God saves! The God whom we discover among us at Christmas in Jesus Christ is a Saviour God – a redeemer, a liberator, a promise-maker and promise-keeper, a gatherer of exiles and lover of those for whom all hope has died. The texts this week tell us that salvation is God’s intention from all eternity (rather than an afterthought), that salvation and creation belong hand in hand. Moreover, salvation, which is rooted in God’s own character, is to be realised in history and is to be the lived experience of human beings in the most desperate of circumstances. No wonder the texts call for praise and celebration!
When salvation takes legs and walks among us (John 1: 10-18)
John 1:1-9 is optional for this week. The focus is on Jesus, the Word made flesh – God in the world (vv 10-18). Yet the breath-taking significance of John’s Jesus is lost if forget that Jesus is the Word who was with God, was God and through whom all things were made. This makes all the more extraordinary John’s assertion in v10:
He was in the world, and though the world came into being through him, the world did not recognise him.
Why should that be? John says that the reason is moral rather than philosophical: darkness. We fail to recognise God among us because we have deliberately shut ourselves off from God. We have created a world that deals darkness and death, rather than Light and Life. We do not recognise the world’s creator because the world we have made embodies a different, hostile set of intentions. In John’s terms, when Light and Life arrives, we run for the darkness and crucify the God-life among us. We do not wish to live as children of God.
That is not the only story, however – for all that it is the climax of the Jesus story. As well as lovers of the darkness, who will do whatever it takes to keep the world dark, there are those who are prisoners of the darkness, who yearn for Light and wait in desperate hope and yearning to glimpse it. In the gospel tradition, they are particularly those on the margins – the poor, the marginalised, the unimportant, the sick, the demonised, the unclean, the sinners.
They welcome Jesus as Light and Life. And in return, they discover resurrection: they are born again as children of God, to become what God has always intended them to be and to live as God has intended them to live – sharers in the Divine Life (vv 12-13).
John the Evangelist is one of those. For all the dense (and wonderful!) theological depth of his writing, his gospel is personal testimony. When he writes, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace”, he is speaking of his own experience, and asserting that, through Jesus, it is nothing less than his own experience of God.
This is the life-transforming truth that he is desperate to share with us and drives him to write his gospel. In Jesus, we encounter God made flesh, and come to know the deepest truth about God that we could not otherwise know: God loves the world with a passion that we cannot fathom – a passion that gives to the point of the death of the Son in order that we, who are so deeply addicted to Death, might experience the very Life of God for ourselves (3:16).
“Sing and dance – you’re going home at last!” (Jeremiah 31: 7-14/Psalm 147)
Christmas is the goal and hope of Advent waiting. As we saw in Advent 1B, that sort of waiting is not the breathless excitement of children on Christmas Eve who cannot wait for Christmas morning, but the grim hanging-on-by-the-fingernails of the exiles, who dare to believe that the present hopelessness is not the Last Word of the God-who-saves. And here, Jeremiah reassures them that what they most deeply need hope for is precisely what is in the heart of God.
“The primary work of the book of Jeremiah is to speak Israel into exile. While Jeremiah is given a twofold task in 1:10, ‘to pluck up and to tear down, to build and to plant’, the negative theme is much more decisive for and prevalent in the book of Jeremiah… the primary burden of the literature is that Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem will be dismantled according to the intention of Yahweh.” (Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah, Eerdmans, 1998, p264)
Brueggemann goes on to note that the positive theme (“to build and to plant”) comprises chapters 30-33 and voices Yahweh’s intention of newness and restoration after exile. These themes of promise – to restore, revive and rehabilitate God’s people and God’s city – are presented as a resolve of God’s own heart (cf 29:11). The prophet announces that the faithfulness and power of Yahweh guarantee that these are no empty promises or words of false comfort, but to be embraced and celebrated – even though the exile is not yet over (30:2-3). For this reason, chapters 30-33 have been called “The Book of Comfort”.
“It’s time to start singing!” says Yahweh to the exiles (v7). Not the quiet, reverent, oh-so-theologically-sound hymns we sometimes associate with church, but wild, exuberant, noisy rejoicing, with all the people roaring the chorus in a foundation-shaking shout of joy and triumph: “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel!” That has been their desperate lament, their whispered prayer, and now it becomes a celebration of its answer by Yahweh. The waiting time is over; the gathering in has begun.
The term “gather” (vv 8, 10, Psalm 147:2) is a key word for the restoration of the exiles. Because of the destruction of Jerusalem, Jews have become fugitives, refugees and displaced persons all over the known world. In these images, Yahweh will gather them from all parts of the world, including the north (ie Babylon). The returning exiles will form the community of Yahweh’s people. The Hebrew verb is q-b-ts – “kibbutz” which, in its modern setting, designates the agricultural communities established by young Zionists who hoped to create a different, ideal new society. It is not accidental that the kibbutz movement in the newly formed Israel drew its identity from the key term associated with the return of the exiles.
There are three things to notice about the gathering: firstly, the returning exiles – the new community – explicitly include “the blind, the lame, the pregnant and the new-borns (rather than the NRSV ‘those in labour’) – ie the very people you’d expect to be disabled from undertaking the return journey from exile (v8). No one will be left out of the gathering, and those who might be deemed “least suitable” are at the forefront in a manner echoed by Jesus’ “messianic community of outcasts”.
Secondly, the references to “walking by brooks of water” and “a straight path in which they shall not stumble” (v9) echo the Good Shepherd-king tradition of Psalm 23 and John’s Jesus the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost and leads them home.
Thirdly, the reference to “Ephraim my firstborn” (Ephraim being a reference to Israel) evokes an Exodus motif (cf Exodus 4:22), concerning the one especially valued and beloved, and who receives Yahweh’s special protection, care and gifts. The juxtaposing of these images in vv8-9 is theologically rich: the shepherd who protects is the father who loves and values. The “last” (the disabled) become the “firstborn”. The “father” of the “firstborn” takes those “orphaned” by the exile and makes them a home (cf Hosea 14:3b).
Yahweh now moves to address the nations, who have assumed that exile means that Israel has been cast off by her God: “Israel was never lost or abandoned, but deliberately scattered. And now Israel is equally deliberately being gathered by God in an act of saving power (note the terms “ransomed” and “redeemed from hands too strong” in v11). They shall return to Zion (Jerusalem). And just as they have, in exile, sung songs of lament and questioned the apparent absence, faithfulness and goodness of Yahweh, so now they will sing songs of celebration and be overwhelmed (“made radiant”) by the obvious goodness of God and the over-abundance of Yahweh’s protection and provision (note the “Eden restored” image of the watered garden in v12).”
The scene is one of homecoming and merrymaking. The prophet has to reach for the richest, most extravagant language of God’s goodness and the people’s joy. They are home – but with all the newness of being there for the first time.
Psalm 147 is a natural hymn to read alongside this vision of a praise party! It is occasioned by the exiles’ return (vv 2,6,7,11,13,19,20), yet these verses are interspersed with the celebration of Yahweh as Lord of Creation. There are two things to note here. Firstly, the structure of the psalm echoes the Covenant: Yahweh is the God of all creation, and yet has dealt specially with Israel (cf especially vv 19-20). This is grace – the catalyst for salvation. It is God’s special choice and care and love for Israel that has been her protection – even in exile – and the reason for her ransom and redemption.
Secondly, the historical experience of salvation (in this case, return from exile) means that the whole world has changed. If Israel is not forgotten or abandoned, if the Babylonian gods did not defeat Yahweh, if Israel has been born again, then the whole world has changed, and things are not as they have seemed. It means that the Last Word belongs to Yahweh. It means that the empires of darkness and death (the slave systems of Egypt and the military might of Babylon) that seem so impregnable are subject to the power and saving will of Yahweh. And, as we discover in Jesus, that is precisely what the Saviour-God is about: bringing the New Creation to birth.
“Salvation was always the plan” (Ephesians 1: 1-14)
One way of understanding God’s dealings with the world suggests that salvation is Plan B … or C … or K. It’s as though God created the world and humanity to live with and relate to, but we spoiled it – again and again. Each time we did, God had to pull something out of the fire (Exodus, monarchy, exile and return etc). Then God had the Great Idea – send Jesus. But we mucked that one up too by crucifying him. So God had to come up with resurrection … you see the point?
Paul tells us that the opposite is true. What God has done in Christ, he says, was God’s intention from “before the foundation of the world”. Just as Jesus is our focus (as the Christian church), so Jesus is God’s focus too. In Paul’s framework, the whole biblical narrative of creation and redemption had as its constant focus and goal the “gathering up of all things (that word again) in Jesus, both in heaven and on earth” (v10). God’s goal for creation is Christ-shaped. And therefore it is both cross-shaped and church-focussed.
It is cross-shaped because the door to “the riches of God’s grace that God lavishes on us” (v8) is Good Friday – the blood of the crucified Jesus that redeems us and brings forgiveness (v7). And it is church-focussed, not because its goal is the institutional church but because being truly human is to be like Jesus, “holy and blameless before God in love” (v4). And the church is supposed to be the community of Jesus’ disciples who are being shaped daily to live like Jesus did with God, with each other, and with the creation. That shaping is the work of the Holy Spirit (v13) – a process that Paul elsewhere calls “sanctification”.
It is important to hang on to the connection between holiness and being Jesus-shaped. Isn’t it interesting that “holier than thou” is an insult, whereas people find Jesus-shaped relating and acting deeply attractive and life giving? They’re happy to call Jesus-like people “holy”, but use the term in a completely different sense: they don’t feel shown up and criticised by that sort of holiness, but instead experience it as something like “God among us”. If only the church was synonymous with being recognisably like Jesus, rather than with the Purity System of Jesus’ day, which excluded rather than welcomed and embraced people who were condemned as sinners!
Paul’s testimony (it makes a significant difference if we hear Paul, like John, primarily as “testifying” rather than “arguing”) is that Jesus is the pattern and goal for creation, so that the salvation that he and we experience in Jesus Christ is not some second- or third-best result of God having a re-think, but what God had envisaged from all eternity. His point is that we, as the Christian church, are and ought to be the trailers of the New Creation in Christ.
We need to be careful here. To say that Jesus and the cross was God’s plan from all eternity is to suggest that the story of our response to Jesus – both acceptance and crucifixion – was all scripted by God, and that therefore we are like actors on God’s stage, whose choices and actions only appear to be real.
Paul, significantly, does not say that. What he says is that God always planned to lavish divine blessing and grace on us through Jesus, and always intended that we become like Jesus. God always intended our adoption as children of God, and to gather up everything in Christ. That much was always planned. Yet the “how” unfolded in all the historical contingency of Jesus, the Word made flesh, coming to live among us with the message of the Kingdom. How that panned out – ultimately, in crucifixion – had everything to do with the choices we humans made and the choice Jesus made in Gethsemane … and God’s willingness to become the victim of our choices.
Can’t we just stick with Christmas?
Yet this is precisely the point at which we encounter a theological problem. Jeremiah proclaims that the New Israel – post-exilic Israel – comprises the gathered, scattered exiles. That is significant because many Jews remained in Judah during the exile, and many trickled back. Yet it is not they who form the nucleus of the new community, but those who have been in exile and have been redeemed by Yahweh. In other words, it is those who have undergone the experience of exile and despair, and promise and return – those who have been saved, in other words.
This is both the wonder and puzzlement of salvation: why is all the agony and death and despair necessary? It is the same question we find when faced with the cross: why that way? Isn’t there an easier, cleaner, less wasteful, less destructive, less humanly expensive way of God saving us?
The biblical answer is “No.” With no further explanation offered. There is a mystery to God’s dealing with the world – or perhaps it’s a mystery about what John calls “darkness” and what other biblical writers call “sin” – that means that historical process is unavoidable both to us and to God. God can’t redeem without cost. That’s the Easter story. Salvation is return from exile, not being saved from the experience of exile. Salvation is resurrection, not being spared the cross.
It’s easy always to ask the question from a human point of view: why all this suffering? Why doesn’t God just save us? Yet both the story of the exile and, very particularly, Easter, challenge us to recognise that there is another vital question: why all the suffering for God? The Jesus story is not just a Christmas story. Christmas doesn’t save us. Christmas unleashes a story that ends on the cross of Good Friday. It is a salvation story only because of resurrection – the Word of Life that tells us that we are forgiven, even for murdering God’s Son. That is only possible because, in Jesus, God comes to suffer with us and at our hands. That is what being a Saviour-God costs. And God is up for it. That is the grace and truth we learn through the Word who becomes flesh and lives among us.