“Hope of the Gentiles” (Romans 15:4-13)
In the reading from Romans that we just heard, there are two words that jump out at me. One of those words is found in the first verse of our text, which reads: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” And this same word that I’m thinking of occurs again–twice–in the last verse of our text, as follows: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Did you catch what that word might be? Yes, it is the word “hope.”
The other word that jumps out at me in this reading occurs six times in a span of just four verses. Paul says that one of the reasons Christ came was “in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” And then he quotes four Old Testament passages in a row that bring out this same point: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles.” And again: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again: “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.” Then he concludes this chain of quotes with a prophecy from Isaiah: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” Well, I think it’s pretty obvious which word jumps out here in this section. It’s the word “Gentiles.”
So now we have two words to consider especially today. They are the words “hope” and “Gentiles.” We’re going to unpack each of these terms now, and see how they’re connected, under the theme, “Hope of the Gentiles.”
First, let’s take this word “Gentiles.” Just who are these “Gentiles”? Well, I would venture to say, you are. I am. Yes, we are–that is, unless we were born of Jewish ancestry. And I’m guessing most of us here were not. For the term “Gentiles” simply means “non-Jews.” There are Jews, and there are Gentiles, and you’re either one or the other. Everyone in the world who is not a Jew, that is, everyone who is not descended physically from the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–everyone else is a Gentile. It has to do with your physical descent, with your ethnic identity.
But that ethnic identity, whether Jew or Gentile, also was bound up with one’s religion. For the Lord God had chosen those patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he had made a covenant, a relationship of promise, with them. Way back in Genesis 12, the Lord had made a solemn promise to Abraham, saying: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This was the covenant of promise, the covenant of blessing, that the Lord established with Old Testament Israel. This was the covenant of promise that was fulfilled in the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, namely, the Lord Jesus.
But for the Gentiles, that is, those nations outside of Israel, there was no such promise. The pagan nations were outside of the covenant. They knew not the one true God. The Gentiles were groping around in the darkness, unable to find God. They would concoct their own gods, according to their own imaginations. These were of course false gods, empty idols, unable to save anyone. That was the state of the Greeks and the Romans of the first-century world, the people to whom the Apostle Paul was sent. And many of the churches to whom Paul writes, including this letter to the Romans–these churches consisted largely of people who came out of a pagan, Gentile background.
And really that’s the way it was for us, for our families, if you go back enough centuries. Our ancestors back in Europe were pagans, they were Gentiles. They worshiped stones and stars and sacred oak trees, and they made up gods to fit their imaginings. For instance, the little town in Sweden where my grandfather grew up is called “Torbal,” which means “Thor’s ballroom” or “Thor’s dance floor.” That speaks to the pagan background of northern Europe before Christianity came to those lands.
So the state of the Gentiles, apart from the gospel, as the Bible would describe it, is not good. The Gentiles were lost, lost in their sins, condemned, not knowing God, not able to find him, outside of the covenant of promise and blessing that God had established with Israel. As Paul says elsewhere to the Ephesians, speaking to those Christians there who had come out of paganism, he writes: “Remember that at one time you Gentiles . . . remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
“Having no hope and without God in the world.” Wow! That’s a scary prospect! But that’s where you and I would be if God had not brought the gospel of Jesus Christ into our lives and given us the faith to believe it. Without hope and without God in the world. That’s the way it is still today for millions of people in our world. They have no hope. They don’t know God. That’s even the way it is for lots of people here in our own community, the people who spend their Sundays anywhere but in church. They have no hope to hold on to. They’re the walking dead.
So the Gentiles are sitting in darkness. They haven’t any hope. They cannot scrub away their sin and their guilt. They can’t do it by thinking happy thoughts. They can’t do it by numbing their guilty conscience with alcohol or drugs or any other diversion. They can’t generate any hope for their future–for their eternal future–with their 401Ks or their Roth IRAs. Death still looms in front of every one of us, and if people want to make up a hope of their own beyond that–well, it’s just wishful thinking.
So where will the Gentiles find any hope, a hope that can deal with sin and death, a hope that is firmly grounded, one you can rely on, a hope that is sure and secure and certain? Where and in what is your hope, you who are here today? Is it something that you can count on?
Ironically, the hope of the Gentiles is found in the covenant to the Israelites. It was there all along. It’s just that the Jews didn’t always see it. But it was there. It was always God’s plan that through Israel would come the hope of all nations. Think back to that Genesis 12 promise to Abraham: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” All the families, all the nations–that’s talking about the Gentiles. God was going to use Israel to bring his great blessing to all the other nations. This was Plan A, and there was no Plan B.
And that’s what Paul is demonstrating here in this section of Romans, by his listing quote after quote after quote, all those passages saying that God’s plan all along was to include the Gentiles in his one people of hope and praise.
For indeed, the hope of the Gentiles has come through the fulfillment of the promise to the patriarchs. Abraham’s seed, Abraham’s offspring, the one in whom the Gentiles will hope–this is Christ Jesus our Lord. He came as the Servant of the Lord, filled with the Spirit, to bring in God’s kingdom of blessing. And as the Suffering Servant, this same Jesus incurred the wrath and opposition of sinful men, who conspired and plotted to destroy him. And they did–so they thought. They took hold of Jesus and sent him off to be killed. Death by crucifixion. But this again was one of God’s ironies. For in that very act of murderous injustice, God used that death of his own beloved Son to bring about the basis for our hope. Christ’s death was the payment for our sins. It brings us forgiveness, and with that removal of guilt before God, so also is death overcome. The resurrection of Christ shows that this is so, for all we who are baptized into Christ will share in his resurrection and his eternal life.
What’s more, God has sent out the good news of this Savior and this salvation to all the ends of the earth. Our ancestors heard about it and were brought into the saving ark of the church. You and I are the beneficiaries of that great gospel mission to the Gentiles. And we in turn are carrying on that mission through our church, our congregation as a lifeboat of hope here in Bonne Terre, and our church body sailing out as a schooner of hope to all the ports at sea.
And so now we have hope. There is a future in front of us to look forward to. No longer do we face the grim grave and an unknown eternity. Now we have the solid hope of the bodily resurrection and an everlasting future, bright and glorious, joyous, with our Jesus, with our God, with all those patriarchs and prophets, and apostles and ancestors, and grandparents and parents, who shared with us in the same promise of salvation from our gracious God.
Hope of the Gentiles. And what a hope it is! This hope will carry you through all the pain and adversity that you will face in this life. Even the grave cannot extinguish this hope that God gives you. The light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
And now: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”