Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas Lights: Newness

Preached on Sunday, First Sunday in Advent, November 28, 2010
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:1-7: Titus 2:11-3:7

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah told about the appearing, in the future, of a very important baby. Actually (since babies don’t just appear) Isaiah spoke about the birth of a baby. The first several verses of chapter nine, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, tell us about the meaning of this child.

The baby would be a very real baby, who would be known by some very strange names or titles. Even if that baby was a royal baby, the sort or titles given to it would be far more daring, far more outrageous than any royal titles ought to be: not “highness”, not “majesty”; but “Wonderful Counselor” (in the sense of supernatural wonders), “Mighty God”, “Everlasting Father”, “Prince of Peace”. (Isaiah 9:6)

Over the next few Sundays (as we draw near to the celebration of the birth of Jesus) we will think about what Isaiah says about this baby. The reason why we will do this is because we believe this baby that Isaiah talked about is our baby of Bethlehem; Mary’s baby.

The first thing Isaiah says about this baby is that the baby brings light to the darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Or why not just say that the baby is the light? Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) The baby, himself is a new day; the best day of all days; the day of the Lord.

Paul wrote, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11) He is talking about Jesus here. Paul is writing about Jesus, and what Jesus did, as the grace of God. The word for “appear”, that he uses here, is a word that the Greeks used for the sunrise, or the dawn.

Paul goes on to describe the life that is in the darkness and the life that is in the light. He writes that this grace teaches us to say “no” to one way of life, and “yes” to another; and the difference between these ways of life is like the difference between the darkness and the dawn. They are completely different.

What we have read in Paul’s letter to Titus gives us some word pictures for this darkness and this light. There is so much here. But notice a contrast between what we are, if we are left to ourselves, and what God gives us. Paul writes, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…”

There is so much here. We often find ourselves possessed by a secret love of darkness. For instance; in the darkness there are passions and pleasures… and we really do like our passions and pleasures. Sometimes we suspect that belonging to God deprives us of certain passions and pleasures that could be ours; things that other people get to enjoy.

But we have to see what sort of things they are, that we need to be saved from them. There is a passion and pleasure in envy, in anger, in malice, in hating, and even in being hated.

I have known people who have reveled in being hated by certain people. I knew one kid in high school who wanted me to tell him that I hated him. He worked on me every day. He went out of his way to make my life miserable, every day in school, because he wanted me to hate him. One day, in the middle of his working on me, he asked me, “Evans, you hate my guts, don’t you?”

Wherever my own past hurts and angers come from, when I remember them, and when I want to gnaw on them, I remember this as a challenge to me. There is a darkness that I must say “no” to.

And notice especially what God brings into the equation here: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…” This is the light in the face of the darkness we have just looked at: kindness and love.

Kindness and love are the very source of our life in God. To live outside of kindness and love is to live outside of what God would give to us. To live outside of these is to live outside of life itself. This kindness and love are not designed to make us into a doormat for others to walk upon, but much of the darkness of this world comes from the absence of kindness and love.

I want to tell you an example of darkness in the history of the people of Israel. In Isaiah’s time, the people of Israel were divided between north and south. The northern kingdom, made from ten of the twelve tribes of Israel, kept the name of Israel. The southern kingdom, which was made mostly from the really big tribe of Judah, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, was called the kingdom of Judah. The north was the bigger, richer, stronger of the two kingdoms, but it wasn’t content with that. The king of the north wanted to conquer Judah and take Jerusalem.

It was the ruggedness of Judah that made this difficult. In order to achieve their goal, the northern kingdom made an alliance with Syria. Together they were strong enough to make the conquest happen.

But, there was another growing power to the northeast of Israel and Syria called Assyria. Judah made an alliance with Assyria, and asked it to go to war against the northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Syria, which it did. In the course of that war, Assyria destroyed both Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel.

Then, as you might expect, Assyria turned on Judah. The Assyrian army invaded and almost completely overran it. Judah was saved by divine intervention alone (2 Kings 18-19), but it was left weakened and more demoralized than ever. Eventually, it fell to another new power on the scene called Babylon.

This is a long summary of a longer story, but it illustrates the darkness. Every time Isaiah’s people made a decision that only made matters worse, they tried to deal with it and solve it by making new decisions that only made matters even worse than before.

There was a time when Isaiah offered one of the kings of Judah a chance to ask God for a sign, by which he meant an experience that would make it possible for the king to break this chain of horrible choices. The King (King Ahaz) pretended to be very pious and reverent, and he said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” (Isaiah 7:1-12)

What was really going on was that king Ahaz was too proud to break with his past actions. He was too proud to break with his past words. He was too proud to break with the patterns of his choices. He would rather let himself and his people be destroyed. It took a while, but that was the eventual result.

Without God’s intervention, without God’s saving help, everything in this world is degenerative. Pride, malice, envy, anger, the refusal to break with patterns that don’t do any good at all: these weaken or destroy marriages, families, businesses, churches, communities, and nations.

In my home town I could see many good things that never succeeded because people got more pleasure out of quarreling and competing and counting up other people’s faults and misdeeds than being what Paul said to be: “eager to do what is good”. I was friends with the Jenkins brothers who often said that they were related to half the people in town, but they were only on speaking terms with half of them.

But with God things are different. Isaiah said, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:1,2)

God, in Christ, creates a new world of light and brings us into it through his birth, and his life, and his death, and his resurrection. This new world, this new day, dawns in Christ as we open our lives to his life. This new world began when Jesus was nothing more than a slight movement in his mother’s body; a slight roundness of her middle.

Joseph, when he found out that his fiancée Mary was pregnant, thought about “putting her away quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-20) An angel told Joseph that this baby was the work of God. Still Joseph lived in a world that was motivated by honor and pride, and by the power of shame. Because of Mary and the baby, he was put in an impossible position where, if he listened to God, he would live under a cloud of shame all his life. His passion and pleasure would have been to live in honor. He could only live in honor if he were free of Mary and the child.

Joseph could have been angry about this, and I am sure he was, at first: confused and angry. He could have said no to God. We say no to God, don’t we; out of fear, out of anger, out of pride?

But the grace of God that brings salvation (as Paul said) was appearing. The kingdom of God was at work and having its way. The grace of God was saving Joseph from being foolish, and disobedient. God gave Joseph the grace of being a giver of care, and strength, and wisdom, and grace to Mary and the child. The grace of God was saving Joseph and giving him the power to say “no” to worldly passions: the passion for pride and honor and self-justification; things we have to say “no” to as well, for the sake of Jesus.

We are degenerative. God is regenerative. Paul says that, “God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:5-6)

The Greek word “rebirth”, here, has the word “genesis” in it. The Book of Genesis is called what it is because it begins with the story of the creation; the beginning. In Jesus we have a new genesis, we have a new creation.

The word “renewal” that Paul uses here has a special kind of newness in it. It is different from having a second chance. It is not like turning out a new model of an old make of car. It is the difference between turning over a new leaf and really having a new heart, or like having a heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh. It is being born again in the sense of being born from above; not from human power and will, but from God.

On this side of heaven, our life (even our born again life in Christ) never seems quite new enough for us to be content. And other people still have good reason to be discontented with us. We have the old struggles that should serve to keep us humble; that should serve to keep us forgiving toward others; forgiving the sins of others as we know we need to be forgiven ourselves.

Being born again does not mean only being slated for heaven. It means being saved from something now. Our new life may not seem new enough to make us content. But that is the whole point. It is new enough to make us eager for something better. If the coming kingdom of God will be a world of justice and righteousness, then we want to be a part of justice and righteousness now. If the coming kingdom is all about kindness and love, then we want to be a part of that now. We will ask, in any given situation: “What is the loving thing to do now?”

The baby Isaiah prophesied (the baby born in a manger; who grew up to heal, and teach, and to die for our sins and the sins of the world on the cross; and who rose from the dead) rules us now. The hope of his coming kingdom rules us now. Or maybe not: which is it?

We are different because we know what it means to be people in the darkness who have seen a great light. We know what it has been to live “in the land of the shadow of death”, because we have lived and breathed that very shadow ourselves. We have made a contribution of our own to the size and darkness of that shadow. And on us “a light has dawned”.

The baby Isaiah predicted, the baby who was born in Bethlehem, has made us willing to be babies in our own way who learn to say no to the right things and yes to the right things. What is a baby’s first word? Isn’t it often “no”? Really, to say “yes” to Jesus, we need the courage to say “no” to our beloved world of darkness.

Seeing Jesus and the beauty of his dawn makes it all possible. It’s a new world, meant for new people, when that light comes. “On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” That light is Jesus Christ who has come into our world, and who is coming again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wilderness Discipline of Thanks

Preached on Sunday November 21

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 8:1-10; John 6:1-15

There is a scientific word for a certain kind of fear. That word is agoraphobia. It means the fear of open places; the fear of wide open spaces.

I know at least one person who has this fear.

A couple summers ago I drove around with my camera, not long before harvest. It was a brilliant, crystal-clear day. Cotton-ball clouds (just the right amount) floated through a perfect blue sky. I took a bunch of photos of horizons, and long views down straight gravel roads, and far off farms; and I took pictures of the sky. I called my little album of those pictures “Our Local Vastness”, and I sent it over the internet to my family, relatives, friends, and I posted it on Facebook.

To my complete surprise, my uncle responded to say that he sometimes felt uneasy in wide open spaces, and that my pictures actually gave him that creepy feeling! But that awareness of wide open spaces is a feeling that most of us love.

I love our local vastness. I love the size of our sky. Surely it is bigger than the skies most people see. I love the view of the horizon in so many directions. I love how big everything feels; and I even love how small and exposed it all makes me feel.

My uncle is an amazing guy, and I love him. Otherwise I would say that agoraphobia was of the devil.

There is a pattern found in the Bible of the way that God works; and he seems to do some of his best work in wide open spaces. God called Abraham and his family out of the city of Ur and shaped their faith on the fringes of the wilderness. God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and guided them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. There they had a journey that (what with all those grandparents and small children on foot, along with goats and other livestock) should have taken two or three weeks, at most, yet God made that journey last for forty years, because his people needed to spend a lot of time in the wide open spaces before they were spiritually fit to come home. The Lord came down from heaven, and became truly human in Jesus, and continued to lead his people, from time to time, out into the wilderness; out into vast and lonely and hungry places.

Moses said to God’s people: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years; to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your hearts, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

The Lord Jesus led his people into the wilderness, again, by the Lake of Galilee, where they would be hungry again, and where he would feed them again, so that they would listen to his words. If we read on with this story in the Gospel of John, we would find that, just as the Lord’s people did not learn this during their forty years in the desert, neither did they learn it when they were led by Jesus, and fed by Jesus, in the wilderness east of Galilee.

It is a hard lesson to learn. It is wilderness work.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from the patterns of God working with his people in the wilderness. And these help us to find the true lessons of thanksgiving.
We all know (don’t we?) that we (ourselves, here in Washtucna, and Kahlotus, and Benge, and Hooper) don’t live in anything like a wilderness. People from the west-side, or from California, or from Portland, or from other such places might think that this is a wilderness (as they drive through it); but this hasn’t been a wilderness for over a hundred years. Even so, we know some things about the wilderness that most people from the city don’t know.

The wilderness does not teach us about thanksgiving because of it representing the simple life. Life here is not simple. The wilderness is the very place where nothing is simple.

The wilderness only simplifies things because it makes the most important things harder. The important things take longer. They take more preparation. They take more planning and foresight. The things that are truly important find their way to the center of our lives, and there is not much room (not much time) for other things.

In northern lands the season of winter is like a wilderness too. It’s a wilderness for drivers, because winter conditions on the road make you stop daydreaming or enjoying the view. The wilderness of winter makes you start watching the road, and the cars around you (if there are any), because safety is in short supply.

Warmth becomes a precious commodity; a frightening thing to lose. It becomes an enormous, luxurious pleasure, because warmth is in short supply.

For God’s people (whether with Moses or Jesus), the wilderness is the place of scarcity, neediness, hunger. For God’s people the wilderness is where things are hard.

In the wilderness, life is not simple, but reality becomes simple. We know what we have and what we don’t have. We know our true size and strength. We know the real, true worth of things; the things we have and the things we lose. We know the worth of others. This is the very beginning of our ability to be truly thankful.

Part of my calling is to speak for the living God in the presence of death and mourning; to speak for the crucified, and risen, and ascended Jesus in the presence of deep loss. I think there could be no greater danger than to treat this like some simple thing. It is a wilderness thing. Even Jesus wept bitterly in the presence of death and sorrow. (John 11:35)

Where I have found the greatest gifts and the greatest reason to give thanks, in the presence of sorrow, is in the presence of other people who have suffered great losses and sorrow for themselves, and absorbed their lessons. They know what to say, and how to say it. They know what not to say. They know what to do and what not to do.

These people have the gift of comforting others. And I see (perhaps) that their gift does not come from having recovered from their loss, but from their knowing how to carry their loss. Their ability to comfort others comes from their learning how to keep on going.

They have learned how to continue a life where they are called to loving and giving in spite of their loss. And they are enriched by this. And they enrich others. Without having planned it, they have found quiet, humble gifts to give.

And I believe that one more thing gives them strength to comfort others. That is a sure sense of the value of love, and relationship, and commitment; and the fact that they have not lost their thankfulness for that love. They have never lost their thankfulness for the treasure of the person they have loved and lost.

This is a kind of wilderness life. The life-giving power of thankfulness in the wilderness is a gift we receive when we go into the wilderness in the presence of the Lord.

What God’s people had in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land (and what God’s people had in the wilderness with Jesus) was the presence of the Lord. Life does not become simpler, but reality becomes clearer. The important things take the center stage.

Maybe some people are afraid of the wilderness because it seems lonely. In that case, we can learn that God’s people are never alone in the wilderness. The Lord goes through it with them.

The wilderness is even a wilderness for God. God, who was present in the pillar of the smoke and fire that led his people to the Promised Land, struggled with his people in the desert. It was not easy to be their God in the wilderness. It was no fun at all; not even for God. The important things came into focus and became life and death issues. God had to be tough to bless them.

Jesus went into the wilderness more than once. He went out into the desert after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11) in order to fast and be thirsty, and to experience temptation and loneliness. When we have nothing; when our standards, and values, and desires are tested beyond every limit; Jesus is with us in our wilderness.

The Lord saw his children in the wilderness of a fallen world; a world of fear, and anger, and injustice; a world of confusion, and doubt, and idolatry, and sin. The Lord saw his children in a wilderness of loss, and sorrow, and death. The Lord entered that wilderness to be with us, where we are. This is who Jesus is.

The Lord entered the deepest part of our wilderness in the form of a cross. He carried every hard and bitter thing (even sin, and evil, and death). On the cross he carried those things away from us, and buried them forever in his tomb. In his resurrection the Lord gave us his victory over the wilderness, so that the wilderness does not need to be a place of fear or emptiness.

The wilderness becomes a place where we are with the Lord, and the Lord is with us. He cares for us, and feeds us. So our wilderness becomes a place where we can give thanks.

The boy whose lunch became a feast that fed the five thousand is also a lesson in thanksgiving. The disciples thought the boy’s gift was too small, but Jesus didn’t think so. Jesus used the boy’s small gift and made it much greater than any smart, mature person thought it could be.

We don’t know who that boy was, or why he was there, or why he was the only one with food to share. I think the grown-ups took no food with them because they had desperate work to do. Jesus was someone who might save them from the Romans. They couldn’t just let him go. They couldn’t just let him wander. They had to be smart and move fast. They had to chase Jesus down and draft him to their cause.

The boy probably had food with him because he was seriously planning to have an adventure with Jesus. He didn’t know what Jesus was going to do next, but he wanted to find out and be a part of it.

He packed food for the adventure as a young boy might. He had a serious plan but it was a child’s plan. The five barley cakes would have been the size of dollar pancakes, cooked on a griddle in olive oil, and the two fish were dried and the size of sardines or herrings. He may have made a pocket to hold them by tying the corner of his cloak together, and his mother scolded him later for the oily stain they made in it.

The boy wanted to see what Jesus and the crowd was about, so he grabbed the food and ran off without telling his mother. When he got home, at the end of the day, he would yell, “Mama! Papa! Me and Jesus fed five thousand people!”

For the rest of his life, that boy knew that he could expect to get back better than he gave. The boy was thankful enough for the food his father grew and his mother cooked for him to share it with Jesus, in the faith that Jesus could make something good happen through it. The boy would know that he could share other things with Jesus, too. He could share his whole life with Jesus, and Jesus would make it into something worth sharing.

When our wilderness makes us want to hunker down we need to remember that, with the Lord, the wilderness is the place to share.

Over and over I have seemed to lack what it took to do any good; but Jesus did good with what I gave, even when it seemed so worthless, and so small. I am learning to be thankful. I have so much more to learn. It is a wilderness discipline.

When we are in the wilderness, we think we cannot share because we do not have enough for ourselves, or because we do not have enough for others. But the wilderness is the place where the Lord is, and he can make “not enough” into enough. It is, first of all, a matter of faith. Then it is a matter for thanksgiving.

The wilderness, where the Lord takes us, teaches us that we don’t live by reducing what we want. It is also true that wanting more and having more will not make us happy. But we don’t live by reducing what we want. In the Lord’s presence we live by changing what we want. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Those who ate the boy’s loaves and fishes did not eat the finest of the food that Jesus served in the wilderness. The finest food was to hear what Jesus said and see what Jesus was able to do with the boy’s gifts.

“Jesus…gave thanks.” (John 6:11) We can’t imagine what form Jesus’ thanks took. Was it a long, original, inspiring prayer? Was it deeply personal and touching? Or was it one of those short, simple blessings that the rabbis designed for everyone’s basic mealtime needs? The standard blessing for the bread would have been this.

ברוך אתה ה' א לוהינו מלך העולם, המוציא לחם מן הארץ.‏
Transliteration as: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha olam, ha motzi lehem min ha aretz.
Translation is: "Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."

No one but Jesus knew where that bread came from, or how it got there. The secret is that this bread was there because of him. Long ago, he had made the heavens and the earth. He had made the soil in which the barley grew. He had sent the rain that watered it. He had guided the hands that harvested it, and ground it, and cooked it. John tells us: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3)

The meal was there because of him in another way, as well, because of a crowd that was hungry for something it did not know or understand. The crowd was a small part of a whole world that needed Jesus, and what Jesus had come to give them. Jesus had come to live, and die, and rise to plant the kingdom of God in our hearts and to draw all people to him. (John 12:32) Jesus came to become the meal that would give us life.

The barley bread and the dried fish were there for yet another reason, because one person, out of thousands, hungry in the wilderness, was willing to share his small gifts with Jesus. And so Jesus could give thanks.

Our wilderness, and the presence of Jesus there, makes our most precious things; and our smallest, most humble things; and even our losses and poverty holy. And that is the foundation of all thanksgiving in any wilderness where you may find yourself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Glory to God Alone

Preached Sunday, November 14, 2010

Scripture Readings: Psalm 96; Romans 11:33-36; John 17:1-24

I have told some of you about Roger, who was a friend of mine during my seminary days. Roger loved to sing, but he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. When I was sitting next to Roger in chapel, and we were singing hymns, when the music went up Roger went down, and when the music went down Roger went up, and he wasn’t singing harmony. He had absolutely no idea what pitch we were singing, and I don’t think he even knew, by actual experience, what the word “pitch” means. But Roger loved to sing.

Some people, when they know they can’t carry a tune, stop singing completely. The very thought of singing embarrasses them. Roger knew perfectly well that he wasn’t doing what anyone else was doing when we sang, but he didn’t care.

He told me that, when music was going on, he felt it inside him and he wanted to join in. He wouldn’t let the fact that he couldn’t sing stop him from enjoying that music. He told me this because I was young enough, in those days, to be much ruder than I am now, and I just came straight out and asked him about this. Why do you sing?

Once I understood this, it was fun sitting next to Roger in chapel. It was all I could do to keep from laughing, and he knew it. Sometimes, when it was really bad, I would catch his eye, and he would just give me a knowing look.

This is important, because it helps us understand something about glory, and especially about the glory of God. It helps us understand why it is that God seems to want glory.

For God to love glory is like what it is to love of music. The best way to understand glory is to soak it in from the poetry and music of the Bible. The Book of Psalms is the hymnbook of the Old Testament. And, if you really learn about that ancient poetry, you will find that most of the places in the Old Testament that speak of the glory of God are at least on the verge of poetry, or else it’s just meant to be sung out loud.

“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations.” (Psalm 96:1-3) The glory of God is like joyful music. The glory of God is like the invitation to sing.

With God there is something to sing about: for “the Lord made the heavens.” (96:5) “Proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” (96:2-3)

The creation of the heavens and the earth, the story of salvation (which is new life for the soul, and the healing of wounds, and the restoring of all losses, and the mending of all tragedies, and the new heavens and the new earth): these are truly works of love. These things are like joyful music. To give glory to God is to take part in the music of something worth celebrating.

When the Washtucna football team wins a game, they sing a victory song on the field. They don’t sing it very well, but they sing it with gusto.

I don’t believe they sing it because they think they are really great. They sing because they are happy. They are relieved. The thing is done. They have won, and it is a great thing to win. They are happy.

They have put all they had into a game; or they have watched their teammates play and give their two-hundred percent, just as their coaches want. When you have won, after all that, you have a natural invitation to sing.

Some seasons, the song doesn’t get sung as often as we would like. But the fact that such a song exists reminds us that the enjoyment of glory is not necessarily selfish or egotistical. It is just happy. It isn’t a bad thing to enjoy the glory of being happy. Glory is at the essence of what God does and who God is.

There is an ultimate game (an extreme game) that is being played on the field we call the heavens and the earth. At the end of this ultimate game (this extreme game) a victory song will be sung, and part of the beauty of this game is that even our defeats, and our injuries and our losses play into the victory.

The Lord is the team captain and the play-maker. The Lord is the player on whom the whole team depends. The Lord does not play for the glory of egotism but for the glory of happiness. God relishes that victory song.

“Proclaim his salvation day after day.” Salvation is shorthand for a long story that includes everything that has ever happened and ever will happen. Salvation is a story, most of all, of everything that God has done, and everything that God will do.

“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.” (96:7-9)

The writer of this psalm pictured the whole world coming to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the place where one could worship and watch the sacrifice that was made for the forgiveness of sin. The temple was where the scriptures were kept safe and whole.

Everything was there. The celebration of God’s creation was there. The story of the fall of our world into sin, and misery, and disaster was there. The story of the calling of a people to be God’s people, who would be a blessing to all other people, was there. The history of everything that happened to those people was kept there; their stubbornness, their lack of faith in God, their repeated betrayals of God, their worship of other things besides God, their repeated times of repentance and grace.

It was all there to be sung about. It was all a part of what God was up to, and it was all a part of God’s glory.

In the temple, the pattern of what God is about could be seen: a pattern of love and victory. In this world we often don’t see God’s patterns. Sometimes we see only random events like random dots on a canvas.

There was a French painter of the late eighteen hundreds who made his paintings out of tiny drops of paint on the canvas. If you stand too close to his paintings you see nothing but dots. You don’t see the pattern that makes the dots into a portrait, or a landscape.

Worry, fear, anger, and doubt are like taking a position in life that puts us too close to events to see the pattern they form. We only see random, meaningless spots. Faith means standing at the right distance to see the whole picture and what it means.

There are medical cases where, as a result of a stroke or tumor, a person becomes unable to recognize their wife, their husband, or anyone at all. This is not dementia, because these people remember the other person clearly, but not their face. They can’t recognize the familiar pattern of the face. (See the writings of Dr. Oliver Sacks)

In fact there is a rare condition one can be born with of having various degrees of inability to recognize faces. People with this condition recognize voices, and clothing, and even smells, but not faces. They lack the ability to see the pattern that is always with them; the pattern of a familiar face of another person who is the center of their life. The pattern is there, but they don’t see it.

It is hard to join in singing the music of the glory of God when we cannot see the pattern of his love and his victory. The worship and the sacrifices in the temple told the story of salvation from the point where the pattern could be seen. They clarified that pattern for those who had forgotten it.

The scriptures also tell us the story of our salvation, with all its ups, and downs, and repetitions. We even see the pattern in the enormous length of the story: the centuries of the story that leads up to Jesus.

The story of God coming down into our world in the impoverished birth of Jesus, in Bethlehem, shows us the pattern of how God loves and wins. The story of the long quiet years of the childhood of Jesus, and the long quiet years of his work in the carpenter’s shop shows us how God loves and wins. The wandering life of Jesus on the road as a teacher and a healer of the sick, followed by his brutal and gruesome death on the cross; the resurrection, and the ascending of Jesus into heaven: all show us the pattern of how God loves and wins. These all show us God’s glory, and they all show us something only God can do; something only God can give.

Remember that we are looking at phrases that help summarize things in the Bible that keep us safe, just as anchors in a storm keep a ship safe from being tossed and broken by the waves, or driven onto rocks. One of those anchors is the phrase “to God alone be the glory”; or, “glory to God alone”.

For the most part, I don’t think we usually think of wanting glory for ourselves, and we may have trouble thinking about God loving glory without having some unsavory thoughts about God. After all we have been taught that it is not right for us to go around looking for glory, and it is hard for us to imagine it being right for God.
There are a few reasons why glory should be given to God alone.

One reason why glory should be given to God alone is that it is the only safe thing to do with glory. It is safe to give glory to God because God doesn’t need glory.
If we have a notion of what it means to seek glory we think it has something to do with self-seeking. We want something for ourselves. We want some measure of control. We might even seek glory as a substitute for love, because we don’t understand love.
God is the only safe focus for glory because he doesn’t need it. I think God doesn’t need glory because God is love (1 John 4:8).

People use other people for glory without giving it a name, because to give it a name would be rude. We use people for our own glory because we are not very good at love. We try to be in control because we don’t trust love. We don’t think it is enough.

We can’t trust God because we don’t trust love. Perhaps we can’t grasp the concept of being truly loved by God and so we seek substitutes. We even may make our religion into a glory-machine, a thing to make us important and impressive to others, and to ourselves. We turn religion into a means of achieving mastery.

With God, it is not like that. The universe does not revolve around us, but everything comes from God, and continues through God’s care. Everything has a purpose from God that is known only to God. Everything is intended to lead us to God, if we will let it.

Paul says something like this in the verses in Romans that we read. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36)

Now there is glory, showing up again. It’s true that there is control in that glory. God is in control. But God’s glory is not aimed at control. It is aimed at mercy, which is another way of saying that God’s glory is his love.

Paul, through whole chapters of his letter to the Romans, has been dealing with the mystery of history. Especially Paul has been struggling with the observation that the human race, in its rebellion and fallenness, seems to throw up obstacles and resistance to God at every step of the way. Human nature even seems able to take the gifts, and the blessings, and the callings, and the promises of God, and tries to use them against God himself.

So Paul writes about God’s radical measures to deal with this problem. In Romans 11:32 he writes: “God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

It is a way of saying that God has let us be ourselves in order that he could be himself and show that his grace and love can make the difference. And that is what makes Paul sing about the glory of God. It is the glory of God to give us the glory of mercy.

In John we see into the heart of God before the creation of the universe. We see that the everlasting nature of God is to give glory. Jesus is praying to his Father like this, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:4-5)

The everlasting glory of the Son is to give glory to the Father, and the everlasting glory of the Father is to give glory to the Son. They are always giving each other glory. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well, are an eternal fountain of glory-giving.

So God does not need glory from us. In himself, from everlasting, God is a love that loves to give glory as an expression of love.

In the Biblical languages, the word “glory” carries the impression of light and weight. Here is how the Bible expresses this. Isaiah says, “Arise and shine, for thy light has come and the glory of the Lord has arisen upon thee.” (Isaiah 60:1) Paul says, “This slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Glory reveals, as light does. Glory is like a light that makes you see things in a way that shows you that you have never really seen anything so great before.

What does weight have to do with glory? Car-makers design car doors to shut with a certain sound that makes people think that their cars are built solid and heavy. They build a glorious sound into their car doors. The glory of God is the sense of something being more substantial, more solid, and more real than anything you have seen or heard before.

When Jesus glorifies his Father it is because he reveals his Father, and it is because he shows the solidness of the Father. And the Father gives the same glory back. What is the solidness of the Father and of the Son? It is the cross. Solidness, in God’s case, is a faithfulness you can trust, because it will inevitably involve him in the cross, for your sake.

Jesus’ glory (that shows the Father’s glory) is the cross, and the resurrection. This has been done to take away the sins of the world. (John 1:29) God has done this for all people, to “have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

We say “glory to God alone” because God has done the incredible, the impossible, the inconceivable. God has done for the world (God has done for us) what no one else could do.

And God has done this in order to give us as a gift to himself, for his own joy. This is his glory. Jesus prays about this, in this way, as he prays for us and for those who will believe through us: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

We are like plants rooted in the soil of God, and rained on by the love and nurture of God. We are like plants whose roots, when they are healthy, grow deeper and deeper, protected from drought and frost. How can a plant boast about its good soil and the rain that makes it grow? To God alone be the glory!

To say that the glory belongs to God alone does not mean that we have a God who is hungry for glory. It means that we have a God who loves to give glory, and such a glory can come from no other place.

To say “Glory to God alone” is to respond to an invitation by God to live by learning how to trust. It means we can live without giving our life the “white-knuckle treatment”. It means not having to be afraid and worried all the time.
Since it is the glory of God to be a giver, it means being a giver yourself. Since the glory of God is faithfully merciful, living for the glory of God alone means being merciful.

It means you can connect the dots of life and see the patterns of God. You see how God loves, and how God wins. You see the cross and the resurrection, and you live accordingly because that is where God is, and there alone is the glory. Glory be to God alone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Faith Alone

Preached Sunday, November 7, 2010

Scripture readings: Genesis 15:1-12; Philippians 3:1-14; John 6:25-51

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I drive too fast (actually much more than merely sometimes). Oh, I don’t go faster than it is safe to drive (well, almost never); or I don’t think I do.

But I am a lawbreaker. I make excuses about it. A lot of people think it’s funny, and they tease me about it. But it’s true. And it is perhaps much truer than I realize (hardened sinner that I am) that I shouldn’t even be talking about it here, from the pulpit, without the convictions of a profound repentance and the desire to change my life.

I do have some claims to make as proof that, deep down, I am really ok; that I am really a good guy. One claim to virtue is that, when I am stopped by an officer of the law, I always know that I am guilty, and that it is my fault, and that I deserve a ticket.

I never pretend otherwise. I avoid making excuses. I never get mad at the officer. I do get mad at myself.

My other claim to virtue is that I never plead for mercy on the basis that I am a minister. I never tell the officer that I am a minister. Well, for one thing, I don’t believe that this would work, and I don’t believe it ought to work. So I don’t. So, I really am a good guy, or am I?

This is related to a Christian word. There is a word in the Bible and in Christian teaching: and that word is righteousness. Righteous is a funny word in the sense that we don’t use it much. It was used in slang (is it any more?): as in “That car is righteous,” or “that dude is a righteous dude.”

I may be in way over my head here, but I do think this is what righteousness is all about. A righteous car is a car that does everything that a great car, with a great engine, ought to do.

I’m not going to comment on the word “dude”. But a righteous human would be solid. You could expect fairness, and integrity, and truth, and compassion, the ability to look and listen and think things through, and see them through, and not quit. That would make a righteous dude or a dudette.

The funny thing about being truly righteous is: who can really measure up to it? I mean, we want to think of ourselves this way. Some people totally pull the wool over their own eyes about this, and those are the ones who aren’t fooling anyone but themselves; at least not for long.

We try to find excuses, to find reasons (and there are some). We try to justify ourselves. We have our good qualities. But we are not righteous; not really.
The world is the same way. There are fear-mongers and hate -mongers and anger-mongers out there. And there are real things to fear, and hate, and be angry about. There are horrible things in this world: horrible things.

But there is also beauty, and love, and tenderness, and innocence as well. There are people who love truth, and justice, and goodness and stand up for them and fight for them. The world is beautiful, righteous, and wonderful. It is horrible, and deadly. It is all of that and so are we.

The Bible tells us that this world was made to reflect the glory of God, and so were human beings (and the whole human order of things), but it is also a fallen world, and we all belong to that fallen world. We are made for the glory of God and we are fallen far short of it.

Some people will say that the world and its human inhabitants are a mixture of light and darkness, and they will counsel us to try to live within the light. But there is nothing very grand, or bold, or victorious about this.

But we believe a grand, and bold, and victorious thing. We believe that there is a righteousness from God; a righteousness that has come into the world.

It has come into a fallen world in order to make a new world possible; to make new lives possible. It has come into the lives of some of the people in this world, and it can come into us. It is “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:9)

The righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (this righteousness that God wants to give to the whole creation) is something God started in a single family; the family of a nomad named Abram (or Abraham). Earlier in Abram’s story, the Lord spoke to him and said: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

The challenge and the deep difficulty of this promise was that Abram and his wife Sarah were old and childless. Yet the promise was based on a child that they were supposed to create between them.

They were in their seventies when God first made his promise to them. The years passed. The promise was renewed over and over again, and nothing, nothing, nothing happened.

Every time the promise was repeated, and every time they thought about that promise and wished that it would come true; guess what they must have done in the privacy of their tent. Guess what they must have tried to do. And nothing, nothing, nothing happened: nothing.

Then, in the verses we read from Genesis, God does it again. After years of making this promise, God repeats the promise again, and (even at this point) there are still years to go when nothing, nothing, nothing will happen.

But one very strange thing does happen. Abram believed God. It says, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
If being righteous means being all that God intended you to be, Abram and Sarah had a requirement that they lived by. There was a law from God that ruled them and gave them something they did together over, and over, and over again to make it happen, and it didn’t work. They could not be what God’s promise had promised them they would be.

What Abram and Sarah did over, and over, and over again was a kind of law for them. It was a law to them of something they should do to achieve a certain status, in order to match what God had promised them. They obeyed that law over and over, in the privacy of their tent; but something much more radical was essential.

The surprising and radical thing that God wanted was faith. Faith was essential to make them what God wanted them to be. Faith was like the hinge on a door that enables that door to swing open. (John Calvin “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, 3.11.1)

Some people, even some Christians, seem to think that faith is something you do as part of a bargain to get God to do something for you, or that faith is something you give to God so that God can give you something in return: like the thing we call salvation, or like the things we call the answers to our prayers, or like the things we want that have to do with success and peace and plenty.

Faith has very little to do with anything we want. It has everything to do with what God wants.

But even that said does not go far enough. Faith has everything to do with who God is and who God promises to be for us. When you are in the middle of a storm in life; when you are struggling under a weight of worry, or fear, or anger, or failure, or pain, or loss, and you can’t sleep at night for the anguish you feel, faith has everything to do with who God is, and who God promises that he will be for you, in the time to come.

Faith is like a fire within that does not light itself. Faith is the gift of fire that comes from seeing the love of God and the new life that is promised by God’s love. Faith is God’s gift of fire to a life without a spark. It is not your gift to God. It is God’s gift to you.

Paul says it in Ephesians 2:8. “For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”

The fire of faith gives you light to see what you cannot see without it. It gives you warmth to thaw you out; so that the mind of faith can think, so that the heart of faith can love, so that the feet of faith may take you where God wants you to go, so that the hands of faith enable you to do the work God has given you to do.

The fire of faith gives you the warmth of an inner life that sets you free to move and live. Faith gives something from God through you so that you can help others see and live in God’s light and warmth.

You can guard that fire of faith and feed it; but not light it. As long as it burns it will never cease to do the work that a living faith does. It will make you grow in its warmth. It will help others grow. It will do what is good, and helpful, and useful. It will be a force of good in the world around you.

Faith is always based not on who you are and what you can do; but based on who God is, and what God does. And we meet God in Christ. We see who God is and what God does in Jesus.

In the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t call this gift “fire” but he calls it food. What God does through Christ is the food that the Father and the Son give to all who come to him, and we come to him by believing. We come to him by faith.

This is why he says. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” And Jesus says, “Don’t work for the food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the son of Man (he means himself) will give you.” (John 6:27-29) And he says, “I am the bread of life.” (6:35)

Working for the food that spoils means doing what you think will make you all that you can be. But believing that Jesus is the bread of life is completely different.
Believing means having faith. It means trusting in God as he is (as we meet him in Jesus).

And this is the work that is not work. This is the work that abandons itself and trusts in God’s work. Faith is not your gift to God but your journey out of yourself and into the gift of what God is, and into the life that God can give you.

Faith is based on God, knowing God as he is. What we know about God is what we see in Christ, in his life, his death, and his resurrection. We know God by seeing his sacrifice for our sins on the cross. We know God by seeing the power of the resurrection.

Paul speaks of this in Philippians. He says, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8-11)

The Jews worked to prove their status as God’s people by keeping the Old Testament law (the Torah). This was the work they thought would prepare them and mark them for the Kingdom of God. But that preparation accomplished nothing but hardness of heart, and pride, and the inability to be the blessing to the nations that God had called Abraham to be.

Faith was the heart of the promise; and God had come, in Christ, to give the power of his righteousness to those who saw what God had done; to those who made the daring surrender of faith.

Those who trust in Christ have new forces at work within them. They have the cross of Jesus working in them. They have the resurrection working in them.

We can never bargain for this. There is no gift we can give for this. We can only believe what God has done. Then it goes to work in us.

Paul wrote, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (3:7-8)

Faith means going outside ourselves, in Christ: letting go of ourselves, and so there are things that are worth losing for his sake. There is the obvious rubbish of our selfishness and our lovelessness; the obvious rubbish of our sins.

Then there is the rubbish of good things. I am a hereditary saver and hoarder. I have thousands of books, and trinkets, and artifacts, and memorabilia. Perhaps much of it is nothing but refuse. There may be habits and marks of my character that are not bad in themselves, but they stand in the way of my love for God and for others.

There are things we think of as our strengths or our rights that get in the way of loving God with all that is in us, and loving others as ourselves. These things are not the great good things we think they are, no matter how much we think about them and hold onto them.

We think of them as our strengths, when they may be nothing but strong crutches, and we don’t have enough faith to part with them. We don’t want to replace them with the strength of God that comes from faith.

The author George MacDonald imagined God saying this: “My child, you must be strong in my strength. I have no other strength to give you.” This is “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” There is no other way for it to come. It is faith alone.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Grace Alone

Preached on Sunday, Oct 31, 2010

Scripture Readings: Psalm 51:1-19; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 1:1-5, 9-18

A family was talking to their pastor after worship and they had a little girl, a daughter, who piped up and asked, “Pastor, just who is this amazing Grace that we sang about today?”

We can’t really understand what grace is, at all, unless we match it with the word amazing. There is no such thing as “mere grace”. Grace is, or should be, always amazing.

And the whole concept that grace should always, and only, be amazing should tell us something about ourselves that we don’t like to admit. The awful truth is that we don’t understand grace, and it is very hard for us to believe in it, or to accept it.

For instance, in English, and in a lot of other languages, we use the concept of grace for the purpose of thanks; and this is a good thing. Grace is a word we use to designate a prayer of thanks. We say grace at a meal (if we remember to, or have someone to remind us) because God has done something for us by providing for us, and so it is only right to give him thanks. God deserves it.

We thank people for what they have done. We thank people because they deserve thanks.

In an odd turn-around of this, if we have been taught to be really “nice” people, we have also been taught to not accept thanks graciously, even though we have been carefully taught to say “you’re welcome”. When someone thanks us, or even praises us, our mind races around to find some way to make an excuse for what we are being thanked for. We try to explain it away, or justify exactly why we don’t deserve to be thanked or praised.

In Spanish, when you do something for someone, they say “thank you”. They say “gracias” or “grace”. Then the polite thing for you to say is “de nada” which means “it is nothing”; as if you haven’t done anything worth mentioning. This shows the gallantry and generosity of the Spanish culture. It also shows the confusion that human nature feels about real grace.

Of course, at the very same time that we are denying our right to be thanked we also tremble like puppies in our desire for others to thank us. We want to have people thank us for every little thing we say or do. We do want to deserve thanks and praise.

And so we are confused about grace. No wonder that, if we finally do understand it, we find it amazing.

Grace is amazing because it is beautiful. The original New Testament word for grace is the Greek word “charis” and the basic root meaning of charis is beauty, or loveliness. The original Old Testament words for grace are “chen” and “chesed”, and the basic root meaning of both these words is the concept of beauty, or loveliness; although “chen” has come to mean favor, and “chesed” has come to mean loving kindness, or steadfast love, or unfailing love.

“Chesed” is the grace word used in the psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.” The origin of these words was beauty.

Even our English word “grace”, itself, has that same root meaning. When we say that a woman moves with great grace we mean that she moves with great beauty and loveliness.

It is only by understanding the grace of God in terms of an amazing beauty and loveliness that we are able to understand the meaning of grace at all. Grace is a gift because it is an action (which God takes on our behalf) that reveals his infinite beauty and loveliness to a degree that thoroughly amazes and astounds us.

When we experience grace, it has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with the beauty and loveliness of God. It has nothing to do with our worthiness, and everything to do with the worthiness of God. When we experience the worthiness of God our own worthiness is swallowed up by his, and it disappears in his. And our being swallowed up and disappearing in the worthiness of God is no injustice to us.
We lose nothing by it. We are only enriched by it. This is grace.

Surely even an achievement is a kind of gift. If you write a good poem, your pleasure is not in your achievement but in the vision at the center of your poem. If you have the skill in mechanics to build an engine, surely your pleasure in your skill is swallowed up when you put that engine in a boat, or a car, or a truck, and you drive that boat, or that car, or that truck, and you feel the power of that engine at work.

Your skill is swallowed up in the pleasure of the gift. The better the gift, the more thankful you feel. The best gifts direct you beyond yourself, no matter how much your participation has been a part of it. You want to enjoy the gift far more than you want to claim credit for it.

There is a way of living and understanding the meaning of our life that is called “grace alone”. It is a way of living your life, and understanding your life, from the point of view of everything being a gift; seeing the goodness of all the gifts, and being able to be properly amazed by the greatest gifts.

It is all about beautiful gifts. The meaning of our life, our relationships with others, our relationship with God are all about grace, and grace alone. This means that the most important thing about our life is not our skill, not our achievement, not our maturity, not our ability, not our self worth, not our savvy or wisdom but the grace of God; about the experience of all these things as gifts from God.

This is not to say that skill, achievement, maturity, ability, savvy or wisdom, or even our own worth are not important. They are important; but they are not the way we come to God. They are not the way we come to others. They are not even the way we come to ourselves. We come to God. We come to others. We even come to our selves, through the experience of life as a gift that is full of the gifts of God.

There is beauty in achievement and worth, but there is a greater beauty in gifts that we haven’t earned and cannot earn. The truth is you can only work with what God has given you, because you have not brought yourself into this world. You have not given birth to yourself.

Life in the kingdom of God is not about earning but about gifts. Life is about grace alone.

The scriptures are full of pictures of our need for grace.

We have read Psalm fifty-one. The great Old Testament King David wrote this psalm. David was God’s key person in his time and place, and (in the New Testament) Jesus was known as the Son of David. David was the eighth son in a huge family, and he was fated to be that family’s spare son. He was fated to stay with the sheep all his life.

In the human way of things, David was not needed. But the Lord did a divine thing. The Lord worked by grace. The Lord called him from the flocks to be the future king, the replacement for a king who had failed.

David did not really want to be king, and he never tried to be king, but the Lord, through many hardships, brought him into the kingship. God called David a man after his own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), and this seems like the highest level of success.
But then David lusted after the wife of one of his most faithful officers. David committed adultery with this woman Bathsheba, and killed the faithful husband, and was accused and exposed openly. He broke down and saw himself as he was: a sinner in need of grace, a sinner unworthy of any grace at all. (1 Samuel 11-12)

But David prayed for grace. This psalm is his prayer. And his prayer was answered.

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your unfailing love.” (Psalm 51:1) The phrase “unfailing love” here translates one of those Hebrew words for grace, and for beauty, and loveliness. David was asking for God to take action, on his behalf, in a way that he could never deserve, and never repay.

Justice is a beautiful thing, but justice would have killed him. So David asked for something more beautiful than justice. He asked for an amazing grace; a scandalous grace (it’s true) but an amazing grace. David admitted that he deserved nothing but the judgment and punishment of God: “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.” (51:4)

David prayed “have mercy” when he had no mercy on the woman’s husband. David prayed “according to your unfailing love,” after he had turned his back on his duty of love and grace to others.

David prayed “according to your great compassion,” when he had had no compassion at all. He knew that he was asking for something that he did not deserve.

The story of David’s life (as we read it in Samuel) tells us that the Lord answered his prayer for grace by giving him grace.

The grace of God in David’s life gave David what he knew he needed above all else: “Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (51:10)

The grace of God would make David’s heart pure again so that he could do what he had failed to do. David would try to see his life as full of the gifts of God and live accordingly. He would try to treat others with reverence, with the reverence due to them as gifts of God in their own right.

The truth is that David would not succeed at this very well. But it was his aim and his desire to live a life that was changed by grace whether he succeeded or not.

After his failure, David knew he did not deserve any real peace of mind ever again, but he prayed for it anyway: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.” (51:12)

This is the beauty and loveliness of God that Paul writes about when he says: God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:5-6) The beauty of this action by God, on our behalf, is grace.

Only grace would allow David to live fully as a servant and a child of God. Paul teaches us that it is the grace of God that lifts us up “into the heavenly realms” which means the capacity to live life in the freedom of the power and the presence of God, through Christ.

John tells us that the coming of God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, was full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) This grace gave us the power to see God, and to be reborn and recreated as brand new children of God, who are born by the will of God. (John 1:12-13, 18) And God’s will for us is grace.

There is a time when everything in our life is grace; even though we have earned nothing. When we are babies and little children we can’t do anything for anyone except to need grace; to need love, and nurture, and endless (tireless) care, and direction. When little children experience neglect instead of care, there is a neediness within them which often follows them all their lives.

Sometimes neighbors, and relatives, and other concerned people can step in and give them a new start and a new life. This is grace.

One way or other we can generally only give what we have been given. We give what we have received. We can only give grace when we have received grace.

No matter how independent we think we are, or ought to be, we can only build a good life on the foundation of having learned, at one time in our life (at least), that everything is a gift; everything is grace and grace alone. There is never a stage in life where you can become an abundant giver (a passionate, uncalculating giver) without continuing in a life full of grace, in which it seems that you live by grace alone.

Even in the Bible, the word grace is a strange and confusing word. When we study the Bible it is easier to find grace in the New Testament than in the Old Testament.
There is plenty of grace in the Old Testament, though. Otherwise the people of Israel would never have survived.

But the simple, clear word for “grace” is very rare in the Old Testament. The Bible itself tells us to expect this.

John, the writer of the gospel, tells us that the clearest thing to find in the Old Testament was the law. The clearest thing was the challenge to try living by the law and earning your way.

John tells us that Jesus helps us to see more of God than the law alone. Jesus helps us to see everything that God would give us through grace beyond the law. John says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, as made him known.”

John tells us that God, the Word, became flesh. He uses the word flesh, instead of the word for human or man, because the flesh is the weak core of human nature.
The flesh is the part of human life that wears out the soonest. The flesh represents us as frail people, as rebels hiding in the in darkness. The flesh represents us as people who cannot understand what it means to receive and welcome Jesus; as people who will not come and live in the light of God, who gives us life.

Jesus became flesh. He identified himself with all of human life (the best and the worst). But he went beyond that. Jesus was aware of our need, and so he identified himself, most of all, with the undeserving heart of human nature; the failing, sinful heart of human nature.

Jesus did not only identify himself with humans at their best, but at their worst. This is important.

This is why the cross is beautiful and lovely in all its awful horror. God, in his grace, goes the distance with us. God goes with us infinitely beyond any notion of worthiness or deserving.

God deals with the darkness in us until that time when we are truly free, until that time when he will put all the darkness away in a new heaven and a new earth.
Grace alone means that there is no other story. God is never done with us, or with grace. The story of grace is the only story and it never ends; and (after all) isn’t the good news of the gospel beautiful because it is the heart of a never-ending story.

It is a story where there is joy because everything is a gift, and the story only leads to the discovery of gift beyond gift, beyond gift, beyond gift: “one blessing after another” or “grace upon grace”.
Everything will be grace and grace alone. This is the good news of the gospel.