Turn with me to Matthew 1:21.
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.
From the earliest years of the church Christians have chosen the cross to symbolise their faith. Of course there were many other options - they could have chosen the manger in which Jesus was born, or they could have chosen the boat from which he preached, or even the stone which was rolled from the grave. But they chose the cross - probably the most gruesome form of death known to man at that time. In contemporary terms it’s like having a hangman’s noose or an electric chair hanging around your neck. Have you ever wondered why they chose the cross? The reason they chose the cross - Christians have always seen the cross as the symbol representing the Christian faith - is because Christians have always understood that at the heart of the Christian faith is not the birth of Jesus, or the example of Jesus, or even the teachings of Jesus. No, at the heart of the Christian faith is the death of Jesus, the cross of Christ, which is precisely what Matthew tells us here in chapter 1 verse 21. He speaks here of Jesus who has come to save his people from their sins.
What I want to do this evening quite briefly is just to unpack this 1 verse, and to ask 3 questions to help us understand what Matthew is teaching us here:
1 Who is Jesus?
2 Why did he come?
3 How do we respond?
Well, let’s have a look at this verse and then the first question is:
1) WHO IS JESUS?
I think it would be true to say that in our western world most people have a twisted or warped view of Jesus. As a general rule the image which people have of Jesus is really just a magnified or an amplified version of themselves. And it’s been like that for ages. The Greeks portrayed Jesus as a beardless young man resembling the god Apollo. The Cuban government at one time distributed leaflets of Jesus with a carbine rifle slung over his shoulder. During the French-English wars in the 1800s I’m told that the English would chant, “The pope may be French but Jesus is English.” Of course, they were probably wrong on both counts.
No doubt the most dominant view that people have of Jesus in our western culture is that he’s distant, he’s irrelevant, he’s detached. The Prozac Jesus is uninvolved, he’s emotionless.
There was an Italian movie called La Dolce Vita. It opens with a shot of a helicopter carrying a giant statue of Jesus to Rome. Arms outstretched, Jesus hangs in a sling, and as the helicopter passes over the landscape people begin to recognise him. “Hey, that’s Jesus,” says the farmer who’s on a tractor, and he hops off his tractor running after the statue. Nearer Rome, bikini-clad girls sunbathing around a swimming pool wave a friendly greeting and of course the helicopter swoops in to have a closer look. There is Jesus - silent, with a doleful expression on his concrete face, hovering incongruously over the modern world. I think that’s a pretty good reflection of our culture’s view of Jesus - he’s detached, he’s aloof, hovering over reality and he’s certainly irrelevant when it comes to our modern world.
But that is not the Jesus of the Bible. Matthew tells us that Mary was to give birth to a son. Here is the incarnation of God, when God took on human form and entered our broken world. The Bible tells us that God is not aloof, he’s not distant, he’s not detached from our world. No, God became human flesh, God appeared on the human stage 2,000 years ago in the person of his Son Jesus Christ and said, “Here I am. Look me over.” What Matthew is telling us here just in that one verse is that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob isn’t silent. He’s not some distant deity we can ignore or have superstitions about. No, the God of Mathew has spoken. God has revealed himself.
Now of course he has spoken through creation. We can see something of the majesty and the power of God all around us day by day.
Of course God has spoken through our consciences so that everybody has some knowledge of right and wrong in one way or the other.
But primarily God has spoken, God has revealed himself, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. He’s God in the flesh. Now of course, my dear friends, that is supernatural. God walking the dusty roads of Palestine 2,000 years ago, God making friends, going to weddings and banquets with ordinary people like you and me - if anything is supernatural, that’s supernatural. Just by the way, if you have problems with miracles or with the supernatural, ultimately your problem isn’t with miracles, or with the supernatural, ultimately your problem is with your doctrine of God. If you have a small god then quite obviously you’re going to have a problem you’re going to have a problem with the supernatural, you’re going to have a problem with miracles, you’re going to have a problem with the incarnation. But if your God is the God of the Bible, who made heaven and earth, who made the universe, well then of course you’ll have no problems with miracles. If God made the laws of nature then surely he can suspend those laws for his own purposes if he is God.
If you’ve never read through he gospels, I suggest you read through Mark’s gospel. Read through the gospel. Find out about Jesus. When you read through the gospels it becomes obvious Jesus was the most extraordinary person who ever lived.
Think of some of the statements that Jesus made. Jesus made some extraordinary statements. He said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” He said, “I and the Father are one.” Quite extraordinary, isn’t it? He said, “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.” He’s saying that he is the source of all life, of all truth. Now those are pretty bold statements. He says, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.” In fact he says, “I’m equal with God.” Many people have said to me that Jesus was a wonderful human being, he was a wonderful man, he was a great moral teacher. Let me say with respect, that option isn’t open to us. No great human being or moral teacher would have said, the things that Jesus said. Anyone who says, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” is either a lunatic or a liar or he must be what he said he is. Do you think it’s possible that Jesus could be anything other than the Son of God?
But not only were his words extraordinary - his actions were extraordinary. Let me give you one example: Luke tells us in his gospel of a burial where the widow of Nain had lost her only son and Jesus came upon the funeral party as it were and he had compassion on her. And so he stopped the funeral, he rapped on the coffin, he spoke to the young man and told him to come out. And that’s exactly what happened. When we read that, we need to understand it’s not as if this man had only stopped breathing for 10 minutes and Jesus gave him a kind of antiquated kiss of life. That’s not what we’re reading there, no, he’d been dead for days, he was cold, he was stone dead, decomposing. You see we can read a passage like that almost without batting an eyelid - we get so used to Jesus doing God-type things. That’s something only God can do. It’s a clear affirmation of the deity of Christ. Because of the job I do, I’ve been to hundreds of funerals. It’s never occurred to me to knock on the coffin and tell the person to come out. I hate being embarrassed. And of course, I’m not God. God has revealed himself in space and time, he’s revealed himself objectively, historically, in the person of Jesus. That’s why human history is divided into BC and AD - because of one man called Jesus.
God’s not distant, he’s not detached. No, he’s revealed himself. He’s stepped onto the human stage. He’s involved himself in our world. Matthew introduces that concept here in ch 1:21She will give birth to a son
So that’s the first question: “Who is Jesus?” The second question is also answered in this verse.
2) WHY DID HE COME?
“you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”
It’s very important for us to understand that the fundamental problem with our human race is not political. It doesn’t have to do with politics or different governments or new governments or ecology or education or medicine or health - good and right as all these things are in their place. But that’s not our fundamental problem. Our fundamental problem is that the creature has rebelled against the Creator. That is our fundamental problem. We’ve sought independence from God. We’ve sought autonomy from God. At the heart of sin is man’s autonomy. Man has said to God, “I don’t need you. I don’t want you. I will live life in my own way. I will be the master of my own destiny. I will be the Lord of my own life. I’ll make my own rules. I’ll make my own world-view, my own laws, my own happiness.” But the problem is, because we’ve rebelled against our Creator (which the Bible calls sin), brokenness and distortion has entered into every area of life,. Every area of life, think about it, has been distorted. Think of international relationships - those dreadful, dreadful bombs on Thursday in Istanbul.
Think of the distortions in national life. Think of the brokenness in our communal lives, in our married lives, in our family lives, even in our personal lives. We are all distorted, we are all twisted in one way or another. Jesus gives an accurate analysis of human nature when he says that the fruit is corrupt because the tree is corrupt. What does he mean? He says you’re not sinful because of what you do - you’re sinful but because of who you are. By nature we are twisted. Turgenev, the Russian poet, put it this way, “I don’t know what the heart of a bad man is like, but I do know what the heart of a good man is like, and it’s terrible.” My dear friends, only the proud and presumptuous would disagree with Turgenev when we look into our own hearts.
Another way to describe our moral deformity, our inherent distortion, our twistedness, is to say that if the colour of sin was blue then every aspect of my being would be in some shade of blue - my will, my emotions, my heart, my mind. The reason we need Jesus is because of the kind of people we are. The fruit is corrupt because the tree is corrupt. Some of you might say, “Martin, I know I’m not perfect, but I’m not as bad as other people. You should meet my neighbours, or my colleagues, or my family - you should meet my in-laws. They need to be here this evening.” The problem with that argument is that God requires 100%. We all fall short, don’t we, we all fail. Paul put it so well, he said,
“All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”
Let me try to illustrate that. How would you rate these people on a scale of 1 to 10? Mother Teresa - 7 or 8 probably; Billy Graham - what would you rate Billy Graham - 7 or 8, much the same. How would you rate Adolf Hitler or perhaps Idi Amin? - Well I think, minus 20. The difference between Billy Graham and Idi Amin would seem to be so huge. The difference would be like placing Billy Graham on top of mountain and Adolf Hitler at the bottom of a mineshaft. Relative to one another there seems to be this huge difference. The problem however is that relative to God none of them can touch the stars - all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
That’s the bad news. Now the good news is that that’s precisely why Jesus was born, why Jesus came into this world. He came to rescue us from our selves, from our self-centredness, from our sinfulness. That’s what Matthew tells us
“He will save his people from their sins”.
And he does that by dying on the cross on our behalf, in our place. So the Bible talks about the substitutionary death of Christ. What that means is that when Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t die for his own sins - no, he was without sin - but he died for the sins of people like you and me. When he hung upon the cross, you remember he cried out
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Quite extraordinary words! You see, what was happening at that moment was that God was taking all the garbage that you have done and said and thought this last week, this last month, your whole life. He’s taken all that garbage and placed it onto Christ and then poured his judgement onto Christ. Christ died in my place. God’s justice demands that sin be punished, and God’s justice was satisfied in the substitutionary death of Christ. That’s why he came.
For a number of months, chickens had been stolen from an Indian camp and the chief was losing patience. He said that if the thief was caught he would be given 50 lashes. One night there was a commotion in the camp and the thief was caught red-handed and taken to the chief’s house where the sentence was handed out - 50 lashes. It was a dark night and the thief had his clothes wrapped closely around him so no-one could see who he was. It was only when they tied him to the stake to carry out the beating that the camp fire revealed his identity. He was the chief’s son. Everyone looked at the father to see if he would have mercy, but he’d given his word - the thief must be punished. The sentence stands. The whipping was about to begin when to everyone’s amazement, the chief wrapped himself around his son so that he could take the full force of the punishment. You see, he loved him so much that he decided to take the punishment instead.
That’s a picture of the substitutionary death of Christ. He died in my place, he took the punishment I deserve. Someone said, “One innocent man died in the place of all guilty people so that all guilty people may become innocent.” Forgiveness is free, it’s a gift. You can’t earn it. You don’t deserve it. You don’t merit it. If you think you have to work for salvation, you misunderstand it. But of course like any gift, someone had to pay for it - which Jesus did on the cross
Who is Jesus? Why did he come?
Let me close
3) HOW DO WE RESPOND?
Well, at the end of the day, you either accept it or reject it. There’s really no middle ground when it comes to Jesus. Either he’s the only way to know God or its all a hoax, all a lie. You remember what CS Lewis said, he put it so well. He said, "Christianity is either the greatest truth or a monstrous lie. The one thing it cannot be is merely of moderate importance."
How do you accept it? Well, you accept Christ through prayer. That’s precisely what we’re going to do, we’re going to talk to God, and to respond to Christ by praying to him. I’m going to pray a prayer and if you want to pray with me to accept Christ, then you pray that prayer. But let me first tell you what that prayer is, so that you can decide beforehand whether you want to pray it.
The prayer goes like this:
Lord Jesus, I don’t understand it all but I know that I need you. I know that I’ve sinned. I know that Christ died on the cross for my sins. Please forgive me. Make me a Christian. Help me to live under your leadership? Amen
If you want to pray that prayer, you pray that prayer.
Father we thank you that when we turn to you in our sin, in our need, and call upon you for mercy you hear and you answer. Please work amongst us tonight. We pray this for Christ’s sake. Amen.