[The following sermon is from a series on the Apostles’ Creed. It might be helpful to read the creed and the exposition in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q26), which were recited corporately prior to the sermon]
We confess our faith every week because Christianity is being steadily colonized by a false religion. This confession is an anchor in the storm, so that we will not be swept back and forth by the winds of false doctrine – old and new. This new colonizing religion has been dubbed, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” or MTD, for short.
When I was in high school, the National Study of Youth and Religion interviewed over three thousand high school students on their religious beliefs. Across racial, economic, and geographic boundaries, there was a common set of beliefs, a creed of sorts, that summarized the beliefs of young people in this country:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
These are the core beliefs of my generation. But in case you are thinking, “What is wrong with young people these days?” you need to know that the majority of the research also tell us that they learned this faith from their parents. We are all implicated in this. We learned it by watching how they lived, what they said, and how they spoke of God or didn’t. If you are feeling uncomfortable, you should be. The scariest part is that most of these children believe that what they believe is Christianity or, at least, not incompatible with Christianity.
Notice what is missing. There is no sin, no savior, no Jesus at all. Of the many problems with MTD, the most pivotal is that there is no Jesus. Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, is the central confession of the Christian faith. It takes up the majority of the Apostles Creed because it is the core of Christianity.
This morning, and over the next couple weeks, we will be getting clear on Jesus. This morning, we will ask: Who is Jesus? That brings us to Matthew, chapter 1, verses 18 to 25. Matthew 1, verses 18 to 25. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me:
Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are they very words of God.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband, was a righteous man, but did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
After he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 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.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’
After Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)
It is imperative that we get clear on Jesus. Who he is cannot be a matter of opinion. We cannot agree to disagree – you believe this about Jesus and I believe that and what is good for you is good for you, what is good for me is good for me. Either Jesus is who the Bible says he is, who he himself claimed to be, or he is not. We cannot have it both ways. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his book, Mere Christianity, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
The identity of Jesus is a matter of truth or falsehood, life or death, lunatic, liar, or Lord.
Who is Jesus? Matthew chapter 1 gives us two names that reveal the identity and mission of Jesus Christ. He is Jesus and Immanuel. He is the savior and God himself with us in the flesh. Each of these names reveals the identity of Jesus.
Verse 21: you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Mary and Joseph were going to get married. Then Mary became pregnant. It was not through any sinful action of Mary’s, but was an act of God. but before they came together, Mary was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph, unaware of the how Mary became pregnant, assumed what any normal person would: Mary had been unfaithful to him. Being both righteous and merciful, Joseph wants to divorce Mary quietly, to spare her the public shame. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream, explains what has happened, and tells Joseph to marry Mary. Then verse 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.
He was given the name Jesus, because he is the savior. Jesus, in Greek, is the translation of the Hebrew name Jehoshua, which means “The Lord Saves” or “the Lord’s Salvation.” Jesus is given the name Jesus because that is exactly who he is. He is the Lord who saves, he is the Lord’s salvation. You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
There is a problem: sin. MTD tells us that religion exists to help us be nice to each other. We do not need the gospel to tell us to be nice to each other. Everyone knows that. The problem is that we are not good, nice, and far to each other. God’s will for our lives is so much deeper, more costly, and more beautiful that just ‘being nice to each other.’ Even setting aside how shallow MTD’s view of human life is, we do not even do that right. In our household, a two year old and a less than one year old struggle to love each other well. There are a lot of tears. And the bigger we get, the bigger our problems with one another, and the bigger potential for pain and destruction. The Bible names this problem – this inability to love each other and propensity to selfish destroy one another – as sin.
You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Jesus comes to do away with sin. Even in the womb, the angel of the Lord announces the mission of Jesus. He has come to save his people. He will take the guilt of the guilty so that they can be declared innocent. He will take on punishment to set people free to love God and their neighbor. He will endure death so that we can have life. Jesus came to save.
We must get clear on Jesus, because without knowing the savior, we are stuck with trying to do better on our own. Without Jesus, the only message we receive is to try harder. Stop sinning. Love better. Be nicer. Be happy. Make something of yourself. Do more, do better. Stop being a screw-up. This is the message of MTD and every other religion under the sun. It is a message that ends in failure, shame, and anxiety. We try harder this week, but next week we sin again. When we do, the shame sets in. Then the anxiety sets in and we double down for the next week, only the fail again and fall back into shame.
The message of the gospel is not ‘try harder,’ but you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Jesus saves. We cannot try hard enough to rescue ourselves, to improve ourselves, to be and do enough to find satisfaction and hope. Only in the strong arms of Jesus, who overcame sin for us, can we find rest for our souls. Only when we trust in the name of Jesus can we stop the cycle of trial and failure and shame. Only in the name of Jesus can we have peace in our hearts, peace with our neighbors, and peace with God. They called him ‘Jesus,’ because he is the Lord who saves.
The second name he was given is in verse 23: Immanuel. The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ From the beginning, God created us to be in relationship with him. He desires to dwell with his people. In the Garden, God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. But their sin broke that fellowship and they, along with all of us as their descendants, have lived apart from life with God. He sought to dwell with us, but we were cut off from him.
God did not give up. He rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and declared, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” God went about providing a way for his people to be in fellowship with him: the tabernacle. In the tabernacle, the people could meet with God. He set up a place where he promised to be present so that the people could gather, deal with their sin, and worship him. The tabernacle was the place where God would be with his people.
God’s desire to be with us in covenant relationship is one of the core teachings of the Old Testament. Let me demonstrate. If you have a Bible in front of you, I want you to turn to Genesis 1, the very beginning of the Bible. Now, between your first two fingers, hold all the pages that contain Genesis 1-2. Show it to your neighbor. A page, maybe two. This is the account we have of God creating the world. A significant, foundational event. Two pages. Okay, now turn to Exodus, the next book of the Bible. Find chapter 25 and put your finger there. Then turn to Numbers 22, the very end of the Book of Numbers. Put another finger there. Now hold these pages in between your two fingers. While there are are other stories, genealogies, and commands in these chapters, the vast majority have to do with how to build the tabernacle, who can enter the tabernacle, and what to do in the tabernacle. Show your neighbor. This is how much ink God spilled over the place where he would dwell with his people. We are not even including the descriptions of the dimensions of the temple in Kings and Chronicles, or the vision of the heavenly temple in Ezekiel. God cares deeply about providing a way for us to live with him.
Then God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, the virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ God’s plan to be our God and for us to be his people culminates in God himself coming into the world. The promised child would be God with us. Jesus is God with us. The one conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary is not only the Savior, but God himself with us in the flesh. Mary bore not just the Christ in her womb, but God. Jesus is the Lord’s Salvation – the one through whom God chose to save sinners. Jesus is also the Lord who saves – God the Son who took on flesh. And the word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. God dwells with his people in Jesus.
Jesus came not only to set us free, but to give us a home. More specifically, he came to make his home with us. In Jesus, God has come and moved into the neighborhood. The greatness of God is that he comes himself to live with us.
The one Christians confess throughout the ages, the one promised long ago who entered into the world in a virgin’s womb, the one attested to in Holy Scripture is Jesus, the Savior, Immanuel, God with us.
What is at stake in getting clear on Jesus? Nothing less than the gospel itself. Nothing less than life and death. We heard at the beginning that the a new faith has begun to colonize churches in North America – Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. A faith of good works, where God is seen more like a butler or therapist, than the Lord of the universe. It is a faith with me, my feelings, and my needs at the center. It is a faith where I am center stage and God has only a few lines on the side. Ultimately, it is a faith that fails. It fails to deliver on its promises – happiness, self-esteem, and heaven. But it also fails to deliver what we truly need – forgiveness and fellowship with God. Only Jesus can give this. Only Jesus as he is revealed in the Scriptures and as he acted in history can truly set our hearts at rest and give us hope.
C.S. Lewis tells us there are only three logical responses to Jesus, “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.” Each of us must decide how we we will respond. Is he a fool, a lunatic, or exactly who he claims to be – the Lord of the universe who has come to save us and bring us home.
The Christian gospel proclaims that there is hope, there is forgiveness, and there is fellowship with God. It is found in Jesus Christ and in him alone. To look anywhere else is only to find disappointment. It cannot be a matter of opinion. Jesus is a person in history. He lived, he died, and he rose again. He is not an opinion, he is a person. Either he was who he claimed to be or he was not. Either salvation, life, hope, fellowship is found in Jesus Christ alone or not at all. It is a matter of public truth, not simply private opinion. Either the gospel is the truth and the only hope we have for life and peace, or it is not. It must be one or the other.
I want to leave you with these eight words: Know Jesus, Know Hope. No Jesus, No Hope. If you know Jesus, you know hope. If there is no Jesus, there is no hope. What is at stake in getting clear on Jesus? Nothing less than life and death.