The theme of this year’s Christmas Eve service was “Extraordinary Savior.” “Extraordinary” is, of course, a term of comparison: If there were no ordinary people, there would be no extraordinary ones. That got me to thinking: in order to appreciate the extraordinary savior, I need to understand what an ordinary one is like.
Is there such a thing as an ordinary savior? There is, and (sadly) Jesus is often presented as one. If you spend any time at all on religious broadcasting, you’ll run into the ordinary savior. He saves people from their circumstances – poor health, insufficient income, and troubling emotions. That’s one way of identifying an ordinary savior: he only saves people from, whilethe extraordinary Savior – the real one – saves people for. Let me give you a few examples.
An ordinary savior saves people from a religionless, churchless existence. He pities those unfortunates who sleep in on Sunday mornings, go out to eat, and travel. He wants to save them from their laziness, gluttony, and wanderlust, though they aren’t looking to be saved. I suspect most people who don’t really know Jesus – they’ve heard about him, of course, but have never joined themselves to him – think of Jesus as this kind of savior: one who loves organ music, 18th century hymns, and those rousing 19th century gospel songs. He doesn’t want people missing out on these good things.
An ordinary savior also saves people from hell; that’s why he came. People were going to hell in a handbasket (or maybe a shopping cart) and he stepped in to save them. The extraordinary savior does that too, but he does more: He saves people for heaven; he saves people for service in his kingdom. It is the repeated promise of the New Testament that Christ is saving us for something important. He has a role in mind for us. He intends for us to reign with him. The ordinary savior just saves from. The extraordinary savior saves for.
The ordinary savior saves us from punishment. God got himself into a jam by making people and, now that they have gone wrong, he finds he has no choice but to punish them. The ordinary savior feels very bad about this and steps in to take the blow. There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole truth. The extraordinary savior not only saves people from their punishment; he saves them from their sins. He knows the worst punishment people can suffer is to be left in their sins.
The ordinary savior saves us from suffering, which he (along with the rest of the world) considers the ultimate evil. The extraordinary savior does not save people from suffering – doesn’t even save himself from it – but he makes sure that his people’s suffering means something; that it accomplishes something for their good and for the world. The extraordinary savior didn’t suffer so that we wouldn’t need to, but so that our sufferings might be like his: full of promise and used for good.
An ordinary savior arrives on the scene every December as a baby (one who never cries – “…little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”), then fades from sight sometime after Easter. (Although, in some cases, he doesn’t even make it to the first of the year.) Because he never gets the chance to grow up, he remains powerless. Born into a poor family, he needs our pity and perhaps even our help. (I’m not sure we don’t prefer it that way.)
The extraordinary savior does not remain a baby; he grows up. He is not powerless; he is the Lord of men and angels. He doesn’t need our pity, but he does pity us. If the baby savior doesn’t cry, the adult savior does: He weeps for us. The extraordinary savior is more than a beautiful baby; he is the Man of Sorrows, who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities.
The ordinary savior launched a religion, and it has done quite well. It’s like the amazon.com of religions – right at the top of the heap – which makes Jesus the Jeff Bezos of the religious world. The extraordinary savior doesn’t launch a religion. He launches a revolution. He will conquer the kingdoms of the world and bring them into the kingdom of our God. He will preside over the nations of the earth. The ordinary savior may be satisfied to preside over the denominations of Christendom; the extraordinary savior will have so much more.
The ordinary savior is interested in people’s spiritual life and wants them to do spiritual things, like pray, read the Bible, and go to church. This contrasts with the extraordinary savior, who isn’t so much interested in a person’s spiritual life (as though a person were sectioned like a grapefruit, with a dozen or so lives – a work life, married life, social media life anda spiritual life). A person has real life, which is inescapably spiritual, and that’s what he cares about.
The goal of the ordinary savior is to get you to behave well: no gossip, no getting drunk, no racial bigotry, no selfishness. And while you’re at it, don’t slurp your broth and be sure to brush your teeth. He wants you to always be nice and to look out for the underdog.
The extraordinary savior cares about good behavior, too, but that is not his goal. He didn’t die so that people would be made nice but so they could be made new. He understands that behaving well is a consequence of being new. Another way of putting it is: the ordinary savior wants to reform people but the extraordinary savior wants to transform them.
All this poses a question. Do we have an ordinary savior or an extraordinary one? It’s an important question, because the ordinary savior only produces the ordinary saved. The extraordinary savior produces the extraordinary saved: children, women, and men who live purposely, endure hopefully, and love freely. The extraordinary savior is developing humanity into a race of glorious, free, wise, and loving beings. That’s what he is saving us for.
This Savior whose birth we celebrate—don’t leave him in a manger, which leaves you in control. Don’t even leave him on a cross, which leaves you loved but unchanged. Find him where he is: on a throne, which leaves him Lord and King and you his soldier, his servant, his person. This is the extraordinary savior. His name is Jesus.