He Came to Save Us
From Our Sins
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20, 21)
Christmas has come once again, and, for a little while longer, is still with us. Tradition holds that the Christmas season begins with Christmas day and goes for twelve days, ending with Epiphany on January 6th. This is reflected in the popular Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
This means that we have a little more time to consider the meaning of Christmas. For in all our Christmas preparations, and in our anticipation of the big day and of the family gatherings that surround it, it is hard to settle our minds down for quieter contemplation of the great event that is the cause of our Christmas celebration. Now that Christmas day is past, and the family gatherings are drawing to an end, perhaps our thoughts are a little more free to dwell for a time on just what it is that we celebrate at this season--for the Lord's birth is at the center of our Christian faith.
The meaning of Christ's coming to earth is by no means a settled question among the various branches of Christianity. Just yesterday, I officiated at a memorial service in our sister church. The extended family of the person who had died was present at the service--about 100 of them! This family covered a wide range of Christian belief, from Swedenborgian to fundamentalist. Afterwards, I found myself in a conversation with two of the more fundamentalist variety.
It was an engaging and challenging discussion. These two people did not conform to the stereotype of rigid fundamentalists who only want to cram their own beliefs down others' throats. They asked questions and listened respectfully, in addition to stating their own beliefs. They seemed genuinely curious to find out about this Swedenborgian belief that some of their family members held to.
Their fallback position was, of course, that in order to be saved, we must believe in Jesus. Yet their responses were not so hard core when I asked the question, "What about those who have never heard of Jesus, or have simply not heard enough to base any belief on? Are they all condemned?" One of them, in particular, said he believed that the Lord was able to save these people also, since they could not be blamed for not believing in Jesus if they had had no chance to learn who Jesus was. This issue seemed to present them with a genuine conundrum--and I came away from the conversation feeling that at least these two fundamentalist-leaning Christians had room in their beliefs for questioning and growth.
What does this have to do with the meaning of Christmas? The questions we were discussing, and our views on those questions, were central to our respective beliefs about exactly why the Lord Jesus came into the world. All three of us looked to the Bible for enlightenment on that question, but we came up with some different perspectives on what the Bible said--the two of them from their more literal interpretation, and I from my more spiritual interpretation based on what we in our church learn from Emanuel Swedenborg's religious writings.
The issue of salvation is central to the Christmas story, as we learn in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew:
In contrast to the talkative angels in Luke's Gospel, the angels in Matthew are brief and to the point. This particular angel clearly considered the issue of salvation to be of primary importance in the Lord's birth, since it was included even in this parsimonious announcement of the Lord's birth. "You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
The name "Jesus" comes from the Hebrew name "Joshua," which can be roughly translated as "Jehovah is salvation." A simpler way to say this would be, "the Lord saves." So the popular saying "Jesus saves" simply states the meaning of the name "Jesus." In our text from Matthew, we are told why Jesus was given this name: because he would save his people from their sins.
Now that things are calmer, and we have more time for reflection, we can take a closer look at just what the salvation is that comes to us by means of the Lord's birth into our world. This is something we can carry with us as we move from Christmas into the New Year and beyond.
The twenty-fourth Psalm (which we also read this morning) expresses some of what the Lord's salvation means:
"The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle." Salvation does involve a battle. When we celebrate the Lord's birth, and think of him as a baby in a manger, our minds do not usually look forward to the life that followed. When we are contemplating that innocent baby, we do not think of the terrible struggles that this baby endured as he grew to adulthood and then pursued his public ministry.
Yet our church teaches us that throughout his life on earth, Jesus was continually struggling against the combined forces of evil and falsity that we know of as hell. In fact, this struggle was the primary reason the Lord came to earth at the time that he did. For humanity had reached its lowest ebb spiritually, and nothing but the Lord's own presence and power struggling directly against the evil forces that were dragging us down would be sufficient to overcome those evil forces and save us from spiritual death.
At the time of the Lord's first coming, Swedenborg tells us, humanity had fallen so far away from a loving and spiritual way of life that the opposite of that life--the evil of selfishness, greed, and contempt for others--had gained a tremendous, choking influence over people's minds and hearts. It was getting to the point where even those who wanted to live a good life could not, because the path toward goodness was being blocked by those who had chosen to go in the opposite direction.
The Lord had tried to clear the way through prophets and religious leaders. But merely human vessels for the divine power had proven insufficient, and the downward slide continued. So the King of glory himself, the Lord strong and mighty, found it necessary to come and personally wage that battle to free human minds and hearts from a spiritual destruction that was fast overtaking us.
Does this mean that our work is done for us? Can we now, as some of the more extreme fundamentalists believe, simply state our faith in Jesus' saving power, and be saved in a moment? Is there nothing further that we can or must do?
Here we come face to face with a paradox. For even Swedenborg agrees that if we see things as they really are, God alone has the power to save, and we, as finite human beings, have not the slightest ability to save ourselves. We are entirely dependent on God's saving power. So we must ask the question again, in another way: Do we as human beings need to do anything to contribute to our own salvation?
Even the most hard-boiled fundamentalist would agree that there is at least one thing that we do have to do: express our faith in Jesus. And if we broaden our ideas, both of the meaning of faith and of the meaning of faith in Jesus, we will find that we as Swedenborgians agree one hundred percent. It is true that the only thing we as human beings can do is express our faith in Jesus, for everything else comes from the Lord.
Yet, what does it mean to express our faith in Jesus? Does it mean merely to say with our mouths, "I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?" Even the two people I was speaking with yesterday did not accept this, but said that a genuine faith must be expressed in a life according to that faith. Otherwise, it is not faith at all.
As Swedenborg says many times over, faith is not faith unless it is united with love, nor is love love unless it is united with faith in God. When the two of these are together, they become real not only in their union with each other, but in their inevitable expression in an active life that expresses that love and faith. In other words, if we have genuine faith in the Lord, it is not just something that is up in our heads; faith is not an intellectual thing. No, genuine faith involves not only our heads, but our hearts and our hands as well. Genuine faith is a belief in the Lord together with a heartfelt love for the Lord and for our fellow human beings. This love moves us to serve each other and make each other happy. Our faith in the Lord's teachings becomes our guiding light, showing us how we can be genuinely helpful to each other. For it is only by following the Lord that the good things we do will result in genuine, long-term good. Without the Lord's continual guidance, we tend to become bulls in a china shop, doing more harm than good in our misguided efforts to be "helpful."
As paradoxical as it may seem, it is true that all power and all salvation is the Lord's, and none of it ours; yet at the same time, we must make our own choices and fight our own battles as if we were doing it on our own. It is only when we make a conscious choice and an active commitment to the Lord's way that we become genuinely receptive of the saving power that comes from the Lord alone.
In our church's beliefs, then, we have something that can satisfy both those who say the Lord alone saves, and those who say that we must work out our own salvation. Both are true--it is only a matter of perspective: our perspective, or the Lord's. We must act as if our salvation depends on our own efforts so that we will make the effort to overcome the evil and false parts of ourselves, and so move closer to God's way. Yet God knows that none of the power to do this comes from ourselves, but from God only--and we should also recognize this as we struggle to reform ourselves.
Christmas, then, is not simply a wonderful, feel-good holiday of love and light in the midst of darkness. Once the celebrations are over, Christmas becomes a call to the conflict and the struggle that will accompany us throughout our lives if we are growing in our Christian faith and life. Christmas is a challenge. It is the challenge of the Lord's own presence, offering us the power to overcome our sins of self-centeredness, of putting things above people. In coming to us as Jesus Christ our Lord, God is offering us the power to overcome these sins in ourselves. The Lord is offering to save us from our sins, if we will only hear that call, and allow the Lord's power to grow from the infancy of our initial acceptance of the Lord to the maturity of devoting our entire lives to God's way.
painting is ©Robert Meyers