It seems as if we are working backwards after hearing the pericope lesson from Romans 15:4-13 during the second week in Advent. We saw how Saint Paul concluded his epistle by revisiting the principle theses laid out in Romans 1:4-5. This week we go to that lesson. Why? Why read the beginning after the end, as it were? Simple: Romans 1:1-6 proclaims the Gospel of Christmas with power to bring to a crescendo our collective anticipation for the Advent of our King and Savior, the Messiah of God, Jesus.
Verse 1 introduces Paul, a joyful and willing servant of King Jesus. He is an apostle, which means he has a direct commissioning, a calling from the King to speak with the authority of the King, the King’s own message. This message is good news — the Gospel. The world’s rightful and reigning King, Jesus, not Caesar, has good news for Jews and gentiles. Picture the Apostle as an Ambassador sent out by the Sovereign to declare the King’s proclamation.
Romans 1:1-7 preaches the Gospel with the very word “gospel” and a naked explanation of what the Gospel consists of and to whom it is good news. The Holy Spirit, through Paul, has made it easy. Stick to the script of Scripture. This means not digressing into a protracted Pauline biography in your sermon (reference verses 1:1, 7). After stating his credentials, the Apostle quickly deflects the attention from himself to speak Jesus’s message: Go and do thou likewise. Concentrate on what Jesus said and did and how it constitutes good news for the world. That is what verses 5 and 6 do, they state how the Gospel is really the key to understanding everything when it comes to divine/human relations and the movement of world history, including, Paul says, you Christians in Rome (verse 7).
Preachers may want to exploit a juxtaposing or polarizing device or even the device of irony, for Paul was considered an outlaw to the Roman Empire but a high-ranking emissary to Jesus. Indeed, he writes to Rome, the capital city of the Caesars, to proclaim what the world’s true and rightful Lord was doing. Rome brought bondage and fear, despite the Pax Romana, while the Gospel brought liberty and joy, despite becoming slaves to Jesus, and on and on it could go. In this regard, N.T. Wright says the following:
In fact, what Paul says about Jesus in this passage, especially verses 3 and 4, seems almost designed to stake a claim which puts that of Caesar in the shade. Jesus is the true “Son of God.” He comes from a royal house far older than anything Rome can claim: That of David, a thousand years before. His resurrection, which Paul sees... as the beginning of “the resurrection of the dead” for which most Jews had been longing, is the sign of a power which trumps that of tyrants and bullies the world over. Death is their final weapon, and He has broken it.
He is not only Israel’s King and Savior, but the Redeemer and Lord of the entire world, who is now, by His death, atonement, and justifying resurrection, reigning by grace, mercy, truth, peace, and love.
Paul does not assert these things because he feels this way about Jesus. This gospel proclamation has nothing to do with sentimentalism. He proclaims the truth, the fact of Jesus. The reality of the Incarnation and the accomplishments of the Incarnate God-man, Jesus the Son, are even more astonishing because His story brings to a climax the long-storied history of Israel, with all her divinely-inspired and prophetic Scriptures (verse 2). Those Scriptures and Israel’s two thousand years of history in the making had come to fruition in the Messiah, Jesus. He is not only Israel’s King and Savior, but the Redeemer and Lord of the entire world, who is now, by His death, atonement, and justifying resurrection, reigning by grace, mercy, truth, peace, and love. That, in light of the Caesars of the world and how God could reign on Earth (for example, in judgment), is nothing but good news — the Gospel! The Father is reigning on Earth as in Heaven, through the Son, in the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit.
This good news is to be proclaimed as the sermon. It is the good news that makes a preacher a preacher; nothing else. The good news is to be understood as news which not only shows us the state of affairs, but also news which changes its auditors. God performs this news upon the hearts and minds of His auditors, eliciting faith and repentance, joy and peace, and every consolation for troubled consciences and weary souls.
Verses 6 and 7 carry the implication that this good news is for us as well. We, too, are called to “believing obedience” (verse 5). Rejoice, yes! Relief, yes! Victory, yes! But fail not to remember how you, like Paul, are not your own any more. You have been bought with a price. You who avow allegiance to the world’s rightful King are slaves to Him, which possesses challenges quite different from those within the kingdoms of this world.
Therefore, on the cusp of Christmas the message of the fourth week in Advent heightens our anticipation and joy, but also the unvarnished truth about the challenge of following the crucified King. The rest of Paul’s letter, like the rest of our baptismal life, calls us to discover what this means in day-to-day life.
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone, Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8 (London: SPCK, 2004), 4.