THIS WEEK'S MESSAGE
St. Andrew's Lutheran Church is the Founding Member of the Canadian Association of Lutheran Congregations (CALC).
You Have What The World Can't Offer
June 25, 2017
Text: John 1:17
"Turnabout is fair play" goes the old saying. When your former pastor Terry Sauder retired, he and his wife Brenda attended St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church until they moved to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. And from time to time Terry would preach when I was away on holidays or church business. In my retirement I'm required to be away from St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church for one year so that the new pastor "doesn't have to put up with me" and can have a fresh start. So I guess it's only right that I should help out this congregation during the time of your pastoral search process. I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to share God's word with you today.
Since all of you are good Lutherans, you know the big celebration that is going to take place later this year. In October we will be celebrating the ??? - who knows what we will be celebrating? That's right - it will be the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. According to tradition, on October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The ensuing Reformation was used by God to bring the Church back to the three basics of the faith.
First, there is grace. Our salvation is solely and uniquely God's gift, with God taking the initiative, making possible reconciliation through Jesus Christ.
Secondly, faith. Faith is trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. It is a reckless confidence in God's promises, sufficient for time and eternity.
And thirdly, God's Word. We are shown in the Scriptures how we may know, worship, and serve God.
This morning I'm going to speak about something very scandalous. I'm going to be talking about that first basic... that thing the Bible calls "grace." And if you don't think God's grace is scandalous, I hope that by the end of this sermon you do!
Let us pray. Father, as we once again look at your Word today, quiet our restless hearts so that we may truly hear what you would say to us. And may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation, AMEN.
Please turn with me to the first chapter of the Gospel of John. John begins the book with a tremendous statement about Christ - "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." From there John goes on to tell about this Word who was the light of men and women, but how the world did not recognize him. And then we come to the following statement about Christ, which I will read, beginning with verse 14. Please stand for the reading of our Gospel lesson. Hear God's enduring Word.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me." From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:14-17;NIV). This is God's Word.
What is this thing that we call "grace"? What is this thing that Jesus never directly spoke about, but which Paul and Peter can't stop writing about? What is this thing that Jesus never spoke about, but which was exhibited in extravagant ways both during his life among us and following his ascension into heaven? What is this thing called "grace" that both Christians and non-Christians alike misunderstand?
A simple definition of grace is that it is God's undeserved or unmerited favor. The Bible teaches that grace is God giving good to us that we could never hope to deserve or earn. God showed His grace in sending His only Son to die for us on the cross in our place. The words of Romans 5:8 spell this out for us: "God demonstrates His own love for us - His absolutely unmerited favor - in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." That is GRACE in capital letters!
And God continues to bestow His grace on us each and every day as He gives us other things we could never deserve nor earn:
His guidance in life-decisions -
His peace when life seems to be falling apart -
His forgiveness when we disobey Him -
His strength when we try to do His will -
His healing power when we are sick .... and I could go on and on.
Now many of you have probably heard the above definition of grace from your Sunday School days until now. You might even have the definition of grace committed to memory. It is nothing new to you. You even sing about it. But do you really understand what it means when we say that God is a God of grace?
Well, we begin to grasp this concept when we understand that grace simply means that bound up in our Heavenly Father is an inclination to give benefits to undeserving people. Now humans are known to bestow benefits on deserving people. For example, if you are known as a hardworking employee, your boss -- out of the goodness of his heart -- may give you the afternoon off or a bonus after you've just finished an unusually difficult project. Or if you measure up to some standard - whether that be an educational, work or beauty standard, you might be deemed worthy to be rewarded in some fashion. There is nothing unusual about this type of behavior. You see this kind of grace all the time. But God's grace is far above this human version. God's grace is as extraordinary as human grace is ordinary. He gives good things even to undeserving people. And it is at this point that we begin to see the scandal of grace.
John Stott, in his book "Authentic Christianity", reminds us that "the repeated promises in the Koran of the forgiveness of a compassionate and merciful Allah are all made to the meritorious, whose merits have been weighed in Allah's scales, whereas the gospel ... is good news to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales."
Another basic truth about grace is that it is unfair. And that is just scandalous to many people. Because of grace, repentant sinners do not get what fairness would say they deserve. Bill Hybels, in his book "The God You Are Looking For", says that to understand this aspect of grace we must compare it to justice and mercy. And he sets up the following scenario to help us do that.
Let's say you wake up one morning and, as is your custom, you throw on your robe and go outside to get the morning paper. As you do, you hear the screech of rubber and look up to see the teen who lives down the street from you driving his father's car. You know he is only 14 .... not old enough to have a driver's license. He is barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel and he is driving the car literally all over the street. He careens from side to side, out of control and finally he crashes into your yard ... barely missing you.... and totally destroying your mailbox, part of the hedge you put in last year, and your brand-new fence. You run to the car, discover that the boy is okay, and then, at this point you have three choices:
Your first choice is to treat this teen with justice. This means you give him exactly what he deserves. You call the police knowing that he will be given a ticket for driving without a license. You call his parents to tell them what happened - knowing he will be grounded until he is 39 years old. And, you force the boy to get a job to pay for your mailbox, your fence, and your hedge. Now, exercising this option does not make you a bad person. You are simply giving the boy exactly what he deserves - no more - no less. You are being fair or just.
Your second option would be to treat this wayward adolescent with mercy. Mercy is giving someone a little bit less than he or she deserves .... adding a little compassion to your judgment of his behavior. If you choose this option, you might say, "I'm not going to call the police, but I am going to call your parents, and we are going to sit down and agree on the cost of the mailbox, hedge, and fence and you will have to work out some way to re-pay me."
This should make the teen very happy and thankful because he is getting less than he deserves. You are being merciful to him.
But there is a third option. It doesn't square with human common sense. It is risky. It could blow up in your face. Some might even call it scandalous. Your third option is this: Instead of treating the boy with justice, or mercy.... you might choose to treat the kid with grace. And here's what that would look like. You help the boy out of the car and say something like, "You messed up young man. You destroyed my mailbox and flattened my fence. I saved two years for this fence and it was installed just a week ago. You also took out my hedge. I just trimmed that hedge and take great pride in keeping it looking sharp. I don't know if I'll ever be able to get it to match up again. You also nearly killed me. But I'm not going to call the police. I'm not even sure I want to get you in a whole lot of trouble with your family. I can fix the mailbox and the fence and even the hedge --- and I will. Why don't you and I get in my car and go find a place where we can get a burger and sit down and talk. Then I can find out a little bit more about who you are and what's going on in your life. There's only one condition --- I'll drive!"
What is your reaction to that last choice? You might say, "That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of in my entire life! All this delinquent is going to do is take another joyride tomorrow and plow into someone else's mailbox." And you know, he might just do that. That is the risk and scandal of grace. But it is also possible that your graceful choice will touch the boy at the deepest part of his soul. Your interest in his welfare and future might be the one thing that will unlock potential that he has long since forgotten. Your action may lead to the transformation of his life. That might be the turning point for this young man. That is grace ... an absolutely undeserved, unfair gift.
This is so hard for us to comprehend. In fact it may be - next to our need to forgive others - the most difficult spiritual truth for us to embrace. Justice is so much easier for us to understand than grace. When we are incensed by the crimes of others, horrified by the evil that stalks our world, we all want a God of justice.
Several years ago (June 2015), David Conley broke into a house near Houston, Texas, and then killed two adults and six children. Would you be surprised that the family and neighbours demanded justice?
And then we heard the horrific story of the young 20-year-old woman who killed her infant son before going to party at a disco because the child was keeping her from the lifestyle she enjoyed. People are asking for justice.
And closer to home, when wildfires forced people to leave their homes in the southern Okanagan region, they returned only to find that criminals had broken in and stolen a lot of their belongings. We are incensed at such a heinous crime committed against people who were already dealing with a lot on their plates. We want the police to find those perpetrators and throw the book at them!
But if any of us were to die tonight, which would we want to prevail - God's justice? --- or His grace? You see, if God is truly a God of only perfect justice and not loving grace, then there is nothing that will protect any of us from His divine judgment. If he was only a God of perfect justice then we would all be in a lot of trouble because as it says in the third chapter of Romans, "There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ... and the wages of sin ... the just and fair thing that we all deserve ... is death."
We deserve death, says the Bible, but because of God's grace our salvation is free. We don't contribute anything to our salvation. Even that first nudging of faith that leads a person to God is His gracious gift to us. In John 6:44 Jesus says as much, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him..." In fact the only thing we contribute to our salvation is our sin. As it says in Romans 3:24, we are "...justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." But we sometimes have great difficulty believing that it could actually be free.
During the season of Advent, a pastor by the name of Marjorie Kitchell decided to illustrate the availability of God's gift of salvation. "Whoever wants this beautiful Christmas poinsettia may have it," she said to her congregation. "All you have to do is take it." Marjorie reports that they just stared at her. She waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally a mother timidly raised her hand and said, "I'll take it."
"Great! It's yours." That's what she had wanted. Quick and easy, and on with the application of her sermon. But to her astonishment, the woman nudged her son and said, "Go get it for me."
"No," said Marjorie. "Whoever wants this gift must come and get it personally. You can't send a substitute."
The woman shook her head, not willing to risk embarrassment. She waited again. It was a gorgeous flower, unusually large, wrapped in bright red cellophane with a gold satin ribbon. It was set in front of the pulpit to brighten their small sanctuary during the holiday season. Several people had commented on how beautiful the plant was. Now it was free for the taking.
Someone snickered, "What's the catch?"
"No catch," she replied. "It's free!" No one moved.
A college student asked, "Is it glued to the altar?" Everyone laughed.
"It is not glued to the altar. Nor are there any strings attached. It's yours for the taking."
"Well," asked a pretty teenager, "can I take it after the service?"
Marjorie shook her head, though she was tempted to give in. "You must come and get it now." "Today is the day of salvation," she thought as she marveled at the power of passive resistance.
Marjorie was beginning to wish she'd never started the whole thing, when a woman she'd never seen before stood up in the back. Quickly, as if she were afraid she'd change her mind, she strode to the altar and picked up the plant. "I'll take it," she said.
As she returned to her seat carrying the free gift, Marjorie launched with enthusiasm into her text, Romans 6:23. "The gift of God is eternal life. Believe. Receive. It's free!"
When the service had ended and most of the people had gone home, the woman who claimed the poinsettia came to the platform, where the pastor was picking up her Bible to leave.
"Here!" she said as she held out her hand. "This flower is too pretty to just take home for free. I couldn't do that with a clear conscience." Marjorie looked down at the crumpled paper the woman had stuffed into her hand. It was a ten dollar bill.
What is it that keeps us from accepting God's gift? What is it that keeps you from accepting God's gift? Are you trying to gain some brownie points with God? Are you trying to get good enough so that God will accept you? Are you trying to overcome some fault ... some addiction ... some failure before coming to God? Nothing you can do will ever make you good enough to deserve God's grace. The scandal of God's grace is that it is undeserved and for the undeserving. But perhaps the greatest scandal is the extent of that undeserved grace. If grace is going to come to anyone, it should be to sinners up to my caliber. But that's about the limit.
Just the mention of the name of Jeffrey Dahmer sent shivers of revulsion through many people in the early 1990's. For those who don't remember, Dahmer was the individual who was convicted of the murder of 17 men and boys - many whom he had abused and then cannibalized. As one person commented, he said that his "computer's thesaurus had 32 synonyms for the word 'vile,' but each of them fell short of describing the appalling [actions] of this troubled man." He redefined the boundaries for brutality.
Some time later an interviewer asked Dahmer how he could possibly do the things he did, and Dahmer said that at the time he didn't believe in God, so he felt accountable to no one. He began with petty crimes, experimented with small acts of cruelty, and then just kept going and going further and further into depravity. Dahmer went to prison for his crimes where he himself was eventually beaten to death by another prisoner.
Now what would you say if Dahmer had turned to Christ and repented of his sin? Most would probably have the same initial reaction that I had when I heard that the notorious Watergate figure - Chuck Colson - had accepted Christ while in prison. We would be very skeptical. And not only that, but with a person like Dahmer, we might have a hard time believing that God would let him off easy. You and I are like that. We think that God's grace is sufficient for average sinners but not BIG enough for deviants like this guy. But that's exactly what happened. Some months before his death Dahmer turned to Christ and repented of his sin. People who knew him in prison said that when this happened his total demeanor changed. Dahmer became one of the most faithful worshipers at the prison chapel ... active in Bible study and a prolific reader of Christian books. Those who knew him said that he had experienced a changed life.
God's grace to you and me... that's great! But God's grace to a person like Jeffrey Dahmer? Now that's scandalous! How scandalous, you ask? One woman who was sitting in church, when she heard of Dahmer's conversion, said that if Dahmer was going to be in heaven, she didn't want to be there!
Now do you know why do we call this grace "amazing"?
Grace is amazing because it goes against the grain of common sense.
It is amazing because it is scandalous.
It is amazing because so many people reject it.
It is amazing because it comes to us freely.
It is amazing because all we have to do to receive it is to admit our guilt and our utter helplessness.
It is amazing because it comes to us as a gift through Jesus Christ. "From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."
The songwriter speaks of this truth this way:
"Wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it, where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden, setting my spirit free,
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me!" [from Wonderful Grace of Jesus]
Have you experienced that wonderful, amazing grace of Jesus? My prayer is that if you haven't, you will today.
And then, will you pass that grace on to others? For with that grace you have something that the world desperately needs, but which it can't offer.
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