December 18, 2017
The Advent 4B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 1:26-38 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-28 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 16:25-27 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 35 (Lord’s Day 14)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Biblical scholars call passages like Luke 1 “type scenes.” A modern kind of “type scene” might be something like this: one evening while channel-surfing, you run across a movie already in progress. It’s obviously a Western with two cowboys standing about thirty yards apart in the middle of a dusty street. Each man is glaring at the other, one hand slightly raised and angled toward his hip.
Now, even if you have no idea what movie this is—and even if it’s a film you’ve never before seen—just seeing that set-up immediately tells you that what is about to happen is an Old West-style shootout. You don’t need to know what the movie’s larger plot has been about: the boilerplate set-up of the scene conveys what you need to know–you even have a strong idea of what’s next.
There are a number of similar type scenes in the Bible. For instance, if you run across a scene where a man meets a woman at a well, it probably means they will soon be getting engaged and then married. If you encounter a story in which someone is driven into the wilderness or up onto a mountaintop, you can assume that some new revelation from God will happen there. And if an angel appears to a woman (especially a woman who has never before been a mother), what often comes next is the promise of a child.
Yet Luke 1 is different from other such stories in interesting, and also instructive, ways. Unlike all of the other women in the Bible for whom the announcement of a child is such incredible news, Mary has not been pining away for years to have a baby. She’s not even ready to have a baby yet! She’s still very young, having gained the physical ability to become pregnant in probably just the last year or so. Further, she’s not married yet–like most girls of that era, her marriage had been pre-arranged by her parents long ago, so there was no question that she would be wed one day. But it hadn’t happened yet.
So Gabriel’s announcement of an impending pregnancy was not the answer to Mary’s prayers. This not Hannah or Sarah or Rachel who have long lived with the bitter disappointment of infertility. Far from it! In fact, Gabriel’s words do not so much solve a problem for Mary as they create a problem. This simply was not the time for Mary to have a baby.
But that is at least partly the point of this story: it’s not about Mary’s time or plans but is simply and solely about God’s timing, God’s plans, and God’s work. God is intervening in this world, upsetting schedules and re-aligning lives because that’s what it takes to get God’s premiere work of redemption accomplished.
But in the wider biblical context, the things that make this scene different from the many other, similar scenes ought to give us pause. After all, go back to the analogy about the shoot-out: suppose you did run across a scene like that while zipping through your channels one evening. But then suppose that, just before you were going to click the remote for the next channel, you noticed that one of the two cowboys was dressed in pink and was reaching for not a gun but a daisy that he had tucked into his belt. My guess is that this would be enough to make you stop your channel-surfing long enough to see what in the world was going on here! There had to be a reason behind this change in an otherwise predictable set of cinematic circumstances.
Similarly in Luke 1: an angel visits someone to talk about having a baby. We’ve seen this before. But wait: she’s a virgin. Of course she hasn’t had a child yet, but accomplishing that hardly requires a miracle. Further, she’s not like Sarah who was in her 80s or even cousin Elizabeth who also appears to have been close to retirement age: Mary’s just entered puberty. Clearly, these changes in a traditional type scene signal that something quite new is taking place in Luke 1. Mary quite logically asks Gabriel, “How will this be since I am still a virgin?” But an equally good question to ask is, “Why will this be?” since Mary does not seem like a logical candidate for divine intervention on the fertility front (nor does she seem a likely candidate to be a big player in the drama of cosmic redemption).
In other words, savvy biblical readers will come to this part of Luke 1 and say, “Hmmm, this is a scene I’ve seen before, this is a story I’ve heard before.” But then the text tilts, the familiar gives way to the unfamiliar, and the reader gets the sense that something very new, very striking, and quite possibly very wonderful is about to happen.
And it is!
For a sample sermon on this text, go to the Park Church Holland’s sermon page and scroll way down to my sermon “Let It Be” from 11-30-14.
There is a curious clustering of grace-related words here. Gabriel’s initial word to Mary is chaire, which was a standard way to say “Hail” or “Hello” back then but is a direct cognate of charis, the New Testament word for “grace.” What’s more, this same word could also mean “Rejoice!” So it’s an open question whether the angel was merely saying, “Hello” or telling Mary she should rejoice. (Or could it somehow be both?)
Then, the word for “highly favored” is likewise a cognate on this stem. Charitoo means to endow with favor or, as could perhaps be better said, to grace, to have grace/favor bestowed upon one. Being the target of grace is always a cause to rejoice. And indeed, in verse 30, the direct New Testament word for grace (charis) is used when Gabriel tells Mary she has “found favor/grace” with God. Perhaps there is not much to all of this and yet in a sense it is instructive to see all of this talk about grace and favor clustering around the Lord’s call of Mary. After all, it will be Mary’s son who will bring “grace and truth” to the entire world, opening up a gracious way of salvation through his own sacrificial death.
When children are small and are just learning how to eat from a spoon, parents involuntarily open their mouths even as the baby opens his or her mouth. It’s quite comical to see. Pastors who get to sit up front in church each week often get to see a similar spectacle whenever young children participate in a church service or Christmas program. When a son or daughter is up front speaking various lines, it’s not uncommon to be able to look out into the congregation only to see the tyke’s mom or dad on the edge of a pew, mouthing the words right along with the child! As a parent, you can’t help it!
I suspect that seen the right way, something similar happens in Luke 1. The whole cosmos, all the hosts of heaven from the archangel Gabriel on down, are holding their collective breath and sitting on the edges of their seats. All eyes and ears are trained on one little girl, perhaps no more than twelve or thirteen years of age. She’s about to get the shock of a lifetime, but what will she say in response? What will her answer be? Will she get it right? As Frederick Buechner once put it, Mary was probably too dazzled to notice, but maybe just beneath his wings and bright garments even Gabriel was trembling a little in nervous anticipation at how this encounter was going to go.
In the end, as we all know, it went just fine, and the hosts of heaven must surely have heaved a collective sigh of relief! The long-awaited plan of salvaging this fallen creation was now really moving forward! After ages of waiting, a mother had been chosen to become the bearer of the very Son of God himself. Within a year that little baby would be born in Bethlehem, and the salvation of the galaxies would be off and running (or at least off and crawling initially!)
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Author: Doug Bratt
2 Samuel 7’s David has been busy battling both Israel’s internal and external enemies. He’s also just finished “battling” his wife, Michal. So some who proclaim and hear 2 Samuel 7 feel a little like David. We come from dealing with, sometimes even “battling” people in our neighborhoods, families (and even churches).
So we some come to worship and learn, to lead and teach in part because we’re looking for rest from our various “battles.” If, however, we’re to find that rest, we’ll need to find it in someone other than ourselves. We’ll need God’s gift of rest.
As 2 Samuel 7’s David “rests” in his own home, perhaps with his feet up on a footstool and a cool drink in his hand, he notices that something is awry. He sits in his lavish palace made of imported materials. Yet while, for example the king’s home’s walls are made of rich, foreign cedar, God’s “home’s” walls are made of canvas.
To David it just doesn’t seem fair that while he lives in a palace, God must “live” in a tent. 2 Samuel 7’s David wants to stop resting and do something about that discrepancy. He wants to build God’s ark a permanent home.
Of course, just as David once made the ark a unifying force in Israel, he may want to give the temple a similar role. If, after all, he builds a temple in Jerusalem, everyone in Israel will have to come to there to worship God. That will in turn help solidify David’s sometimes-tenuous reign over Israel.
To David’s pastor this idea seems like what one preacher calls a “no-brainer.” Nathan sees no contradiction between God’s holiness and David’s political needs. Samuel anointed David to be Israel’s king in the confidence that God was with him. Now Nathan promises that God will also be with him as he builds a house for the Lord.
As it turns out, however, Nathan issues the building permit too hastily. God rejects David’s plans. God, in fact, suggests that God rather likes living in a tent. That kind of “mobile home” is, after all, a visible reminder that God travels with the Israelites wherever they go. Since Israel has not yet found her rest, God refuses to “rest” in a temple.
God, as Jesus told his disciples before he returned to heaven, is with God’s people “always, to the very end of the age.” After all, while God gives us short rests, God hasn’t yet given us our eternal rest. You and I won’t rest completely until we rest eternally in the glory of the new earth and heaven.
But is God’s rejection of David’s temple plans an ominous sign? Can David still king rely on God to continue to be with his family and him? Or should Israel’s king now fret that his rule will be as fragile as his predecessor’s was?
God’s answer through Nathan to David is quick and unmistakable. God insists God’s refusal to let Israel’s king build a house for the Lord is not a sign of God’s anger. In fact, almost as if to reinforce that message, the God who has been with David explicitly promises to stay with both his family and him.
The God who took David out of the pasture and into the palace now promises to also make his name “great.” The God who has been with David now promises to also create a safe space for him. The God who has protected David from his enemies now promises to also give rest to Israel’s king.
Yet God really doesn’t get to the heart of God’s promises until verse 11b: “The Lord himself will establish a house for you.”
We can’t see this promise’s full beauty until we understand that the word that God uses for “house” has three meanings in Hebrew. It can mean “house,” or “temple,” or “dynasty.”
While David wants to build one kind of “house” for the Lord, God won’t let him do so. Instead, in a stunning reversal of roles, God promises to build a “house” for David. God rejects “temple,” but promises David a “dynasty.”
Few citizens of the 21st century are accustomed to thinking about political dynasties. Virtually no one, for instance, talks about the “house of Kennedy” or “the Trudeau dynasty.” For a dynasty you have to go to a place like the Netherlands where all of its monarchs must be descendants of William of Orange.
Originally Israel had no such “house.” None of Saul’s sons, after all, succeeded their royal father. In fact, all of those potential heirs to Israel’s throne had died in battle with their dad. God, however, promises to create a kind of lasting “house” for the David who wanted to build God a house. When David’s family buries him with his ancestors, his son, Solomon, succeeds him on Israel’s throne.
What’s more, though Solomon will sin no less than Saul did, God will treat him differently than God did David’s predecessor. Saul voluntarily surrendered God’s faithfulness by being so unfaithful to God. Yet though David’s son Solomon will be little more faithful, God will remain faithful to his family and him.
God, in fact, promises to treat David’s son Solomon much like God would God’s own son. When Solomon does wrong, God won’t disown or reject him. God will simply punish him, much like any good father punishes his child. Even when Solomon is unfaithful to God, God remains faithful to him, for David’s sake.
As a father of sons and grandfather of children, I can begin to imagine how much these promises meant to David. After all, there’s nothing I long for more than for our children and grandchildren to experience God’s gracious love and faithfulness throughout their lives. I long for them to remember that God is their God and that they are, by God’s grace, God’s children.
I sometimes think God’s promise in 2 Samuel 7 would have really choked up David had he realized just what kind of sons he’d have. While he probably had great hopes and dreams for them, the reality was, in fact, very different. For instance, Solomon uses his immense wisdom to collect wives and follow other gods and Absalom steals David’s wives and try to steal his throne.
Yet these are two of David’s sons on whom 2 Samuel 7’s God promises to set God’s love. In fact, God vows to allow one of them to build the house God that David wanted to build. David’s son will build a house for God’s “Name,” for the symbol of God’s presence among God’s people.
These promises give the Israelites hope that someone even greater than David will eventually become their king. They plant hope that one of David’s ancestors will bring the shalom that proved to be so elusive, even during David’s reign.
Some of God’s Jewish children, of course, become convinced that Jesus, one of David’s descendants, is this great Son of David whom God has promised. This, however, comes to cause deep division within what’s left of Israel.
Until David it almost seems as if some of God’s promises to Israel were conditional. Some seemed to hinge somewhat on Israel’s faithful response to God’s grace. So when, for instance, Israel sins against God in the wilderness, God punishes her. When Saul is unfaithful to God, God gives his throne to David. When even David’s son Solomon is unfaithful to God, God punishes him.
In 2 Samuel 7, however, God graciously turns that “if” into a “nevertheless.” God insists that nothing David or his descendants can do will end God’s love for them. So God, says one scholar, essentially gives David and his family a “blank check.” While God will sanction them for sinning, God won’t do so forever.
David’s descendants will be creative in their unfaithfulness to God and each other. In fact, only one of those descendants, Jesus, whom Christians call the Christ, will be faithful to God. Yet God will remain persistently faithful to David’s family.
Jehoiachin will be sinful Israel’s last king. Yet even then God remains stubbornly faithful to David’s family, eventually giving them King Jesus. So the uneven faith of David and his family will not have the last word. God’s unconditional love, in Jesus Christ, God’s new “tent” among us, is decisive.
In Jesus Christ God’s adopted sons and daughters find the rest for which people have longed since God chased our first parents out of their garden home. God promised Israel through Moses that Israel would find rest in the land of promise. God gave rest to David in this evening’s text. God also promises rest to David, his family and his people in the future.
In Christ, David’s greatest Son, we find that rest from our sins and from our work to somehow save ourselves. The God whom Jesus says never stops working has done all the work we need to find our rest in God alone.
Neal Plantinga notes that Augustine sometimes introduced himself to other Christians by letting them eavesdrop on his extended prayers to God. Some of his confessions take the form of praise in which he confesses God’s greatness and goodness. And sometimes he confesses his sins of self-deception, lust, and conformity to the evil of peers. Sometimes Augustine even sounds anxious, as if his prayer is what Plantinga calls “therapeutic self-examination.”
Very often Augustine’s prayers exhibit real beauty: “Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him,’ carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that ‘you resist the proud.’ Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation” (Confessions).
Then comes what Plantinga calls one of the most famous sentences in all patristic literature. It speaks to both David’s longing for rest and God’s promise of it. Augustine prays: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (italics added).”
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Author: Stan Mast
I have a suggestion for this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Rather than singing with Mary about the Son she is about to have, let’s sing with ancient Israel about the God whose love and faithfulness will send this Son of David, in spite of the great sin of the sons of David. Mary’s Magnificat is the recommended reading for today, but I think the alternate reading in Psalm 89 can provide some rich homiletical fruit for this day before Christmas.
Both Luke 1:46-55 and Psalm 89 are songs of reversal. Mary sings of God bringing down rulers from their thrones and lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. The coming of the long-promised Son of David will accomplish those reversals, and that is good news. Psalm 89 sings about a very different reversal. It begins with high praise for the Lord whose love and faithfulness have promised to establish the house of David forever (verses 1-4). A soaring hymn of praise about the power of God (verses 5-18) is followed by a stirring description of the eternal kingdom headed by the line of David (verses 19-37). No matter what happens, that line will be established forever like the sun and moon in the sky.
But then comes the great and shocking reversal, signaled by two words that usually herald the Gospel, “but God.” Instead of announcing the Good News of what our loving and faithful God has done to reverse the fortunes of his downtrodden people, Psalm 89:38 announces the Awful News that this covenant making and keeping God has “rejected, spurned, been angry with [his] anointed one, renounced the covenant with [his] servant….” What follows is perhaps the most agonized, confused, even angry lament in the entire Bible. “How long, O Yahweh? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire (verse 46)?”
Granted, this terrible reversal is not part of the Lectionary reading for today. We are supposed to preach on verses 1-4 and 19-26, which are very appropriate for this day before Christmas. Why in the world would we want to complicate and even ruin a nice text with this horrible reversal? Why, indeed, even fool around with such a gnarly text when we have the perfectly lovely and infinitely more comforting reversals of the Magnificat?
Well, I suggest preaching on Psalm 89, all of it, because it ends precisely where many Christians find themselves in this happy season– experiencing a painful reversal and crying out to God, “How long, how long, how long?” Acknowledging our sorrow and confusion will make the birth of the Son of David even more glorious and comforting. With that homiletical goal in mind, let’s take a closer look at our reading for today.
The Psalm begins with a celebration of the twin pillars of Israel’s life, Yahweh’s love and his faithfulness, his hesed and his emuna. Because of the unshakeable dependability of Yahweh, Israel’s life is absolutely secure. “Your love stands firm forever… you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.” Heaven is far above all the vagaries of time and space, all the changes of history. Israel’s life is rooted in the seat of highest power and authority.
What’s more, the love and faithfulness of God have guaranteed that David, the greatest King of Israel, the one through whom Yahweh has made Israel the most powerful nation on earth, will continue to reign through David’s line for all coming generations. No matter what might change in the surrounding nations in the generations to come, Israel will always have a Davidic King on its throne. Security in heaven above and on the earth beneath—how could it get any better than that?
To further anchor Israel’s future, the Psalm reminds God’s people of the way God has blessed David up to this point. Through a series of couplets in verses 19-26, Israel is reminded of God’s role in elevating David: God anointed David, crushed his foes, extended his realm, made him first among all kings, and promised that his dynasty will last forever. David’s greatness does not depend on David’s greatness, but on the love and faithfulness of Yahweh. So even if, and when, David is not so great, Israel can still depend on the Davidic line, because of Yahweh.
In fact, the Psalm anticipates a time when the Davidic line will not be great, when, in fact, they will disobey Yahweh and forsake his law. When that happens, threatens God, “I will punish them with the rod, with flogging,” that is, severely. But, even then, promises God, “I will not violate my covenant…. [David’s] line will continue forever….”
What a wonderful promise for God’s people through all their generations, including our generation. In a world where our leaders regularly make and break promises, whom can we trust? When one administration routinely backs out of solemn agreements made by the previous administration (think of the Paris accord, the Iran deal, Obamacare, and so forth), what can we and the world count on? I’m not criticizing this President or any other human leaders; maybe previous promises need to be broken. Every new set of leaders seems to think so. The point of this Psalm is that God isn’t that way. We can count on him to keep his promises, including the one featured in Psalm 89, about the line of David.
Except that Israel has experienced exactly the opposite. “But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one, you have renounced your covenant with your servant,” and our lives are in shambles as a result. Those words could refer to many times when Israel thought that God had forsaken them, but most scholars think this is a reference to the Exile and even to that long time after the return when Israel languished in mediocrity. During that intertestamental period, God seemed inactive and silent. Immanuel was absent, it seemed. It seemed to all the world and certainly to Israel that the Davidic line had been extinguished for all time. So, God’s people cried out, “O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David.”
But Psalm 89 reminds us that we cannot trust appearances and experiences. What seems to be is not necessarily what is. Yes, it surely seemed as though God had broken his promise about David’s line, but in fact he was doing exactly what he promised. “If your sons forsake my law…, I will punish them…, but I will not take my love from him nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.” The question was not, will Yahweh keep his promise? It was rather, how long will it be until we see that promise come to fruition? With God, it is never a question of if, but of when. We may be confused and angry about his timing, but we should never doubt his love and faithfulness.
How long, O Lord? Until God sent an angel to break the silence. Until God moved into this earth in a way that boggles the imagination. Until these words, “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” Indeed, he will reign over the universe, because “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” to Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of the Most High.
Psalm 89 helps us celebrate the birth of that Son in a unique way. It enables us to claim the promises of God, even when it seems that God has broken them. As we sit in our disappointment and despair, Psalm 89 reminds us that it may take God longer than we think is loving. But when he finally comes to our aid, it will boggle our minds. To Mary’s amazed, “How can this be?” the angel responded, “nothing is impossible with God.”
The God who sent his Son to reverse the fortunes of his people will also reverse what seems to be his own silence and inactivity. ”O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?” It’s right there, in the manger of Bethlehem. It’s right there, in that baby, who is Christ the Lord, the eternal Son of David whose kingdom will never end.
To help children (and adults) grasp the idea that things aren’t always what they seem to be in the Kingdom of God, it would be very helpful to show the kids an optical illusion, either in a children’s sermon or on an overhead screen. The best one would be that mass of vertical and horizontal sticks that look like nothing, until you tilt your head a little or focus your eyes in a different way. Then you suddenly see the word, “Jesus,” spelled out in the middle of the meaninglessness.
Nearly everyone in your audience will relate to the ubiquitous question asked by children at the beginning of a long trip. “Are we there yet?” When the patient parent explains that it will be a long time before we’re there, the inevitable follow up is, “How long will it be?” While not downplaying the pain of suffering saints, it is important to assure folks that God’s sense of timing is not ours. Like every good parent, his love and faithfulness give us assurance that he will get his children safely home.
Author: Scott Hoezee
How does one say goodbye? Paul faced that in every letter he wrote but perhaps his most curious—and in its own way most moving—farewell comes at the end of Romans 16. Actually all of chapter 16 is an extended farewell. In fact, for this sermon starter I am going to widen out the Lectionary text and suggest you preach on the whole chapter. You absolutely need verses 1-24 really to “get” this chapter. The important part here is not simply the doxological ending but the warm and personal run up to it.
Because in these verses Paul did what he so often did when signing off on a letter: he got very personal. Most of the time Paul’s letters seem impersonal–in fact, they don’t even seem like letters most of the time. But the conclusions are good reminders that this is correspondence addressed to specific individuals the same as all our letters and emails are today. In Romans 16 Paul names not less than thirty-three people in Rome to whom he wanted a special personal greeting to be extended. As Fred Craddock once observed, Paul asks that the letter receiver say “Hello” to all those folks but in his heart, Paul knew he was just as likely saying “Goodbye.”
On this Fourth Year B Lectionary Sunday in Advent we have a curious combination: in the Gospel reading from Luke 1 we have the angel Gabriel saying “Hello” to the young girl Mary. Now in the Epistle reading for this same day we have Paul saying “Goodbye” to a lot of people who came to faith because of Mary’s son, Jesus. Maybe taken together these passages remind us that Advent and Christmas are never just about generic humanity. It’s always personal. It was for Mary. It was for Paul when he wrote his letters.
Indeed, if ever you needed a reminder that Paul had a pastor’s heart, his ability to name so many specific people ought to provide it. So when in Romans 3 he wrote, “Righteousness comes from God through faith to all who believe,” he was thinking of real people whom he loved. When he famously wrote in chapter 8, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ,” he was rejoicing over the salvation of not a faceless, anonymous mass of humanity but over the salvation of Priscilla and Aquilla, of Mary and Julia, of Rufus and Urbanus, of dearly loved people Paul could call by name.
Sometimes when reading Paul’s letters it’s easy to see this as dry theology. But the personal way by which Paul concluded his letters reminds us that this was not the case–even as he wrote, Paul was visualizing the faces of real people whom he loved. That may also be why Paul apparently concluded some of his letters in his own handwriting. Scholars believe Paul had a problem with his vision and so it is very obvious in almost every letter that he utilized the services of an “amanuensis” or secretary who took dictation from Paul. In Romans 16:22 Paul’s scribe for this particular letter–someone named Tertius–inserted his own greeting to the Christians at Rome. But at times Paul took the quill himself. “See,” he sometimes wrote, “this is in my own hand now as a sign that this all comes from also my own heart.”
Even the diciest and most complicated of Paul’s thoughts were always in the service of pastoral care for real people whom he loved. That’s also why he frequently concluded with encouragement that the people of God be united, as in Romans 16:16 when he urges them to share “a holy kiss” with one another as a sign of mutual love. But always, always he came back to grace, to a reminder of why these people had an never-ending reason to give God the praise in the best doxology they could muster.
When Romans opened, Paul declared, “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God that saves all who believe.” Now he bookends this letter by returning to that precious gospel, which is the proclamation of a great mystery revealed in Christ. And what is that mystery? It is the mystery of grace. It is the gospel truth that when it is all said and done, God saves people not according to their merits, not because of their background, piety, skin color, ethnicity, or high moral standards but just by grace alone and against all odds.
This was a mystery so great that God had to literally knock Paul flat on his back one bright afternoon to get it through his thick skull. He had been known as Saul in those days and was the most-feared persecutor of the early church. No one had broken up as many churches as had Saul. No one had ever dragged as many women away by their hair as had Saul. No one had arrested more Christians than had Saul and he had even been a consenting participant in the dreadful murder of the church’s first deacon, Stephen. What was behind all that vitriol and violence? A firm belief that Saul knew exactly who was who in God’s grand scheme of things. Pious, observant, highly moral Jews like the Pharisees (and Saul was a chief Pharisee) were the good guys going straight to heaven. Everyone else (starting with that shabby and morally sloppy rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth) were the bad guys who needed to be rooted out like a cancer.
That’s how Saul thought until one day God crashed into his life with a truth so profound as to qualify as a kind of mystery: it’s all by grace, Saul. And just to prove it–and to show that God has a sense of humor–Saul was renamed Paul and was then given the life-long commission of proclaiming the utterly free nature of salvation to Gentiles, to non-Jews, to the very people Saul had once deemed to be the unsalvageable scum of the earth. As Frederick Buechner so deftly put it, “Paul set out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ!” Paul had to eat crow the rest of his days, proclaiming that everything he had believed once upon a time was bogus, a lie, the opposite of what he now knew to be the truth of grace.
Saul had always pictured the kingdom of God as a highly exclusive “Members Only” club with a restricted membership. Paul concluded Romans by hoping that nothing less than “all nations” on the earth would believe God’s gospel. Saul saw salvation as a simple, straightforward formula, as sensible as 2+2=4. Add up your merit points, subtract your demerits, and if you came out ahead, you were in. Paul saw salvation as so sublime he could only fall back in wonder at what he ended up calling the “mystery” of it all.
Saul saw God as kind of the senior partner in a firm in which Saul was himself a key player whom God needed to keep everything tidy and in order. God as senior partner surely garnered Saul’s respect but their relationship was pretty much all business. Paul saw God as the font of such a supreme grace that he knew he would never be finished in singing doxologies to him. When you see your senior partner, you greet him with due decorum. When you see the God of all grace, you fall down to your knees and begin to sputter glad thoughts that are finally too exuberant for rational speech!
When Paul wrote about the gospel, he did so with the eagerness of a parent who couldn’t wait to give a gift to his child. Have you ever experienced that? You buy a present for someone and you become so eager to see his or her reaction that you regret that Christmas Day is still a while off. But when the day comes when the wrapping paper comes off, you discover that it is your heart that is racing in your chest. You just can’t wait to give the gift. That’s how Paul wrote and that’s what I’ve wanted to do all along–eagerly to give and re-give and then give yet again the gift of grace as it comes through the proclamation of the gospel.
Paul is so exuberant that he actually leaves this passage somewhat incomplete, at least grammatically. Verses 25-27 are just one long Greek sentence. Grammatically speaking, however, it is technically a sentence fragment: “God” is the subject but there is no verb to go with it. It’s the equivalent of saying something like, “The mailman, whom we all know . . .” It’s not a complete thought.
Of course, Romans 16:25-27 does make sense but I like that it’s technically incomplete. The very incompleteness of the sentence is like an indication that the work of praising God in lives of doxology never ends–it goes on and on and on. And it goes on and on and on in the lives or real people with real names. Rufus, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Julia, Hermes, Olympas: all of them.
All of it is doxology. All of it constitutes praise. All of it flows from the one grace of God in which each of us has been established in Christ.
“Don’t call it a list!” That is the refrain from a classic Fred Craddock sermon on this passage from Romans 16. It is filled with Craddock’s signature wit, humor, and keen pastoral insight. I highly recommend taking the 20 minutes to give it a listen.