Summary: Cherish Your Spiritual Heritage 1) It’s only yours through faith 2) It’s only yours by grace
When I worked on a thoroughbred ranch in northern Japan, I knew which horses I needed to take extra care of simply by looking at the placards that hung above each of the horse’s stalls. These placards recorded equine bloodlines. Mr. Wimpy might not sound like a promising racer but if he was descended from a champion like Sea Biscuit, he had great potential, and therefore was worth much money.
Although people don’t walk around with placards hanging around their necks advertising their bloodlines, we are proud of our heritage, aren’t we? I’ve heard those from Holland say, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.” Those of German heritage often boast of their forefathers’ ingenuity and reputation for hard work. While those of Italian descent will argue loudly, often with exaggerated hand gestures that Nonna’s homemade tomato sauce is the best in the world. One people with a particular reputation for is the Jewish race. The Apostle Paul in our sermon text today agrees that the Jews have much to be proud of as God’s chosen people. However, he reminds us that one’s bloodline does not determine one’s standing with God. Just because you were born a Jew doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically go to heaven. In the same way just because your parents and grandparents are Christians doesn’t mean that you or your children automatically qualify for heaven either. You know this truth but the Holy Spirit thinks it’s important enough for us to ponder again as he urges us to cherish our spiritual heritage by remembering that it’s only ours through faith, and that it’s only ours by grace.
Paul begins our text in great distress. He said: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4a). Parents of sick children would willingly trade places with their kids if they could. It’s easier to be sick than to watch a loved one suffer. Paul thought the same thing in regard to his fellow Jews. Only they were suffering from something much worse than the flu. Many of them had rejected Jesus as their Savior and so were bound for hell. Paul couldn’t stand the thought of this and would have gladly traded places with them if he could. Of course that was impossible because, like a drowning swimmer, Paul himself needed rescuing from his own sins and was in no position to offer assistance to anyone else.
So did the other Jews not know what Paul did about their rescuer Jesus? How could they not know about the Messiah? Paul said of the Jews: “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all” (Romans 9:4b, 5a). To the Israelites had been given the Old Testament laws that served as a faint outline of what Jesus would come to do to save the world from sin. Imagine watching Star Wars previews for fifteen hundred years and not knowing, or rather, not believing that Luke Skywalker is the good guy.
The reason many Jews rejected Jesus as their savior is because they didn’t think they needed a savior. After all, weren’t they already God’s chosen people? A high school student who receives a university scholarship shouldn’t think that he has already become a doctor or a lawyer. The scholarship only entitles him to study to become one of those things. In the same way, when God chose the Jews as his special people it didn’t mean that they were automatically bound for heaven. It simply meant that they would be given all the information they needed for salvation.
Similarly do we think that because we regularly set foot in St. Peter Lutheran Church that we already have one foot in heaven’s door? If so, Paul warns: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 8 In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Romans 9:6b-8). Salvation is ours only through faith in Jesus’ promise of forgiveness, not by virtue of birth or church membership.
But what exactly does it mean to have faith in Jesus? It means putting your trust in him for salvation and for every aspect of your life even though that doesn’t seem wise. Perhaps I could compare it to a ship that was on the St. Lawrence River when a heavy fog enveloped it on all sides, completely concealing the shores and all objects from the view of the passengers. Much to their amazement, the ship continued at full speed. They became frightened considering such speed as extremely reckless on the part of the captain. Finally, one of the passengers expressed concerns to one of the crew demanding that the ship be slowed down. The mate listened and then replied with a smile: “Oh don’t be afraid. The fog extends only a short way above the water. The captain is at the masthead and is above the fog safely directing the vessel.”