Defining Jesus

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When children are born or about to be born picking out names for them is one of the most important responsibilities that parents have. You don’t want to give them some kind of name that will get them ridiculed when they go to school someday and you want it to be a name that will suit them, a name that they will like and appreciate. You might even want a name that reflects the family and values that the child has been born into. When our kids were born we had very different experiences with names. With our first we were pretty sure that if she was a girl we had her name picked out. With our second we had no idea what to call her when she was born. Girls’ names are tough, at least they have been for us. Thankfully, the nurses at West Lincoln Memorial Hospital made some suggestions and one of them stuck.

Picking a name can be a challenging thing, but it is also a privilege. I think most parents really cherish the opportunity to name their own children. If someone showed up and told us what we would name our children and gave us not options we likely would have been a little upset about that. We want to have that honor and responsibility for ourselves. And yet, that is exactly what happens in our gospel today. The angel speaks to Joseph about Mary and this child that she is carrying and he says that the child’s name will be Jesus. There seems to be no room for questions or ideas or other opinions here, this child’s name will be Jesus. The angel says the same thing to Mary when she hears this outstanding news, “You shall call His name Jesus,” end of story.

I was surprised, actually, to realize that this kind of thing happens a few times in the Scriptures where an angel proclaims to the parents of a child what their child’s name will be. For Abraham both of his children were named this way. His first son, Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar, received his name from an angel. The same thing happened when Abraham’s second son, Isaac, the son of Sarah, was born. The angel announced, “You will call his name Isaac.” Isaiah, speaking about the Messiah who would be born in our Old Testament reading today says, “You shall call his name Emmanuel.” Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of the John the Baptist, are told by an angel that their son’s name will be John. And even here, in the story of the birth of Jesus, angels spell it out for humans, “You shall call His name Jesus.”

So what are we to make of all of this? In particular, when it comes to the birth of Jesus and the name given to Him through the words of the angel, what does this all mean? To answer that question we have to look at what this name “Jesus” means. Thankfully, we don’t have to look very far because the angel who spoke to Joseph that day spelled it out for him and for us too: “You will call His name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”

When I was in university I took a class at the Catholic college on campus. One of our textbooks for that class was a book called “Who is Jesus? Why is He Important?” It wasn’t a huge book (probably about 200 pages) and the author did a pretty good job answering the two questions that he posed in the title of his book, who is Jesus and why is He important? But as I thought about it this week I thought it was kind of funny that it took that author 200 pages to say what an angel says in one sentence here in the Gospel of Matthew. The angel lays it out for us right here, who is Jesus and why is He important?

Who is Jesus? Jesus is Immanuel. Way back 700 years before the angel came and said these words to Joseph, the prophet Isaiah had written, “The virgin will conceive and bear and son and they shall call His name Immanuel.” For us reading this today Matthew adds the explanation that Immanuel means “God with us.” This is who Jesus is. He is God with us. He is God with us in the manger as angels sing and shepherds gather around. He is God with us on the cross dying for the sins of the world. He is God with us who has promised to be there wherever two or three are gathered in His name. God with us who promised to be with us even to the end of the age. God with us who comes to us in bread and wine to give us His own body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God, He is God with us.

That’s who Jesus is, the first question that book set out to answer, but what about why Jesus is important. The angel’s words spell this out for us. His name is Jesus and the name Jesus literally means “The Lord saves” or “God saves.” It could even be something like a prayer, “God save me!” or “Lord help me!” or something else like that. The name means that God saves and there is no other name that better suits Jesus. He is God’s salvation. The angel is clear with Joseph and with Mary that his child’s name will be Jesus, “The Lord Saves.”

The little explanation that the angel gives to Joseph about why this child will be called Jesus really says a lot. “You shall call His name Jesus because He will save his people from their sins.” First, we see from this sentence that Jesus Himself is God who has come to save. His name means “God saves,” but the angel explains that HE will save His people from their sin. It is Jesus who saves. Throughout the Scriptures saving is what God does. God saves Noah and His family from the flood. God saves His people Israel from slavery in Egypt. God saves His people. Jesus has come, the angel tells us, to save us. He is God is human flesh. He is the saving power of God who has come as a small child to save us. His name means God saves and He is that God who has come to save.

We also have clearly stated for us by the angel here what this child has come to save us from. Again, this is not open to interpretation for us. Jesus is not here as some general Saviour to save us from whatever it is that we think we need to be saved from. Jesus has come, the angel says, to save His people from their sins. Jesus has come to save us from our sins. Right from the very beginning this is purpose for which the child Jesus has come into this world. As He is conceived in His mother’s womb this purpose is already fully formed and understood. It has been God’s plan from the very beginning. Before He is born the cross is already in view for Jesus because that is where His people will be saved from sin.

It’s not sin in general that Jesus saves us from either. He comes to save His people from THEIR sins. He comes to save us from our sins. He comes to save us from ourselves. The problem from which Jesus has come to save us is our own sinful hearts and minds. We can’t interpret sin away or try to find a different reason for why Jesus was born. He was born because I am a sinner and you are a sinner. He was born to save you from your sin.

Mary and Joseph don’t argue with the angel about the name of their child or anything like that, but we can probably imagine how they might have wanted to do that. If someone told us what to call our kids we might not keep quiet like they did. In general we like to dictate the terms to other people rather than have others dictate the terms to us. We want to be in control of important things like this rather than letting someone else be in control. We want to figure these things out for ourselves. But from this text we learn that when it comes to Jesus it is not our place to make decisions or to dictate or to figure out how everything is going to work. The angel is so clear about how this child is going to be named because this child Jesus is not open for interpretation. It is not my job or your job to define who Jesus is or figure out what the birth of Jesus at Christmas time means. Jesus comes to us not as some puzzle for us to figure out or some spiritual idea for us to work into our daily lives. Jesus comes to us to be our Saviour from sin. That is who Jesus is. The angels don’t leave any room to discussion really, Jesus is His name and He is here to save us from sin.

You know the Charlie Brown Christmas special that comes on TV this time of year? Throughout that whole program Charlie Brown is trying to “figure out” what the meaning of Christmas really is. At the end there is the famous part where Linus reads the Christmas story of Jesus birth to Charlie Brown and the other kids and tells them that this is the meaning of Christmas. We sometimes have this idea that we need to figure Christmas out or figure Jesus out so that we can understand Him better or something. But as I look at a text like our Gospel reading today I’ve come to the conclusion that all we really need to do is listen. Listen to the angels. An angel spells it out for us today telling who this baby Jesus is going to be and why He is important. The angels on the first Christmas night will do the same thing, “Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord…”

This Christmas let’s listen to the angels, they are God’s messengers after all. Let’s listen to their words and simply hear those words and believe them. It is not up to us to decide or figure out who Jesus is, but we hear the voices of angels proclaim His birth to us and we rejoice because He is Immanuel, He is the Saviour who has come to save us. He is God with us and He saves us from our sin. We are called simply to believe in Him and receive the forgiveness He came to give us. In Jesus name, Amen.

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“Should we look for someone else?”

Text: Matthew 11:2-15

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

My grandfather had a saying that he liked to say that he claimed originally came from Winston Churchill. I looked it up on the internet and could find any evidence that Churchill ever said it, but that never would have stopped my grandfather. When talking politics he’d always say, “In the words of Winston Churchill: If you aren’t a liberal when you are twenty then you have no heart, but if you aren’t a conservative by the time you are forty then you have no brain.” Now, I wouldn’t say I’d agree with that completely and I’m not taking political sides or anything like that, but those words do speak to a real truth, I think. The truth in that statement is that our opinions change over time. Life changes us. The circumstances of our lives change us. Our perspective on things changes. We see the world differently now than we did earlier in life and we might see the world differently later in life than we do now. Our perspective changes over time. Things that seemed so clear, so important, and so certain at one time might not seem so tomorrow. Life happens and our perspective changes.

We see in our Gospel reading today how John the Baptist’s perspective changes. Last week we read about John out preaching and baptising people out at the Jordan River. He is calling people to repentance and baptising them for the forgiveness of their sins. Out there at the river John is a “fire and brimstone” kind of preacher. He preaches about sin and God’s wrath against sin. He is so bold in his preaching that he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees that come out there for baptism but don’t want to repent a “brood of vipers.” John’s preaching is more bold, direct, and confrontational than any other preacher that I have ever heard or read. John does not mince words. But today we see a different side of John. The confidence that John had that allowed him to preaching in this bold style seems to be long gone now. There is not much confidence in John’s words this week. He doesn’t seem that bold anymore.

John is in prison. He’s in prison because of his bold preaching. John had the audacity, the guts, to tell King Herod that he had sinned by marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herod had divorced his wife and Herodias had divorced her husband (Herod’s brother Philip) and now the two of them had decided to get married. It was a messed up situation, a sinful situation, and John called them out for it. He told Herod that this was not right or lawful in the eyes of God. So Herod had John arrested and John sat there in prison rotting away. (Read the story in Mark 6:14-29)

Life in prison tested John’s faith. This once bold preacher who announced the coming of the Messiah and prepared the way of the Lord by calling sinners like us to repentance and baptising people in the Jordan River, now has his faith shaken. Everything that seemed so clear before now seems uncertain. John has heard about what Jesus is doing and he sends one of his disciples to go see Jesus and ask Him, “Are you the one to come or should we look for someone else?” John had been so bold, so confident in his preaching, but now he is not so sure about Jesus. One time after Jesus had been baptised John had pointed at Him and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” and now, quite frankly, he’s not even sure if Jesus really is the promised one, the messiah, the saviour. He’s heard about what Jesus has been doing and the things that John has heard don’t meet his expectations for Jesus. But worst of all, John is sitting there in prison rotting away and Jesus does not seem to be doing anything about it. Life has changed John’s perspective of Jesus. Life has shaken John’s faith in Jesus.

Things we once seemed so certain about, things that we never doubted before, things we never questioned before, can easily be shaken and challenged by life and the circumstances of our lives. Our perspective in life changes as our experiences change. Faith that once seemed so clear and so certain might not feel that way every day. Hope that seemed so clear might seem far away sometimes. Joy that we knew so well might feel lost. Our faith in Jesus can be shaken. Life happens.

So much in life can shake our faith in Jesus. Frustration with jobs, family, friends, or any other aspect of our lives can shake our faith in Jesus. “Why does my life have to be this way? Why can’t other people be more understanding of me? Why am I stuck in this life that I do not enjoy?”  Injustice can shake our faith in Jesus. “Why is this world so unfair? Why am I being treated so poorly?” Sickness can shake our faith in Jesus. “Why is this happening to me? Why am I not getting better? Who is going to help me?” Death can shake our faith in Jesus. “Why did they have to die? Why now? Why didn’t God do something to save me from this empty feeling inside?” Life happens and faith gets shaken.

Maybe you are sitting here today feeling pretty secure about things. Secure in your faith in Jesus, confident in your faith in Jesus, or maybe you’re not. Maybe you are a little shaken up, maybe you can relate to John a bit as he questions Jesus, “Are you the one to come or should we look for someone else?” Our perspective can change so quickly that we move from one extreme to another as quickly as one day ends and a new one begins.

No matter where we sit and no matter what our perspective is on things today, Jesus has good news for us: He is the one who is to come. Jesus answers John’s question with a clear and definitive answer. “Go and tell John, what you hear and see,” Jesus says, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus is pointing out to John and his disciples that in Him all the promises of the Old Testament about the Messiah and Saviour are being fulfilled. In particular, He’s directing their attention to the prophet Isaiah and the words of our Old Testament reading today. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame man shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy.” When we read the gospels, the stories of Jesus life and ministry, we find many examples of Jesus doing precisely these things for people who suffer. In the midst of his doubts and questions as he sits there in prison Jesus invites John to consider again the Word of God and what it says about the coming Messiah. In these words we see that Jesus really is the one to come. When we doubt, when we question, when we struggle we have this same assurance that comes to us through the Word of God that Jesus is the one who has come to save us, who has taken our sin to the cross and died for us and risen again. He is the answer, the fulfillment to all these promises.

Jesus adds one more thing to the list from our Old Testament reading today though. Isaiah doesn’t saying anything about the good news being preached to the poor, but Jesus adds it in for our sake. As long as the good news is being preached, as long as the gospel that Jesus Christ died and rose again to save sinners is being proclaimed, we can know that Jesus is working in this world. He has not abandoned us. That might seem like a lame promise in the midst of our suffering. When things are so bad and we just wish Jesus would do something about it and make it all better preaching about the gospel, about the forgiveness of sins, may seem like not much good. But this is the thing, Jesus says, that assures us of God’s love for us. The good news is preached to the poor, to the poor like us, poor miserable sinners like us. Jesus still preaches His good news to us. He has died for us. He has risen for us. Our sins are forgiven. We are His.

Our perspective might change a lot throughout our lives. When we are twenty we see things a lot differently than we do when we are forty or fifty or sixty. When we experience the ups and downs of life our perspective changes too. In the midst of all the change, uncertainty, and questions Jesus remains the same. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the one who is to come. He is our Saviour from sin and death. He is God’s Son who died for us. He has come into this world as a child born in Bethlehem and He will come again to take us to be with Him forever.

Because Jesus does not change and is always salvation for us we can rejoice even in down times of suffering and sadness. He changes our perspective in those times. The cross where our salvation was won changes our perspective. There in something that looks evil and terrible God was accomplishing the ultimate good and our perspective is turned on its head. Because of that cross even if we were in prison like John, locked up for speaking the truth in love, we can rejoice. Even in the depths of grief and mourning when we mourn for ourselves and for others we can rejoice. Even in the darkest of days when all hope seems lost we can rejoice because Jesus our Lord has redeemed us from sin, saved us from death, and He will come and save us. He is the one to come, we need not look for anyone else. In Jesus name. Amen.

Talking About Sin

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are some things that people just don’t like to talk about. If you think about it you can probably think about some things that you don’t like to talk about. One of those things that people don’t like to talk about is sin. Sin. Don’t believe me? Just try it sometime. Go talk to someone about sin or, better yet, talk to someone about how we are all sinners and need to turn from our sinful ways. People don’t like to hear that. It’s just not a very nice thing to talk about, it’s not encouraging or uplifting, it’s kind of depressing actually. Because people don’t like to hear about sin there is even a temptation not to talk about it in church because it’s not the kind of thing to talk about if you want your church to seem more attractive to outsiders (or at least we tell ourselves that). Sin is just not much fun to talk about, so we try not to talk about it too much.

John the Baptist, on the other hand, has no problem talking about sin. He is preaching out in the wilderness of Judea, somewhere near the Jordan River, and people are flocking out of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas to come to his church and hear what he has to say. And out there in the wilderness John is talking about sin. Actually he’s not just talking about sin, he’s talking about how the people who have gathered out there are sinners and he calls on them to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It’s kind of amazing actually that so many people are out there listening to John with the way that he is talking. John warns the people with vivid images about God’s wrath on sinners. “The axe is laid to the root of the tree,” John says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” The mightier one is coming with the fire of judgement, John warns them, he will gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff, the leftover stuff that is no good for anything, will be burned with fire. So repent, John says, turn away from sin.

Many of the people who come out to see John there at the Jordan are struck by what John is preaching to them and they do repent. They repent by being baptised. Verse six of our gospel today tells us that “they were baptised by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” That last part of the verse there is important, “confessing their sins.” Notice what it does not say, it does not say that they were baptised after they confessed their sins or that they were baptised and then they confessed their sins afterward. Instead, it says they were baptised, confessing their sins. Those two things (baptism and confession of sins) happen at the same time! The baptism itself was a confession of sins! Getting baptised is confessing that we are sinners and receiving God’s forgiveness poured out on sinners in water and the Spirit. Baptism is confessing our sin. Baptism is repentance.

But then some other people came out to see John at the Jordan River. Some Pharisees and Sadducees make the trek out there to see what is going on. Matthew tells us that they came out there “for baptism” in verse seven. Apparently they want to be baptised too, but the problem is that they have no interest in repenting or confessing their sins. They seem to want to be baptised, but they will have none of this sin and repentance business. They don’t want to talk about sin, especially their own sin, and because of this when John sees them he unloads on them. “You brood of vipers!” John says, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” In other words, confess your sins, repent, be baptised for the forgiveness of all your sins.

Without repentance, without confessing our sins, there is no hope to escape from the “wrath to come” that John is warning the people about. John refuses leave the door open even a crack for people to think that they can somehow escape God’s judgement without confessing their sins. We might not like to talk about sin very much, but John won’t let us get off the hook that easily. Without repentance, without confessing our sins, there is no hope. Without repentance we are doomed to the wrath to come.

This is one of the important messages that John has for us today. We are sinners, just like the people back then were, and we need to repent, confess our sins, and seek God’s forgiveness. The problem the Pharisees and Sadducees had back then when they came out to the Jordan and the problem that we have today is that we minimalize the problem of sin. For some reason we don’t think the problem is that bad. We know we have some bad habits, some sinful things that we should not do that we keep on doing, but we often don’t grasp how bad it really is. We are like the knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail who has his arm chopped off but claims it is just a scratch or a flesh wound. We pretend that our sinful problem is just a “flesh wound” that we can just ignore, when in reality our whole arm has been chopped off or, more accurately, we are dying in sin.

The thing is that sin is not just some bad stuff that we do sometimes. Sin isn’t even just actions. Sin is the reality that our hearts are naturally completely and totally turned against God. The bad stuff that we do is just a symptom of the actual problem that our hearts are turned away from the Lord our God. And because our hearts are turned away from God we are left facing the wrath of God against sin that John warns us about without any hope.

We might not like talking about sin much, but we need to talk about it. We have to talk about sin. We need to confess our sin and repent just like John said all those years ago. It was true then, its true today, and it’s always been true. Listen to these words in Psalm 32 written by David hundreds of years before John started preaching, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

When David kept quiet about sin and refused to talk about his sin God’s hand was heavy upon him. He felt this crushing weight of sin. He had no hope. But when He confessed His sin unto the Lord, God forgave David all of His sin.

We first confessed our sin on the day when we were baptised. Baptism is, in part, a confession of sin. It is a confession that we are not just a little bit sinful, but sinful through and through. That is why we baptise babies who sometimes have hardly been around long enough to do anything that we would call sin, but they have the same deadly sinful disease that we all have. We are all born with it. But when we were baptised we confessed that we are sinful and needed God’s forgiveness and there in the water God poured out the forgiveness of the cross of Jesus on each and every one of you. Even if you were baptised as a tiny baby and could not speak yet, you confessed your sin unto the Lord and He forgave the iniquity of your sin.

Our lives now as Christians are a constant life of repentance, of confessing our sin and returning to what God has done for us in our baptism. Every time we gather here and confess our sins at the beginning of the service we are returning to our baptism where we confessed our sins for the very first time and received the glorious forgiveness of Jesus that was won for us with His blood on the cross and washes away all of our sin. Baptism is repentance. Living a life of repentance is living a life in baptism.

Without repentance there is no hope for sinners, but in baptism and the repentance that is in baptism there is abundant hope for us. Because all the wrath and fire that John the Baptist talked about was poured out on Jesus on the cross. He suffered the fiery wrath of God for our sin so that we would never need to face that wrath for ourselves. Instead, water was poured out on us in our baptism, water that carried the grace, mercy, peace, and forgiveness of Jesus and not the fiery wrath of God. Because of this baptism into Jesus we have hope.

As we get ready for Christmas this year sin might seem like the last thing that we want to talk about. We probably won’t be adding it to our list of talking points for the family meals that come up around the holidays. But, as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus for the first time in the manger and the second time on clouds of glory, sin is something we need to talk about. But for us talking about sin does not need to be a burden because we can talk about sin with the knowledge that our God has already forgiven all of our sin. Let’s talk about our sin with our Father in Heaven, let’s confess our sins unto the Lord and He will forgive the iniquity of our sin. In Jesus name, Amen.