Summary: We are the recipients of the greatest gift ever given. Paul tells us that part of that gift is our savior Jesus Christ, and that the other part of of that gift is the call to share the gospel with others. Will we give that gift this Christmas?
Paul's letter to the Romans is interesting. In fact, it's probably his most detailed and intriguing letter. Yet, when Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, he was writing to a church that he did not know personally and in which he had never been! When you think about the fact that all of Paul's other letters were written to churches he had visited and people he knew, this is quite amazing. It's most especially amazing that he would write to this church situated in the greatest city in the greatest empire of the world. Rome was the home of Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, whose official titles included "son of god," whose birthday was "good news," and who claimed the allegiance and the loyalty of the greatest empire the world had ever seen!
It seems strange that Paul, without any direct knowledge of the Christian church in Rome, would chose to send a letter there. But Paul knew exactly what he was doing, and we can only assume that as he wrote the opening words of this letter, the words we heard moments ago, that Paul chose his words carefully. He had an important message to share. Into the midst of this most renowned city, sitting pretty under the rule of Caesar, Paul is speaking a life-changing word: "Jesus is the true king, the world's rightful Lord, and it is vital that the Christians in Rome itself know this and live by it!"
This is the "gospel" as Paul sees it. In Paul's terminology, the "gospel" was not primarily a message about sinful human beings and how they attained justification and salvation. For Paul, the gospel was the sovereign message from God concerning Jesus the Messiah, God's unique son. This message wasn't just about "cleaning house," clearing up any moral dysfunction, and living life in a new way. No, the gospel Paul proclaims is news about God and about Jesus; news that this Jesus had become the spearhead of God's coming kingdom. This gospel was news that within this new age, the earthly powers of darkness and sin and death had been defeated and were now summoned to allegiance. The gospel was a command requiring obedience, much more than an invitation seeking response. Paul's gospel was a gospel of the incarnation. He told of a Jesus who was really and truly a man. He was really and truly one with the people he came to save. As one early Christian writer said, "He became what we are to make us what he is." Indeed this is good news.
Our lives change because Jesus Christ lives. That's the message that Paul is sending to the Roman church and to all of his readers! "You are who you are through this gift and call of Christ!" We are who we are through the gift and call of Christ!
On Christmas of 1998, I had just finished my first semester of college. In that first semester, among other things, I took an intro-level Chemistry class and an intro-level music class. I chose these two classes because I was trying to decide whether I wanted to major in Chemistry or in Music Education. Within just a few weeks, it was clear to me that Chemistry was not for me, and music was the way to go. I let my parents know my decision and asked them if they might be willing to get me a new trombone since I was going to spend a good portion of the next four years (and potentially the rest of my life) playing my trombone and using it in my chosen career path. They agreed and that Christmas I received a new trombone. But I also got something else that Christmas; a leather-bound United Methodist Hymnal. The one I use every week. The trombone I got that Christmas was a top-of-the line horn, and my parents were very generous for getting it for me. But the best gift I got that year, in fact, one of the best Christmas gifts ever was this Hymnal. And here's why I so appreciated that gift, and still do. In some way, the hymnal encompasses those things that are most important in my life: music, prayers, the church and especially the United Methodist Church, and the gospel story. In some way, this hymnal tells a story about who I am. I'm sure that you all have a similar possession as well; perhaps it was even a gift somewhere along the way.
We open a lot of gifts at Christmas-time. Children unwrap toys and games. Adults unwrap sweaters and gift cards. We all eat a little too much chocolate and sweets. But underlying the whole Christmas celebration is the gift of Christ. Like my hymnal, the gift of the Christ-child tells a story about who we are, but Jesus Christ is even more than that. This is the gift that fully and without question means the most in our lives. This is the gift that not only makes us who we are, but also shapes us into the people God intends us to be. This gift is the very essence of life; through Jesus Christ hope, peace, joy, and love are truly made possible! God in Christ Jesus has accepted humanity and offered us life that does not end; and not just any life, an abundant life full of grace and love, full of those things that matter most!