I Am Accepted!
by Jack Wald | December 1st, 2019

Various

Religion is meant to be a search for the truth about God. The problem with religions, even when viewed in their best light, is that they work hard, their truths can be sincerely honored, their guidelines can be rigorously followed – but religion does not take us to where we want to be. No matter how wonderful the religion is, followers of the religion always fall short of obedience to the rules and regulations of the religion. We are not capable of living the righteous life religions call us to live. No matter how hard we try, we fall short.

There are two stunningly amazing realties that transform religion into relationship: the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection. In both of these historical events, God did for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. As a consequence, Christmas and Easter are the two most significant celebrations of our Christian faith.

And so, in the early years of the church, as a way of honoring these two events, there began to be weeks of preparation that led up to these two celebrations. Because Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days, the church, in its early years, began fasting and praying for the forty days before the celebration of Easter. That is the season of Lent.

Similarly, Advent, by the fifth century, was a period of fasting before the celebration of the birth of Jesus. In the seventeenth century an Advent wreath with candles began to be part of Advent.

The ways in which Advent has been observed has varied over the centuries but it does not matter so much what the church does in the four weeks before Christmas. The focus is on the amazing, astonishing, beyond our greatest imagination event in history – God became flesh. God took on human form, being made of the same dust of the earth we are made of.

Who could have predicted this? The prophets spoke about the coming Messiah and in their prophecies some of the details about how the Messiah would come into the world were revealed, but none of the prophets understood how it would happen. We live on this side of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and can see clearly what was shrouded in mist for those who lived on the other side of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

So in this Advent season, we celebrate the absolutely best news possible, God came to be with us, to live with us. We celebrate Emmanuel. Emmanu is Hebrew for with us and El is Hebrew for God. We celebrate “God with us.”

Why did God come to be “with us?” Why was Jesus born? Why did God become human? Why did Jesus set aside the rights and privileges of heaven to live and suffer on earth?

He did this because he wants his creation to follow him into his heavenly, eternal kingdom. In describing this, the New Testament used the poetic image of a bridegroom bringing his bride to the wedding feast.

Over the centuries, the church, as the bride of Christ, is being prepared for the time when Jesus will return to claim his bride and bring her into his kingdom. Are we a good match for Jesus?

The history of the church tells us that we are not a good match. I could talk for a good while about the scandals, infighting, and imperfections of the church. It is clear that some work needs to be done to prepare the church to be the bride of Christ.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, (2 Corinthians 11:2)
I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.

How is it we become purified as a church? This topic is what I felt led to when considering what to preach during Advent this year. How do we become, as the words of the song we will sing at the end of the service express it, “a pure spotless bride.”

There is much we need to do. We need to grow in our relationship of intimacy with Christ. We need to discover more and more how much we are loved by Christ. We need to devote ourselves to Christ. We need to push off things that pollute us. We need to turn away from evil and turn to good.

But as I thought about it, the most powerful agent of change in our lives in becoming “a pure spotless bride,” is what God is doing in us to purify the church.

God created us to be with him in his heavenly kingdom and he is determined to do all he can to help us be ready to be with him for eternity. This is why Jesus came to save us, to rescue us.

Paul talked about this in his letter to the church in Rome. He talks about salvation as a process in which there are three stages: we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. These will be the topics for the sermons this Advent.

This morning we will focus on what Paul calls the first stage of salvation, “we have been saved.” This is what theologians call justification.

This theological term comes from the word justify. To justify something is to make it right, put it in proper order. When you work on a text with a word processor, you justify the text, having all the sentences line up in order on the right side, the left side, or be centered in the middle of the page.

God brings us into order, makes us right. Paul begins his Roman letter by talking about how out of order we are. There are people who do things that are clearly evil, even by the world’s standards. There are people who think they are good because they are better than those who do such evil deeds. There are people who think they are good because they go to church. And Paul sums up all these people and anyone else who thinks they are good because of some other reason. (Romans 3:10)
There is no one righteous, not even one;

There are good and bad people in the world. There are truly wonderful people in the world who we look up to and admire. But the standard for heaven is, to use a pun, out of this world. And even the best of us, the most wonderful people on earth, do not measure up to the perfect righteousness heaven requires. So we need help. We need a spiritual transformation.

I have used this analogy before. If I want a fish to be my friend and live with me on land, the fish has to develop the capability of breathing the air I breathe. The gills of a fish are not able to do this and after a few short minutes in the air I breathe, the fish dies. What is necessary is for the fish to be transformed and be given lungs. No matter how much I love the fish, unless it develops lungs, it will die on land.

In the same way, unless I am transformed by Jesus, I will die in the air of heaven. It is not a question of God allowing me in or not. Only when you are transformed by Jesus can you enter into his presence. If I am to live in heaven, I need to be transformed by Jesus in order to survive. It is not a matter of God choosing, it is a matter of us surviving.

Because God is just, sin must be paid for. There is not a choice for God to make. We must be made pure or we will perish in his presence.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he paints a picture in which we are trapped. No matter how good we are, we do not have the perfect righteousness of Jesus and therefore are stuck. So Paul presents the first of the great gifts of God revealed in his letter. (Romans 3:21–22)
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

In any discussion about salvation, the first step is to talk about why God wants to save us.

Let’s say there is a hurricane or typhoon and I am sitting safe and sound in my house, protected from the wind and rain. I see outside someone who is in danger. If I step out of my house to help, that will put me in danger as well. Why would I leave the safety and comfort of my home to go outside and help someone unless I love that person?

This is what Jesus did. As Paul writes in his letter to the church in Philippi, (Philippians 2:6–8)
[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Jesus stepped out of his safe and secure home and entered into a dangerous world because he loves us.

We sing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” When John Newton wrote that hymn of the church, he was talking about his own view of what he had done in his life. But God does not view us as wretches. God stepped out of heaven into earth because he thinks we are wonderful. He created us. We are his special creation. His love for us is amazing and it is because we are so wonderfully loved that Jesus came to save us.

Paul writes in (Ephesians 2:4–5)
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

It is because we are so well loved that God made his great sacrifice and was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

If God thought we were terrible people, why would he have made such a great sacrifice? It is the devil who tells us we are worthless, no good, worms, not deserving the love of God. The voice in your head that tells you you are no good is not God speaking to you – it is the devil’s voice you are hearing.

God wants to save us because he loves us.

This first stage of salvation, I am accepted, justification, has a legal meaning to it. In a court trial, the devil is the prosecuting attorney and Jesus is the defense attorney. The devil accuses us; Jesus defends us.

The devil presents extensive evidence showing how you are a sinner. He does this with video and pictures and tape recordings. Scenes of your life are shown. All you have ever done or said or thought is laid out before the judge in living color. The things of which you are most ashamed and thought were buried in the darkness of the past are brought out into the light. The evidence is overwhelming, you are a sinner. You fail to meet the exacting standards of heaven.

But then just as God is about to pronounce sentence, Jesus, your defense attorney, stands up and says to the judge, “It’s OK, I have paid the price for this sinner.” And then God declares you to be innocent, not because you are innocent, but because Jesus paid the penalty for your sin when he died on the cross. Jesus gave you his righteousness.

This is justification. You have been made righteous in the eyes of God because of what Jesus has done for you. You are still a sinner, but now the perfect righteousness of Jesus covers over your sin. The perfection of Jesus is what God sees when he looks at you. Next Sunday we will talk about the second stage of salvation in which God works in us to transform us into the perfect person he sees when he looks at us. The Holy Spirit works in us to make us more like Jesus.

As a way of understanding this more fully, I want to make three affirmations this morning: We have been chosen! We have been rescued! We are accepted!

We have been chosen!

People like having lots of choices. We want choices in the clothing we buy: different colors, different styles. We want choices in the kind of car we buy, the shoes we wear, the books we read. We want the shelves of our supermarket to be crammed full of choices of every food we can imagine.

And we want to have a choice about what religion to follow. There is a lot on the menu. The headings are: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Other, and None. And then there are many branches of these. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant are three branches of Christianity but these branch out into 38,000 Christian denominations. Islam branches out into five main groups which then branch out into smaller groups. The same is true of Hinduism and Buddhism. And then there are ancient tribal religions, folk religions, and many more groups that have been formed and are being formed. There is a lot of religious choice.

So how do you evaluate all the religious options and make a good choice?

Many people choose the religion they grew up with. Most people who identify themselves as Christians are Christians because their parents were Christians. The same is true with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. In many cases children move away from their faith when they go to university and begin their careers, but then when they have children, they come back to the faith of their parents.

Sometimes people go church shopping, looking for the church that pleases them most. Some people go religion shopping, exploring other religions and deciding which one they like the most.

Maybe that is how you ended up in the church, or maybe it is that you were desperate and needed help. Perhaps you felt empty and lost and knew there had to be more to life. It could be that you saw in someone else’s life an attractiveness and wanted to have their faith. For any number of reasons you chose to become a Christian. But it is important to understand that before you chose, you were chosen. If you are a true follower of Jesus, you did not go religion shopping and pick Christianity; God picked you.

Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:3–4
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

We have been chosen!

Walter Wangerin wrote a wonderful book, Paul, a Novel, and there is one passage when Paul is in Antioch where a man named Simeon Niger is a member of the community of followers of Jesus. He is identified with the Simeon who carried the cross of Jesus to Golgotha and Paul asks Simeon to tell his story.

“Someone must have told our brother,” Simeon said, “that I am the one who carried that tree, who carried a limb of it out of the city to Golgotha.

“I wish it had been my wisdom, my will, my choice,” Simeon said. “I wish I had known enough and loved enough to beg to suffer the weight of that tree. But I knew nothing, and I did not choose. 

“Let me tell you the depth of my ignorance: When I was chosen, I thought it was a Roman that had chosen me.

Simeon goes on to tell how the Roman soldier made him pick up the cross of Jesus and tells what happened as he walked behind Jesus carrying the cross. He tells of Jesus being nailed to the cross and then he tells of the death of Jesus.

I was there when he died, and this is the astounding nature of his dying, that finally he did cry out, he threw back his head and forced his body forward, he drove his chest away from the cross like Winged Victory, and the veins in his neck stood out, and when he uttered his voice under the black firmament, it was a phõné megalè that he made, a soldier’s cry of triumph!

“He died in triumph.

“And the first one to teach me the meaning of these things was that Roman soldier himself, for he gazed at the dead man, at that poor broken figure on the tree, and whispered, This man really was the Son of God.

“But my second teacher was Simon Peter, because from him I heard the impossible thing that happened next and I knew why I had been walking around for weeks after that death without a heart in my breast, and I learned where my heart had gone: It was with JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS.

“On Pentecost Simon Peter talked straight to me and in my language while I stood in the middle of another crowd. He said, This Jesus whom you crucified, and that was me, because I had carried the wood that cursed him. Simon Peter said, This Jesus whom you crucified by the hands of outlaws, God raised up!

“That’s the thing that happened next, and I hadn’t known about it: Jesus was raised from the dead! The curse was overcome. The tree was nothing any more. Simon Peter said to me, Repent, and for the forgiveness of your sins be baptized in the name of Jesus, whom God has made both Lord and Christ.

“And when I was baptized, and when I came up out of the water, and when the Holy Spirit moved inside of me, I, Simeon, a man from Cyrene, realized for the first time who had chosen me. Brother Saul, I did not choose. I had been chosen. But it was no Roman who chose me to carry the tree. It was Jesus! Jesus had chosen me. Jesus picked me. Jesus raised me and made me his own, and when I came up out of the water, I shouted my own cry of triumph in the voice of the shout of Jesus: I shouted, Jesus! At the top of my lungs, I cried, Jesus! Jesus! Lord of my life, I belong to you!”

Simeon was chosen by Jesus and this is a picture for each of us who have become followers of Jesus. We have been chosen by Jesus and now we belong to him.

The reason it is so important to realize this is because the Christian churches of the world are full of people who think they have chosen Christian faith, but far too many are missing out on the experience of having been chosen by Jesus to be his follower. It is possible to choose to be a member of a Christian church without having been chosen by God.

Here is my challenge to you from this first affirmation of the sermon: have you chosen to be part of a Christian church or has Jesus chosen you to follow him? There is all the difference in the world. When you choose to be part of a Christian church, you enter into a religious life that has no power to save you from eternal destruction. Only when you have been chosen by God and begin a relationship with Jesus, will Jesus take you safely into eternity. We all need to give up religion and become followers of Jesus.

How can you tell the difference? How can you tell if God has chosen you? Only God knows whose name is written in the Book of Life. What we can do is acknowledge all that God has done for us through the work of Jesus on the cross and then surrender to Jesus and plead for his forgiveness and mercy and love. As the writer of Hebrews encouraged us, we need to: (Hebrews 12:2)
fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith

Surrender to Jesus. Throw yourself at his feet and plead for mercy and grace and discover that you have been chosen by him.

We have been chosen! The second affirmation is: We have been rescued!

If we have been rescued, what is the danger from which we needed to be rescued?

One of my favorite singer/composers is Paul Simon who wrote a song titled: Slip Sliding Away. This is the last verse of the song:
God only knows, God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man
We’re workin’ our jobs, collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip sliding away

We go to school or develop a trade, eventually we graduate and enter into some kind of job. We look for someone to marry and start a family. We work to save enough so we can live comfortably in our retirement. We move along down the highway of life but most of us are oblivious to the reality of our situation.

In reality, we are like someone floating in an inner tube down the Zambezi River heading toward Victoria Falls. No matter how beautiful the day and how pleasant the surroundings, the Zambezi River is taking us closer and closer to the falls and our imminent destruction. As we get closer and hear the roar of the falls and see the mist rising in the sky, we can paddle all we want, but the current of the river increases and is relentless and before we know it, we are swept over the falls and are plummeting to our death.

There are a lot of wonderful places in the world people want to visit before they die, but the only destination we will all share in common is our journey to death. Death is the final destination for every one of us. Death has always been the greatest enemy humans face.

Who came to rescue us from death? Jesus. He was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. He lived his live as a Jew in Palestine. At the age of thirty he began his public ministry that ended with his death and crucifixion. Except that was not the end. On the third day he rose from the dead and breathed new life into his disciples. A month or so later the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost and the church began. And, as I often say, the greatest miracle in church history is that the church has grown despite ourselves.

Is this just the Christian solution to the problem of being separated from God? What about other religions?

From the beginning of time mankind has understood there is a divine being and that we are separated from that divine being. And so, through the ages, men and women have tried to bridge that distance. Sacrifices of grain and animals and even humans were made to try to appease the god they knew was there.

Some of these attempts became formalized into world religions. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians all recognize that we are distanced from God, however God is defined. Hindus and Buddhists want to become part of the consciousness of God. Muslims and Jews and Christians want to be in heaven with God. (Actually, for Muslims, Allah will still be distant from Muslims in paradise, but there is still a desire to live in the paradise created by Allah.)

All world religions want in some way to have intimacy with God and religions have been developed that help us to work our way to this intimacy. Follow the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and you can hope, eventually, to escape the cycle of reincarnation and become part of the consciousness of god. Generate more good karma than bad and be reincarnated in a higher life form and eventually become a Brahamin and then, Hinduism says, you might be able to become one with god. Islam has its Five Pillars and by obeying these pillars, there is a hope that a good dossier can be presented to Allah at the end of your life and you will be taken into paradise.

In Judaism there is the Law given to Moses by God. The Law is perfect and perfect obedience to the Law leads us to God. The problem in Judaism is not the Law. The problem is with us because we are unable to obey the Law in its perfection.

In each of these religious systems there is something we must do to reach to God. Each of these religious systems requires that we expend effort to reach God and that effort will always fail.

Are you looking for good moral teaching? There are many religions that have good moral teaching. Are you looking for a religion that has an ancient tradition? There are many that you can choose from. Are you looking for a religion that has a community where you can belong? There are many religions that provide this. Are you looking for a religion that will make you a better person? You can find many religions that will do this. Are you looking for a religion that will help you live a disciplined life and break off from destructive habits like drugs and alcohol? Again, there are many good options from which you can choose.

But if you need to be rescued, then Jesus alone can save you.

My father said to me many times that Christians are exclusive because they say that salvation is possible only through Jesus Christ. This is very frustrating and there are many in the world who are critical of Christianity because of this. If Christians do not want to be exclusive, they say, why don’t they agree that Buddha and Mohammed and any other guru who comes along, as well as Jesus, are all ways to reach heaven?

This would be true if Christianity was a matter of a council of men and women getting together and making a decision about what was true and what was not true. But the truths expressed in Christianity are not a function of what we believe, they are a function of what God has done. Of all religious leaders in history, only one has died and risen from the dead. The rest have all rotted into dust. Only Jesus has defeated death and can take us with him into eternal life.

It’s like complaining that only a rocket will take you to the moon. That’s terrible! Why be so exclusive? Why can’t we get to the moon in a hot air balloon? Why not a catapult? Or a bicycle?

There is no exclusivity in Christianity, all are welcome, but it is necessary to put your trust in the one God provided for us. This is not an ice cream shop with thirty flavors. This is not a rack of clothes with many colors and designs. You can’t pick your savior. God has given us our savior.

We have been rescued by Jesus, God in the flesh, who has done for us what we are incapable of doing for ourselves.

We have been chosen! We have been rescued! And we are accepted!

We have been rescued by Jesus, but then what? The prodigal son came home to his father, hoping that he might be permitted to be one of his father’s hired servants. He needed to be rescued but what he received was far more than being rescued. He was accepted as his father’s son and restored to the family with a banquet to honor his return.

The wonderful news for us is that when Jesus rescued us from eternal death, we were adopted into his family where we became the daughters and sons of God.

Let me return to the verse from Ephesians I read earlier. (Ephesians 1:3–4 )
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

We have been chosen. But now listen to the next verse:
In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—

We have been chosen and we have been adopted.

Paul wrote in Romans 8:14–17 (The Message)
God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

We all have a need to belong. We want to be wanted. We need to be part of a community, a family that loves us and accepts us, that supports us and encourages us. We need to be part of a family where we feel safe and secure.

As followers of Jesus, we are God’s beloved daughters and God’s beloved sons. The world may not respect us, but God restores honor to us. The world may reject us, but God chooses us. The world may tell us we are not good enough, but God tells us we are his beautiful creation, wonderfully and fearfully made.

The world picks at us, picks at us, picks at us and we need to stand strong in our relationship with Jesus to withstand the attacks of the world.

This is a foundational truth upon which we stand. We have been chosen! We have been rescued! We are accepted!

Over the next Sundays of Advent I will share more foundational truths but today we will read together the first of them. (taken from Richard Lovelace’s book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life.)

  1. I am accepted! (justification)
    Because of my relationship with Christ, when God sees me, he sees me not as a sinner but as his perfect and holy child. The blood of Christ covers my sin.
    I can trust God. He will not reject me. His love is not dependent on my behavior. Nothing I do today will make him love me more or less tomorrow. I am his special child, loved and accepted with no strings attached.

This is amazing truth and I encourage you to read this aloud in the morning before you set out for the day. As a follower of Jesus, you have been chosen, you have been rescued and you are accepted.