Jesus comes to rescue people… but sometimes people think they don’t really need it.
I want to start this message by telling you about a time quite a while ago when I was snowboarding at Mammoth mountain.
It was snowing a lot and we were experiencing white-outs, which simply means we couldn’t see anything beyond a few yards in front of us. It’s like driving in dense fog.
It was dangerous to ride off the groomed trails. White-outs are not the time when you want to be riding through the trees… for obvious reasons.
Well I ended up off the trail without realizing it and fell in an area of deep powder by a tree. I was stuck.
That’s where a member of ski patrol found me.
He asked if I needed help.
I said, “No, I’m okay. I don’t need anyone to rescue me.” I had been snowboarding for a lot of years. I knew what I was doing.
But I was stuck in deep powder and couldn’t move.
He said, “Well, I don’t want to take a chance and leave you here alone.” So he helped me back to the trail.
As he was helping me, it struck me that I might not actually be the best judge of whether or not I need to be rescued. I might need to be rescued, and I don’t know that I need to be rescued. My pride might actually kind of get in the way.
Well, I want to talk today, on Christmas Eve, about how Jesus comes to rescue people… but sometimes people think they don’t really need it.
Francis Collins is the head of the National Institutes of Health. Before that, he was the head of the Human Genome Project.
He’s one of the most brilliant scientists in the world. He talks about how he got a PhD in science, and after that, he got an MD because he wanted to be helpful.
He didn’t believe in God. He was a total skeptic.
He would talk to elderly people in the rural south, not nearly as educated as him, but they had a kind of peace… and an ability to face suffering… and a hope that he didn’t have.
He said one of them asked him one time, “Dr. Collins, what happens to you after you die?”
He said he realized he really didn’t have a clue.
He thought he knew. He just dismissed the whole God-and-faith thing, but he had never really considered it.
So he began to study, and that led him to read the Bible and books by a guy named C. S. Lewis, and he became convinced that there is a God and that that God has revealed himself through his Son, Jesus, and that he needed God’s grace… and God changed his life.
So I want to talk to you today, Christmas Eve 2019, about how Jesus can change your life… and then give you a chance to be rescued.
That’s all this message is about.
It’s rooted in a real important statement in the Bible. This is from the apostle Paul:
For it is by grace you have been saved (or rescued), through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Being rescued is God’s gift to us at Christmas. It’s the best gift we could ever receive.
Have you ever played the game with a little kid or maybe your remember someone playing it with you… where you have a piece of candy or a coin in one hand and you put both hands behind your back… then you bring them around and say, “Choose a hand.”
It’s a simple game.
It’s not meant to be a mean game. You don’t play that game with a child and have nothing in your hands and then after three or four times say, “See, life is full of disappointments.”
Sometimes we get the idea that God is playing that kind of game with us.
Well we may not get it right with our first choice, but God’s intention is to give his children good gifts.
This is what James said about our great gift-giving God.
Every good and perfect gift is from above. (James 1:17)
That means every good and perfect gift you receive this Christmas is from God. It may say Santa on the the package, but it’s from above.
And the ultimate gift is that Jesus came to rescue us.
We have a bunch of ladders on campus.
Someone asked if we’re a church of the ladder-day saints.
I want to basically talk about two different ways to do your life…
2 different ways to save your life:
One of them is the way of performance. Paul talks about that as Works
The other one is the way of Grace
These are the two ways you can try to save your life.
By the way, we’re all trying to save our lives.
That word save has become such a cliché that it’s lost a lot of meaning. But in the Bible, it’s generally used either to mean
to be healed
or to be delivered
or to be rescued
And I need that.
I need to be healed of my aloneness… and healed of my guilt and my regrets… and my fear of death… and my fear that my life doesn’t have any meaning, that there is no purpose to it.
We all need that.
One of the most common ways we try to save our lives is to say, “I’m going to prove my existence by climbing a ladder of success… or a ladder of impressing other people.”
Works is the ladder I climb up.
There’s a fabulous line from a movie some of you may have seen years ago called Chariots of Fire.
One of the characters in the movie is a sprinter.
He’s haunted by his need to be successful.
He talks about going to the Olympics and why it is that he lives with such a weight on his shoulders.
This is what he said:
“When the gun goes off, I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence.”
What if you don’t win the race?
Even if you do win the race, that wears off. It always wears off.
There is this strange thing — we’re all trying to climb these ladders… yet our egos are insatiable. No matter what we do, it can’t last.
And we give our kids little ladders… and we tell them, “Keep climbing higher, and keep doing more.”
We try to justify ourselves. We try to make our egos feel satisfied with our lives.
It’s really interesting — there was research done on the question, “Do you consider yourself to be a very important person?” That’s part of our lives… that’s part of being saved.
In 1950, 12 percent of everyone in America considered themselves to be a very important person.
Turn to the person next to you real quickly and take a guess — do you think that number went up or down by the year 2000… and by how much.
Just a real quick guess.
The correct answer is by the year 2000, 80 percent of us believed we were very important people.
And we want our kids to be, so we give them little ladders.
Climb up that ladder.
Get good grades.
Get into a good school.
Make Mom and Dad proud.
It’s just in the atmosphere… and it’s crushing them.
In 1966, 19 percent of all high school students had a GPA of A or A minus — 19 percent.
By 2019, it’s 47 percent. It’s well more than double. It’s up by 150 percent…
But is the happiness of students up 150 percent?
“I feel like a failure, but I can’t let anyone see.
“I’m afraid of being rejected, but I can’t let anyone know I’m afraid.
“I feel so tired, but I can’t tell anyone.
We’ll end up putting a number of things on top of the ladder we’re trying to climb. We’ll put…
Whatever I put there, that’s what I devote my life to.
And I become enslaved by whatever is at the top of that ladder.
That’s where all kinds of addictions come from and all kinds of problems come from.
The writers of Scripture have a diagnosis of the human condition — our real problem is what they call sin.
That’s another word that has largely lost its meaning in our day.
The idea of sin is not that you’ve broken some rule or that you’ve done something that for some weird reason, some religion says you shouldn’t do.
Sin is putting the wrong thing on top of the ladder.
Tim Keller puts it like this. “Sin is taking a good thing…” — Being successful, a relationship, whatever — “…and making it the ultimate thing.”
It will destroy me, yet I just become enslaved to it.
One of the problems with sin is it gets inside of me, and I’m not even aware it’s inside. It makes me mess stuff up, and I don’t even know it’s there.
About ten years ago I was doing student ministry at a church in San Diego. I had a team that would meet monthly to plan out our High School Ministry services.
One time we were watching a service, critiquing it. When we got to the message, I noticed I shook my hand to adjust my watch a lot and I hadn’t even known I was doing it or how distracting it was.
Someone on the team said, “You do that all the time. I thought it was a tic disorder of some kind.”
I had been teaching at this church for 6 years!
No one said anything to me about it because they thought it was a tic and they didn’t want to offend me.
I was distracting people with something I didn’t have a clue about.
And that’s part of the dynamic of sin — when it happens to me, I’m likely to not know it.
In some ways, some stuff, I’ll know, and I’ll feel really guilty about it… but in other ways, there is arrogance and pride and greed and self-centeredness and deception that’s inside of me, and I don’t even know it.
The psalmist put it like this.
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:12)
Only God knows.
One of the weird parts about sin is I’ll be very aware of yours, but I’m not aware that I have a problem.
An old, old story. It’s kind of goofy, but it illustrates this.
I have a dream.
In this dream I go to heaven.
There are all kinds of hallways through heaven, and the walls all over heaven are filled with what look like clocks.
Underneath all of these clocks is a name of a human being on earth.
I ask Saint Peter about it, and he says, “Those are actually sin-ometers. Everyone has one. Every time you sin, your sin-ometer gives a little tick.”
Then I walk around looking for everyone’s sin-ometer.
There’s Joe Hartley, our executive pastor. After about 30 seconds, it goes tick. After 20 seconds, another tick. I’m kind of surprised.
Then there’s Scott Haus. It’s like 10 seconds, tick. Then 5 seconds, tick.
Then I find my wife’s sin-ometer. It’s going tick, tick, tick, tick… and that’s kind of disturbing.
All of you people, everyone I see had sin-ometers.
I find everyone’s sin-ometer except mine. I can’t find one for me, and I’m quite excited about this.
I go to Peter. “Does this mean what I think it means? Does this mean I’m not sinning anymore?”
He said, “Are you kidding? They keep yours in the office. They’re using it for a fan.”
Who can discern their hidden faults? It’s easy to see in other people.
You see, sin is not breaking rules;
It’s putting the wrong thing at the top of the ladder.
It’s climbing the wrong ladder.
It’s this irreversible, inevitable, unconquerable, very often indiscernible to me tendency to foul life up for me and for someone else.
Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of it.
I was thinking about a time when I was in high school. I wanted to climb a ladder, and I wanted to have really good grades.
I was taking a test. It wasn’t the first time I had done this.
There was a girl sitting next to me, and she was real smart, so I just looked over on her paper at how she answered a question, only this time, the teacher saw me and asked me to stay after class.
I was so ashamed because I was supposed to be a Christian that when she told me about this, what I actually said was, “Well, I don’t think it made the grade I got on my test any better.”
I couldn’t say, “Yeah, I did it. I’m a cheater.”
I was thinking about a time I was playing in a beach volleyball tournament, and we had a judge making calls at the middle of the court by the net. He wasn’t calling the balls in or out, but he was there to arbitrate if there was a dispute.
The team we were playing hit a ball that was just inside the back line, but my body was blocking it so no one could see it, and I just called it out. And no one disputed it.
But later after the game when I saw the judge, he looked at me, and I could tell he knew.
That was a lot of years ago, and I still remember that. I still remember that shame.
I’ll tell you what I don’t remember. I don’t remember how many other times I lied or cheated, and no one noticed.
Then I think there is a God, a holy, perfect God, and I’m going to stand before him, and he knows it all.
That’s the reality of who I am. That’s the reality of who you are. This is who we are. This is our problem.
One of the human tendencies is to think, “Well, I can handle that. I can take care of that.”
But Paul talks about the idea that we’re not saved by works.
In Paul’s day, for a lot of people, the ladder was kind of a religious one.
Even in our day, a lot of people think, whether or not we even believe in God, “There are good people and bad people. I know I’m one of the good people.”
How do you know?
Well, I go to church sometimes.
I read the Bible sometimes.
I give money sometimes.
I’m not nearly as bad as someone else.
I’ll compare myself to someone who is worse than me — “They’re one of the bad people. I’m doing okay. I’m high enough on the ladder. I’m okay.”
It’s very interesting, I was reading a couple weeks ago —
Another thing a lot of people do — a lot of people in the Bay Area — is to say, “Well, I’m a good person because I embrace the right ideology.
I’m opposed to intolerance.
I’m opposed to bigotry.
I’m opposed to militarism.
I’m opposed to injustice.
I’m opposed to corporate greed.
“There are bad people who aren’t.”
It doesn’t change the tendency I have to foul things up.
A lot of people in the Bay Area believe technology is going to save the human race. We’re just going to get smart enough and clever enough and have enough apps that there’s going to be more and more education and more and more affluence and more and more opportunity.
I’ll tell you something — no one yet has invented an app that will correct the human heart from the tendency to foul up, lie, cheat, deceive, be greedy, or betray.
There’s no app for that one.
Into all of this, into the mess, the darkness that is my life and yours, comes Jesus…
And he brings grace.
Let’s talk about grace now.
This is not works.
This is not saving yourself.
This is not being good enough.
This is not pretending like there is not a sin issue.
Grace is not a ladder I climb up. Grace is the ladder Jesus climbed down.
Jesus says, “Now, the offer of being forgiven of all of your sin and being given a new start and having a purpose in life and a hope beyond death comes to you as a free gift. There’s nothing you can do to earn it.”
Jesus would tell all kinds of stories about this.
One of them is found a number of times in the Bible. This is kind of an account of it from a book I love by Philip Yancey called What’s So Amazing About Grace? This is what Yancey writes.
“One of Jesus’ stories about grace made it into three different gospels in slightly different versions. My favorite version though appeared in another source entirely, The Boston Globe’s account in June 1990 of a most unusual wedding banquet.
“Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered the meal. The two of them poured over the menu, made selections of china and silver, pointed to pictures of the flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive tastes, and the bill came to $13,000.”
That’s 30 years ago, so it would probably be $40,000 today.
“After leaving a check for half the amount as a down payment, the couple went home to flip through the book of wedding announcements. The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. ‘I’m just not sure,’ he said. ‘It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this for a little longer.’
“When his angry fiancé returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the events manager could not have been more understanding. ‘The same thing happened to me, honey,’ she said and told the story of her own broken engagement.
“About the refund, she had bad news. ‘The contract is binding. You’re only entitled of $1300 back. You have two options: forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry. I really am.’
“It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party. Not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout.
“Ten years before, the same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had gotten back on her feet, found a good job, set aside a sizeable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.
“So it was in June of 1990, the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston had a party such as it had never seen before.
“The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken — “In honor of the groom,” she said, and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters.
“That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.”
Jesus would tell stories about, “The kingdom of God is like a banquet, and people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t climbed the ladder, are going to be there.”
Why? Just because of grace.
You cannot, by all of your achievements… or all of your good works… or however you compare yourself with anyone — you will never be able to justify your own existence, but you don’t have to.
Paul put it like this:
It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. (Romans 8:34)
Now we’re told that the primary vehicle, the primary expression of the grace of God through Jesus comes to us not when we climb a ladder but when Jesus goes to the cross.
People wonder about that sometimes. “What is the cross thing about?”
I’m going to talk about two dynamics of it that you might just think about.
There is a horizontal beam and a vertical beam. The vertical beam reminds me that I have a relationship with God, and one of the things the writers of Scripture say is that because I’m a sinner, I’m a cheater and a liar and a gossip. I have a kind of debt with God.
The writer of Scripture says:
The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)
It just leads to death. I can’t pay that.
I was at Starbucks recently, and I had ordered a Chai Latte. Then I went to pay for it, and I realized I didn’t have my credit card.
I said to the person behind the counter, “I’m so sorry. I left my credit card at home. I’m a pastor. I promise I’ll come back and pay for it.”
They said, “It’s okay. Actually, you don’t even have to pay for this one. It’s on the house.”
Isn’t that a wonderful expression? “It’s on the house.”
Now, that didn’t mean it was free. It was free for me, but someone was going to have to pay for it.
Who was going to pay for it?
Starbucks was going to pay for it — they had to pay for the Tea and labor.
Starbucks was going to do that for no reason at all. They didn’t get anything out of it at all… except this wonderful promotional story that I’m telling hundreds of people at Christmas. Other than that, they didn’t get a thing out of it at all.
Imagine I would have gone back there the next day and gotten a drink and said, “You know, I can’t pay for this one.”
Then the next day. Every day for a year — that would be 365 drinks. Every day for a decade — that would be 3,650.
Now, let’s think about sin for a moment. Again, I understand. It’s kind of countercultural. A lot of people just don’t think about this. Let’s think about it. It’s reality.
Every once in a while, when the spotlight shines on us, when we get caught, we recognize it. What does your sin-ometer look like? How often do you think that baby is ticking?
A psychologist named William Backus cites one study that says the average American practices deceit in one way or another — body language, an outright lie — the average American practices deception 300 times a day.
It was actually 200. I just wanted to show you how easy it is to lie.
And that’s just one dimension of sin.
I don’t know how accurate that is. Let’s say that’s way overblown. Let’s just give you a break. Let’s say you sin just 10 times a day. That’s probably a very conservative estimate.
That would be 3,650 sins a year. That would be 36,500 sins a decade.
Let’s say you live to be 70 years old. Let’s cut you some slack for the first decade of your life — the age of accountability. That’s 60 years of sin. That’s over 200,000 sins when I stand before God.
The reality is it’s worse than that because sins are not just particular acts I do. They get inside me like a disease, like a dye, and they mess up everything.
How am I going to stand before a holy, perfect, righteous God with 200,000 sins?
See, that vertical beam on this cross means I owe a debt I cannot pay… and Jesus paid a debt he did not owe.
The wages of sin is death… and he took my place. He paid that price in a way that I will never fully understand.
That’s the vertical dimension of the cross.
He paid a debt that I could not… that I owed to God for my sin.
Then that horizontal beam… You might just think about the arms of Jesus and his love.
In the cross, we see the ultimate expression of God’s love for the human race.
The stories we love more than any other are stories of sacrificial love where someone loves another person enough to suffer for them. We can never get enough of those stories.
I want to show you a picture of grace from a scene in the movie Les Miserables.
This is a story of a peasant, Jean Valjean, who is sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. He’s released from jail and is offered to stay in the home of a priest.
Despite being treated with dignity for the first time in years, Valjean steals the priest’s valuable silverware… and to make matters worse, Valjean is caught in the act, but he escapes by beating the priest.
The rest of this scene is a great picture of grace.
Video: Les Miserables
Jean Valjean is saved by grace.
And that’s the cross!
He paid a debt I cannot pay. He died a death I cannot die for love. “For by grace we are saved through faith.”
Now I want to ask you, everyone in this room, we’re saved by grace through faith. The ultimate question in your life, the ultimate decision is — have you put your faith in Jesus? Have you received grace?
Receiving grace is real different than receiving honors.
I know we live in this society where everyone is trying to climb the ladder, and we all want to win honors.
At commencement time, if you look at a book of graduates, there will be certain names that have a little asterisk next to them. It will mean they graduated with honors, cum laude.
I was talking to a guy in the Bay Area not long ago, and he said he had had a real hard life — dropped out, got addicted, messed everything up.
Then he met Jesus, and he got saved, and he was healed of his addiction.
His marriage got healed, and he got hope. He had a purpose.
He said, “The only school I went to was the school of hard knocks.” You know that school?
“That’s the only school I went to, and I didn’t graduate cum laude or magna cum laude or summa cum laude. I graduated thank you laude.”
No one is going to heaven cum laude. No one is going to heaven summa cum laude. Just, “Thank you, Lord.”
Christmas really comes down to this question.
This is why we’re here in church. This is the most important reason we’re here — to help people meet Jesus and to be rescued from this tendency I have to foul things up, to betray my most important values that have separated me from God.
I just have to tell you — the writers of Scripture are super clear on this.
You can’t be good enough.
You can’t try hard enough.
You can’t climb high enough.
You can’t compare yourself to enough other people.
You can’t give enough.
You can’t attend church enough.
But you can humble yourself and ask.
My question now is are you willing to say, “I’m going to get off the ladder of whatever it is I’ve been trying to climb.
“I’m going to say no to whatever idol or whatever it is I’ve been putting on top of the ladder.
“I’m going to come to the cross and acknowledge, confess my sin and ask God through Jesus to forgive me and to become the leader of my life and deliver me from a fear of death and give me a hope of life with God forever.”
That’s grace. That’s what Christmas is all about.
And it can happen to you right now.
I want to ask everyone to bow your heads and close your eyes. This is a moment between you and God.
I understand it can be kind of embarrassing. It can be kind of offensive. It can strike at my pride. I don’t want to think I need to be saved… but I do, and so do you.
If you’ve gone to church for a long time, it can be kind of embarrassing because you might feel like, “Man, I wouldn’t want anyone to know I’ve been going to church all this time, and I have never been saved. I have never asked Jesus to be my forgiver as an act of grace. I’ve never really gotten grace before.”
It doesn’t matter who knows. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at a church. I want to invite you to pray this prayer right now, if you’ve never done this.
“Jesus, I want to get off the ladder I’ve been trying to climb, justifying my life through how good I am… or my achievements… or the kind of life I’ve been living.
“I confess to you my sin and that I cannot fix it. I now repent, come to the cross, and receive Jesus to be my forgiver and the leader of my life.
“I ask you to help me, God, and I want to start a new life with you and walk with you as you help me to do that as long as I’m on earth and then live with you forever.”
Would you tell God that right now in your heart? Just tell him.
God, thank you that you are a grace-giving, sin-forgiving, death-defeating God. Thank you especially for the gift of your son, Jesus. We pray this prayer in his name, amen.
It can help to indicate that… so if you made that decision, if you prayed that prayer, and you’ve never done that before, tell someone about that. Tell someone today.
Alright, now the band is going to lead us in one more Christmas carol.