A Time for Rescue

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Reading: Matthew 1:18-23, focussing on Matthew 1:23

People think carefully before naming their children. We tend to go by how a name sounds, and what’s popular at the time. Back in the days of the NT, people chose names that were more like a prayer.

Nathaniel: gift of God.

Simon: God has heard

Jesus – or Yeshua (the Aramaic name we have anglicised into Jesus) is not such a common name in our part of the world. But it certainly was at the time Jesus was born. The name ‘Jesus’ expressed a parent’s prayer of hope and expectation that God would purify his people and save them from oppression.

Parents who used that name remembered a great deliverance from Pharaoh in Egypt, and they prayed something like that would happen to free them from the domination of Rome, and return Israel to its former glory.

‘Jesus’ expressed a parent’s prayer of hope and expectation that God would purify his people and save them from oppression

So the name ‘Jesus’ was a common enough. What was uncommon was the events surrounding his birth. Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah and Elizabeth, not only announcing the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, but also that he would prepare the way of someone even greater.

Interestingly, with Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary & Joseph, their children were not named by the parents, but by God.

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”” (Matthew 1:21, NIV)

Give him the name “Jesus”. It was more than a prayer: it was a profound revelation. A statement of divine truth. A proclamation of God’s action:

‘…he will save his people from their sins’

It is as if God pulls back the curtain on our little world, and reveals his plan to Mary and Joseph. God has been at work since the beginning of time to bring this moment to pass. God’s reality was about to break into our world and nothing will ever be the same.

Call him ‘Jesus’. He will save his people from their sins.

There is a problem…

That single sentence helps us make sense of Christmas. It brings us to the nub of the problem with our world, with us, with humanity. This is the issue: sin is a reality. But who wants to know about that? It’s like we are in some form of cosmic denial.

Look at it this way: Back then, the people of God saw their biggest problem as contextual. Like Israel in Egypt, they thought that if they could just get rid of the latest Pharaoh, Caesar, and if they could just follow God’s law, everything would be OK.

So there were zealots, ancient religious fundamentalists, who did whatever they could to get rid of the Romans. They never succeeded.

And there were the Pharisees: religious leaders devoted to the law of God, who believed that if only God’s people would respect and obey the law, God would then intervene, defeat Rome, and return Israel to her glory.

Neither of these groups were dealing with the core issue. Both of them had missed the point that the problem was more insidious and deceptive.

sin is a reality

All through the Old Testament, Israel seemed consistently to miss this point. They often neglected the reality of personal and corporate sin, and externalised the problem.

If we could just get out of Egypt.
Then, if we could just go back to Egypt.
If we could just get rid of the Canaanites.
If we could just have a King like the other nations.
Then, if we could just get rid of this King.
And on it went.

Had they missed what the Lord had said all along? The problem has its root in the human heart. There was an uncleanness of heart and soul which needed to be removed, symbolised in the ancient act of circumcision:

“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” (Deuteronomy 10:16, NIV)

That this was something God would do for them:

“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6, NIV)

Hundreds of years later, he was still calling them to return to him and change their lives:

“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it.” (Jeremiah 4:4, NIV)

Surprisingly, they never did it. Sin had made them so blind to their own fallenness that they were incapable of dealing with it themselves. But this faithful God stuck by his word, and promise a rescuer who would come and save them completely:

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:2, NIV)

The Lord himself was promising to do the most astonishing thing:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:25–27, NIV)

He Himself would act to save, to cleanse. He would do something which could change a person at the very core, the damaged core, of their being. Jesus would save his people from their sins.

You know why? You know why he was always calling his people away from sin, and promising that he would deal with it?

Because God hates sin.

He hates it because it turns people away from him.
It wrecks lives.
It destroys families.
It makes people addicted to their own pride.
It wrecks his world.
It brings alienation and separation to every sphere of life and relationship.

But such statements are not popular in our day and age.

So, how do we respond to the idea of sin today?

I think our response is much like the people at the time of Jesus’ birth, or of Israel in Egypt. We think all we need to do is educate people better. Develop better policy. Change a government. Earn more. Eat less. See what we’re doing? We externalise our problems just like Israel. And no one wants to know about the sin of their heart, or a fallen humanity in open rebellion against God.

Many people laugh at those who are serious about sin. They say it’s an oppressive idea. A hangover of some Victorian morality. A relict medieval spirituality. But they cannot account for the fact that after all our advances, all our technology, all our opportunity, things are still a mess. And even amongst the most well educated, the best provided for, those with all the capacity, relationships still fail, people are still violent, their world is still a mess.

This is sin: the arrogant determination of humanity to live without God, independent of him, indifferent to him, and be their own master. Our world is in open rebellion against God, and his justice needs to be satisfied.

Jesus is the rescuer

This is why the Christmas message is good news! Jesus is the Rescuer! The Saviour!

But could Mary possibly have known how this would come about?

Who would have expected God to become a human being, to take on the human nature?

Who would have expected him to make himself vulnerable, powerless, and dependent on the very people who were his enemies?

Yet, in taking on the human nature, Jesus submitted himself to people who hated him. I know, it sounds harsh to speak that way about Mary, but she and Joseph were as fallen, and in need of rescue, as anyone else.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6–8, NIV)

Isn’t that remarkable? Jesus was born with a mission: to save his people. To redeem his people. To do what needed to be done to bring people back to God and deal conclusively with the sin which had bound the human heart.

Jesus was not merely going to rescue from some foreign oppressor, a Rome, an Egypt. This little child to be born would rescue people from the sin that bound their heart. This Jesus would break the dominion of the evil one over the people of God.

This is how much God hates the sin that controls the hearts and minds of people. He hates it so much, so powerfully, so profoundly, that he would send his one and only Son as a tiny helpless baby to be the rescuer. Your Rescuer, your Saviour, and mine.

Give us a wave!

That’s how we make sense of the silly season: we see it as the Saviour’s season! We see it as the annual announcement that Jesus saves people from their sin! His incarnation and birth leads to his crucifixion and death! The manger leads to the cross!

Jesus has come to rescue you from the sin which binds your heart, from the brokenness in relationship with God, from the guilt all this brings, from the wrath which God has for it all. Jesus is your rescuer!

Anyone here ever been rescued? Here’s my story:

I think Catherine, our oldest daughter, was about 10. We were at Dodges Ferry in Tasmania. There’s a huge inlet to the north east, with a tiny mouth into Frederick Henry Bay. We were in a kayak, and the tide was running out. We were only a few hundred meters from the shore, when I noticed that even though we were paddling toward the beach, we were actually slowly getting further away. I worked my incredibly toned and sculpted arm muscles harder… but to no avail. And then, behind us, I heard a motor boat…

What do you think I did?

I put my hand up and signalled that we were in some trouble. They approached us and threw us a line, and towed us safely to the beach. That was just the greatest gift. It saved a father and his daughter an unelected trip to Antarctica…

See, you only start thinking about rescue when you run out of options. When you have nothing. When everything you are doing is not helping at all. You only need rescue when you’re powerless. It’s then that you put your hand up, and call for help.

Surely we have seen enough of human history, of the newsfeed, of our own experience to know that we need help. We need rescue. We need Jesus to save us from our sin.

Isn’t it time to put your hand up?

Call to the rescuer?

No other options will work.

Now is the time: To Call out to Jesus, who will save you from your sin. To acknowledge your own need. Your own brokenness. He’s here! He’s here! He’s here to rescue!

It’s serious. You are in the kayak, and you’re going backwards. You’re in the rip, and you can’t fight it. You’re powerless. And if you don’t get rescued, if you don’t get saved, you will die. (There is a whole other side to this: what response he requires from you beyond asking for his rescue – that is next week…)

For now: Put your hand up!

Put your hand out!

Give us a wave!

Your Saviour is powerful.

Your Saviour is capable.

Your Saviour is keen.

And on the cross, his selfless sacrifice did everything necessary to rescue you. And today He promises to enter your life, cleanse you from your sin and guilt. To give you a new heart. A new beginning so powerful it is called a new life. And he calls you to return to him, to confess your sins, and your need of his grace and rescue, to come under his rule, to walk his way, to live his life, to follow and obey.

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