First Presbyterian Church
December 8, 2013
Nelson Mandela died this past week. He was the man who inspired the majority of South Africans to stand up and overthrow the cruel system of apartheid and later became the country’s president. As a leader of the country, he strove to keep peace between the races. His vision was larger than just a country free of apartheid; it was for a country where everyone enjoyed freedom and prosperity. In honor of his efforts, I want us to begin with a short clip from the movie Invictus. This movie is about Mandala and the South African rugby team. I encourage you to watch the entire film.
(first one minute, eight seconds)
“Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon…” Mandela’s vision as shown in this clip fits right into God’s mission in sending Jesus Christ into the world. Reconciliation and forgiveness are a part of the plan as we are going to see as we look at the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Read Romans 15:4-13.
We were about thirty minutes outside of West Palm Beach. I had boarded the Silver Meteor the night before in Washington DC and at the moment was making my way from the lounge car to my seat. It was time to prepare for getting off the train at my destination. But before I got to my seat, everything suddenly slid forward and the brakes squealed. I had to grab the overhead luggage rack to keep from falling as I heard a loud bang and then a clicking sound running through the cars. We came to a stop. The look on the conductor’s face said we were in trouble. He pulled out his radio and began shouting into it as he headed toward the engines.
Everything was quiet for a few minutes; everyone was stunned. We were in the middle of an orange grove and the winter sun was setting, casting a soft light over the landscape. A few minutes later the conductor came over the intercom and informed us we’d been indefinitely delayed for we’d just hit a house. And sure enough, looking out of the window, we could see pieces of lumber and shingles and insulation along the tracks. To the rear of the train, a couple hundred yards back, were two pieces of what had once been someone’s home. They had tried to move the house over the tracks and it bottomed out and before they could figure out how to move it, the train did it for them.
This was not the way I had hoped my Christmas break would begin. I had just completed my first term in seminary and had several weeks off before I had to get back to the books. I was ready to hit the beach! Earlier that morning, as the train raced through a pine forests in South Carolina or Georgia, I’d changed from my heavy winter clothes to shorts and flip flops. My plans were to spend a week with my sister in Florida and then travel to North Carolina for Christmas with my parents before heading back on New Year’s Day to the cold gray of a Pittsburgh winter. Despite this long and unanticipated delay, the trip was enjoyable and thankfully no one was harmed in the accident.
Advent, as well as all of life, can be described as a journey. I boarded that train south, with vision of sun and sand and water. We need a vision of where we are headed. For Advent, we have a vision of a child being born in Bethlehem along with the promise of forgiveness and peace. But there are always bumps along the way. Sometimes houses block the tracks, or the inns are overflowing, or Herod’s storm troopers are on the march… These “bumps” are certainly not what we’d want to contend with while caring for an expectant mother or an infant child. Likewise, in our sin-filled world, we experience bumps and disappointments, yet we are called to have hope that the vision of our eventual destination will become reality.
In this section of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul speaks of our Christian hope coming from several sources: in verse four he discusses the encouragement we find in the scriptures, in verse eight from the promises to the patriarchs and in verse twelve from the sprout that comes from the root of Jesse, another way of referring to our Savior Jesus Christ. God, as Paul writes in verse thirteen, is a God of Hope. God has a missional plan to reach all people with a gospel of reconciliation and love. This gospel isn’t just for the Jews; it’s for everyone!
There is excitement in Paul’s words as he expresses God’s vision for the world. Back in chapter eight, Paul speaks of creation itself longing for the “revealing of the children of God.” The world in its entirety suffers from the curse of sin, but the hope we have with God’s future is grounded in the removal of sin. As we saw from Mandela in the movie clip: reconciliation and forgiveness are necessary and must start here, now, in the present. When we become a follower of Jesus, we are signing up to participate in bringing about this grand vision of God’s. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t passive; it’s an active calling for all of us.
Paul wants the church to be successful and therefore encourages his readers (in verse five) to live in harmony and (in verse seven) to welcome one another. Paul wants us to live in harmony so that we might sing with one voice (undoubtedly so that all you with good voices can drown out my off-key and off-beat attempts at singing). Seriously, though, the real reason Paul wants our praise to be lifted up is not so that we can be glad or happy (although singing does that), but so that the Gentiles, those who have up until this point in history been outside of God’s covenant, can hear our joy and come to believe and join us in praise of the Creator.
According to Paul, the purpose of Jesus’ coming is not just to save us as individuals from our sin. For Paul, the purpose is always communal. Jesus came to save sinners, yes that’s true, but he also came to save the world. As we will sing on Christmas Eve, in the third verse to “Joy to the World,” “No more let sins and sorrows grow… He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found…” This vision of reversing the curse, of a new world freed from the bondage to sin, is the hope we share. Yes, it means that individuals will experience freedom, but that’s just the beginning. God’s vision is larger than we can image. It is not just about my experience, my encounter with God through Jesus Christ. That’s just the starting point. That’s just to get me (and you) on the journey as we partner with God so that everyone can experience God’s love and hope through Jesus Christ.
Have you caught a glimpse of God’s vision and what means for the world? Granted, as individuals, we will not be able to bring it about. But when we work together and are filled with God’s Spirit, there is a power that enables us to accomplish more than we as individuals could dream possible.
I began this sermon telling you about a journey and how there are always bumps in the road. Paul understood that. Things do not always go as we’d like. If they did, there would be no discontent and everyone would have welcoming arms… But we know that’s not reality so Paul has to encourage his readers to seek harmony and to be welcoming. What about us? Do we seek the harmony within our lives, within our church and community? Or do we fight for what we want and don’t care who gets hurt? Do we welcome everyone as a child created in God’s image and a sinner for whom Christ died? Or do we just welcome those like ourselves?
As we go approach the Christmas season, examine your involvement in God’s mission? And examine our involvement as a community. How are we doing? Do we welcome? Do we seek to live in harmony? Do we seek to live that way even with those we may not always agree up? By the way, this would include our neighbors who may belong to a different political party or who look different or have strange cultural practices than us. It would also include our neighbors who may believe and worship differently. We’re expected to also treat them with respect.
Once you examine yourself, what kind of steps might you be able to take in order to live in harmony and to be more welcoming? What can you do this week that will show God’s love and your concern for those around you? To paraphrase Paul: we’re to live in harmony and be welcoming so that this grand and crazy mission of God’s to reconcile the world back to Creator can become more of a reality. Amen.