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.

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