25Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
In many congregations, the end of worship is signaled by the giving of a benediction. Sometimes those benedictions are very formal and are carefully structured to impart a theological message to a departing congregation. Sometimes those benedictions are very informal and almost an afterthought to the sermon or closing music. Sometimes benedictions are passages of scripture, snippets of a gospel song, or lyrics of a sacred hymn. Sometimes the benediction involves the raising of hands. Sometimes a wave or a finger pointing towards the door is shared to get people moving outward. The benediction – formal or informal, planned or spontaneous – is a sign that gathered worship has finished and now God’s people will continue their worship out in the open as they witness and serve.
This particular benediction passage may be my favorite (although I like the 2 Corinthians 13:15, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, Jude 24-25, and Hebrews 13:20-21, too). It is encouraging, uplifting, and compelling to us as a people of faith. It makes clear that only God can strengthen us to live faithfully as kingdom witnesses. The gospel gives light to our darkness and purpose to our confusion, so that we are not overcome or defeated by our weakness, our trials, or our sin. Through Christ’s life and ministry, God spoke and everyone/everything listened. Because He spoke we now live for the glory of the Lord as the church is God’s benediction let loose into the world.
The passage is not just a prayer or a closing thought. There is something essentially true to be found that cannot be overlooked. The gospel that has become known to us is not just for our information or for data collection. In other words, knowing and even believing that God has acted in Christ is not the destination of our faith. Obedience is the goal. Belief is the starting point – the spark that makes life in Christ possible. Our belief is a catalyst to our obedient behavior and desire to not only know the gospel points, but live the gospel truth in all that we do and in all that we can imagine for God. Right belief and right action (obedience) are joined together as a revelation of God’s grace at work in and through His people. Right faith without obedience is not (biblical) Christianity. Neither is right behavior without a devout faith an expression of (biblical) Christianity. They are twin truths/traits in our journey of faith, hope and love.
When Mary encounters Gabriel who proclaims she is to give birth, she questions how this is to be, but she yields to the supernatural witness of the gospel quickly and submits in a humble, obedient way (Luke 1:26-38). Her life and body are no longer her own, for they belong to God. Her future, her family, her wedding is no longer hers. They are God’s to do with as He pleases. Yes, this is a scary thing for her to consider. Yes, this is different than the ideal plan for her. Yes, this promises a difficult season ahead for her and Joseph (hopefully). But the promise of God’s presence and provision get Mary’s full buy-in to believe and behave in concert with God’s activity in her life and world. If the Holy Spirit could conceive the Messiah in her virgin womb, then He could certainly help her through what would lie ahead for her even if Joseph bailed out. Mary’s faith was full of both knowing and doing. She knew God was good for His word AND she knew that knowing that was not the end of her encounter. She had to act in obedient faith and go where God was leading her.
It is better to go through struggles/challenges/failures with God than to go around all of that without Him. Every week, the benediction reminds us that God is not planning to wait in the sanctuary for us to return next week. He will not be hiding in safety from the scandal or scoundrel that pursues us. He will be going ahead of us into the world to help us live out the ways He has called us to live. Nothing is impossible with God and our faith – both through knowing and doing – propels us to walk with Him in every season of life – good, bad, and ugly.
If that is true – and I believe it is – then our Christmas season is full of potential. Not for gleaning the biggest haul under the tree or in our stocking, but by embracing a God that is not limited in how or where He can work in our life. God is at work in us and as we believe and act in obedience we are joining Him in His work. Our view of the world should always be through the lens of a saving/helping God that is never far away and is never indifferent to what we are facing. We are participants in a Christmas miracle that shows up and passes out good news and great grace in us and through us. We are participants in a Christmas about nothing but a God that creates, redeems, and gives care to us. We are in for a Christmas of nothing but God with us – in a manger, on a cross, from the tomb. We are witnesses at a Christmas of nothing but the one, true and living God reminding us that it really is all about Him. We are the benediction of God at a Christmas of nothing but good news, glad tidings, and joy to the world.