When I was a kid, the janitor at school carried around a massive ring filled to overflowing with keys. With these keys there was no room she could not get into, no closet she could not unlock. As time went on, lock systems became more sophisticated, such that all the janitor now needed was a single key, a master key, to unlock any door in the entire school. Fantasizing what mischief I could cause with that key was an activity I was prone to do – but that story can be left for another day.
Often when reading the great Apostle Paul, one can get the feeling that perhaps even he didn’t understand what he was saying all the time, and when looking at a passage like the one we just read, maybe we can be forgiven for wondering if he simply was quoting Old Testament passages at random; here one from Psalm 18 here Deut 32.43, back to the Psalms again, and finally to Isaiah 11.10, not least when up until this point, from Romans 12 to now, Paul was talking about the necessary religious compromises it takes to navigate life in the Church – if someone wants to eat meat, let them, if they don’t, don’t eat it around them, and so on – What do these irritating features of church politics have to do with the exalted prophecies Paul quoted indicating that all the nations, all the gentiles, will hope in Israel’s God?
I propose that Paul thinks Jesus is very much like a master key.
It could also be argued, since he was always cleaning up after the churches messes, that Paul was a janitor, a janitor who believed that in Jesus Christ he had a key that unlocks many disparate passages in Scripture, and a key which helps to give deep meaning to mundane religious and ethical clashes that are bound to happen in the Church. Explaining how this is so will not be easy to follow, but be patient and I think we’ll be able to make some interesting connections.
A new section of Romans starts around the beginning of chapter 12 and runs up to the exhortation and conclusion at the very end. All the way through Paul is occupied with telling the church in Rome to “live in harmony with one another.” So bless those who persecute you, contribute to the needs of the saints, live peaceably with all people, etc… Included in this portion is a lengthy passage about eating or not eating various kinds of foods, depending on what makes for peace and mutual building up. This is because Paul is writing to a church in which there was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, the Jews observed certain food laws as was their custom but the Gentiles had not followed these same practices and were far from being eager to take them on. As far as Paul is concerned, you can eat whatever the heck you want, but for goodness sake don’t make a big deal of it.
Then seemingly out of the blue, Paul connects this kind of give and take to Christ’s own humility, “For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” It is from here that we get the passage we read this evening where Paul lets loose a litany of quotes. Let us examine these passages.
The first quote is from the end of a rather long Psalm. Psalm 18 is one concerned with explaining how once, the psalmist was surrounded by his enemies and saw no way out, but Israel’s God came to his rescue and defeated the his adversaries. The Psalm is generally understood to be one that foreshadows Christ’s death at the hands of the nations and subsequent victory by resurrection. The key verse here is 49 where the psalmist proclaims he “will give thanks to you before the nations.” Paul’s Greek version is slightly different than the one our English is based on but it is clear we are meant to understand here a reference to Christ’s victory over “his enemies” given in the resurrection from the dead.
It is important to note that among other things, this poem is concerned with the faithfulness of God.
The next quote is from the so-called “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy and it’s concern is explicating what will happen should Israel be unfaithful to the covenant they are making with God. The poet predicts that indeed Israel will be unfaithful and will be made to suffer the consequences. But this is not the last word; at the appointed time, God will be faithful and will deliver Israel from the hand of her enemies and as a result the nations will praise God along with Israel for God’s faithful deliverance.
Likewise Psalm 117, the shortest Psalm in the book, basically tells all the nations to praise God, “because he is sort of super awesome.” It is important to see how the imagination of the poet is working here. It is to be expected that Israel praise her God, but here the nations are supposed to praise him also, even though there is no explicit reference to God having done anything for them. The praise should arise simply on account of the greatness of God.
Finally Paul turns to the big guns and quotes Isaiah. The passage in fact that Reed [friend and Theophiliac co-author] preached on this morning and which I was going to preach on but I didn’t want to start a sermon war. Anyway, Isaiah here is telling us what the kingdom of God is going to look like, and a powerful image it is. The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” will be filled up with the Spirit of God with which he will deal justly for the sake of the poor and for those neglected in justice because of corrupt courts. But this great reign extends well beyond human justice and encompasses the whole natural order. The leopard will lie down with the lamb, the lion will eat straw like the ox, no one will hurt or destroy in the restored Jerusalem, and all because “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” On account of this, this verdant, peaceful reign, because of this, “in him all the nations/gentiles will hope.”
What it seems Paul is saying here, then, is that these are all referring to Christ. Christ in his resurrection is the one vindicated by God having been delivered from his enemies, and it is Christ, the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” who brings peace and judges for the poor and oppressed. Moreover this Jesus is to be seen as the saviour of a rebellious Israel – an Israel who was looking to her own religious purity, her own strict obedience to the law, her own temple worship, rather than to God, for salvation from the Romans who were occupying the land – It is Jesus’ faithfulness to Israel that will cause the nations to worship and praise the God of Israel.
And so we come full circle back to eating food and having annoying and distracting arguments in church.Because Jesus is all these things that we’ve been talking about, God’s people now include us gentiles, and because God’s people includes us gentiles, there are bound to be difficulties that arise. And this is why Paul ran all over the Old Testament to get us to pay attention; Though Jesus, people who were at one time estranged from each other are now reconciled in a tangible life of love that they can now enjoy on Christ’s account.
St. Matthews, I think, is a living example of this truth. We have members from Minneapolis, but we have members from Africa and China; we’ve had pastors from South Africa and we even let the Lutherans preach here periodically. Leaning to navigate this sometimes confusing space is what Paul is getting at here, the cosmic dimension of salvation uniting all peoples in Christ is made particular in the patience it takes to get along with each other. So keep that in mind the next time the Vestry does something crazy you don’t like. [then here I ad libbed a connection to Advent that would be difficult to reproduce w/out context] Amen.