Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s letters are just that: letters. Like all letters even today, they start off with a greeting, a salutation. Something to open the letter and introduce the writer and what the letter is about. I began my Christmas letters this year with a salutation of “Merry Christmas from the Washington Coast!” Short, sweet, and to the point. Everyone on my Christmas card list knows me, so I don’t have to introduce myself, and everybody knows what to expect in a Christmas letter, namely, a cheerful summary of everything the sender has done in the past year, wrapped up with best wishes for the holidays. So a brief holiday greeting is all I need. Paul’s letters, however, are a different story, especially his letter to the Romans. Our entire second lesson, all seven verses of it, is the greeting portion of this letter. It took him seven verses to say “Dear congregation of Jesus-followers in Rome, Hello, it’s Paul, I’m writing about Jesus the Messiah, God be with you.”
That’s a much simplified version, of course, but that’s basically what it’s saying. Paul’s introducing himself and what he’s going to be talking about in the whole rest of the letter, and blessing the people he’s writing to. So let’s dive into the details. First, this is the longest salutation in any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, because it was the only one where he was writing to people he didn’t know. Every other letter we have from Paul, he was writing to a congregation he himself had founded. He’d go to a city, live there for a while, plant a congregation, and then move on. He kept in touch with everyone through letters, some of which were collected in the New Testament. In those letters he would remind people of his teachings, and address issues that had cropped up since he had left. Since everyone in the congregation knew him, he didn’t have to give any long explanations of who he was or why he was writing. But the thing is, the congregation of Jesus followers in Rome had been planted by someone else. Paul had never been there. So he wrote this letter to introduce himself and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, in the hopes that they would welcome him when he arrived. They didn’t know him from Adam, so he had to introduce himself and prove his bona fides as an apostle, and give kind of a summary overview of his perspective on the good news of Jesus, in the hope that they would welcome him when he arrived and help support his future missionary journeys. Because Paul hadn’t planted the church in Rome, his letter to the Romans mostly doesn’t address specific issues the Roman church was facing; instead, the letter as a whole is a step-by-step journey through Paul’s understanding of Jesus, his teachings, and what the meaning and impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection was.
Death and resurrection? In December? We’re less than a week away from Christmas, the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth! We are months away from Easter! So why are we talking about death and resurrection? All our attention is focused on that sweet little baby who will soon be laying in the manger, and on the shepherds and wise men and angels who surrounded him and his parents Mary and Joseph, and also on details like Christmas parties, last-minute present shopping, and everything else we need to make the holidays wonderful. But the thing is Jesus was not born just to be a cute little baby in a manger that we can feel good about every December. The central holy day of our faith is not Christmas, but Easter. If Jesus had never died and been raised from the dead, it wouldn’t matter that he had been born. We talk about Jesus being the reason for the season, and that’s true, but it’s not just that Jesus existed. It’s that Jesus came to save us and all creation from sin and death. Christ came to the world for a purpose, and that purpose was to break the chains of sin and death and dysfunction and despair that bind us, so that we and all creation might participate fully in the abundant life God wants for us and created us to experience. If we celebrate Jesus’ birth while ignoring what he came to Earth to do, all that is left is sentimental fluff. And sentimental fluff is nice, but it’s not a strong enough foundation to build our lives on.
Paul was an apostle of God. An apostle means one who is sent. Paul was sent to share the good news, and so are we. And that doesn’t just mean share it with people who haven’t heard it or who have heard it but don’t care. Paul, in this letter to the Romans, was sharing the Good News with people who already knew it. No matter how many times we’ve heard the good news of Jesus Christ, we all need to be reminded of it sometimes, or to hear a new and refreshing perspective on it. The message of Jesus isn’t just something to hear once, memorize, and then ignore; the message of Jesus is something we should be constantly thinking about, remembering, and exploring.
That good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preached, that we still share with one another today, it didn’t come out of nowhere. God has been at work in the world since God created the world, working to bring life and healing to a world broken by sin and death. God has been promising that God will save, that God will redeem, that God will set free, from the very beginning. God has been shining a light in the darkest places in the world, and in the darkest places in the human heart, since sin and death first entered the world. Some of those promises are recorded in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. No book could ever be long enough to record all the wonderful things God has done, but the Bible contains the stories of how God was at work in the lives of our ancestors in the faith, even thousands of years before Jesus’ birth.
Jesus’ birth didn’t come out of nowhere. The message Jesus came to preach is consistent with the messages God had been giving God’s people since the very beginning. Although Jews and Christians have come to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures very differently, Jesus and Paul and the rest of the apostles and the entire early Christian Church constantly and consistently looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for guidance and support. In fact, any time in the New Testament where someone talks about scripture, they’re talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament was in the process of being written and didn’t exist yet as a finished book. Paul and the rest of the early Christians looked back at Scripture and saw all the ways in which Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, fit within the story the Scriptures were telling. Among other things, Jesus had been raised and adopted by a man of the house of David, the lineage the Messiah was going to come from. You sometimes hear Joseph described as Jesus’ stepfather, because of course we know that Jesus was God’s Son. But the thing is, Joseph claimed Jesus and named him and raised him as his own, and in the ancient world that was at least as important as a modern adoption. Joseph wasn’t “just” anything. Joseph was Jesus’ dad, and in that way Jesus became part of the great covenant with David and David’s heirs.
But the covenant was only the beginning. Jesus came to bring life, and to bring it abundantly. Through his teachings, through his healings, through his miracles, and most especially through his death and resurrection, Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom of God. Jesus called all things and all people to himself, and through our baptisms we are tied to that death and resurrection. The renewal of the world is coming. The re-birth and re-creation of all the cosmos and all people in it, is coming. Abundant life free from sin and death is coming. And it is coming through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
And while we wait for that great and glorious day, we are called to belong to Jesus Christ, and to put that allegiance higher than any other. We are called to be faithful, to be obedient to God’s will, and are sent out to share that good news with one another and with all the world. To all God’s beloved in Rome and Chinook and Naselle and across the world, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.