Sunday, May 29, 2016
I needed help with this sermon, so I turned … well, I turned to everyone. If you were around the church office this week, I hit you with a question. If I haven’t asked you the question yet, I’ll give it now and you can think about what your answer would be. If I have asked and you remember answering, you can now think whether you would change what your answer would be.
We say Jesus is our savior. The Bible says that. Salvation is a major and repeated theme in scripture and in the history of Christian theology. If Jesus is savior, here is the question. From what are we saved? Ponder that. If Jesus is our Savior, from what are we saved?
Because this concept comes up so often in the Bible, one thing is absolutely clear to me. Human beings and the world, the entire creation, need salvation and only God can meet this need. However, salvation is discussed in so many different places, there is not one definitive word on this topic. Salvation is a complex Christian idea and it is important that we understand it.
Throughout this summer, that’s what we’ll try to do. We will look at the history of ideas about salvation in way that shows the connection of the idea with the daily living of our lives. Surprising? Did you think of salvation as something that happens to your soul after you die? Certainly eternal life is part of what we mean when we say ‘salvation.’ The saved spend eternity in God’s loving embrace, feasting at God’s banquet table. Those not saved, the damned, spend eternity separated from God. We call this condition Hell and the New Testament offer several metaphors to depict it.
However, the Bible does not restrict the understanding of salvation to the afterlife. What does it mean today to say, ‘I am saved?’
Luke chapter 3 stands at the turning point of history. Luke mentions the Roman emperor of the time, the Roman governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate, and Herod, the Jewish ruler in Galilee. Luke sets his tale in history because he believes he’s writing not only history – but a seismic shift in the historical landscape. To accomplish his task of showing that with the arrival of Jesus on the scene everything has changed, he sets the time period and then quotes the prophet Isaiah.
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” Isaiah says, and 500 years later Luke write. Luke 3:4-5 is remarkably similar to Isaiah 40:3-4. That portion of Isaiah was for the exile community; God’s word of promise to a defeated people. God would again do a new thing and would again deliver His people. Luke takes those words the prophet spoke in Babylon and announces that the day has come. In doing so, he significantly alters the final part of the quote.
Isaiah told the exiles, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Luke saw that glory – God in the flesh, Jesus. By the time Luke wrote this gospel, Jesus had died and resurrected. Luke changed the final verse of the quote so that in his rendition it said, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The glory of God means salvation for humankind and for the world God created and sin corrupted. The coming of Jesus is the sign that the turn-around has begun.
By changing the final verse of the well-known Isaiah passage, Luke introduced a new idea. “All” flesh shall see salvation. This idea is not only for priests, not only for Pharisees, not only for Jews. Luke’s two works – the gospel and the book of Acts – insist that this salvation that comes from the Jews spreads over the face of the earth. His message is to be taken literally.
John the Baptist, Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness, is said by some Bible commentators to be the last of the Old Testament prophets in the tradition of Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah. I see that. I also see him and a pre-apostle. Apostles were those who met Jesus in person and then carried the message of his salvation and coming kingdom throughout the world. John met Jesus in person. He baptized him. And when he wasn’t baptizing he was preaching, proclaiming the gospel of repentance. He was the forerunner to the age of the apostles. Most importantly, he showed that the message of salvation is one to be shared.
He also demanded repentance and this gets us closer to that question which should stay on our minds throughout all of this. From what does Jesus save us? Repentance is acknowledging and confessing our sins, turning away from them, and in our guilt turning to God. Oxford theologian Paul Fiddes calls sin a “failure of relationship between human beings and their creator due to rebellion from the human side.” Sin is unbelief. It is humans refusing to accept God’s purpose for His creation and substituting our own purposes instead.[i]
Sin wipes out the possibility of universal salvation. Wouldn’t that be nice? Everyone is saved. We could even such an interpretation out of Luke’s altered Isaiah quote. Doesn’t it see, all shall see salvation? Yes. But do all receive salvation? Jesus is the embodiment of God and of what God wants to do. Did all who met Jesus turn to God in faith? No. Some heightened their own rebellion by pounding thorns into Jesus’ head before nailing him to a cross, displaying him in shame, and piercing him with a spear. Some people reject God and take that rejection to their graves. On judgment day, God honors the choices we have made.
At the same time, God glorifies the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross. He died for the sins of the world. He died to defeat death. He overcame the temptations of Satan. He forgave those who taunted, tried, and killed him. He welcomed back the disciples who abandoned him and restored the one who denied him. He redeemed humanity and renewed creation. All in his death and resurrection. His victory is the final word on Judgment Day. How this squares with the eternal fate of those who rejected God invitations in life is God’s business. I don’t know how it all fits together and I will assert that the most brilliant of theologians doesn’t know either, not completely.
What we can say, because the Bible shows this, is that salvation is much more the verdict for individuals on Judgment Day. It is also about God reclaiming his creation. Listen to the comments of N.T. Wright, also of Oxford. He says that the belief that the whole of Christian truth is about me and my salvation is the “theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth.” He continues, “We are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. … God made humans … so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world.”[ii] When we are saved, it is to be agents of God’s order. That’s our vocation as disciples. More on that in a moment.
N.T. Wright’s expanded sense of salvation brings me to the question I threw in peoples’ faces all week. If Jesus is the Savior, from what are we saved?
People don’t like it when a pastor steps to them with a question like this. It feels like a pop quiz one is destined to fail. Thank you, all of you, who humored me by answering.
In the salvation we have from God, from what are we saved? Eleven people said we are saved from “Sin.” Some had a variation on this like, saved from the penalty of sin, or saved from sin and death, or saved from consequences of sin. That’s a correct answer. Nine people said we are saved from death. One of the nine actually the word ‘destruction.’ Also a correct answer. Seven people said some form of separation; we are saved from separation from God. The cross bridges the chasm. Six people said we are saved from ourselves and one said we are saved from each other. Many passages in the Old Testament show why such a salvation is needed. Four people included “Hell” as part of their answer; we are saved from Hell. Tw said we are saved from the world and one said we are saved from falling short of God’s standard. One creative person said, we are saved from an ordinary life. These are all correct answers.
A year ago, I put this question to my son Igor. This is what happens when your dad is a pastor. He said we are saved from evil. He’s the only one who said it that way. This past week, I asked him the same question and forgetting what he previously said, this time said we are saved from sin. I bet if I asked you the question in five years, your answer might be a little different than what you’d answer today. These are all right answers. They all tell part of the story.
I was having so much fun with this game, I took it to a group a pastors I meet with on Thursdays. We spend a couple of hours each week debating theology and helping each other figure how to be better church leaders. I asked these wise guys the question, and they had to turn it around on me.
They said, “No Rob, the question is not what are we saved from. The question is what are we saved for. Or, what are we saved to.” I had to browbeat these guys into answering my question. Then, I had to thank them for challenging me with a better question. Remember N.T. Wright’s observation. When we are saved by God through faith in Jesus Christ, we become agents of God’s order.
We are sent by him to lost, hurting people, beaten people, mean, scarred people. We are sent to tell them that their lives, which appear to be total messes, actually have purpose. We are sent to show them that they are loved. They feel horrible about themselves, which is why they are so awful to others. We show them they are loved by God and have a future of walking hand-in-hand with God. What are we saved to?
All summer we will dig into what ‘salvation’ means and how it colors, shapes, and animates our everyday lives. For now, ponder this.
An old evangelistic technique is to try to shock people. Put the urgency into the conversation. Say to someone you think is not walking with Jesus, “If you were to die tonight and have to face God, what reason would you give Him for letting you into His Heaven?” “If you were to die tonight … .” That’ll get em! That will convince people to turn to the Lord in repentance and faith. Scare them into Heaven. The truth is some people have become disciples through confrontational approaches like this one.
It’s not a tact Jesus normally used. More often than anything else, he told people they were forgiven and thus able to re-enter the worshiping community. Or, he might say, “You are forgiven. Go in peace.” The words he spoke to how people would live faithful, God-honoring, God-filled lives the next day.
What if we undercut that “What are you saved from” question? What if we inverted that “If you die tonight” approach to talking about salvation?
Not, “If you die tonight.” No, instead this: “If you wake up tomorrow, how will you live the new day in relation to God?”
That’s this week’s assignment. Each day, when you wake up, be aware. You’re awake! You don’t need to remember the entire sermon. Just remember to look in a mirror and say this. “OK, I am saved by the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What am I saved for today? What I am saved to do in Jesus’ name today?” This week, don’t fail. Don’t miss a day between now and next Sunday. Start each day in this way. I am saved. For what I am saved? What will my relationship with God look like today? And spend that day answering.