The Hope of the Gentiles 2nd Advent
Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12
Do you remember “The Little Rascals”? As a kid, I watched old black-and-white re-runs. Then, in 1994, they released a movie with the same characters, introducing them to a new generation! In this film, all the boys belong to a club called “The He-Man Woman-Haters Club,” and just to make it clear, there’s a sign on the clubhouse that reads “No Girls Allowed.” Of course, this is a fun way to point out a very human foible that has been around forever: the tendency to try to elevate ourselves by excluding others from something.
Another familiar scenario from childhood goes something like this: kids have gathered to play a ball game; two kids appoint themselves to be “captains”, and they proceed to take turns choosing up sides for the game. And, of course, the most gifted players get chosen first, then the lesser players, and then (I know it sounds cruel, but it happens), and then one of the captains says, “You can have these kids—I don’t want ‘em.” And of course the other captain says, “I don’t want ‘em either!” And right there on the playground, we see a metaphor for the whole world: the chosen and the unchosen. Sociologists tell us this phenomenon occurs in pretty much every culture around the world. Some people are IN, and others are OUT.
Our Scripture lessons for today very clearly address the question of “Who is God’s good news intended for?” We have references to prophecies from the Old Testament, fiery words from John the Baptizer, and strong words of encouragement from the Apostle Paul, ALL DIRECTED AT THIS QUESTION, and ALL confirming God’s intent for God’s people to live in harmony with one another. Let’s take a look.
Gentiles in the Old Testament
I’d like to look first at the covenant with Abraham, and how his descendants were known as “God’s Chosen People.” In Genesis 17 we hear God talking to Abraham and saying, “I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ after you.” So, there you have it: God chose Abraham and his descendants to be in a special relationship.
Now, 4 millenia later, this concept is still part of the Jewish consciousness. Let’s listen in on part of a conversation in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye is talking with God (as he often does) and he says, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?!”
Through the centuries, God’s prophets made it clear that God chose Israel to be an instrument of healing for the world—a LIGHT shining for ALL THE NATIONS. But remember—there is a human tendency to divide the world into “chosen” and “NOT.”
As the years went by, the idea of being chosen came to be understood as a privilege rather than as a responsibility. Among the people, the covenant felt like being in a “most-favored” relationship with God, and their opinion of Gentiles was sometimes portrayed as only fit to provide fuel for the fires of hell.
So, the Prophets had to remind Israel of its PURPOSE:
- “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name.”
- “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”
- “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.”
- Then, from Isaiah, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
- In other words, God’s good news is for ALL people!
Our Gospel lesson begins with John the Baptizer, and he is speaking in the spirit of Elijah. He is telling the people to prepare the way of the Lord, to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. And he says that repentance is the way to do this. People were going out to him, declaring their repentance and being baptized—washed clean—confessing their sins.
Then he saw Pharisees and Sadducees, and listen again to what he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” (In other words, let your changed life show that you have truly repented.) Then we get to the central issue as he challenges them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
It’s not enough to be a descendant of Abraham, to number yourselves among “the Chosen.”
Then John spoke about the One who was to come after him—Jesus—and what God’s Anointed One was going to do.
And when Jesus came, he said that we will recognize God’s people by the fruit of their life. He echoed John’s declaration that it’s not enough to simply be a descendant of Abraham.
Shortly thereafter, there was a man, full of enthusiasm, studying to be a Pharisee—a man who counted heavily on having Abraham as his ancestor. He comes onto the scene as an enemy of the church, but is confronted by the Resurrected Christ and recruited to the cause of Christ! When God was sending Ananias to pray for him, he told him, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name 1. Before the Gentiles and 2. Their kings, and 3. Before the people of Israel.”
And, sure enough, the Apostle Paul traveled far and wide into Gentile territory; he always went to the Hebrew Synagogue first, and then he reached out to the Gentiles. Paul welcomed them into the Christian faith without having them fulfill Jewish law first (much to the dismay of many of the earliest Christians who were Jews).
But one of the original Disciples, a man who was in the “inner circle” of the Disciples, found himself sharing the Gospel with outsiders. God sent him to the household of Cornelius (a Roman Centurion!) and he shared the good news with them. While he was speaking, God’s Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles, and Peter was forced to acknowledge, “Who are we to withhold baptism from these people?!” Peter, like Paul, welcomed these non-Jews into the faith without requiring them to fulfill the Jewish Law first.
As a result, Peter and Paul were summoned to Jerusalem (which was the center of Christianity at that time) to defend their policy of not requiring Gentiles to convert to Judaism before becoming Christians. Together they testified, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”
Friends, at this point the earth should have shaken and split! And it did, at least metaphorically. Because the Council of Jerusalem determined that Gentile believers did not need to convert to Judaism! The whole distinction of Chosen versus Gentile evaporatedJ
Welcome and Harmony in Romans
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he was addressing a “mixed” congregation, one made up of both Jews and Gentiles. And he writes, “May God grant you to live in harmony with one another and, together, with one voice, glorify God.” He urged them to welcome one another, just as Christ had welcomed them. When Christians use the word “welcome,” we are talking about accepting one another, inviting each other into our lives, extending hospitality. Instead of getting our sense of worth by trying to exclude others, we remember that Christ has welcomed US: forgives our sin; invites us to be a part of God’s family (we are adopted!); allows us to experience the JOY of being part of his ministry to the world!
And when it comes to living in harmony with one another, we must remember that harmony is not the same as unison (where all sing the melody together). We can all sing a different part, but we still raise ONE VOICE to glorify God! We are not looking for “sameness” or uniformity, but we embrace variety as God has embraced it. We’re not even looking for agreement all the time, but we have a determination to stick together. I love the quote I read recently, “Isn’t it peculiar that no two snowflakes are alike, and yet they still stick together?!”
The summary of what I have been saying is represented right here on this communion table. The Lord’s Supper is given as a sign of God’s welcome to all kinds of people, a symbol of the measures God is ready to take to reach out to us, to draw us in, and to give us life.
Friends, this is precisely what we celebrate at Christmas—God becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to extend God’s welcome to you and to me.