But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? (Romans 2:17-21)
There is a serious vein running through today’s lessons from Jeremiah and Isaiah through to Paul and Christ.
Jeremiah recounts God’s judgment on God’s people and on Jerusalem. “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor have I turned back” (Jer. 4:27-28).
God’s judgment is terrible, and he is unrelenting.
Except then comes the Canticle, the Second Song of Isaiah (Isa. 55:6-11), with its familiar words of reassurance:
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth,
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word which goes forth from my mouth;
it will not return to me empty,
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed,
and prosper in that for which I sent it.
Christians, of course, read these words in the light of Christ the Word who “goes forth from God,” so to speak, and who accomplishes what God purposes.
What God purposes, we know from our vantage point post-Easter, is not desolation but restoration. God has “relented” once for all in Christ and continues to be present to us through the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide. How can we forget what God has done for us, has won for us, in Christ?
This is what frustrates Paul so much in his letter to the Romans. He basically asks, “Are you turning away from grace and back to the judgment under the law which cannot save?”
His question resonates with the prophets’ words. Are we turning away from restoration and teaching desolation? Are we preaching grace or sin?
Of course, it’s not an either/or thing. Grace freely given comes with a consciousness of sin. When I have been forgiven, I am acutely aware of exactly what I have done wrong. But the message from my forgiver — whether it’s my wife or the priest pronouncing God’s absolution on Sunday — is restoration, not condemnation.
Where in our lives do we still reflect a spirit of judgment, faces set in a disapproving frown? Where do we still dwell on faults more than freedom, quick to relay dirt and to dismiss others’ pain? Where do we still fail to preach the message of good news that animated Jesus and Paul and our forebears in this life in Christ?
Even worse, where does our judgmentalism and obsession with rectitude cause “the Name of God to be blasphemed” because of us (Rom. 2:24)? It’s happening all around us as people turn away from angry so-called “Christianity.” God forbid!
Like rain falling from the heavens is God’s grace falling on us, on all of us who “have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” in the words of next Sunday’s Collect. What God has purposed is our restoration, our reconciliation with God, and our reaching out in love to the people around us.
What we can be sure of is that God’s word will prosper in us, will teach us, as we live out God’s restoring mission.