“THE KINDNESS AND SEVERITY OF GOD”—ROMANS 11.22
[Preached four times from 12/21/82 at St. Chads College, Durham to Bishop Auckland 8/2/87]
You heard these words when they were read a few minutes ago from the Epistle. Whether you found them familiar or not, I am not so sure, unless indeed you are a theologian with Romans as a set text. I doubt whether even with theologians it is a popular text. It has perhaps some of the virtues but all of the unattractiveness of a cold shower, and it is precisely for that reason that I have plucked up my courage and decided to preach on it. If your body is flabby, debilitated, lethargic there is a good deal to be said for a cold shower; and judging in the first instance by myself, I suspect that many of us are inclined to be flabby, debilitated and lethargic in our religion. So I am inviting you to join me under the shower and to begin by noticing how cold the water is.
The nine words I have read to you occur in the midst of Paul’s most obscure passages; and when he really set about it, Paul could be pretty good at obscurity; plenty of work for the writers of commentaries, but I’m afraid that this morning we shall only take a glimpse at the paragraph as a whole. And the text seems to give us a singularly unattractive picture of God, as an arbitrary oriental potentate, a super-Ayatollah, handing out kindness and severity with indifferent disregard for human deserts and desires.
And of course, no one likes severity anyway. ‘Dieu me pardonnera. C’est son metier.’ (H. Heine—‘the good God will forgive me, it is his job’). Or Peer Gynt on a funeral sermon ‘that is what I call Christianity, nothing to make anyone uneasy.’ In all this I am simply underlining my point. There are circumstances in which the good God will not forgive; there are circumstances in which the first—perhaps the only—effect of the Christian message is to make us properly uneasy. Try the cold shower.
That means asking the blunt question—What has this piece of first century theology to do with us? What can it tell us that is relevant to life as we live it today in twentieth century England? In fact it has something to say about humanity, that is about ourselves, and something to say about God.
How do we get at this? I think by way of Elijah, whom you may remember, we met in the Old Testament lesson. This, of course, could only give you a little bit of the story, but it is all well enough known. Elijah on Mt. Carmel is usually looked at in its effects of the life of the people. The prophets of Baal have an unprofitable day calling upon their god, who seems to be sleeping—anything but answering prayers, whereas Elijah’s God sends the fire from heaven which consumes the saturated sacrifice on the saturated bonfire—‘The Lord he is God! The Lord he is God!’ The response does not seem to have lasted long, but it was impressive at the time, and when the event is looked at from Elijah’s side it is clear that it must have been tremendously good for his ego. He had done it; he had brought down the fire; he had slaughtered the prophets of Baal and the Asherah; he had converted the nation. But the worst of riding on top of a wave is that it crests and so is infallibly followed by a trough, and this one was helped by Jezebel’s thrust—‘it’s your turn next.’ So off goes Elijah to Mount Horeb in a depressed state of mind—‘ I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken the covenant, thrown down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword, and I even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away.’
Elijah was convinced that he was the only good faithful Israelite left; and he would not be left much longer. There was no one left on whom God could rely. But he was wrong! There were 7,000 of the faithful in Israel, waiting in the wings, ready to come on the stage, including kings and a new prophet.
From this, back to Paul. It is not for nothing that he brings Elijah into Romans 11. There are many aspects of truth in Romans and any exclusive generalization about it will be wrong; but it does not exaggerate to say that one of its main themes is the deflation of any sense of superiority in religion. It starts with the Jews, convinced that they have the visible crystallization of truth in their Law, their Torah, convinced that they are the guides to the blind, the teachers of babes. ‘But how much better are you?’ Paul asks. There are Gentiles who do by nature the things of the Law, showing the effects of the Law written on their hearts, and they will condemn you who talk so loudly about the Law but do not keep it. ‘Fine,’ say the Gentiles in Rome and elsewhere; ‘the Jews are out, like unwanted branches cur out of the olive tree and we are taking their place. It’s our turn now.’ What that means is that the warning Paul had previously addressed to the Jews, he now addresses to the Gentiles. ‘Be not high minded, but fear’.
Now: I see no prophets of Baal before me. Nor can I divide my congregation into Jews and Gentiles, as Paul could at Antioch and Rome. I do see a group of people distracted as all such groups are in all sorts of ways, not fundamentally into the religious and the irreligious— Paul’s Jews and Gentiles. The religious suppose that they can stand on their own prior works, and immediately begin to boast about them. The irreligious discover that it is faith alone, trust in God’s mercy, that counts; and forthwith proceed to have faith in their own kind of pious work. Each of them thinks he is a superior fellow, and that is the way out—the way to incur God’s severity.
Commenting on this verse, Emil Brunner said ‘We cannot give ourselves faith, yet we are responsible if we lose it.’ He could have added that the best way to lose faith is to start bragging about it. There is a clear pointer to this in Paul’s chosen words. ‘You will say, ‘branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith… Note then the kindness and severity of God, severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue…’ in what? The context leads us to think that Paul will say ‘continue in your faith’. But he says ‘continue in his kindness.’ It is not in my faith but in God’s kindness that security is to be found. The new pietism is no different from the old; religionless Christianity is no better than the old religion. Our hope is in God and in his goodness only. That means it is now time to speak—-
Where will you find the truth about God? Again, begin with Elijah. On Mt. Carmel he had declared ‘the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ But now he learns that God is not in the fire— or the wind, or the earthquake. If he is to be heard at all, he is to be heard in a voice that is no voice at all, but silence. He is known not in nature, but in his own Word.
How can God be both kind and severe? Perhaps that is not so hard a question. Do we not know something of it ourselves? Is not the key that there is something constant, invariable behind both the kindness and the severity and expressing itself in both? It is not hard to understand this. We practice it ourselves. I feel rather more free to use university illustrations than I did, so let me say this is done year by year as the university puts the examination system into operation. The same respect for the university as an institution, the same respect for sound learning, has to be expressed in kindness and severity. It is impossible to be universally kind; if one were kind to bad candidates one would be unjust to good ones, because the value of their degree would be depressed.
This is a dreadful illustration. May I take it one step further and make it more objectionable still? Of all the jobs I have given up, there is none I am so glad to be rid of as examining. Why? Because it is a frightful chore to read fifty answers to the same question? Well, yes, that comes into it. But mainly because it is such a moral and emotional strain. There are not many sheer failures at Durham; we are proud of our low dropout rate. But there are disappointments, people who hoped for firsts get 2.1’s, and so on. And year after year the examiner knows that in order to keep the standard where it ought to be, he must disappoint X,Y, and Z. I won’t use the wearisome cliché and say that it hurts me more than it hurts you, but it hurts.
Do you understand why I am saying this? It is God’s love, God’s righteousness—in Biblical usage these are not very different—that is experienced in both kindness and severity. And the hurt this does to God is experienced in the central manifestation of his love and righteousness (Rom. 5.8; 3.21). ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’ ‘The Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.’
In this sermon I am leaving you any number of loose ends, which it will be your business to tie up. I am not worried about them because I am not concerned to make a neat and watertight dogmatic statement. I am using this difficult theological text in the interests of responsible Christianity. Many of us, most of us no doubt, are well meaning enough in our faith, but intellectually and morally, and in our churchmanship shockingly irresponsible. So I go back to the place where we began. There is something to be said for the short, sharp, shock. Consider the kindness and the severity of God.