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Salvation: Why Jesus Came (Matthew 1:21)
The textual story reminds us that Jesus was not just another child born into this world, and that His name was not a mere tag chosen at random or in haste. When Mary gave birth to the son God had caused her to conceive, she and Joseph named the child as they were directed. They called Him "Jesus," in keeping with the divinely inspired ministry He was sent to accomplish.
The name "Jesus" identified Him as Savior, and it readily helps us to know why He came among us: "call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."
The text holds two terms which are problematic for some people today: it speaks of being "saved" from "sins." This was not an abstract notion nor a strange concern to the people of Jesus' day, but there are those in our time who view "salvation" and "sin" as mere notions, and they speak about these themes in different ways, sometimes with unashamed blandness, unsympathetic tolerance, or even overt enmity.
I have come across that unsympathetic tolerance toward the notion of salvation and overt enmity toward sin in recent strongly-worded critiques against religious fiction. Some secularist critics have charged that fictional works are always ruined when the writer is religious; they argued that the writer's belief system always curtails the freedom of the characters, confining their choices, predetermining what should have been a free play of mind and life. Those critics of religious novelists had little, if any, respect for works influenced by a belief in God, transcendence, salvation, sin, or divine sanctions against human wrong-doing.
Even those who read casually in the general world of modern fiction will know that few novels offer a guide on how to live, that few novelists seek to inform us morally or tell us what to do when life goes wrong and when losses pile upon us due to failures on our part. Modern novels are mainly descriptive, and any hint of prescriptive writing is immediately regarded as religious propaganda.
Prescriptive works -- writings done to "make a point" -- are still being debunked, but even those writings created and published with no confessed point to make nevertheless end making one; and even the most imaginative and free-wheeling novels indirectly honor the notion of "salvation," because as escapist fiction they are planned to "save" the readers from something, "delivering" them from boredom, offering relief from pressures for a time, and granting "freedom" from the actual by means of an imaged slice of life through a guided imagination.
To be sure, some literary masters have written from religious perspectives, and they did so without shame or apology. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of them, and his classic Crime and Punishment is actually about sin and punishment: Raskolnikov's deed of murder was both a crime and a sin, and he reacted to it all by seeking needed expiation -- inner deliverance, salvation, if you please. He felt the weighted tragedy of his choices, the anguish of his spirit, the marginality of his being, and a real lostness in his soul. It is with all of this that the ministry of Jesus deals. Sin and salvation are not abstractions; they are realities.
Those to whom Jesus came knew this. The national literature was filled with stories about sin and forgiveness, about how God had delivered His people now and again, how He had saved them from sorrowful conditions and rescued them from hazards and horrors because of His covenant with the patriarchs. Sin and salvation were not strange words to informed Hebrews.
As Jesus ministered to His people they began to understand the meaning of salvation at deeper levels of their lives. Under the impress of His presence and the power of His teaching, habitual sinners found themselves released into a more responsible behavior toward God. They found that along with a deepened sense of accountability they also experienced a new power to obey. In place of a sense of estrangement, they realized a sense of acceptance, that the ritual claim for oneness with God was not a real communion with Him. It all happened as Jesus helped His disciples learn to face and deal with their sins.
1. As He dealt with His people, Jesus made them face up to their sins of vanity. Then as now, vanity was a central sin because it is how pride most readily grows in the human spirit.
The Hebrews needed to be saved from their blinding pride over being God's chosen people. They knew His claim upon them and the conditions of the covenant arrangement but they missed His blessing because vanity made them overestimate their importance.
Jesus saved some from vanity when they saw that religious knowledge is never a substitute for religious experience; that knowing about God is never the same as pleasing Him. Salvation lay in recognizing God as Father, and themselves as eager, grateful, obedient, and related children under Him. Salvation from vanity always happens when we get and hold a right view of self in relation to God and others. And only the truth about ourselves can lead to such a freedom.
2. As He dealt with His people, Jesus made them face up to their sins of violence. Violence is the selfish use of power to gain advantage over someone else for personal reasons. Violence is often an extreme action taken to overcome someone. It can involve outrage against them, or injury to them; it can be managed by using one's influence against someone, by intimidating them, by infringing upon their rights, and by direct assault upon them.
The seeds for violent action against Rome had sprouted in Palestinian Hebrews when Jesus came to do His ministry. The Romans held the advantaged position of power across the world of that day. Conquerors of lands and peoples near and far, their might was resented -- but not unchallenged.
Hatred of the Romans was a common fact among Jews, and that hate had spilled over and was affecting the relations between fellow Jews. Feeling subjected has a way of stirring one to seek supremacy at some point over someone else.
Jesus understood this. Instead of advising His disciples against using intimidation and force to gain some desired end, He more positively counseled them to learn how to love -- even to love one's enemy. It was a revolutionary ethic, but a highly practical one. Jesus knew that those who learned to live this way would not only survive but prove the more formidable and creative in the end.
Intent to show them what He meant by love, and how to develop an unselfish concern even for those one would not normally "like," Jesus chose to bring together around Him a rather disparate group of men, twelve in all. There were some zealots, radical militants from his home province of Galilee, men from the Jewish resistance movement like Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot. Jesus also chose Matthew 1:21, a former tax-collector who had collaborated with Roman officials in his work.
Jesus brought them all together, worked daily to train them in new openness and attitudes of acceptance, so that their energies could be redirected in more productive work than guerrilla raids on Roman legionnaires by the militants or incessant scheming to get-ahead by former collaborators with Romans. It was a necessary experiment -- and a risky encounter - but through it Jesus saved the militants from their hate and Matthew from money-grabbing (and the violence that went along with holding his position through armed support allotted for tax collectors).
Salvation from the attitude that spawns violence is a need in our time as well. Aggressively violent persons and groups keep our newscasts filled with sad news as they use violent means to gain their ends. The recent death of hostages at the hands of terrorists is etched in our memories. All of us reacted painfully to such passionate selfishness, such evident blindness to humane values, and to that untamed spirit of aggression that continues to block understanding because the rules of regard have been scrapped. Our world needs to be saved from violence.
We all know how difficult it is to think non-violently when you are face to face with a sensed hostility against yourself. But Jesus came to save us from that kind of triggering attitude and response. We must let Him do so. Much help in understanding the application of His insights into this problem has been given by Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited is a central interpretation of the background and techniques of non-violence as Jesus taught it; King read deeply in this book during the bus boycott year in Montgomery, and it proved a reliable guide for his successful pilgrimage to non-violence through understood use of agape love.
George Washington Carver used to caution his students and friends against hate, retaliation and violence. For instance, in January 1921, invited to Washington, DC to speak about the possibilities of the peanut as a commercial product, Carter sensed hostility from some of the white Southerners who were members of the House Ways and Means Committee, the group responsible to decide about the advisability of a higher tariff on imported peanuts.
Carver had come to Washington at the request and expense of the United Peanut Association of America, a group of growers eager to protect their then-infant business from the lower costing peanuts imported from the Far East -- peanuts grown in China, processed in Japan, and then sent here for sale.
Expecting a high-level committee to handle its business with dignity and decorum, Carver was shocked when he watched the speakers before him harassed and treated in a demeaning manner. He walked forward when his name was called on the third day, the last scheduled speaker, and while on the way to the front he heard one of the committee members yelp out, "I suppose if you have plenty of peanuts and watermelons you're perfectly happy?"1
Carver ignored it as an ignorant jibe, but it stung his spirit. So did seeing another member there sitting at the table with his hat on his head, leaning back in his chair, his feet propped lazily on the table before him, and smoking a black cigar. The chairman spoke to that man, asking him to remove his hat. The Southerner replied, "Down where I come from we don't accept any 'nigger's' testimony, and I don't see what this fellow can say that will have any bearing on this meeting."2
At that point Carver was tempted to withdraw from the room, but a higher thought held him steady. He reasoned that God had given him the opportunity to appear before that important committee of national representatives, so he quickly prayed to God: "I humbly prayed, asking the Lord for grace to carry out His will."3
Told he had ten minutes, Carver opened the display case he had brought with him, and began talking about the peanut and his findings from the many experiments he had conducted on its properties. So engaging were his disclosures that the jibing finally ceased, and when his allotted time of ten minutes ended all too quickly, one of the congressmen motioned that his time should be extended. The motion passed, unanimously approved, and Carver continued talking for one and three quarters hours; he displayed many of the 165 products he had made from the peanut. After several extensions of time, the committee stood and applauded him. The rest of the story is well-known.
Had he not been saved from what leads to violence, the contribution George Washington Carver was born to make to America and the world might never have been given. Violence short-circuits gifts and abilities; violence ruins our opportunities. Violence discredits and demands. George W. Carver knew this.
Telling his story later to his friend Harvey Jay Hill, Carver mentioned that after the meeting ended, the Southerner who had selfishly ridiculed him as a "nigger" was the first to come over to him and shake his hand. "Mr. Hill," Carver told his friend, "God moves in a mysterious way, 'His wonders to perform.' No matter what the circumstances, hatred and resentment must never have a place in our hearts."4 Carver had been taught and helped by Jesus.
3. As He dealt with His people, Jesus called attention to sins of vice, intent to free all who wanted release from the disposition to practice what is unworthy and harmful to themselves.
The New Testament carries several lists of self-injuring practices, and any serious looking at those lists should warn us about the penalties we pay and the losses we suffer when we defy God-given rules and try to live without divine guidance. Those who give themselves to vices later look up out of a ruined life and wish for salvation and another chance at life. Jesus came to save us from our vices, bring us to virtue, and help us to obey the counsel of godliness.
Booker T. Washington put it rightly when addressing a black group in session at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery many years ago: "We must learn more and more to draw the line between the good and bad; between pure and impure. Let the line be drawn strictly, no matter who is ostracized or does not like it. We must place a stamp of reward upon right living and a stamp of condemnation upon wrong living."5
To follow any other line is folly and tragic failure; it is, as Jesus dramatically cautioned us against doing, to build the house of one's life in an unstable and unsafe sandy place.
Jesus came to save us from our sins but we must let Him do so. Sin deteriorates relations, undermines health, dulls the mind, misdirects energies, destroys community, ruins character. Jesus came to save us, setting us free to become what God's grace can make us. John Mbiti was right in saying that "The Christian faith coheres in the one concept of the Saviorhood of Christ." As this truth is proclaimed, the power of the gospel becomes known and experienced.
The story is told about Sojourner Truth's first visit with President Lincoln. Upon meeting him, that gallant black woman said, "I never heard of you before you were talked of for President." Mr. Lincoln smiled, we are told, and replied that he had long since heard of her work.
As they talked on together, Sojourner Truth complimented Mr. Lincoln on being the best president the country had ever had. Mr. Lincoln humbly suggested that several presidents of the nation had done better than himself. Sojourner Truth shrugged her shoulders at that, saying, "They may have been good to others, but they neglected to do anything for my race. George Washington had a good name, but his name didn't reach to us."6
Jesus. This is a name that reaches us, all of us, ready to touch and save us. But we must let Him.
1. See Rackham Holt, George Washington Carver: An American Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1963 revised edition), p. 268.
2. See Harvey Jay Hill, He Heard Cod's Whisper: The Story of Dr. George W. Carver (Minneapolis: Jorgenson Press, 1943), p. 73.
3. Ibid., p. 74.
4. Ibid., p. 74.
5. "An Address at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church" on May 19, 1901, in The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 6, 1901-02, ed. by Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock, with Barbara S. Kraft (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), p. 116.
6. See Jacqueline Bernard, Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Soiourner Truth (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1967), p. 202.
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