He will save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:21
Tiger Woods has been in the news this week. On Wednesday he posted this statement on his web site:
I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I am far short of perfect. I will strive to be a better person and the husband and father that my family deserves.
There are many details there we don’t need to know. We have our own failings to pay attention to. And every single one of us has said what Tiger Woods is saying.
What’s wrong with us? Why do we keep doing this, all of us? Celebrities and politicians make headlines when they mess up. We don’t make headlines. But we mess up too. Something is wrong with us. What is it? Here’s a comment someone put on Tiger’s blog this week:
Tiger, Tiger, what does it take? You have a gorgeous wife, two beautiful children, more money than I could ever imagine, and you cheat with women who don’t even compare to your wife. What more do you need? What are you looking for? You had a blessed life and you messed it up, for what?
But can anyone here say, “My life makes perfect sense”? What’s wrong with us? Why do we do things that we know don’t make sense. The gospel explains us to ourselves, and its explanation is blunt. The gospel tells us we’re sinners: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
We would prefer another self-understanding, because we know that sinners deserve to be punished by God. If we’re sinners, then we deserve the wrath of God, we deserve hell. Sinners are that bad. I saw a survey taken on the streets of Chicago with this question: “Do you think you’re a sinner?” Most people said no. Terrorists are sinners, and you and I are way above that. We agree with Tiger Woods. We’re far short of perfect, and we’ll strive to be better people. And maybe we can succeed at some level. But here’s the problem with all self-improvement. The Bible says of Jesus, “He will save his people from their sins.” Are you sinful enough for Jesus? Do you want to lose Jesus by being so good that you don’t need him to save you from yourself? G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good.” We’re way beyond the crudity of the medieval world, for example. But have we become too good? By being self-improvable, we distance ourselves from Jesus. 2000 years ago there were people that did that very thing. They saw themselves as too good for Jesus. Who were they? The Pharisees. If Jesus came to save his people from their sins, have you defined yourself inside or outside his circle of friends? Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Do you mind stepping down to where Jesus is hanging out?
It is so freeing to admit what we are. It is so hopeful to open up to what only Jesus can do. Let’s think this verse through word by word. And as the Holy Spirit enables you, will you turn to Jesus with more honesty than you’ve ever given him before?
One, “He will save his people from their sins.” He and no other. He alone, all by himself, to his own credit. Only he is qualified to save anybody. Jesus is the only person in all of human history who doesn’t need to be saved. He lived a perfect life. Think about it. Why did we reject him? Did we find some unforgivable sin in him? Yes. He was perfect, and our guilty pride couldn’t stand it. But now, when we let that pride go and admit what we are and discover who he is, we really start to live! So, this word “he” raises a question: Have you come to realize that you are a disaster waiting to happen, so that you need someone to save you from yourself constantly? If you have failed and the bottom has fallen out of your self-image and your heart is heavy, Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Let me unpack this word “he” with this statement I found yesterday:
He is the fullness of wisdom and knowledge. He is the fullness of space, for in him and through him and for him are all things. He is the fullness of time, for he fills eternity. He is the one who was and is and is to come, the same yesterday today and forever. There is none before him, none beyond him, nothing without him. Other than Jesus will not do, less than Jesus will not suit, and more than Jesus is not possible.
When we come to the end of ourselves and our pride and denial, we finally reach the beginning of what he can do. “He will save his people from their sins.”
Two, “He will save his people from their sins.” The future tense is important. Jesus is more than an historic figure. His Jewish contemporaries wanted salvation from Roman oppression. Of course. Who wouldn’t want that? But Jesus came to give us all far more, for all time and eternity, never irrelevant or spent or out of touch with what we really need. If you’ve handed yourself over to Jesus, your future is a bright certainty, and nothing in time can rob you of it. His salvation is unstoppable and lasting. You and I can rarely say with certainty, “I will do this.” We never know what’s coming around the corner. But Jesus has never failed anyone who turned to him, and he never will. He will save his people from their sins.
His salvation is not only certain; it is also unfolding even now. He’s carefully at work in your life right now. He doesn’t save anyone in an off-the-cuff way. He has thought it all through, he has a plan, and he’s working his plan. What plan? First, he justifies his people. He re-legitimates us sinners in the sight of God on terms of grace. It doesn’t matter any more the life you’ve lived; all that matters for you is the life Christ lived and the death he died for you. He is how we pass from being condemned to being accepted forever. Secondly, he sanctifies us. Our personalities begin to change. We start to look a little bit like him – what we care about and how we think and speak and act and respond. Thirdly, he glorifies us. Death is no longer the end but a launch into the human perfection we deeply desire but only God can create. You will become magnificent, better than the dreamy self-idealization of your fantasies. Real, staggering human beauty. He will do this in you. He will. “He will save his people from their sins.”
Three, “He will save his people from their sins.” He doesn’t just teach us the doctrine of salvation, he saves us in real ways that make a difference. If Jesus is not making a practical impact on you, if you’re not changing, what’s keeping you from him? He saves his people. His people feel it. His people are changing.
What does that word “save” mean? The verse says, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Naming in that culture was significant. Our names today are labels. Their names were messages. The name “Jesus” means “salvation.” So Joseph would have heard it like this: “You shall call his name Yeshua, for yoshia his people from their sins.” Saving is his very identity. He was also a teacher, and that means we need to be teachable. He was also a leader, and that means we need to be leadable. He was also an example, and that means we need to pay attention. All that is true. But most of all, Jesus is the Savior. And that means we need to be sinful.
Here’s the upside of being sinners with a Savior like Jesus. I checked my Hebrew lexicon for the verb “to save.” What did I find? I found that in Old Testament Hebrew “to save” suggests “to give width and breadth, to liberate.” The Arabic cognate means “to be wide, spacious.” Do you see? A Savior is one who releases a person from confinement and narrowness and limitation – Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34), and we all know about that, how we get ourselves into patterns and habits and compulsions that we bind us and drive us and control us – but a Savior reaches down and lifts the prisoner up into openness and freedom and movement. Years ago Jani and I had friends over for dinner. After dinner we brought out a board game called The Ungame as a get-to-know-one-another exercise. At one point I picked up a card, turned it over and it asked, “If you could be any animal at all, which would you like to be?” And I said, “A hawk.” And one of the guests said, “Ah, a free spirit!” She was right. Aren’t we all? Who wants imprisonment? Prison is punishment! And that’s where sin takes us. Sin is confinement, it closes off options and takes over. We all know that from personal experience. We all long to be saved from the ultra-confinement of what we are. How can we possibly get outside what we are and what we’ve done, if all we have is the us that got us here in the first place? It’s why we need a Savior. His salvation is the most undiscovered treasure in all the world. Jesus gives us our lives back, he gives us our dignity back, he opens our futures up again. If you fear that turning yourself over to Jesus will shut your life down, the truth is the opposite. Without Jesus, your life is a prison cell. You can remodel the cell and pretty it up, but without Jesus you are what you are forever because you are all you have. But with Jesus, he redefines your destiny with a grandeur that goes infinitely beyond you but will belong to you, a grandeur only he can think up in his wisdom and kindness.
Four, “He will save his people from their sins.” God’s people are sinners. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian, you’re a Bible-believing sinner. It doesn’t say, “He will reward his people for their righteousness.” It doesn’t even say, “He will save his people from becoming sinners.” It says, “He will save his sinful people from their sins.” And he doesn’t save us at arm’s length, holding his nose. He identifies with us. He calls us his people. He comes down to our level and owns us as his friends that he’s not ashamed of. In his birth at Bethlehem, the Son of God lowered himself to become really human like us, yet without sin of his own. His only guilt was ours, and our only righteousness is his.
Finally, “He will save his people from their sins.” At this point, everything I’ve said will either come together for you or fall to pieces. It depends on your own self-perception. When the Bible says, “He will save his people from their sins,” we see that he’s not promising to erase our credit card debt, he’s not promising the ideal romance, and he might not get you on “Wheel of Fortune.” I wonder what you think about that. I wonder if the idea of you being saved from your sins is of interest to you. Do you feel urgency to get saved from your sins? Either his salvation from our sins is a disappointment, or it’s the best part of all.
It helps if we know what “sin” is. We think of “sin” in small ways. We think of “sin” as petty rule-breaking. But the Bible has a rich vocabulary for sin. For example, the prophet Hosea tells us that sin is spiritual prostitution, that as sinners we’ve turned God’s world into a whorehouse. Why is sin like that? Because sin is running from God’s love into the arms of other lovers who have no right to us at all, going to other comforts and other saviors, which we all do. When our hearts go away from God for love and security and okay-ness, that act is spiritual adultery. And that’s why we feel shame. When our hearts are shamed, it’s because we’ve gone after love where we had no business going. And Jesus saves spiritual whores. How does he do that? He makes the love of God real and satisfying to our hearts. That’s from the book of Hosea. Then there’s the book of Deuteronomy, with more vocabulary for sin. Deuteronomy tells us that sin is transgression, it’s violating a boundary. It’s saying, “You can’t tell me what to do. I’m going to do what I want to do, I’m going to go where I want to go.” And that’s why we experience guilt and fear and insecurity, out there where we know we don’t belong. It’s why our hearts feel allergic to God. When God is the last person in the universe we want to get close to, there is a reason. We are guilty offenders, we feel it and we don’t want to face it, so we hide. And Jesus saves us guilty, frightened people by taking our guilt upon himself at the cross, so that we can run to God for comfort, like the prodigal son. Then there’s the book of Proverbs. It tells us that sin is foolishness. Why? Because sin is ignoring the way God created us, ignoring our own psychology, our own sociology, how life really works and succeeds. We do this, for example, when we take this highly complex, delicate thing called our sexuality and use this amazing gift with such clumsiness – like taking an iPhone and hammering nails with it. That’s foolish. Sex doesn’t succeed that way. But we do that. It’s why we experience frustration and dysfunction. But Jesus saves us by both forgiving us and leading us into wise living. The book of Psalms – Psalm 73, for example – tells us that sin is a distaste for God. It’s as if our spiritual taste buds are dead. Can you imagine living one day without tasting food at all, and how boring it would be and how you wouldn’t nourish your body adequately? Sin does that to our sense of God. It’s why life gets dull and boring and we waste our time on trivial things when we could be throwing our efforts into God’s eternal kingdom. But Jesus the Savior gives our hearts a real taste of the feast called God, and it changes how we live.
Sin confines us and limits us. Sin shames us, injures us, makes us stupid. But Jesus saves his people from their sins. Nothing could be more relevant or hopeful. Will you let him save you? Or are you too good for him? If Jesus doesn’t qualify as your Savior, who does? What could you want in a Savior that isn’t in Christ? What do you find lacking in him? What can you imagine that’s worthy and endearing that isn’t in Christ? How would you improve on him, if you could? If you don’t want a second-rate savior who might embarrass you, isn’t Jesus Christ great enough to win the honor of saving you? And if you’d prefer someone who has suffered and been abused and not had an easy life, someone who knows what means to be tempted, hasn’t Jesus Christ suffered enough to qualify as your Savior? What is there lacking, or what would you add if you could, to make him a better Savior for you? And if you can’t improve on him, will you receive him?
Will you become decisive this morning and receive him now with the empty hands of faith? If you will, he promises to save you, no matter how sinful you are.