“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has
endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order
to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has
prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called.”
Romans 9: 22-24
I suppose I got what I deserved. It was summer vacation. I was in my last year of high school and walking the boardwalk at the beach in Jacksonville, Florida with my best friend. We had just passed a young couple conversing in another language. Trying to be funny and thinking they would not understand me, I made a disparaging comment about them in English as we passed. I laughed. It was a hot day, and as I reached up to wipe the perspiration from my head, a large bird suddenly made a large deposit that landed on my hand. I was, at the same time, both frustrated and thankful. Frustrated at the uncanny skill and timing of the bird and thankful that my hand, at least, had been there to cover my head. As we were walking back, we passed the couple again about whom I had made the disparaging remark. They were now conversing quite comfortably in English but looked over at me with a “yeah, we know what you said,” kind of look. I was deeply ashamed, and God revealed to me at that moment the unrealized pride that was in my heart. I immediately agreed with him, asking that he would change this negative trait in me.
Such are the moments when God shines his light on the ugliness of our own sin. The bird’s “gift” was a reminder to me that I deserved far worse than I received. Such is the kind of attitude behind what Paul is addressing in Romans 9.
Pride is an enemy of God’s mercy. God distances himself from every effort of “self” righteousness. He moves toward those who hear the gospel, acknowledge their need, and respond to him by faith. The Jews thought that they were the “in crowd” when it came to God’s favor. Yet, they had failed to see that their pursuit of righteousness through keeping the Law had failed. “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).
The fact God chooses you or me to hear the gospel and to respond to its message is never due to our own ability or effort. The best and the worst of us need Christ to rescue us from our sinful self (Rom.1-3). It is always due to the mercy of God. Mercy is getting what you don’t deserve. The cross cancels out our every attempt to “look good” before God and man or to think we are better than someone else. Instead, it declares that Jesus, the perfect man, has become righteousness on our behalf. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). God’s purpose is not that we are seen or admired, but are “vessels of mercy,” to reveal through our story of failure and sin, the goodness of God through Christ.