“Ready for Strength”
December 18, 2011 - Fourth Sunday in Advent
“Come on, just one more. You can do it. Come on. Now one more. Keep going. You can do another one. Go for it!” I watched two young men take turns spotting for each other and egging each other on as they pushed heavy weights at Courtsports. Then I overheard as they talked about protein shakes and vitamins and all the other ways they were trying to build their muscles and put strength into their bodies.
As Paul said to another young man in I Timothy 4:8, “physical training is of some value.” But as he wraps up his letter to the Romans, Paul talks about strength of a different sort. It’s not strength you get for yourself by diet and exercise, but strength which comes from God. There is food and training which won’t help you bench press two-fifty or dead lift three hundred. But this spiritual regimen gives you a strength which will see you through harder and worse times than a session at the gym.
The mention of strength is a little sidetrack from the doxology which starts at the beginning of verse 25. A doxology is a hymn of praise to God, honoring Him for who He is and what He has done. We sing one as an offering to God along with our financial offerings each week in worship.
Paul makes a “doxological” start, “Now to…” and we might expect him to go where he finally goes in verse 27, “to God.” “To God be the glory,” “To God be praise,” or even “To God be blessing and honor and glory and might,” like we hear at the end of Revelation 5. But Paul takes a different direction: “Now to the one who is able to strengthen you…”
Paul wants this closing doxology to sum up the whole letter. It’s like the music which plays while credits roll at the end of a movie. As you read the names of actors and producers and writers, best boys, gaffers, and foley editors, whatever those are, you often hear a reprise of the music that was in the background throughout the film. There’s the opening theme, then the soft love song that accompanied the leading couple’s first encounter, then the dissonant chords that made you want to shout “Don’t open that door!” It’s all repeated as that long list of those who worked on the film scroll ups the screen.
There are only a couple names in the credits for Romans. But as Paul praises God and His Son Jesus, he plays major themes covered in the letter, beginning with the strength which only comes from God. That recalls a theme from the beginning, the sinful weakness of all human beings. “They are without excuse,” he said in chapter 1. “There is no one righteous, not even one,” in chapter 2. That well known, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” in chapter 3.
You and I are weak and sinful. We’re not strong enough to change that by ourselves. We constantly do what we don’t want to do, as Paul described in chapter 7. Our only hope is a strength that is not our own, from the one who is able to strengthen us.
The very next theme Paul reprises in his ending is the story of how God gives us that strength, “according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.” That gospel, that good news is what we’re celebrating now in this season of Advent and Christmas. It’s what Paul said in chapter 1, verse 16, the gospel of which he was not ashamed because it “is the power of God for salvation.”
Christmas songs remind us over and over of this great theme in God’s music. God’s power comes to us in our humility, in our powerlessness, in our weakness. That was Mary’s song: God has “cast down the might from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,” He has “filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” God’s strength comes to those who have no strength of their own.
That same music played as God spoke to the man who had been the youngest of eight sons, sent off to take care of sheep while his brothers had the serious business of war. But in II Samuel 7 we heard how God took David from shepherding sheep and made him the shepherd of a nation, building from him a dynasty that would last forever.
And all that is fulfilled as Paul says here, in “the proclamation of Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the king born in David’s line that will establish an everlasting Kingdom. Jesus is the Great Shepherd who will lift up the lowly and feed the hungry. Jesus is the Savior who gives grace to weak sinners and God’s power to those who feel helpless.
The credits are rolling with only those names on the screen, “God and Jesus Christ,” but the music Paul hints at reminds us of the beauty of the whole story. He continues by saying that this Gospel story of Jesus is “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.”
Remember how Paul in Romans constantly quotes and alludes to the Old Testament. He goes back to Psalms, to Isaiah, to Genesis, to Deuteronomy, over and over. He wants to show that this incredible message about grace through faith in Jesus Christ has been what God was saying, was prophesying all along, for centuries and centuries. It was hidden, it was not understood, it was “secret for long ages,” but now it’s all been made clear. The mystery has been revealed.
It’s revealed. What God was doing with the world from the beginning was all about Jesus. It’s revealed, but it’s still a mystery. A baby born to a poor, temporarily homeless family in a little foreign occupied country. A man condemned as a traitor to the occupying forces and cruelly executed. An unbelievable story of His resurrection from the dead first told by unreliable witnesses like women and fishermen. The strength God brought to us arrived in some of the weakest ways possible.
But it came and it was revealed and now the song that played throughout Romans comes through loud and strong at the beginning of verse 26, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ “is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles.” Paul played this music over and over in his letter. God in Christ is completing the plan He had from the beginning, prophesied from the beginning, that in Jesus all people, Jews and Gentiles together, are welcome in to His kingdom.
It’s the theme of chapter 4, that all can come to God by faith; of chapter 5, that God through Christ can make all people righteous; of chapter 11 where we heard about the wild branch of the Gentiles being grafted into the olive tree of God’s people; and it worked out practically in chapters 14 and 15, where Paul taught the Romans to accept each other as equally loved and valued in Christ.
That theme of acceptance of all people is woven into the Christmas story. Those rough, untidy shepherds at the manger, those strange foreign magi showing up later at the house where Jesus was a toddler are all part of the grand theme that in Christ God welcomes and bestows His strength on everyone.
In the middle of verse 26 Paul sounds the note of God’s power and sovereignty once again. It all happens “according to the command of the eternal God.” The Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is not our accomplishment. Christmas is not our creation. It’s God’s eternal plan, God’s eternal command that His power come to all people, including the lowly and the weak and the sinful.
Yet God’s power doesn’t leave you and I with nothing to do. This is not, in fact, just a movie we are watching. The good news of Jesus Christ changes us, makes a difference in who we are and how we live. That’s why the end of verse 26 plays music which goes back to what Paul had playing at the very beginning of Romans, chapter 1, verse 5, with the phrase “the obedience of faith.”
When I see those guys all buffed and chiseled at Courtsports, I sometimes wonder, “What’s that for? What are they going to do with all those muscles?” Sure it looks good, but what’s the practical value? Are they going to be better at some sport? Are they going to be able to heft some heavy cargo where they work? Will they be any healthier?
Paul means for the faith in Jesus which he preached to the Romans and all over the ancient world to be worked out in our lives. He meant for us to do something with the spiritual strength which God gives us in Christ. Physical training has some value, but God’s strength, “godliness,” he said to Timothy, “holds promise both for the present life and the life to come.”
As the title of our Book of the Month suggests, faith in Jesus Christ means there is a new kind of life to live, “after you believe.” “The obedience of faith” is music for an action sequence in the story. The weak-eyed accountant finds the grit to stand up to the villain, or the weeping, helpless mother rises to fight for her child. This is where the strength of God actually arrives in our lives through faith in His Son Jesus Christ, where as Mary sang, the weak find strength and the poor become rich. In Christ, God makes us able to be and do what we could never become or accomplish in our own strength.
The obedience of faith is when our own spiritual muscles—trained by Bible study and prayer and worship and nourished by Baptism and Communion and the Holy Spirit—when our spiritual muscles go to work to make a difference by forgiving those who’ve hurt us, by feeding the hungry or serving the poor, by sharing with others the same Good News of Jesus which brought us strength.
Yet Paul won’t let his credits end on any other note or implying any other name than God’s own strength and name. The obedience of faith in our lives is not like some chore left to children while the parents are away or to employees while the boss is on vacation. We don’t have to figure out and accomplish our faith on our own. No, God is with us, God’s glory is being worked out in us, according to His plan, according to His wisdom.
So in the very last verse, verse 27, Paul actually completes the doxology he started in verse 25, bringing the music around to sing praise “to the only wise God.” God’s strength, God’s power, is not all brawn and no brains. When God lifts up the lowly and gives strength to the weak, He does it with deep and beautiful wisdom. Jesus didn’t just walk in and throw the bad guys against the wall. He wisely entered completely into our humanity, starting as a baby, and gave us all, bad guys and good guys together, the opportunity to repent and join His side.
Paul won’t let us forget, even in his final hymn of praise to God, that strength comes to us only in and through God’s wisdom as shown to us in the revealed mystery of His Son. So he praises “the only wise God, through Jesus Christ.” Anyone may receive and be trained in God’s strength, but only by believing in and trusting Jesus as your Savior.
You know what kind of weight you’re trying to lift as you come to the end of the year, as you prepare for Christmas. It may be relatively lighter weights, like dumbbells, tasks like cleaning and decorations and cards and gifts to buy. You could be trying to push against weights of poor organization or unfair practices built into some machine like the place you work or go to school. Perhaps you’re just carrying around some burden of worry or illness that makes you constantly tired, like wearing ankle weights all the time. Or perhaps you are crushed under a monstrous heavy bar loaded with your own sin or with grief or with deep pain you’ve carried for years.
This morning Paul the apostle and Mary the mother of Jesus and David the shepherd king invite you to receive God’s strength. You don’t have to lift your weights by yourself. Trust in Jesus Christ, accept His grace and forgiveness, let Him raise and strengthen you. Just be ready for His strength, ready like Paul says, to give Him “the glory forever.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj