For someone who had never visited the church at Rome, the apostle Paul certainly knew it pretty well. You see this in the last chapter of this letter, where Paul spends sixteen verses extending greetings to twenty six different people by name along with others who are related to those individuals in some way. It’s really not surprising. In the first century Rome was the center of the Roman world. It was a magnet that drew people in, and many people that Paul knew had made this journey.
When scholars discuss the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans they often identify three things that are going on. First, Paul was clearly asking for their support in his planned missionary activity in Spain. Second and related to this, he knew that the church had heard about issues Paul had encountered regarding the law of Moses and Gentile Christians. Paul wanted to set forth carefully what he believed. At this time the apostle was looking forward towards his visit to Jerusalem as he brought the offering that Gentile Christians in Greece and Asia Minor had given to help the Jewish Christians there. He would face the same question in Jerusalem, and so Romans was probably also a “dress rehearsal” of what Paul would say there.
The third reason was related to this second reason. Paul knew that this very subject was a source of tension in the church at Rome. The Gentile Christians, whom Paul calls “those who are strong,” knew that the commands of the Torah about food and religious days no longer applied to Christians. However, there were Jewish Christians, whom Paul calls “those who are weak,” who didn’t understand this. They felt that they were still obligated to do these things and that they would be sinning if they did not.
This had created disagreement and division between these groups. While Paul agreed theologically with the strong ones, he also believed that the strong needed to deal with the weak in ways that showed them love and care – ways that looked out for their well being even if it meant denying oneself. In the letter to Galatians we see that Paul would never let someone force the views of the weak upon others as if they were necessary for salvation. But when it was a matter of the well being of the weak and how they viewed themselves, he was willing to deny himself to serve them.
Paul has made this very point in the verses just before our text. He wrote, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.
Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”
The reason that the Roman Christians were to act this way was Jesus Christ. He had not pleased himself. He had served us by bearing our reproaches on the cross – the punishment and judgment that our sin deserved. And so now as those who have received this gift, we are to serve others.
In our text Paul goes on to say, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul has quoted Psalm 69 in the words, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” The apostle now refers to this and all of the Old Testament as he says that it had been written for our instruction. It had been written so that we might be able to endure as we are encouraged by the Scriptures.
Paul has taken a Psalm written by David and said that it was fulfilled in Jesus’ death on the cross. He is telling us that all of the Old Testament is about Christ. All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus. They have been fulfilled in Father’s saving act in giving the Son as the sacrifice for our sin. They have been fulfilled in the Son’s willing self-sacrifice for us. In the instruction about how God did this working through Israel’s history, we are encouraged by the Scriptures to endure during this life.
This is an important theme of Advent. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ in Bethlehem, we reflect upon how this was the fulfillment of everything that God had done through Israel. It was the fulfillment of God’s promises made in the Old Testament. During our mid-week Advent service the sermons are focusing upon how John the Baptist was the “prophesied prophet” – the prophet promised by the Old Testament as the forerunner of the Christ. In the fulfillment of God’s word we find encouragement. The God who has kept his word through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can be counted on to keep his word about his continuing love and care for us.
But note that in our text this encouragement takes place in the setting of “endurance.” In fact Paul describes God as “the God of endurance and encouragement.” The apostle Paul talks about endurance a lot in his letters. His view is not that the Christian faith frees you for everything to be great – “your best life now” as one television preacher likes to say. Instead, he assumes that living in the “not yet” of a world that is still fallen, and a flesh where the old Adam is still present, will be an existence that involves challenges and hardships. It will include things that require endurance on our part.
This is certainly not what we want to hear. When circumstances arise that require endurance our reaction is often to complain about God: Why is he doing this to me? Why is he letting this happen to me? Yet we can only think and say this if we ignore God’s Word. After all, God tells us clearly that life in the faith will require endurance.
The reason we can endure is because of the encouragement God provides. God has provided encouragement in Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the Scriptures for us. The Son of God – the creator of the universe – served us. He put us before himself in order to save us. In his loving action we have received forgiveness and eternal life. Now that is encouragement.
And in Jesus we have the reason that we now serve others. Paul says in our text, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Jesus served us to give us forgiveness and salvation. Because of this his Spirit now leads us to serve others.
More often than not, this service is not spectacular. It is not the kind of thing that will gain the attention of others or “go viral” on the internet. It occurs in simple ways in the ordinary settings of our marriage and family; school and work; and here in this congregation. It occurs as you choose to do something that helps someone else, even though that action does nothing for you; especially when that action requires something of you to help another.
In our text Paul says that Jesus served to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament. He did this not just for Israel, but “in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” As Gentiles we glorify God for this mercy. Paul proceeds to quote a series of Old Testament passages that describe how the Gentiles will do this. He then concludes with a passage that is very relevant for this Second Sunday in Advent.
Paul writes, “And again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.’” And then he adds, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
Paul quotes Isaiah chapter 11 as he speaks about the Gentiles hoping in Christ. Then he describes God as the “God of hope” and expresses the wish that by the power of the Holy Spirit the Roman Christians will abound in hope. Isaiah 11 is the chapter that begins with the words, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD.”
The prophet speaks of the Messiah – the descendant of David – upon whom the Spirit will rest. He is the One who “will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”
His reign will be one in which, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” He will bring the time when, “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
This is the hope that we have. The Gospel lesson this morning speaks about the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day. It does so because as Advent prepares us to celebrate Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, it also points us towards his second coming. The Lord who rose from the dead and was exalted in his ascension will return. He will bring the resurrection of the dead. He will bring the renewal of creation. He will bring the the peace that the prophet Isaiah describes.
And in this, we have hope. Our God is the God of hope. He has acted to give us hope. He has acted in Jesus to defeat sin and death. We know that he has already done this and so as Paul says we have “all joy and peace in believing.” Paul’s wish is that we will be filled with this. We know that what God has done in Christ points toward a consummation – toward a completion. And so Paul expresses the desire that “by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
On this Second Sunday in Advent, this is my desire for you as well, that the Spirit lead you to recognize the need for endurance in the present – an endurance that is encouraged by the Scriptures that have been fulfilled by Christ. And I pray that the Spirit will support you in this endurance with hope – indeed, that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus we know what we are moving towards. And we have barely begun to understand how good it will be.