The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 23, 2018 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
Many people look around them, see great evil and exclaim with dismay, “What has this world come to!”
At Christmas, Christians also see the evil and exclaim, “What has this world come to!”; but, looking at that Bethlehem barn, they also exclaim, with joyful hope, “What has come to this world!”
What has come to this world, the Bible says, is God’s love in the flesh: in the person of a Mighty Savior, the God-Man Jesus who intends to right what is wrong, rebuild what is ruined, and redeem who is rebellious.
Isaiah’s name means, in Hebrew, “the Lord is my salvation”. All who trust the Lord experience in their own lives the truth of Isaiah’s name. In finding God they find salvation, both as their deliverance from evil and their development into better people.
In today’s prophecy Isaiah exults in the fact that “God has become my salvation”, and encourages others to do the same. He reminds them that their salvation is a matter of God’s deciding to be in the “midst” of them and of God’s having “done gloriously” for them. Isaiah celebrates that God is, from beginning to end, at the center of their salvation. He is both the launch pad and the destination, the foundation for changed lives and their fulfillment, the end and the means to the end. It’s all His doing, His accomplishment, from start to finish.
The full implication of this insight would not be entirely grasped until after Jesus came and His Spirit guided people into the depths of the truth. Thus, the New Testament book called Ephesians says this about our salvation: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” In other words, those whom the God-Man Jesus saves were once spiritually dead: living corpses, so to speak. Now, since corpses have nothing to contribute, we have nothing to contribute to our deliverance from death and resurrection to a new life. And, if we claim that we were at least smart enough or good enough to have chosen to put our trust in Christ and to collaborate with Him in our transformation, we are forgetting that Paul said our faith is a gift from God and that Jesus said He chose us before we ever chose Him.
Is it not remarkable that the One who entered this world as a helpless baby who had to have everything done for Him is the One who does everything for us in order that we may gain a better life and grow into our destiny?
In Revelation 3:20 Jesus depicts Himself as being always there for us, but on the outside, until we permit Him to come in. Jesus says, “I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
In one of the most commonly used artistic renderings of that scripture, the painting has a noteworthy detail: the door to the house at which Jesus is knocking has no outside knob. That omission is deliberate. It is meant to suggest that it is all up to the person on the other side whether Jesus gets in. There is some truth there, but the problem is that the person behind the door is in no condition to get up and open it. The person behind the door is a corpse, one of those who are “dead through [their] trespasses” as Ephesians says.
The corpse behind the door can hear no knocking. It can see no light glow from beneath the locked door. And it has no capacity to do anything about it if it could notice that Someone was wanting to enter.
The only hope for that corpse is that Jesus walks through that locked door – just as on Easter, the day of His own resurrection, He walked through the locked door of the upper room to meet with His scared-to-death disciples; that Jesus by His strength alone lifts the corpse to its feet; that Jesus breathes into its incapacitated lungs the life-giving air of heaven; that Jesus puts His arms around the newly resurrected person and helps them limp over to the door; that Jesus puts His hand over the person’s hand so that together they turn the knob and let in the One who, in a mystery, is already inside letting Himself in.
Such a fanciful imagining of salvation resonates with many Christians. Yet, for many a Christian their pride sneaks in, and they congratulate themselves for at least being responsible enough to take Jesus up on His offer and to choose to depend on Him to deliver them from death and to bring them into their highest destiny.
The truth, however, is that we have nothing which we did not first receive from God as a gift of His grace. (See 2 Corinthians 4:7.) We have no ability or attainment that God did not first give us. We of course put something into our relationship with God, but it is always only our giving back what God had already given us. We do well to appreciate that ultimately God is the source of our salvation and every good thing in it, and that thus God deserves all the credit for any good thing in it.
Of course, when God gives us the gift of being able to do something good, we still have to choose to do something good with it. Thus, while our salvation is due to our depending on God’s doing, it is also always due to our following up on His doing – in a strange, mysterious collaboration. But trying to figure how exactly this works is as exasperating and as senseless as trying to figure out which comes first: the chicken or the egg? We are right to take full responsibility for what we do, and right to give God all the glory when we do anything worthwhile. Our living that way may not resolve the paradox, but our living in both God-dependence and human determination is the only way to reach the complete salvation for which God has destined us.
So, yes, God is my salvation from start to finish; and, yes, I have to do some things or my salvation doesn’t get started – and certainly doesn’t get finished, finished in the sense of my finally coming into my own as “a chip off the old block”, as one born anew, Jesus said, “not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God”.
So what are we to do as we depend on God to deliver us from death into our high and holy destiny? We do what Isaiah talks about here. First, we trust in God for the power and the will to pursue the fulfillment of our salvation. We defy our fear as we believe in God and take the risks of faith: giving generously, loving indiscriminately and sacrificing much for the possibility of everlasting rewards. Second, we draw water from the wells of salvation, the strengthening Spirit whom the Bible calls a river of living water. We rely – not on anger, hatred or pride to energize and empower us – but on God’s gifts of peace, hope, joy and love. Third, we lose our self-consciousness and our attachment to self-dependence by worshiping God and being caught up in wonder over His awesome, infinitely superior greatness. As we praise Him, call on His name, shout aloud of His glory, and sing for joy over Him, our hearts settle in His and His Spirit settles into us – and others begin to catch glimpses in our flesh of the God who came in the flesh at Christmas.
Let us pray.