A sermon on Romans 15:14-33 by Richard Keith on Sunday 26 February 2023
I believe that many Christians make themselves miserable because they confuse God’s will with his plan. God’s will is clear. His will for us is our obedience. His will is summarised well in the two great commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and, “Love your neighbour as your love yourself.” There it is written in Luke chapter 10. It couldn’t be any more obvious.
God’s will for us is love. At its heart God’s will is not hard to understand. It’s just hard to do.
God’s plan is different. His plan for you is clear in its goal. His plan for you is your complete salvation in Christ. Free from sin’s penalty, power and presence. His plan for you is the fulfilment of the purpose of your creation, to know God and to love him, to have his joy and life and peace. It is part of his plan to rid the universe of every power that opposes him and ruins what he has made good.
God’s plan is clear in its goal. In its destination. But the journey to get there is much less clear. It includes all the good things and the bad things that happen to us. Things that encourage us and support us. Things that test us and challenge us. And the trouble on top of that is that good things usually happen over a long time period and only with effort and skill. They don’t just happen. But bad things can happen at any moment. Disasters rarely make appointments. They often take us by surprise with little time to prepare and leave us confused about where things went wrong.
The problem that many Christians make for themselves is that instead of doing God’s will they try to guess his plan. What does God want me to do? Where does God want me to live? What career does God want me to follow? They try to guess his plan for them and so they move to where they think God wants them to be. And it doesn’t work out. And it either makes them sad in themselves or angry at God.
God’s will is much clearer than that and you don’t have to guess it. What does God want you to do? He wants you to love him first with all your heart. Where does he want you to live? I don’t know, but wherever you live he wants you to love your neighbour as yourself. Of course, God wants us to make plans. Good things rarely just happen. We have to plan them and to work hard on them. We choose a career and we plan the steps to get there. We get job and we can support ourselves and our family. It won’t just happen. But God doesn’t want us to try and guess his plan to make our decisions. Doing that will only make us miserable.
Romans chapter 15 is a good example of how the apostle Paul made his plans and how they interacted with God’s plan.
Notice, for example, that Paul had a clear sense of purpose. A clear calling to service in the kingdom of God. He wrote
… of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God.
Paul speaks of his task as a grace because it was a gift given to him. Paul didn’t volunteer for it. He hadn’t aspired to it since he was a child. It was given freely by God and could have just as freely been given to someone else. But it was given to Paul, thrust upon him in two key events in his life.
First, when he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the church, to put the believers of Jesus in gaol. But Jesus met him and said to him,
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Paul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
And what Paul was told three days later was that he was to be the Lord Jesus’ chosen instrument to carry his name to the nations.
The second key event in Paul’s life was when he was praying many years later with his friend Barnabas in the city of Antioch and the Holy Spirit commissioned them to go on their first missionary journey. Paul didn’t choose his job. It was given to him.
This task was to be “a minister of Christ Jesus”. A servant, Jesus’ ambassador to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, representing him to them and giving to them his message, proclaiming the gospel of God, God’s good news to us of salvation in his Son Jesus.
This sense of purpose, this task shaped the way that Paul carried it out. In his own words,
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.
Paul wanted to boldly go where no missionary had gone before. This was his preferred method because it hit two birds with the same stone. Firstly, it kept things simple. As he said,
… so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.
Here I am in Corowa building on someone else’s foundation. On Robert Tsai’s work in the 1980s. On the Bartholomew’s work in the 1990s. On Peter Pallett’s work in the 2000s. On Tom Wall and Stephen Fong’s work in the 2010s. All good, faithful, reliable workers for the kingdom. I am simply walking a trail that they have blazed before me.
But Paul wanted to blaze the trail. He wanted to lay the foundation. Others may build on the foundation he lay. But he didn’t want to build on someone else’s foundation.
Secondly, this method meant that he was always going where he was needed. To people who needed Christ’s salvation but didn’t know his name. Who were lost in their sins and didn’t know the way out. In Paul’s words as it is written in Isaiah chapter 52:
Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.
Paul didn’t want to preach to the choir. He wanted to share the name of Jesus in the streets and in the market places and in the public halls. He never waited for anyone to come to him for the help that they didn’t know they needed. But he was always going to them like Jesus who went to the sinners and the tax collectors as well as the Pharisees in their synagogues.
It reminds us that the church is a missionary organisation. It doesn’t just have missionaries. It is missionary. Sharing the good news of Jesus isn’t part of what we do. It is the thing we do, the thing that everything else that we do either does well or does poorly. Our church can own units if it is for the kingdom. We can run an op shop if it is for the gospel. We can donate money to the hospital if it is because we love our neighbour in Jesus’ name, and we don’t want to be a parasite on our community but generous givers, blessing others like our Lord. But if we are doing it just to make money and to boost our reputation, we are not doing anyone any good.
Paul’s ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known explains why he had not been able to visit Rome. He writes,
This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.
Someone else had already laid the foundation of the gospel in the city of Rome and Paul had been busy elsewhere. He may have wanted to visit Rome. If he had he would have been able to encourage them in their faith and been encouraged by them. But he chose not to. Satan hadn’t stopped Paul from visiting Rome. Paul had stopped Paul from visiting Rome.
But things had changed. Paul had run out of places to go east of Rome where Christ was not known, so he had decided to go west of Rome to Spain and on the way to Spain to go through Rome. Paul can finally justify what he’s always wanted to do, to visit the church in Rome, and to get them ready for his visit he wrote to them this letter. It outlines his message about Jesus and reveals his plans and maybe they would decide to support him in prayer.
Paul only had one thing to do before he could go to Rome. He’d been organising a collection of money to give to the believers in Jerusalem where there had been a terrible famine and food was expensive. He had raised this money from the churches in Greece and Macedonia and he was taking it personally to make sure it got to the people it was supposed to help. In this way, the Jews who had given the world their Messiah Jesus would be helped by the people of the world who believed in Jesus.
We’ve been looking at Paul’s plans as he outlined them in Romans chapter 15. And they show that Paul was a clever, wise, practical, intentional, purposeful planner. He didn’t just wait for good things to happen. But he planned for them and trusted to God to work through him since God had called him to do God’s work. And I could talk at length about how clever and wise and purposeful his plans were, but for me they really do just boil down to two simple principles. He loved God first and made God’s work his work. And he loved his neighbour enough to share with them the good news about Jesus and to go to new places to make new neighbours.
Now you don’t have to be clever like Paul. I mean, you are. But you don’t have to be. You don’t have to go to new places. You’ve got perfectly good neighbours right where you are. Of course, you need to make plans or the good things you want will never happen. But the two key principles in making those plans is how they love God first and love your neighbour as yourself.
Paul made his plans but God had other plans. Paul planned to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome and then to Spain. Well he got to Jerusalem and was arrested in the temple on trumped up charges of inciting a riot. He got to Rome but not the way he planned. He got there in chains as a prisoner to face trial before the emperor. And he probably never got to Spain. Instead, he probably gave his life for trusting Jesus before he could.
Paul didn’t try to guess God’s plan, but God’s plan happened anyway either because of Paul’s plans or despite them. And I take great comfort from the fact that this book, this Bible, this Holy Word of God that we rely on because it doesn’t have any mistakes or lies or hidden nasty surprises, this book has Paul’s plans that either didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way he planned and that’s okay. That’s the message today.
Here’s what the message isn’t. This isn’t the message. “Paul was fine, Paul’s ministry was blessed as long he humbly submitted to God’s wise plan. But he got too greedy. He got too ambitious. He wanted to go to Spain where he wasn’t meant to go. He was so proud about it that he boasted about it in his letter to the Romans so God punished him to teach him to be humble. So before you move an inch. Before you move a millimetre, you need to pray to God and wait for a clear sign from him for what you do next. Stay in God’s plan and you’ll be blessed. Stray from it for a moment and you’ll be punished.”
What rubbish. That’s not good news. That’s bad news. That’s not the gospel. That’s pure poison.
No the message today is that even apostles don’t know God’s plan. But they still make plans. Paul wanted to go to Spain to tell new people about Jesus but he never got there. Or probably didn’t and that’s okay. Instead he went to Rome in chains and got to tell the Emperor Nero the good news about Jesus. Because Paul loved God first and loved the emperor like he loved himself. In fact, more than he loved his own life.
So don’t worry about where God wants you to be because you are already there. And don’t worry about where he wants you to be tomorrow because you’ll wake up there in the morning. And wherever that is there will always be opportunities to love God first and to love your neighbour as yourself.