Romans 9:1-5 I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience is testifying to me with the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. 3 For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. 5 The ancestors are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, praised forever. Amen.
It happens all the time. When I attend a function where there are other WELS members, I introduce myself as Pastor Michael Zarling. Invariably, I will have someone ask me, “Are you related to …?”
There are a number of Zarlings who are retired pastors in our Wisconsin Synod. Professor Mark Zarling is the President of Martin Luther College, the worker training school for the WELS.
We share the same last name, but I’m not very closely related to all those other Zarlings.
The roots of our family history go back to 1856, when my great-great-great grandparents, Christian and Dorothee Zarling fled Prussia because of the Prussian Union. The Prussian Union was where the king was forcing the Lutherans and Reformed to worship and commune together. My ancestors and many of their fellow Lutherans left Prussia so they could hold onto the true teachings of God’s Word as expressed in our Lutheran Confessions. They chose to settle in Wisconsin in Kirchhayn (near Jackson), Cedarburg, and Watertown.
From one of the sons born to Christian and Dorothee Zarling come generations of Zarling pastors and teachers in our Synod. From their other son came only me as a pastor in our Synod. And, unless I can convince the young men who choose to marry my daughters to change their names to Zarling, I’ll be the last one on my side of the family.
I’m very proud of my family history. Our roots are dug deeply in being confessional Lutherans for over 160 years.
The apostle Paul was very proud of his family history. He was circumcised on the eighth day, like a good Jewish boy. He was from the tribe of Benjamin. He describes himself as a “Hebrew of the Hebrews.” He was trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel, one of the finest rabbis of Israel (Philippians 3:5). His roots were in the nation of Israel. He agrees that the Jews have much to be proud of as God’s chosen people.
But, Paul also has some very serious issues with his roots. As a nation, they had rejected Jesus as their Savior. They were more concerned with their heritage than their future. They didn’t think they needed a savior. After all, weren’t they already God’s chosen people?
Paul admits that he is in mourning for His people: “I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart.” This is the same kind of mourning we heard Jesus give in our Gospel lesson over those same people: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).
Paul’s Christian love for his people moves him to wish something that seems incomprehensible to the Christian mind. “For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood.” We heard last Sunday how Paul had written that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). But now, just two verses later, he wishes for separation from God in order to save his fellow Jews.
Paul’s love wanted to save his people, even at the cost of his own soul.
Paul’s wish imitates Christ’s love for sinners. Except, that Paul wished he could suffer hell in order to save his people. Jesus actually did suffer hell to save all people who believe in Him from hell.
Parents of sick children would willingly trade places with their kids if they could. It’s easier to be sick than to watch a loved one suffer. Paul thought the same thing regarding his fellow Jews. Only they were suffering from something much worse than the flu. Many of them had rejected Jesus as their Savior and so were bound for hell. Paul couldn’t stand the thought of this and would have gladly traded places with them, if he could. Of course, that was impossible because, like a drowning swimmer, Paul himself needed rescuing from his own sins and was in no position to offer assistance to anyone else.
Next, Paul writes about the tremendous advantages and privileges the people of Israel enjoyed, the rich blessings God showered on them, and how they squandered it all by disobedience and unbelief. “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. The ancestors are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, praised forever.”
Look at all the advantages the Jewish people enjoyed. If anyone should be certain of God’s love, it was the Israelites. Out of all the nations of the earth, God had adopted them to be His children. No other nation has seen God’s glory as they had. When God rescued them from slavery in Egypt, He led them to the Promised Land by displaying His divine glory as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. His glory appeared over the tabernacle during their forty years of wilderness wandering. God struck numerous covenants with His chosen people – Abraham (Genesis 15:17,18), with Moses (Exodus 19:5,6), with David (2 Samuel 7:8-16), through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-40), through the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34:25-31).
While heathen nations tripped over themselves prancing around idols they had made out of wood and stone, the Israelites had received the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises designed to illustrate how one day God would forgive their sins through the death of a substitute. This Substitute – their Messiah – is God over all, was even born an Israelite!
What had many Israelites done with this God-given “advantage”? Well, what did many of them do with Jesus? They laughed at Him. They scorned Him. They tried to push Him off a cliff. They spat on Him. They finally had Him crucified. And as if that wasn’t enough, they continued to persecute His followers.
Even though we may not be of Jewish descent, all of us have similar “advantages.” Your parents, who gave you the gift of life, then gave you the gift of eternal life by baptizing you as an infant. Our WLS students were visited this week by a missionary teacher from China. Chinese Christians cannot have a church, or display a cross, or talk openly about Jesus. We have none of those restrictions. Not only do we have a Lutheran church, but we also have a Lutheran grade school and high school.
And what are our members doing with those advantages? Honestly, not much. The church is more empty than full. Work and sports and vacation have become more important than worship of the one true God. We have taken God’s Word and Sacraments for granted. We have put down these heavenly treasures so we can busy ourselves with picking up earthly trash.
We have been given a tremendous Lutheran heritage – 500 years of the Lutheran Reformation; 167 years of the Wisconsin Synod; 90 years of Epiphany Lutheran Church. And what are we doing with that Lutheran heritage? Right now, it looks like many of us are squandering it. We have become lazy in our faith. It is not a priority. We have become indiffernt in passing our faith on to our children. When your children see that your faith is not a priority for you, it won’t be a priority for them. And then you’ll be wondering a few years from now why your high schoolers and college students don’t have faith in God anymore and why your children aren’t baptizing your grandbabies. We have become apathetic to the plight of souls that are lost without us reaching them with the saving gospel. Because if we cared, then our offerings and our energies would show it.
Do you get the sense, that God might be getting as frustrated with us as He was with the Israelites of old? Because the Israelites rejected God’s grace, God gave that grace to the Gentiles. You’ll hear about that next week in the sermon on “grafted.” When we reject God’s grace or are too busy to appreciate it, then God may take it away to give it to someone else. When one church is not being active in the use of the Means of Grace, God may close that church to open another one.
Twenty-two years ago, when I was a vicar in Lawrenceville, Georgia, I received a phone call from a couple from Wisconsin who were traveling to Georgia over Christmas break. They were asking for our worship times during Christmas. At the beginning of our conversation, I had introduced myself as Vicar Zarling. They asked, “Are you related to …”, but I stopped them saying, “I’m not related to any of the other Zarlings you might know.”
In my Christmas Day sermon, I mentioned that I grew up on a farm outside of West Bend and that my dad was a mailman in Cedarburg. That couple that had called me a month earlier, shook my hand after worship and said, “We do know your dad. We live in Cedarburg. He’s our mailman.”
More importantly, all of you know your heavenly Dad – God the Father. Your heavenly Father has put His divine name on you in your baptism. More than that, God has written your name on His hand (Isaiah 49:6). God has sent His only begotten Son to be our Christ. Though Jesus was born of human descent, He is God over all. He was born, not to be the Savior of the Jews, but the Savior of us all.
Jesus was rejected by the Jews. He became a stumbling block for the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23) and the stone the builders rejected (1 Peter 2:7). That’s because God saves in a way that Israel could not accept. God does not save based on bloodlines or ancestry. He saves by sending His Son into the world to take on human flesh and blood. Then, by having those of the same human race shed His divinely human blood by killing Him on a cross. God takes Israel’s rejection and turns it into His acceptance. He used their unbelief and their rejection of Christ to work nothing less than the salvation of the world.
That is the grace that was poured over you in your Baptism. That’s the grace that comes to you in the words of Absolution. That’s the grace that enters your ears through His holy Word. That’s the grace that is placed into your mouth in the Lord’s Supper. Grace – undeserved kindness in Jesus. You have no right to be declared God’s chosen people. You deserve nothing but wrath and punishment for your rejection of Jesus. But, instead, you receive grace.
The most precious thing you have is not your home or your children or your vacation plans. The most precious thing you have is your God-given faith in Jesus as your Savior from sin. He has adopted you as His sons and daughters. He has shown you His divine glory at the baptismal font and the altar. He has made you a covenant promise that you are His own, now and for eternity. Since you don’t deserve any of this, then it is all grace.
Don’t take this grace for granted. Accept it. Appreciate it. Use it. Worship God every Sabbath because of it.
Israel focused on the roots of their bloodline. Then they tripped over those roots. Learn from that and don’t make the same mistake. Be proud of your Christian roots. Be excited by your Lutheran heritage. Be energized that you can share your Lutheran Christian faith with your children, with the people of Racine, and with others around the world. Dig your Christian roots down deeply and let them spread all over. Amen.