The Mystery of the Incarnation

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Advent 4
December 13, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: The apostle Paul's letter to the Romans was written to Christ-following Gentiles who had attached themselves to Jewish congregations in Rome. Paul wants them to know that the incarnation means the reign of God has dawned - and not just for them but for the whole cosmos - and that they can live in the Kingdom of God today.

As we move toward Christmas Day and our celebration of the Incarnation, we turn to a short passage from the end of the letter that the apostle Paul wrote to some Gentiles in Rome. These verses are the closing words of the epistle. The whole passage is one long sentence, and it encompasses the history of salvation and the major themes of the whole letter to the Romans.

But before we try to unpack what Paul meant here - and particularly what he meant when he used a word that gets translated into English as "mystery" (Greek: mystírio ) - let's remember what the book of Romans is all about and let's particularly remember who Paul was.

About Paul

As we know, Paul started out life known as Saul. He was, by his own description, a member of the strict Jewish group, the Pharisees. The Pharisees tend to get a bad name among Christians today, but they were the deeply religious people of their time. They were the ones who took their faith tradition seriously. If, among them, there were also some hypocrites, at least today we can say there are no hypocrites among seriously religious Christians. Right? Yeah, well, maybe we can't say that.

At any rate, Saul had an experience of meeting the risen Christ and becoming one of his most devoted followers. No, Saul didn't become a Christian. There was no Christianity at the time. Rather, he became Paul, a Jew who believed that the long-promised Messiah had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos puts it this way: "Paul was a Jew who saw [being a Christ-following Gentile] as an authentic expression of Judaism and understood his mission to be one of bringing about the fullness of the aspirations of the Jewish people for the benefit of all people; he was not seeking to found a new religion."1

The Jesus-followers

Indeed, it took decades - in some places as long as 100 or more years - for Christianity to separate decisively from Judaism. So the book of Romans is a Jewish story that we now think of as a Christian story. It is written by a Jewish follower of Jesus to Gentiles in Rome, Gentiles who also had become followers of Jesus. These Gentiles had attached themselves to Jewish congregations there as guests and were trying to figure out how and whether they fit in, given that many people in those congregations did not agree with them that Jesus was the Messiah.

Paul's job is to give those Christ-loving Gentiles advice about how to be good guests. Thus, earlier in the letter to the Romans we get the famous - and often misunderstood - chapter 13. There, Paul tells the Gentiles in Roman Jewish synagogues to be obedient to the leaders. Does he mean the emperor and other leaders of the Roman government? Hardly. We misinterpret that chapter if we think it's telling us today to believe that God handpicks our governmental leaders and, thus, we should be loyal citizens of the state no matter what.

Rather, what Paul is saying there is that the Gentiles in Jewish synagogues should be good guests. They should follow the customs there and pay the expected temple taxes, though Paul insisted they did not have to go through the conversion process (which for males meant circumcision) and become fully Jews. If they did that, he argued, it would mean that God was the God only of the Jews. Instead, Paul believed that with the resurrection of Jesus, the end of one age had come and the start of the next and final age had arrived, and in this new time, the God of Israel would be recognized as the God of all nations.

So that's the context in which we move to the very end of the letter to the Romans and read two verses that try to summarize the whole of the letter. It's a useful summary, but let's remember that it's just that and cannot fully capture all that has gone before it. It may be unfair to put it this way, but think of it as a profound smiley face emoji at the end of a long e-mail that is full of good news. Paul's ending is really a doxology. And, as we know, a doxology is simply a heartfelt praise of God.

The crossroads of history

Paul uses the term "my gospel," or "my good news," in his ending to the letter, but he means simply the gospel that he has been delegated, if not ordered, by Christ Jesus to preach. The good news is about Jesus, his resurrection and the defeat of death. Its source is not Paul but, rather, Jesus Christ himself, this Jesus who was both fully God and fully human.

Paul wants his readers to know that they stand at the very crossroads of history. All of history has been leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of the God-man Jesus. People before Jesus, Paul says, may not have understood that, but now the mystery is solved. This is the very consummation of history, and from now on, everything will be different even though the story still isn't quite at its conclusion. The reign of God, in other words, has broken in, even if it hasn't yet come in full flower.

But now we know what that reign will look like when it does fully arrive. It will be about compassion, mercy, justice, peace and love. Our job is to believe what Jesus said about the kingdom of God being at hand. How? We demonstrate in our daily lives what compassion, mercy, justice, peace and love look like. We know we can't, by ourselves, bring God's kingdom fully into being - that's up to God. But we can live in that kingdom this very day.

Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God

When Jesus proclaimed at the start of his ministry that the reign of God was at hand, he was giving his followers then - and his followers now - all they needed to know to live godly, fulfilling, meaningful lives. He was, in effect, urging his followers to follow the words of the prophet Micah: "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."2

So now we must ask what it means to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Does it mean just showing up here each Sunday and singing our favorite hymns? Does it mean fulfilling our annual pledge to the church budget? Well, all those things are good - so please keep doing them. But that's not the core of it.

Rather, acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God means actively caring about people in poverty enough to help them break out of it. It means visiting the prisoners. It means being good stewards of the Earth so that we help to fix - not add to - the environmental degradation we see all around. It means helping to create a criminal justice system that is free of racial bigotry. It means standing for truth even when our political leaders seem more interested in self-serving lies.

Friends, Advent, our time of waiting, is about to give way to Christmas, our time of joy about the mystery of the eternal God breaking into time. As we sing our carols, enjoy our lighted trees and wrap our presents, let's also remember that the Incarnation calls us to allow ourselves to be used as God's hands and feet and heart so that we may celebrate the coming of the joyful, grace-filled, generous reign of God in our midst.

A baby was born for us. But then he grew up and - by his life, his love, his suffering and his defeat of death - he has shown up how to live. And what does this child in the manger who became the man on the cross and then the resurrected Christ require of us? "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

That is the cosmic mystery about which Paul spoke to the Romans Gentiles who were part of the Jewish community there. But that mystery is a mystery no longer. The Christ light has revealed to us its meaning, has deputized us to proclaim this mystery of faith to everyone: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. And even beyond that, Christ needs us - not because the church has a mission but, rather, because a mission has the church. So let's be about that mission.