the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Romans 1. 1-7
Bottom-line, the gospel is, “God loves” …
period, exclamation mark, end of sentence!

Romans. Chapter one. Verses one through seven. That’s the Second Reading for this morning. Seven verses. A hundred and twenty-nine words. And, if you noticed, just one sentence! Ten commas. One colon. But only a single period at the very end of it all. And that’s pretty normal for Paul. But that’s the kind of thing that makes reading the bible so difficult. Even for someone “called and ordained.”

The sermons, this year, will be rooted in the Second Reading. And it always takes a few weeks to make the transition. From First Reading to Gospel. From Gospel Reading to Second. It, always, takes time to shift gears from storytelling to epistle. But this week, it was especially challenging.

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle …” After a while, all I heard was blah, blah, blah. Yada, yada, yada. And after a while, I was ready to move on. I read the passage. I read it, again. But nothing was jumping out at me. But that’s when my “inner” grammarian kicked in. Majoring in English, sometimes, has a payoff! Anyway, I picked up paper and pen and began to diagram the sentence, looking for the subject and verb that make it a sentence. There was one subordinate clause after another. Paul – a servant. Paul – called. The gospel – promised. The gospel – concerning. I parsed. I deconstructed. I analyzed. My professors would have been proud. Slowly I pulled the curtain aside. I scraped off everything that complicated things, everything that muddled the meaning. And then I found it! Just two words. Two words, that is, in the Greek. Grace! To you! Grace to you! That was the tree. Everything else, nothing more than tinsel and lights.

What Paul proclaims to god’s beloved was simple! God loves you! That’s his greeting! His salutation! After all the how-are-you-I-am-fines are wiped away, that’s what’s left! The reason for the letter! God. Loves. You. Grace is yours! Of course, the verb is missing. The “is” is taken for granted! Grace [is] to you! Greek, usually, just leaves it out. So, translators just stick one in. Like all those phrases in worship! Grace, love, and communion BE with you all! Thanks BE to God! The peace of Christ BE with you always! Only problem … in English, the word BE is generic. It’s not past, present, future. First person, second, third. It’s just a word tossed in where one was never spoken. Grace BE to you! It makes it sound more like a wish, an aspiration. No assurance. No guarantee. In the end, there’s nothing to believe in, nothing to rely on, nothing to stake your life on.

To do that, you need more than a wish. You need a promise! Certain! Sure! And that’s what Paul is giving here! A promise! He’s not saying, “May you have grace!” He’s not saying, “I hope, someday, someway, somehow, God will love you!” He’s saying – proclaiming – that God loves you! Grace is yours! No question! No doubt! Grace is yours! Right here! Right now! Something you can count on! Something you can glom onto! Something you can sink your teeth into! A done deal! Or rather, a done gift! One hundred twenty-nine words! All to say one thing! Not grace is yours unless or yours until … Not grace is your if … or and … or but … But just grace is yours! Simple! Plain! God loves you! Period! Exclamation point! End of sentence! It’s like the angel’s message to Mary that got this season started … “Hail Mary! Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” You’ve found favor with god! Favor you weren’t, even, looking for!

God loves! God loves and because god loves, we believe! Believe and, then, go on to love just like god! Grace is yours! That’s the heart and soul of faith! The bottom-line of believing! And yet, how often does it get buried, how often does it get lost, in the clutter of words! Of words that, in the end, doesn’t really matter! We mutter! We mumble! We drone on and on! And the reason we speak, to begin with, is never heard. And we wonder why. Why they never come. Why they never come back. Because if they heard, they’d never be the same, again! If we heard, we’d never be the same!

Grace is yours! You possess it! You own it! You hold it in your arms! Or rather, grace holds you in its arms! It’s yours! Now! Always! Forever! And the life – that new life – you live you live because of that! We live boldly! Confidently! Audaciously! We aren’t here to bow our heads, or close our eyes, or fold our hands. We’re here to stand tall! To look life right in the eye! To reach out to anyone – to everyone – who needs us! Grace is ours! God loves us! The world is, no longer, sketched in shades of gray. But it’s splashed, splattered, in reds and yellows and blues, in oranges and purples and greens! It’s bright! Alive! As bright and alive as that grace, that love! God calls and we go out! God out with good courage! Not because we have to! Not because we want to! But because that’s what happens when god calls! That’s what’s always happened! God says, “Let there be!” And there is! And so, we, too, go out! Knowing god’s hand is leading, god’s love supporting.

Grace to you! Charity to y’all! For us, those are the magic words! Those words are gospel! Good news! And they’re spoken and administered, Sunday after Sunday, season upon season! And we hear, we receive, and we’re changed! Made different! New! We hear, we receive, and we believe! We trust! Grace is yours! And we say, “Amen!” Say, “Amen!” and become that grace, that charity, that love, for the universe around us! Family and friends! Classmates and coworkers! Neighbors known and known-not-yet! And it’s all, really, pretty simple! After all the clutter is wiped away! After all the confusion is erased! Only two words, three in English, remain … God loves you! God loves us! And grace, my friends, grace is ours!