Advent 4a

Preached: December 22, 2013

Cherish God's Christmas Letter
Romans 1:1-7

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The words through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us today to prepare our hearts to celebrate our Savior's birth are the words he inspired the Apostle Paul to write at the beginning of his letter to the Christians in Roman.

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an Apostle, set apart for proclaiming the Good News from God.

This Good News is what God promised long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures concerning his Son. He was born from the family line of David in regard to the flesh. He was declared in power as the Son of God in regard to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead. He's Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Through him we received the gracious gift of apostleship to proclaim among all the non-Jews for the sake of his name the obedience, which is faith. You also, who were called by Jesus Christ, are among them.

To all who are in Rome, loved by God and called saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-7).

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

It's that time of year when mail bags get heavier and mailboxes fuller. Christmas cards and letters bring Christmas greetings and warm wishes to friends and family both near and fear. My wife writes ours and shares some of the family highlights from the past year.

The Scripture before us today is the opening of a letter written nearly two thousand years ago. It doesn't strike us as a Christmas letter. Paul writes very little about what he's been doing over the past year. He doesn't send it to friends and family. He hadn't been to Rome and knew only a few of the people in the congregation who had moved there from elsewhere. Yet he writes to them as brothers and sisters. For through faith in Jesus they all shared the same Father.

Notice how he introduces himself: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1 HCSB). Don't think of being beaten down, oppressed, or whipped. He's not that kind of slave. Rather he belongs to Jesus. His will is in sync with his Master's will. Rather than slaving for his sinful nature, he wants to serve his Lord wholeheartedly with all his body, soul, and mind. He wants the words he writes to proclaim the will of Christ Jesus.

What's more, he's “called as an apostle” (Romans 1:1 HCSB). Jesus himself directly appeared to Paul, instructed him, and sent him out on this life mission as an eye-witness who had seen the risen Lord Jesus in his glory. The individual words Paul writes carry the authority of Christ, for Paul is one of those commissioned as an apostles, those few chosen as eye-witnesses and sent out directly by Jesus himself. Jesus promised to send his apostles the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth, so that the words the apostles wrote are not their own opinions but God's verbally inspired truth. So take these words to heart, dear friends, with full confidence that the Apostle Paul writes the very word of God.

And thirdly, he tells us that he was “singled out for God’s good news” (Romans 1:1 HCSB). That's the message Paul brings: Good News, the Gospel. Cherish this Good News. Cherish it, for it comes with God's seal of truth. This is what God's Christmas letter is all about: the Gospel, the Good News. That's why the angel proclaimed glad tidings of great joy and the angel choir sang of God's good will toward those on earth on that first Christmas night. Cherish God's Christmas letter.

Now God did not wait until that night to start writing this letter. The Gospel goes back all the way to Genesis 3. He begins speaking this Good News as soon as our first parents, Adam and Eve, brought down the curse of death on all of us by rebelling against God's love. And as the centuries and millenniums passed, the Lord God kept speaking and writing his Christmas letter. Paul reminds us of that by telling us that the Gospel he proclaims was no new invention but rather what God had “promised long ago through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2 HCSB) — yes, in writing, the sacred writings, the Old Testament. Despite sinful mankind's attempts to corrupt and hide God's truth, you still have it in writing, preserved over the millenniums for you still today to read, listen to, and believe. Cherish God's Christmas letter.

And what's this Christmas letter all about? “Concerning His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and who has been declared to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead according to the spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:3, 4 HCSB-footnote). It's about his Son.

In fact, you could say his Son is his Christmas letter. Remember how the Apostle John calls God's Son, “the Word”? Think of how a Christmas letter is made up of words. John chapter 1 begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 NIV84). God not only wrote his Christmas letter with the ink and parchment of the Scriptures but also with the flesh and blood of his Son. A few verse later John wrote, “The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only Begotten, who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NIV84-footnote).

Paul, too, takes us to the manger where the Word made flesh was laid. God's “Son ... who was a descendant of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3 HCSB), Paul writes. Yes, Jesus was of the house and line of David, born in Bethlehem, the town of David.

Now under the lowliness of the manger where animals would have fed, under the lowliness of his poor life here on this earth, and finally under the lowliness and offense of the cross, what glory is hidden! For this baby is the eternal God, the almighty Son of the Father. His resurrection from the dead would make that perfectly clear. Marvel at the wonder of this baby in the manger. He is your God in the flesh. Cherish God's Christmas letter.

To whom is this Christmas letter addressed? To whom does Paul, as Christ's apostle, proclaim this Good News, the Gospel of God's Son? Paul writes, “We have received grace and apostleship through Him to bring about the obedience that is faith among all the nations, on behalf of His name, including yourselves who also belong to Jesus Christ by calling” (Romans 1:5, 6 HCSB-footnote).

Jesus came as the Savior for the world, for all nations, including you. God sends his Good News into all the world. He wants all, including you, to hear and believe. Listen to his call. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Only faith can cherish God's Christmas letter. And as you cherish this letter, share the Good News, just as Paul did, just as the shepherds did. Go tell it on the mountain.

What blessings God's Christmas letter brings to us! The closing words of the text bring them to mind. “To all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7 HCSB).

Dear friends, dear Christian friends, as you read the Scriptures, as you knell at the manger, as you cherish God's Christmas letter, know that you are loved by God. Despite our inborn sinfulness, despite the evil that still lurks in our hearts, despite our failure again and again, God's love reaches out to you and me. Later in Romans, Paul writes, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV84). What amazing love!

That love calls you saints, which means holy people. For in God's record book, the blood of Jesus erases your sins, and his perfect obedience counts for you. Jesus clothes you with his holiness. What good news to believe and cherish!

Why would God do this? Our efforts, our trying, our wishing, our wanting — none of that brings us holiness. Rather God's grace: his undeserved kindness that reached out for unlovable, rebellious sinners, like you and me, and gave us his Son. His grace in Christ, that's the reason why God sends his Christmas letter to us.

And through this Christmas letter, he brings us peace. We were at war with God. That's what sin is: warfare against God. And we don't want to return to that warfare by neglecting God's word and falling away from his Son. For no matter how troubled life on earth may be, in Jesus you have peace with God. That's the peace the angels proclaimed on Christmas night: peace with God through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, peace with God through the forgiveness of sins, washed clean in Jesus' blood, peace with God.

Through faith in Jesus you are no longer God's enemy but his child. Grace and peace to you from God our Father. Through faith in Jesus you are no longer rebels but his redeemed people so that he is your Lord. Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. What blessings as we cherish God's Christmas letter! Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313