Advent 4A | Romans 1:1-7
Other Texts for the Day
Matthew 1:18-25 (See also "Do Not Be Afraid")
"Through him we have received grace and our apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles on behalf of his name" (Romans 1:5, NET)
Trusting the Switch
Do you know that experience, during a power outage, of going into a room and flicking the light switch on? What amazes me about it is how I never learn. I know the power is out. I may even have a flashlight in one hand, and still, with the other, I’m feeling for the switch. I find it. I snap it on, and nothing. Power outage or not, I do it, and every time I do, I expect the lights to come on. It is second nature when you walk into a dark room to turn on the light.
When Paul talks about “the obedience of faith” in Romans, he is getting at the relationship between what we believe and what we do. We flick a light switch with total trust that light will flood the room. The fact that we flick light switches even after we know that the power is out is a testimony to a trust so embedded in us that it shows up in our actions even when we should know better. The simplest of actions bears witness to faith, that is, faith in the way lights and light switches work.
Part of what “the obedience of faith” means is that our faith, that is, our trust in God, becomes observable, just the way your trust in a light switch is observable in your action to change its position. Trust in God comes out through our hands and feet, as it were, not by some force of will and not by some resolution to turn over a new, more trusting, leaf. The obedience of faith is just faith made manifest in actions, and all of us are always acting on the basis of what we believe.
But here a problem presents itself. You know this problem well if you have ever confessed anxiety to a well-meaning friend and heard in reply, “Don’t worry,” or “You just have to have a little faith.” Hearing that the obedience of faith flows naturally from one’s trust in God is great. You can stop worrying about the “obedience” part of the obedience of faith. But that news does not make the “faith” part actually happen. Trust in the future is related to performance in the past. I trust that light switch so much because it has so often demonstrated its trustworthiness to me.
God's Obedience of Faith
God demonstrates trustworthiness too, but not quite on the same terms as the light switch.
In the first lesson for today, the prophet Isaiah is the king’s well-meaning friend telling him not to worry so much. The Lord has told Isaiah to tell King Ahaz, “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint” (Isaiah 7:4). Ahaz is not easily quieted. He has heard that two different kings are joining forces to come against him in battle, and he is worried.
On the theory that it would be easier for Ahaz to trust in something he can see, Isaiah tells him to ask for a sign of God’s faithfulness, and when Ahaz will not do that, Isaiah says, “OK, the Lord will give you sign anyway. A young woman will conceive and bear a son. Before he is old enough to make decisions for himself, the two kings you are so worried about will have been assigned to the dustbin of history” (cf. Isaiah 7:14-16).
Joseph is worried too. In the gospel reading, Joseph is on the verge of dismissing Mary quietly. He has found out Mary is pregnant, and he knows the child is not his. In a dream an angel tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
A young woman, a little child, and several years to see how it will all work out…. These hardly seem like elements of a sign from God; they seem more like the “wait-and-see” of everyday life, along with a little something unbelievable thrown in: powerful kings overthrown, a virgin bearing a son, a child growing up to save his people from their sins. Even so, after a few millennia of watching God’s redemptive work playing out in the arena of everyday life, it does come to look like something you can count on.
Paul offers his own version of the story. He tells the Romans that Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh. That is the ordinary part: like tens of thousands before him and millions after him, Jesus was a Jew. Paul also tells the Romans that Jesus was raised from the dead. Not so ordinary. Again, the ordinary bumps up against the unbelievable, and again, the grace of God bursts forth.
Trusting the saving activity of God to be manifest in daily life is never as mechanistic as the exchange between me and my light switch. Real relationships are involved in trusting God. When Paul talks about the obedience of faith, he is talking about life with God and with other human beings. The news of what God has done in Jesus Christ inspires an obedience of faith that is faith in God’s saving, redeeming righteousness and obedience that we live out with a whole lot of other people of God who are, like us, sometimes obedient and sometimes disobedient. Relationships have more variables, and a greater margin for error, than your standard human-to-light-switch equation.
Nonetheless, God proves trustworthy. We watch God’s redemptive work playing out in the arena of everyday life, this insistence God has on redeeming people to love God and one another (cf. Romans 13:10), and we realize it is something we can count on, something we can trust. The obedience of faith is that trust made manifest in our own ordinary lives. It is also, Paul says, what God intends for all.