Philip Casmer

Christmas Greetings

by Philip Casmer on December 18th, 2022
Romans 1:1-7

It’s only seven days away now… Christmas is almost here! If you were here yesterday, it sure felt that way – our children’s services full of Christmas songs and cheer. And maybe you’ve been hankering for it this whole Advent. While we made you patiently wait through prophecy readings, John the Baptist, even Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry. This morning finally you get a Christmassy reading from Matthew – finally! an angel! – and some of you are probably like, “‘Bout time, church! Target’s been into Christmas since Thanksgiving!” And you’ve been rocking Trans-Siberian Orchestra in your car since October and you just never stop watching sappy, romantic, Canadian Christmas movies… 

I love Christmas too… And we all anticipate it in some way or the other. Though, we should mark – for some it’s joyful excitement and childlike anticipation; for others it’s a bit of trepidation, loneliness, even disappointment. Either way, I think it’s fitting to say that, by Advent 4, it’s okay to look ahead. Maybe, even, it’s about time. Especially because today when we say, “Come, Lord Jesus…” it’s “as Immanuel” – the title most intimately connected to our Christmas celebration because it’s the one that meets us wherever we find ourselves.

And today, it’s the intro to Paul’s letter to Rome that guides us. Paul hadn’t met the Roman congregation yet, it seems. His letter was sort of a John the Baptist – prepared the way for Paul’s arrival and Messianic message. And you might say the invitation, summary and general, is meant to prepare the reader for everything that’s coming. And, this morning, it serves well in just that way as we look forward to Christmas. So, let’s take Paul’s intro as our Christmas Greetings… As though written right to us; so that we’ll be ready for everything that’s coming soon.

If you’ve never met somebody, it’s usually necessary to introduce… So, v.1, our greetings come from Paul. And he characterizes himself in three ways you see there. First is “a servant of Christ Jesus”, and God’s “called apostle…”, and last, “set apart for the gospel of God.” If we summarized their importance, perhaps it’d be this: As Paul introduced himself and God’s message, he calls himself “slave of Christ Jesus”; he wanted people to know that he had an allegiance; that his message demanded the same… And Paul had a calling – actually from Jesus himself – he drew Paul into a special group of men. But, for as important as they were, they were sent out to serve with a purpose. It’s like God looked down on Paul from above and drew a circle – said, “In this arena, Paul…here you work, here’s where your energy goes…” What arena? Paul’s whole life was for “the Good News of God.” 

Now, that rings of Christmas, doesn’t it? “Good news of great joy”? Paul tells the same thing as angels do! But what kind of “Good News”? A couple important things: v.2, “the gospel [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” Which ought to say to us, everything we’ve been doing in Advent celebrates this… Paul didn’t manufacture his message / what we’re coming to at Christmas isn’t from ‘round here – it’s from God himself. More, the message Paul carried and the thing we celebrate at Christmas isn’t new – it’s greatly old. All those words from Isaiah – “the mountain of the Lord” or “a shoot from Jesse’s dead stump” or “blooming deserts and miraculous healing” or “a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel…” Especially, words to Joseph that fulfilled those Isaiah words… This is the realization of things God had been saying through people, recording as his holy, divine, perfect Word, for a long, long time… Paul brought – we approach – a long-promised, prophet-borne Word of Good News… 

You know, we come to Christmas with all sorts of expectations and celebrations. Our world too: the most recent Canadian Christmas romance I watched said it like this, “It’s Santa’s Christmas. He transcends country and religion… You either believe in him… or you don’t. And we should never doubt the power of taking our little leaps of faith.” Christmas: beyond religion & faith in faith, with a little nutmeg sprinkled on top. Ooor, Christmas is really specifically about Jesus and that will be disappointing to some… 

Like that, Paul’s very specific. The Good News, our Christmas, in v.3, is “regarding [God’s] Son.” Remember, the title of this day is “Immanuel”. As the angel said to Joseph, “it means ‘God with us’.” The Good News we’re going to hear is about God’s Son – about whom certain things are true… Like that we have to say things like “as to his earthly life…” Which we didn’t say about you when you were born. They were expecting a human baby – unless you came out a turtle, we’d say nothing but “Hooray!” But when God is born…ah, then we have more to say. Something to reflect that the 2nd person of the Triune God (God’s Son), who is God’s creative Word, who stands outside of history and time, that he made a decision to enter it? The one without beginning or end, would become and take on a beginning himself… In that unique Christmas-way we call incarnation – that God himself took on a human nature – he was enfleshed… The Son of God from eternity became Jesus in time, “a descendant of David.” Just as Matthew recorded it in his gospel, a human genealogy all the way down to Mary & Joseph – so that God’s Son, borne on prophet-words, conceived by God’s Spirit, would be born

And it gets even more specific in v.4 because this one is so much more than just a human… “[T]hrough the Spirit of holiness [Jesus] was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” I think Paul’s noting a peculiar aspect of what we anticipate. He forecast it for his listeners, who might have assumed that Messiah when he came was to be the mighty king… Well, instead, the Son of God died. Turned out he was atonement, payment, his lifeblood their sacrifice to wipe sins clean. But, most importantly, through the holy power of God’s Spirit, Jesus was raised to life – resurrection. The kind of thing that is astoundingly unique, empowering & promising, and a real divisive claim. It’s sort of like Paul’s being “set apart” for the gospel – by his resurrection, Jesus was “appointed” or “openly known to be” the Son of God: it’s evident that he belongs in that category. In fact, Paul calls him “Jesus Christ our Lord” – like, yours and mine and those Roman’s – our master too. 

Pause with me for a moment. This is it. It’s no passing message Paul bears, no small thing we’re anticipating – it demands allegiance and it is very specific… Paul, slave to Jesus, was selected to serve up the good news that the Son of God was born into human history and died and rose and, by God’s great power, is fully known as God’s Son. And, in v.5, that’s who and what Paul serves – his calling – to bring people to know that Son of God in the same way, as their Lord as much as he is Paul’s… And, in short, that’s our Christmas too: Christ the Savior is born, and we are his servants all, and let heaven and nature sing it! 

There’s a lot – about Paul, who he is, what’s coming – epic things… But, is it fair to ask, “What about you?” This letter intro makes me think of other kinds of letters – overshare warning… I was talking with a friend about the standard Christmas family update letter the other day… Now, please keep sending me your year-end, life-summary, often-as-an-epic-poem family Christmas letters, where I’ll find out that Jimmy became an astrophysicist and Charlotte conquered Everest and your dog learned to type… But know, because I’m weak, I will be thinking about how my greatest accomplishment was painting my garage door… Maybe it’s not just me… 

If we’re introducing Christmas, you have to celebrate it. And you’re not Paul… Maybe you’re nobody. Or you feel that way. What’s your calling? Got one? Still looking? Is your life laden with epic direction like Paul’s? And does Christmas help? There’s a lot of expectation built up in the human trappings of the thing, isn’t there? And your experience might fall far short; might be more lonely than full or so different than you were expecting. And your own history, with a record of sin and failings… I wonder whether we wander through this season sometimes not really knowing who we are or where we’re headed and the intensity can make it even harder…

Ah, then this introduction is perfect… Paul’s intent introducing his letter isn’t to set himself apart from you… No, it’s to approach you. Because Paul used to be Saul with a filthy record, and his purpose is to tell the Good News – that, by the saving work of Jesus, God’s Son, our Christ, in forgiving love God uses characters of all kinds…  In fact, v.6, “you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Christ Jesus…”

And that’s enough right there… to be ready. Christmas is coming. And you do have a calling – to belong to Jesus – not to achieve anything particular in this here; not to have certain things; not to give or receive the right gifts — but to belong to him, to be owned by the one who became human to be with us. You’re called to understand, v.7, that all you in the Milwaukee-Metro (and any visitors from out of that geographic region) “are loved by God and called to be his holy people.” Which includes doing his will and calling Jesus master and the obedience of faith and… but most of all to know… Good News! – God’s Son has come and by his work declared you holy like that! Good News! – God’s Spirit is at work to fill you with Jesus’ risen life! Good News! – great joy is yours so that you can celebrate without any comparison or doubt or fear. Good News! – you and I can greet the coming Christmas because – by angels or shepherds, Mary oMagi… it’s full of God’s love that makes you his own and sets your hearts at treat to enjoy it. This is what it proclaims: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

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