Keepers of Hope

Merry Christmas to each one of you as we celebrate Christmas. The wonder of Christmas fills my heart with joy and peace. But today, as we explore the story of the dear old saints, Anna and Simeon in the temple Ð who greeted the baby Jesus when Mary and Joseph brought Him for circumcision according to the covenant of Abraham Ð we want to realize that this baby embodies the fulfillment of God’s promises to us. He is the child of hope for the world, a child of hope for all eternity.

Many people speak of hope like a wish. I think of the couple who have three little children. Their financial budget is extended, and every month they hope they will have no surprise expenses or repairs. Or the mother and father whose hearts hurt because their adult daughter has now rejected the God whom they love and they fear her life choices will break her life apart even as their hearts break. Will she ever come back to faith in the God who loves her? They pray so. They hope so. Or the employee who is close to retirement after 30+ years of faithful service and hopes he won’t lose his job as the company downsizes. Or the family whose dad is battling a terminal illness like a champion, and the whole family prays and hopes he will be healed. Or the family whose dad struggles as he drowns in a sea of alcoholism. They hope dad will face the truth that his life is unmanageable and seek help. Or the couple who have for years hoped to become pregnant. The child would be born as a product of their love and the beginning of a family. That is their dream. That is their hope.

Hope is essential to all of us as humans. Hal Lindsay, a Christian writer, once said, “We can live forty days without food, three days without water, eight minutes without air, but not one second without hope.”

Through the years, I have come to greatly value the older saints who are a part of God’s church. These men and women give strength to Christ’s body, the Church, because of their faith. They are Keepers of Hope. Their wisdom gives insight into what really matters in life. Their faithfulness drafts us to continue following Jesus. Their strong faith is committed for the long haul. They teach us how to hope and how to obey God in a way that blesses others. In a world filled with so many hope killers, these dear saints gives us strength.

Maybe the persistent, unchanging circumstances of life oppress us. Maybe my own failure or the failure of others negatively affect me and imprison me in a way I can’t escape. Maybe my dreams, year after year, go unfulfilled and hope dissipates with the passage of time. Maybe the ridicule of a world that doesn’t share our view that there is an all-powerful God able to do miraculous things in love for His people kills our hope. Maybe we place hope in the wrong place. Human beings can hope in technology or a hedonistic lifestyle or the accumulation of wealth or a position of power.

We need hope. Hope is critical.

Several years ago, an experiment was done on endurance. It was conducted at the University of California Ð Berkeley involving Norwegian field rats. The rats were placed in the tub of water where they were forced to swim until they grew exhausted and finally drowned. During the first experiment, the researchers discovered that on average these field rats were capable of swimming for seven hours before they drowned.

A second experiment was conducted exactly like the first, but with one exception: when a rat was getting too exhausted to swim any longer, a researcher would remove the rat from the tub of water for just a few seconds, then put the rat back into the water to continue swimming. These rats were able to swim for 20 hours before perishing. The researchers concluded the rats in the second group were able to swim much longer than the first group because they had hope. They had experienced a rescue, and what kept them going was the hope that they would be rescued again.

Human beings are no different. Without hope, we can drown in the difficulties of life. But with hope, we can discover our reason for living. Hope keeps us going. It’s been said, “As oxygen is to the lungs, so hope is to the human heart.”

Simeon and Anna met Jesus in the Temple. Joseph and Mary brought Jesus for circumcision in accordance with the covenant the Lord had made with Abraham that Jesus would be raised as a child of faith among God’s people. Anna and Simeon, in their rhythms of grace, rhythms of faith, teach us how to keep hope alive, how to live with joyful expectation that God will keep His promises.

Anna was an older woman, a widow. Though grief at a young age can turn some hearts bitter, Anna had become softer, kinder, and even more hopeful through the years. Tragedy can kill faith, but Anna’s faith was more deeply rooted than ever before. Sorrow can lead some to see God as an aloof tyrant, but Anna, in her faith, viewed God as her tenderhearted Father. It says that she never left the Temple, worshiping, fasting, and praying, day and night.

Some older people I know have the experiences of life grind away at their hope till it’s gone. They become pessimistic, grumpy, resigned to life’s difficulties, even despairing. Not so Anna. In her worship of God and in her awareness of His promises and the Word, she rejoiced when she encountered the baby Jesus because she knew she had met her Redeemer. She became the first preacher of Christ in the city of the great King.

Simeon also, in the rhythms of his graceful life, knew how to keep hope alive. He was righteous. He lived his faith in the Lord with integrity. I might say Simeon walked the talk. He lived in obedience to God’s Word because he loved God. He was devout, and his heart was loyal and committed.

As he regularly worshiped the Lord in the Temple, hearing the Word of God’s promises, he caught a view of history between God and His people, where God regularly saved and delivered them, forgave their faults, and redeemed them. Maybe best of all, to keep his hope alive, he was reminded of all the promises that God had given to us. Hope lived in constant expectation that God was active and alive in all of life to fulfill His promises to His people. Scriptures say that the Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah. This was the anointed Deliverer who would usher in the power and reign of God’s love to save the world.

Imagine when Simeon saw the baby Jesus. Did the Holy Spirit whisper to him, This is the Child? Did the glory of divine light radiate from the face of the baby Jesus? Somehow Simeon knew this is the One. Mary and Joseph must been very surprised when Simeon came up and took the child out of their arms. And, in holding the child, did Simeon realize that the child held the hopes for his future and ours? “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” in the lyric of the hymn, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”

So Simeon praised God in the words that have become called the Nunc Dimitus, the basis of many Christian hymns, “Now Lord, I can depart in peace. I am your servant. My own eyes have seen your salvation. This child is the light of the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.”

Although Jesus had come for circumcision in the covenant of God’s people, Simeon saw the child and prophetically knew that the child’s light of salvation would be for all people of every race, every culture, and every language. Jesus is the hope of all the world. Still today, He is your hope for life abundant, for forgiving grace, for new beginnings, for freedom from the fear of death. Jesus, the baby, born for you, is the hope of the world.

Simeon also spoke to Mary and Joseph about Jesus’ destiny. He said, “This child will be for the falling and rising of many.” Hearts will be revealed as they encounter Jesus. There is no neutral response to Jesus Christ. Either you see Him as your Savior born to embrace you in love or you dismiss Him as irrelevant to your life. No neutral response.

Simeon foresaw that the child’s destiny was to experience suffering. Perhaps he even understood that the Savior of God was going to go to the cross. So he said to Mary, “A sword will pierce your heart.” The child going to the cross was the method of God to give us hope that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

I remember meeting a man named John early in my ministry. He was in his mid-70s, and a bachelor farmer. John was in the hospital after being diagnosed with leukemia. As we visited, he shared stories of farming, life experiences, hobbies, friends in his life. But we also shared the hope of Jesus Christ. After a while, I asked John, “John, have you ever prayed that Jesus would forgive you? Have you ever thanked God for the gift of eternal life? Have you ever invited Jesus to live within your heart?”

“No,” he said.

I said, “John, Would you like to today?”

“Yes.” So in that very a moment, I heard John thank God for giving Jesus as the Savior of the world and as his Savior. He asked Jesus for forgiveness. He thanked Jesus for coming into his heart, and he thanked God for the gift of eternal life. Although he was still facing a difficult illness, his face radiated with the joy and hope that God was his Savior.

For you and I today too, we hold that baby Jesus as our hope. We hold Him in faith and rejoice when our eyes also see God’s salvation. May your joy be full and may your hope permeate every part of your being as you celebrate Christmas

Just What I Needed: Life

A while back, I was having a conversation with a person whose parent had just died. I had extended my sympathies to him, and he went on to talk about his dad. In the midst of the conversation, he said, “Well, he had a full life.”

I’ve heard this kind of thing said before. I’m curious, what is meant by a statement such as that? How would you define a full life? Some might point to a number. For instance, someone might say a full life is living 80 to 90 years, especially if you stay healthy and alert. I suppose it is a blessing to live a lot of years and maintain your health. But is that really the definition of a full life? I know folks who have all of that and are far from enjoying life. Something is lacking in their lives, and some are actually miserable.

Someone else might say a full life is full of success and all that goes with it. Perhaps it is professional, business, or financial success. Yet I know people who have all that and wouldn’t call their lives full because of it.

Bob Buford in his book, Halftime, quotes a Harvard business man who stated, “I was always finding out that beyond the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow there’s a sort of emptiness. Or Like Peggy Lee sings in that old song, “Is that all there is . . .” I heard someone who is very successful say one time, “I climbed the ladder of success only to find it was leaning against the wrong building!” So I’m not sure that is what we would define as a full life, would we?

Some people might point to experiences, adventures, and travels and say that is where you find a full life. However, the problem with that is, experiences come and go, and they leave you thirsty for the next big thrill. It’s like an addiction that never quite gets satisfied. You’re always looking for something more.

A lot of people in this world are looking for this full life and are coming up short. Billy Graham, in his book, Breakfast with Billy Graham, writes of five assumptions he makes about any audience he is speaking to. He knows that in an audience there are people who have found materialism and social improvement is lacking. Others are filled with an emptiness. Their lives lack meaning and purpose. Others, still, are experiencing a terrible tragedy in their life called loneliness. Some have gone through life with a deep sense of guilt and regret, and they don’t know what to do. A deep-seated fear lives in some about death and what happens when the last heartbeat occurs.

How about you? Would you say you are living a full life? Isn’t that what you would like to do Ð look back at the end of your life and say, “Yes, I lived a full life.”

A number of years ago, rock singer Jackson Browne wrote a song entitled Running on Empty. What I found in my ministry is many people are running on empty these days. Something seems to be missing. They are looking for a full life. Another band called U2 came out with a song a few years ago that was like an anthem for their generation. The refrain of the song says, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” So many people are just like that. Why is that?

We live in a broken world filled with broken people. What’s the answer? Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come into this world so people may have life and have it to the full!” He is in the business of giving life. Jesus is a life-giver. He is what the human being is looking for. Someone once said that within each of us is a God-shaped void longing to be filled. Jesus tells us He came to fill that void in every person’s heart. Follow Him, and you will be surprised at the amazing life awaiting you!

If you are standing on the outside looking in, you might wonder what this life-to-the-full-with-Jesus, looks like. First of all, let me caution you, Jesus doesn’t call us to an easy life. He didn’t say, “I have come to give people an easy life.” Anybody who has walked with Christ knows disappointment. We are not inoculated from facing hardships and discouraging moments in our lives. No, He didn’t call it an easy life, and He didn’t call it a prosperous life. He didn’t come to give us everything we could possibly ever want as far as material blessings. But He did say, I have come to give life to the FULL.

What is life to the full with Jesus? It is a life full of Jesus. He has come to make His home in us and dwell in us as we ask Him in. He tells us in John chapter 14 that He will make His home in us. The Apostle Paul said, “With Jesus in my life, it’s no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” Jesus came into this world to move into your life and my life. And when He moves in, He brings all kinds of good and wonderful things that actually can change a person on the inside. He has plans for us, to make us more loving, joy filled, peace filled, patient, kind, gentle, generous, self-controlled, and filled with all kinds of wonderful faith in the promises of God. And as we live with Him in His Word and in His community, He molds us into His own image.

Imagine all those things at work as you live out your married life and other friendships when Christ takes control. What a full life you will have as He grows you in your ability to love and to be kind to others. He moves in and brings all kinds of questions with Him. He challenges us in our value systems. He tells us in his Word, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36.) He reminds us of a Father who loves us as He tells us, “You are of more value than many sparrows, Steve.” God even knows how many hairs are in your head!”(Luke 12:7). What an enriching life!

Christ also gives me a family Ð His church. I have fellow brothers and sisters who are on the same path, oftentimes facing the same challenges I face. They are here to encourage me just as I am around to encourage them. We are family. Jesus doesn’t want us to walk life alone. Our relationship with Him is personal but not meant to be private. You are now in a family. What a great enjoyment that family can be for us.

A few years ago, I was visiting with an individual who had just come to Christ. When he finished praying, I said to him, “Bob, welcome to the family. You’re my brother.”

He smiled and said, “That’s a pretty big family I’ve got!” Bob was right. Jesus fills life with meaning and purpose. Besides all that, He says, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. I have plans for your life. You are now my official ambassador in this world. You have a new calling. I make my appeal to other people through you! You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. It’s through you that others will see the good things you are doing and saying in My name and give glory to your Father in heaven. You are very crucial to the cause in this world of bringing others to me for rescue. Don’t downplay that! Your life is now filled with significance. People’s eternal destinies can be changed since you crossed their paths because you are filled with my Holy Spirit.

By the way, who among us have not said, thought, or done something that offends God and hurts others? We call that sin. Jesus offers us a life of forgiveness. He points us to the cross and tells us to leave our regrets Ð walk away free and clean. John tells us in his Gospel that it is a new life filled with grace upon grace upon grace (John 1:16).

Here is some even better news: this life to the full never really ends! Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life: he who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live (John 11:25). Heaven awaits those who follow Jesus Christ. This life we are living in this world is the cover and the title page of the book. When we breathe our last in this world, we will begin chapter one of the great story of eternity with Jesus. We will wake up and see Him face-to-face.

Now my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is that not a FULL LIFE? You bet it is! Jesus says, this is exactly what I have come to give to you. It is the reason Jesus was born that first Christmas Ð to give us life to the full. His life.

Prior to this promising statement, Jesus said, I am the door, the gate through which you pass to get this new life, to become one of my sheep, find pasture and a close relationship with God, which you were created for. Jesus is very exclusive here. He says you can’t find this new life without Him. You can’t find it by pursuing spirituality or religious activities, or doing good community work, or chasing after other religions. It is found only by asking Jesus Christ into one’s life Ð to take over, move in, and lead you.

Jesus refuses to knock down the door and force Himself in. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).

Don’t you love the image of Jesus sitting at the table with us Ð intimate fellowship with the Savior of the world. He wants to walk in a personal relationship with each and every one of us.

I was in a car with a couple of young people recently, and I heard a young man give a marvelous testimony to his friend who asked him about his story. He said, When I was in high school, I had everything going for me Ð at least I thought I did. I was a star on the hockey team. I had lots of popularity at my school. I was talented Ð I was known for my ability to play the guitar, and being a good singer. I even played in a band.

My home life wasn’t so good, however. I was rather rebellious and rambunctious, and my parents didn’t understand me. It all came to a head one day, and I told them I was moving out. They basically said, “Good! Move out.”

Some family friends of ours invited me to move in with them, but it was with the understanding that I would go to a retreat with them called “Teens Encounter Christ.” I went thinking I could put up with this for a weekend. I didn’t know anything about Jesus Christ. I hadn’t been raised with Him, but during that weekend, I began to hear about the grace of God in Jesus Christ. I met some adults who really wanted to convince me that I was loved by this God who made me. I was finally won over, and I asked Jesus Christ into my life. I have to tell you, it has been a great life since. Oh, it’s had its ups and downs, but Jesus is the one I’m spending the rest of my life with. I’m so glad to have him in my life.

What a testimony! He is living life to the full with this Savior at the center, bringing him along, teaching him what makes a life work best. After all, Jesus invented life in the first place. He was with the Father, in the fullness of God, when all things were created. He knows what makes life work the best.

I once heard someone say that there are actually two Bethlehems. There is the city where Jesus was born so long ago in a stable and laid in a manger. But there is also the Bethlehem in your heart. And, like the Christmas Carol says, we ask, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.” Jesus Christ wants to be born in your life, in your heart, and so He stands at the door and knocks. Some people have opened the door and discovered He knows “Just What I Need.” I invite you today to invite Him in. A full life awaits everyone who invites Jesus in.

Someone once said, “Life is like a coin. you can spend it any way you wish, but you only spend it once.” I don’t know about you but I want to spend my life with the life- giver, Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas.

Just What I Needed: Truth

Life can be confusing. As human beings we can get so easily confused at times.

Stuart Briscoe, a wonderful preacher and writer, tells a story in his book, Every Day Discipleship for Ordinary People, about one of the colleagues on his staff. “One of my young staff people was officiating at the funeral of a war veteran. The dead man’s military friends wished to have a part in the service at the funeral home, so they requested the pastor to lead them down to the casket, stand with them for a solemn moment of remembrance, and then lead them out through the side door. This he proceeded to do, but unfortunately the effect was somewhat marred when he picked the wrong door. The result was they marched with military precision into a broom closet in full view of the mourners, and they had to beat a hasty retreat covered with confusion.” What a sight that must have been!

Sometimes confusion can lead to some rather painful consequences as well. Matt Emmons had a gold-medal in sight at the 2004 Olympics. He was one shot away from claiming victory in the 50 meter, three-position rifle event. He didn’t even need a bull’s-eye to win. His final shot merely needed to be on target. Normally the shot he made would’ve received a score of 8.1, more than enough for a gold medal. But in what was described as an extremely rare mistake in an elite competition, Emmons fired at the wrong target. Standing in lane two, he fired at the target in lane three. His score for a good shot at the wrong target: zero. Instead of a medal, Emmons ended up in eighth place. Sometimes confusion can have some rather painful consequences.

You and I know it’s important for truth to be at work in all areas of our life. Otherwise, we get easily confused. The basic characteristic of truth is, it conforms with reality. It’s reliable. Truth can be relied upon. You can plan your future, make sound decisions, and live your life with truth, because it’s dependable, and you can count on it.

Truth is especially important in our spiritual lives. John Stott, a great evangelical author and preacher, once wrote, “The devil disturbs the church as much by error as by evil. When he cannot entice Christian people into sin, he deceives them with false doctrine.”

In today’s passage in John, Jesus tells us that His purpose for coming to this earth was to witness to the truth. It was Good Friday, and He was about to be crucified. He was standing trial before Pontius Pilate and said these words: “For this I was born. For this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” What’s He talking about when He says “truth”?

First of all, Jesus came to give us the truth about God. People can get easily confused about God and come up with all kinds of odd, cockamamie ideas about the Creator. They live crazy lives reflecting their thinking. Eugene Peterson writes, “Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds about God becomes a failure to get it right in our lives.” People have a tendency to develop their own theologies. They base their God-thinking more upon their feelings and personal preferences than upon the One who came to witness to the truth, which we find in Scripture.

I once had a conversation with someone who informed me that my concept of God did not fit with hers, and I was wrong. She said her God would never allow anyone to go to hell, because He loves everyone. I told her that my God loves everyone as well, but the God she was describing only exists in her mind, because it wasn’t based upon truths Jesus shared with us about God.

Jesus came to shine some light on this whole matter of God, in truth. He told people, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. I and the Father are one.” He was revealing the truth about God.

As we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we get to know the truth about God by observing Jesus, the Son of God. Let me tell you – it can be liberating! No more guessing about how God feels about us – “For God so loved the world” (you can put your own name in place of the world) “that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). You are loved by this God who made you! He created you for a personal relationship with Him.

In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus telling some stories to give us some pictures of God. He talks about a shepherd searching for a valuable lost sheep; a woman turning her house upside down, looking for a precious coin; and a father running down the road to his prodigal son to welcome him home. This God loves you and wants a relationship with you. Jesus shows us that this God is a God of grace who is ready to forgive the sinner. Yes, God is holy and just. He is to be feared and taken seriously. God hates our sin, but He loves sinners like me. He gave His Son as a ransom to pay for our sins, and He calls us to turn to Christ for rescue from sin’s consequences, death. He wants no one to be lost, but all to have eternal life, so He tells us to trust His Son, Jesus.

Jesus also tells us that we can live our days with confidence and hope, because God has the last word over this old world. Terrorists, bombings, and economic and environmental problems all exist, but God has the last word. He is in control.

Jesus talked of a coming judgment day. History is moving toward an end. History is His story, God’s story. “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” as the song says. He’s a big, big God, far beyond our little finite imaginations. And so we can rest peacefully in this “God-truth” knowing He holds the world in the palm of His hand.

Jesus also came to tell us the truth about ourselves. He told His disciples that, while the world may tell us we are rather insignificant, this is not the case in our heavenly Father’s eyes. We are more valuable than anything else in all creation. “His eye is on the sparrow,” Jesus says, “And you are of so much more value than any sparrow. He numbers the hairs on your head,” Jesus says. He knows you.

Jesus also tells us a painful truth about ourselves – We are sinful, rebellious, and self-centered in need of the Savior. Some in the world believe man is basically good. However, nothing could be further from the truth, according to Jesus. The human heart (that is, the inner person inside of all us) can hold some ugly stuff that can displease God as it lashes out and hurts those around us. We need cleansing and forgiveness.

Jesus also points out that, while we think we are captain of our own fates and can run our lives, in actuality we are slaves to sin. We are headed down a dead end street toward death. We might even think we can save ourselves and earn our way into God’s good graces in His heaven. The world teaches us we get what we deserve, but Jesus corrects us with these words: “Truly, truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, but the Son will set you free” (John 8:34). Jesus said, “I came to give my life as a ransom, a payment for sin” (Matt. 20:28). Jesus also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

Finally, Jesus came to give witness to the truth about what makes life for us. He has the wisdom to challenge some confusing messages from the world. For instance, the world teaches us that life is all about getting all you can. He who gets the most toys wins! Jesus says, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Those who seek to save their lives will lose it. Those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35, 36).

We’re told a story about a rich fool who stored up all he could for himself but was not rich toward God. God’s verdict at the end of his life was, You fool! That’s not what life is about! At Christmas time we remember the Charles Dickens story, Christmas Carol, about Ebenezer Scrooge who needed an awakening about riches. Life is more than what we can collect and keep for ourselves.

Or how about this one? The world says, Take of care of number one. You are the only one who can do it! It’s every person for himself.

However, Jesus tells us we glorify God by offering ourselves as servants. Life is about offering our kind actions and words to others so they “may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). In this selfie world of self-glorification, Jesus gives us this truth: real life is found in service to others, in giving yourself away in His name. This is where joy and life are best found. Jesus says that is truth.

Dear friends, the truth of Jesus is just what we need for the living of our lives under God. God affirmed Jesus on Easter when He raised Jesus from the dead. It was if He said to us, This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him. Trust Him, because He is telling you the truth you need for your life.

I ask you today, what are you doing with this truth Jesus has given? Stop and think about this: the truth was staring Pontius Pilate in the face. It was actually appealing to him to pay earnest attention to Jesus if he really wanted truth in his life. But Pilate wasn’t interested. He just wanted to get through this situation, so he dismissed Jesus and turned away from the truth as many others did that day and many have done since.

How foolish, how sad to dismiss Christ, the Son of God who died and rose again. Take it from one who tried it. I’m talking about myself. I tried living without Christ and His truth at one stage in my life, and I discovered it just doesn’t work. Life is nothing but empty promises and disappointments without the truth Christ wanted me to have, to work within my life, and to build my life upon. But thanks be to God, I was awakened to the truth and can testify from the bottom of my heart through personal experience, Jesus knows what life is all about and what makes it work.

My appeal to you this day is that you would trust this One who tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me,” and you would build your life upon His words of truth.

Life can be confusing, it’s true. But listen to His truth and work with it. You’ll be glad you did!

Just What I Needed!

You often hear someone say at Christmas time after they have opened a gift, “Just what I needed! Thanks!” This is our theme on Christian Crusaders as we prepare ourselves for a celebration of Christmas: Just What I Needed.

As we get ready for another Christmas season, our reason for great celebration is that in Christ Jesus, God gave us just what we needed. Let’s look at the first thing we really needed, which Jesus came to give us.

A few years ago, someone sent me a Christmas card, which read as follows, If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. But our greatest need was forgiveness, so He sent us a Savior.

Matthew echos those words in our Gospel story today. Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. Mary tells Joseph that she’s pregnant, so he is going to break up with her. But an angel speaks to him in a dream and tells this confused Joseph exactly what’s going on with Mary’s pregnancy. He says, “Don’t divorce her, Joseph. Mary has become pregnant by the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit.” This is no ordinary child; He is God’s Son. In this baby, humanity and divinity intersected.

The angel went on to say, “You are to call Him, Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” He saves us from our sins. This is why Jesus came. He stepped into our world because we needed help; we needed a rescue. We needed to be saved from our sin problem or our sin crisis. This crisis caused a broken relationship with God. The Bible tells us all who walk the face of this planet have sinned before God.

We sometimes think about sin in terms of murder, adultery, bank robberies, and so on. “I’m not really that bad.” But the truth is, sin can be hurtful or untrue words, which can destroy another person. Sin can be what we don’t say, like when we hold back on sharing God’s love with someone. It can be what we do Ð perhaps an unkindness toward someone or not showing kindness to someone. Sin can also be our thought patterns. We may have bad thoughts about people.

All these things are displeasing to God. They are sin, and sin, you see, has some deadly consequences. It causes a great chasm between God and us, a broken relationship, because our God is holy and just. There’s a lack of wholeness, a vacuum deep within us. We have a longing for God but do not know how to have the relationship. Ultimately, the Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We become dead to our sins and face eternal death at the end.

Well, this God, who we sinned against, loved you and me so much that He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins. We needed forgiveness. Sin had to be paid for. Things had to be mended. So God Himself sent His Son to die upon a cross, to pay for our sinfulness, to make things right, to reconcile us to Himself as the Scripture says. The cross stands at the very heart of the Good News of Jesus. In fact, Jesus Himself defined His life in this world in terms of a cross when He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He was talking about the cross.

The cross is at the center of everything. Jesus came to die so we could have forgiveness for our sins. We sometimes forget how costly a gift forgiveness was. Jesus, the Son of God, allowed Himself to go through suffering and an agonizing cruel death on a cross. He suffered humiliation at the hands of sinful people. But even more than that, He suffered loneliness as He cried out, my “God my God, Why have You forsaken Me?” as He experienced the wrath of God upon Him as the punishment for our sins. He became sin who knew no sin, and on that cross Ð like a sponge Ð He soaked up all our sins. God laid on Him the sins of us all.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, was it? God raised Him up from the grave. He is risen, risen indeed! In raising Him, God affirmed the sacrifice for sin. Jesus has purchased a place in His heaven for all who place their trust in Him. Through Christ, God has brought the gift we needed (forgiveness) for our sins, for our salvation.

How do we receive it? The gift of forgiveness is received by faith. Martin Luther, who I happen to really like, says some profound things to us about forgiveness. He says, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation. It’s at the center of all of God’s gifts.” He also wrote about the importance of receiving it through faith. He says, “For repentance and remorse and knowledge of sin, though necessary, are not enough.” Faith in the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ must be added, but where there is such a faith, God no longer sees any sins. Then you stand before God Ð not in your name, but in Christ’s name. Jesus Christ paid for your sins and mine on the cross so we could be forgiven. As we place our trust in Him, our sins are forgiven and forgotten forever when we leave them at the foot of the cross. We’re to trust in that.

I remember an old story I heard years ago about a Catholic priest who had a troubled conscience. There was a woman in his congregation, a very spiritual woman who had a very strong, devout walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. She actually claimed that Jesus had appeared to her, and they had conversations. The priest was a little skeptical, and so he asked her, “The next time Jesus appears to you, ask Him about my sins.”

A few weeks later, she showed up at his office and he asked if she had seen Jesus. She said, “Yes I did. But when I asked about your sins, Jesus said, ÔI don’t remember.'”

Forgiven, forgotten, forever. Trust in that.

For those who are standing outside a relationship with Jesus Christ Ð forgiveness is being offered to you this day through Jesus Christ, which means salvation for your soul. It’s to be received Ð not just thought about Ð but actually received.

Theologian Alister McGrath talks about faith. He stages it with this story. “Consider a bottle of penicillin, the famous antibiotic identified by Alexander Fleming and first produced for clinical use in Great Britain. The drug was responsible for saving the lives of countless individuals who would otherwise have died of various forms of blood poisoning.

“Think of the three stages of faith like this: I may accept the bottle exists; I may trust in its ability to cure blood poisoning, but nothing will change until I receive the drug. I must allow it to destroy the bacteria, which are slowly killing me. Otherwise, I have not benefitted from my faith in it. This third element of faith is of vital importance in making sense of the cross.

“Just as faith links a bottle of penicillin to the cure of blood poisoning, so faith forges a link between the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and us. Faith unites us with the risen Christ and makes everything He gained through His obedience and His resurrection available to us.”

Receive it! It’s been paid for in full for you. When Jesus said “It is finished,” He meant it! Your sins have been paid for in full Ð that’s what it means. And you know what? For those of us who trust in Jesus, it is a gift that keeps on giving. Our human nature is still at work in us. We tend to be very selfish, self-centered, and to not love God above all things. We forget about Him and do not love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus called us to do in the Great Commandment. We continually fall short in our performance.

So what can we do? Are we stuck living with those regrets, which can weigh us down, burden us with guilt, and sap the life right out of us? Do we have to just live with it?

We have ways in which we try to rationalize our sin. I did this because . . . Or we blame someone else: I would have done this except she . . . We might try to trivialize our actions by accepting sin as an outdated concept. Some try to pay God back in some way to make it right. We’re stuck with our “if onlys.”

None of these methods work. Only God has the solution. What is it? Come to Him for forgiveness. St. John the Apostle wrote a passage for believers in Christ who fall short again and again. Here is your solution as you fall prey to sinfulness. He says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8, 9). We come to God in confession asking for His forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ. I like to put confession at the beginning of the worship service, because I know I need to leave my sins at the foot of the cross. I need to hear the absolution and be pointed to what Jesus did at the cross. So I confess my sins, and I do it every day in my daily prayers. I give an inventory to God of the things I thought, said, or did that were displeasing to Him and ask for His forgiveness in the name of Christ.

King David learned about confession in Psalm 32. He said, “I was all dried up inside until I confessed my sins to the Lord.”

I came across this little story, which I think captures the spirit of the freedom that awaits us when we confess our sins. A little boy killed his grandmother’s pet duck. He accidentally hit the duck with a rock from his a slingshot. He didn’t think anybody saw the foul deed, so he buried the duck in the backyard and didn’t tell anyone. Later, though, he found out that his sister had see it all. She now had the leverage of his secret and used it against him. Whenever it was the sister’s turn to wash the dishes, take out the garbage, wash the car, she’d whisper in his ear, “Remember the duck,” and then the little boy would do whatever sister should’ve done.

There is always a limit to that sort of thing. Finally he’d had it, so he went to his grandma and, with great fear, confessed what he had done. To his surprise, she hugged him, forgave him, thanked him. Then she said, “I was standing at this kitchen sink and saw the whole thing. I forgave you then. I was just wondering when you were going to get tired of your sister’s blackmail and come to me.”

We have an invitation to consider. Aren’t you tired of hearing that accusing voice, I know what you did? You can silence it by bringing it to God into the light of the gospel and receive His forgiveness.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point you to Holy Communion. As He held up the cup of wine to the disciples, He said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” I go to the table of the Lord, to His means of grace, for forgiveness as we take His body and His blood. As I walk away from it, I leave with the sense in my mind, “Thanks! That was just what I needed.”

This is what we celebrate at Christmas. The first thing we really needed was forgiveness for our sins. Thanks be to God for His gift!