The Irrevocables, Aug. 17
“The Irrevocables” Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 August 17, 2008
Today’s reading as it stands consists of the premise and the conclusion of an argument, but none of the actual reasoning or argumentation. Yet not even Romans 11:1 is the opening of the argument. Since Paul begins, “I ask, then …” (which can also be translated, “therefore”), we need to have some sense of what gave rise to this rhetorical question. All of Romans 11 is actually the conclusion to an argument begun back at 9:1.
The broader context of today’s reading (in chapters 9-11), where Paul deals with Israel’s covenantal election by God in light of his Gentile ministry. Paul is responding to the fact that “Israel” (cf. 9:4-5) as a “people” (i.e., in a corporate sense) did not accept Jesus as their Messiah. He feels personal anguish that not all his kinsfolk have reached the same conclusion about Jesus that he had (9:2-3).
Moreover, the question is raised with regard to Gentiles who have through Christ been brought into covenant relationship with God: -- If God’s election of Israel didn’t prevent them from failing to recognize what God has now done in fulfilling the promise of salvation for the world, might the Gentiles also fall away?
Both are called. Israel – called by covenant; Gentiles – called through Christ.
Then again, whoever said “Some things never change” didn’t live in our do-over culture.
Have you ever said something and instantly wished you could take it back? Sometimes the mouth works faster than the brain and you want to hit “Pause,” rewind, and say the whole thing differently. Do-Overs.
Nothing is irrevocable — which is the word that jumps out at us in this text. We love Do-Overs. Options, choices, second chances. In fact, it’s one of the marks of our culture. As a generous and forgiving society, we like to be able to give people a second opportunity, and on a consumer level, there’s just about nothing that we can’t throw out and “do over,” or get another one.
Or, you’re sitting in a restaurant and if you don’t like what you ordered off the menu, just complain and the manager will bring you something else on the house to make up for it. Referees’ judgments don’t always stand because football coaches have red flags and extra officials are assigned to video replay every call. Typewriters and white-out have been replaced by the UNDO option on Microsoft Word.
Even life’s bigger events can be reversed. Marriages end in divorce more often than they survive. If you don’t like your name after all these years, you can legally change it. Unhealthy consumer debt can be erased through bankruptcy.
In a computerized, interactive world, we can review our choices and change our choices, even after we’ve already made our choices. Little is permanent. Little is irrevocable.
Even in the bigger issues of life, hardly anything seems permanent. We can wrack our brain to find actions and choices that people in our culture haven’t somehow found a way to wriggle out of. Not much is permanent.
Irrevocable. What a strong word. So final. Irrevocable. Done. Final. That’s it.
So what are the truly irrevocable things in life?
A bullet cannot go back into the gun. Too much toothpaste won’t go back in the tube. A lotto ticket won’t unscratch.
But this text says that God is a God of certain “irrevocables.”
Romans 9-11 presents a cadre of conundrums. What is Israel’s role in light of the good news of Christ? Who are the people of God — Israel, the church or both? What is the extent of God’s predetermination? Will there be a special salvation for Jews (“Sonderweg”) beyond the gospel of Christ?
In a relative world, a few absolutes are helpful to bank on. And this text points us toward two “irrevocables” in terms of being the people of God.
A People of Mission
In this text, Paul is combining two important issues: God’s people are all people who would follow him, and God continually extends his mercy to more and more people. Salvation has come to the Gentiles (11:11) and to the question, “Has God rejected his people (Israel),” Paul responds, “By no means!” (11:1)
In that light, verses 30-31 say that the disobedience of Israel led to the expansion of God’s people to include Gentiles. So what exactly was this disobedience? If God would so drastically alter salvation history over this one thing, then we must certainly have an irrevocable to consider.
A reading of the Minor Prophets reveals two major themes in God’s disappointment with Israel: Their worship and their justice were thin and token. But this disobedience can be traced back even further into Israel’s history, back to her very DNA as God chose and called her. Genesis 12 records the foundational marching orders for Israel as God’s people: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing ... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (12:2, 3).”
Beginning with Abraham, God called his people to see beyond themselves. Blessed to be a blessing. The family (Israel) for the Not Yet family (the Church). Chosen as God’s people to extend beyond themselves to bring in God’s people everywhere.
God isn’t in the business of favoritism, but he does favor people — all people! And his plan to favor all people is the life of his current people. So here’s something that has always been an irrevocable for those who would follow this God: living out God’s mission. Love your neighbor, reach out to the needy, help the poor, and preach the gospel.
This whole passage reminds us that God desires our fellowship, and wants us to be in mission; to be involved with others. Evangelism, serving nonbelievers, tending to issues of social justice — to not follow God in these things is to live in disobedience. Israel was given charge to bless the nations of the world, but they chose to become exclusive in their worship of God.
They became exclusive in their national pride and did not allow Gentiles (all other nations) to participate in the covenant God had made with them, which was to be with all people. No wonder Paul was irate. He had been one of them, persecuting Christians based on national pride and religious fervor.
But more to the point, Scripture itself has made it clear: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11: 2, echoing 1 Samuel 12:22 and Psalm 94:14).
Called to be a people of Mission. Called to be A People of Mercy.
On one hand, the Scriptures acknowledge that seasons of blessing may be temporary. Rains come and go. Crops boom and bust. Riches can be transient.
But the irrevocable gift of God is here linked to one of his attributes, not merely his actions. Despite disobedience, God still offers his people mercy. “So that he may be merciful to all” (verse 32).
Recall Hosea. His son Lo ammi — “not my people” — was not the final word of the Lord on wayward Israel. They would again be called the children of God (1:10). The English word “irrevocable” appears nowhere else in Scripture but here in verse 29. That alone is significant. Paul is stating the permanency of God’s work through Christ. Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
Perhaps parents can best understand the heart which grants mercy in response to disobedience. It is a heart of love ... despite …. The parental heart is a heart that longs for relationship over punishment. A heart that puts more stock in the future than in the past. Moreover, God is our Divine Parent.
Here again this word “irrevocable” comes into play in a different way. The Greek word for irrevocable literally means “without regret”:something is given with no claim to Do-Overs. The only other place the same Greek word appears is 2 Corinthians 7:10: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret [‘irrevocable’], but worldly grief produces death.”
Godly grief over sin is connected to repentance. This is something we should foster. We should ask God for it. We should celebrate it. And we should claim the truth of our sin without regret. We can freely do that because we know that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.
A recent Time magazine article reported the declining number of Catholics who go to confession. Confessing our sins in this relativistic, therapeutic culture isn’t seen as much these days.
Yet this is why our liturgies retain the corporate language of confession — of that which is done and that which was left undone. The place of confession and repentance is not a place of worldly grief, self-abasement, or groveling. It is the place of honesty and the springboard to guilt-free living. While we regret our sin, we don’t have to be ashamed of acknowledging it because in God’s mercy we are forgiven. To claim our sin is in the same breath to claim God’s unending mercy.
So what do we make of all this? Not many irrevocables in life, but we do know that we’re a people of mission and of mercy. The Bible says the gifts and calling of God are “irrevocable” (11:29).
Bottom line, perhaps Pastor Dennis J. Meaker put it best when he wrote us, saying that what we learn here is that “God does not give up on his commitments simply because they do not seem to be working out as planned.”
God does not reject God’s people — whether Jew or Gentile — because God’s gifts and callings are irrevocable, even in our disobedience and ultimately by God on our behalf.
These verses are not about us: They are about God. The gifts of GOD are irrevocable. The calling of GOD is irrevocable. Paul closes his argument in chapter 11 (verse 33): “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” This is followed by a two-point observation: God’s judgments are unsearchable, and God’s ways are unfathomable.
And that is good news for the world.
Things may not seem to be working out as planned.
However, that does not mean that God is giving up on commitments made, or his promises offered to his people.
Let God be God, for there is only one true God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A mystery to be sure, but we can depend on this God. He never changes. In addition, our gifts and calling are irrevocable. Thanks be to God, who doeth all things well. Amen.
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
On Catholic confession: Padgett, Tim. “A comeback for confession.” Time, September 27, 2007. time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1666268,00.html.