“Now may the God who gives endurance and encouragement allow you to live in harmony with one another, according to the command of Christ Jesus, so that you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with a united mind and voice. Therefore accept one another, just as the Messiah also accepted you, to the glory of God. For I say that the Messiah became a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises to the fathers, and so that Gentiles may glorify God for His mercy. As it is written: Therefore I will praise You among the Gentiles, and I will sing psalms to Your name. Again it says: Rejoice, you Gentiles, with His people! And again: Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; all the peoples should praise Him! And again, Isaiah says: The root of Jesse will appear, the One who rises to rule the Gentiles; the Gentiles will hope in Him. Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:5-13 HCSB https://bible.com/bible/72/rom.15.5-13.HCSB)
Life is busy around our house, right now. We are trying to get ready for Christmas. We have food to prepare, gifts to finish making or to buy and wrap, and we need to clean and prepare for our guests to feel welcome and loved. While I certainly enjoy this time of year, all of the “hustle and bustle” of getting ready can be a bit overwhelming. In addition to all of the normal stuff, we have several young additions to our family that require attention and help – a six month old grandson and a two week old great granddaughter. However, the sound of children excited about Christmas is worth all of the time and effort.
One of my goals, as a grandfather, is to make certain that my grandchildren know that there’s more to Christmas than the newest toy they might receive or Santa’s impending visit. I want them to know that Christmas is about the gift that God gave to us, His Son – Jesus. Sometimes, that’s hard to get across to the six year old, let alone to the two year old. That’s really evident, right now, because the two year old, Lincoln, has learned a new phrase just in time for Christmas and quite appropriate for this ongoing struggle – “but I want it.” I won’t go into all of the myriad of ways he has discovered to use this phrase, but it is getting used – a lot.
Doesn’t that describe our relationship struggle with the truth about Christmas? God telling us what He sent Jesus to do and how He intends to accomplish redemption and what Christmas is really about and we respond – “but I want it!” I mean, the commercialism of Christmas in modern America is not a cultural accident. It really is a byproduct of our selfish desires and we’ve fully embraced it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy receiving gifts. We all do. But we’ve lost sight of the main point. It’s not about receiving a gift, it’s about giving a gift and not necessarily one we’ve purchased, either. It’s about giving the gift of love, friendship, togetherness but, mostly about giving hope and joy. The real gift of Christmas is the gift God gave us of a Savior and of our hope and joy in Him – a life in which the promise of God’s love and His transforming peace and presence are fulfilled.
We are accepted by God and now live in response to His acceptance by accepting others rather than striving to be accepted by Him by being trying to be good and failing terribly. Those who try to live like this, being good enough to be acceptable to God, find that our differences of opinion and life choices are insurmountable. But when we grasp the truth of God’s mercy and justification, that we are accepted in spite of our deficiencies and flaws, we are then able to love and accept others with their deficiencies and flaws. Wait. You really expect me to love others in the manner we are loved by Christ? No, not me. He expects you to.
In this week’s focal passage, Paul echoes these same themes of the fulfillment of God’s promises. He reminds us of our acceptance in and unity through the promised Messiah whose birth we celebrate each Christmas. In addition, he also points us toward the hope of a life lived in harmony with one another through our common faith and obedience to Christ’s commands which results in, what Paul calls in our focal passage, unity of mind (thought, belief) and voice (praise, worship). That’s how Paul puts it, but this is how Jesus put it:
“I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17:20-23 HCSB https://bible.com/bible/72/jhn.17.20-23.HCSB)
Did you catch that? Jesus prayed for the church’s unity “so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as (loved in the same manner) You have loved Me.” The Father loves us like He loves Jesus and the church’s unity of mind and voice are essential in SHOWING the world the identity and divinity of Christ. We need to let that sink into our hearts and penetrate our souls. The evidence for the world of the truth of Jesus’ divinity rests on our unity with Him, with God and with each other. Unfortunately, the church seems to have spent more time and effort disproving this rather than proving it. Unity doesn’t mean we don’t have differences but it does mean we don’t let our differences divide us.
Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church of the 1960’s and 70’s, I watched as we emphasized unity within our own denomination even while we emphasized and fueled efforts of division and separation from others. Legalism often does that to you. Just consider the Pharisees and Saducees. The only thing that brought them together was their shared hatred of Jesus. Legalism bolsters and builds your view of self even while it discounts and destroys your view of others. But, shouldn’t we stand firm on our statement of faith and in our biblical beliefs? Absolutely, but shouldn’t those beliefs include this prayer of Christ as recorded in John 17 and Paul’s admonition in Romans 14 and 15? Paul’s approach in this passage is the exact opposite, “accept one another, just as the Messiah also accepted you, to the glory of God.”
Rupert Meldenius, a Lutheran theologian, put it this way: in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity (God’s love). Jesus put it this way, “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 HCSB https://bible.com/bible/72/jhn.13.34-35.HCSB)
Accept one another, just as the Messiah also accepted you… I’ve been accepted because of God’s mercy and by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Not because of my personal goodness or righteousness. I didn’t earn God’s favor, my acceptance and forgiveness are gifts of God’s grace and love. We talk of love but, unfortunately, we aren’t often known for our love. To be fair, some fail to recognize God’s love (charity) because it comes wrapped in “gift wrap” they don’t readily recognize. For example, “you’ll find the baby (God’s gift – the Messiah) wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The Pharisees failed to recognize God’s gift because it was wrapped the wrong way (a humble servant) and didn’t fit their assumptions or resemble their expectations (a conquering warrior-king).
It happened then and it still happens today. Many in our culture don’t recognize or accept God’s gift of love because of how it is perceived or “wrapped”. Sometimes that’s due to how we present Christ and sometimes it is because of their expectations and assumptions. But regardless of those expectations and assumptions, the love believers have for one another should resemble the love Christ has for us, and that will be obvious and evident to all people. At least, it will be when it is present and real in our fellowship. Jesus promised as much – by this all people will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
Paul then takes God’s gift of Jesus and shows us His original intent, to include all men in His redemptive plan. He tells us, “the Messiah became a servant of the circumcised (Jews) on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises to the fathers (the Covenant), and so that Gentiles (the rest of us) may glorify God for His mercy.” We aren’t an afterthought in God’s eternal plan, we’ve been in His plan from the very beginning. Paul demonstrates this with his use of four separate Old Testament quotes: Psalms 18:49, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalms 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10.
Each of these quotes specifically references praise with the first referencing the Psalmist praising God among the Gentiles, the next two referencing Gentiles actually praising God and the final speaking of God’s Messiah rising to rule over the Gentiles and the Gentiles placing their hope in Him (which results in praise). While there are many other references similar to these to support God’s plan to redeem the Gentiles through His Messiah, Paul’s point appears to be that each section of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Law (the Deuteronomy reference), the Prophets (the Isaiah reference) and the Writings (the Psalms references) all support Paul’s position – God had always planned on redeeming the Gentiles through His promised Messiah – God’s Word affirms it.
I would simply remind of you of the words spoken by that messenger angel on that first Christmas night: “Don’t be afraid for I bring you Good News of great joy for all peoples (or all of mankind). 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.” You might prefer the way Paul puts it in our focal passage: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The God of hope filling us with all joy and peace as we believe in Him, leaving us overflowing with hope through the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit within each of us.
Why would joy and peace leave us overflowing with hope? Well, isn’t that what we really want and need? We might call it “happiness” but it really is a sense of deep joy and lasting peace. Deep, abiding joy and all encompassing, lasting peace that are not the result of our current circumstances. If our joy and peace are circumstantial then it will ebb and flow based on our current circumstances. Up one minute, down the next. Joyous one moment, despondent the next. What we need, and truly desire, is a sense of deep joy and abiding peace that stays with us even in the midst of difficult circumstances. No, we need that sense of joy and peace ESPECIALLY in the midst of difficult circumstances. The only one who can bring that kind of joy and peace is God and it comes through faith, believing in and completely trusting Him.
There is no feeling worse than the loss of hope. The loss of hope leaves us in the grip of despair and there’s no place or feeling more physically destructive or emotionally debilitating than being in the throws of despair, feeling utterly hopeless. Today, we are seeing a significant increase in the suicide rate in America. While rates for 2020 are slightly lower than 2019, suicide is still the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34 in the US and among people aged 15-29 globally. While it is impossible to know the thoughts of those who take their own lives, anyone who has ever struggled with these thoughts know that the root cause is most often an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Obviously, we are in the midst of a hope crisis – not just in America but around the globe.
How can faith in God overcome a sense of hopelessness and fill someone with joy and peace? Simply put, whatever we’re facing is not too big or overwhelming for God. What scripture teaches us about God is that He cares and is always able to redeem our failures, forgive our mistakes and restore us to His path. As the Apostle John put it so aptly, “if we confess our sin, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, God is able and willing to forgive us, redeem us and restore us to living life in and with Him. After all, that’s what “Immanuel” means – God with us, among us, living with us and in us.
I’m sure you’ve probably heard that phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” You can’t undo your past, but you can decide to change and set a new course for your future and Jesus just happens to be in the “life changing” and redirection business. Don’t believe me? You obviously haven’t paid close attention to most of the Bible stories you were taught in Sunday School or even the one’s I tell in my sermons. The scriptures are full of human failures transformed by faith. In fact, just go read the stories about Jesus twelve disciples in the Gospels. Read how Peter betrayed Jesus (Matt. 26) or how James and John wanted to call down fire on a town in Samaria who didn’t welcome Jesus (Luke 9). Read the story of Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle and authored the letter we are studying (Acts 7-9) and how he contributed to the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
I can personally attest to God’s forgiveness and restoration. I know how much I depend on God’s mercy and plead for His grace. Without His grace and forgiveness I’d be hopeless and I would stand condemned before Him because of my sin. Listen to verse 13, again… “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Not overflow with hope because of your own power, your own abilities, your own goodness.. but overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just ask, just trust, just let Him give you what He promises – Himself. That’s the true gift of Christmas.