I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, ‘About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.’ Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written,
‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses,
‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’
So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.
After the mountain top confidence of Chapter 8, Paul suddenly seems consumed by anguish. You probably did not wake up this morning worrying about Abraham’s family politics and might even be tempted to join those who suggest Romans would be a better read if Chapters 9-11 were quietly removed. Or you might have seen enough of Church life to be struck by how pertinent the question of who is being steered by God remains. Full of Chapter 8 confidence, we rejoice in God leading his people forward, only to find the Elders’ Meeting cannot agree amongst themselves. If we are all within God’s Covenant should Esau expect to defer to Jacob, and Ellie expect to defer to Jane? Has God chosen to use Ellie or Jane to explain the divine will? If “them at Synod” do not share our enthusiasm for our building project, who is being inspired by God? Then Paul disturbingly lobs in the even more tricky idea that God might choose to use Pharaoh, who never darkens the door of the synagogue and is the epitome of everything about the powerful that the United Reformed Church likes to condemn. Paul thinks God has to be allowed to work as God wills. That may not be how we would play God, especially if we have the task of chairing that Elders’ Meeting. However, Paul’s conclusion is not that we beat down those who think God has steered them in a different way from us. Rather he will develop an argument that is around obedience. As the theologian Karl Barth put it, the real risk is “disobedient exclusion from the benefit of the Gospel”. When my energy goes into wondering why God did not make everybody else like me, I can easily miss that it is me God really wants to remould. For the Gospel to give me life in all its fulness, it may need change starting with me. And more of that in tomorrow’s reflection.
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, forgive me when I expect you to privilege me over others, give me the humility to see you at work even in those I find hard to trust, help me to celebrate all those you have given me as companions on the Way, change me into the person you want me to be, and do it all with mercy Amen
John Ellis, Past Moderator of the URC General Assembly and Secretary of Capel United Church in Kent.