants them all. Jews, Greeks, male, female, slaves, wealthy, etc., etc., etc. – everyone. He wants them all. But, more importantly, Paul understands that Christ wants them all. He grieves for Israel, yes, but he works for God’s redemption in the lives of everyone he meets. Paul’s strategy for getting them all to understand God’s grace is not to stand shouting, “Why can’t you understand?” It is to show them what God is doing. He tells them about all that they have received as gifts of grace from God. Then he leaves them in the hope that Christ will get ahold of their hearts and they might be changed by the gospel.
So who are you grieving for this morning? Who is it that’s on your heart because you know that they need to know God’s love in their lives? Who is it you’re grieving for? Now, how can you show them what God is doing all around them? How can you tell them about God’s grace in their lives now and show them what God is doing in your life?
Paul’s strategy was to tell his people the story of Christ that lives all around. That can be our strategy as well. God is at work in North Park. God is at work in this city. San Diego is pregnant with salvation. Paul said it in Rome and would say it here, much like he did for Israel. He would say, “You are chosen. God chose you. God has given you the promises, the glory, adopted you as children, given you the Law and the prophets, made your hearts a temple – a place of worship, but, best of all, God gave you Jesus, the savior of the world, to live beside you, so that you might live a transformed kingdom life from now to forever.”
God is doing too much here in North Park, in the lives of families and children and people who are doing good work… God is doing too much for us to ignore it. We hear Paul’s God-inspired words, from weeks ago, whispering to us, “the city is groaning with labor pains,” waiting for salvation to be born within. So now may we go out and tell the story of Christ that calls us all toward all of those same goals and that lets us no longer have to ask, “Why can’t they understand?”
Grace and peace of Christ Jesus.
Basic Bible Commentary: Romans by Robert Jewett