The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      20th June 2021
Oh the depths
Jeremy Fletcher

Romans 11. 25 – 36
I was once given the great privilege of being flown, rather fast, around the Lake District. I hadn’t quite believed the Station Commander of RAF Linton-on-Ouse when he suggested the trip, but I was assured he meant it, and he duly delivered. The mountains on whose slopes I had toiled and slogged were revealed in their totality, and the geography - so hard to understand when using all my effort simply to prevent myself falling off Great Gable or Bowfell – the geography made sense, because it was the best kind of map from that height. You could see the whole thing. If only my camera hadn’t run out of battery. 
In chapters 9, 10 and 11 of the Letter to the Romans, Paul has been using all his effort to hold on to the steepest of theological slopes. If salvation is now available to the Gentiles, what about the Jews? If salvation, in Jesus Christ, has come from the Jews, shouldn’t the Gentiles become Jewish? If salvation is by faith alone, what about the Jewish Law? If, through the Law comes holiness, why is salvation is by faith alone? If salvation came from the Jews, aren’t they better than the Gentiles? If salvation is by faith, and the Gentiles are the example of it, aren’t they superior to the Jews? 
What you are hoping for here is that Paul, clinging on to the steep slopes of this complex argument, is suddenly flown so high that the whole of the theological geography is made absolutely clear. I have to disappoint you. At the end of chapter 11 Paul is indeed taken above the slopes, but to be given a view not of the terrain he’s been slogging through, but into infinity, so much so that he is transported with the view, and “lost in wonder love and praise”. As Paul wrestles with all the complexities of the purposes of God, all he can end with is to say “how unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways.” Above the clouds is infinite possibility. 
It is important not to use this as a means of dodging the arguments. Paul quotes from the end of the book of Job, where after 30-odd chapters of wrestling with the problem of suffering, God’s only answer is “well, can you make an elephant?” It is not a knock down argument, rather a change of perspective. For church life in Rome, and across the growing Christian world, the infinite purposes of God are cashing out in complicated discussions and relationships between law-abiding Jewish converts and Gentiles who have been told the specifics of the law do not apply. Those discussions also relate to the relationships with Jews who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. What about them? Will they be saved? 
Paul needs to struggle for answers, even as he knows that all will work out in the providence of God. The divine love for the ancient people of God must be for something. The call of God to the people of Israel enabled the coming of the Messiah and saviour of the whole world. This gift, this calling, is “irrevocable”. It is a problem for Paul that some Jews seem to be hardening their anti Christian views. All he can say is that this hardening is enabling Gentiles to be welcomed into the new Israel, and if God’s purposes are irrevocable, then this hardening may be an opportunity for God to show mercy and forgiveness all the more to the Jews. 
After all, before Jesus came, it was the Gentiles who had been hardened and were subject to judgement, so they should not be complacent. Jew and Gentile, on this reckoning, are the same. All need to know the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ, and can only rely on that. Not only that, but their assurance in the mercy of God needs to be borne out by their continued faithfulness to all that God has commanded. That takes Paul straight into Chapter 12, which is full of encouragements for both Jew and Gentile to live out their lives as living sacrifices, acceptable to God. The calling is not enough. Living it out is all. 
Neither Jew, nor Gentile, says Paul, can rest on their laurels. Those originally called need to be aware of their hardening, and see that call fulfilled in Jesus as the Messiah. Those latterly called may have been grafted in to the original root stock, to use Paul’s analogy of the olive tree used earlier in the chapter, but they must not despise the root nor be complacent about their grafting. This heightened view is not the mapping out of the whole geography, and there will be more slopes to climb. But being in awe of the ways of God gives confidence that nothing here is outside God’s purposes, and we can be sure that, in Him, thew view will lead to glory.
In living the Christian life we will climb complex slopes. We should look down and look up, wrestle with the complexities in trust completely in the overarching providence of the Almighty. And, when we gain that higher view, let our awe turn to praise, and our praise to action, for Jesus’s sake. Amen. 

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