“Are we there yet?” Between the goings-on of the season, and all the snow we’ve already gotten, you might be feeling that way too. Isn’t it Christmas already? How can it still be a week away? Well, fun fact, this year we have the longest-possible Advent season. This is the 4th Sunday in Advent, and because Christmas is on a Sunday, that makes this fourth week of Advent a full week. So if this season feels like it’s going long, that’s because it is! Next year, as it happens, will give us the shortest-possible Advent season, as the 4th Sunday in Advent will also be Christmas Eve.
Anyway, let’s sit with that opening question for a moment: “are we there yet?” If we consider the double-meaning of Advent – that we’re looking forward to the return of Christ as well as the holiday of Christmas – there are many reasons we might be asking the same question. 2016 has been a year of a great many beloved celebrity deaths, a year of ever-increasing political turmoil, a year filled with horror stories coming out of Syria and Iraq… more and more Christians are looking to the sky asking our Lord Jesus Christ if he’s coming back yet.
On this journey we call the Christian Life, of which Advent is an excellent training ground, I daresay we are not yet where we’re going, but we are now where we need to be. This life is not about the journey, it’s about the destination: the perfected new heaven and earth under the eternal lordship of Christ. And we’re definitely not there yet. But we are on the way there, and that is good. Like a pit stop on a long road trip, we pause every Sunday to get out of the car, eat some food together, and refill the gas tank. The more arduous the journey, the more frequently we should stop the car, go to church, and reconnect with Who and What really gives us the strength and direction to continue.
With this Advent season drawing near its end, the lectionary brings us some Scripture readings that point us toward the next leg of our journey. The Gospel lesson anticipates Christmas as it tells us of the angelic message of the impending birth of the Christ. But it’s the Epistle lesson that I want to focus on this morning. It is there, in the beginning of Romans, that we are especially directed to a big-picture view of two of the most important factors that drive the Christian life. The first topic it deals with is the Christian Gospel, and the second is the Christian Calling.
If you look closely at these opening seven verses, you’ll find something of a sandwich: verses 1 and 6 deal with the subject of calling, and the verses in the middle, 2-5, deal with the Gospel. Verse 7 is a formal greeting which closes the opening statement of the letter, so we’re not going to deal with that today. We’re going to look at the inside of this sandwich (the Gospel) first, before looking at the outside (our Calling).
The Christian Gospel in Romans 1:1-7
First of all, the Gospel of God, in verse 2, is described to be promised beforehand through the Prophets in the Sacred Scriptures. It is imperative we understand this: what Jesus did on the Cross was not Plan B; it was not God’s attempt to clean up the mess he allowed to happen over the course of history; it was his definite plan from the beginning to enter into his creation as a man, live a sinless life, and perform the needed perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. The execution of this plan was a long time coming, and the Prophets of the Old Covenant Era saw glimpses of this Gospel. If you note the quotation of today’s reading from Isaiah within today’s Gospel reading, you’ll see an excellent example of this.
Another thing to note here, is the very word itself: Gospel, or “good news.” In the Roman Empire at the time, Gospel was something of a buzzword, referring to the Emperor’s birthday. Remember, shortly before this time the Roman Republic had transitioned to an Empire, and its emperors were beginning to claim divine status. Not the divine right of kings as in later European monarchies, but actual divinity. The Caesar was god, or at least a god, his son was the Son of God, and his birthday was Good News – Gospel. Saint Paul challenges all this civil religion when he writes to the Christians in Rome about the Gospel of the Son of God – not Caesar but Christ! That kind of talk could get people in a lot of trouble. And indeed nearly 300 years of government persecution was about to begin.
The Gospel of which Paul writes is more than just about a birthday, of course. The Christian Gospel is about the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The whole sequence of events from Matthew 1 to Acts 2 is in Paul’s mind when he writes the word gospel, and we would do well to remember that. As I saw one Orthodox cleric write, “Christ is not part of the story of Christmas, Christmas is part of the story of Christ!” Christmas is just a piece of the whole gospel. But it does vividly connect the ancient promises of God to Christ’s generation. Another description of Jesus given in verse 3 is that he’s a descendant of David. Again, a sharp jab against Caesar can be seen here: the Roman imperial family had only been ruling for one or two generations at this point, while the royal line of David of which Jesus was a part goes back a thousand years! Jesus’ royal heritage is much more ancient than the Roman one.
And so it stands to reason that if Jesus’ royalty has such a better pedigree than the rival Roman royalty, so too should Jesus’ claim to divinity be better than the Emperor’s claim. And indeed Saint Paul goes there. He writes that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead!” It’s all well and good for the Emperor to claim divinity, to have his image carved and placed among the Roman pantheon of gods, and for people to churn out stories of miraculous healings that took place before his images or on his birthday, but Jesus’ claim to divinity – through his death and resurrection – is a far greater claim and much more dramatic and compelling Gospel story. The power of the Holy Spirit which continues in Christ’s followers certainly didn’t hurt either.
So if you thought the Roman Emperor, the Caesar, was an important man who’s worth your respect, this Jesus is probably worth even more. As Paul writes in verse 5, he and certain others have received “grace and apostleship” to bring about “the obedience of faith.” Both of these phrases deserve closer scrutiny. The pairing of words “grace” and “apostleship” are not meant to be two distinct items, but two words describing one thing. The word “grace” in Greek is charis, which also means gift, and from which we get the word “charism.” Thus you could translate this to say Paul and the others received an apostolic charism, a special gift of the Holy Spirit to be apostles, messengers, ambassadors who declare the Gospel to others. And their goal described here is to bring about “the obedience of faith,” which is also a significant phrase. The word “of” can mean different things, both in English as well as Greek, so what this phrase means is a matter of some debate. The obedience of faith could mean “obedience which comes from faith,” which emphasizes faith as God’s gift given to us. It could also mean “obedience to faith,” which emphasizes our effort and growth – our works. But it could also mean “obedience consisting in faith,” which rather neatly draws the previous two possibilities into one. Since all three options are allowed by the grammar, I’m inclined to trust the third one most: the “obedience consisting in faith,” because there is much to be said about faith as a gift and much to be said about our perseverance and growth in the faith. But no matter your conclusion on that detail, the larger picture is the same: the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls for a serious allegiance to him that challenges the authority of the Roman Caesar.
To make this even more dramatic, Paul adds that this Gospel is to be proclaimed “among all nations.” The Gospel isn’t just for Jews, it isn’t even just for the Roman Empire, it’s for everybody. The Gospel calls the entire world to the obedience of faith under Christ Jesus. In a sense, the Gospel is less of an invitation, and more of a command! Jesus is Lord, not Caesar; you must worship him and not the other.
The Christian Calling in Romans 1:1-7
This leads us directly into the second theme in these verses: the Christian calling. Now, calling is a word we hear a lot, and it gets used in a number of different ways, so let’s make sure we know what Paul’s talking about. When someone is “called” in the Bible, it’s not just an invitation, or the bestowal of a title, but the conferral of a new and different status. A calling is not just a specific sort of occupation; it’s a whole way of life, a vocation. So when Paul introduces himself as “called to be an apostle,” he means that God has constituted or made him an apostle. People sometimes call this an “ordination character,” denoting the change that the Holy Spirit makes upon people through prayer and the laying on of hands.
But, lest we get too clergy-centric about this, let us take note of the first thing Paul says about himself: a servant of Jesus Christ. The word “servant” is just as properly translated as bond-servant or slave. This is critical to observe: before even the lofty of calling of apostleship, the most important thing Paul has to say about himself is that he is a slave of God. Paul has no agenda of his own, nor does he take ownership of any part of his life or being; everything he is is by the grace of God. Everything he has is by the grace of God. The lofty role of apostleship is a special addition to Saint Paul’s calling, but it does not inflate him with a greater ego, nor does it cause him to boast about how important he is. He continues to cling to that basic calling as a slave above all else. Please pray for me, for other clergy, and indeed for all our fellow Christians, that we not allow status and prestige to override the fundamental calling to be slaves of Christ!
So much for Paul’s description of his calling in verse 1. Starting in verse 5 he writes of the Christian calling as a result of the preaching of the Gospel. The calling to be a Christian here has four aspects listed.
First, to be a Christian is to live in the obedience of faith. We’ve already looked at this phrase in depth. The short of the matter is that God’s gift of faith and our receiving of that gift yields a life of obedient service to our Lord. As Jesus himself said, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Faith and works are inseparable, when it comes to the Christian calling.
Second, to be a Christian is to belong to Jesus, that is, to be under his lordship. This is why obedience is a necessary component of faith; he is the King and we are his subjects. It may sound old-fashioned, but seriously, we’re talking about the Creator of heaven and earth. If we believe that he created us, we’ve got to trust that when he lays down a commandment, it’s for the good of us and all his creation.
Third, to be a Christian is to be beloved of God. Obedience, after all, is not separated from faith, hope, and love. He gives us laws because he loves us, just as any parent gives rules to a child in order to protect him or her. As I’m sure many of you have experienced, some Christians can get a little carried away with “the rules” of Christianity and neglect the fact that we are beloved of God. Or some do the reverse, reveling in God’s love while neglecting his law. Both realities must be held together if we are to know God properly and walk in his ways.
Fourth, to be a Christian is to be holy. This is very serious; if you are a baptized believer in Jesus Christ, you are holy. How is this true? Because God the Holy Spirit dwells within you. It does not mean you are sinless – no, we are each just as wretched as any non-believer. If we’re really mature and strong in the faith, maybe we sin slightly less frequently than other people, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Our holiness has nothing to do with our works or our lack of sinfulness. Rather, we are holy because God has made his home in us, and called us to be holy. Holiness is a gift and work of God, not a status earned by extra-good behavior. Our behavior does not make us holy; rather, knowing that God has called us to holiness is supposed to be one of our many sources of motivation to behave accordingly!
On each of these points – the obedience of faith, the belonging to Jesus, being loved by God, and holiness – we find that our calling as Christians is the work of God in us. To be called is not to receive a label or a status as a result of our decision or works, but to receive a new character by the workings of God the Holy Spirit. I have never deserved to be a Christian, much less to be your pastor. All of this is by God’s gracious call. And just as well, because in the long run what do we know about obedience, submission, being loved, and holiness anyway? Just as well it is God’s gift!
Where are we now?
As we wrap up these teachings about the Christian Gospel and the Christian Calling, we return to the image of the Christian life as a journey. Where, on this journey, are we now? Well, today’s Collect, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, gives us some final insights into this question. It starts out with a petition, makes a confession about our condition, and makes a final petition in light of that confession.
The first petition is that God would stir up his power and come among us. God’s powerful presence is always something we need, and in the context of Advent this prayer points us in several directions at once: we’re praying in remembrance of Christ’s presence in person as a child when he was born; we’re praying for Christ’s glorious return at the end of the age; and we’re praying for Christ’s sacramental presence among us even now – be it in the celebration of Holy Communion, or in the proclamation of God’s Word, or in the simple gathering of God’s people for worship. In all of these cases, God’s presence is a mighty force that strengthens his people and directs us in the way we should go.
The confession about our condition that follows is that our sins hinder us from running the race that is set before us. In other words, our continual sinning gets in the way of our good works. Even though we have been called as Christians – made into faithful obedient beloved holy disciples – we still sin! Not only is that bad news for us, but it’s insulting to the God who called us out of all that darkness! So, because of the great calling that is upon us, we admit and confess these failures of ours to God. There’s no sense in pretending we’re good people, or trying to hide our sins or flee from God.
The final petition is our cry for help in light of our sinful condition: may God’s grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us! Notice it doesn’t say “I’ll try to do better next time, God.” No, we’ve just admitted that we ourselves are the problem! The solution, therefore, is outside ourselves, in the powerful and loving grace and mercy of God. That is where we will find the strength to go on. That is where we will find the power to become transformed. There is no “secret of the universe,” nor is there any “power of positive thinking” through which we can activate our “best life now.” There is only God’s grace and mercy: when we surrender and rest in that, we will find the peace of God which passes all understanding.
So we definitely are not yet at our destination. But if we can hear today’s Scriptures and honestly pray today’s Collect, then we are where we need to be right now. Our goal, yes, is still far away. The journey of the Advent season is still seven days away – we’ve still got a full week until the Christmas celebrations begin. The journey of this age is still ongoing – we’ve got a lifetime until we see God face to face. Just remember, that joy and excitement you had as a child, looking forward to the presents under the tree on Christmas… that is very much like the sort of joy and excitement we must learn to have toward meeting God’s present for us on the tree. Eventually we will meet our crucified and risen Savior face to face. Let us pray that day will be one that fills us with joy! Let us prepare for that day by praying today’s Collect together:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.