A few weeks ago our door-bell rang at two o’clock on a Sunday morning. Naturally, brave as ever, I went to answer it. I peered boldly round the heavy wooden door, holding it firm as protection ‘just in case’. It was a young man delivering curry, and he held out the brown paper bag to show me.
I don’t like curry, and I don’t like anything much at two in the morning. I assured him he had the wrong house. ‘What address are you looking for?’ I asked. He told me – and it was my address. I still sent him away, of course; I don’t know who ordered the curry, but it wasn’t something I wanted or needed.
Some people feel like that about the cross of Jesus. Polly Toynbee, a long-time journalist on the Guardian newspaper and an outspoken atheist, famously wrote:
Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?
As a Christian preacher of course I would naturally say that anyone who thinks like that has a great deal to learn. If you are one, where can I take you?
I’d like to take you to the Christmas story, if I may. For though I’m writing this to be published round about Easter time, I’m actually writing it just after Christmas, and there’s something very appropriate about that: a few years ago the Governor of the Bank of England was commenting on Christmas trading figures and he said ‘the significance of Christmas will not be known until Easter’. He spoke more than he knew. While we celebrate gladly the gift of God’s Son at Christmas time, it is not until we see Him dying on a cross outside Jerusalem that we can begin to understand its importance. So I would like to take you to Mary’s great song, often called ‘the Magnificat’ and sung by her shortly after she had been told that she was to bear the Son of God. The song is recorded in Luke’s gospel, 1: 46-55, and it’s particularly the words of verse 47 that will help us, ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’.
What Mary says about herself
Mary tells us that she has a Saviour. That is very important, because only sinners need a Saviour. Many people, in history and today, who would call themselves Christians have exalted Mary to a place of absolute sinlessness, and then made her a partner in our salvation with her Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no trace of this idea in the Bible. But – important as this is – it is not my point. My point is this: in spite of Mary’s obvious ‘goodness’, she is aware of her imperfections. And ‘imperfections’ in a context like this is just a polite way of saying ‘sins’.
Sins are wrong thoughts and deeds that offend God because they are against his law; they fall short of his holy, good, righteous standards. The God of the Bible is not a Santa Claus figure who rewards good people; instead, He is a God who cares about a world of lost and ruined sinners, and visits that world in order to rescue lost and ruined sinners. And that includes Mary.
What Mary says about us
If a pious, holy young girl like Mary needs a Saviour, then the rest of us need to stop pretending that the gift of Jesus has very little to do with us – that it is as welcome and useful as a two-a.m. curry is to me! Mary is telling us that we need to be saved, too.
Salvation, or rescue, is a concept we are very familiar with. In January 2009, a US Airways airbus crash-landed on the Potomac river moments after taking off from La Guardia airport. Many of us can remember TV and newspaper images of passengers standing on the aeroplane’s wings as it just about kept afloat on the near-icy river. All the passengers escaped safely, with only minor injuries. The pilot was Chesley B. Sullenberger III, known as ‘Sully’, whose skill and heroism in bringing the plane down on the river were praised world-wide. His actions saved the passengers from a deadly peril.
None of those passengers doubted their need to be saved, but our need is greater. According to the Bible and our own consciences, we are in the wrong with God. Sin is a rebellion against His authority. God, instead of taking the initiative to destroy us, has taken the initiative to rescue us. He sent His Son at Christmas, to die at Easter.
The point of the baby of Bethlehem is not in the living of His life, but in the giving of it. Speaking of His own death some months before it happened, the Lord Jesus said He had come ‘to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).
What is the proper response?
‘My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ – it’s a simple fact that the happiest people I have ever known have been those who have been most full of Christ! If I may put it this way, Mary is a prototype of such people.
She is rejoicing in a God who is personal, not distant and cold. The God of the Bible is always intimately involved with the world He has made. More than that (for even that sounds a bit cold!) He loves the people in the world that He has made, and loves them enough to send His Son to be their saviour. Mary knows that, and rejoices. She is rejoicing in a salvation, a rescue, that is not just for time but for eternity too: the forgiveness of her sins. The certainty of being with God in heaven for ever and ever! The confidence of real, everlasting joy. ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’
Mary did not have what we might call a conventionally happy life. She was warned by Simeon that a sword will pierce through her own soul (Luke 2:35) – and some thirty years later she stood by the cross as this her Son hung in agony, executed by Romans but bearing the sins of the world. But she did have a joy that went deeper, deeper even than agonising human pain of loss. For she had a Saviour; and she trusted God.
Rejecting a curry at two o’clock in the morning is one thing. But if a thirsty man lost in a desert rejected a glass of water – that’s quite another. Polly Toynbee is right that we did not ask Him to do this for us; I almost say that’s the whole point! She is wrong, though, to reason from that, that we did not need Him to die for us; we did. We do. How badly – how very badly – we need this gift God has given. What better time than Easter to repent – turn from our sin – and trust Jesus the Saviour. How exactly do we do that? The story of the prodigal son, also in Luke’s gospel (it begins at 15:11) gives us some vital words. If we go to God with the words of that son, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you’ (v18) we will find – as he did – that our heavenly Father is running towards us, anxious to welcome us, delighted to greet us, and leading the rejoicing in heaven over a sinner who repents.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream.
All the fitness He requires
Is to see your need of Him.
This He gives you.
Gary Benfold is the minister of Moordown Baptist Church, Bournemouth.