Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 20, 2020
Romans 16:25-27 Commentary
I suspect that were Romans 16’s proclaimers to ask our hearers which of the Bible’s books are the most “theological,” at least some of them would answer “Romans.” Its themes of human sinfulness, righteousness from God and the need for appropriate responses to God’s grace run throughout this letter. Romans is also Paul’s letter that contains one of the epistles’ most famous but mysterious verses: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (8:28).
Isn’t it interesting, then, that Paul concludes this letter that he so packs with good theology and pastoral care with a doxology? That his very final word to Rome’s beleaguered Christians is, “To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen?”
Of course, Paul has alluded to glorifying God throughout this letter. Already in chapter 1 he characterizes human sinfulness as knowing God, but failing to glorify or thank God. So right at the beginning of his letter to Roman Christians, the apostle lays down a marker of what it means to be truly human: to respond to the knowledge of God with praise and thanksgiving.
Yet as L. Ann Jervis points out in the December 21, 2008 “Working Preacher,” such glorification of and thanks to God remains an ideal. People, after all, naturally act as if God doesn’t even exist. So we naturally direct our glory and thanks to each other rather than the living God. Even Christians sometimes struggle to glorify for who God is and thank God for what God does.
In fact, people have so distorted the nature of praise that, as John Frederick notes in December 20, 2020’s “Working Preacher,” we naturally assume Paul’s call to give glory to God is grounded in God’s neediness or arrogance. We wonder what sort of neurotic god would need this kind of affirmation and recognition not only from people, but also from the whole world.
Paul understood, however, that it’s not that God somehow craves God’s creation and creatures’ praise. Praise and thanks to God is appropriate because God deserves all the thanks and praise that creation and those creatures can muster – and far, far more. What’s more, God creates people in God’s own image in part in order to give thanks and praise to God. So Paul might argue that people are seldom being more fully human than when we offer God “glory forever through Jesus Christ.”
God, in fact, has graciously freed Jesus’ followers to offer that praise. God has equipped God’s beloved sons and daughters, in fact “all nations” (26) to respond to God’s amazing grace with “obedience.”
God, after all, opened the way to such faith, obedience and praise by revealing what verse 25 calls “the mystery hidden for long ages past.” By that, as Jervis notes, Paul isn’t speaking of the gospel itself as mysterious. It isn’t like a crime to be solved or a puzzle to be assembled. In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, as well as elsewhere in the Scriptures, “mystery” refers, instead, to something that human sinfulness had previously been unable to recognize or perceive.
Scholars disagree on just what constitutes this “mystery.” In his fine 2014 Sermon Commentary on this passage, my colleague Stan Mast, for example, suggests that it’s that God will save Gentiles as completely as the Jews. That’s certainly a biblically-appropriate understanding that can, with the Spirit’s leadership, take a proclamation of Romans 16:25-27 in an appropriate direction.
For this Commentary’s purposes, however, I’d suggest that the “mystery” of which Paul speaks here is simply God’s gracious character and nature. After all, it’s not as if the gospel of God’s amazing grace hadn’t existed before the Son of God took on human flesh at measured time’s pivotal moment. God’s grace is, in fact, at least arguably older than sin. That grace has been operative, after all, since near the beginning of measured time.
But at least some of God’s people had difficulty recognizing that grace. They came to understand God as largely a God who judged not the basis of God’s loving mercy, but faithful obedience. While they recognized God as merciful, some of God’s people thought of God as more “legalistic.”
So Romans 16’s proclaimers might explore with our hearers a kind of parallel between the “mystery” of God’s grace and COVID-19. After all, both God’s grace and COVID operated even before people fully recognized and understood them – though God’s grace has existed infinitely longer than COVID.
Researchers, statisticians and others are working 24/7 to uncover some of this pandemic’s “mysteries” so that they can more quickly recognize it as well as understand its origins, nature, most effective treatments and vaccine against it. We’re all looking forward to the day when God equips people to uncover COVID’s secrets by revealing and making known this terrible virus.
While some people failed to recognize it, God, in fact, revealed God’s “pre-existing condition” that is grace through what verse 26 calls “the prophetic writings.” People like Isaiah, Amos and Malachi proclaimed God’s grace as surely as did Paul, John, Peter and Jesus. So the gospel was only unveiled to Rome’s Christians in the sense that they didn’t recognize it until the Holy Spirit empowered Paul to proclaim it to them and them to recognize it.
So this mystery is as Jervis notes, no longer a mystery because humanity somehow figured it all out. God’s ways are no longer mysterious only because God has graciously chosen to unveil them.
In the Jesus’ whose birth most Christians plan to celebrate this week, we see God’s gracious character most fully. We see and proclaim God as the One who cared about God’s creation and creatures enough to take on human form and nature, while still remaining perfectly faithful and obedient.
In fact, throughout Advent we proclaim that Jesus Christ didn’t just come to be born in Bethlehem, live and die for his followers’ sins, as well as rise from the dead to God’s glory and for his adopted brothers and sisters’ eternal well-being. That same Christ is coming again to make all things new.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers announce that God has graciously uncovered for God’s people in “all nations,” in Rome and Jerusalem, Newfoundland and Nebraska, Berlin and Brasilia what we failed to recognize for millennia. We proclaim Jesus Christ’s coming to save sinners in Karachi and Caracas, Lagos and Lahore.
This Sunday’s Advent worship celebrates God’s amazing grace that empowers people in San Salvador and Seoul to “believe” (26). Even now God’s dearly beloved sons and daughters are responding in Beijing and Baghdad are obediently looking forward to Christ’s return.
All of this and more offer all the reasons Jesus’ followers need to both now and always to praise and thank God. So perhaps this Sunday God’s adopted sons and daughters can at least begin to turn from Advent’s hymns of longing such as “Come, thou Long-Expected Jesus” to Christmas carols’ “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
And perhaps near the end of 2020’s utter strangeness and the beginning of 2021’s complete mystery, we can keep on singing those Christmas carols about the mysteries of God’s ways that Christ’s coming has unveiled. After all, while much about the present and future is highly mysterious to us, God’s grace to us in the come and coming Jesus Christ sends us into that future singing about God’s amazing grace and gracious ways.
I’ve already referred to Stan Mast’s fine December 15, 2014 Sermon Commentary on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. Near its end he asks how we can “glorify the God who already has all the glory.” What, Mast muses, can that mean?
Mast tells of reading a report about the first official scrimmage of the Cleveland Cavaliers after LeBron James rejoined that team back in 2014. James was and, arguably, remains the best player in the National Basketball Association. People and organizations have honored James and given him awards ever since he began to play basketball. He already has all that “glory.”
But the article described how glorious James was in this first scrimmage — how he passed, rebounded, dunked, shot, and defended. The article’s author noted how, in fact, the entire Cavalier team was better because he was there. “This report,” writes Mast, “proclaimed the glory of LeBron James in a way that made him seem even more glorious. His glory was magnified for all to see.”
That, concludes Mast, is something like what Paul calls us to do with God in our own lives and in the world. We give the already glorious God glory because of God’s grace that God most clearly displayed in Jesus Christ.
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