Here’s my sermon from this weekend, continuing our summer series through Romans. The text was Romans 11.25-32.
Back in the day, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you, I worked for a couple of years as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey.
I enjoyed it.
In a lot of ways, the Gospel makes more sense in a place like that than anywhere else. Not to mention, preaching is different when the men hearing you aren’t there because their wives or mothers have forced their attendance.
So I enjoyed the prison, but I didn’t enjoy everything about the job.
Part of my routine, every week, was to visit and counsel the inmates in solitary confinement. It was a sticky, hot, dark wing of the prison. Because every inmate was locked behind a heavy, steel door with just a sliver of thick plexiglass for a window, unlike the rest of the prison, the solitary wing was as silent as a tomb. Whenever I think of Hell, I think of that place.
But not for the reasons you might expect.
Whenever I visited solitary, the officer on duty was almost always a 50-something Sergeant named Moore.
Officer Moore had a thick, Mike Dikta mustache and coarse sandy hair he combed into a meticulous, greased part. He was tall and strong and, to be honest, intimidating. He had a Marine Corps tattoo on one forearm and a heart with a woman’s name on the other arm.
Whenever I visited solitary he’d buzz me inside only after I refused to go away. He’d usually be sitting down, gripping the sides of his desk, reading a newspaper. I hated going there because, every time I did, he’d greet me heated ridicule.
He’d grumble things like: ‘Save your breath, preacher, you’re wasting your time.’
He’d grumble things like: ‘Do you know what these people did? They don’t deserve forgiveness.’
He’d grumble things like: ‘They only listen to you because they’ve got no one else.’
Once, when we gathered for a worship service, I’d invited Officer Moore to join us.
He grumbled that he’d have ‘nothing to do with a God who’d have anything to do with trash like them’ and he refused to come in.
Instead he sat outside with his arm crossed. The locked prison door between us.
About halfway through my time at the prison, Officer Moore suffered a near fatal heart attack; in fact, he was dead for several minutes before the rescue squad revived him.
I know this because when he returned to work, he told me. Tried to throw it in my face.
‘It’s all a sham’ he grumbled at me one afternoon.
‘I was dead for 3 minutes. Dead. And you know what I experienced? Nothing. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of any tunnel. It was just darkness. Your god? All make believe.’
Back then- at the beginning of my ministry, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you- I tended towards sarcasm. So even though I don’t put much stock in the light at the end of the tunnel cliche, that didn’t stop me from saying to Sergeant Moore:
‘Maybe you should take that as a warning.
Maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for you.’
He grumbled and said: ‘Don’t tell me you believe in Hell?’
‘What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Hell?’ I asked, playing with him.
‘Oh, since I don’t believe in your Jesus, I’m going to Hell? Is that it?’
Officer Moore pushed his chair back and fussed with his collar. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable. His eyes took a bead on me. ‘So what the Hell’s Hell like then?’ he asked, smirking. ‘Fire and brimstone, I mean, really?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, those are probably all metaphors.’
He let out a sarcastic sigh of relief. So then I added: ‘Metaphors for something much worse maybe.’
That got his attention.
‘Your loving God sends people to a place worse than brimstone just because they don’t believe in him?’ he asked.
‘Who said anything about God sending them there?’ I said.
‘No, I think Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside.’
Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and mature pastor you see before you, so I didn’t mention to him that I’d plagiarized that line from C.S. Lewis.
Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside.
But is it?
Is that even possible?
“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks 3 chapters prior to today’s text.
If God is for us- all of us
If God is determined to reconcile and redeem all of us
And not only us-
If God is determined to rescue and restore all of creation from its bondage to the Power of Sin, then what could stand in God’s way?
“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks back in Romans 8.
If God made each of us and all that is and called it very good- that’s Genesis 1.
And if God is determined to make each of us and all that is beautiful again- that’s Genesis 12.
If God in Jesus Christ came for all- that’s John 1.
If Christ died for all- that’s 2 Corinthians 5.15.
If Jesus the Judge was judged in your place, once for all- that’s Hebrews 10.
And if God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit, the first sign, the harbinger of what God intends to do for all of creation- 1 Corinthians 15
If that’s what God intends, then what is to stop God from getting what God wants?
If God’s unambiguous aim is the salvation of all, then what ultimately can get in God’s way?
Because by definition NOTHING can deny God what God desires.
That’s 2 Timothy 2.13.
Or, as Paul frames it back in Romans 8: ‘What can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? What, in the end, can separate us from God?
And one by one Paul proceeds to eliminate the possibilities:
Hardship. Check. Injustice. Check. Persecution. Famine. Check. Check.Nakedness. Nope.War. Not it either. It can’t separate us from the love of God. None of them. Not Death. Not Rulers. Not Powers. Neither things present nor things to come. Not anything in all of creation. Nothing can separate us from what God wants to do with us.
The Apostle Paul does leave one possibility off his list: Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. War. Death. Rulers. Powers.
There is one possibility missing from Paul’s list.
One potential disqualifier remains: Us.
Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. Not any of them can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but what about us?
What about us? Can we separate ourselves from the love of God?
Can we separate ourselves from God through our unbelief, through our lack of faith, through our disobedient refusal to accept the grace of God in Jesus Christ?
Do we possess that power? Do we possess the ability to separate ourselves forever from the love of God? To slam the door and throw the lock?
Can we really run away and hide forever from a God who’s so determined to get us he chases us all the way to a cross and back? If Nakedness and Famine and War can’t do it, can we? Can we separate ourselves from God so that the God who desires the salvation of all only ends up with some?
Can we make it so that the God who wants all only gets some?
Do we have the capacity to keep from God the everything God wants?
That’s the question Paul takes up next in Romans 9-11 and he does so by turning to the most obvious example available to him.
The Jews- those who’ve received the message of the Gospel and not responded in faith and obedience.
When it comes to unbelievers like them, has the Word of God failed? Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 9.
How are they to be saved by him in whom they have not believed? Paul asks in Romans 10.
It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it? Paul asks at the top of today’s chapter.
And just the grammar of that last question gives away the answer. As soon as Paul refers to Israel as God’s People he’s already shown his tell: “By no means!” Paul answers immediately in verse 1.
By no means! God has not rejected God’s People. His chosen People. The People he’s promised, no-strings-attached: “I will be your God and you will be my People.”
It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it?
By no means – for if God will break his promise to them, then Paul could’ve ended his letter back in Romans 8.
And his list could’ve been a lot shorter.
Who can separate us from the love of God? Well, Paul, it turns out God can separate us from God. God can break his no-strings-attached unconditional covenant promise. God can reject God’s People.
Has God rejected God’s People?
By no means! is the only possible answer for Paul.
God has not rejected God’s People because they reject God’s Messiah.
Or rather, in rejecting God’s Messiah they have not separated themselves from the love of God. Because Israel- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.
Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been about what God does not about what we do, and Paul’s focus on the agency of God doesn’t change when he turns to God’s People in chapters 9-11.
God’s People- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.
They’re not the acting agents. They’re not behind their lack of belief. Their failure of faith is not their fault. They’ve not decided to disobey. No.
If God cannot break a no-strings-attached promise, if- by no means- has God rejected his People, then that leaves only one possibility for Paul.
Israel’s rejection of Christ and God’s apparent rejection of them- it’s God’s doing, not their own.
And, Paul says, it fits a pattern of what God has always done:
God choosing Abel over Cain. God choosing Jacob over Esau. Moses over Pharaoh. God choosing David over Saul. God choosing Israel over all the other nations of the earth. What looks like God’s rejection of some in scripture always serves God’s election of all. Even the Father rejecting the Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” even that forsaking is for all.
Have God’s People stumbled so as to fall away forever from God? Paul asks in verse 11 before he answers in the very same breath: “No!”
Instead their stumbling, their rejection- like Abel instead of Cain, like Sarah instead of Hagar, like Isaac instead of Ishmael- their stumbling is for the reconciliation of the whole world, Paul says in verse 15.
The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.
Let me say that again because it’s so paradoxical it can only be Gospel:
The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.
The failure of some to believe is in fact the means by which God is working even now to show mercy to all.
Paul calls this means a “mystery.”
“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon some of Israel, until all [the world] has come to God.”
Only, in the New Testament, the word mystery doesn’t refer to something still unknown to us. In the New Testament, a mystery isn’t something that leaves you still in the dark scratching your head. In the New Testament, a mystery is a secret that’s been revealed to us by God- a mystery is a secret that can be told.
As when the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” and then Paul proclaims the secret that’s been revealed to us: “We will not die…we will be changed…for on the day of Resurrection we will be raised…that which is perishable will become imperishable.”
Likewise, here Paul writes to the Church at Rome: “I want you to understand this secret that’s been revealed to us…”
The mystery- the mystery is that God has chosen some for disobedience so that others might obey.
The mystery is that God has chosen some for disbelief so that others might believe.
The opened secret is that God has chosen ungodliness for some so that others might find God.
“…a hardening has come upon them…” Paul says.
Note the passive voice. Notice, it’s not: “They’ve hardened their hearts.” It’s come upon them. God is doing it.
Just as you believe in Jesus Christ solely by the gracious work of God upon you, so too they disbelieve because of the work of God upon them.
A hardening has come upon some so that all might come to God, Paul says.
And then in the next verse, Paul declares: “…so all Israel will be saved.” Pantes is the word and Paul doesn’t qualify it all. It means all.
Notice what Paul doesn’t say-
He doesn’t say all Israel will believe. He doesn’t say all Israel will confess Jesus Christ and thereby be saved. He just says all Israel will be saved. Your belief, their unbelief- it’s a mystery.
It’s all God’s doing.
Your belief is not your doing. Their unbelief is not their doing.
It’s all God’s doing.
Those who reject the love of God in Jesus Christ, those who reject the Gospel, they’re not enemies of God. God has made them enemies of the Gospel for you.
For your sake: “…God has imprisoned some in disobedience so that God might be merciful to all.”
You see, for Paul the danger isn’t that unbelievers could ever separate themselves from the love of God in Christ Jesus; the danger is that believers like you will draw that conclusion.
A few days after our conversation about Hell, I left in Officer Moore’s mailbox a copy of a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
It’s a fable about the residents of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven. They’re given the option to stay but, one by one, they choose to turn and go back.
I had dog-eared some pages and highlighted some text for Officer Moore, hoping we could talk about it the next time I saw him.
Specifically, I highlighted these words:
It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’
I left the book in his mailbox.
A week later I went to solitary to see if he wanted to talk.
As always he refused to buzz me in but this time when I mentioned I was there to talk to him, he didn’t give in. He wouldn’t let me in.
I asked if he read the book. Not saying anything, he got up and walked to the entrance door, his body was one big snarl. He slid the book between the bars.
‘A whole lot of nonsense’ he grumbled at me. And then he told me to go the Hell away.
Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and quick-witted pastor you see before you today. To be honest, back then I hadn’t ever read the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Because if I had I could’ve told him.
You’re right, I could’ve said to him. It is a whole lot of nonsense. C.S. Lewis might’ve known a lot about lions and wardrobes and Turkish Delight, but he didn’t know jack abut this secret that’s been revealed to us: the mystery.
The mystery of our disobedience.
You’re right, I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve said to him.
Hell is where the door is locked from the inside by us?! That’s a whole lot of nonsense.
Not only is it idolatrous, for it imagines a Self who desires are stronger than God’s desire.
It completely misses the mystery that’s been revealed to us: that salvation is the work of God where even our ‘No’ to God serves God’s ultimate ‘Yes’ to us. Even our ‘No’ to God is itself the work of God working towards what God wants for all.
You’re right, I could’ve shot back at the Sergeant.
It is a whole lot of nonsense.
How could we ever separate ourselves forever from the love of God in Jesus Christ when even the disobedience of some is part of God’s plan for all?
God is bigger than our badness.
We can’t lock Hell’s doors from the inside because ultimately the work of God is going to make even our disobedience and disbelief work in our favor because of his favor, his unmerited favor, which is his grace.
The disobedience and disbelief of some is only temporary.
God will banish all ungodliness.
God will turn disobedience to obedience. God will turn disbelief into belief.
God will transform unfaithfulness to faithfulness as surely as he can bring life from death.
And in the meantime- I could’ve told him.
There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord- whether you like it or not.
There is nothing about you that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
There is nothing in all of creation- not war, not famine, not powers or persecution, not even you- there is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God because everything in creation in is a work of God’s grace.
Even your disbelief.
Maybe you can lock the door for a time, I could’ve said to him, but forever? In the end God will raze even Hell to get what God wants.
Of course, if I had told him all that back then, he would’ve just grumbled some more.
If all are saved, no matter what, then what’s the point? He might’ve replied.
Why should I bother following your Jesus?
Back then I wasn’t the wise and seasoned preacher you see before you. I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to say to him what I’d say today:
What’s the point if all are saved?
What’s the point of being first rather than last?
Why be found rather than lost?
Why know the truth rather than live in ignorance?
Why be fully human?
What’s the point?
To ask the question is to miss the point.