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The Story of Salvation: God Becomes Immanuel

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:38-39

In these past weeks we have been exploring the one theme of scripture: God's salvation history of love.

We began in Eden, that place of perfect harmony amongst God, ourselves, and creation. But we quickly moved past this, discovering that perfection is boring and that perhaps giving a finite creature of flesh and blood the power to choose between good and evil makes The Fall inevitable. Next, we realized in the midst of the brokenness of humanity that God is a God of power and a God of liberation and a God of freedom. In the Exodus event we found that God cares deeply for those who find themselves lost, alone, afraid, and suffering at the hands of another.

But today, we realize that it's not only the historic Egyptians who were oppressors but it's all of us. When Israel emerged into the promised land, God continually reminded them,“Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Remember! You were slaves! Remember what it was like, so don't turn around and do that to other people. Unfortunately, no matter how many times God warned them through the prophets the people failed. As their world became a disaster they looked back to God and repented and God reinstated them, but it never lasted –indeed the pattern for all humanity.

So there arose a prophecy that, rather than God depending upon the people to be faithful to a law written on tablets of stone, God would send a suffering servant to write the law upon our hearts so that a new, right spirit would be put within each one of us.

And this leads us to one of the most compelling and glorious verses in all of scripture. To two of them in fact, “and the word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth” and“for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.

And it is through the Son that the entire story of salvation finds its climax. In His death and resurrection, the world was changed forever! Our fate – our destiny – no longer rested in our own abilities; they were in the hands of God, the God of perfect power of perfect love and of everlasting hope. The resurrection was the sign from God. As mystic poet Julian of Norwich wrote, “All will be well and all manner of things shall be well.

But ever since these stories about Jesus’ life were written down, people have been fighting over trying to understand and control them. Perhaps the most recent important manifestation of this was known as The Jesus Seminar, which gathered together over 100 scholars and lay people to vote on which sayings of Jesus they thought He actually said and which ones He didn’t. They voted through a system of colored balls and in the end, they knocked out about 80% and we are left with, as John Dart of the L.A. Times wrote, “…and emerging … picture of a prophet-sage who told parables and made pithy comments…. Virtually all of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John were voted down by scholars meeting in Sonoma, including a pulpit favorite, 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.””

And though as a scholarly exercise it might have been an interesting endeavor, it utterly confuses and misdirects the nature of truth found in scripture. Humans are storytelling creatures and the way in which we tell our stories reflects something deep within our souls, something that God has formed inside of us. Writers like J.R.R. Tolkien understood this. He said all those other ancient stories outside of the Bible were seeds of truth that God had planted. About his own stories, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, he says by reading those stories you can tell something fundamental about J.R.R. Tolkien. And I quote, “I am a Christian.

And by reading the stories of God we can discover something fundamental about who God is. Especially those stories of Jesus that more than any other, capture the essence of God.

And here is a basic fact of the story of Jesus as Joseph Loconte, former director of B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, observed, “… herein lies the startling, nonnegotiable claim of the Christian faith, the event that turned a disillusioned band of followers into the most resilient and transformative religious community in history.”

And more than anything else those stories tell us that God is a God of salvation:

…that God saves us from our brokenness and self-hatred.

…that God saves us and gives us a purpose.

….and that God saves us and binds us to all people.

Jesus saves us from brokenness and self-hatred…

Perhaps you remember that moment in which Jesus is eating in someone's home, when a woman burst in making quite a scene. She's weeping terribly, she comes over to Jesus and she kneels at His feet, and she's covered them with tears and then, perhaps realizing what she's done, she uses her hair and wipes His feet.

Clearly Jesus had cleansed her not only of her sin but of that which prevented her from loving herself and, as Jesus said, “those who have been forgiven much love much.” I knew a woman who felt some of this same brokenness inside of her soul and she told me her story of how God delivered her.

I was participating in a devotional exercise at a Christian camp. At first it seemed corny and hokey.

“Close your eyes and picture Jesus.” She was a teacher, so she pictured Him as a little boy. So, the director said, “Ask Him to come over to you. Ask Him a question.” At this point she is thinking, “How ridiculous!” But she played along.

Since He grew up to be a carpenter, she pictured this boy in the carpenter’s shop, bare footed, covered in dust and carving on a piece of wood, very intent on getting it just right. So, she asked Him, “What are you making, because you’re working so hard on that?” and He said, “This is you.”

As she continued, suddenly all the other people in the room did not make a hill of beans difference. She said, “You are working so hard on that I must be a lot of trouble.”

And He said, “No, this is my joy.

God loves you immeasurably and through Christ we too can love ourselves.

Jesus saves us to give us a purpose…

Jesus had chosen Peter to be the rock upon which He would build His church. But clearly Peter was more like sinking sand! And when it mattered the most, instead of standing strong and faithful, he ran, he hid, and he denied. But Jesus did not give up on him and when He came back from the dead in a very intimate scene, just Jesus and Peter eating some fish, He tells Peter three times, just like the three times of Peter's denial, “feed my sheep”. And the rest is history.

But Jesus did not only give these gifts to the 12, but to you and me. Just like for Peter, at times this calling is impossibly difficult…which can surprisingly bring clarity to God’s plan. It was a young woman her late twenties who teaches in a very challenging environment, thatshowed me how.

There were moments as a first-year teacher…“I have students with drugs, in gangs, who have their only meal at school, they try you and try you each day; I should feel for them,but you are angry, but then the anger reminds you…THAT IS THE REASON YOU ARE THERE.”

It was precisely in the hardship and horror of drugs and pre-teen pregnancies, the stark reality of broken lives, that assured her God had placed her there. She has thick skin and stubborn resolve. That is what God needed there. Because “if it was easy”, she said, “anyone could do it.”

Jesus binds us to all…

And finally, Jesus’ salvation not only rescues us from our enemies, but He eliminates the very idea of an enemy.

On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate the worldwide nature of The Church. And nowhere was this clearer to me than when I was served as Executive Presbyter in Birmingham, Alabama. We hosted General Assembly for our denomination. One of our military chaplains, David Terrononi, was serving communion to a Christian from one of the countries behind the communist wall. Here is his story:

"Tom, I was assigned to serve communion to the international representatives on the main floor. I was in uniform. After the service, a gentleman with a heavy accent told me that my serving him communion was very emotional for him because, “our two countries are enemies.” He said, “You are an U.S. Air Force chaplain and you served me communion as a brother in Christ.” And then, he embraced me. It was very moving and humbling because he is the moderator of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Havana, Cuba… This …powerful experience …reinforces the strength of the Gospel to cross all boundaries. I saw him a couple days later and he immediately greeted me with, “There’s my chaplain friend…”

The entire story of scripture is known as The Good News, indeed it is the best news that we could ever hear, for no matter how many times we fall, no matter how short sighted we are, God's power of forgiveness, of purpose, end of love will indeed save the world. Amen.

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