“Time for The Twelve Days, Off-key and Together”

“Time for the Twelve Days, Off-key and Together”
Isaiah 11:1-6
Romans 15:4-13
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
December 4, 2022 

Every year on Christmas night around 30 folks from the Lippert side of my family go over to grandma’s house for a dinner. And every year before dinner gets started, grandma has family members pick up one of the twelve 12 Days of Christmas glasses that she has out. The glass you pick is the glass you sing. 

Some, like my cousins Patrick and John always step forward to sing. They are happy to take the two turtle doves or three French hens glass since that means they get to sing their part over and over – and that’s fun. Some are like my Uncle Jim – A deep voice who knows how to go all out for “Five Golden Rings”. Others actively seek numbers 9-12 so that if they are going to participate, their part is shorter. 

What you have by the time of the singing is this strange mishmash of 

  • Commitment levels
  • Ages (grandma all the way down to great-grandchildren)
  • Geographies (people in town from as far as California, Texas, and Florida and near as down the street in Ohio)
  • Economics – blue and white collar
  • Politics – active, signs-in-the-front-yard kind of supporters of the exact opposite sides
  • Faith Expressions – deeply Catholic, deeply non-denominational, deeply leave me out of the hypocrisy that is all things church but maybe if there’s one that is not a mess I’m in? Deeply searching. And a couple Presbyterians. 

All these types have a glass in hand. But you know who has the hardest time participating in the singing of this family tradition? 

The folks in our family who have some training in music. Because their ear can hear – really well – just how off most of the voices are. They know the right way to sing this, the right way to stay in key… 

And I am not picking on musicians because look, we all have areas of expertise… 

We know how this works… We know where this goes… 

We know how the church has done this quite effectively for years… 

In this area, people should listen to us because we know what we are talking about, we are right. 

It is to the people who are ‘right’ that Paul writes this portion of the letter today. 

A little context on the picture of this church in Rome to which Paul is writing: 

In one part of the church you have the Jewish Christians – those who believe in Jesus and they also observe the Torah, the law of God as articulated most especially in the first five books of the Bible. 

So, they take seriously things that most people in Rome think nothing of – and most centrally at issue in the church is the fact that these Jewish Christians do not eat any meat that has been used as a sacrifice to a pagan god. 

No idol meat. 

In fact, one of the central ways this group shows forth its faithfulness to God is by keeping the sacred, involatile law of God. 

“The law is how we show forth faithfulness!” 

In this same church, you have Gentile Christians – those from among Rome’s very cosmopolitan population who have converted to Christianity and also believe in Jesus but do not believe the Torah is binding at all. 

They are free in Jesus Christ, and absolutely they will eat any and all meat because the idols to which the meat was offered are not even real. In fact, this group shows forth their faithfulness in such things as eating any and all meat for it tangibly shows to all that they are free in Christ. 

“Freedom is how we show forth faithfulness!” 

No surprise – these two groups were having a difficult time getting along. 

The Jewish Christians ‘sit in judgment’ of the Gentile Christians, as Paul puts in Romans 14. It’s a Greek word that has the sense of playing the part of God – of rendering what God thinks about that person, those people. 

The Jewish Christians have the Scriptures on their side, they are keeping the faith accordingly, and so yeah – they sit in the seat of God and judge the free-wheeling, loose morals, anything-goes Gentile “Christians.” 

The Gentile Christians, Paul writes in Romans 14, “disdain” the Jewish Jesus-Followers. 

That’s a word in Greek that means to perceive someone as beneath another’s consideration. Lower than you. The Gentile Christians, which likely have some among them from the more elite parts of society – this group looks down upon the Jewish Christians. 

They see the Jewish Christians as backward, as antiquated, as people who just don’t get it – and to follow rigid food laws like the Jewish Christians do would lead to social ostracism and likely material loss because you just didn’t turn down shared meat in that society. 

Judgment from one direction. Disdain from the other. 

The groups so different… but in one critical way they were absolutely the same: Both groups are fully convinced: they are right. 

This is how you sing the music. This is the key. This is the rhythm. Get in tune with us. 

And whether from a place of righteous judgment or condescending disdain – increasingly, each side’s life excludes the other side. 

Literally, they have difficulty getting to the same table for a meal because there may very well be meat at the table. And, so there’s the issue, there’s the litmus test for who’s right and who’s not. 

It may be a relief the church no longer feels such strong animosity about idol meat – but I think we readily recognize if it isn’t idol meat, it is the sale of indulgences. 

If it isn’t indulgences, it’s slavery. 

If it isn’t slavery, it’s evolution. 

If it isn’t evolution…it’s abortion. It’s masks. It’s elections. Or any number topics these days where we know – this is how you sing. 

And it’s hard because…these things are not trivial. 

What, Paul, is the word for a church full of people who are most definitely right on the critical issues of the time? Critical expressions of what faith looks like? How is the song really sung? Paul, what is the word? 

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves…” is how Romans chapter 15 begins. 

By which Paul means, “any among us who think ourselves right. We know how to sing the song. We know faith. We know how a mature Christian should be doing things…any who are right need to bear with the failings of the weak, those who are not right, and not please ourselves…” 

(Probably speaking to Jewish leaders given all the Scriptures he quotes about the Gentiles being included in Romans 15:7-13) 

Even so…What does it mean to bear the failings of the weak? 

Just a bit below that opening exhortation to the ‘strong’ he writes a prayer for the community that provides a picture of what he means: 

“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

The image is a people – Jew and Gentile, Law and Freedom, No Meat and Meat, People who literally cannot find a way to get to a common table – singing in harmony as one voice. 

“Ummm…that’s nice Paul. Kumbaya around the campfire. But there are far too many years of them being wrong. Too many years of them treating us with judgment or disdain. Too many layers of hurt and history and also – again – they’re wrong about some pretty important things.” 

Maybe, Paul…maybe if that side shows they are sorry… Maybe Paul…maybe if that side stops believing this about meat… 

Maybe Paul…maybe if that side makes a goodwill effort to learn the ways they are wrong… 

Then, we’ll get to the table and sing with them. How’s that? They go first. 

“Welcome one another…” 

“All of you, invite one another to the table.” 

In fact, if one is going to make the first move…it should be the strongest among you. The right-est. 

How do we do that, Paul? “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you.” 

How has Christ welcomed us to this table? 

We read in Philippians – Christ Jesus – The Strongest of Strong, the Rightest of Right, the Purest of Pure… with every reason to hold onto being Strong, Right, and Pure and make clear just how wrong we are – he did not hold onto the power of being right. He let go of that prerogative. He welcomed us by coming among us. This is encapsulated maybe most profoundly a bit earlier in the letter to the Romans: 

“For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” 

Not…once we started cleaning up our lives… Not…once we admitted we might be wrong… Not…once we stop believing we are better than them… 

While we were yet sinners. 

Yet judging. 

Yet pointing. 

Yet certain of our way. 

Christ loved us to the point of death that we might be brought to table with God and another. 

For the Savior of the World…love is the most, right thing. 

That’s the good news that got us to the table. 

To be sure, this does not make things easier and in fact makes things much more difficult given the complexities of the issue and people and evils of this world. 

But no matter how we contextualize this to our situation, Paul is clear: fundamental to Love’s way is somehow welcoming one another regardless of whether they deserve it… 

Joining in the song of faith alongside a whole bunch of people who are off-key, out-of-tune, and keep the melody all wrong …and the strong are to take the lead in making the invite. 

  • Who is God calling us to welcome to table this season – as we ourselves have been welcomed?
  • Where might we be called to let go of being right in order to show forth love as the most right?
  • Where might we risk singing alongside a surprising someone else knowing this action, this conversation – it is probably going to be awkwardly off-key at first, and maybe for a while… 

Welcome one another as I have welcomed you… this cross-shaped posture is not a natural or easy posture by any means. 

That’s why, in our passage today, Paul ends his exhortation to the church with this prayer: 

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

May the Holy Spirit do in us what we can never do by ourselves. 

May Jesus bring fill us will all joy and peace and hope so that our voice finds surprising harmony with the unlikeliest of family members gathered at table. 

Which would sound a lot like the voice of Jesus who brought together a reconciling harmony with all the wrong people… leading with love as the most, right thing. Amen. 

About Jaime Cowan