Speaking of Life 2037 | Rembrandt’s Question
Speaking of Life 2037 | Rembrandt’s Question Greg Williams The Bible shares a few stories of Jesus and water, which may seem even pedestrian to us. Those of us who grew up watching cruise ships and massive cargo ships on the ocean don’t know what it was like to have a storm come up when you are in a vessel smaller than a Volkswagen van! More than once, we have stories of Jesus calming the storm, such as Matthew 14 in which, returning with Peter from walking on water, the text reads: And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:22-23 (NRSV) In the ancient understanding, the sea represented chaos, death, and danger. Only God could control the sea. When he was 29 years old, Rembrandt painted the famous Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee based on the similar episode in Mark. The original painting is large, four feet across by five feet high, using Rembrandt’s signature mastery of light and dark to make an emotional impact, every face on the boat bears its own expression and tells its own story, from those trying futilely to hold the boat together to those who are resigned to their fate. Jesus wakes up from sleeping in the back of the boat and has a look of total peace and trust that God is in charge. Close at hand there is another figure, almost out of place and wearing clothes that seem out of the color scheme slightly. He stares straight at the viewer. A close count will show, as you might guess, 12 disciples and one Lord, making for 13 figures in the painting. Look again and you will see 14. The figure in the foreground, staring compellingly at you as you gaze at the painting is none other than Rembrandt himself. Scholars speculate Rembrandt may have been doing the lectio divina exercise of seeing himself within the story of Christ. He was so passionately invested in this story that he pictured himself within it. It poses the question: Where are we on the boat? Where are we on the night that Jesus walked out to the disciples on the water or when a storm came out of nowhere and tossed the boat violently? It’s a question worth asking at any point in our lives, and in any of the stormy seas we may face. Are we turning outward to stare at the sea or turning back to the Lord himself? The really good news is that no matter how violent the seas, nor how distressed you and I become, the Lord is with us. The calm, sure, saving Jesus is ever-present in this boat we call life. We actively participate by looking to him in calm and stormy seas. I’m Greg Williams, speaking of life.
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b • Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 • Romans 10:5-15 • Matthew 14:22-33
This week’s theme is God’s unlikely story: how God uses counter-intuitive heroes and broken people to get the epic of redemption told. Genesis 37 begins the story of Joseph—the prideful dreamer who was sold into slavery. Psalm 105 is the poetic retelling of Joseph’s redemption story. Matthew 14 tells the story of impetuous Peter walking on water, falling in it, and walking again. Our sermon, “Paul’s Rosetta Stone,” is based on Romans 10. Paul is in the middle of connecting the Hebrew story of redemption with the gospel. The long and very human story of Israel crescendos in Christ, then continues in the long and very human story of us.
Paul’s Rosetta Stone
Romans 10:5-15 ESV
In the summer of 1799, a French foot soldier was working on a building near the town of Rashid (Rosetta). They used whatever materials they could find—scrap lumber and metal, even ancient stone and ruins that were in the sand. This soldier noticed a particular stone covered in ancient writing, and went to his superior officer to tell him about it.
The ancient writing was in three languages. Two were Egyptian—one in hieroglyphics and one demotic (more like written script of languages today)—the third was ancient Greek. No one had ever been able to translate hieroglyphics before, so the Greek (which people could read) became the key to unlocking the hieroglyphic language. Light flooded into the mysterious Egyptian history and overnight Egypt became a place and story known to the world.
The Rosetta Stone was the first key to unlocking this mystery. Just a random piece of stone that someone took the time to notice. The writing on it isn’t very interesting, just a few regional laws that were being passed. But the stone itself made all the difference. In modern language, the term “Rosetta Stone” has come to mean a key piece of evidence or data that makes everything clear.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the Rosetta Stone of the Christian story. This longest of Paul’s letters helps to hold together and translate the history of Israel with the current story of what it means to be God’s people in Christ. This is the key that fits the lock, or better yet, the view that gives us the vantage point to see all of the history of redemption—from the first Adam to the second Adam, from the children of Israel entering the promised land to a small house church in Rome gathering around the gospel.
In Paul’s Rosetta Stone, he lays the words of the old covenant in the Old Testament, next to the new covenant reality of life in Christ. He shows how the reality of Christ unlocks the ancient mysteries and translates and connects the old story with what God is currently up to.
The story of Jesus doesn’t destroy the story of the Old Testament—it completes that narrative. Jesus is the twist ending.
Look at these two Scripture passages to see the Rosetta Stone in action. The first is from a moment when God renewed the covenant with Israel, just before Moses died and they entered the Promised Land. Notice God’s words to Israel:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. (Deuteronomy 30:11-15 ESV)
Now, look at the next reading, centuries later, that Paul sends to the community in Rome:
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:5-9 ESV)
Do you see this echo at work? Paul is laying out the completion of the Israelite story, even to the point of using the Israelite scripture!
Too often, modern Christians tend to separate the Old and New Testaments. Some even make the serious mistake of saying the Old Testament God was somehow a different person than Jesus, or that Jesus was God’s plan B.
Paul says just the opposite here, even to the point of exactly paralleling Israel and us. His point here is that in the days of Moses, people would “live by” (v. 5) the law—they had that deeper, richer life of knowing God by following the works and rituals of the law. All this was only meant to point ahead to Christ, to pre-shadow him.
Now that Christ has come, God himself can live in us. The connection between us and God is complete—not known only in the distant fragments of Israelite practice. To go on doing the rituals of the law was like keeping on your wedding dress days after the ceremony—you needed it in that moment, but after vows are said, the dress has done its job.
Paul translates the story of Israel through the gospel to show that it is completed only in Christ. Now we “live” by knowing Jesus, not following the works of the Law. We live when “you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v. 9).
So, there’s our first point: Romans is the Rosetta Stone of the gospel, translating the historical Hebrew experience by Jesus, as experienced by the new Christian community.
Think about your own life in terms of the gospel as a kind of “Rosetta Stone.” Theologian Dick Keyes talks about a trip he took as an irreligious young man when he was a student at Harvard. He had been reading about Christian faith and was haunted by the truth of it—the gospel wouldn’t leave him alone. During this trip, he stayed at a hotel and ended up reading through the Gideon Bible that was on hand.
He was struck by the insight Scripture had into human life. He noted that the psychology and story of being human was illuminated by the gospel in a unique and accurate way. The gospel was the Rosetta Stone for his experience in life. Soon after, he turned his life over to Christ and has been in ministry ever since.
He found, as G.K. Chesterton put it: Christian faith is the key “because it fits the lock.”
Universally and throughout history, people have found themselves uncomfortable and alienated by human life. There never seems to be enough to feed our egos, our selfishness knows no bounds, and our appetites and pleasures drive us crazy. The secular liberal world might call it “maladjustment,” the New Age world might call it “lack of enlightenment” or “misalignment,” but the gospel has always called it “sin.”
The reality of sin and the need for redemption is an insight that resonates with the deepest of the human experience. Like the Rosetta Stone, putting the story of the gospel next to our own twisted, frustrated, exhausting human story makes sense of life. The gospel makes sense of the enigmatic story of life itself. It is the correct translation.
- To our feelings of misalignment and alienation, the gospel offers the diagnosis of sin, and Christ the cure.
- To our enormous egos and pride, the gospel offers the fact that we are the royal sons and daughters of God.
- To our insatiable, insane appetites and desires, the gospel offers ethical and moral structure that houses and heals us.
- To the pain of our human loneliness, the gospel offers the connection and warmth of the Christ community.
It fits the lock.
Now, let’s look at who Paul was writing to.
The church in Rome had been running for a few decades now. A few years before this letter, the Roman emperor had kicked all the Jews out of Rome in a political move. It was a horribly racist move to consolidate his power.
While they were gone, the Roman Christian community grew and took on its own identity—and was made up entirely of non-Jewish believers because the Jews were gone. What you had in that community instead of Jewish people embracing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, was people who had been involved in the Greco-Roman cults, for whom it probably made more sense that Jesus was the Son of God. The Jewish people struggled with exclusivism and tension toward non-Jewish people; the Gentile people struggled with suddenly having to change their licentious sexual habits and focusing on worshipping one God instead of dozens.
When the leadership of Rome allowed the Jews to return, the church there had been running without them for a while. Not surprisingly, tempers flared, and divisions arose between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul spent a lot of his letter, and a good amount of his other letters, addressing this kind of tension. In chapter 14, he offers a long discussion on how eating meat that’s been sacrificed to idols, then sold in a butcher shop, is essentially irrelevant for God’s people. “Non-essential” issues like this shouldn’t make for division or judgmental attitudes in the community.
For one of the first times in history—and more successful than the world had seen before—a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural family of faith was starting. The main people groups Paul was writing to—the Jews and the Greco-Roman community—were quite different. For the average faithful Hebrew, life was a strict regimen of rituals and community occasions, with a high moral code and certain rhythm. For a Roman at the time, religion was a matter of rituals used to buy off the distant gods for good harvests, health and healthy children. Your religion didn’t have anything to do with your moral life (the philosophers ran that), and Roman men had almost no limits on their sexual recreation. Life involved a lot of drinking and partying.
Imagine a tight-laced fundamentalist and a bohemian liberal suddenly finding themselves part of a new faith community. Sharing meals, sharing beliefs, and calling themselves a family. It’s no wonder then what Paul wrote in verse 12-13:
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:12-13 ESV)
That’s the story. This is a community not favoring one specific heritage (as Jews may be tempted to believe) and not just another god among many (as the Greeks and Romans may struggle with), but one God for all the world, drawing them together into one family. The Jewish story is complete, bringing God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would “multiply as the stars of heaven” (Genesis 26) through the stewardship of the Jewish people now to this universal family of Christ that transcends all boundaries.
So, how do we take the Rosetta Stone into our own lives? What does this mean for us on Monday?
- First, God keeps his promises. Jesus wasn’t God’s Plan B after the Law “didn’t work”— he was the planned end of the epic story. God doesn’t have a Plan B for you. He’s bringing your story through, sometimes despite your best efforts. You are God’s plan A.
- Second, the gospel is the Rosetta Stone of life. When the circumstances of your life don’t seem to make sense, translate them through the gospel. Is this making you more like Christ? Is this circumstance freeing you from your own ego and expectations? Is God calling you to do something in this moment that’s new and out of your comfort zone?
- Third, God’s end goal was always to draw all people, from every nation and tongue, to the possibility of life in Christ. We aren’t democrats or republicans (or whatever political party in your country)— we are Christians. We aren’t blue collar or white collar, rich or poor, we are in God’s royal family and that’s what matters most.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Speaking of Life: “Rembrandt’s Pointed Question.”
(Watch video to start)
- Have you ever imagined yourself as a figure in one of the gospel stories? Or is there one that resonates deeply with you—that you could imagine yourself a part of?
- Where are you on the boat in a picture like this? Looking at the storm or at Jesus? How do we turn our eyes toward Christ in a situation like this?
Questions for sermon: “Paul’s Rosetta Stone”
- We talked about the gospel as the Rosetta Stone that correctly translates human experience and makes sense of it. Do you agree? Have you seen that at work in your own life?
- We talked about experiencing life in Christ and that following his way is the best way to be human. Do you think about knowing Christ like that? Is it the key to being fully human, or a muted, restrained existence?
- Romans is Paul’s Rosetta Stone, fully connecting the Hebrew history with the Christian experience. Does the fact that the whole narrative holds together, that Jesus was not God’s Plan B, make sense to you? Does it help the Bible make more sense?
Quote to ponder: “If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus… And go on looking until you’re not just a spectator, but you’re actually part of the drama which has him as the central character.” ~~N.T. Wright