A Holy Burden
Topic: Biblical Verse: Romans 9:1–9:5
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2-3, 2014
“Christians in the Capital: A Holy Burden”
Recently, I met with a man who is from Pakistan, but has lived in this country for many years. He grew up when Pakistan was still part of India and remembers well when it was partitioned and became a separate country. He is something of a minority in that he is part of that very small percentage of Pakistanis who are Christian. His family’s roots are within Hinduism, but he is fourth generation Christian and his father was an Anglican priest. He has led a rather remarkable life: receiving a world class education in Pakistan, serving as a professor of English literature at a university, and then as the national director of Pakistani television when TV was first introduced in that country. He received training in broadcast journalism with the BBC and then came to America some thirty years ago where he worked in similar areas. He is blessed with a wife, children and grandchildren. And now, as he reflects back on how the Lord has guided and directed his life in so many amazing ways, he carries in his heart a burden for the people of his homeland. With the rise of sectarianism and terrorism – something that was virtually non-existent in his growing up years – he has a great desire to give back to his countrymen, especially to the next generation of young men and women. He has a burden to give Christ-centered leadership instruction and direction to these young people, even as he himself received this gift many years before. At an age when it would be easy to just sit back and enjoy retirement, this individual is actively engaging people and enlisting them in his cause. That is the burden he bears. In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul the apostle writes of the burden in his own heart: “I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:1-3). Paul’s burden was that the hearts of his own people, the people of Israel, would be opened to receive the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is the holy burden that Paul carried, and it forms the basis of today’s message as our summer preaching series, “Christians in the Capital,” continues. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we may think that he was writing to people he was familiar with and knew well. But in fact, Paul had never been to Rome at the time when he wrote this letter in the winter of 55-56 A.D. As his ministry in the city of Ephesus was concluding (his third missionary journey) and before he returned to Jerusalem with the offering that had been received for the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:25-27; 2 Corinthians 8-9), Paul was contemplating what would be next in his life and ministry. It is clear from several passages in the New Testament that Paul had long desired to visit Rome (Acts 19:21; 2 Corinthians 10:15-16), but so far had been unable to do so. Paul’s vision was to “go west, young man, go west!”; to “go where no man has gone before”; that is, go where the Gospel had not yet been preached. Paul was a church planter and as such, he didn’t wish to build on someone else’s foundation (Romans 15:20; 1 Corinthians 3:10). There was already a Christian church in Rome that was well-established, but Paul had not founded it. Paul’s letter to the Romans is preparing them for his visit to Rome, where he desired to preach and teach (Romans 1:11-13; 15:24). In truth, Paul had his eyes set not just on Rome, but beyond. He wished to go to Spain (Romans 15:22-28), and use the church in Rome as his base of missionary operations in the west just as he had used the churches in Antioch of Syria and Jerusalem as his base of operations in the east. Paul’s hope was that the church in Rome would help him on his way with moral and material support for church planting in the west (see Romans introduction in Concordia Self-Study Commentary, Roehrs and Franzmann. St. Louis: Concordia, 1971). This, then, was the purpose of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Writing to Christians in the capital of the Roman empire, Paul bares his soul about the holy burden he has for his own people. He mourns for his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3) who are children of Abraham and heirs of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. Paul mourns even as Jesus himself mourned over his people’s refusal to believe (Matthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-42). Like Moses of old, Paul is ready to sacrifice himself for their sake and suffer the loss of everything if this would help (Exodus 32:32). To God’s chosen and beloved people belong “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4). All of this is part of Israel’s rich history and it is Paul’s own heritage as well – a history and heritage he dearly loves. But the stumbling block is what comes next: “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:5). To confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah who suffered, died and rose again to purchase our salvation through his death upon the cross – this was and still remains a stumbling block for many today. You see, it was Jesus’ claim that He himself was God which led to his people’s rejection of him and their execution of him for blasphemy. And yet, if Jesus is not both true God and true man, then we are still in our sins and “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
That burden which Paul carried for his own people certainly weighed heavy on him. But this burden pales in comparison to the burden which Jesus carried for you and me. The crushing load of all the evil we have done and all the good we have failed to do was placed on Jesus, and He willingly bore this burden. After being rejected by the chief priests, scribes and elders, he was put on trial, scourged and condemned to death. He carried his own cross and fell under the weight of it. But the real burden came when He was nailed to that cross and bore the righteous anger and just condemnation from the Father for our sin and disobedience. Jesus is the One who has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). In Jesus, we have peace and healing. In Jesus, we have forgiveness, life and salvation.
As Christians living in the capital here outside Washington, D.C., what is the burden that you bear? Like Paul the apostle and my Pakistani friend, do you have a burden for people who do not know Christ? That is indeed a great and holy burden, and there is much we can do to give witness to the hope that is within us, doing this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). We pray that the Lord would indeed use each one of us as his hands and feet and mouth in the world. But at the end of the day, we must remember that we are not the Savior. Jesus alone is that Savior who has carried the burden of our sin, and this is his invitation to you: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-29). To such an invitation, we can only say with the psalmist: “Give thanks to the Lord, for his is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). Amen.