One of the things that differentiates preaching from other forms of speech is that the preacher often has to say, “I don’t fully understand what I am about to say to you.” You will never hear a lawyer or a politician or a professor say that. But preachers think it often and occasionally confess it. This is nowhere truer than with Romans 9 Romans 10 Romans 11, which is Paul’s extended agony over his fellow Jews.
If there is any comfort for the preacher, it’s that Paul doesn’t really understand what he is saying either, which is why, I suggest, that this entire section is framed by doxology. Romans 9 begins with a doxology on Israel: “They are Israelites and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenant, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs and of their race according to the flesh is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed forever.”
Romans 11 concludes, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways.”
Romans 9Romans 11 is not a logical treatise but an unfinished narrative, the clue to whose resolution lies only in the character of God, to whom be glory forever and ever.
The story of God’s promise begins, as you know, in failure and shame. It is something like this: Each morning in the bankruptcy court in the Durham County courthouse they have a charming way of opening court. The bailiff enters and surveys a room filled with ruined lives and cries out, “All debtors rise.” And whether you are the CEO of a failed corporation or a poor person who can’t pay your bills, you acknowledge your true station in life and rise to your feet. “All debtors rise.” In the Book of Romans this is God’s word to those who stand outside the covenant and to those within; it is God’s call to those who feel they don’t need revealed religion and to those who believe that they are its custodians. Debtors all.
Saul fit the latter category. He believed that if he could be an observant enough Jew when the bailiff gave the command he would not have to rise. He could sit on his pew. That is a delusion to which religious professionals are especially vulnerable. If we know enough about the Bible, undergo the normative experiences, and perform according to expectations, when the call goes out, we can keep our seat. We think we are safe and saved. This is the righteousness of the law. It is not only at home in religion but it has metastasized into all spheres of human endeavor. No realm of our life is free of it. But practice it as we do, we are not saved. Instead, each of us comes to a point of self-realization and longing for another kind of righteousness. I want to live out my life in the presence of God and before you, my brothers and sisters, in a different mode altogether.
The righteousness of the law is so pure that it can only keep to itself and have nothing to do with anyone else. Haven’t you known people like that, whose purity depends on their isolation? There is a second kind of righteousness, one that is so pure that it can’t help but give of itself to others. This is not the goodness that God hoards within the godhead but that which God can’t help but communicate to the world. Luther found out long ago, and each of us makes the same discovery — that God is a real problem until you find the place where this other righteousness is flowing like water. That place is a person, really, of whom God says, “In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, my very character, which you thought so inaccessible, is available to you and your ministry.” Coming to that source with an empty cup is all that we mean by “faith.” It’s not believing 100 incredible things before breakfast but knowing where the righteousness is and trusting that it will be there for you.
In Romans 9, Paul both grieves and marvels that Israel has turned away from this second kind of righteousness. Israel has rejected God, but God has not rejected Israel. Because Israel has momentarily stepped aside, a way has opened for you and me to enter into God’s righteousness. But we should never be so deluded as to think that the present position is the final one, or that the whole edifice rests on our religious sensibilities. For as Paul says in Romans 11, “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29).”
The mystery in all this is not that God can save whom God pleases. It is not even the dialectical yin and yang of the Jews’ disobedience that triggers mercy toward us, and our salvation that brings a strange glory to the Jews. That is hard.
The real mystery is the mechanism that makes this motor run. It is such a humble activity, I’m almost embarrassed to say it: it’s preaching. It’s not church growth, not bureaucracy, it’s not sociology; it’s not psychology; it’s not planning. It’s not long range planning; it’s not even religion. It’s preaching. Like a sacrament, under the ordinary forms of speaking and hearing, God’s plan of salvation stretches across the generations. It is the great chain of preaching: To call on God you’ve got to believe in God; to believe in God you’ve got to hear the word; to hear the word you’ve got to have preaching; and to have preaching you need a preacher whose gorgeous feet have been sent on a mission. Isn’t it a mystery! What the world dismisses as outmoded in the age of the Internet, what Webster’s dictionary defines as an “annoying harangue,” or “religious advice, given in a tiresome manner,” what you yourself have doubts about when you are honest with yourself — is drawn through the curtain of mystery into God’s plan of salvation.
What Moses once said about the nearness of the law, Paul now says about the word of faith: Do not think that you need to go to heaven to bring Christ down (He’s here already); and don’t descend to Sheol to bring Him up (He’s alive without your help).
Where is He? Why, He’s near you, on your lips and in your heart. “That is the word of faith which we preach.”
So humble is this word that even as we receive it we are busy deconstructing it by improving it. We supplement it with every kind of knowledge, every sort of program, and whatever political power we can muster. That’s why poor people and third world people seem to live by the word better than we, not because they are more virtuous, but because they actually rely on the word and haven’t yet learned how to kill it.
On my sabbatical I spent a good deal of time in Zimbabwean Lutheran churches. One of the things I noticed in the liturgy, which was conducted in the Shona language, was this: whereas in our churches we reserve our greatest hoopla for carrying the money to the altar or the entrance or exit of our ministers, in the Shona churches they pour all their liturgical fanfare into the reading of the Gospel. When it came time for the reading of the word, a woman’s voice would materialize out of the congregation, and all the people would surge in response, and we would go back and forth in a way that I could still hear in my head. I asked a friend, “What are we saying?” He said, “Oh, it goes like this: ‘This is the good news: we want to hear the good news: I said this is the good news: please tell it to us: did I not say this was the good news? God be praised, then tell it to us. Didn’t I say I would tell it to you,'” and so on. When the Gospel was finally read from the midst of the congregation, it was as if it were a physical presence in our midst.
The word is near you, that is, the word of faith that we preach: You walk into a hospital room and a frail little thing quotes a line from one of your sermons back at you, and suddenly the word is there between you. Or, after one of your sermons, a total stranger walks unannounced into your private study and says, “I heard what you said. We’ve got to talk.”
There’s a very young woman in your church who’s trying to get her little boy through chemotherapy all by herself. She says, “When Jason can’t sleep, we sit by the window and I rock him and talk to him about Jesus while we wait for it to get light.” There is no need to ascend to heaven to bring Christ down. The word is near you on your lips and in your heart.
Preaching is such a humble activity. We have suffered too long the hollow aggrandizement of the pulpit. We’ve told too many stories of heroic Scottish preachers. We’ve asked too many times, ‘Who are the great preachers today?’ We’ve said with Luther, “The word does it all,” but we’ve trained the spotlights on ourselves. Yet, preaching is not our show but one link in the chain of God’s salvation that God means to offer to Jews and Gentiles and all people.
So keep preaching. Keep telling. Don’t give up. Fides ex auditu. Faith comes from what is heard. I do not understand why it is so, only that it is so.
We only know that our part in God’s plan entails being as truly Christian as we can be, which means to live by faith in Christ Jesus, which means to give ourselves over to the disciplines and joys of speaking and hearing, speaking and hearing. Outside the chain of preaching there is — nothing that we can understand. Only silence.
The great chain of preaching is like an ongoing conversation at a wonderful party. We arrive late and will leave long before it is over. But while we are there, how blessed it is to speak and hear.

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