Advent Carols

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Well it’s a great joy and pleasure for me to be here with you this evening on this special evening. We’re going to look at one verse in the Bible. If you do have your Bibles in front of you if you can turn to 1 Timothy 1:15. It’s on page 1191 in your church Bible. The apostle Paul writes and says:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the worst.

A couple of weeks ago in a local newspaper in Johannesburg an article was printed which listed some of the most extraordinary mistakes and statements made by various experts. In 1883 Lord Kelvin, the president of the Royal Society of Scientists, said this about x-rays, he said; ‘X-rays will prove to be a hoax.’ In 1933 a Boeing 247, a little bit before most of our time, capable of holding 10 people took flight. One of the engineers proudly declared ‘there will never be a bigger plane built’. In 2004 Bill Gates, speaking at the World Economic Forum, said ‘2 years from now spam will be totally solved’.

I’ve discovered that one of the most common mistakes about Christianity is to mistake good people for Christians. I think that’s a very, very common mistake that many people make. It’s a mistake because it’s possible to be a good person and an atheist; it’s possible to be a good person and a Buddhist; it’s even possible to be a good person and a Christian, though it’s not your goodness that makes you a Christian. Now don’t misunderstand me – God is not against goodness or us being good. Just being good or trying to be good won’t make you a Christian, in fact it’s impossible. Let’s have a look at this verse that we have in front of us, 1 Timothy 1:15, which I think clears up a great deal of misunderstandings. 3 things I want us to have a look at to help us understand this verse.

The first question is ‘why did Jesus come?’. Paul tells us here quite clearly that Jesus came for sinners. Did you notice that? Now when the Bible talks about sinners it’s not talking about particularly evil people or bad people, like murderers or rapists or paedophiles. It’s not talking about a particularly decadent or evil nation or tribe, like South Africans or perhaps Australians. No, it’s actually talking about all of us. All of us are sinners, that’s what the Bible teaches us. Elsewhere Paul says in Romans 3 that all of us have sinned, all, everybody, without exception; all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. All have turned away. There is no one righteous, not even one. Notice how in this passage Paul includes himself. Notice there in 1:13, he describes himself; ‘I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man’. Notice v16, once again speaking about himself; ‘I was the worst of sinners’. You see no one is excluded, the Bible tells us that we are sinful by nature.

In fact the Bible tells us we are sinful from birth. If you’re a parent you’ll understand that; you don’t have to teach your children how to be naughty; you spend years and years - 15, 20 - perhaps even long, teaching them what is right and what is good. Why’s that? Because they are born sinful, they are born with this ability to do what is wrong. That is our nature, that is how we are born.

Now I think that comes as a bit of a shock to most people. Most people don’t like the idea that God calls them sinners or rebels. Most people would say ‘I know I’m not perfect, I know I make mistakes, I know from time to time I blow it, but I really wouldn’t call myself a sinner’, we don’t like that idea. Jesus said the fruit is corrupt because the tree is corrupt. Now what did he mean by that? He meant that we’re not sinful because of what we do, but because of what we are. The fundamental flaw of the human race isn’t lying or stealing or adultery. Of course those are sins, those are grievous sins. But that is not the fundamental flaw of the human race; the fundamental flaw of the human race is that the creature has rebelled against the creator. Imagine – God created us, God made us, he gave us life, he gave us blessings, he gave us gifts, he gave us minds. And yet we’ve rejected him, we’ve ignored him, we’ve treated him like a block of wood. That’s what the human race has done.

I think most of us treat God like we treat our plumber. Imagine that, think about that. Perhaps the last time you had water running down the wall because the geyser burst or some of the pipes burst, you ran into the kitchen and said ‘what’s that plumber’s name again? I can’t remember his name. Where’s his telephone number? Wasn’t it on the fridge door?’ I think we treat God like that. We ignore him, we reject him, we don’t think about him, we don’t thank him. And only when there’s a crisis do we say ‘Where’s God? What’s his name? Where’s his number?’ You see at the heart of sin, this word ‘sinner’, is man’s autonomy, man’s independence, man’s rebellion against his creator. Where in a sense our foreparents thrust their fists into the face of God, saying ‘I don’t need you, I don’t want you, I will live life in my own way. I will be the lord of my own life. I will be the master of my own destiny. I will determine my own laws, my own worldview, my own happiness. I’ll be the god of my own life.’

I can remember as a young man being quite surprised when someone said that sin is self. Sin is self – self-absorption, self-righteousness, self-centredness. You see at the heart of sin is me – my needs, my rights, my pleasure, my worldview, my leisure. That’s at the heart of sin; it’s our autonomy, our independence.

You remember how Jesus was asked ‘what is the greatest commandment?’ And Jesus said the greatest commandment is ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And the second is like it; love your neighbour as yourself’. I’m sure you notice the order. The order is God first, then your neighbour, then self. Sin is when we’ve reversed that order. Where I’m first, my neighbour is second if it’s convenient, and somewhere in the background is God. We’ve reversed the order.

Martin Luther’s definition of a sinner is ‘man curved in on himself’. Selfish, self-centred and self-absorbed. You may remember Malcolm Muggeridge described his own self-centredness, his own sinfulness. He talked about ‘the dark little dungeon of my own ego’. Isn’t that good? ‘The dark little dungeon of my own ego’. The very nature of sin not only separates us from God, but it destroys us, it damages us, it destroys personality. That’s the nature of sin. Not only are we cut off from our creator and our God, but it feeds upon itself, it destroys us. The poet Byron, who lived a somewhat immoral life, he said this, I quote;

The thorns I have reaped are of the treesI planted; they have torn me and I bleed.I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed.

Perhaps this evening you know exactly what Byron is talking about. You deeply regret some of those lies and those half-lies, those broken promises, the deceit. You wish you could undo it, but you can’t. And, like Byron, right now you are reaping the thorns of trees you planted; you are reaping the fruit of seed you have sown. The basic pathology of the human race is that the creature has rebelled against his creator. So everything is flawed, everything is disjointed, everything is broken in one way or another. Think about it – if sin was the colour of blue, every aspect of my being would be in some shade of blue. My mind, my will, my emotions, my personality – every aspect of who I am would be in some shade of blue.

Why did Jesus come? Well Paul tells us he came for sinners. He came for broken people. The first beatitude, you remember, Jesus said ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. He wasn’t talking about economic poverty, or emotional poverty. No, he was talking about spiritual poverty. It’s only when we recognise our brokenness, our spiritual poverty, and call on God for mercy, that we take the first step in becoming a Christian. You see the gospel and the church is not for middle class people in a country club. No, the gospel and the church is for broken people, who come to a spiritual hospital, knowing that they need help. Why did he come? He came for sinners. He came for people like you and me.

The second question is ‘what did he do?’ Once again Paul tells us, notice it there in v15; he came into the world to save. He came to save. A story is told of a South American family, a very poor family, living in a poor village. One of the young daughters ran away from home to escape the poverty, and ran to the city. And there she fell on hard times and she fell into prostitution. Her mother, of course, was distraught. She didn’t know how to contact her daughter or how to find her daughter. And so the mother made 100s of passport photos of herself. And she put them up in hotels and pubs and bars all over the city. And one day her daughter saw one of these photos of her mother. And she took it off the noticeboard and turned it over, and on the back in her mother’s handwriting it said ’wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, come home’. No matter how grieved the mother was over the sin of her daughter, not for one moment did she stop loving her daughter or wanting her home.

And so it is with God; he grieves over our sin and our rebellion, but not for one moment does he stop loving us, wanting us home. That’s why Jesus came; he came to save us, he came to rescue us from ourselves, and our brokenness and our sinfulness and our dark little dungeons. That’s why he came; he came to rescue us. But he also came to rescue us from God’s judgement and God’s wrath. You see the Bible tells us God is not only a God of love, of course he’s a God of love, but he’s also a God of justice. Sin must be punished, justice must be done. So God sends his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was without sin, the man-God, who was perfect in every possible way. And when he hung upon the cross God took the sin and the garbage and the brokenness of my life and your life, and placed it on Christ. He died in my place. And he cried out, you remember, ‘my God my God, why have you forsaken me?’. At that very moment God the Father turned his face from God the Son and poured his judgement on his Son, not for his sin because he was without sin, but for your sin and for my sin.

Perhaps you saw the movie called ‘The Last Emperor’, where a young child was made the last emperor of China. He lived in great luxury, he had thousands of servants and slaves. And one day his brother said to him ‘what happens when you do wrong?’. And he said ‘when I do wrong someone else gets punished’. And to prove it he took a porcelain jar and he dropped it, and it smashed into thousands of pieces. And as it was broken a servant was taken outside and beaten. Well in the gospel that ancient pattern is reversed; when the servants sin the King is punished. Isn’t that extraordinary? It’s not what we do, it’s what God has done for us; God has taken the initiative to rescue us and to save us. It’s the Bible word ‘grace’.

Now in South Africa most people don’t understand the word ‘grace’. You’ll have young girls being called or baptised by the name ‘Grace’. Or grace is what people say before they eat some food. Or perhaps grace is what you say when your daughter does some ballet on stage, you say she’s gracious. When the Bible uses the word ‘grace’ it means the unmerited love of God, the undeserved love of God, the unearned love of God. If you’ve worked the whole month and you get paid at the end of the month that’s not grace; you’ve earned it, you’ve worked for it, you deserve it. But if you don’t work the whole month and you get a salary – that’s grace. You get what you don’t deserve.

Now we find that quite hard to understand because we live in a world of ungrace. That’s the world in which we live. I don’t know what it’s like here up in Newcastle but back in Johannesburg the banks don’t work by grace, they live in a world of ungrace. They want every last penny in bank fees or interest. The tax man certainly doesn’t work by grace; he wants every last drop of blood. We are taught from our mothers’ knee that we live in a world of ungrace. The early bird gets the worm. We’re taught there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We are taught that there’s no pain no gain. You get what you pay for. That’s what we’re taught from our mothers’ knee. And yet if we care to listen there’s a loud whisper from the gospel that I got what I didn’t deserve. I deserved punishment and I got forgiveness. I deserved wrath and I got love. I deserved a debtors’ prison and yet I got a clear credit history. That’s the appalling mathematics of grace; we get what we don’t deserve. We get what we didn’t pay for. Someone said if the world could have been saved by good bookkeeping it would have been saved by Moses and not Jesus.

Philip Yancey has a lovely quote in one of his books. Let me read it to you because I think it illustrates what God’s grace is. I quote:

Not long ago I heard from a pastor friend who was battling with his 15 year old daughter. He knew that she was using birth control, and several nights she had not bothered to come home at all. The parents had tried various forms of punishment to no avail. The daughter lied to them, deceived them, found a way to turn the tables on them; ‘it’s your fault for being so strict’. My friend told me ‘I remember standing before the plate-glass windows, staring out into the darkness, waiting for her to come home. I felt such rage. I wanted to be like the father in the prodigal son, yet I was furious with my daughter for the way she would manipulate us and twist the knife to hurt us. And yet I must tell you when my daughter came home that night, or rather the next morning, I wanted nothing in the world so much as to take her in my arms, to love her, to tell her I wanted the best for her. I was a helpless, lovesick father.

You see I think that’s a lovely picture of God. Despite our sin, our rebellion, our disobedience, God has taken the initiative to rescue us, to save us. He’s a lovesick Father wanting to be reconciled to his children.

Well let me close with the last question. It’s not only ‘why did he come?’ and ‘what did he do?’, but ‘how do we respond?’. The Bible is quite clear that you are not born a Christian. You’re not a Christian because you were born into a Christian family, or went to a Christian school or belong to a Christian church. That doesn’t necessarily make you a Christian. Those may be good things but it doesn’t make you a Christian; you’re not a Christian by association. You need to take a step, you need to cross a line. I think there are 3 things that you need to do. Forgive me for being simplistic, but it’s as simple as abc. If you want to cross that line, if you want to be reconciled to God once and for all.

A stands for admit; admit your brokenness, admit your sinfulness, admit your spiritual poverty.
B stands for believe in; believe in what Christ has done for you – he’s come to rescue you, he’s died for you.
C stands for come; come to him, turn to him, call on him, that he may rescue you.

Wouldn’t tonight be a good night to finally get right with God? Wouldn’t tonight be a good night to stop all the ducking and diving and finally bow the knee to King Jesus, and say ‘oh Lord, will you rescue me?’? Let’s do that as we pray.

I’m going to pray a prayer that you may want to pray. This prayer may not be for you, you may not be ready to pray this prayer. But there be someone here this evening who is ready. As we’ve been singing and praying and reading God’s word you have felt God the Holy Spirit pressing in upon your heart, your mind. Here’s a prayer you may want to pray. Let me tell you what it is before you pray it, so that you can decide whether you want to pray it. It goes like this, it’s very simple:

Lord, I don’t understand it all, but I know that I need you. I know that Christ died for me. Will you forgive me. Will you save me. Will you make me a Christian. Will you help me to live under your leadership. And Father we thank you that when we turn to you in our need and cry to you for mercy that you hear and you answer. Work amongst us we pray, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

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