12th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, George Santayana lived in the 19-20th centuries and was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. Perhaps he’s most famous for a quote that is often attributed to him, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is great value in studying history, isn’t there? There’s value in knowing where you came from. There’s value in learning from past experiences. There’s value in understanding how things originated. There’s particular value in studying the history of God’s people. Today we’re installing our Sunday school teachers and in a little over a week we’ll begin a new school year here at St. Mark’s. Much of what we do as a congregation is training, teaching, educating our children about the history of God’s kingdom on earth.
Why do we do that? Because our salvation is based on real, true, historical facts. God gives us in the Old Testament a record of how he kept alive the promise made to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that He would send the woman’s offspring to crush Satan’s head. Then we have a record of God’s incredible faithfulness to His promises and His people’s incredible unfaithfulness.
Notice what we have throughout the Old Testament. After the fall into sin at the very beginning and more and more people were born in the world, we notice that many people follow the way of Cain. They rebel against God, want God’s stuff, they want God’s world, but they don’t want God. In fact, it gets worse and worse until the point where there’s only one faithful, God-fearing, believing family left on the earth – Noah and his family. So God sends a massive flood to wipe the world clean of all the evil and corruption. But after the flood we see that the same sin that corrupted the whole world still lived in Noah and his family. Years later, the descendants of Noah build a big tower in direct defiance of God’s command. So, the whole human race had become an unfit means for bringing the Savior into the world. But God doesn’t go back on His Word. So, God chooses one family, the family of Abraham as the means that He will use to bring the long-promised Savior into the world. But Abraham and his wife Sarah don’t have any children and it’s hard to have many descendants when you don’t even have one. Abraham then takes matters into his own hands and has relations with his wife’s maidservant, Hagar, who gives birth to a son. But this is not the son who would carry the promise of the Savior.
Already we sense something here. Being an Israelite didn’t depend on physically being descending from Abraham. Abraham had other descendants who were not part of Israel. Later, as God promised, Sarah, Abraham’s wife has a child who they name Isaac. This son would carry the promise. Later Isaac and his wife Rebekah have two children, Jacob and Esau, who were also twins. But again God says that only one of them, Jacob, is going to be part of Israel. So this shows that having both the same parents and even sharing the same womb doesn’t make someone a true Israelite.
Jacob at one point after God has blessed him with many children wrestles with God and God changes his name to Israel, which means one who wrestles with God. Jacob’s family then moves down to Egypt where they live to survive a terrible famine and for 400 years the nation grows in Egypt separate from all other nations. God leads them out of Egypt and they wander in the desert for 40 years being led by a visible sign of God’s presence, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They were able to see God’s incredible glory and power on Mt. Sinai when God gave them the law for their good and for their protection. They made it to the Promised Land and God gave them a beautiful land to live in. But over the course of time many fell into idolatry and unbelief and the nation split into two. Then later the kingdom in the north was destroyed and the southern kingdom of Judah was taken to exile in Babylon. So we see again that being an Israelite doesn’t mean living in a certain geographical area.
Finally, God leads a remmant back to the Promised Land. And at just the right time God sent the Messiah, Jesus was born to the virgin Mary. Jesus lived for 33 years and publicly ministered and shared God’s Word for 3 years all over Israel, sharing the message of salvation in Him to all the Jewish people of Israel. But what happened? Many rejected him and with the help of the Romans put him to death on a cross. So, again, we see that not all the people of Israel were really people of Israel.
So what is it that makes someone a true Israelite? It’s not that you’re descended from Abraham or Isaac or Jacob, it’s not that you lived in a certain geographical area, it’s not that followed all the OT rules and regulations. What it’s always been is that a true Israelite is someone who believes in the Savior. True Israelites in the OT believed in the promised Savior. True Israelites today, you and me, believe in the Savior who has come.
But here as Paul considers his own people, the Jewish nation, his own race, his own flesh and blood, and considers how many of them are unbelievers, how many of them have rejected the Savior, how many of them went to hell were headed to hell, notice what he says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” He’s deeply troubled. Then he even says, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people.” See how deeply he cares about his own people, how deeply he cares that they would be brought to faith and not be lost eternally! So deeply that he says he could wish that he be lost, he be condemned, he lose out on salvation, if it meant his people would be saved.
They had so many advantages: adoption to sonship- they were considered children of God, divine glory – they saw the glory of the Lord, the covenants – they had precious covenants with God himself, the greatest being the new covenant of forgiveness and salvation in the Savior, they had the receiving of the law – they had the way to live a wonderful life in this world according to God’s laws, they had temple worship – all those signs, symbols, foreshadows of Jesus, all the sacrifices that pointed ahead to the one sacrifice on the cross, they had the promises of the Savior, they had the patriarchs, they had the human ancestry of Jesus! So many advantages and yet for the majority they turned away, rejected. Paul could wish himself condemned if it meant saving his people. Of course, Paul couldn’t do that. But Jesus did. Jesus was crucified on a cross taking the full punishment of all sins- Jews, Gentiles, Americans, everyone – on himself and suffering eternal death so no one would have to. But many turned away.
So what are our take aways? What should we learn from the past history of God’s people? Two things:
First, treasure what you have. Don’t despise the advantages that are yours. In incredible mercy God gave the Israelites advantage after advantage but a far majority turned away and were lost eternally. There’s a warning here for us. What advantages do we have? What high privileges do we enjoy? We have the adoption into God’s family through baptism. We have God’s Word readily available to us all around, we have the Lord’s Supper offered to us, we get to worship God in peace and safety, we don’t just have promises of the Savior, we have the fulfillments to see and enjoy. Germany once enjoyed a wonderful advantage – they had the likes of Martin Luther who rediscovered the truth 500 years ago, they were able to freely hear the unconditional gospel, the truth that our sins are forgiven in Jesus alone. But the gospel rain shower didn’t last long there. Today you go to Germany and Christianity is waning. The one church body that truly succeeds the Lutheran Reformation is only a hand full of churches and a few thousand members large.
But are we getting tired of the gospel? Are we getting tired because we’ve had it so good? Treasure what you have. Treasure the gospel, treasure your baptism, treasure your freedom to hear, read, and enjoy. Bring your children to this treasure by bringing them to the dayschool or Sundayschool or teaching them at home the truths of God’s Word.
The 2nd takeaway is this: have a heart for the souls of all people. Notice Pauls’ incredible desire for the salvation of his people. He describes himself having great sorrow and unceasing anguish for his people who have rejected Jesus. He even goes so far to say that he would pray that he himself would be cursed if it meant in exchange all of his fellow Israelites would be saved. Notice that. That’s the kind of desire he has. Do we have that? Do we have such a strong desire for the salvation of other people?
It starts right in our homes with our own families. Can I honestly say that my highest, my number one priority in my family is that my wife and children are in heaven? Who cares what sports they play! Who cares what grades they get in school! Who cares what university or college or scholarship they get! Is my number one desire that they end up in heaven? That’s going to affect and influence how I deal with them. Do I give them the impression that God’s Word isn’t really a part of my day-to-day life? Do I only give lip service to God’s directions for me in His Word? Do I honestly examine myself day by day to see what lies of Satan I’m believe, what sins I’ve accustomed myself to, in what ways my selfishness is controlling my life?
Paul is speaking about his kinsmen. What about our own “countrymen”? What about our fellow Americans, our fellow citizens of Bemidji? In the news there’s been a lot about racial tensions lately. But what does God say? There is no more important race than another. We are all the same, every person, sinners who deserve nothing but hell and eternal death. We are also all the same in that we all have a Savior who died on a cross and rose from the dead to win us our salvation fully and freely and offers it to all as a free gift. Have such a heart for the souls of all people. See each person as a soul for whom Jesus bled and died and who needs to hear the gospel just as much as you do.
In other words, have a heart like your God. That’s what we see when we look at the history of the Old Testament. God let nothing stop Him from sending His Son into this world to rescue you and me. That’s God’s faithfulness, that’s how much he desires your salvation. Have a heart for souls like He does. Amen.