Willow Creek did not Meet for worship on December 18th, due to Icy conditions, but this is the sermon I would have given if we did.
Romans 1:1–7 (NRSV)
1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This world is filled with stresses. The holiday season does not really help all that much with the stress. There are bills to pay and expectations to meet. In reality it makes me wonder why we even celebrate Christmas. Why do we celebrate a time that is dark and dreary, expensive and filled with anxiety? What if things are not what they seem?
For hundreds of years the Jewish people anticipated the coming Messiah. This individual was to be the king of kings, the lord of lords. He was to bring in and fulfill the promise that was given to their ancestors’ generations before. This coming king was going to restore the hope of the people and give them the freedom to live as one people with their God. This was not only a hope or a dream but it was promised by the prophets of old. This promise did not just stop with the Jews because the prophets declared from the very beginning of the tribes of Jacob that this one family was going to be the light to the Gentiles. Meaning through them the entire world would have hope.
The world does not seem to have much hope. It seems every year that the world loses a little more hope almost to the point that hope is a diminishing commodity much like the cash in my bank account. Little by little I spend the hope and there is no return on the investment. We read the laws handed down from Moses, we read the words of the prophets and they tell us to live a certain way and that if we live that way the claim is that our life would be blessed. Funny thing about that blessed life, Abraham the father of the Hebrew people did not see the fulfillment of the promise. He was to be the father of a great nation, he had two children. One was provided by a slave and the other came while he was an elderly man and his wife was also in the golden years of life. For decades they lived with hope that was not seen, and when the promised child did come it seemed pretty hard to imagine a great nation. Yet he continued to live in faith.
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, was also given the promise of a nation and land, but he faced a great famine and he took his family to Egypt, settling in a land as far from the promise as he could get. This tribe did grow into a multitude, only to be enslaved by the people that once provided hospitality. How could one maintain hope when the promise is a great nation and you are living as a slave?
Eventually God delivered them from the bonds of slavery and they became the nation. They had a king that rivaled even the greatest empires in power though they were a fraction of the size. This king was David, and their God again promised that through this king this people would be a great nation and would become the light of the entire human race. David’s grandchildren saw the collapse of the nation instead of the expansion. They were promised one thing but they experienced the opposite. And slowly this divided nation crumbled and was conquered by outside forces and the people of God, who were to be the light of the world, were again exiled in chains.
Yet they lived with the hope of a coming king, a king who would bring about all the promised blessings that were passed down through the generations. They hoped yet for centuries this king did not come. Prophets told them about him, the teachers taught the children how to recognize him yet the coming king stalled. Imagine the feeling of the nation.
What would this group of people do as they waited for this king? Like us they saw that their hope was a diminishing commodity, they would not invest it unless there was a sure return. They began to spend their hope on the things the world valued instead of the things that they knew God valued. They became increasingly focused on their own desires. Pride, selfishness, lusts, idolatry took root and began to consume them. The people of God, the light of the world, became just another nation like every other. Their only hope was themselves and that was also the depth of their faith.
When our faith is placed in ourselves and our abilities our hope is a diminishing resource, because we cannot always accomplish everything. We have bad investments of our psychological, physical, and emotional resources which cause us to change our attitude and quite investing. For the most part we can actually make it through life quite well living like this, except for one thing our interpersonal relationships tend to suffer. When someone causes us harm we hold a grudge, when someone is encouraging we continue the friendship. As long as the relationship benefits us we continue. We become slaves to our lustful, greedy, and idolatrous desires. We place chains on ourselves and we think we are free, but we are only happy with more. The economic disciplines call this the law of diminishing returns. The world knows all about it yet it cannot break the chains.
So the Hebrews looked forward to the one that would break this cycle of bondage. They looked and waited. They studied and they interpreted the writings of the Law and Prophets. They interpret through the lenses of their chains, justifying conduct or losing all faith. They, like us, look at things through ideologies of man instead of the Word of God.
This is why Jesus the messiah came. He was the one anticipated, and through him we can see the truth of life with God. Jesus came as a baby that first Christmas, to grow and live a complete human life. Through Jesus we know how to live a complete life with God from childhood to our very death. But that life does not end there. Through his resurrection we have the hope that all things will be renewed and reconciled to God the Father.
This is why Paul begins this letter to the Romans with this hope. Jesus was the one anticipated through all of scripture, from the days of our first parent’s fall to the days of the restored temple and beyond. Jesus showed us true life, and thought Jesus we can live true life with God.
But what is that life? Paul calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ. Our English translations do not do this justice. Paul is not calling himself a butler of Christ, or the plumber of Christ. These are the ideas that come to mind when we think of servant or service. What he is saying is that his is a slave to Christ. A slave does not have personal rights, they are subject to the will of their master. They do not own property themselves but they may become stewards or care takers of their master’s property. Even though they may make decisions for the use of the property it is not their own, the profits of the investments go to the master and the master in turn provides for the needs of their slaves. Paul is saying that he is a slave to Christ, he does not own any property and has no rights outside of the will of his master. Everything Paul does is filtered through the life of Christ, every tent he made while on mission was an investment of Jesus’ property to expand the influence of Christ. Paul himself is no one without Christ.
Paul is a slave yet he also claims to have freedom or liberty in Christ. There is a conflict of ideas in language. He is a slave to Christ yet free, but mankind is free in themselves and a slave to their desires. Paul is content and says to live is Christ and to die is gain, and mankind says to live is self and to die is loss. The hope that Paul has does not diminish but only increases, the hopes of mankind in themselves only decrease. Our hope in Christ increases because Jesus took on complete human life though he was himself fully God, and he too on to himself the wages or chains that result from our selfishness, which is death. He went willingly to the cross, died, was buried, and on the third day rose from the grave with renewed life. Hope in humanity leads to death, hope in Christ leads to resurrection. This is the hope that we have in Christ, even when things seem to be going wrong in the world we know that we in Christ own nothing in ourselves, and all our investment results in profit for Christ. So whatever we invest for his glory will not return void but will be returned to life.
So during this season of anxiety and chaos as we prepare for and anticipate the holiday celebrating the birth and coming of our Lord and savior who took on life and death for us, I ask are we slaves to human greed, lust, and idolatry or are we slaves to Christ. None of us are true masters, we are all urged forward by something and serve it fully. So are we focused on the things of God or the things of man? One leads to life and resurrection the other will turn to dust. Who do you serve this Christmas?