The Salvation of Our God
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3: 1-6
“All flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” — Luke 3:6/Isaiah 40:3
Our last sermon was based on the scene of Jesus before Pilate, as set by John in ch.18 of his gospel. I missed an obvious point in the written version, which I recovered in the spoken version, namely that the “other” way I described in the writing is in the story called “the truth.” Jesus said that he did not come as an earthly king to crush his enemies and force them to serve, but rather “to bear witness to the truth (John 18: 37-38).” To this the cynical Pilate responds with a rhetorical question that echoes down the ages, “What is Truth?” We saw truth and Pilate saw truth’s mockery; we stood with the condemned man and Pilate sat on a throne. Could there be a symbol more eloquent than this? Let me not insult you by trying to explain it.
That was our question for last time, a question for the final Sunday of the Christian year when we looked back and traced the way we had come with Jesus since the previous Advent. Our question for today, our first Sunday of the year, when we look forward and no longer back, is, “What is salvation?” “All flesh shall see the salvation of our God!” What is it we shall see? How will we know it when we see it?
The form of the advent gospel is a promise and an expectation of fulfillment. Since when we stood at the end we described the way as having been a way of truth, when we stand at the beginning truth must be a part of the promise, therefore, salvation includes knowing the truth and thus by logic alone we have found a first answer to our advent question, “What is salvation?”(There is some logical advantage to circular processes!)
Looking back we say with John that Jesus has been for us a witness to the truth, looking forward we expect that if we continue to believe his words and follow his way we shall know the truth and walk in the light. Walking in the light we shall not stumble or wander off-course, and so we have a second answer to our question about salvation. Those who experience salvation not only know the truth but also are surefooted on its way, do not wander or stray, but stay close to Jesus the light-bearer.
So we find ourselves again where every Christian preacher and every disciple must be if he or she is to speak the truth and do the right, close beside Jesus. The world is a barren place, run by a murderer and the father of lies, and we are pilgrims without map or compass but with a pioneer and a guide who does not send us off but leads us on and is with us every step of the way. He sent us stories and laws and taught us rituals but we misunderstood and disobeyed and so he came in person to be with us always on the way.
The text for today is Luke quoting second Isaiah, which in turn sings a song of returning exiles, a homecoming song of the Jews coming back across the eastern desert from 80 years of exile in Babylon. I can still remember my children’s voices from the back of the car, “Are we there yet?” or in Europe, “What language do they speak here Daddy?” I bet the returning exiles asked such questions all the time. “Are we there yet?” “What will home be like?” “I can’t wait!” “Drive faster Daddy!”
The structure of salvation is given in this image of the journey home. We are not yet there, but we are drawing near- and if I consider the age of most of us here we can say we shall all be home before long. Home it is, where the heart is, where our loved ones are, where God the Father waits for us, God the Son makes ready those many mansions that will be our new homes, while God the Spirit shows us the way.
So salvation is not the state of having arrived but the condition of being on the way that leads truly to our destination, which is life and not death. That is why John’s Jesus calls himself, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6),” and describes our salvation in these unbearably loving words: “I go to prepare a place for you, and then I shall come again to take you in my arms and hold you close so that you and I might be together always (John 14: 3; my paraphrase).
Our Truth is Christ’s love, and Christ’s love is our Truth. “That is all you know and all you need to know” (cf. John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn).
Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! (1 Cor.16: 22).