As I said last week, we are now in the Christian season of Advent, the time in the Christian calendar when many of us expectantly wait for the celebration of the Christ’s first coming. But as we prepare to celebrate the BIRTH of Jesus, Advent should also be a time that we continue our preparation for the RETURN of Jesus. And to that end, living a holy lifestyle should be foremost in our hearts. It should be our primary goal as we journey toward that Celestial City.
Today, on this second Sunday of Advent, we will look at the eight chapter of Matthew’s gospel as my primary text. The evangelist tells us a crowd had surrounded the Lord, hanging on His every word as He taught. But in the next breath, Matthew tells us that Jesus then gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea of Galilee. And the reasonable question would be: Why did Jesus leave the crowds? What was so important across the lake?
The answer to that question has direct implications for you. And for me.
And this is the answer: Jesus left the crowds to take care of the lost. The lonely. The outcast. The desperate. The forgotten.
Here is the text in Matthew’s gospel: 18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea . . . When He came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way. And they cried out, saying, “What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:18, 28-29)
And many of you know the rest of the story. The Lord of creation ordered the demons to leave the demoniacs and enter the herd of swine. When they did, they drove them over the cliff to drown in the sea. You many also remember the story as told by both Mark and Luke in which they speak of only one demoniac. The difference in detail is insignificant and anyone who has done a comparison of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke, know such nuanced differences are not uncommon – and actually should be expected.
Yes, at that first Advent, Jesus came to seek the lost. The lonely. The outcast. The forgotten. Yes, even for those who were spitting in His face and were shouting at Him to leave them alone. Here is the Holy Spirit’s word to them and to us through St Paul’s pen: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:8-10)
Jesus came to earth that first time to find you. Say, it out loud, “Jesus came to find ‘ME’”. He came to find us and to RESCUE us – but, to rescue us from what? Well, He tells us through St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae: “He rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 3:13-14) Jesus came to rescue us from the deadly gangrenous cancer of sin – personal sin. And He came during that first Advent to save us from God's wrath against us for our personal sins.
How? Seven hundred years before Jesus’ first Advent, Isaiah told us: “But He was wounded [Hebrew: pierced, to wound fatally) for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The punishment for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, everyone, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53)
Because of that first Advent, as St Paul would later write in Philippians 2, that Almighty God actually laid aside His glory and took the form of a slave. And the rest of Scripture reminds us that Jesus did that for all who WANT to be saved from eternal agony in the Lake of Fire. And so the Lord said to the religious clergy – and by implication, to everyone else: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
Listen! Sin doesn’t just separate us from friendship with God! I don’t know why some people – even pastors and theologians – why they ignore the abundantly clear evidence of God’s word to say all that sin does is to separate us from God’s friendship. On the contrary, sin makes us enemies of God. Scripture says it so often, I don’t know how some miss it. For example, James 4:4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
The message of the manger and that First Advent is about God’s personal intervention into history to rescue all of us from eternal torment in the Lake of Fire because of our sins. It’s about the Almighty and most holy God of the universe letting Himself be born in an animal feeding trough. And that Christmas manger is all about Golgotha’s cross looming above it where the little Lord Jesus lay asleep on the hay.
The cross. I hope you still love that old cross, where the dearest and best, for a world of lost sinners, was slain.
Many people don’t often think about it this way, but Christianity is a bloody, gruesome religion. But it had to be bloody, for only blood – in this case, the blood of the Innocent Son of God – only blood could atone for, or wash away, the sins of the guilty.
Jews of Jesus’ day fully understood ‘Blood Atonement.’ The ritual dates back to the books of Moses. For example, in Leviticus 17:11, Moses records God's words for us: “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’
That’s also why we read in Hebrews 9:22 “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness [of sins].”
And that is why the Lord Jesus, during that Last Supper, took a cup and said to His disciples, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:27, 28)
We’ve really got to get this – because if we do not get it, we will drift through life with a passionless walk with the One who specifically came during His first Advent to die in our place, as our substitute, to pay the penalty we deserved and still deserve to pay for our sins. And so, He said this not long before His crucifixion: “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.” (John 12:27-28)
Many of you remember the parable of the lost sheep. Ninety-nine were safe in the corral. But one had wandered away. Lost. Bleating pitifully. Frightened. Cold. And don’t you think it was excited to suddenly see the shepherd round the corner of the cliff to rescue him, to bring him home?
Now think of the many times Jesus sought for those no one else thought of any value. It was no accident that He traveled the road near the home of Zacchaeus who climbed the tree to catch a glimpse of the Savior. It was no accident that He traveled that road to Jericho where blind Bartimaeus sat. It was no accident that Jesus walked to the pool of Bethesda where the man who’d been lame for 38 years lay, futilely waiting for the stirring of the waters.
And it was no accident – indeed, it was DIVINE DESIGN that Jesus orchestrated the events of your life and mine to bring us to the place and time that we would finally realize we needed rescue, that we knew we were sick, that we knew we needed a physician.
It was because of God's zealously passionate love for you – say your name again out loud – that He sent His precious Son to save wretches like you and me. Yes. Wretches. Miserable, treasonous, idolatrous Judases who chose – and if we are honest with ourselves and with Him – too often continue to choose our way over God's commandments.
Humanity’s problem is – even for many Christians – is that we don’t want to acknowledge to ourselves just how desperately we needed salvation from our sin’s self-destructive trajectory, and from God's wrath. We don’t want to admit to ourselves the depth of our sin nature. And I have come to think that as a consequence of our unwillingness to admit those things to ourselves, that we are unable to love the Lord Jesus as deeply as we could.
What is it that Jeremiah said: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
Here is an example from Luke’s gospel of what I am trying to say about our inability to really love the Lord unless we first see ourselves as we truly are:
A Pharisee invited the Lord and His disciples to his place for dinner. While they were eating, a harlot entered the home and anointed the Lord with perfume. She wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. When the religious guy saw what was happening, he said to himself that surely Jesus can’t be a prophet or anyone holy because if He was, He’d not let the sinful woman even touch him. We pick up the incident in verse 40 of Luke, chapter seven:
“Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7)
My brothers and sister, unless we KNOW in the deepest recesses of our spirits that we really DID owe a debt we could never, ever pay, then how can we hope to even begin to understand how much Jesus loves us? If we don’t think we have much to be forgiven, then we do not have reason to love Him very much. We’re content with just a little and think it sufficient. But if we know even a little of how deep and wide and broad and high our sins have been – and ARE – then how can we NOT love Him much?
The woman in this story was desperate because she knew she was trapped in sin. She knew she could never be free. Oh! No wonder she was passionate about her rescuer. So, Christian – have you ever felt inescapably trapped by your sin? Have you ever been agonizingly desperate to be released from that prison? Have you been desperate to be rescued?
If not, then you might need to ask the Holy Spirit to show you all of your sins of the past, I mean REALLY show you the depth of those sins, how they so badly hurt and how they so badly hurt your God.
And further, do you understand that you need DAILY rescuing? Remember St Paul’s desperate cry to his readers at Rome when he realized he did things he didn’t want to do and didn’t do things that he wanted to do: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7)
Jesus’ first Advent entered history so He could save us from the power of sin and from God's wrath our sins deserve. And that all begs the question: How then should we live? How can we show our gratitude? Fr. Pedro Arrupe, a former Superior General of the Jesuits, wrote this good counsel for all of us:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, falling in love [with Him] in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with seizes your imagination; it will affect everything. It will decide what gets you out of bed in the morning, what you will do in the evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, what you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love [with God], stay in love, and it will decide everything."
Falling deeper in love with Jesus is NOT something we are able to do of our own strength, or wishful thinking. It is something possible ONLY by the supernatural work of our supernatural God. And so, we should take these words of the Psalmist most seriously: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” (Psalm 127:1)
In other words, we can do all we can do – but it is only the supernatural God who can work the supernatural within our hearts. It is only He who can ‘build’ within us a deeply intimate love for Christ.
We cannot anoint the Lord’s feet with our tears and wipe them with our hair to demonstrate our love for Him. But we CAN do a better job at obeying Him. “If you love me,” the Lord Jesus told His disciples, “keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And what are the two basic commandments of the Lord? Love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love our neighbor as ourselves. (See Mark 12:29-31)
And here is how the apostle Paul fleshed out those two commandments. You’ll find them in the 12th chapter of Romans: Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor . . . persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep . . . do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge . . . But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12)
Those words of the Holy Spirit through Paul’s pen are the divine answer to the question, “How can we show thanks to our God and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, for what He did for us on that coarse and splintered cross?”
Today marks the second Sunday of Advent. May the Lord God Almighty, who is our Father in heaven, woo us closer to Himself and work in us a deeper realization of our sins that we may love Him all the more for what He has done for us. And may we ever remember – Jesus left His home in glory, His place with such an intimate relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit – One God, yet three Persons, three natures – He left that relationship to establish such an intimate relationship between the triune God and ourselves.
Let me close with this wonderful statement of the Lord Jesus during His so-called “High Priestly’ prayer: Speaking to the Father, He said: Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:17-21)
Jesus came to that poor couple from Nazareth to be born in a stable amidst cow and sheep manure to rescue you and me. Say it once more: “Jesus came to rescue ME.”
And so, we shall also say: Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.