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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Romans 1:1-7
“Shine with Faith”
December 22, 2013 - Fourth Sunday in Advent

         I’m not sure exactly when the single word “Believe” started showing up as a Christmas slogan, but I imagine it happened about six years ago in connection with the Josh Groban Christmas song by that title. It’s hung on and when I perused the Christmas decorations at Fred Meyer the other day I noticed several ornaments adorned with that one word admonition, “Believe.”

         The natural question in response is of course, “Believe what?” Since the word is often accompanied by the image of Santa Claus, at least one possible answer is to believe in the jolly old elf in a red suit, with a white beard, who brings us presents. A different answer comes from Groban’s song, which suggests that you “Believe in what your heart is saying,” and, in a similar vein, “Believe in what you feel inside.” I guess that’s well and good if your heart is saying nice things and what you feel inside is warm and happy. However, if you are a sociopath or if you are really, really depressed, it would probably be better to find something to believe other than what your heart says or how you feel inside.

         You’ve all heard the admonition to “just believe” in other contexts besides Christmas. The phrase regularly shows up on television and in movies as characters find themselves in tough spots. “Just believe” or its sister phrase “just have faith,” is what our heroes and heroines must do if they are going to defeat the villain, rescue the orphans, save the world, or maybe just find a little girl’s lost kitty. Once again we might want to ask just what it is that our heroes are to “just believe,” and the answer appears to be something like, “Just believe that everything will turn out O.K. and it will.”

         All of that “believing” is not necessarily bad. It’s fun for little kids to believe in Santa Claus and I’m generally for it. Believing in yourself in the sense of having self-confidence is a good thing, though some of us could use more it and some of us, here I include myself, maybe a little less. And believing things will turn out well, being an optimist, is a nice balance to all the pessimists who are sure that everything is rapidly proceeding to Satan’s abode in a wicker conveyance.

         Yet we are here this morning, making ready in a couple days to celebrate Christmas, because we have different, more significant answer to that question, “Believe what?” As Paul begins a long letter to the church in Rome, he reminds them of what they believe and states that their belief, their faith, is the very heart and purpose of his life.

         In verse 1 of our text, the very first sentence of the letter, Paul identifies himself as a “servant of Christ Jesus.” In other words, he is not stating his belief in himself or in the general goodness of the world or in some mythical being. He is connecting his life to, and putting it in the use of, a real person, who walked and breathed upon this earth, and whose birth we are getting ready to celebrate on Wednesday.

         Throughout Advent we have heard what Paul states briefly in verse 2, that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world was predicted beforehand. The prophets, people called by God to speak God’s truth both for their time and for the future, wrote down in the Scriptures what was going to happen. Today we heard how Isaiah predicted that Jesus would be miraculously born from a virgin, and then in Matthew’s Gospel how the angel announced the fulfillment of that prophecy to Joseph.

         In other words, our belief, our faith, is not just a general faith in nice feelings inside us or in the goodness of the world. It’s a faith in a very specific story, a true story of how God sent His Son into the world to be our Savior. That’s why Paul moves from talking in verse 1 about the “gospel of God,” the “good news” of God, to verse 3 stating very carefully that this is the gospel, the good news “concerning his Son.”

         Folks, Christmas is not about how you feel inside. Christmas is not about family. Christmas is not about some sort of magic that happens on December 25. Christmas is not about giving in some general way, even wonderful giving like some of you have done for the poor and the homeless this year. Much of that may happen at Christmas and that’s glorious, but it all comes from and depends on what Paul is talking about here. Christmas is about this unique, single story of Jesus Christ, God’s Son who became one of us.

         Verses 3 and 4 tell us the core of the story, the very heart of the whole thing. Verse 3 says that the first part of the good news about God’s son is that He “was descended from David according to the flesh.” The baby born in Bethlehem was as human as you or I. He had a human lineage, traceable through His adopted father Joseph and possibly through His mother Mary, back to the greatest king of Judah. He was a baby, then a child, then a man. He cried, He slept, He ate, He burped, He breathed. He learned to walk and then talk. He got hungry and angry and weary, just like we all do. Then He died like we all do.

         But verse 4 gives us the other side of that same story. This Man was also God Himself, in the flesh. He was “God with us,” Emmanuel, as Isaiah prophesied to King Ahaz. And the proof of that, the vindication of all that the Man Jesus did and said, was as Paul says here, that He “was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” We who are only human die and stay dead. The Man who is also God died and rose again. And just to be clear, Paul reminds us again who this is, “Jesus Christ our Lord.”

         Believe. Have faith. In what? Here is the answer. Believe in a name, a very specific name, Jesus Christ. It’s a name which comes with a story, a true story for us to believe, a story of the very good news that God has come to save us. Our faith, our belief at Christmas and at every other point of life, is in that name, in that person Jesus Christ.

         It’s a long story. That’s why we have observe Advent. It’s a story that starts millennia before that night in Bethlehem and continues long after. It’s a story still happening. It’s a story to which you and I can are invited to connect our lives as Paul connected his.

         The length of the story is a reason Paul did something a bit unusual there in verse 1. We usually talk about “Jesus Christ.” But as Paul starts out to tell the story of our faith, he inverts that order. He calls himself a servant of “Christ Jesus.” The name, the title “Christ” comes first. There’s a reason for that.

         “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” Paul wants us to know without a doubt that Jesus is the One the prophets were talking about, the One Isaiah spoke to kings about, and the One David sang about in the Psalms, and the One God alluded to in Genesis, and the One Job was waiting for as he suffered, and the One Malachi looked for to come like a fire, and the One John the Baptist said had arrived.

         It’s a long, true story we believe, and at the center, at the heart of our story, of our faith, there is the soft, but solid, flesh and blood of a promised Baby who became a promised Man who suffered a promised death and then rose again to the new life He was also promised. He did that so He could fulfill the other part of that name the angel gave Him, to “save his people from their sins.”

         So Paul started out calling himself a “servant of Christ Jesus.” In verse 5 he tells us just how he served Christ Jesus. He says that through Jesus “we” and he means himself and his fellow apostles, “have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name.” His calling was to bring this belief, this faith to all people, not just the Jewish people who began the story, but to all the people of the world who will finish the story.

         As verse 6 goes on, that includes you. Paul is speaking personally to the Christians in Rome, but everyone is included in Paul’s mission to share his faith. Everyone is “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” Contrary to what some might say, the story of Jesus is not exclusive. It’s for Jewish people and for all the Gentiles. It’s an inclusive story. It includes you.

         I can’t say exactly which year it was of my life, but I remember a Christmas when I was maybe 11 or 12, and the whole thing suddenly came alive for me. Of course I was excited about Christmas before that. I liked the candy and the presents and decorating the tree. But suddenly this one year I started to understand the words in those carols on the records my mother would play. I listened with new interest to the Bill Gaither Christmas cantata our little church choir bravely belted out as best they could. I watched a Charlie Brown Christmas and was moved to memorize the story from Luke 2 like Linus did. I found myself included in the story, in the faith.

         It doesn’t happen at the same time or in the same way for everyone. Some of you came to faith much later in your life, discovered as adults some of the joys of our story. And sometimes we take hold of this faith and then find it slipping from us. We would like to go back to the simplicity of how we believed when started out, whether as children or adults.

         That’s why I’d like you to note the phrase Paul used there in verse 5. He talked about sharing the “obedience of faith” with everyone else. I’ve been emphasizing the fact that our belief, our faith, has content. That’s good news if you are struggling to believe, because it’s not like the Groban song says. It’s not about your feelings or whatever’s going on in your heart. It’s about a true story of God coming to be with us, to be with you. And you can count on that story whether you are feeling anything or not.

         Yet there is another dimension to our faith that I hope might also be helpful and comforting as we seek to believe the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s the “obedience of faith.” Faith is definitely a firm mental conviction that this story about Jesus is true, but it’s also a way to live, a way to behave. We aren’t just meant to have faith, but to shine with faith, to hold our faith in ways that show up practically in our lives.

         Understanding that obedience of faith, that call to shine with faith, happened much later for me. What I understood and believed as a teenager had to take form in my life in the ways I lived, how I treated others, how I practiced that faith. I pray and hope that work of faith is still going on in me.

         Our faith is in a true story which has real consequences and makes a real difference in our lives. Ralph Wood writing about practical Christian faith, tells how after C. S. Lewis became a Christian a couple of his friends came to get him to go away on day trip out of Oxford. They sat waiting impatiently in the car watching him walk back and forth in his garden. When he finally got in the car they demanded, “What were you doing out there while we sat here waiting for you?” Lewis replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t dare leave home without first saying my prayers.”[1]

         We believe in Jesus Christ so we behave differently, even in ways that seem odd or annoying to those who don’t yet share our story. Our faith shines in the ways we act. And shining our faith before others helps grow our own faith.

         In our book of the month you can read the deep faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poetry and prose. Yet Hopkins understood that faith was not just something you carry in your head or speak in verse or write down on paper. Again Ralph Wood tells how Hopkins’ friend Robert Bridges wrote to him for advice about how to deal with his doubt, his constant feelings of unbelief. Bridges expected a long letter in return, filled with Hopkins’ theological wisdom. Instead he got a two-word answer, “Give alms.”[2] Let your faith take form in giving like Christ gave, serving like Christ served. The way to deal with doubt is let what faith you have shine and your faith will increase.

         Faith shines when we pray, when we serve others, when tell others the story we believe that shapes our lives and gives us hope. And when faith shines, its light also grows in our own hearts and minds.

         It’s partly a choice. We heard today about two men confronted with the same message, the story of how God would be with us, born of a virgin. King Ahaz refused to trust God at all, to even ask to see a sign so that he could believe. Joseph on the other hand, heard the announcement from the angel and then was simply obedient. He received Mary as his wife like God commanded, exercising the obedience of faith. And the faith of the earthly father of our Lord still shines as an example for you and me.

         Let your faith shine. Connect your head and heart faith in Christ with what your hands do in obedience to the Savior in whom you believe. If you serve here on an Egan Warming night don’t be afraid to talk with folks you welcome or feed about the fact that Jesus loves them. Return “Happy Holidays,” with a hearty “Merry Christmas!” if you can do so without being a jerk about it. Invite a friend or family member to worship Jesus with you, and then in the new year bless them with a little more of your time.

         It’s not exclusive or insensitive or domineering to share the good news we have, because it is the one true story there is for this world and for our lives. Let your faith shine so that everyone can truly be included in this story, in the gospel, in the good news of God’s Son who came to die for our sins and be raised for our new life in Him.

         Paul closed his greeting by addressing those ancient Romans as “God’s beloved, who are called to be saints.” That’s also you. And it’s everyone you meet. God loves you and your annoying neighbor. He loves you and He loves the meth addict begging change on the street.  He loves you and He loves the terrorists wreaking havoc in Syria and Afghanistan. He loves you and He loves children who are parentless or abused as well as their abusers. You and they are all God’s beloved. That’s why He sent Jesus, why He keeps telling this story of good news, “for he will save his people from their sins.” Believe it.

         Believe it, believe in Jesus Christ and let your faith shine. And then, may your Christmas gift be, now and always, what Paul offers us here, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Told in Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement with Culture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003), p. 175.

[2] Ibid.

Last updated December 22, 2013