Getting the scandals in the right order
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(Romans 1:1-7 ESV)
“Say’s who?” “Who are you to tell me?” No doubt we’ve heard the phrases or their equivalents at various times. We challenge the speaker’s authority to speak to us; to make claims over us; to get us to do things. In the military, this sentiment is no doubt discouraged from basic training onwards but even so, I suspect, that the thoughts can still be there. Among children, it can be a sign of sibling rivalry as they work out how to relate to each other; among married couples it may be a sign of something serious.
Communication theory recognises these situations and questions and prepares. When the authority of the speaker or your place in the relationship is not in doubt then communication is accepted at face or ear value. In other circumstances then both speakers and hearers need to quickly work out the relationship at that moment and what is going on.
Who are you when you speak? Which hat are you wearing? Which role are you performing? Why should I listen to you?
Our second reading this morning was Paul’s opening words in his letter to the Christians at Rome. We sit here in the 21st century and know what he wrote – all 16 chapters of it – but at that moment when his letter was first read out – all the Christians at Rome would have known was Paul’s reputation – devout Pharisee, persecutor of the Way (as the Christians were first called), now apostle to the gentiles proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Saviour, Lord, and God. Writing about 55AD and probably at Corinth, Paul wants to work in Italy and eventually go westwards to Spain and he needs a base of operations – hence he writes to the Christians at Rome.
And since you never get a second chance at a first impression, he puts his best foot forward in writing and he steps aside, bows down, gets out of the way so that Jesus can be seen. Paul, is a servant or a slave of Christ Jesus, and therefore his message and his work are all under the authority of another. He doesn’t claim personal prominence but points to God’s good news – promised by prophets – and now revealed in a person – Jesus. Paul describes Jesus as a descendent of David and as one declared to be the Son of God.
Jesus is truly a human being and yet he is also declared to be – and Paul is declaring this – the Son of God. There’s not 2 people here – not half human half divine – a demigod arrangement – one person is both. And the reason for this? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead!
This seems out of kilter with the thrust of our first reading and the gospel which both point to the sign of God’s action as a virgin conceiving and bearing a son. In Isaiah we have an apparently normal occurrence – a virgin conceives and has a son – and God will be with his people.
In Matthew we have the not-unfamiliar situation of a pregnancy outside of the proper and legal relationship. We assume the biology is still working – Joseph certainly did – he knew he wasn’t the father – this time a virgin conceived outside of marriage – it happens still today – but in Joseph’s case he was going to walk away by sending Mary away – she can have her kid, he just won’t be involved. Of course, as we know the 16 chapters of Romans, so we know the details of Matthew as well, and we know that Joseph doesn’t leave Mary but marries her and accepts the scandal with her because they both claim that Mary is still a virgin when she gives birth to Jesus. This Virgin Birth remains one of the stumbling blocks for many people in considering Christianity because it defies biology.
And in Romans, Paul starts his letter clearly with a statement about Jesus – truly human yet also divine – and where you might expect Paul to mention the Virgin birth he points to something else – the resurrection of the dead.
Isaiah and Matthew speak to us chronologically – in history – telling their story in the usual sequence – birth leads to growing up leads to adulthood leads to death – while Paul speaks to us theologically and gives us the reason why we should listen to Isaiah or Matthew or Paul himself or me today or any preacher or teacher who claims to speak about or for God – this Jesus who is born at Christmas rose from the dead, never to die again, is with humanity still today. Christianity is not a history lesson but a news flash – Jesus is here now!
If the world is going to trip over theology, then make sure they hear the stumbling block for what it is:
– a virgin conceives? that can happen still today – honeymoon pregnancies do occur
– a virgin conceives and is still a virgin – hmm, modern IVF technology might make that possible
– a woman gives birth to a divine being – a number of religions have that story
– gods live and grow and walk among us – not uncommon in some religions
– how about – the God of the universe humbles himself and is born into his own created world for the express purpose of sacrificing himself through suffering, defilement and curse, so that having rescued his creation he will rise from the dead and live with his people for ever giving them the new life he has won for them?
And the religions stand still disbelieving ‘such nonsense’. The Athenians mocked Paul when he told them (Acts 17). Much of the world is the same today.
We celebrate Advent and Christmas because Jesus has come into our world – is here now – and one day will return for all to see. We speak about a virgin birth and Christmas not to prove that Jesus is God but because these accounts do not stand in the way of the scandal of the cross and the empty tomb. In fact the Christmas “mini scandals” stand as early indicators that God is active in this world in ways we can’t expect or control. He wants all people to live with him – to be loved by him – to love him – and this is lived out as in all relationships through faithfulness and obedience.
God is still active – the mini scandals continue – I, bring you God through words, through water, through bread and wine – who am I? – who is Paul? who are you? God is still active in this world bringing his new creation crashing into the old one. That’s what you learnt in your Confirmation Sam, Zach, and Josh. There is forgiveness for sins – for you. There is hope in all circumstances – for you. We can be pray and rule with God. Our lifestyle is marked by obedience but also maybe suffering. We praise God for his dealings with us. And when look to see God – we all want to see! – there we find a book called the Bible, water, bread and wine – and there is Jesus in our lives.
It is always a good time to tell of the hope and the faith we have in Christ. You, three, do that formally today. Tomorrow and for the rest of us we find our own words. Now is the time when we are obedient to Jesus. Our society may assist or hinder our living with its Christmas (or Easter) involvement but we seek to live with Jesus nevertheless. And when we speak – and encounter “Say’s who?” “Who are you to tell me?” – we can point out to them that the God they may fear or try to dodge or ignore can’t be. God’s starting point with us all is grace and peace from the Lord Jesus.
The true scandal is the rejection of God’s grace and peace. The resurrection from the dead and the Christmas story of coming days tell us that God goes to incredible lengths to reach us … for life.
- Romans 1:1 - 7