Who is Jesus, and why it matters.

Not too long ago – earlier last week, in fact – I asked a group of Christian people “who is Jesus”?

The answers were good: He’s the Son of God; He’s the Saviour of the world; He’s the Lamb of God who died for our sins; He’s fully man but also fully God; He came to teach us how to live and to show us God’s mercy.

And I found myself saying “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”… those are all really great answers.  They’re all 100% true, they’re all essential beliefs for Christians in every time and every place.  But there’s one aspect of who Jesus is that I believe Christians often overlook, and that leads us to having a lopsided understanding of the Bible.

All of those answers: Son of God, Lamb of God, Fully man but fully God, and all the others are entirely true, but would have been a total surprise to any of God’s people in the Old Testament.  No, rather, as we read through the Old Testament, God’s faithful people are full of expectation, but it’s all tied to God’s promises.

Throughout the Old Testament, who are they waiting for? 

The Messiah – the anointed one who will fulfil the promises of God.

They’re waiting for fulfilment of the promises: through Moses, God promised that another messenger – greater than the other prophets – would come, a messenger who knew God face to face.[1] 
God’s people were waiting for that messenger greater than Moses.

God had promised to David that one of his offspring would sit on a throne that could never pass away, drawing in all the nations of the earth.[2] 
God’s people were waiting for the Son of David who would have an eternal throne.

God had promised to Abraham that, through his offspring, all the nations of the world would be blessed through obedience;[3] but as we know all too well, humanity’s skill is disobedience, and with a few exceptions along the way, by and large Israel hasn’t done a good job of blessing all those around them. 
God’s people were waiting for one who would reveal His glory to the world

But first and foremost, what is that first ever promise that God makes in scripture?  That oldest promise – a solution to the mess that Adam and Eve have made for all people?

Genesis 3:15: “The offspring of woman will crush the serpents head”… not unlike John 3:15: “that everyone who believes may have eternal life”.

Jesus is the Son of God, He is the great Teacher, He is the Saviour.  But, [as we find ourselves reading about the baby of Bethlehem in the midst of Lent,] the essential point from the perspective of the Old Testament is that Jesus is the fulfilment of all of God’s promises.

The turning point of all history.

As we read the Old Testament, you can fell the tension building.  When will these promised things happen?

But this is the climax of The Story, and my friends, it’s also the climax of all of human history.  The coming of Jesus, the eternal Word of God taking on our humanity, God-with-us in the flesh changes everything.  Seriously – there’s good reason we mark history as “before the coming of Christ” and “after the coming of Christ”, and we’d do well to remember that the coming of God in the flesh, God breaking into the midst of our fallen world to fulfil what we could never fulfil ourselves, really does change everything about the world and our place in it.

What do I mean?

God with us.

In the beginning, the intention was that we would walk with God.  Not some spiritual nonsense or happy feelings, but that we would walk and talk with God, we would enjoy His company face to face, that we would know Him as He knows us, and in doing so, all our needs would be fulfilled because we’d be hanging out with the literal Creator of everything.  All we had to do was trust Him.

But they didn’t.  So there was a divide.  Death entered the world.

Now don’t think of death as a random punishment; it’s not.  It’s simply the consequence for choosing to walk away from the Source of Life.[5]

And that was the beginning of the end, right there in the third chapter, on those first few pages of your Bible.  They chose to walk away from the Source of Life itself.

And because God is the very opposite of everything death is about – God and people simply couldn’t be in the same place anymore.  It’s not that God didn’t want them there – He wanted them there so much that the rest of scripture is about how He did that! 

It’s just that there are some things you can’t force and you can’t fake.  You can’t force love, you can’t force trust; and it does no good to fake them either.

Now, as we know, God didn’t abandon his people. God is continually reaching out to them, continually breaking into the mess of the world, continually calling people out to be part of His plan.  When people actually get close to God, amazing things happen!  Miracles and healings, prosperity and peace; Moses’ face lit up light a lightbulb compared to the dark world around him!

But even Moses couldn’t see God face-to-face, because he was infected by death.  That serpent’s venom was handed down from generation to generation, and there was no way humanity could escape it.[6]

This is the problem.  This is why humanity can’t ever carry out God’s plans or fulfil those biggest promises as the years go by.  From our birth in a fallen world, we’re all sharing the same human condition, separated from the presence of God.

But as Bishop Ed Salmon used to say when he was up to his elbows in grease, fiddling around inside the engine of the old cars in his driveway, “the only way to fix a broken system is to get in there and get your hands dirty”.

That’s what the birth of Jesus is all about.  Have you ever thought of it in those terms?

The Son of God born in a manger in Bethlehem, living as one of us, and being rejected, pierced, hung on a cross, and laid in the dust of the grave is God rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, breaking into a fallen world to fix what we could never fix on our own. 

Hebrews puts it better: “Because the children of God share in flesh and blood, the Lord himself partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death”.  A flesh and blood problem needed a flesh and blood solution.

And so, this week, and as we head toward Holy Week and Easter, I invite you to think afresh about the work of Jesus.  As we read through the life of Christ, I invite you to see God rolling up His sleeves and doing what we can’t do for ourselves. 

And as we frame it all in the lofty words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, I want you to reflect on the sort of love that shows.  Love that will strip off all the majesty of Heaven so that he could become the lowest of the low, as once again God uses those whom the world rejects to fulfil his promises.

And as you read the gospels, I want you to do your very best to connect it all back to Genesis.

In the beginning God wanted to walk and talk and live with men and women, but they rejected Him.  In Jesus, God walked and talked and lived with men and women, making himself so vulnerable, free to be rejected once more.

And then grapple with the fact that, our faith and our belief is that God comes among us again and again, in His Word, in the bread and wine – the flesh and blood solution to our flesh and blood problem – that we will share today, and indeed He comes any time two or three are gathered in this messy world to talk about our faith in Him.  This Lent, grapple with the fact that God, through the Messiah who fulfils all of His promises, wants to walk and talk and live with us, and reaches out, even today, even though you and I are free to reject him. 

…But then remember this faithful promise, also made by the one who keeps all his promises “… to all who do receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God”.  He keeps all of his promises – and for that we say ‘to God be the glory’, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 34:10-12; Hebrews 3:1-6

[2] 1 Kings 9:5; Jeremiah 33:17-26;

[3] Genesis 22:18

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

[5] Feel free to tell me that I’m undermining the wrath of God, but don’t worry: I certainly believe that judgment is real. I don’t, however, subscribe to any atonement theory that sees God as a jilted lover seeking revenge for Adam and Eve’s sin; rather, as a loving Father who is full of justice, there are consequences for their disobedience.  God’s righteous anger which burns against fallen humanity must be at their actions and decisions, since He ultimately and simultaneously loves them enough to send His only Son to save them.

[6] Though I’m focusing on the result (captivity and slavery to death) rather than the act of original sin, I do believe this to be a faithful rendering of the Augustinian idea of a seminal defect: that concupiscence and death are passed on in the “DNA” of humanity, which is precisely why a virgin birth is necessary: God injects an original, incorrupt line of human nature back into the human race.

The New Covenant: A forward-looking hope.

As we’ve journeyed through Lent, we’ve been reminded of God’s faithfulness, His goodness, and His mercy through the covenants – the sure and certain promises – He has made with His people.  From Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and ultimately through the one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of the Lamb of God, He has shown us what it means to be faithful, to continue reaching out in love, not because we’ve earned or somehow deserved it, but because we were created for a free and loving relationship with Him, and He’s always ready to honour that: all we have to do is turn to Him in faith.

In today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34) we hear familiar language about the New Covenant.  This covenant is the core of our faith, with the promise of forgiven sin, the promise of sharing no longer in the sinful life of the first man, Adam, but partaking – really entering into and sharing in the eternal life of Jesus, the first-born of the new creation who leads to eternal life.  This covenant is central to our life together: it’s the reason we’re gathered, and it’s the message that we’re called to bring to the world; and Holy Week – beginning next Sunday – the holiest, most involved, and most visible part of the Christian year is our annual opportunity to enter into that story, to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness, to remind ourselves of the great price of our salvation, and to equip and inspire us to do what God has commanded every generation: to spread the good news, to tell the old, old story, and to teach it to our neighbours, our children, and our children’s children.

We’re Christians – we are the people of the new covenant in Christ: this is our story, this is our song, and our job is to proclaim it all the day long.

But… looking at God’s words to Jeremiah, I think there’s something about that Covenant that we all-too-easily miss.

A Future Promise

“This is the covenant that I will make:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and teach his brother saying “Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Sometimes, I think, we get in the habit of thinking that God’s promises are all in the past, that God’s done all he is going to do, and our job is to figure it out, to make the best of it, to make it work and try to remain faithful until he calls us home.

But, while it’s true that the New Covenant began at supper on the night before Jesus was offered as the sacrifice for the sins of the world, while it’s true that the price was paid once and for all, the New Covenant isn’t “done”, it isn’t in the past.  Rather, it’s still unfolding now, and as we look at those words from Jeremiah, it remains our hope for a yet-more-glorious future.

As we’ve seen in the other covenants this Lent, each covenant begins with God’s promise – His promise to bless his people, to lead them and guide them, to be their God if they will be His people; and each comes with responsibilities, with work to be done.

In the covenant to Noah, God gave the authority to create and maintain a just society, protecting the weak and innocent by punishing those who do wrong; Abraham and his descendants were promised the glorious opportunity to bring the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth, and a promised land to dwell in the very presence of God, requiring their commitment and faithfulness;  through Moses, freedom from bondage and sin was promised as God used the Law to instruct his people in righteousness, in knowing right from wrong, teaching them to live as God desires; and it’s in Jesus that the path to eternal life is opened, all it takes, as we heard in the Gospel today (John 12:20-33), is that we stop clinging to the broken ways of this sinful life, and instead take up our cross and follow Christ.  “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him”.

It’s glorious – that’s our living hope – but there’s even more to the story!

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

God promises through Jeremiah that, when the New Covenant begun in Christ is fulfilled, the law will be written on our hearts, we will be God’s people, and there will be no more need to spread the good news, because everyone – everyone – will know God.  Like, really know God; Paul says that now we see in a mirror dimly, but once that veil is lifted from our faces, we’ll see and know God clearly, even as God already knows all there is to know about us.

But what does it mean that the law will be written on our hearts?

That’s an important question – because God’s certainly not saying that we’re going to have the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy memorized! 

If you remember back to the covenant with Moses, the law isn’t just about things that are clean or unclean, details about how to live and how to worship; it has a great, over-arching purpose.  The purpose of the law isn’t in the details – the purpose of the law is to show us God’s character, and to demonstrate our absolute and utter need for a saviour who can do what we can never do for ourselves.

God’s promise is that, through the New Covenant, his people would finally know him – not just know about him, but know his very character, and carry that around inside them, right down in their hearts, in the very life flowing through their veins.  God’s promise is that we will finally know, right in the core of our being, that God is God and we are not, that we need a gracious and merciful saviour who offers us a place as sons and daughters of the King, not because we deserve it or have any right to it at all, but because we were created for his glory, a glory shown forth as we accept his mercy and share in the eternal life and relationship of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Law – the knowledge of God’s character and our own need for a merciful saviour – will be written, engraved, not on tablets of stone, not on scrolls or the holy pages of scripture, but in the very hearts of those who are united to Christ in his sacrifice, clothed with his righteousness, and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.

What a glorious promise.  …and what a fitting end to the story of our salvation.

The Reprise of Genesis

If you remember back to Genesis, Adam and Eve had all that they needed, they even knew God, walking and talking with Him in the cool of the day in a place where everything they needed was provided, everything had been declared ‘good’, and where God was glorified. 

They knew God.  They had everything they needed. But there was one thing that would upset it all; one thing they could not touch.  It’s absolutely fascinating: Genesis 2 says the tree of life was there – they were free to eat from that if they wanted, God wanted them to live forever; they could eat from the tree of life, it was only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they could not touch.

You see, all was fine while they walked with God, and all they knew was the goodness and mercy of a loving Father.  They walked with God, they knew his character, reflected as his image imprinted upon them.  But the knowledge of good and evil is a dangerous thing: without the law, how do you know which is which.  And worse still, without the law proclaiming our need for a saviour, reminding us that the serpent’s lie is a lie, that no, we cannot make ourselves like God, that we creatures depend on the mercy and grace of a loving Creator; without the law, the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, will lead us astray.

God couldn’t bear the thought of humanity living forever with that twisted and broken outlook, and that’s why Genesis 3 tells us that God drove Adam and Eve from the presence of the garden, to keep them from eating from the tree of life.

But God’s plan doesn’t change – how could it, his Word is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He still wants to walk with us, to dwell with us, for us to live forever with him where he provides for all our needs; as the Book of Revelation proclaims, he still wants us to eat from the tree of life.  But, to do that, we first needed his law – we first need his loving character and our need for a merciful saviour – written on our hearts.

My friends, Jesus paid the price of our salvation on the Cross on Good Friday, but that’s not the end of the New Covenant.  The good news is that the Cross is literally just the beginning!

Day by day, moment by moment, as we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit to repent and return whenever we slip off the path of life, our very hearts are being retrained; we learn, one day at a time, to give up loving the things of this world – Jesus actually puts it even stronger, we learn to hate the things of this world, and our hearts learn to know more fully who God is, and to acknowledge more fully, each and every day, just how much we need a saviour.

The promise of the New Covenant is that, beginning with Good Friday, we can learn to take up our cross and walk with God once more, a journey that begins now, and appears to cost us everything, but with each step, brings us closer to knowing God, trusting more fully in him, and, clothed in his righteousness alone, living with him forever together with all the others, from every language, people, and nation who know the Lord, where the knowledge of the need for a saviour and trust in him alone means that all iniquity is forgiven, and sin itself is remembered no more.

This is our living hope – it begins with the power of the cross, and transforms us from the inside out as we become enabled to reflect God’s glory.  And the message is so simple that it’s sometimes hard to believe: all we have to do is repent, return, and follow Jesus – simply walk in his footsteps, not worry about the changes and chances of this life, and learn to trust in Him alone.  And we can, because his covenants are sure, he is faithful, he always keeps his word, and the one who created us for life with him, and who started a good work in you and in me, will see it through to completion, by his grace, and for his glory.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.