The God who rules - Romans 11:25-36

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 9th November 2003.

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If you've ever seen the film Notting Hill, you'll know that it tells the story of how one man called Will Thacker, an impoverished bookseller and unlucky in love, falls for a Hollywood superstar called Anna Scott, played by Julia Roberts. And there is one scene in the film where Bernie, one of Will's friends, meets Anna for the first time, having no clue as to who she is. Bernie asks her: 'So tell me Anna, what do you do?' 'I'm an actress,' she replies. 'I'm actually in the stock market myself, says Bernie, so not really similar fields, though I have done the odd bit of amateur stuff. You know, P G Woodhouse, farce and all that. I've always imagined that it's a bit of tough job though, acting. I mean the wages are a scandal, aren't they?' 'They can be,' replies Anna. 'I see friends from university, continues Bernie. They've been in the business longer than you have. They're scraping by on a year. It's no life. What sort of acting do you do?' 'Films mainly, she says.' 'Oh, splendid, well done. How's the pay in movies? I mean the last film you did, what did you get paid?' So Anna coolly replies: 'Fifteen million dollars.'

You see, Bernie doesn't relate properly to Anna because he doesn't appreciate who she is. And actually that is what many of us Christians do when it comes to our relationship with God. Because quite frankly we have not fully grasped who God is. We treat God as if he were the AA man, the fourth emergency service. We get on the end of the prayer line when we need him, but most of the time we leave him in the background, happy to call him when we break down or we get a flat tyre.

But to the apostle Paul whose letter we are looking at together this evening, such an attitude would have been unthinkable. Because the end of Romans 11 is for Paul like the very top of a mountain climb. A year or so ago, Debbie and I climbed one of the highest peaks in England, Helvellyn. And getting there was very hard work. But when we got to the top it was an incredible sight. And we thought to ourselves: 'What an amazing view!' We could see all around the Lake District for miles around, from the beautiful lakes to the spectacular mountains. And throughout his letter Paul has been steadily climbing a mountain. He's had to take us through some deep valleys as he's shown us what we are like, rebels against God. He shown us some remarkable plains and scenery as he's taught us about the cross and the salvation we have through Jesus. And in Romans 9-11 he's taken us through some of the deepest teaching in the Bible as he's taught us about God's sovereignty and plan of salvation for Jew and Gentile. And now he's got to the end of his argument and he takes in a deep breath as he surveys the view of all these wonderful truths, and he cries out: 'What an amazing God!' And he falls down in praise and adoration of this awesome and mighty God!

You see for Paul there is an unbreakable link between the knowledge of God and the adoration of God. Whenever we learn more about God through his word then it should lead us to praise and marvel at his greatness. There is no room in Paul's thinking for mere academic study of God. The more you know, the more you wonder at and adore him. And it may be that you know a lot about God, but the apostle asks us this evening if we know God as he knows him. Do we love him and praise him as the only God worthy of our adoration and service and praise. Or do we treat him as the fourth emergency service, there for our convenience. You might shrug your shoulders and say: 'Yes, God is good, but do we really have to get that excited. I mean I'm glad he's saved me, but can't we leave it at that?' Paul would says that you have not even begun to understand the grandeur and majesty of this God who has saved you. If the truth about God does not move you to bow before him in joy and adoration, then you have not really grasped what it is that God has done for you. Because it's only when we know God properly that we will relate to him as we should, in humble obedience and adoration.

So Paul invites us to join him on this voyage of discovery as he shows us the God of the Bible. And he wants us to open our eyes to the staggering majesty of the God who has saved us, so that we too might get to the top of the mountain and cry out in praise and wonder: 'What an amazing God!' And even if you don't claim to be a Christian here this evening, then do stick with the apostle as we follow him this evening. Because it may be that you feel like Noel Coward when someone asked him: 'What do you think about God?' And he replied: 'Well, we've never been introduced. ' Because after tonight, you'll at the least know about the God of Bible, and I pray, know personally the God of the Bible. So do turn to Romans 11 vv 33-36 and Paul will give us three lessons from this passage:

1) Remember the Grace of God

2) Trust in the Ways of God

3) Live for the Glory of God

1) Remember the Grace of God

So first, Paul says, remember the grace of God. The apostle cries out in verse 33: 'Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!' Actually Paul literally writes: 'Oh the depths of the riches and of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God.' He's is totally bowled over by God's depth of riches, wisdom and knowledge. So what does he mean? Well Paul uses the word riches a number of times in his writings and he usually adds other words in to explain what he means. In chapter 2 he has spoken of the 'riches of God's kindness, tolerance and patience.' Elsewhere he speaks of the riches of God's grace or glory. And every time they are related to what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Already in Romans Paul has explained what it is that God has done for us in Christ. He says this in chapter 5: 'God demonstrates his own love for us in this. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' Later on in Romans 8 he says: 'If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son for us, will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?' God in his infinite wisdom and generosity has made it possible for hard hearted rebels like you and me to come back into relationship with the God who made us. And Paul is totally amazed at such generosity and wealth and wisdom. Who else but God could have thought up such an amazing plan of salvation? Who else but God could have been willing to send his own Son to die for us on a cross? Who else but God had the power and infinite love to go that far for hated enemies like you and me? The world looks at the cross and sees only foolishness. God looks at the cross and displays his infinite wisdom in saving people like you and me. Do you remember that song we sometimes sing at St. John's? 'How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son, to make a wretch his treasure?' Oh what depths of the wealth and wisdom and knowledge of God, cries Paul.

And as if that isn't enough, Paul goes on in verse 35: 'Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?' It's almost too daft for Paul to mention, but it's what some think. Some think they have done enough in God's books to get them into heaven. But Paul has made it crystal clear in Romans that they only thing we can contribute to our salvation is our sin. Who has ever given to God? asks Paul. The only thing we have given him is grief and dishonour! God is no man's debtor. He owes us nothing. If fact we owe him. But there is absolutely no way we could ever pay off the debt we owe to God. It's only by God's grace and mercy and eternal generosity that we get into God's heaven.

But you know, even Christians fall into this trap of thinking they need pay God off for his kindness and generosity. There is an excellent illustration of this in the film Saving Private Ryan. It was one of the biggest films of the last decade. The film is set during the Second World War and it tells the story of a group of soldiers sent to bring back one young soldier, James Ryan, from Normandy. Ryan is one of four brothers, but three of them have already been killed. So the government decrees that the fourth brother should be rescued and sent back to his home in America, to spare his mother losing all four sons. Well the mission is extremely perilous and one after the other, the soldiers lose their lives trying to save this Private Ryan. Finally Ryan is rescued but in doing so, even the captain of the group of soldiers loses his life defending a bridge. His last words to James Ryan are: 'James earn this- earn it.' The end of the film sees Ryan fifty years on with his family in Normandy, in front of the grave of the captain who died trying to save him. Ryan is in tears as he kneels beside the captain's grave and says: 'Every day I think about what you said to me on that bridge. I've tried to live my life the best I could. I hope it was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes I've earned what all you did for me.' Then, he turns to his wife and asks with some anxiety: 'Tell me I've lived a good life.. tell me I'm a good man

Sadly for Private Ryan, he'd spent his whole life trying to earn what had been achieved for him. He was trying to show he was good enough to die for. And so many Christians fall into this trap. They know they have been rescued by God's grace through Jesus' death on the cross. And yet they are driven by fear and wracked with guilt because they feel they have not led a good enough Christian life. They fear they may have let God down. They fear they have somehow not done enough to stay in God's good books. Friends that is not how the Christian life is to be lived. Do you remember Paul's words to the Galatian church: 'It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.' The fact is we are not good enough for God. But that is precisely why Christ died. Who has ever given to God, asks Paul. Even as a Christian you cannot live a perfect life. But God does not want us to be bent over double though fear and guilt that we are not doing as well as we should. We cannot be any closer to Christ than we are now. We're his forever. And nor can anything separate us from his love. Don't live your life in fear, but in freedom, knowing that God's grace alone will sustain you. Yes you muck up, but you keep coming back to the cross and remembering that it is only by grace that you are saved and only by grace you'll get to heaven. Don't fall into this terrible trap of thinking you need to pay God back for what he has done for you. You cannot do it. Rather the Christian life is to be lived in the wonderful knowledge that you are God's child saved by grace alone.

Trying to pay God back for his generosity would be as daft as me saying to my mother: 'Look, let me pay you back for all those nappies you bought and changed, for all that food you gave me as a child, for all those clothes you bought me. I think it's about million. Will that cover it?' Well even if I could pay Mum million, it still wouldn't cover the endless love she has for me. And to a infinitely greater extent God has gone to amazing lengths to rescue you and me. And we cannot pay him back, even if we wanted to. No he sets us free to be his beloved children, rescued to serve and love him, not driven by guilt and fear, but safe in the knowledge that we are his. I wonder, have you really and truly grasped the amazing love and grace that God has shown to you in Christ? You might know about the love of God, but do you know that love personally? If so you can understand how Paul could throw himself before God and cry out: 'Oh the depths of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God.' Remember the grace of God.

2) Trust in the Ways of God

But it's not just the grace and mercy and wealth of God in Christ that Paul delights in. It's also his unsearchable and untraceable ways. So Paul's second lesson for us is to trust in the ways of God. Verse 33: 'Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?' Now it's important to be clear what Paul is not saying. He's not saying that God is a completely closed book, that we can never know anything about him. He's not saying that we haven't got a clue as to God's judgements and his ways. Rather he is saying that we cannot know everything there is to know about God. He's saying 'let God be God'. Listen to how God puts it through the prophet Isaiah (55 v 8-9): 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.' It's the difference between an infinite, eternal and holy God and finite, mortal, sinful beings such as us. How can our tiny minds comprehend the awesome vastness of the mind of God? How can someone who's finite fully understand someone who's infinite? How can mortality fully understand immortality? It's like asking a slug to explain quantum mechanics. It's simply impossible. God's ways and thoughts are far higher than us. Now of course there is a huge difference between a slug and us. We are made in the image of God, we are God's special creation, and he has revealed himself to us. But he has not revealed everything, for it simply is not possible. He has revealed what we need to know for salvation. And that's enough for us to be getting on with. And in heaven we will spend the rest of eternity getting to know God and his ways better.

Now this is a very important lesson for us to learn, because quite frankly some of God's ways baffle us. Why does God do it this way and not that? Why is God allowing this to happen to me and not that? Paul would agree with us. He too is sometimes stumped. He too cannot fathom God's mind and understanding. But the point is that we know enough to trust him. And we have enough to trust him in two particular areas of bafflement, if I can put it like that.

First we have enough to trust him in things we don't understand. Paul has just spent three chapters trying to tease out the deep doctrine of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. That fact that it is God who saves, and yet he holds mankind accountable. And Paul has taught that both are true. But can he fully fathom it? No. He can get some way to answering it, but at the end of the day he cries out: 'How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!' It's important to realise that this is not a cry of a frustrated theologian wrestling with an impossible problem. To God it is understandable. He does know it works. Rather this is a cry of a humble servant of God who recognises that God is the Lord of salvation and he is perfectly just. His ways are higher than ours and his thoughts are higher than ours. And Paul trusts him. But many of us find that hard to do. We want all the answers. But we won't get them, certainly not in this life. We'll only get the answers God has revealed to us in his word, which is actually a good deal! For at the end of the day, we are not God. And quite frankly, if we were able to understand everything, then we'd be God wouldn't we? It's not a kop out to say we don't fully understand. It's a mark of humble trust in the eternal God who made us. We need to learn to trust him.

But a second application is to trust God in the ups and downs and life. Because perhaps one of the most difficult areas to trust God is when things happen to us which appear to have no rhyme or meaning. Perhaps a debilitating illness, a sudden bereavement, great and ongoing stress at work. Such things often completely baffle us and we cry out why me? Again it's something the Biblical writers have sought to wrestle with. From Job to Jesus, all have wrestled with this issue. But ultimately we cannot know all the answers. But in his word he has given us enough to enable us to trust him. Do you think God would do anything unloving, unfair, or unfaithful to his children he himself died for? No. But it doesn't mean we can always understand God's ways. Instead he calls on us to trust him.

I remember hearing the Christian writer Don Carson speaking on this subject, and he spoke about a friend of his called Peter O' Brien. Peter O' Brien is a Christian writer who has written some excellent books for preachers on Colossians and Philippians, and who was also for a long time a missionary in India and who is now a lecturer in a college in Australia which trains men and women for ministry. Peter grew up in a home where both his Mum and Dad were not Christians. His mother became a Christian, humanly speaking, through a little old lady down the road. This old lady was semi literate, certainly no theologian, but she was a faithful old Christian, but who suffered from a miserable long term disease which gave her pain day in day out for years. But she suffered as a Christian, and her witness so impressed Peter's mother that she became a Christian and through his mother, Peter became a Christian. And so Peter went off to college, ended up becoming a missionary and is now pastoring men and women for ministry. Now supposing you had gone to that that little old woman fifty years ago and said: 'Now I have a bargain for you. If you suffer with this miserable disease for Jesus' sake, then half a century in the future, Indians will be converted, pastors around the world will be equipped to give godly sermons, and young men and women will be trained to go into all the world for the gospel, will you do suffer for that?' But of course that is not the way it works. God is not in the business of striking bargains with us. He wants us to trust him. He wants us to trust that he is the all wise, all knowing, all powerful wonder working God who will build his kingdom and whose plans will not fail. And when we get to heaven, we will be staggered to see that the painful suffering of some little old lady in Australia has led the conversion of thousands years after her death. Who knows what will happen in God's plan if you remain faithful to him in suffering, if you trust him. Perhaps if you remain faithful in suffering, or if you stick at your marriage vows despite intense pressure, or you refuse to bow to peer pressure at work, your son humanly speaking will be converted, who will lead a friend to Christ at college, who will lead his sister to Christ, whose grandson will be the next George Whitfield. Would you trust God knowing that's God's plan? Perhaps you won't. Sometimes we want to short term gain. But it does put things into perspective doesn't it? We do not know the end from the beginning. We cannot fathom God's mind. His ways are higher than ours, his thoughts greater than our thoughts. But he is faithful and he will not let you go. So trust him. And in heaven God's amazing plan and faithfulness will be seen in all it's techno-coloured glory. No wonder Paul cries out: 'How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?' Trust in the ways of the Lord.

3) Live for the Glory of God

The finally, Paul says to us live for the glory of God. For now Paul is the very peak of the mountain and he's staggered by all that he has seen and he cries out: 'For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.' Ultimately, says Paul, everything exists because of God. All things come from him. He is the one who can answer the question where have we come from? We are God's as is the whole universe. He made us and the whole world! Do you often wonder why you are on this planet. God put you here, and made you. Do you acknowledge that? All things are through him. Nothing continues to exist without his authority and sustaining power. How come you made it through last week? How come you woke up this morning? Because God enabled you. He gave you air to breathe in your lungs, he allowed you to remain alive for one more day. Do you acknowledge that? To him are all things. Where is the world heading? What's the point of life? All things are heading to him. Life only makes sense when viewed in relation to God. Everything else is meaningless. Do you acknowledge that?

And so Paul cries out in the last line of his outburst of praise: 'To him be the glory forever! Amen.' Life is to be lived ultimately for his glory, otherwise it is not life at all. It is slavery. And the God who made us and who is willing to save us and who will bring all things to completion is the only one to whom the glory must go. Do you remember the poem Ozymandias? 'I met a traveller from an antique land who said: 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desertNear them, on the sand, half sunk, a shattered visage liesThe traveller had come across a statue whose body had been broken off. The traveller goes on.. 'And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sand stretches far away.' The point of the poem is that this once mighty warrior king Ozymandias whose works the traveller is urged to see, is nothing now. His statue is broken and his works are nowhere to be seen. And when human beings fail to see themselves in relation to the God who made them, then their lives and deeds are as worthless as this old broken statue of Ozymandias. Yes we might cry out: 'Look at my deeds, look how great I am.' But there is only one who will receive the glory and that is God himself. He will not stand any rivals. For we human beings are to live life for his glory and his alone. So are you doing that? Or do you still think that your frail mortal human achievements are more important than this eternal, immortal and omnipotent God? Live for the glory of God.

It is perfectly possible to fail to appreciate who God is, and so to fail to relate to him properly. But I hope you have seen as we have climbed this mountain with Paul just how amazing the view is. Hear the Word of the Lord tonight and respond with a humble heart. Remember the grace of God. Trust in the ways of God. And live for the glory of God.

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