1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. 7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
5 This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord. 6 He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. 7 But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. 8 He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit. 9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
5 The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord was grieved that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth - men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air - for I am grieved that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.
It’s more than a month ago that the shops began selling Christmas crackers and decorations and all the other things we see every year. And while most Christians are saddened at how commercialised this time of year has become, we also tend to find ourselves caught up in the festivities and celebrations.
Not that it is wrong to spend time with loved ones and to enjoy Christmas, but we’re also aware of how important it is to keep the balance and focus on the real reason for the season: As CS Lewis put it, “God has landed on this enemy occupied world in human form.”
A mistake we usually make during the Christmas season though is to concentrate only on the mystery and miracle of the birth of Jesus. His birth is, after all, what we’re called on to celebrate at Christmas, but the incarnation of Jesus Christ is really the middle of a much bigger story. When you try to explain or understand the Gospel by beginning with the manger, you are doing the same as starting a novel or a movie halfway through.
You can’t begin in the middle of a story, and if you start the Christmas season with the baby in Bethlehem, you’re not starting at the beginning of the story – you’re actually starting in the middle, and there will be many things that won’t make any sense. Without knowing the full story you can’t explain things like the celebrations of the angels, the fear of the shepherds, the long journey of the wise men and the panic of King Herod.
We need to go back a lot further than that first Christmas morning – in fact, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, because it is here where we begin to understand the reason for the season.
Have you ever considered that the origins of the story of the baby in the manger is found in the grief of the broken heart of God? Look at the words of Genesis 6:6 again, and try to imagine just for a moment how God must have felt: “The Lord was grieved that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain.”
These words are deeply personal, and they speak of a personal offence and betrayal. In order to try and understand the pain of God here, we need to look at the preceding verse: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”
How is it that we have fallen so far? Human beings were the pinnacle, the crowning glory of God’s creation. Not only are we created in His image, but Genesis 2:7 tells us that He breathed His life into us. Human beings are the ultimate expressions of God’s love, but what has sin done? It’s destroyed it all. Now every single human being is only evil all of the time. This conflicts directly with the non-Biblical idea that we are inherently good. David understood the problem very clearly when he wrote in Psalm 51, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
If we are ever to grasp the great need that we have of a Saviour, we need to have at least some understanding of how grieved the heart of God is by human sin.
What our sin has done to God is deeply personal to Him, and until such time as we grasp some measure of understanding of the pain we have caused Him, we will never really understand the glory and the hope of Christmas.
When God created us, He created us as the objects of His love. We were meant to live in an eternal love relationship with the Father. Our love for God was intended to be constantly at the forefront of our minds. Our love for and dedication to God was intended to motivate everything we say and do.
We would recognise and acknowledge His existence and His authority over us, and as a response to His love for us, we would choose to love and serve Him in return. That is the purpose of your existence and the ultimate meaning of your life. You were made for God – to be loved by Him, and to love Him.
Of course, something has gone horribly wrong, but we are still driven by love, even though our love is no longer directed Godward. We always have been, and always will be creatures motivated by love and devotion.
We are emotional creatures, and the most powerful emotion we experience every day of our lives is love. Of course, sin has changed the object of our love from God to the love of self, but we remain motivated by love nonetheless.
When you love someone, you want to be with that person. You want to serve them and bring them as much joy as you possibly can. That was God’s original intention for us – to love and serve Him, but now some other love has claimed the heart of human beings, because no longer do we delight to serve God. No longer do we find joy in His joy. We don’t want to stay within the boundaries of His law anymore. Jeremiah says that the human heart is desperately wicked and beyond cure. The non-believing world has a problem with such a chilling statement, but what do we see on the news and read in the papers every day?
The words of Genesis 6:5 offends us. “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” But the only reason we’re offended by these words is because we know them to be true.
It is no wonder we have broken God’s heart. His greatest desire is for us to love Him. In Matthew 22 an expert in the law asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And Jesus’ reply to him is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:36-37)
This is a profound answer. The Christian faith is not about blind obedience to God and doing what you’re told or else. The Bible is not a comprehensive list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. Here Jesus gives us the key to how we are meant to live our lives: By loving God first and foremost. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and you won’t have to worry about the rest of the law because you will love and obey it anyway for the simple reason that you love God first.
Love of God is the love that initiates all the other commands. However – and this is where we have a great problem and a great need: If love for God is the ultimate command, then the greatest evil is to not love Him. When we don’t love God, we refuse to stay within His boundaries, and we cannot and do not live for His glory.
When human beings no longer love God as they should, it doesn’t mean that we no longer love, because we still have that nature, that default setting to love within us. We now have to ask ourselves this searching question: “What love is so seductive and so powerful and so deceptive that it has replaced the love that I was meant to have for God?”
The one thing that always replaces love for God, the thing that leads to this endless catalogue of evil and destruction in our lives is love of self. Because of sin, we no longer delight in loving and serving God. In fact, if you look at the non-believing world and listen to what they’re saying, just the mere suggestion of loving and serving God is offensive. Why is there this sudden groundswell of hatred and bitterness towards Jesus Christ? Because if I choose to love Him I have to sacrifice my love of self, and I don’t want to do that. We’re obsessed with self.
“It’s MY life!” You hear that all the time in one form or another, but one of the first things we say as Christians is that it is no longer my life, but His. Paul put it this way in Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Those words are deeply offensive to the non-believing world because they challenge the love of self, which is so deeply rooted in the sinful human heart.
We want to be sovereign over our own lives. We want to set our own rules because we’re so obsessed with our own comfort and our own pleasure and our own happiness.
When we live for self, we step over God’s boundaries time and again because our hearts aren’t motivated by love for Him.
Every sin - every act of murder and violence is rooted in self-love. Every act of greed, every word spoken in gossip, every act of disobedience, every moment of adultery, and the list goes on and on. All of these things are rooted in self-love. And we love self because we no longer love God as we should.
It’s the greatest tragedy in all of human history. The world was designed to have at its very centre the love of God. Take that away, and all you’re left with is hurt, pain, misery and hatred. Christians and non-Christians alike are horrified at the state the world is in, and so we should be. But the reason it’s in such a mess is quite simple: It’s because we no longer love God as we should and as we were meant to.
If the state of the world saddens your heart, try to imagine for a moment how God must feel about it.
1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” Love is not simply what God does. Love is who He is, and because we have rejected the love relationship He created us for, His heart is grieved and it is broken. Rejecting the love of God is the ultimate and biggest human act of betrayal.
And God’s response to that betrayal is spelt out in Genesis 6:7-8. “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth - men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air - for I am grieved that I have made them.”
This is not an act of vengeance, but in holy indignation, and with righteous justice as His motivation, God says, “Enough! I made you in love and for love. I gave you all you need and more to live your life for me, and this is your response: Rejection and rebellion, so now I will destroy you.” God has every right to do that. This is not unrighteous anger. It is because of His holy and righteous justice that He sends the flood to destroy humanity.
Throughout the Bible we see and we read of God’s grace, and the story of the Great Flood is no different. Just look at this simple statement in Genesis 6:8. “But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.”
Grace is not what you and I deserve, but it is without question the greatest thing we need. Our great need is the grace of God, and this is precisely what He provides through our Saviour Jesus Christ – born in Bethlehem as a baby. John Newton, the reformed slave trader who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace said towards the end of his life, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.”
The only way this horrible brokenness we see in our relationship could be made right was for God to send His Son to die in our place.
Look at Genesis 6:5 again. “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” The cause of all our problems is not our behaviour. It goes much deeper than that. It’s been said that at the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. You see, it’s not my sins that make me a sinner. I sin because I am first and foremost a sinner. There is an important difference between the two. In the Bible, the heart is more than just a muscle that pumps blood around the body. The heart is regarded as the centre of the person. It represents and controls all that we are. Whatever or whoever controls my heart will control my words and my behaviour. The one thing we cannot escape is the state of our hearts, and that is what we need to be rescued from. Our great need is to be released from the control of our sinful hearts. Our great need is a Saviour.
Someone needs to do for me what I can’t do for myself if I’m ever going to love God as much as I was created to love Him. So what does God do? He sends Jesus to be exposed to all the pain and misery of this fallen world, to live among all that brokenness and heartache that I am directly responsible for, and then He goes to the cross to pay the price of who I am and what I’ve done.
He did what we are unable to do. He took our sin upon Himself and paid the penalty for our sin with His death so that there would be hope for us. He satisfied our great need and has now given us a great hope, which is our theme next Sunday.
Now, at last, love of self is defeated, and is replaced once more by the love of God – just the way it was always meant to be.
Of course, as we well know, we still struggle against the old self that still lurks within us, but we also have the power of the Spirit to guide and direct our lives today.
I don’t need to live under the slavery of sin any longer, but sadly I often do. There are times when our thoughts are shaped by our love of God, but not always. There are times when the things we desire flow out of our love for God, but not always. There are times when the words we speak are motivated by the love of God, but not always. There are times when we do things we wouldn’t normally do unless if we first loved God, but not always.
That’s the struggle we face each and every day. God has provided for our great need with a great Saviour, but we are far from the finished article.
Each day we face the sad reality that we continue to betray the love of God. At Christmas, we celebrate the wonderful hope that is ours and is represented by that baby in a manger who came to this world on a rescue mission. And because He came, we have a new hope of a life beyond this one – a life where finally, at last we will love the Lord our God with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our minds, and we will do so perfectly and for eternity.
Jesus Christ is the answer to our great need, and He is the only answer.
At this time of year the word “gift” dominates so much of our thinking. What gifts shall I buy? What gifts would I like?
My prayer for us this Christmas season is that we would stop and think about our great need and the great gift God has given in response to our great need.
2 Corinthians 9:15 says it best: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”