Paul’s letter to the Romans was sent to a group of people whom he’d mostly never met. He never met us either but God can still speak to us today through these words of Paul. I want us to think about a possible interpretation of Paul’s words in our reading this morning in the light of our situation today. I’d like us to look at this passage from Romans in the light of the Covid pandemic. Yes, I know it doesn’t mention pandemics or plagues, but I think it has something important to say to us nevertheless.
In those first two verses Paul says – “Has God rejected his people? In Greek he responds ‘me genoito’ which could be translated as “certainly not” or “God forbid”. It’s one of Paul’s favourite phrases – he uses it 14 times in his epistles and most of those are in Romans.
When I was in 6th form I took Greek as an extra subject. My teacher was an extremely strict but lovely Christian. We came to one of the passages in Romans where Paul uses that phrase me genoito . I translated it absolutely literally and she stopped me straightaway and said “Paul was very emphatic about what he said here, you should translate the sentence as “Has God rejected his people – not b***** likely!” I was very shocked and have never forgotten that translation over the last 55 years. But you see what she was getting at. God could never forget his people – it’s a stupid question and it deserves an emphatic answer repudiating the very idea.
There are some people and groups who say that God has abandoned us, his people, during this pandemic. You might have heard some of them. You may have questioned yourself to some extent – “where is God in this”, or “why is God allowing it?” The Old Testament certainly appears to present God as inflicting suffering and anger on the nations.
It shows God as flooding the earth and punishing Egypt with a series of plagues—including the slaughtering of the firstborn sons of Egypt. I expect you can think of many more examples. There was a time in the not too distant past when it was a common belief that God inflicted plagues on people. In fact the Book of Common Prayer even has a prayer for use in a time of plague which starts “O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness,” and it ends : “Have pity upon us miserable sinners, may it please thee to withdraw this plague from us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
So perhaps we could ask the question Paul is asking: “Has God rejected humankind in sending Covid 19? And my resounding answer would be “Not b***** likely”.
Paul then goes on to explain why it’s not true. And in the same way as it wasn’t true that God had rejected the Israelites it’s not true that God sent Covid …because as Paul says, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew”.
That’s the important word – “foreknew”. It’s a Greek word that means something much deeper than “knew from the beginning” or “knew in advance”. It carries the idea of a very deep and intimate relationship which has been there from the very beginning of time. In short God, from eternity, loves us whoever, and whatever, and wherever we are. I’ll say that again “God, from eternity, loves us whoever, and whatever, and wherever we are”.
For me that’s an incredibly reassuring fact and I pray that it is for you too.
You know that blessing we say over a baby at baptism – it’s called The Aaronic Blessing. It’s from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament. It says “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and give you peace”. That’s what we must call to mind at times like this. God keeps on blessing us, keeping us, holding us in the light and giving us peace – even when we find it difficult to see or remember.
If we could close this service with a hymn, I’d choose “Amazing Grace” to underline what I’ve said:
“Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; God’s grace has brought me safe thus far, and God will lead me home.”