Bethel Evangelical Lutheran worshiping Jesus at 8th and N. East Ave. in York, NE.402-363-0022

Midweek Advent 2 – By Grace Alone

Romans 11:1-6

Dear Friends in Christ,

Noah, Elijah, Paul, Martin Luther. If you think about it they all had a lot in common. They all lived in a time of persecution. They all lived at a time when it must have seemed like there were few, if any believers left; a time when they might have wondered if the church would survive.

The world was so bad at the time of Noah that we are told that Noah was the only righteous man, or believer, left. As bad as we might think it is in the world today, it’s not quite that bad.

Things were so bad in Israel at the time of Elijah that he thought that he was the only believer left, that it was hopeless to continue to preach the word because no one was listening, even when God backed up the word with miracles.

Paul loved his fellow Israelites, but it seemed that whenever he proclaimed the Good News in a Synagogue, trying to show from Scripture that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the long-promised Messiah, they rejected his message and often verbally and even physically abused him.

Luther saw the organized church of his day join with the secular government to try to silence him and the message of salvation by grace alone. The church excommunicated him and influenced the government to declare him an enemy of the people.

We find ourselves living in a world that seems to be approaching the wickedness and violence that is described in Noah’s day. We find ourselves living in a world where churches are as faithless as they were in the days of Elijah, Paul and Luther. Maybe you heard about the Anglican Bishop who was asking his churches to pray that one of the royal children would grow up to be gay.

Considering the history of Israel and what Paul was experiencing, we can understand why he might ask the question Did God reject his people? Over and over again Israel had proven themselves to be hard-hearted and unfaithful to the Lord. The pattern of turning aside to idols, calling on the Lord for help, God sending a deliverer, and then turning aside to idols again, repeated time, after time, during the period of the judges. When kings took over from the judges, things weren’t much better. Only a handful of Kings worked to keep the people faithful to the Lord. Then, when the Messiah finally did come, the Jewish leaders, the official church, rejected him and worked to have him unjustly executed. Israel had responded to God’s rescue, care, and faithfulness by running after other gods, and committing spiritual adultery. As Elijah describes, they killed the true prophets, and tore down God’s altars in favor of false prophets and false gods. They even killed the Messiah himself.

In response to their unfaithfulness God had sent them many judgments intended to get their attention and call them to repentance and faith. He sent famines, droughts, he even let their enemies couquer them, take them captive and destroy all they had. It might have seemed, especially as Gentiles were coming to faith in large numbers, that God had finally given up on his people and rejected them for good.

Paul says, “NO!” Many of the people of Israel, descendants of Abraham, may have rejected the Lord, but he remains faithful. Paul says, “I am living proof that God has not completely rejected his people. For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of Benjamin. Just as God did not reject all Israel at the time of Elijah, but reserved for himself 7000 believers, he will never be without a remnant of believers. No matter how bad it gets. No matter how many have been unfaithful to him and rejected him, God will always have a remnant of believers, a remnant chosen by grace, who can witness to the truth.

Let that be a comfort to you as you see that the world is very evil and the times are waxing late. Let that be a comfort to you as you feel that the church, the number of believers, is shrinking; when you might feel like Elijah did, that you are one of the few believers left and it seems hopeless or useless to continue to share God’s word because no one seems to be listening. God will always have a remnant chosen by grace. You are never alone. God’s promise never fails. His word never returns empty.

The four men I mentioned, Noah, Elijah, Paul and Luther had more in common than living during times of persecution. Like each of us, they all showed themselves to be weak, sinful humans. After Noah and his family left the ark he planted a vineyard, harvested the grapes, made wine, got drunk and passed out. Elijah was depressed and suicidal because he looked at himself instead of trusting in God. Paul had persecuted Jesus and his followers. Luther was prone to depression and was often guilty of speaking too harshly of others. These sinful men were part of God’s remnant! They are proof, not only that God provides a remnant, but that it is always a remnant chosen by grace alone.

These men were chosen by God not because of how good they were, but because of his grace to them and to those around them.

The Bible clearly teaches that God did not look into the future and decide to choose them, or us, because he saw that they, or we, would be such holy people. They weren’t perfect and never became perfect. We aren’t perfect and never will be. Paul especially understood how unworthy he was of God’s love, calling himself the chief of sinners. Yet God called him his child, declared him forgiven, made him one of his remnant by grace.

That should be a comfort to us as well when we realize that we tend to give in to pride and the influence of the world around us, and fail to trust God. It’s our only comfort when we realized that we too are a chief of sinners.

As we look at the world around us we are tempted to think, “people sure get themselves in a big mess with their sins. I’m glad I’m not like that. God must be pleased with me and all the good I do, or at least at the great evil I avoid.” But when we fall into that holier-than-thou temptation, we reject Grace. As Paul says, you can’t have it both ways. It’s either grace or works, and if you take pride in your works and think that’s why God loves you, then you have chosen works over grace.

The other temptation we face, like Elijah, is to think everything is hopeless. We fail to trust God. We see all the sins in the world around us, and then it hits us that we are just as bad. We are in the world but we are not supposed to be of the world. Yet, like Abraham, who agreed to have a child by his maidservant because that was the custom of the times, we find ourselves justifying sin, becoming just like the sinful world around us. We are tempted to begin to wonder, “Has the Lord rejected me? He should reject me when he sees the thoughts and attitudes of my heart.”

But, thinking that way would also imply works. It tempts you to think that if you were just a little more Christlike, if you tried just a little harder, then God would love you and accept you. God does not accept you on the basis of what you do. He has chosen you to be his 100% by grace, undeserved love.

Our only hope and comfort as we look at the world and at ourselves is grace. The only way there are any believers left on earth is grace. The only reason we believe in Jesus is grace. The only reason God chose us to be his and made us his own is grace. Grace put in action when Jesus neither boasted in his perfection, nor lost trust in his Father. Grace put in action when he paid for the unfaithfulness of Israel, the drunkenness of Noah, the despair and lack of trust of Elijah, the persecution of Paul, and our pride or despair or lack of trust, by giving his life in our place on the cross. Grace put into action when he saw to it that those he elected in grace he also called, bringing us into contact with the word so that the Holy Spirit could bring us to faith. At no point in this whole story of salvation do we do anything. God does it all, 100%. Our election, our calling, our salvation, our faith, our preservation, it’s all his work of grace.

As the saying goes; Jesus plus nothing equals everything. That’s grace. Jesus plus anything, no matter how small, equals nothing. That’s works. You can’t have it both ways. Either God saves you by grace or you have to try to save yourself, and you know what happens if you try to save yourself.

As we face a world which is more and more evil, and as we see our own sins every day, we rejoice in the comfort of knowing that we are saved by grace alone.