How we fit in to God’s plan – Time for Justice #5

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Philippians 2:5-13

In the last few weeks we have covered quite some ground:

  • We’ve seen that injustice has its roots in the human heart, in people estranged from a loving God, in the sin of the human heart
  • We’ve seen that God cares deeply for the victims of injustice
  • We’ve seen that he hates injustice, and how he uses the strongest language to describe his feelings towards that injustice
  • And last week we have learned the surprising truth that his plan is to use his church to deal with the injustices of our world
  • On Good Friday and Easter Sunday we will see how the cross of Christ changes everything, and how the glorious reality of the resurrection impacts the church’s calling.
  • The week after we’ll be nailing it all home.

What we want to look at today is the question of how. How do we fit in with the plan of God? What is it we are to do? It’s a challenging question. And to get into this I want to tell you a story…

How do we fit in with the plan of God?

Once, when I was a little boy, maybe four years old, we visited my grandfather in a neighbouring town. Television had only been in Australia for 5-6 years. And because we lived so far away from the place of broadcast, anyone who wanted to receive the TV signal needed at least a 15 meter TV antenna. That meant no one could get TV on the sly. As soon as that huge antenna went up, your neighbourhood knew you had TV. My mother, who was especially good at noticing things, would sometimes see a new TV antenna and say “Ooh, they’ve got TV!”

So, we are at my grandfather’s house, and the next door neighbour had just had her TV installed. We knew this because my mother has seen the antenna. So after lunch, Mum asked whether me and my older sister wanted to go next door and look at the TV. We were pretty excited about that. So, guess what we did? We raced next door, sat on the front lawn and stared at the 15 TV antenna. It was great! For the first few minutes. And really, we had no idea that inside the house there was a box with a screen with pictures and sound! Imagine that: we thought the experience was all about looking at the antenna. We had no idea there was more to it. There we were: content to sit in the front yard staring at the TV antenna. Yet is there a sense in which, with regard to our faith, it sometimes feels we’re doing just that: staring at an antenna, but wondering whether there’s more to it.

Why do the glorious realities of the Gospel sometimes leave us feeling underwhelmed?

Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being so incredibly blessed. We live in a beautiful country, in a wonderful city, we have so much: good health, reasonable income, leisure time, capacity to do whatever we choose. Might this work against us?

We know the truth. We have been given forgiveness in Christ. We have eternal life in his name. We have the fullness of grace. But too often it doesn’t feel like fullness. Why do those glorious realities sometimes leave us feeling underwhelmed?

If we look at Philippians 2, we know it’s not because of any lack in Jesus Christ or his work:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11, NIV)

Jesus is the greatest expression of God’s saving plan. His suffering and death, his glorious resurrection, the fact that he is seated at the right hand of God shows his glorious victory. His name is above every other name! And Paul says this wonderful God will bring the work of his son in his people to a flourishing finish:

“[Being] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, NIV)

This God is working the life Jesus into us day by day:

“for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13, NIV)

This God who directed all history toward the coming of his Son, toward the cross, toward the open tomb, who had Pilate, and Herod, and the executioner all doing his will; this same sovereign God is now working in you to bring the fullness of Christ’s life to expression! And it’s no surprise Paul continues, ‘now, you Christians, you church, you keep working out what God is working in.’

When he says ‘keep working out your salvation’ he’s not talking about mere mental activity, like when you work out the square root of 144. And he’s not talking about the sort of working out you do at the gym.

When Paul says ‘work out your salvation’ he’s saying bring your salvation to full fruitfulness, bring it to full expression in everything, put it into effect entirely and thoroughly. He’s saying: Don’t stop until the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom flourishes in the totality of new community together and the entirety of your individual lives. And he even tells us what that will look like:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12, NIV)

There it is again: we know Jesus, we worship Jesus, we live for Jesus … but this fear and trembling, where is that? What is that? Gotta say: I read those words and I get this sense that I am looking at the TV antenna, and thinking there’s probably more to it. This fear and trembling – what is that?

Well, it’s not a fear of punishment. The Bible makes it clear: Jesus has dealt with that, and there is no more condemnation for those who are in him (see Rom 8:1).

Fear and trembling arises from a profound awareness that God is bigger, more powerful, gloriously greater, more disturbingly wonderful than anything we can imagine. Fear and trembling flows out of a deep sense of our own insignificance. An awareness of our profound dependence on the Lord and his mercy. Fear and trembling is living out the unnerving adventure of grace. It is intentional witness and new life which confronts the dark forces of our world. This fear and trembling cannot be manufactured. On the contrary, it comes when we are so unsettled from expressing Christ’s new life entirely and thoroughly that we can do no other but fear and tremble as we follow. Paul mentions fear and trembling as a normal experience, but is it our normal experience? Is it yours?

Now, there are plenty of Christians around who will say if you lack fear and trembling it’s because you haven’t been baptised with the Holy Spirit, or because you don’t speak in tongues, or because your not prospering, or because you don’t have enough faith, or some other reason. IN response, we need to remember how Paul reminds us the Holy Spirit is given to every follower of Jesus when they believe (Eph 1:13-14). But here’s the thing, every believer has the Spirit, but that Spirit can be quenched and his work stifled (see Eph 4:30).

By the same token, a life of trust from a person who follows Jesus, who obeys and honours him, when someone seek to do that with a full heart and in all things they will increasingly find the Spirit challenging them to a more determined and courageous Christianity. Obedience matters.

Paul is describing Christian life with edge. A living for Jesus which on a regular basis is passionate, courageous, stretched, and demanding.

Could it be that we do not often feel fear and trembling because we love our comfort, our privileges too much?

Could it be that this preoccupation with ourselves prevents us from entering into the fullness of life, from living our faith on the edge, and so there’s no fear, and little trembling?

Could it be that we’re looking at the antenna, and not living what Jesus calls ‘the deeper realities’?

IJM’s Gary Haugen sums it up well:

This is, I believe, a voice of divine restlessness. This is a voice of sacred discontent. This is the voice of a holy yearning for more … This is the moment in which we can see that all the work that God has been doing in our lives and in the life of the church is not an end in itself; rather, the work he has been doing in us is a powerful means to a grander purpose beyond ourselves. … This is the critical transition—when we who have been rescued by Christ come to understand that our rescue has not been simply for ourselves but for an even more exalted purpose. Indeed our own rescue is God’s plan for rescuing the world that he loves. 

[Just Courage]

We have not been rescued from sin and death so we can take it easy. God has worked his salvation into us so we can work it out, so we can put it into effect entirely and thoroughly. So that we can live new life with edge, with a sense of scary adventure, with fear and trembling. So we can serve God’s purpose (v.13). So we might will (that is, decide and choose) and act (that is, behave and do) the very things he has purposed in us.

The grander purpose the Lord has for us is that we enter into his heart for justice. Not a new program. Not a means to make people more busy. But a working out of what God has worked in, and a pursuit of the things which are close to the heart of God. The things Jesus calls ‘the weightier matters.’

So, here at Gateway we are embarking on a deepening of our strategic vision. The plans follow something of the material outlined in Jim Martin’s “The Just Church

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Encounter

We want to start a group, or a number of groups, that we might call ‘justice learning communities’. Everyone in these groups will be committed to working through key sections of God’s word which deal with justice, mercy and compassion. These  learning communities will prayerfully sit under the word. They will spend much time in prayer as they will work through some key books like

These groups will not be academic or merely intellectual. They will be prayerful, united, and desiring a deepening understanding of God’s call to be his people of justice. We will take some time to do this. Maybe 6-12 months. We will ask God to open our eyes, and to speak to us powerfully. We won’t want to assume we know the answers. We will be asking him daily to lead us to the right outcomes.

Explore

As we continue this learning, the time will come to start developing a justice task force, a ministry group who will

  • Ascertain the key needs around us in Cockburn. They will identify areas where people are vulnerable, they will work to unearth any injustice in our neighbourhood
  • Look also to wider contexts in Australia and beyond where the Gateway Church Family might be able to express the mercy and justice of the Kingdom of Jesus
  • See what resources we have: what are the gifts, skills, opportunities, passions and interests here in our church community?
  • They will then seek to match those resources to needs identified locally and beyond.

Engage

The third stage will see us prayerfully and intentionally start to respond to the various needs identified in the first two stages. In reality, this will be the hardest work on the justice journey. But it is what we are called to do.

They may be much risk as we respond to the needs around us, and we bet go into it with our eyes wide open. We don’t only need to see clearly the work that needs to be done and the resources we have to do it. The most important thing is that our eyes are fixed firmly on the Christ who is exalted above all things. He is the One on whom we depend. He is the One who lives in and empowers his people. He is the One who is with us always, even to the very end of the age. This being so, he is also the one in who is with us in our times of fear and trembling, who enables us to live his new life with faith and edge and courage.

My prayer is that we will all be changed in this process of growth and discovery. My prayer is that this justice journey will change our church, and lead us more into the maturity the Lord calls us to. Will you share that prayer that with me? It’s true, it may be a hard and difficult work. But Jesus is on the throne! Jesus is the Risen King. And the last thing any of us would want to do is keep looking at the antenna when deeper life and greater realities await us.

Please indicate how you want to engage with the justice journey by taking the brief survey below:

God’s Heart for the Victim – Group Study Questions

Read Jeremiah 22:1-16

Share a few examples of injustices you see in your local community or in your world. Are these affecting people known to you, or are they more situations that you are aware of but you don’t now the people concerned? If we are not particularly close to victims of injustice, how might this alter our perception of this issue?

To what extent do we regard injustice as a core factor in the decline of the Old Testament kingdoms of Israel and Judah?

The injustice of Jehioakim, Jehoiachin, Shallum and other rulers would one dat lead to exile and to Jerusalem’s destruction (see Jer 22:5, 8-9). It seems unthinkable that God would visit such terrible punishment on his own people. What does this tell us about God’s heart for victims of injustice?

“When God’s people allow injustice to thrive, they break the Covenant with the Lord” – Explain

Read Luke 4:18-19 and Mark 11:15-17. What do these passages tell us about Jesus’ views on injustice, and the place they occupy in his Kingdom mission? How do these words of Jesus reflect what we read in Jeremiah 22?

How does the death and resurrection of Jesus impact on what we think and do about injustice?

If it’s true that the things that matter to God should also matter to God’s people, what does this mean for

* how we do church

* what we do as church?

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These questions relate to “Time for Justice – God’s Heart for the Victim”. You can read the full text here.

Time for Justice – God’s Heart for the Victim

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Readings: Jeremiah 22:1-16; Psalm 35:10

The Old Testament chronicles the sad and sorry decline of God’s ancient people: The Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. We typically hear about the spiritual adultery of worshipping idols and other false gods as being the primary reasons for this decline. What we may not realise is that the idolatry of these once great nations was not simply the worshipping of foreign or false gods. It was also their greed and abuse of power to such a degree that they trampled and oppressed their own people. This injustice, a core element of their unfaithfulness and idolatry, ultimately led to their downfall and exile.

King and Country

The emphasis Jeremiah gives here, and the voice of God through him, is unmistakable:

“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3, NIV)

“But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.’ ”” (Jeremiah 22:5, NIV)

Further, doing justice, living in righteousness, in right-ness, was an integral part of being God’s treasured possession and his holy nation, so much so that

““People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this great city?’ And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and have worshipped and served other gods.’ ”” (Jeremiah 22:8–9, NIV)

When God’s people allow injustice to thrive, they break the covenant. As the Lord speaks through Jeremiah, he remembered a once faithful ruler

““…He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 22:15–16, NIV)

So, what was happening? What was going on? It turns out the reign of Judah’s King Jehoiakim and Israel’s Shallum were marked by gross injustice and crimes against humanity. What were these injustices? We see them outlined in Jeremiah 22

“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3, NIV)

People were being robbed blind. Foreigners, refugees, widows, the fatherless, those least able to defend themselves were being violated:

““Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.” (Jeremiah 22:13, NIV)

The King was building a glorious palace, and doing so with the lives of his own people, refusing to pay them.

““But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.”” (Jeremiah 22:17, NIV)

What King enslaves his own people? Had he forgotten that Israel themselves had been slaves in Egypt?

These rulers have forsaken the holy covenant he has made with his people. And as such they were the polar opposite to the Lord’s desire for a just ruler:

“Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.
May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72:1–4, NIV)

How did the Lord feel about the Kings of Israel and Judah perpetrating these things? To answer this, observe the emotion, the heart of the Lord in the following:

“But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.’ ”” (Jeremiah 22:5, NIV)

Tell me what you see: What emotion do you see there? Anger, retribution.

“For this is what the LORD says about the palace of the king of Judah: “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a wasteland, like towns not inhabited. I will send destroyers against you, each man with his weapons, and they will cut up your fine cedar beams and throw them into the fire.” (Jeremiah 22:6–7, NIV)

What emotion do you see? Grief! Anger!

““People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this great city?’” (Jeremiah 22:8, NIV)

What emotion do you see? Ridicule, shame, embarrassment

““Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.” (Jeremiah 22:13, NIV)

What emotion do you see? Warning, rising anger

“He will have the burial of a donkey— dragged away and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem.”” (Jeremiah 22:19, NIV)

What emotion do you see? Shame, offence, disgust, contempt

““As surely as I live,” declares the LORD, “even if you, Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still pull you off.” (Jeremiah 22:24, NIV)

What emotion do you see? Disgust, bitterness, anger

“I will hurl you and the mother who gave you birth into another country, where neither of you was born, and there you both will die.” (Jeremiah 22:26, NIV)

What emotion do you see? Anger, wrath, utter rejection

God’s heart for the victim

We see in these reactions, not merely the Lord’s heart for justice, but his compassionate heart for the victim. It’s not just that laws are being broken. People are being violated. The innocent are being killed. God’s image is being oppressed. This becomes particularly clear when we see how the Lord describes his own character:

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:17–18, NIV)

Hundreds of years before, as his people prepared to enter the land of promise, The Lord gave very specific instructions for how they should care for the vulnerable. Why? Because he wanted his people to be like him. To be holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44)

Turn to the Psalms, and we get a similar picture:

“Who is like you, LORD? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”” (Psalm 35:9–10, NIV)

God rescues the poor and needy from the strong – why? Why would he do that? Because he has a heart for the victim.

“Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him—his name is the LORD.
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing…” (Psalm 68:4–6, NIV)

See how that speaks of God’s heart? His deep concern for the fatherless? How His compassion drives him to defend the widows? How he cares for the lonely, those without families? Even those imprisoned?

Here’s the question: Is this how you typically think of God? Have you ever considered how much he loves those who are victims of injustice? You should, if you know Jesus. Remember the words Jesus used to open his ministry?

““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”” (Luke 4:18–19, NIV)

Jesus’ whole ministry is marked with a compassion for the poor and those trapped – not only by sin – that certainly – but also for those trapped in the oppressive consequences of sin. For example, the oppressive regime of spiritual abuse of the Pharisees.

““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23, NIV)

All God’s law is important, but some aspects are more weighty than others. And living with justice, mercy and faithfulness cannot be glossed over.

Another outstanding example of Jesus’ heart for justice and his love for those victimised by it is found in Mark 11.

“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:15–17, NIV)

In one sense, the traders seem to have been disrupting the worship in the temple courts, creating a rabble where it should never have been. But the real issue, the real cause of Jesus’ anger, is found in v.17. The real issue was that those responsible for the Temple not only allowed trading with all its associated commotion and corruption – that’s another sermon – the big issue was that they had made the temple ‘a den or robbers’. Not just a noisy market place. It was a den. A den or robbers. And what do robbers do in a den?

They hide there! They find protection there!

The religious leaders had turned the temple into a place that protected corruption, abuse and robbery. Jesus’ anger shows just what God thought about people who offer protection to the unjust!

Thinking back to Jeremiah 22, there’s no doubt is a terrible chapter. But the very next chapter tells us that the Lord will rise up a ‘righteous branch”. In accordance with the covenant promises of the Lord, one would come and he would reign wisely, do what is right, do righteousness, do what is just, and his name would be Yahweh Zidkenu “The Lord our Righteousness”.

The New Testament shows us who that righteous branch is – his name is Jesus. And thinking about that, isn’t the greatest proof for God’s compassionate heart for those oppressed with injustice the Cross of Christ?

Isn’t the greatest injustice of all the sin of the human heart, which turns people into rebels against our gracious God?

Outside of Christ we are powerless to deal with our own sin. Ravaged by rebellion. Oppressed with our guilt and failing. And yet the Easter Gospel is that Jesus Christ came to save, to rescue, to redeem. Not merely from an economic, or social, or political injustice, but from the evil that oppresses the human heart.

The Cross is the greatest statement ever of the compassionate heart of the Living Lord for a people enslaved. The resurrection is the greatest statement of victory over those dark powers. It tells us that our core issue can be dealt with. The people can be redeemed. That lives can be transformed. The Cross has conquered the greatest injustice, and in his power he calls us to liberate people not simply from unjust life situations, but from the greater power of the evil one.

So, the picture in Scripture is consistent: the things that mattered to God in the OT also mattered to Jesus in his ministry and in the Cross. And perhaps the biggest question we need to answer, then, is this:

Do the things that matter to God matter to us?

In Christ we are being recreated in the image of our creator God. Is his heart for the victim seen in our attitudes and actions?

Does the church today reflect the character of the Lord, and His Son, who care deeply for those victimised by injustice? It should:

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1–2, NIV)

If we are to imitate God, and walk in his way of love, shouldn’t this be visible in a changed heart for injustice’s victims?

Imitating God – how?

Isn’t it true that every time we see a person enslaved, oppressed with sin and its consequent injustices, we see a situation that grieves the heart of God? Aren’t we witnessing something God wants to stop?

How then can we embody this character of the Lord? There will come a time for us to talk about action, but for now, pray that you will see injustice through the eyes of God, and in the light of the cross and the open tomb.

This next week pray one prayer:

Lord, open my heart to your own heart. Let me be more in tune with how you see the sin ravaged brokenness of the world around me.

Holy Spirit, let me feel the grief, the holy anger, the deep disturbance of soul you feel ever time someone is abused and oppressed.

Lord, open my eyes. Let me see the injustices around me. Let me see things for what they really are. Give a discerning eye, and a compassionate vision for those you long to bring to life through Jesus.

Lord, keep me from prejudice, from rushing to judgement, from assuming I know the reasons why people are in the situation they are in.

They are your image, too, Lord. Help me, with the good news of Jesus, restore that broken image.

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If you’re after some suggestions on how you can seek justice you should check out International Justice Mission (Australia) and (USA).

The Origins of Injustice – Group Study Questions

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In which contexts would people of your culture typically come into contact with injustice?

Injustice is when someone uses their power to take from others the good things God wants them to have: their life, liberty, dignity and the fruits of their love and labour (International Justice Mission) – Discuss

Dave mentioned in his sermon that up until the last 10 years or so, he was not aware of much emphasis on the issue of injustice from evangelical Christian preachers. Is that a common experience? What factors might account for it?

Read Ezekiel 22:1-16. What strikes you about the way injustice is spoken about in this passage?

Read Lev 19:35-37, and Lev 11:45. Discuss the ultimate motive for God’s people to embody his law (see also Ex 19:4-6)

Since injustice has its roots in the fall, the ultimate cure is Christ ruling his people and his world – Discuss.

What are the implications of the above for the many good – but ultimately secular – efforts against injustice?

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.

Study Questions: A Time to Hope

Reading

 Luke 1:67-80

Read the sermon here

Questions:

In Australia, some people call the lead up to Christmas ‘the silly season’ because it’s such a busy and stressful time. How does all this busyness and stress impact on your ability to worship Jesus at this time of year?

Prior to the announcement of the impending birth of both John & Jesus, “Plenty of people would have been thinking that following God was a waste of time. That God was either deaf to their cries, or that He did not care. With their world as a dark and hopeless place, it seemed their dreams of God coming to their rescue had come to nothing.”  – In which life situations today would people be inclined to think the same?

“God just entered their mess, their darkness. He just waded into this failed, fallen and fractured people, and spoke words of grace.” In what ways can God’s people today reflect his gracious action and character?

Luke 1:71 says the coming Messiah will save us “from all the enemies who hate us”  – who are these enemies today, and what are the best ways for Christians to help people see see this clearly?

Read Romans 8:1-4. What has God done to take away condemnation? What does this mean to you?

If you would like to know more about the hope God brings to people whose lives are a mess, please feel free to comment.