Sun, Dec 09, 2018

Saving 'salvation'


Christmas carols––

in my experience, you either love them or you hate them.

I have an atheist friend who goes to midnight mass on Christmas eve––


just so that he can sing the Christmas carols before the service begins…

but he then leaves straight afterwards.

Personally, I can’t stand Christmas carols.

They annoy the heck out of me.

I hate walking into shops and hearing them blaring with their saccharine sentimentality.

I have never really liked them…

but my dislike became more intense after living in a Melbourne suburb…

where the Jewish population was in excess of forty percent…

and the local supermarket staff clearly didn’t know––

or didn’t care––

about how offensive so many traditional carols would be to Jewish people.

But, even more than that, it’s the theology of many carols and Christmas hymns…

that really rub me the wrong way.

Take for example…

“God rest you merry, gentlemen,

let nothing you dismay,

for Jesus Christ our Saviour

was born upon this day;

to save us all from Satan’s power

when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy!”

Now, I have said before that the concept of ‘Satan’––

which made sense within the world and the worldview of the first-century––

doesn’t make sense today…

given all that we know in terms of psychology, medicine, cosmology, and theology.

But I don’t want to focus on that this morning.

Instead, I would like to focus on this confluence of language concerning ‘salvation’––

and Jesus as ‘Saviour’––

which is replete in the whole Christmas tradition.

And it’s probably not much of a stretch to say that––

for most Christians today––

that’s understood in terms of ‘going to heaven’.

By trusting in Jesus as our ‘saviour’…

it means that God can forgive us…

so that we will go to heaven when we die.

Unfortunately, the flipside to that logic is that someone who doesn’t ‘accept’–– 

or ‘believe in’–– 

Jesus as ‘saviour’, won’t go to heaven… 

and, by implication, is going to hell. 

Leaving aside the fact that what many believe about heaven and hell––

if we assume that they exist at all––

is simply a product of the middle ages…

this understanding of ‘salvation’ amounts to a theology grounded in fear and threat.

More significantly… 

it actually doesn’t do justice to the understanding of ‘salvation’ in the Bible––

not least in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel.

Our reading––

a hymn of praise that the author has composed…

drawing upon Old Testament language and ideas…

which he places on Zechariah’s lips at the circumcision of the infant John the Baptist–– 

celebrates the fulfilment of divine hopes and promises.

In it, the author refers several times to God’s ‘salvation’.

In particular, he praises God for raising up a “mighty saviour…

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us”.

Clearly, what the author means by ‘salvation’, here, is deliverance from oppression––

not least given the numerous echoes from the Exodus tradition.

And, within a first century context, this could only be referring to the Romans.

In describing Jesus as ‘saviour’, the author is–– 

intentionally and deliberately–– 

drawing a contrast between Jesus and the Emperor. 

He is affirming that Jesus–– 

rather than the Emperor–– 

is the one who brings true justice, peace, and prosperity.

Later, when he has Zechariah proclaim that John the Baptist would prepare the way for Jesus…

by giving “knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins”…

he’s actually speaking about the same thing––

he’s still speaking about the same sense of ‘salvation’. 

He’s not referring here to some sort of personal piety.

He’s not talking about ‘salvation’ and ‘sins’ in the way that the modern Evangelical tradition is wont to do.

He’s speaking about that thoroughly Hebrew concept––

that Israel’s sins as a nation were responsible for its plight…

and that repentance and forgiveness were necessary for them to experience true peace––


the Hebrew sense of ‘life as it was intended to be’:

life marked by harmony, prosperity, happiness, and wholeness…

not just the absence of conflict, violence, and oppression.

In other words, what the author understands by ‘salvation’ here… 

is corporate, not personal or individual;

it’s political and economic, not primarily religious;

it refers to this-worldly matters, rather that other-worldly;

and it envisages a transformation of us and our world.

For the author––

as for the Bible generally––

‘salvation’ involves freedom, justice, equality, and wholeness for all of God’s children…

in real terms…

here and now.


Of course, at the time that the author wrote––

some fifty or more years after Jesus’ death––

this hope…

this expectation…

had not been fulfilled.

The Romans were still in power.

Israel had not been liberated from oppression.

The world was not living in peace––

in freedom, justice, equality, and wholeness.

On the surface… 

Jesus’ coming to bring such salvation had failed.

Later, in his Gospel, the author will attribute that failure to the people’s rejection of Jesus––

to Israel’s rejection of Jesus––

because they did not discern “the things that make for peace”.

And yet, by including this ‘prophecy after the event’…

he still holds open the possibility.

It’s as if he’s saying, “to the extent that you are willing to accept that this is why Jesus came…

to bring ‘salvation’ to the world––

salvation understood as freedom from oppression…

freedom to live in justice, equality, and wholeness…

freedom to be whom we were intended to be––

then this hope can yet be realised”.

This prophecy can still be fulfilled.

But it won’t happen as long as we distort the meaning of Jesus.

It won’t happen when we turn Jesus and his message into some sort of weapon;

or some sort of system of rewards and punishments.

It won’t happen when we reduce and restrict Jesus’ mission and message… 

to something personal and pious…

individual and inward-looking…

other-worldly and ‘othering’.

We do not create a peaceful world––

a world of freedom, justice, equality, and wholeness for all––

by thinking in terms of binary opposites…

of inclusion and exclusion…

of ‘I’m in’ and ‘you’re not’.

That, the author seems to be suggesting to us, is a distortion of everything that Jesus stood for.


Yes, there is a personal dimension to salvation understood in this way.

But it’s not narrow, nor narcissistic.

As the author suggests, we are saved so that “being rescued from the hands of our enemies, we might serve” God “without fear”.

If there is a personally transformative dimension to salvation––

if I, in my own life, experience freedom, justice, equality, and wholeness––

then the aim and intent of that reaches beyond me.

It is that I would be a part of the salvation of the whole world.

In the end, perhaps, it’s summed up in something Martin Luther King jr once said:

“All life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be”.

In the end, that is what ‘salvation’ means.

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