God Is Calling His People
9 1-5 At the same time, you need to know that I carry with me at all times a huge sorrow. It’s an enormous pain deep within me, and I’m never free of it. I’m not exaggerating—Christ and the Holy Spirit are my witnesses. It’s the Israelites . . . If there were any way I could be cursed by the Messiah so they could be blessed by him, I’d do it in a minute. They’re my family. I grew up with them. They had everything going for them—family, glory, covenants, revelation, worship, promises, to say nothing of being the race that produced the Messiah, the Christ, who is God over everything, always. Oh, yes!
6-9 Don’t suppose for a moment, though, that God’s Word has malfunctioned in some way or other. The problem goes back a long way. From the outset, not all Israelites of the flesh were Israelites of the spirit. It wasn’t Abraham’s sperm that gave identity here, but God’s promise. Remember how it was put: “Your family will be defined by Isaac”? That means that Israelite identity was never racially determined by sexual transmission, but it was God-determined by promise. Remember that promise, “When I come back next year at this time, Sarah will have a son”?
10-13 And that’s not the only time. To Rebecca, also, a promise was made that took priority over genetics. When she became pregnant by our one-of-a-kind ancestor, Isaac, and her babies were still innocent in the womb—incapable of good or bad—she received a special assurance from God. What God did in this case made it perfectly plain that his purpose is not a hit-or-miss thing dependent on what we do or don’t do, but a sure thing determined by his decision, flowing steadily from his initiative. God told Rebecca, “The firstborn of your twins will take second place.” Later that was turned into a stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.”
14-18 Is that grounds for complaining that God is unfair? Not so fast, please. God told Moses, “I’m in charge of mercy. I’m in charge of compassion.” Compassion doesn’t originate in our bleeding hearts or moral sweat, but in God’s mercy. The same point was made when God said to Pharaoh, “I picked you as a bit player in this drama of my salvation power.” All we’re saying is that God has the first word, initiating the action in which we play our part for better or worse.
19 Are you going to object, “So how can God blame us for anything since he’s in charge of everything? If the big decisions are already made, what say do we have in it?”
20-33 Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question? Clay doesn’t talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, “Why did you shape me like this?” Isn’t it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans? If God needs one style of pottery especially designed to show his angry displeasure and another style carefully crafted to show his glorious goodness, isn’t that all right? Either or both happens to Jews, but it also happens to the other people. Hosea put it well:
I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies;
I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved.
In the place where they yelled out, “You’re nobody!”
they’re calling you “God’s living children.”
Isaiah maintained this same emphasis:
If each grain of sand on the seashore were numbered
and the sum labeled “chosen of God,”
They’d be numbers still, not names;
salvation comes by personal selection.
God doesn’t count us; he calls us by name.
Arithmetic is not his focus.
Isaiah had looked ahead and spoken the truth:
If our powerful God
had not provided us a legacy of living children,
We would have ended up like ghost towns,
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
How can we sum this up? All those people who didn’t seem interested in what God was doing actually embraced what God was doing as he straightened out their lives. And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so they stumbled into him and went sprawling. Isaiah (again!) gives us the metaphor for pulling this together:
Careful! I’ve put a huge stone on the road to Mount Zion,
a stone you can’t get around.
But the stone is me! If you’re looking for me,
you’ll find me on the way, not in the way.
Israel Reduced to Religion
10 1-3 Believe me, friends, all I want for Israel is what’s best for Israel: salvation, nothing less. I want it with all my heart and pray to God for it all the time. I readily admit that the Jews are impressively energetic regarding God—but they are doing everything exactly backward. They don’t seem to realize that this comprehensive setting-things-right that is salvation is God’s business, and a most flourishing business it is. Right across the street they set up their own salvation shops and noisily peddle their knockoffs. After all these years of refusing to really deal with God on his terms, insisting instead on making their own deals, they have nothing to show for it.
4-10 The earlier revelation was intended simply to get us ready for the Messiah, who then puts everything right for those who trust him to do it. Moses wrote that anyone who insists on using the law code to live right before God soon discovers it’s not so easy—every detail of life regulated by fine print! But trusting God to shape the right living in us is a different story—no precarious climb up to heaven to recruit the Messiah, no dangerous descent into hell to rescue the Messiah. So what exactly was Moses saying?
The word that saves is right here,
as near as the tongue in your mouth,
as close as the heart in your chest.
It’s the word of faith that welcomes God to go to work and set things right for us. This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God—“Jesus is my Master”—embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: “God has set everything right between him and me!”
11-13 Scripture reassures us, “No one who trusts God like this—heart and soul—will ever regret it.” It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.”
14-17 But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it? That’s why Scripture exclaims,
A sight to take your breath away!
Grand processions of people
telling all the good things of God!
But not everybody is ready for this, ready to see and hear and act. Isaiah asked what we all ask at one time or another: “Does anyone care, God? Is anyone listening and believing a word of it?” The point is: Before you trust, you have to listen. But unless Christ’s Word is preached, there’s nothing to listen to.
18-21 But haven’t there been plenty of opportunities for Israel to listen and understand what’s going on? Plenty, I’d say.
Preachers’ voices have gone ’round the world,
Their message to earth’s seven seas.
So the big question is, Why didn’t Israel understand that she had no corner on this message? Moses had it right when he predicted,
When you see God reach out to those
you consider your inferiors—outsiders!—
you’ll become insanely jealous.
When you see God reach out to people
you think are religiously stupid,
you’ll throw temper tantrums.
Isaiah dared to speak out these words of God:
People found and welcomed me
who never so much as looked for me.
And I found and welcomed people
who had never even asked about me.
Then he capped it with a damning indictment:
Day after day after day,
I beckoned Israel with open arms,
And got nothing for my trouble
but cold shoulders and icy stares.
The Loyal Minority
11 1-2 Does this mean, then, that God is so fed up with Israel that he’ll have nothing more to do with them? Hardly. Remember that I, the one writing these things, am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham out of the tribe of Benjamin. You can’t get much more Semitic than that! So we’re not talking about repudiation. God has been too long involved with Israel, has too much invested, to simply wash his hands of them.
2-6 Do you remember that time Elijah was agonizing over this same Israel and cried out in prayer?
God, they murdered your prophets,
They trashed your altars;
I’m the only one left and now they’re after me!
And do you remember God’s answer?
I still have seven thousand who haven’t quit,
Seven thousand who are loyal to the finish.
It’s the same today. There’s a fiercely loyal minority still—not many, perhaps, but probably more than you think. They’re holding on, not because of what they think they’re going to get out of it, but because they’re convinced of God’s grace and purpose in choosing them. If they were only thinking of their own immediate self-interest, they would have left long ago.
7-10 And then what happened? Well, when Israel tried to be right with God on her own, pursuing her own self-interest, she didn’t succeed. The chosen ones of God were those who let God pursue his interest in them, and as a result received his stamp of legitimacy. The “self-interest Israel” became thick-skinned toward God. Moses and Isaiah both commented on this:
Fed up with their quarrelsome, self-centered ways,
God blurred their eyes and dulled their ears,
Shut them in on themselves in a hall of mirrors,
and they’re there to this day.
David was upset about the same thing:
I hope they get sick eating self-serving meals,
break a leg walking their self-serving ways.
I hope they go blind staring in their mirrors,
get ulcers from playing at god.
Pruning and Grafting Branches
11-12 The next question is, “Are they down for the count? Are they out of this for good?” And the answer is a clear-cut No. Ironically when they walked out, they left the door open and the outsiders walked in. But the next thing you know, the Jews were starting to wonder if perhaps they had walked out on a good thing. Now, if their leaving triggered this worldwide coming of non-Jewish outsiders to God’s kingdom, just imagine the effect of their coming back! What a homecoming!
13-15 But I don’t want to go on about them. It’s you, the outsiders, that I’m concerned with now. Because my personal assignment is focused on the so-called outsiders, I make as much of this as I can when I’m among my Israelite kin, the so-called insiders, hoping they’ll realize what they’re missing and want to get in on what God is doing. If their falling out initiated this worldwide coming together, their recovery is going to set off something even better: mass homecoming! If the first thing the Jews did, even though it was wrong for them, turned out for your good, just think what’s going to happen when they get it right!
16-18 Behind and underneath all this there is a holy, God-planted, God-tended root. If the primary root of the tree is holy, there’s bound to be some holy fruit. Some of the tree’s branches were pruned and you wild olive shoots were grafted in. Yet the fact that you are now fed by that rich and holy root gives you no cause to gloat over the pruned branches. Remember, you aren’t feeding the root; the root is feeding you.
19-20 It’s certainly possible to say, “Other branches were pruned so that I could be grafted in!” Well and good. But they were pruned because they were deadwood, no longer connected by belief and commitment to the root. The only reason you’re on the tree is because your graft “took” when you believed, and because you’re connected to that belief-nurturing root. So don’t get cocky and strut your branch. Be humbly mindful of the root that keeps you lithe and green.
21-22 If God didn’t think twice about taking pruning shears to the natural branches, why would he hesitate over you? He wouldn’t give it a second thought. Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God—ruthless with the deadwood, gentle with the grafted shoot. But don’t presume on this gentleness. The moment you become deadwood, it’s game over.
23-24 And don’t get to feeling superior to those pruned branches down on the ground. If they don’t persist in remaining deadwood, they could very well get grafted back in. God can do that. He can perform miracle grafts. Why, if he could graft you—branches cut from a tree out in the wild—into an orchard tree, he certainly isn’t going to have any trouble grafting branches back into the tree they grew from in the first place. Just be glad you’re in the tree, and hope for the best for the others.
A Complete Israel
25-29 I want to lay all this out on the table as clearly as I can, friends. This is complicated. It would be easy to misinterpret what’s going on and arrogantly assume that you’re royalty and they’re just rabble, out on their ears for good. But that’s not it at all. This hardness on the part of insider Israel toward God is temporary. Its effect is to open things up to all the outsiders so that we end up with a full house. Before it’s all over, there will be a complete Israel. As it is written,
A champion will stride down from the mountain of Zion;
he’ll clean house in Jacob.
And this is my commitment to my people:
removal of their sins.
From your point of view as you hear and embrace the good news of the Message, it looks like the Jews are God’s enemies. But looked at from the long-range perspective of God’s overall purpose, they remain God’s oldest friends. God’s gifts and God’s call are under full warranty—never canceled, never rescinded.
30-32 There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in. In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in.
33-36 Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out.
Is there anyone around who can explain God?
Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do?
Anyone who has done him such a huge favor
that God has to ask his advice?
Everything comes from him;
Everything happens through him;
Everything ends up in him.
Always glory! Always praise!
Yes. Yes. Yes.