"His Middle Name was Christmas"
Dec.24, 2010 Rom.1:1-7
Ask any child what their favourite part about Christmas is, and what's the answer likely to be? Presents. In the church we know that 'Jesus is the reason for the season', but in our culture, Santa and the retailers conspire to make sure the most exciting moment is when we rip open our presents.
However for the apostle Paul, the birth of Jesus is not so much about presents we receive, but about how we present ourselves. Look at how he addresses this letter he's writing to the church at Rome. Nowadays when we address a parcel or letter we put the "TO" in the middle and "FROM" up in the left-hand corner; but when Paul wrote in the first century AD, the sender's and recipient's names were listed first in the text of the scroll. But in between Paul's name in the 'from' section in v1 and the Romans' name in the "to" section in v7, we find a mini-summary of the essence of Christianity. It's as if Paul's middle name is Christmas: he can't introduce or identify himself without reference to Jesus Christ coming as a man and God's Son, which is what was happening at the nativity in Bethlehem. He's so bubbling-over with the good news about Jesus he can hardly get through a 'how-do-you-do' without wanting to share what Jesus has done.
WHAT'S GOOD ABOUT THE GOSPEL?
The word 'gospel' in vv1&2 means literally 'good news'. Just what is so 'good' about the gospel? Think about the context in which Paul is writing, and in which Christmas took place. To whom is he writing? V7, to people in Rome. That's like Ottawa for Canada, Washington DC for the states, New York Headquarters for the United Nations. Rome was the seat of empire, 'where it's at' politically. Rome was the capital of the world, the home of Nero the emperor, the largest city on the earth at this time, supposed to contain about 2 million inhabitants. Paul is addressing Rome, world headquarters, with the good news.
The Christmas story also happens with reference to Rome. How does Luke start telling it? "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." A census - what a bother! So millions of people would have to uproot themselves and travel to their hometown - not an easy thing in a day of rough roads and no cars. "So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child." Making a long arduous trip over rocky terrain late in pregnancy without hospitals around? Not recommended! And that was just the registration: later would come the burdensome taxes for all the conquered states, such as Palestine. Rome was an oppressive regime, imposing hard economic realities on peasants like Mary and Joseph.
In Matthew's account of the Christmas story, Rome is represented by King Herod, the local part-Jewish king who'd finagled the right to rule from the emperor. When Magi from the east show up inquiring about one born to be king of the Jews, Matthew tells us King Herod was 'disturbed'. He deceitfully tells the Magi to inform him of the child's whereabouts when they find him. When God warns them not to, Herod is 'furious' and orders all the toddler boys in Bethlehem killed. He won't tolerate anyone that might be a threat to his grip on power.
What would 'good news' be for you this Christmas? First ask, what is 'Rome' for you right now? What is it that makes you feel oppressed, restricted, taken advantage of? In what areas do you feel sad, or a sense of loss, being overpowered? Where are you trudging along with Joseph and Mary, struggling with harsh and uncompromising realities? Are you longing for 'good news' in view of your failures, destructive desires that bring you down, others lording it over you? Are you relating to the lowly carpenter and his bride in their poorness, stretched financially? Are there pressures on you like those that overpopulated Bethlehem temporarily, robbing the young couple of the availability of even a basic motel? How has life seemed unfair to you? Christmas comes in just those sorts of circumstances. Good news awaits!
How does Paul describe this 'Good News' that's at the heart of Christmas? V3, it's "regarding [God's] Son, who as to His human nature [flesh] was a descendant of David..." From a legal point of view, Jesus was related through Joseph to the kingly line stretching back through David ultimately to Isaac's son Judah. His forefather David was a true and venerated king of Israel, a real shepherd of his people, a good king who cared for the people and reigned in righteousness (for the most part) and justice. So on the human level Jesus had a legitimate claim to be 'king of the Jews', he had the right to rule - which enrolled him on Herod's hit list.
His earthly lineage gave Jesus credentials on the human level. But even more important, on the spiritual level, His resurrection uniquely marked Him out as God's Son, not just David's offspring. V4, "...who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord." Christmas would not have nearly the significance apart from Easter, Jesus' death at Golgotha for our sins and His miraculous resurrection on the third day. This is especially GOOD NEWS! It implies that believers will follow Him in new resurrection life into eternity. The powers of Rome etcetera will not bind us permanently: in Christ we can enjoy releace from death, corruption, aging, the sting of interpersonal conflict - in general, all the forms of breakdown and evil that hold creation in bondage. Paul in 1Corinthians 15(20) says "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." He wasn't just born of the virgin Mary, He was firstborn from the dead; 'firstfruits' implies others will share that privilege too. "Chris, the firstfruits; then, when He comes, those who belong to Him." "And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven." (1Cor 15:23,49) That draws in us who believe - that's really Good News!
GOD'S PRESENTS TO US
So you can start to see how the significance of Christmas causes Paul to bubble over in how he introduces or presents himself - he wants more than anything else to help others understand the good news of the gospel, how much God has done for us through this little baby born in a stable, laid in a manger, foretold by prophets long before. Vv3-4 focus on WHO JESUS IS, humanly and spiritually speaking; that has implications for the second part of our reading, vv5-7, WHO WE ARE CALLED TO BE - how we present ourselves.
If Christmas is about presents, it's primarily about God's presents to us. These presents, these gifts to us in spirit, affect how we interact with others. Let's unpack the presents a bit.
V7, "To all in Rome who are loved by God..." It is super-good news that we are loved by God! If the Old Testament, the old covenant was mainly about law, the New Testament is mainly about LOVE - relationship, God reaching out to draw us close in fellowship with Him. ""For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!" "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (Jn 3:16; 1Jn 3:1, 4:10) What a present that costly love is!
Another gift that's precious to unwrap is GRACE. V5, "Through Him and for His name's sake, we received grace..." V7, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ." Sometimes we may feel bad that as a baby Jesus might have gotten poked from the straw in the manger. But that was nothing compared to the piercing of the nails that impaled Him to the cross. Because He came at Christmas, He could suffer to pay the penalty for our guilt at Easter - that's grace. God accepting us sheerly on account of what Jesus did for us.
So great a gift of love and grace is accompanied by a 3-fold call to become more than what we have been til now, a change in how we present ourselves. Let's take these in reverse order. V7, we are "called to be saints" - not the canonized type, but literally 'holy' ones. Washed pure, set apart for God's use, born of God. "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God..." (1Jn 5:1a) If we are holy, we learn to set ourselves apart from sinful actions. Ephesians 5:3, "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people." That's a major calling in today's relativistic society that mocks and scorns anyone who attempts to uphold moral absolutes.
We're called to be saints, holy. V6, we're also "called to belong to Jesus Christ." A present under the tree usually comes with a gift tag, "To Jimmy" or "To Sarah": that identifies the present as belonging to you, it's for you. If you are called to belong to Christ, it's as if you have an invisible gift tag on you, marking you "To Jesus." I'm not my own person, I have to yield my rights and control to the Lord. To the Galatians Paul wrote, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires." Let your wrong desires die. And, on the positive side, he adds, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Gal 5:24; 3:29) As an heir you are blessed to inherit God's Holy Spirit and the blessings of heaven!
And v5, we are called "to the obedience that comes from faith." If we go out tomorrow or next week and behave disobediently, that totally empties Christmas of any meaning in your life. Obedience is our gift we present to God in return for His love and grace. "Present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God..." (Rom 12:1) In chapter 6 Paul explains, "But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness." (Rom 6:17f) The devil might try to trick us to think that obedience is burdensome or a bother, but really obedience is FREEDOM - release from enslavement to sin that is destructive and deadly.
So, God's presents to us in the nativity of Jesus are love and grace. These are fully unwrapped for all to see at the cross. Our response this calls forth, our presents to Him, are holiness, belonging, and obedience that comes from faith.
Near the start, we noted Christmas takes place in a context of Roman oppression. Does Rome win? Which is it - "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." (Lk 2:1 AV) OR - "To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints"? (Rom 1:7) Is Christmas more powerful than the principalities of wickedness in this world?
One of the most famous books of all time is Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which the 18th-century historian traces what happened to that mighty empire and how it disintegrated from within. In that book is a passage Winston Churchill memorized because he felt it so descriptive. Gibbon wrote this about the church within the empire: "While that great body [Roman Empire] was invaded by open violence or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol."
Jesus Christ has the power to overcome whatever may be threatening you or pulling you down. Let His righteousness rule over your personal world. Receive the gift this Christmas from our Heavenly Father: His Son offers you love and grace, changing the bad for the better. Let's pray.