Sermon for Mattins on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 21st December 2014, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Romans 1:1-7. Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle,… To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints …

Sixty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, St Paul is writing to the Romans, giving them his version of the Gospel: ‘… the gospel of God, … Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord’.

We know that there was a strong Christian community in Rome, which itself was a massive city, over a million people even 2,000 years ago, which had become the centre of the ancient world. In 64AD, the emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire which took place in that year in Rome. It’s in the Roman historian Tacitus, in his Annals, 15.44.2.

The Christians in Rome, by definition, knew the gospel – otherwise they wouldn’t have been Christians. Paul goes on, in his letter to the Romans, to set out most of his understanding of Christianity: he deals principally with what he calls ‘righteousness’: whether the Jews, as the chosen people of God, are righteous, and the Gentiles are not; how God has righteously dealt with Israel, and how righteousness shows itself in the lives of true believers.

‘Righteousness’ may not be an adequate word for what St Paul is talking about; the opposite of righteousness, sin, is being separated from God, being forsaken by God. To be righteous is to be in tune with God.

St Paul distinguishes between Jesus as a man, and Jesus as the Son of God. Divine Jesus is ‘a spiritual being, transcendent, something altogether greater than a human being’. He says that the evidence for that, the sign by which one recognises Jesus’ divinity, is the fact that he was raised from the dead.

But that’s really the Easter message; now at Christmas, we are just about to embark on the Christmas story: God with us, Immanuel. ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.’ That’s what St Matthew says in his gospel: it refers back to our first lesson, the passage from the prophet Isaiah, ch. 7, which says, ‘The LORD himself will give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.’

That sign, Isaiah’s sign, was given not about a messiah, but in the context of Jerusalem being threatened by two warlike kings: King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel. A saviour, a great leader, will come to protect Jerusalem.Six hundred years later, St Paul pointed out that the gospel, the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ, was forecast in the Jewish holy scripture, the Old Testament: he wrote about ‘The gospel of God, .. Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures’.

So what Isaiah prophesied, as a sign given to the people of Judah, of Jerusalem, to indicate that their God was with them, and that the two kings threatening them would come to a sticky end, was reinterpreted by St Paul, and the early Christians. It moved on to being taken as a sign, a prophecy, of the Messiah, the Son of God. St Matthew also, in his gospel, linked Isaiah’s prophecy with Jesus.

In the letter to the Romans you have a skeleton outline of Christianity, from the earliest prophecies in Isaiah to Jesus’ death and resurrection, as recounted by St Paul.

I wonder what it would look like, if St Paul was writing today, writing a letter setting out the gospel to the saints in Stoke D’Abernon.

We here today are not particularly concerned about some of St Paul’s themes. Whether you need to be Jewish, to be circumcised and so on, in order to be saved; it doesn’t really bother us.

But some things that Paul was writing about to the Romans are still relevant to our lives today. Righteousness, justification, being all right with God, is still a big thing – not being separated from God, not being cast out into the outer darkness. To be saved from that terrible fate, St Paul emphasises the need to believe and trust in Jesus.

St Paul preaches justification by faith; not by good works. Believe first, then do good. He says that, if you truly believe, then that will change your life. You will do good things: good deeds will come naturally.

But the story in Isaiah has a bit of it which St Paul didn’t refer to, which raises another question which is also relevant today. Isaiah says that Immanuel, the virgin’s son, will eat ‘butter and honey …., that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.’ (Is. 7:15)

Does this mean that butter and honey have special properties which enhance one’s ethical sensibilities? Before considering that, we should note that this passage gets translated differently in different Bibles. If we had been using the New Revised Standard Bible (Anglicised edition), which we use at other services here, the passage says, ‘He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.’ The New English Bible says, ‘By the time that he has learned to reject evil and choose good, he will be eating curds and honey.’

So God-with-us, Immanuel, will get to know the difference between good and evil, but probably not as a result of eating butter and honey, or curds and honey, if you like. I prefer to think that it’s butter. I’ve always thought that Little Miss Muffet, sitting on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey, was, at least so far as her diet was concerned, a particularly disgusting vision – but I know that many people do like those sort of puddings. For my taste, butter and honey is just a step away from the land of ‘milk and honey’; and when I was little, ‘milk and honey’ was the name of a very nice biscuit.

Is it the idea that the boy will get to an age when he can recognise certain luxury food as being particularly good? Or is it just a rite of passage, that he will graduate to eating these luxury foods, at the same time as he learns to distinguish between good and evil?

But just a minute – Immanuel is God-with-us. God. It seems a bit odd that God should grow into knowing how to distinguish good and evil. Surely God would know good and evil right from the start, wouldn’t he?

This is an important question for us even today. This is, I would suggest, one of the things that St Paul would be writing to us about, if he was writing to the saints at Stoke D’Abernon. Think of the very sad – and very shocking – story of the US Senate report which has just come out, detailing the way in which numbers of people were tortured by the CIA; or, as they described it, were subject to ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques.

Is it justifiable to torture somebody if, by so doing, you will elicit information from them which will save lives? Or is torture always wrong, by its very nature? Or are there circumstances where torture is, in fact, permissible? Are there circumstances where doing something wrong is preferable to not doing anything at all: because by doing something wrong you may avert some other, possibly greater, harm?

You would think that Immanuel, God-with-us, would always have known what was the right thing to do, because He is God. But there are philosophers and theologians, called deontologists, who argue that good and evil are, by their very nature, good and evil, and they don’t depend on being declared to be good and evil by God or by a prophet: that God, who knows everything, will recognise that good and evil are absolute concepts, not dependent on somebody’s interpretation.

What do you think Jesus would have done? The grown-up Jesus, able to distinguish between right and wrong, that is. It doesn’t look as though Jesus did in fact get involved in calculations of the relative merits of different courses of action. Think of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ radical interpretation of the 10 Commandments. In Matthew 5:[43-44]:

‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’

Jesus never says that it is OK to do harm, if to do so would prevent a greater mischief.

So I think that, if St Paul were writing to the Saints at Stoke D’Abernon, he would be reminding them of what Jesus said about right and wrong. As we go into the happy times of Christmas week, think about all the terrible things that are going on in the world today – children killed in Pakistan and in Australia; the siege of the café in Sydney, with more people killed; people not having enough money to buy food and having to turn to food banks; all these things are subject to moral judgements.

The heart of the gospel message is God-With-Us, God in the form of a man, a baby in a manger. What difference that makes to us, how it affects our behaviour, our judgment of right and wrong, is the important question. That’s what St Paul would be writing about, to us, the saints at Stoke D’Abernon.

I do wish you a very happy Christmas – but I do urge you to reflect a little bit on what Jesus would say and do, if indeed he came and saw how we are today.