“Now we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves. Each one of us must please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even the Messiah did not please Himself. On the contrary, as it is written, The insults of those who insult You have fallen on Me. For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.” (Romans 15:1-4 HCSB)
Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist and professor who served as assistant curator of the American Museum of Natural History from 1946 until 1969, was once asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of a civilized society. The student expected her to talk about the presence of clay pots, hunting tools or religious artifacts. Instead, Mead responded that she believed the first sign of a civilized society was the presence of a fractured femur bone that was healed.
The femur is the longest bone in the human body and connects the hip to the knee and, without the advances of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest and care for the fractured femur to heal. In the animal kingdom, a fractured femur means the animal will die. They have no means to care for themselves, fend off predators or find food. But the presence of a healed femur in the skeletal remains of ancient people indicates that someone has helped them, stayed with them, cared for them. In that instance, they didn’t leave the injured and do what was best for themselves, they stayed and cared for the injury and the individual while providing protection and food. In other words, someone cared enough about them to help them survive.
“But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.”(Isaiah 53:5 HCSB)
Mead says she believes the sign of a civilized society is when it becomes evident that people help one another survive. Paul says the evidence of people who follow and obey God are, in essence, those who do more – those who follow Christ’s example of self-sacrificial service. Anthropologists would tell us that this “civilized action” developed because it ultimately resulted in benefit to the person who exhibited a caring response. In other words, they did it because they would get something more from it – we survive better together than alone. Quid pro quo – something for something. You help me, I’ll help you.
In previous verses we’ve studied, Paul has specifically identified how Christian brothers and sisters should care for and care about each other. However, he now shifts that focus and makes it much, much broader – “each of us must please his neighbor.” The focus is no longer on those within the church, but is now on the church’s neighbors – those outside the church. So, we aren’t just called to care about our own people, our family, but to also care about those outside our family of believers.
Whoa! Hold on there. You mean God wants me to show Christian compassion to and care about people I don’t know, people who may not share my faith and could have different or even conflicting beliefs to mine? Yes, that’s what he says. What? You don’t believe that’s Paul meant. Well then, how about these words from Christ: “Which of these three (the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan merchant) do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? ” “The one who showed mercy to him,” he said. Then Jesus told him, “Go and do the same.”” (Luke 10:36-37 HCSB)
But you need to notice that there’s another shift, too. Paul specifically mentions that the motivation for caring is not what we gain from it, but what our neighbor gains from it. While Mead contends that civilized society developed when we started helping one another because it benefited us, the Christian Church grows and develops when we help our neighbor even when it DOESN’T benefit us. We do so out of obligation to God. We do so in an effort to model our Master and because it benefits our neighbor. It is much easier to motivate people to care about one another when they see a personal benefit from their actions – that ‘quid pro quo’ factor – but we are being called to follow Christ’s example of service and self-sacrifice. The strong are being called upon to carry the burden for those without strength.
Whether they know it or not, our neighbors are desperately in need of our help. This becomes quite evident when Paul states, “even the Messiah did not please Himself. On the contrary, as it is written, The insults of those who insult You have fallen on Me.” Paul quotes Psalm 69, a Messianic Psalm, in which the Psalmist notes that the adversary’s insults hurled against God have fallen upon the Messiah. We hear that term, Messiah, but we often move right past it, almost flippantly. It means, promised One, God’s chosen, His anointed One. The ONE who will come from God and bring all of His promises to fulfillment or completion. “See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23 HCSB)
God among us, walking with us and even IN us…
“If you love Me, you will keep My commands. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive Him because it doesn’t see Him or know Him. But you do know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you. “In a little while the world will see Me no longer, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live too. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, you are in Me, and I am in you. The one who has My commands and keeps them is the one who loves Me. And the one who loves Me will be loved by My Father. I also will love him and will reveal Myself to him.” (John 14:15-21 HCSB)
Our neighbors need our help, our help encountering this Messiah – God with us. Simply put, the world completely misunderstands the message and purpose of Christmas. It isn’t to stare in wonder at the fact that a human baby was born in a stable and slept in a manger filled with straw. It is to stare in wonder at the fact that God Himself came into His creation in this manner. We didn’t need another “good” man to speak religious platitudes and challenge us to live better lives – the world has had more than enough of those. What they needed then, and what we still need today, is for God to live among us, to live within us, not just to challenge us to be better men and women but to transform us, empowering us to be men and women who live and love like God in the flesh, Jesus.
How do our neighbors encounter this transforming Messiah? Through God’s Word being read, spoken, proclaimed, sung, seen and encountered as it is lived out in the lives of Jesus’ followers. While God’s Word is true regardless of what you and I do or fail to do, our obedience bears witness to its truth, its power, its message and its promise – The Messiah. The promise of God isn’t just that something would happen or some event would come to pass but that He would come. Jesus is the absolute fulfillment and the complete embodiment of God and His promises. He didn’t come to tell us about God, to point the way to God, to speak the words of God but to bring God Himself into our midst.
In John 14, Jesus told the disciples “I am the way, truth and life. If you know me, you will also know My Father. Now you know Him and have seen Him.” Philip responded, “if you’ll just show us the Father, that’s enough for us.” Jesus told him, “have I been with you all this time without your knowing Me, Philip? The one who has seen Me HAS seen the Father.” God’s promises fulfilled because He came Himself to see them through to completion – “After this, when Jesus knew that everything was now accomplished that the Scripture might be fulfilled, He said, “I’m thirsty! ” A jar full of sour wine was sitting there; so they fixed a sponge full of sour wine on hyssop and held it up to His mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished! ” Then bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” (John 19:28-30 HCSB) Take a moment, go read Psalm 69 that Paul quotes in our focal passage – “as it is written, The insults of those who insult You have fallen on Me.” Take time to read the entire Psalm…
Did you see it? Do you see the tie to the John 19 passage I used above? Read Psalm 69:20-21 if you didn’t see it. The life of Jesus, His kindness, His love, His healing, His forgiveness and especially His mercy on others are all a part of God’s plan… but so are His suffering, His brokenness, His pain and despair and, yes, even Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ death are a part of God’s plan of redemption. “Insults have broken my heart, and I am in despair. I waited for sympathy, but there was none; for comforters, but found no one. Instead, they gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink… and then He said, IT IS FINISHED! Then bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” Finished, it means to have reached the intended goal or completed the assigned task.
Christmas isn’t just about the joy of the birth of a small baby boy to a young couple from Nazareth. It is about God fulfilling His promise, completing the task, finishing the job of redemption. It is about God’s love reaching it’s intended goal, our salvation. The Good News the angels announced was not just Jesus’ birth, but the fact that God was completing what He began before the dawn of creation. The Word became flesh, dwelt among us, and then bought our redemption. Those swaddling cloths that held baby Jesus were likely there to wrap the first born lambs, those spotless lambs fit for the altar of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple. The lambs and sheep that the shepherds watched and protected. Ironic? Not hardly. Just prophetic, because those cloths were used to wrap the first born Son, the spotless lamb of God in preparation for His sacrifice upon the altar of God.
As we prepare to gather and celebrate Christmas, we are living in the midst of what we consider to be one of the most challenging events in recent history – the COVID-19 Global Pandemic. While my parents and grandparents lived through multiple events that challenged their will to survive but simply proved to strengthened their resolve, my generation and those younger have faced relatively few of these types of events. Oh, we’ve seen war and armed conflict, financial downturns and fortune reversals and now we’re surviving a global pandemic, but nothing quite like my grandparents and parents. Let me illustrate:
My grandfather was born in 1901 and by the time he was a teenager the First World War had begun (20 millions deaths, more than half of which was among civilians) and was quickly followed by the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918 (global pandemic – 50 million deaths worldwide). Just a short eleven years later in 1929, when my grandfather was 28, the stock market would crash and usher in the Great Depression which was quickly followed by the rise to power of the Third Reich, Hitler’s Nazi regime, in 1933. Then in 1939 the world responded with the Second World War and America reluctantly joined them in 1941 after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor (estimates are 70-85 millions deaths, 50-56 million directly attributed to war – including civilian deaths, the rest were caused by disease or famine related to the war). Imagine hitting the prime of your life having survived this list of overwhelming tragedies.
I cite these statistics simply for context, not comparison. No sane person would ever wish tragedies like these upon another generation, and I won’t make that mistake. Today, America reached 800,000 deaths due to Covid and many of us feel like the weight of the events of the last two years make it hard to breathe, each day. In our focal passage, Paul says “whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and encouragement from the Scriptures.” Hope through endurance and encouragement from the Scriptures. How can hope flow from endurance and encouragement from the Scriptures? Because God keeps His promises.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had endured 400+ years of God’s silence. He may have been silent, but His promises had not failed. Take a moment, go read the closing chapter of Malachi… “for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and playfully jump like calves from the stall. You will trample the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Mal. 4:2-3) The day I am preparing… He may have been silent, but He wasn’t being still. He was at work, preparing for that day. Silently. Preparing.
“In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors! When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough. After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:8-20 HCSB)
Don’t give up, endure. Stick with Him. He’s not giving up on you, don’t give up on Him. His Word is full of encouragement, listen to it, trust it. When you trust His word you are trusting Him.
I hope and pray that you have a VERY Merry Christmas…