It was the Old Testament theologian Claus Westermann who startled me years ago by talking about the two ways God saves in the Bible: salvation as deliverance and salvation as blessing.
Most theologians and preachers focus on salvation as deliverance, the mighty acts of God delivering us from slavery, oppression, famine, pandemic, sin and death. The exodus, the return from exile, the Cross, the big dramatic miracles of one kind or another. But Westermann argues that blessing, too, is a form of salvation. The word “salvation” itself suggests such, meaning healing and wholeness.
Salvation in the Old Testament also had to do with crops, flocks and babies, God’s daily provision to us that help us thrive. The everyday gift of life, the little everyday healings, the birth of a child, the food we eat, the love of family and friends, the ordinary but not ordinary ways Gods sustains our lives and brings goodness, joy and well-being: shalom. Band Aids and scars are our personal Our Lady of Lourdes. Salvation as blessing.
On Thanksgiving Day, we celebrated salvation as blessing. Then four days later, Advent began, and we began to sing, “O, come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” And now we are back again to salvation as deliverance.
Advent texts are full of longing for the this-worldly salvation of God, of swords beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Of a place where no one is afraid.
“Advent calls us to become partners in God’s salvation as deliverance.”
And we try to follow the nonviolent way of Jesus as we address our national addiction to guns. We witnessed seven mass shootings in seven days recently, a killer mowing down LGBTQ brothers and sisters in a gay nightclub, shoppers slain in a Walmart. A school desk manufacturer is now making bullet proof desks for elementary school children.
Advent calls us to become partners in God’s salvation as deliverance.
The prophets talk of the salvation of a world where the sick are healed, as did Jesus, who talked about the kingdom of God and healed all brought to him. And here again the two forms of salvation come together.
I saw an older man in my drugstore last week. He was so thin he couldn’t have weighed much over 100 pounds. His old clothes almost fell off his body. His bearded face looked emaciated. The cashier gave him his filled prescriptions and said, “That will be $256.” In this nation of plenty, our health care systems and policies turn their backs to so many Americans.
Isaiah’s vision depicted a peaceable kingdom where wolf and lamb lie down together, and the lion and the calf. Can we begin to speak nonviolently across political divides? It is impossible not to note the connection of hate speech and hate crime. Can we call for a unilateral disarmament of our words? Us, first?
“And a little child shall lead them,” the prophet says, and we begin to catch sight of the child to come. This child and all children remind us that God is still making all things new. The past is no prison.
Salvation as deliverance and salvation as blessing join hands as we give gifts from our bounty to support those in most need, as we exchange gifts with family and friends and celebrate the blessing of God. “Christ was born to save,” the Christmas carol says. Christ has come to deliver and to bless. And so have we.
E.B. White wrote in The New York Times: “I arise every morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
It makes it hard for us, too, who join the God whose salvation is blessing and deliverance.
Stephen Shoemaker serves as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. He served previously as pastor of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, N.C.; Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville, Ky.
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