Psalm 33: 13-22; Acts 10: 34-48
St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “Three things are necessary for the salvation of [mortals:] to know what they ought to believe, to know what they ought to desire, and to know what they ought to do.” A little later than our Acts text today, in the New Testament, the timeless question was asked; “What must I do to be saved?” [Acts 16:20] But those who are ignorant of the early church theologians like Aquinas, or who do not regularly hear a sermon preached on Scripture but just dip into it to find support for a particular cherished belief, can be swayed to act like their salvation costs them something rather than the way that The New Testament teaches: Our salvation cost God something: a high, high price of love. Still ever since the New Testament was written, there are tales of people trying to work out their own salvation, such as the morality play called “Faust,” where he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power; or Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” who receives a decade of material wealth in exchange for selling his soul to the devil called “Mr. Scratch.” These stories of people seeking their own fame, fortune, glory, or dare we call it, salvation, are not just in the past; they are happening every day. What child thought his or her life would be ruined this Christmas if they didn’t get a certain phone, certain, game, or certain toy? What youth thinks life is over without a certain car, a certain guy or girl, or a certain accessory of clothing? Not salvation issues you say? Try telling that to teenagers. What adults try to change the lumps of coal that life seems to have left them by playing the lottery, or quick picks, or any number of sweepstakes, thinking that getting rich will be their salvation? On any number of game shows or contest shows I have seen over the holidays, a frightening number of contestants have “spent their last dime” to get to the show for a chance at, say, a million dollars. What is not promoted as much, except on news shows, is the misery that comes with getting a windfall of money- the line that forms to borrow or ask for some; the divisions that form when the winners say “no” to requests, and the trappings that come with fame. The meltdown of yet another star who has sought to work out her own salvation has been one of the stars not to follow this Epiphany season. And there are plenty of more subtle ways that people put shaky saviors on the fifty yard lines of their lives: husbands or wives figuring ways to get out of their marriages by spending emotional time with others; men or women not investing themselves in the job they have because they believe they deserve the job they want. Teens and college aged girls saving all their money for surgery to get the glamorous look they want; or men and women of any age thinking that getting thin will be their salvation. There are so many who put their fortunes and their faith in charlatans, quacks, and impossible dreams.
Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries; opportunists have just come up with new schemes to try to fulfill people’s longings. But once all of the other schemes fall by the wayside, your church is still here preaching Jesus Christ and teaching the faith; your pastor is still here pulling for you, praying for you, and seeking to help rescue from dangers; but most of all, Jesus Christ, whose portrait has been attempted by countless artists and even children with crayons, may be illusive in that we cannot see him, but is dependable because in faith we know he is with us. The real thing came into the world long ago, on Christmas Day. We know from the Old Testament that an unblemished lamb paid the price for sins at the Temple, so Jesus was called the Lamb of God, by John. We know that magi, who were like the Levites of Judea except they were likely from Persia, were respected prophets and watchers of the stars. They believed that the character of a child born could be seen according to the time of year and time of day in which a child was born. And history has recorded two or three astrological events that would have pointed to Jesus’ birth in Judea. Even Roman historians knew about it. The historian Seutonius wrote: “There has spread all over the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at the time from men coming from Judea to rule the world.” [Suetonius: LIFE OF VESPASIAN, 4:5] And Tacitus wrote “The East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.” [Tacitus: HISTORIES, 5:13] And so, pulling together the message of Jewish Prophets, and Roman historians, who foretold what came true, was a man who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen: St. Paul the Apostle, in his many letters. And today, it is St. Peter himself being described in Acts as one who finally understood and preached that Salvation was offered by God not just to Jews but first to Jews. Then, to both Jew and Gentile alike, the salvation that came into the world described in John was a reality. And in naming the child, Mary and Joseph got guidance from the messenger of God to let this child’s role be clear to all the world: his name would be Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Joshua, which means: “The Lord is Salvation.” Count on it, today, this year, and forever. Jesus saves; and Jesus has already saved some of you; and he can save any others who, this day, call on his name and follow him as Savior. So, do you want to be saved?
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 6, 2008