The owner of a photo studio told the story of a college kid who wanted a copy of the framed glamour shot given to him by his girlfriend. When he took the picture out of its frame to make the copy, he noticed this inscription on the back: "My dearest John. I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever. I am yours for all eternity." It was signed by her and continued with this PS: "If we ever break up, I want this picture back."
When we read Romans 11, we see just how fickle Israel's love for God was. If we're honest, we're fickle, too, and that's why Paul tells us not to judge Israel to harshly. When I read the chapter, I kept getting hung up on verse 22: 'Consider the sternness and kindness of God..." So I considered it.
The Lord called a community of people (who were later called Israel) to live in a special relationship with Him. These people would be a light to the world as they trusted in the One True God and lived by faith. God chose to bless these people, but they didn't always return the favor. The Old Testament is full of stories of their faithfulness and faithlessness. There is one point in their story that the prophet Elijah asked God to do away with them all because they turned away from God in favor of the human-eating fertility god Baal.
But God found a remnant -- a small group of faithful people who had not abandoned Him. In Paul's letter to Roman Christians, he tells us that there will always be people who claim to belong to God but who essentially reject everything the Lord has said to them. It was an on-going problem. It was Israel's problem (read Isaiah 5:1-7), and Jesus said it is our problem, too (read John 15:1-9).
We have the same choice Israel had. Are we going to be a community that belongs to Jesus or not?
We need to consider both the sternness and kindness of God. Considering the sternness of God keeps us from making a lot of foolish choices that lead us away from Jesus. But considering the kindness of God brings us home again when we do. The Old Testament isn't just full of the stories of Israel's failure, but of God's mercy to welcome them back when they realized how far they had fallen.
Romans 11, Isaiah 5, and John 15 all tell us that the branch that does not remain faithful to God (and becomes unfruitful) will be snipped off. But Paul reminds us that we can be grafted in again when we come home. I wonder if the prodigal son would have returned home if he thought he was going to get a royal beat down? He knew his father's heart.
I think both the sternness of God and kindness of God are both a blessing -- because both let us know we are loved.