What do we do when it is the most joyful time of year and we can’t find any joy?
What help is there for us when it’s the most meaningful time of year and we find no meaning for our sorrow and pain? Where do we turn when we come to church to find meaning at Christmas and all we get is lame Dad jokes?
This is the final message of our series Good News of Great Joy, we’ve been looking under the surface of the holidays, looking for some light bright enough, some message warm enough to meet us in our moments of darkness.
We’re going to finish the series in Matthew.
He will save his people from their sins.
There are two words in this verse which go hand in hand. If you accept the New Testament’s definition of them, they convey a message which is without a doubt the most significant, the most necessary, the most wonderful thing you could ever hear. They convey a message that is truly good news of great joy for all people. If you do not accept the New Testament’s definition of these two words, they mean nothing.
What are those words? Sin and salvation.
He will save his people from their sins.
Notice what Matthew does not say Jesus came to do:
He did not come to add to our body of philosophical and moral teaching.
He did not come to add another option to our buffet of world religions.
He did not come to set a good example of love and compassion.
He came to save his people from their sins.
This is the work Jesus understood himself to be doing on earth.
The only way to take the New Testament seriously and come to Jesus is as a sinner who needs to be saved from sins.
He came to deal with one class of people – sinners. He came to do one class of work – saving sinners from their sins.
If you don’t have sins to be saved from, you have no need for Jesus. I wonder, do you have sins to be saved from?
It’s an interesting word, sin. The Greek word is hamartia. It was a military term used to refer to an arrow which missed its mark. In a general sense to sin is to miss the mark.
The New Testament tells us that sin is a universal problem. So does science. Every people in every place have a sense of missing the mark. The ancient Jewish people understood sin to be missing the mark of God’s commandments. The modern secular American understands sin to be missing the mark of conscious consumerism, ecological stewardship and social justice.
We will find different words in different places, but the word the Bible has given us to explain this universal sense of morality and failure to attain morality is the very useful word sin.
Romans 3:23 tells us that we all have a stake in sin – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all have share are a massive responsibility for the massive problem of sin.
You may say “I haven’t sinned that often”. Maybe it’s a massive problem for you, but I’m not that bad. There’s a good chance I have a bigger problem than you do, but let’s just say for arguments sake that you sin once a day. Let’s run some numbers and assume that you have an average of 73 years of relative adulthood. If you sin 1/day for 73 years = 26,600. If we take a more realistic number and make that 5/day you will have a record of well over 100,000 sins.
You may say, “yes, but all sins aren’t equal. After all, I’ve never murdered anyone. If you’re looking at those kinds of awful sins, my number is probably closer to zero.”
It’s a fair point – it’s all about perspective isn’t it? From whose perspective are we looking at sin? By whose standards are we defining sin? Against whose example are we measuring ourselves. Me may all look relatively clean in contrast to the moral stain of a Hitler. But is that the honest way to judge ourselves?
Jesus dealt with this question in Matthew 5 when he gave his perspective on the sin of murder. He referred to the 10 commandments – you have heard that it was said, “you shall not commit murder”. I tell you that if you hate your brother in your heart you have committed murder in your heart. You have heard it was said you shall not commit adultery, I tell you if you look lustfully at a person in your heart you have committed adultery in your heart.
It’s a different standard isn’t it?
Jesus interpreted the commandments by placing them deeper than our outward actions. He placed sin and righteousness in our hearts.
When he interpreted the commandments, as matters of the heart he summarized them up with one word, do you remember? Love. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
First Jesus tells us that we have a moral responsibility to love God. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If there is a majestic maker of the cosmos who carefully knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs, who created for us this vast cosmos to inhabit and explore and thrive in, it makes sense that it is right for us to respond with gratitude and respect. It makes sense that we should be expected to love God. Have we done that with all our heart, soul, mind and strength? Have we eagerly sought out the one who made us, have we eagerly sought out his wisdom and his ways?
Have we devoted our lives to seeking his will above all else?
What is sin? John Piper asks.
“It is the glory of God not honored.
The holiness of God not reverenced.
The greatness of God not admired.
The power of God not praised.
The truth of God not sought.
The wisdom of God not esteemed.
The beauty of God not treasured.
The goodness of God not savored.
The faithfulness of God not trusted.
The commandments of God not obeyed.
The justice of God not respected.
The wrath of God not feared.
The grace of God not cherished.
The presence of God not prized.
The person of God not loved.
That is sin.”
How many times in the last week have we sinned in this way? How many hundreds of opportunities have we neglected to love and honor God in the last week? How many millions of sins will that amount to at the end of our lives?
And what about our fellow human beings? Have we acted in love toward one another? Have we lived lives of compassion and patience? Have we spoken only what is good and uplifting? Have we avoided gossip and judgment? Have we looked to the interests of others as much as our own? Have we used our time and our resources to relieve the suffering of the world? Today 800 children will die of illnesses related to a lack of clean drinking water. During the course of this sermon, 180 people will die of illnesses related to malnutrition and hunger. It’s likely today that someone you know is struggling with profound depression and isolation. I could go on and on, we know the world is full of suffering. And what are we doing today about that suffering? How many dollars, how many minutes could have been given to relieve the suffering of others?
You may say “well, I do my best.” Has anyone ever done their best for one day?
Have you ever spent one day trying to live perfectly, without sin?
Isn’t it true what C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”
The person who tries very hard to be good is like the person who has bought a new field. He sets out clearing the field of rocks to prepare the soil for his crops. He first clears out several large boulders and feels the excitement of progress. Along the way he says many more medium size rocks and rolls up his sleeves to really dig in and work. After much sweat and effort he approaches the final rock with a shovel and with a great shove strikes a solid surface. He digs around and discovers to his horror that everywhere, throughout his entire field, buried just inches below the surface is a massive layer of hard rock.
The problem is not just that we sin. The problem is that we sin because we are sinners. David taught us this in Psalm 51:5
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
The problem is that we sinners cannot escape our sin any more than we can escape our own selves.
This is what the old theologians called total depravity. Our depravity is total it is woven into our hearts and finds expression in everything we do. There is no area in our lives, there is no place in human society it does not work its influence.
As Robert Murray McCheyne put it:
“The seed of every sin known to man is in my heart”.”
This view of sin – the total depravity of humanity is unique to the New Testament. And in 2019 doesn’t it seem more and more clear that it is the best explanation of our human experience in this world?
Last century the British satirist and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge noticed our problem with the word sin: “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” It’s become very difficult to intellectually resist the fact of human depravity.
If the New Testament is right, we are sinners who need to be saved from our sin. We need to be saved from the shame of our sin. We need to be saved from the stains of our sin. We need to be saved from the enslaving power of sin. We need to be saved from our very selves.
We need much more than a good moral teacher. We need much more than a country club manager to receive our application and feeble resume of good works. We need much more than a vending machine we can manipulate with tokens of righteousness. We need much more than sentimental feelings of nostalgia and blessing during the holidays. We are in desperate need of someone who can save us from our sins.
The New Testament backs us into a corner and pins us down with this reality. We have no excuses. There is no other way to come to Jesus.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Wow, this message is a downer. I’m just here for some Christmas cheer, man. What’s with the gloom and judgment?” Sometimes it seems that the message of sin is something used by people in power to protect their power and keep undesirables out, doesn’t it? Sometimes that’s what it is. But, if you think about it, wasn’t it the opposite with Jesus? Wasn’t it the insiders, the religious powers, who were the first to attack Jesus for his message? And who was it that came to him? Wasn’t it the sinners and the outcasts? Those who know their sin, those who feel the weight of sin have no problem with the word. When Jesus came around with his hard interpretation of sin, the sinners said, “at last, here is someone who speaks plainly. Here is someone who might help us with our sin!”
Now that we have a sense of the meaning of the word sin, we can appreciate the second word. Salvation.
How does God respond to our sin? How does he relate to us sinners?
Listen to the way Max Lucado summarized God’s response to sinners at Christmas:
“The omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierce-able. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl.
God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created.
God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother.
God had come near.
He came, not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conqueror, but as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter. The hands that first held him were unmanicured, calloused, and dirty.
No silk. No ivory. No hype. No party. No hoopla.
Were it not for the shepherds, there would have been no reception. And were it not for a group of star-gazers, there would have been no gifts.
Angels watched as Mary changed God’s diaper.”
He responded to us when everything in us was repulsive by drawing near. He called us His people. The Son of God came to share our humanity and become a friend of sinners. He came to live as a substitute for us. This is how he saves us from our sins.
He was a substitute through his life. He lived through every temptation to sin and every opportunity to do good that we all face and aced the test with a perfect score. He lived a truly sinless life, he lived the life of love that we should have but did not.
He was a substitute through his death. On the cross where we killed him he shed blood as an atoning sacrifice for our sins – to clear our record of wrongs and cleanse us from those wrongs.
Through his life and death he came to fulfill the promises of God’s grace for sinners.
1. He removes the stain of sin.
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
2. He erases the record of our sin.
I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
3. He cancels the debt of our sin.
He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.
4. He separates us from our sin.
as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
5. He remakes our sinful nature:
And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.
6. If all of this were not enough, he restores what was lost to sin:
I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten
7. He is preparing a world without sin.
Behold, I am making all things new.
Friends, do you have a sense of your sin? Is your identity stained by the marks of your sin? Do you carry the awful burden of guilt and shame? Do you feel that you have compromised your heart and can never again be clean and pure? Do you feel that you have lost the best years of your life to the consequences of your sin and mistakes?
We have good news of great joy for all people. To us a child was born who will save his people from their sins.
Isn’t it wondrous?
Have you come to Jesus as a sinner to be saved from your sins?
What is stopping you from doing that today? Is there anything more important?
From time to time when I share the message of Christ with people, I hear a response something like this: “I’ll try harder to be a good person.” Can I tell you, if you are walking away from here this morning with that idea – you’ve missed the point.
“The sin underneath all our sins is to trust the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and must take matters into our own hands”
Jesus did not come to teach us the habits to overcome our sin.
Jesus did not come to give us more commandments to obey so our good can outweigh our sin.
Jesus did not come to teach us how to make spiritual sacrifices to atone for our sin.
Jesus came to save his people from their sin. Jesus came to do the work.
Once you have completely and totally abandoned all hope of making it on your own efforts, once you have accepted the fact that you are helpless and in desperate need of a savior – then you are ready to be saved from your sin, to be cleansed from the stain of your sin, to be cleared of the record of your sin, to experience a breaking of the power of your sin and to be made new.
One reason Christmas is not joyful for Christ’s people is because we have not understood or we have forgotten the meaning of the words sin and salvation. We have been coming to Jesus as something other than a savior who came to save his people from their sins.
Sin and salvation. If sin is just a word, salvation is the same and Christmas is just a time for wishful thinking. When the word sin means something real, points to something real in the real world – salvation does to; and Christmas is a time of unimaginable joy and unspeakable hope for sinners.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown