Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Living the promise"

Message preached December 19, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Romans 1:1-7

Order of Worship

            "You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, Iím telliní you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. Heís making a list. Heís checking it twice. Gonna find out whoís naughty and nice. Santa Claus is coming to town. He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when youíre awake. He knows when youíve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, Iím telliní you why: Santa Claus is coming to town."

            Now, I know thatís not a Christmas song we sing all that often - if ever - in church. Especially not in worship. Why? Well, contrary to what you might think, it not because of dear old Santa, and the possibility of confusing him with God - you know, "watching out" for that jolly, old, fat guy instead of looking toward the coming of Jesus. No, thatís not the real reason we donít sing that song much in church.

            Frankly, I donít have a problem with Santa Claus. After all, Iím proudly wearing the Santa tie my daughter gave me for Christmas a few years back. The tradition behind St. Nick, you know, has religious roots in the generosity of a church leader named Nicolas some seventeen hundred years ago.... Where this song runs into trouble, and why we donít sing it, except with a smile, is because itís not exactly "gospel," is it? I mean, delete "Santa Claus" and insert "Jesus Christ," as - to be honest - Iíve heard some Christians do, and you still have a sub-Christian song.

            Why? Well, there is truth to the fact that God knows all about us. Jesus does, indeed, know when we are sleeping. He knows when weíre awake. And, of course, he knows if weíve been bad or good. Furthermore, we know that it is best to be good, for goodness sake. Yes, there is a lot of good in this song. Itís just that the "good news" (or gospel) of Jesus is not about keeping track of all this naughty and nice stuff. In fact, what makes this news that we celebrate as good, what makes this "gospel" really "gospel," is that in spite of our naughty-ness we are still loved. God, unlike the Santa of this song, doesnít keep a list of who has been bad or good. God doesnít check it twice. If anything, Jesus tore up the list.

            "You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, Iím telliní you why: Santa Claus is coming to town...." Speaking of "coming to town," we just heard someone introduce himself to folks he had never met. Thatís what those first seven verses from the apostle Paulís letter to the Romans involved - an introduction. You see, contrary to all the rest of his letters found in the New Testament, letters sent to people Paul knew, to churches he had helped to start, to persons who were acquaintances of him; contrary to all his other letters, this one was mailed to people he hadnít yet met.

            Like Santa, Paul was "coming to town." This letter was like an introduction of who he was and what he was about. Itís sort of a summary of his message, what he has been teaching and preaching from Galatia to Greece. Now his eyes were set on the center of the Roman empire, and he had every intention of eventually coming to town. He sent this letter ahead of his arrival to prepare the way among those who had already heard some things about this Jesus character, and who were beginning to meet together to discover more.

            Of course, unlike Santa, Paul wasnít going to fly in on a sleigh pulled by a bunch or reindeer, and he definitely wasnít going to be climbing down peopleís chimneys. However, like that old, jolly, fat guy, Paul was a man bearing gifts. Only these gifts were not stuffed in a bag to be dragged down a chimney. Nosiree.

            In the first seven verses of this letter, Paul introduces himself. He starts out calling himself "a servant of Jesus Christ." So far so good. Course, Iím sure many wondered about this "servant" bit (actually the word is "doulos" or "slave"). Then, again, a good many of the original followers of Jesus were not exactly on the higher end of the economic scale. Many, in fact, knew all about being slaves themselves. Made them wonder about the master of this servant, no doubt. Who was this Jesus of whom Paul was a servant?

            Paul also wrote that he was "called to be an apostle." An "apostle" is simply someone who is sent - a messenger, an ambassador. Not only was Paul coming to town, but he was sent here. Must be this Jesus fellow who sent him. When we sing about Santa, do we ever wonder about who sends him? Or does he just come? We know, donít we, where the original motivation for this tradition came from. In northern European countries, the tradition has Nicolas secretly bringing gifts to children on December 6th, the day on which the church there celebrates his feast, or holy day, as Nicolas is a canonized saint.

            "A servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle." Thatís Paul. Those words could introduce any of us, you know. Then Paul writes that he was "set apart for the gospel of God." Here we are verging on the gift part, for this servant, this apostle, indicates that he (himself) has been wrapped up like a present intended for something very special. Thatís sort of what "set apart" means. There is something different, out of the ordinary, special about it.

            "Set apart" ... When a man and a woman promise to love and cherish one another, Ďtil death do us part, they are both being "set apart," one for the other. When a young Jewish boy (or girl nowadays) reaches a certain age, and has learned enough of the Torah, the Law of Moses, to be able to read it publicly and declare fidelity to it, he (or she) is "set apart" for it, he becomes a "bar mitzvah," a son of the commandments (or she a "bat mitzvah," a daughter of the commandments)... There is something different, out of the ordinary, special about these persons, now that they have declared their vows, made their promise - whether it be in the covenant of marriage or the covenant of the Torah.

            Do remember that Paul was a Jew. Not only was he a Jew, but he was also a Pharisee, a trained Jewish leader. At significant points along the way, he had been "set apart" for the Torah, the Law. "You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, Iím telliní you why..." To live by the Law was to guard against breaking the commandments. You live by the list. You die by the list. Life becomes a matter of fulfilling the Law. God knows who has been naughty or nice, you know. The truth is, the naughty column is full to overflowing, and the nice column - well, very few qualify. If that truly is the basis upon which Santa decides who gets a gift, we donít have to wonder how jolly old St. Nick gets his job done in one night.

            Paul made it quite clear. Living for the law is a sinking proposition. All those doís and donítís wear you down. The list, in fact, reveals how far short you fall. No exceptions. We all fare poorly. Coal goes into every stocking. Thatís what we deserve if we live by the list.

            However, Paul points to a different way. Instead of saying he has been "set apart for the Law," he introduces himself by writing that he has been "set apart for the gospel of God, promised by God through the prophets in scripture." You see, itís a matter of gospel, of good news. The good news is about this Jesus character who tore up the list, or the impossibility of living up to it. Because of Jesus, we can stop living out of fear that weíre constantly messing up.

            After all, how can God love me if I canít seem to live up to my promise? Thatís the old question, the one based in a list we always fall short in fulfilling, no matter how good we are. The good news of Jesus, however, is that God loves us even in our fallen state. That is why God sent his only begotten Son. God loves you. And in Jesus, God sets you apart for the gospel, the good news. You are different, out of the ordinary, special, a gift yourself. In Christ, you are Godís gift under the tree, all wrapped up in peace and grace. "Grace," by the way, is Paulís byword. Those folks in Rome will come to know him through that word which, in its root, means "gift." Living the promise of God is living Christmas year-round, the real meaning of Christmas, that is. Itís a gift, not an obligation. Thatís why itís good news.

            Let me end with the story of a missionary to China, named Oswald Goulter. Thirty years a missionary there, he was put under house arrest by the communists for three years after they took over. "He would be released by the Communists if he promised to go home. He said he would come home. He wired back, the missionary society sent him money for his transportation, and he took a ship He went down to India to catch a ship, and when he was in the coastal city in India before leaving, he heard that there were a lot of Jews sleeping in the barn lofts in that city. Theyíd been denied entrance to every country in the world except that one, and they had gone inland and were living in barn lofts. It was Christmas time. Oswald Goulter went around to those barns and said to the Jews, "Itís Christmas! Merry Christmas."

            They said, "Weíre Jews."

            He said, "I know, but it's Christmas!"

            They said, "We donít observe Christmas. Weíre not followers of Christ. Weíre Jews."

            He said, "I know, but what would you like for Christmas?"

            "We donít keep Christmas."

            "I know, but what would you like? If somebody gave you something for Christmas, what would you like?"

            They said, "Well, weíd like some good German pastry."

            "Good!" So he went looking, and he finally found some German pastry at some shop there in that city. After cashing his passage check, he took boxes of German pastries to these Jews and said, "Merry Christmas!" Then he wired the missionary society and said, "I need a ticket home."

            When that story was being told (back home), there was a young seminarian sitting in the front row, and he was absolutely incensed. He said to Dr. Goulter, "Why did you do that? They donít believe in Jesus!" And Dr. Goulter said, "But I do. I do."

(Craddock Stories, ©2001 by Fred B. Craddock, Chalice Press, p. 141-42)

            Now thatís living the promise! After all, Jesus is coming to town, which is good news!

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Romans.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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