by Doug Marshall
Sacrifice is at the center of the work of salvation. Sacrifice is God’s way of dealing with what is wrong in history, which is to say, what is wrong with us, individually and collectively. it is God’s way of dealing with sin.
Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays 10000 Places
Jesus Comes to Save Us
I believe that is a parable for Christmas. This is the time we remember that Jesus is the gift that God has given to us, a gift far greater than our wildest imagination. The angel tells Joseph to name his son Jesus because the name Jesus means God saves. In Jesus God gives to us the gift of salvation.
We know that Jesus is our savior and that salvation is at the center of the Christian message. We all probably have an idea of what salvation is, but if we asked ten people to define salvation we would probably end up with twenty answers. What I’d like to do this morning is not to try to give you a definition of salvation, but to share with you three reflections about salvation, three different ways to understand what salvation is.
First, salvation means that our sins are forgiven. As the angel said to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She is going to have a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sin.”
It doesn’t take too much to convince us of the reality of sin. There is enough evil in our world that it would be hard to deny sin. Wars, terrorism, corruption, injustice. The real danger in thinking about sin is assuming that it is “out there,” someplace else. The real problem of sin is not out there, but in our own lives.
In 1960 Adolf Eichmann was captured, taken to Israel and put on trial for his part in the Holocaust of World War II. The prosecutors brought former concentration camp survivors as witnesses against him. One witness was called Yehiel Dinur. He had survived the horrors of Auschwitz. As he entered the courtroom he looked at Eichmann through the bullet-proof glass. Here was the man who had murdered his friends and many other Jews. Here was the man who had overseen the torture and massacre of millions of people. The courtroom grew silent as the two men started at each other. Then something unexpected happened. Dinur began to cry. In fact, he sobbed.
Later, Yehiel Dinur was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Mike Wallace. “What happened in there. Were you overcome by hatred? Did the horrifying memories of Auschwitz devastate you? Were you overwhelmed by the evil on Eichmann’s face?” Dinur said no. He had expected Eichmann to be the personification of evil, yet when he looked at Eichmann he realized that he was an ordinary man. At that moment Dinur realized that sin and evil were a human condition. He knew that he was capable of doing the same thing. As he said, “Eichmann is in all of us.”
We have all sinned and turned our backs on God and on God’s people. Whether we have committed terrible crimes like Eichmann or just held a grudge and refused to forgive someone, we have all sinned. Whether we have committed acts of terrorism or ignored the needs of people who were hungry or homeless, we all need forgiveness. The good news is that Jesus came into our world to save us from our sins. Salvation means that we are forgiven!
Second, salvation means that God overcomes the brokenness of our lives. I love the way Isaiah describes the salvation that God brings us; those who are blind will see, the deaf will hear, those who are crippled will leap like a deer, those who can’t talk will shout and sing for joy.
Think about what Jesus did throughout his ministry. He taught and he preached, but he also healed people. A man had been crippled his whole life. He had to beg for a living. Jesus said, “Get up and walk.” A woman spent all of her money on doctors but she was still bleeding after twelve years. She touched Jesus’ robe and was healed. A widow was grieving the death of her only son, realizing that now she was alone in the world with no one to help her. Jesus brought her son back to life. Again and again Jesus heals the brokenness of our lives.
Craig Barnes talks about standing at the baggage carousel in an airport. People stand there watching these worn-out, beat-up bags go round and around and around. In some ways our lives are a lot like that. The worn-out, beat-up baggage from past hurts keeps showing up again and again and again. Maybe it’s the baggage that came from parents who weren’t perfect, or baggage from self-esteem issues, or baggage from people who have hurt us or times we have hurt ourselves, or baggage from other struggles that have overwhelmed us. The brokenness of our lives cycles in and out of our consciousness. It impacts who we are, what we do, and how we relate to each other. I love what Craig says about this baggage. “The hardest thing to leave behind in following Christ is not our many possessions, but the hurt and guilt we’ve collected as souvenirs from the places we’ve been. Periodically it’s necessary to get rid of the junk” (Leadership Journal, Fall 2003 p67).
The problem is that we can’t get rid of that baggage on our own. Every time we try to get rid of our baggage we throw it away and it lands on the carousel. At some point it cycles right back into our lives. Instead of trying to get rid of it ourselves we need to give it to Jesus. Jesus is the one who can and does save us from our brokenness. As Isaiah says, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those with fearful hearts ‘Be strong, do not fear.’ Here is your God… He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:3-4).
There is a third idea about salvation I want to share with you. It is one of the central ideas of Christmas. Salvation means that we are not alone because God is always with us. “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us.” God doesn’t wait until we have our lives together or until we are good enough. God comes to us just as we are, with all of our sin and with all of our brokenness. We are not alone because God is with us.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist from the 20th century. He developed a theory about the hierarchy of needs. At the bottom, our basic need is physical. We need food, water, shelter, things like that. The next level of needs are about safety. Are we safe or do we have to worry about our jobs, or families, or our health. Most of us are fairly comfortable in these first two levels. I doubt that many of us worry about having enough food or water and we live in a relatively safe place. The next level is the one where many people in our society begin to struggle. It is the social level. It has to do with our need for love and friendship, for intimacy and belonging.
My guess is that most of us have issues at this level. One way this is lived out for many people is loneliness. Remember Jodie Foster, the actress. In 2013 she won a Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award. In her acceptance speech she made this statement: “Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply, and to be not so very lonely.” Jodie Foster has all the outward signs of success, yet she struggles with loneliness. Henri Nouwen described the problem this way. He said that the cause of loneliness is the belief, that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used. The many small rejections of everyday – a sarcastic smile, a flippant remark, a brisk denial or a bitter silence – may all be quite innocent and hardly worth our attention if they did not constantly arouse our basic human fear of being left totally alone. Henri Nouwen , Reaching Out p26
My friends, Christmas is the message of Emmanuel – God with us. We are not alone. Salvation is the idea that our God values us so much, desires a relationship with us so much, that God left behind his eternal glory, and in the person of Jesus Christ came to live with us and for us. We are not alone because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee O Israel!”