Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you [Jews] will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
–Romans 9.18-24 (NIV)
As the season of Lent moves ever closer toward the climactic events of Jerusalem during Holy Week, we enter a period of time known as Passiontide, the last two weeks of the Lenten season that will end with the death and burial of our Lord. Here is a little test for those of you who have been working on your Lenten disciplines of self-examination and denial, prayer and fasting, confession and repentance. How are you doing, by the power of the Spirit, at putting to death that within you that keeps you hostile toward and alienated from God? For those of you who have not been engaged in the Lenten disciplines, this little test could possibly help you decide if you might want to begin working on this project, even at this point in the Lenten season.
Here’s the test. How did you react to today’s Scripture lesson? Were you offended by it or did it remind you that God is God and you are not? Paul is not necessarily telling us that we should never have questions for God. He is reminding us that God has sovereign freedom to do as God pleases, and if we have an adequate conception of God, this should bring us great comfort. God is not capricious or ever-changing. God is constant and steadfast, and here Paul reminds us of God’s great mercy to us in Christ. Our minds go immediately back to what Paul wrote in Romans 2.4, that God is infinitely patient with us so that we might be lead to repentance (cf. 2 Peter 3.8-9).
If we, by the power of the Spirit, have been successful in putting to death our proud, arrogant self that wants to dethrone God and install us in his place, what Paul tells us here will invariably make us fall to our knees with grateful hearts in thanksgiving for God’s wondrous offer of life to us in the cross of Christ. We understand instinctively what Paul was talking about when he wrote the following to the Corinthians.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1.18-25).
Paul is reminding us here that God’s ways are not our ways, that his ways are infinitely better (cf. Isaiah 55.8-9). He reminds us that only God can bring about our healing and reconciliation to him, and he has chosen to do this through the cross of Jesus. There is nothing we can do to earn his forgiveness nor do any of us merit it because we are so innately and profoundly broken.
But God does not want to leave us there and so he has acted decisively on our behalf.
In response to God’s sovereign and gracious initiative toward us in Christ, we acknowledge that we are incapable of doing anything to win or achieve our being reconnected to God, our life support system. We are thankful that God has done what is necessary on the cross of Christ (even if we do not fully understand all that happened there) to end our exile and our alienation from him. We are more than willing to give him all the credit in the universe because we know who and what we are. We know that all we can do is gratefully accept God’s gracious offer to us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to live.
When we do that and really begin to understand God’s gift to us in Jesus–again, as best as we are able to understand–it is inevitably a life-changing event and process, and we are changed forever. Instead of always looking out for ourselves and our needs, we deny ourselves, take up our cross everyday, and follow our Lord in sacrificial love to serve those around us. And as we do so we understand that it is only by the Spirit’s help in us that we have the power to imitate and follow Jesus. We are too profoundly broken to do so on our own.
But if we are not yet ready to end our rebelliousness, if we delude ourselves into thinking we are on equal footing with God or we want to minimize or negate the power of sin in our lives, what Paul writes above will inevitably be quite irritating to us. It just won’t make sense because we really haven’t wrapped our mind around the fact that God’s holiness cannot countenance any form of sin or evil in his Presence, that he is implacably opposed to it. We will want to rationalize that we aren’t really that bad, that we’ve done plenty of good works to merit God’s love and affection toward us. Like some of the Jews whom Paul was addressing in the passage from Romans today, we will still be trying to pursue a program of self-help and the cross of Christ will remain superfluous to us, if not scandalous. And when that happens, there really isn’t much hope that we will ever be reconciled to God.
As you draw nearer to Jerusalem with our Lord during this Passiontide, are you following him for the right reasons? Are you, by God’s grace, gaining an ever more humble and contrite heart that leads to an outpouring of thanks for God’s wondrous love for you? Or are you grumbling under your breath (or sometimes out loud), wondering what the big deal is in the first place? Worse yet, are you tooling through life smugly self-reliant? How you answer these questions will give you keen insight into the state and condition of your only true and real life support system. If you have not already done so, choose life so that you too may come to know what all the fuss over Jesus is really about.