You know that I rarely tell jokes. So today I’m going to start with a joke. Not only that, it’s one I’m sure you’ve heard before.
There’s a fellow who lives by a river, and one spring day there comes a huge rain, and the river keeps rising. A deputy in a Jeep pulls up to the house and says, “You’ve got to evacuate right now. Hop in.”
But the homeowner says, “No, thanks. I have faith that God will save me.”
Not much later, the water has risen high enough that he has to run upstairs to stay dry. Now a rescuer in a boat shows up and says, “You’ve got to evacuate now while you’ve got a chance.”
And the homeowner says, “I’ll be OK. I’m sure God will save me.”
Finally the water is so high that the man has to crawl up on his roof. He’s clinging to the chimney when a helicopter spots him and starts to lower a rope ladder. But he waves it off, yelling, “God will save me.”
The helicopter moves on, the water keeps rising, and the man is swept away and drowns. At the pearly gates, he complains to God: “I had faith in you. Why didn’t you save me?”
God replies: “I sent you a Jeep and a boat and a helicopter. What more do you want?”
We all need a savior, don’t we? We can’t save ourselves, and much of the time we’re too blind to see and too stubborn to accept salvation when it’s offered to us.
This is the second week of Advent. Our guide to the season this year is Adam Hamilton’s book Incarnation. We can’t begin to fathom how God becomes human in Jesus, Adam says, so we’re exploring some of the reasons why God does it. We’re doing that by looking at some of the titles that scripture gives Jesus.
Last week we looked at Messiah and King. This week we’re exploring the title Savior.
Salvation is so important a concept that the New Testament mentions it 150 times. So it’s no accident that the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas was named Jesus – in Hebrew, Yeshua. The name means “God saves.”
That’s why Mary and Joseph are both told, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31). On the night of his birth, angels tell shepherds: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
The whole Christian witness may be summarized in 1 John 4:14: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be Savior of the world.”
“Are you saved?” Ever been the target of that accusatory question?
I was in a supermarket one day when an earnest looking young man shoved his face very close to mine and asked, “Are you saved?”
He meant well, I suppose, but I wanted to say, “God save me from the likes of you.”
Another time, I was sitting in an airport restaurant with my family when another young man came flying by, slapping a yellow card on each table. It was this “Get out of hell free” card. That and a couple bucks will get you a cup of coffee some places.
I am so sick of people selling Jesus as fire insurance. The great comedian Groucho Marx used to have a TV game show called “You Bet Your Life.” He’d tell contestants, “Say the secret word, and the duck will come down,” and you’ll win a prize. So many Christians today have turned salvation into a tawdry game show. “Say the magic prayer and the dove will come down,” and you win eternal salvation!
I cringe every time I see those signs on the highway: “Do you know where you will spend eternity?” Not, I hope, in the earthly hell created by some churches and their cheap chatter about salvation. It’s too important a thing to be belittled by such nonsense.
We are being saved from sin, of course. We’ve cheapened that word, too. We say, “That coconut cream pie was sinfully delicious.” Eating sugary pie may be bad for your health, but it’s not a sin. In the Bible, sin is frequently described as straying from the path or missing the mark.
Ever been hiking and got on the wrong trail? Sometimes it’s easy to find your way back. Sometimes you have to pray the sun doesn’t go down while you’re still lost. Not all paths lead to the same place. You need to be on the right path if you want to reach the right destination.
We’re all “prone to wander,” as the old hymn has it. It’s not that we want to, or are even conscious of wandering while we’re doing it, but suddenly we realize we’re not where we expected to be and not where we want to be. That’s knowledge of sin.
“Missing the mark” is another biblical description of sin. It’s comes from the world of archery. Ever sight down an arrow at the target and let fly and then wonder why the arrow didn’t go anywhere near where you were aiming? Same thing in golf. Here you are, ready to tee off, and there’s the flag at the pin way down there. Do you really think you can hit the ball close to it?
These colorful descriptions are meant to suggest how we get into sin, but don’t let them distract you from the seriousness of it. Sin is the human condition, and the condition is deadly. We use the word “sin” two ways. “Sin” singular refers to our state of being, a predisposition to do what’s wrong. “Sins” plural are those wrong acts. What makes them wrong? They reveal a lack of love. They harm others.
So you can define sin, if you like, as an inescapable tendency to do unloving things that harm others. We all do it all the time. James W. Moore wrote a book titled Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned, But I Have Several Excellent Excuses. We all have great excuses, don’t we, but none of them is good enough.
Salvation from sin has several dimensions, and in the Bible the word “salvation” can have several meanings. It can mean healing. It can mean rescue. It can mean deliverance. It can mean forgiveness.
Salvation from sin means release from the guilt of it, though not necessarily of all its consequences. You may be forgiven for defrauding or stealing from someone, but you still may serve prison time for the deed.
Perhaps most importantly, salvation changes your relationship with God. When you sin, you feel guilty and you have no interest at all in communing with God. You feel alienated from God. You feel like there’s nothing you can do to regain God’s favor.
In fact, you never lost God’s favor. God may be momentarily disappointed in you, but God will never stop loving you. Salvation removes that barrier between you and God that was always there in your mind only. God saves you from the illusion that God hates you. God restores you to favor by reminding you that you were loved all along.
More than 50 years ago, Kansas City jeweler Barnett Helzberg started giving away little red buttons that said “I Am Loved.” It’s a wonderful way to remember the point of it all: You are loved. God loves you.
God loves you, and God wants to save you from whatever guilt is holding you down; whatever shame keeps you from stepping out of the darkness into the light; whatever hopelessness keeps you awake at night; whatever despair nags at you every moment; whatever sense of meaninglessness you have that tries to tell you, “You’re nothing – you’re worthless.”
It’s a lie! God loves you, God wants to forgive you, and God wants you to turn away from all the lies that hold you down and turn toward the salvation that God has for you.
Last week I said that Advent has three dimensions: past, present, and future. Salvation is similar. Salvation is not just a single act once upon a time in your life. Salvation is a dynamic, continuous action in your life. You are saved. You are being saved. You will be saved.
Saying “yes” to Jesus is a bit like saying “I do” at your wedding or a citizenship ceremony or a swearing-in for public office. You’re making a commitment, but you’ve got to live it out. You may be forgiven now, at this moment, but you’re going to need constant forgiveness from this point on.
Happily, as 1 John 1:9 tells us, we know that God is faithful and just, and if we confess our sins, God will forgive us and keep cleansing us anew.
Salvation is a daily growth in grace. You are not where you should be. You are not where you want to be. But you are being remade into what God created you to be, and one day you’ll look back with great satisfaction and say, “Thank you, Jesus, for saving me, again and again and again.”
Everyone loves to quote John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Don’t forget the next verse, John 3:17, which says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” but to save it.
Jesus saves our world by being born into it, accepting our limitations as his own, living here as one of us, taking a stand for us, and dying for us – but even more than that, being raised to new life for us and ascending to his Father’s side to forever be Emmanuel, God with us.
Or as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, quoting a hymn that already appears to be familiar to believers:
“Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11
The name Jesus means “God saves,” and Jesus is our Savior. We meditate on that and other names for Jesus as we prepare during Advent for the coming of Jesus. We prepare to celebrate his birth on December 25, and his rebirth in our hearts every day, and one day his return to set all things right, to complete our salvation.
Jesus doesn’t need a Jeep or a boat or a helicopter. But don’t scoff if you’re in a tough spot and one comes by offering help, because one way or another, Jesus really wants to save you.