by Brian Walsh
(a sermon on Romans 10, preached at Wine Before Breakfast, January 29, 2013)
That neon light always caught my eye.
Every time I rode by on the Keele Street bus, I’d glance East down St. Clair and look at it.
If it was malfunctioning, I knew.
And it was a sign that held for me both attraction and repulsion.
Or maybe I should say that it both resonated deeply within me,
and made me uneasy, maybe even scared me.
The sign told me that there were folks behind that sign
who knew something that I had just come to know deeply in my own life,
and yet I had a hunch that I would nonetheless feel uncomfortable if I were to walk into that building.
The sign proclaimed one strong message in bright neon lights
for everyone in that rough, meat packers, working class neighbourhood to see:
Undoubtedly a text like Romans 10 would have come easily off the tongue of the folks in that church:
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.”
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
I was sixteen years old and had during that momentous year of my life decided to follow Jesus. And the language that was used for that transformation in my life was that I was “saved.”
And I was okay with that language.
Because I really did feel as if I had been “saved.”
Something radical had happened to me;
there had been a total turnaround in my life;
I was walking one way and found that to follow Jesus,
my life had to go in another direction,
and I was overjoyed to follow that direction.
But here’s the weird thing.
I knew that this “saved” language had one meaning amongst most of my new Christian friends, and while I didn’t dispute that meaning, it was never really at the heart of what the idea of being saved meant to me.
You see, I didn’t come to follow Jesus because I felt that I was a hopeless sinner
in the ‘hands of an angry God’ as Jonathan Edwards put it.
Sure, I knew that I was a sinner,
and I knew that there wasn’t any way forward in my life without forgiveness,
but that wasn’t the overwhelming reason that I came to follow Jesus.
And it wasn’t really what resonated with me when I thought of being ‘saved.’
I guess the question is, if you’re going to be ‘saved,’ then what do you think that you need to be saved from?
And for me, as a sixteen year old kid from the suburbs of Toronto,
what I needed to be saved from wasn’t an angry God.
I didn’t even believe in God so whether God was angry or not
wasn’t really an issue for me.
No, what I needed to be saved from was a life of meaninglessness;
a monotonous life of suburban boredom and emptiness;
a life of climbing the corporate ladder to who knew where;
a lonely life of deep, deep brokenness;
and … truth be known … a life without a Father who loved me.
From all of that, I needed salvation.
Or maybe I could say that I needed to be saved from a secular narrative
that had no moral depth,
couldn’t sustain me in a life with any joy,
and seemed to me to be a historical and cultural dead end.
Okay, okay … I couldn’t have put it that way at the time,
but I think that was what was really going on.
So with a lot of hindsight and a lot of reflection over the years,
I think that I can say that I was looking for a ‘home’ in my life,
and I needed to be saved from the homelessness that I felt so deeply
in my own soul and in the suburban world in which I lived.
So here’s the question.
What is Paul talking about when he uses the language of ‘salvation’?
I suspect that he would profoundly agree that “Jesus Saves”
but wouldn’t likely have any idea what modern Christians mean when they talk this way.
So let’s look at Paul’s language.
Take a moment to read Romans 10 and you will likely notice that Paul takes us on
a romp through the law, prophets and writings of Israel’s scriptures.
Just in this reading from Romans 10,
we travel with Paul along a course that goes
from Isaiah to Leviticus,
then to Deuteronomy,
back to Isaiah again,
on to Joel,
Isaiah two more times,
a drop in on Psalm 19,
back to Deuteronomy
and then, for good measure, finish with a flourish of Isaiah one more time.
And all of these texts, with the exception of Psalm 19, have one thing in common.
They are all addressing the reality of exile and the longing for return.
They are all addressing moments in the story of Israel that either predict exile
as the necessary consequence for breaking covenant with God,
or are speaking words of hope about a return from that exile.
They are all addressing, if you will, the reality of losing one’s home
and the promise and hope for a return to that home.
They are all addressing homelessness and homecoming.
And, along the way, they are also addressing
the character of that home,
how one gets home,
and who is welcome home.
The invitation of Deuteronomy 30 is to come home through listening and obeying the covenant word of God.
The good news that Isaiah is talking about is the word that their exile was over.
When Joel says that those who call upon the Lord will be saved, that salvation is from the captivity of exile.
But it is all so difficult to believe.
No wonder, Isaiah asks, “who has believed our message?”
It is hard to believe a promise is fulfilled when the fulfillment doesn’t look like anything that you had expected.
Yes, Israel wanted homecoming, but surely this is their homecoming,
– these were, after all, their promises, their covenant, their righteousness.
What are all these Gentiles doing here?
How can this be a homecoming if the house is full of unclean strangers?
And Paul answers from Deuteronomy and Isaiah again to say that the homecoming of God
was always a homecoming for the nations;
the promises were always for the whole world,
and even those who were not looking for this homecoming,
are invited home.
No wonder he then cites Psalm 19 in favour of this vision.
The voice of God, spoken from the very stars of heaven,
this word of God echoing through all of creation,
has gone out to all the earth,
to the very ends of the world!
The call home goes all the way down.
The call home is a call to all of creation.
And that call took on flesh in Jesus Christ.
He is the end of the story,
he is where the story has always been going,
he is the fulfillment of God’s homemaking promises.
So “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.”
Saved from homelessness
– either at the heart of the empire,
or as despised Jews at the margins of empire –
through confession that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.
And not only Lord, but the Lord who has been raised from the dead.
In that resurrection, the homebreaking powers of death are vanquished,
and the door is open anew for homemaking in the Kingdom of God.
In that resurrection, and in this confession, a new covenant community is born,
and the return from exile is fulfilled.
Jesus saves … from homelessness.
Jesus saves … from homebreaking.
Jesus saves … from all false and inhospitable constructions of home.
But … we, like Israel, continue to sabotage our own homecoming.
And so Paul ends with God’s word to Isaiah:
“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
All day long, God holds out hands to welcome us home.
All day long, God holds that door open.
All day long, with tears in his eyes, God calls, cries, whispers,
“come home, come home.”
Friends, Jesus saves. He invites us home. And the table is set.
[With thanks to N.T. Wright’s insights on exile, Israel and Romans 10]