Salvation…who’s it for anyway?

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I’d like to share with you a story of who I think salvation is for, someone who desperately needs the light of Christ to shine in his life and in the darkness that surrounds him.  I don’t even know his name, but I will tell you of my encounter with him.



 

2nd Sunday in Advent, Year C

Malachi 3.1-4; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 1.67-80

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord
and Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The passage I have just read from Luke holds some of the
words I treasure most in all of Scripture. 
The character of God and the hope we have as human beings is expressed
so clearly.  78 By the tender mercy of our
God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon* us, 
79 to give light to those who sit in
darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into
the way of peace.’

In most of my conversations with people about God,
tender mercy is not normally the first way people describe God.   Most words I hear to describe God are: all-powerful,
all-knowing, Creator, or guy with a beard sitting on a throne.  Tender mercy speaks of God’s heart and the way
upon which God looks upon the world and human beings.

The one whose mouth these words come from by the power
of the Holy Spirit is named Zachariah. 
They are the first words he has said for nine months.  Nine months earlier, Zachariah, who is a
priest, is in the temple.  The angel
Gabriel (the same angel who visited Mary and told her that she will bear Jesus)
comes to visit him and tell him that he and his wife Elizabeth are going to
have a son and they are to name him John. 

Zachariah does not believe the angel because he and his
wife were quite old and had never been able to have a baby.  For a consequence of his disbelief in the
power of God to bring about the extraordinary news, he is silenced and unable
to speak until after his son is born.  

So nine months later, John is born to Zachariah’s wife, Elizabeth
in her old age. We know him as John the Baptist, but in our text today, he is a
newborn baby, hearing the words his father is saying to him for the first time,
telling him of his future.  

Zachariah speaks these words to his infant son: “And
you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for
you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 
77 to give knowledge of salvation to
his people
 by the forgiveness of their sins.”

John has quite the future laid out for him even before
he was born.  He is Jesus’ cousin and is
the one chosen to prepare people for God’s coming into the world in Jesus
Christ.  He does this by helping people repent,
turning back towards God and away from things that harm themselves and others.  John’s father, Zachariah, tells him of the
tender mercy of God as he grows up, and in turn, John gives people knowledge of
salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. 

So many people in the world ask and wonder: “How can I
receive salvation?”  It is clear in our
Scripture reading today that salvation comes from God and it is through forgiveness.  Salvation is meant to begin and be
experienced here and now through the release of what burdens us.  Without forgiveness, human beings sit in
darkness and the shadow of death. 

The guilt and shame in our lives can become like a
disease that slowly eats away at a person from the inside out.  It is like a prison that keeps a person
captive to self-loathing and anger with no sign of release.  Salvation is not felt or realized without forgiveness. 

Knowledge of the tender mercy of God and the message of
salvation by the forgiveness of sins is central to the story of John, the story
of Jesus, and to your story and mine.

But who is salvation for?  The short answer in light of Jesus death on
the cross is: everyone.  It is for you
and for me. But, an even more true answer is that salvation is first and
foremost for those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  Well, who might this be? 

I’d like to share with you a story of who I think
salvation is for, someone who desperately needs the light of Christ to shine in
his life and in the darkness that surrounds him.  I don’t even know his name, but I will tell
you of my encounter with him.

Right out of college I moved to inner-city Denver to
live with 9 other people I had never met and to volunteer full-time at an after
school program for girls.  I lived near
and worked on Colfax Avenue.  Almost
daily I encountered people who were living on the streets for one reason or
another (some of which became my friends), people who were dealing or doing
drugs, people struggling with mental illness, people begging for money…all
sorts of different people.

One day I pulled into the parking lot where I worked and
a man who looked to be in his 40’s approached me.  He said, “Excuse me, my father over there is
sick and we need money to take the bus. 
As you can see, I’m not well myself having just been in the hospital.”  He showed me his arms, which revealed years
and years of drug use, passing it off as a trip to the hospital.  I knew he was lying, but I listened to his
story and told him I had no money, but would go inside and come back out. 

Once I was inside, I asked my co-worker if I could
borrow a dollar.  I did the normal battle
with myself every time people asked me for money, knowing that if I give money
it would more than likely go towards things that are unhealthy for the person,
yet also being compelled to simply give, not knowing how God will work with it. 

I decided to give him a dollar, one of the rare times I
gave money to those who asked.  Then I
went to my desk and got the 2 bagels I had individually wrapped that morning
and went back out.

I could tell he was surprised to see me again.  He came running back across the street.  I said, “I only have a dollar to give you,
but I also have these two bagels for you and your father.”  At that the man did something I was not
expecting.  He stared for awhile at what
he had just been given and then said, “You know, my life is so messed up.  I haven’t been into good things.  I’m not a good person.  I just need…” with that he seemed to be
searching for what he believed he needed. 
Then he asked me, “Could you just pray for me sometime, just remember me
in your prayers?” 

Then, as if I wasn’t even in control of my own words
said, “Well, how about right now?”  He
hesitated a bit and agreed to it, so I took his hands in mine and I
prayed.  I don’t even remember what I
said, but even before I was finished with the prayer, the man said, “Thank you,
thank you” and started to back away.  He
had tears flowing down his face and he turned and walked away.

I stood there trembling for a while trying to process
all that had just happened.  I never saw
him again.  When I think about who
salvation is for I think of him and so many like him, who are surrounded by
darkness.  I think of those left with no
hope or people who cannot escape terrible systems of poverty, war, abuse, or
addiction. 

I am convinced by the witness in Scripture, by the Word
of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, and by the words of Zachariah to his newborn
son, that these are whom salvation is for. 
And if we are honest enough with ourselves, we realize that we are not
so different from the man on the street in Denver in that we are each in need
of salvation from God through forgiveness. 

The Advent and Christmas message is that we have a God
who comes to us.  Again and again God
comes, especially to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and
offers light, forgiveness, and Himself.  The
words of Zachariah we hear today are full of what God does: God looks, redeems,
raises up, speaks, saves, shows mercy, remembers, rescues, gives light, and
guides.  God does this by coming into
this world in Jesus Christ.

If you want to know the heart and character of God, know
Jesus.  Know that salvation can be
experienced in your life through the forgiveness of sins.  Mark this Scripture in your Bible and read
it.  The tender mercy of God is for
you.  The dawn from on high has come, is
here, and will come again.