Sunday, July 27, 2008

Kapok at Newton and Romans 9 - 11

He was a "tourist" enroute home to Hong Kong via Sydney and Singapore, so naturally Sunday lunch was at Newton Hawker Centre.
The "Tourist" at Newton Hawker Centre
"I've had brunch, so I'm only a little bit hungry," he claimed as he picked at the barbecued stingray and baby kailan, then ordered a plate of popiah, then wandered off for chicken satay, then (after being almost tricked into S$5 chicken mutabak marketed as "very special! chicken prata!") fried carrot cake, ice kachang, then teh si siew dai.

A Puff of Kapok Clinging to Bowl
Beset by drifting clouds of airbourne kapok, mired in the details of each others' lives and also the largest current dispute in China - Danone v Wahaha, the largest current dispute in Asia - The State of Brunei Darussalam and Brunei Investment Agency v. His Royal Highness Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the quality of legal representation in the International Court of Justice hearings on Sovereignty Over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Putei and the problem of demarcation, we lost track of time until his flight to Hong Kong was to depart in 2 hours and there was a mad rush home to pick up luggage.

The existence of contracts assumes the general untrustworthiness of humans. So it probably comes as no surprise that, when faced with the promise of God to save and glorify all who trust in Christ (Romans 8), the hardnosed types sniff warily at it and immediately demand some due diligence on the credit-history of God:

What about God's past promises to Israel? Did he not once call them his people? Did he not give them the Law and promise them many sweeties if they were good and kept his commandments? Was it all a big hoodwink then? If God had dealt sneakily with the Jews, how can we trust that he isn't handing us snakes disguised as strawberry-flavoured candy shoelaces or bean-boozling us with rotten-egg or booger-tasting jellybeans disguised as buttered popcorn or juicy pear ones?

Paul defends God's character by demonstrating the Jews' shoddy understanding of God's revelation in the first place:
(1) God had never promised that all physical Israel was his people (Romans 9:6 - 8)
The fact that not all who are descended from Abraham were counted as true children of Abraham who would inherit God's promises to Abraham
(Isaac did but Ishmael did not), and that not all the physical descendents of Jacob (Israel) would be part of God's people Israel, should have already alerted the Jews to this.

(2) God had always worked out his plan for his people through an elected few (Romans 9:9 - 13)
It is easy to nod our heads in agreement when someone praises the all-encompassing sovereignty of God but we baulk when faced with the implications of this. As would have been evident from Jacob's story, it is God and not man who determines to whom God's promises apply. Neither our desires nor our deeds are the deciding factor. For God had announced his choice of Jacob rather than Esau before either of the unborn twins had done anything to earn God's favour or disfavour.

(3) At the same time, salvation had always been through faith (Romans 9:30 - 10:13)
But hang on, did God hoodwink Israel by giving them the Law and telling them if they followed it, they would be right with him? No! Paul says. Scripture had always exhorted the Jews to depend not on their own righteousness but to trust in God for righteousness. Leviticus 18:5 - "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD." This was already evident when Moses said, after predicting that Israel would fail to keep God's commands, that the commandments were not impossible for the Jews to keep.
It is not in heaven, that you should say,'Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:12 - 14)
What Moses meant, says Paul, in the matter of mouth and heart was that "with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved" (Romans 10:10) - the fundamentals of salvation by faith. A bit of a stretch, eh Paul? But we must remember that the New Testament writers were not just commentators of the Old Testament; they were purveyors of God's extra revelation.

And Paul goes on to demonstrate that the prophets were tuned into the same radio station too (Romans 10:11 - 13). For Isaiah said,"Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." (Isaiah 28:16) and Joel said "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Joel 2:32), that is, that salvation has always been a matter of the heart and mouth; a matter of faith.

This leaves us with many questions.

Is God's choice of some and not all unjust? How can he blame anyone for not having faith if he himself had hardened their hearts so they could not understand and accept in the first place?

It is always a nice little ego-boost to think that with just the right skills and processes in place, we can fathom all mysteries and make well-informed decisions. Prove to us God that, in light of all this dodgy predestination/election stuff, you're really as good as you say you are. Arrogant human confidence accuses: look here God, the creation stuff and the penal substitution stuff I can handle. But this election stuff? And the hardening of people's hearts? Aiyoh. What an oversight on your part. Embarrassing lah. I really can't believe you said these things. But don't worry, I won't really hold them against you. I'll just pretend you didn't talk about them in the first place.

And we grumble that our questions have not been adequately answered. But God's words through Paul are cutting and humbling indeed.
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:20 - 24)
When faced with these mysteries, how dare we clay pots purport to take the potter to task about his apparent lapses in mercifulness, or undertake, patronisingly, to turn a blind eye to these embarrassing abnormalities? How dare we stubbornly and arrogantly refuse to believe these truths that must naturally flow from the supreme sovereignty of God? The only right response from us clueless creatures is to meet these facts head on and fully embrace their reality by crashing down to our knees and praising our Creator for his obviously magnificent greatness revealed by these mysteries:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
"For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?"
"Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?"

For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33 - 36)

See also Mark Ashton, The Green-Fingered God (Romans 11:1 - 36).

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Working through current series on Romans:
First Thai, Jay Chou's Birthday Concert and Romans 1
Feasting and Larval Thoughts on Faith and Romans 4
Privé, Cilantro and the Marvellous Comfort of Romans 8:1 - 16
Basil Alcove and the Pre-destination-based Comfort of Romans 8:17 - 39
Kapok at Newton and Romans 9 - 11
Tin Hill Wine Bar & Bistro, The White Rabbit at Dempsey, Dim Joy, True Worship and Romans 12:1 - 2
Sodagreen 苏打绿 Sing With Me 陪我歌唱 Concert, Futsal Tournament, Romans 13

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