Sunday, September 15, 2013

Grace, More Than a Girl's Name

When I had been a Christ follower for a few days my best friends brother asked me what my favorite song was, I wasn’t sure exactly what answer he was looking for but considering he was a pastor I figured that “We’re Here for a Good Time” by Trooper wasn’t the right answer, and so I said “Amazing Grace”.  Now to be truthful I’m not even sure if I could have hummed the tune or quoted any of the words but it was the only “Christian” song that I could think of on the spur of the moment. 

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found was blind but now I see.”  It is probably the most recognized tune in the Church.  In July of 2010 Darlene Zschech led a group of 18,000 worshippers in the Philippines in singing Amazing Grace in 60 different languages.  And apparently it is the only song that sounds good on bag pipes. 

Not only is Amazing Grace the most loved song in the Christian Church but Amazing Grace is indeed the defining doctrine of the Christian Church.  But what is grace?  Before I became a follower of Jesus Grace was either the name of the lady who lived down the road from us, or was what we said before we ate at my grandmother’s house.  Neither of which was relevant to me.  But Grace is more than a girl’s name and it’s more than the obligatory prayer whispered before a meal when you have the pastor over for supper.

So, what is grace? Well, grace can mean a whole bunch of things from elegance to mercy to the prayer you say before you eat. 

But when we are talking about Divine Grace it’s defined in The Oxford English Dictionary: “The free and unmerited favour of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowing of blessings.”  But what does that mean?

 Through the years you have heard me define grace by saying “Justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is getting less then you deserve and grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” 

To illustrate, suppose one of your children misbehaved.  Now that won’t work, because I know that your children never misbehave.  So you will have to imagine that one of your children had misbehaved, still a bit of a stretch but work with me.   Your child has misbehaved and because it’s 2013 you can’t spank them so you banish them to their room until they are 18.  That is justice, getting what they deserve.  But after an hour or so you start feeling sorry for them so you tell them it’s all right they can come out now.  That is mercy getting less than what they deserve.  But then you say, “You know what, let’s go for an ice-cream.”  That is grace, when they get what they don’t deserve. 

But what does grace look like?

His Name was Joseph and he began his life with a silver spoon in his mouth.  His father was Jacob, Abraham’s Grandson, who had become a wealthy land owner and farmer and Joseph was his favourite son.  From the time he was just a child it was evident that he was favoured, and perhaps a little bit spoiled, or actually perhaps a lot bit spoiled, actually there was no perhaps about it, he was daddy’s favourite and Daddy wasn’t afraid to show him or his other children how he felt about Joseph. 

I don’t know what the final straw was, maybe it was the beautiful coat that his father bought him, or maybe it was when he had the dreams about his brothers bowing down to him and worshipping him.  Maybe it was when the rest of his brothers had to tend the sheep out in the field and Joseph stayed at home.  Or maybe it was just that opportunity presented itself.  Joseph had gone out to the fields to check up on his brothers for his father, and the brothers saw their opportunity.  They threw Joseph into a dried up well and then to add insult to injury they sold him into slavery.

From favourite son to slave and the story doesn’t end there.  Joseph was taken to Egypt and was sold to a man named Potiphar.  If we follow the story along we discover that Joseph was able to gain the trust of his master and eventually became manager of everything that Potiphar owned, but when he refused to give in to the advances of his master’s wife she framed him for rape and he ended up in prison.

From favourite son to slave, from trusted servant to prisoner, you really know the path to downward mobility don’t you Joseph?  And to be fair, Joseph’s problems began because he wasn’t very gracious.  Well it’s pretty obvious that if anyone needed God’s grace it would be Joseph.  But he’s not alone.  Some Need God’s Grace Because of Their Attitudes you know, the way we speak to people and treat people.

If Joseph started from the top and worked his way down Moses started from the bottom and worked his way up.  The people of Israel had become slaves to the people of Egypt and when the pharaoh began to feel threatened by the growing number of Israelites in his country the Bible says he decided to make their slavery even more bitter, kind of the old “I’ll give you something to cry about”.  When the harsh working conditions didn’t break their spirits he issued an order to the midwives to kill the baby boys of Israel as soon as they were born.  When the midwives refused the Pharaoh ordered all the newborn boys to be thrown into the Nile River.  And it was into this climate that Moses was born.

His mother hid him for three months and when it became apparent that she could hid him no more he was placed into a floating basket and placed in the reeds at the edge of the Nile in hopes that someone would find him and take pity on him.

And don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?  Because that’s exactly what happened and the story gets better because he wasn’t found by just anyone he was found by the daughter of the Pharaoh.  Who promptly feel in love with this beautiful little baby boy. And the story gets better and better, Moses was adopted into the royal household and enjoyed all the perks and privileges of growing up the adopted son of the most powerful man in the country.

What an opportunity to help his people, to make a difference in his world, to impact society.  There was so much that he could do, but did he?  No.  As a matter of fact we find no indication that Moses even acknowledged his roots until he was forty years old and on that one occasion he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite and he killed the Egyptian and buried his body in the sand.  Nasty temper Moses, obviously you never read anything by James Barrie because he said “Temper is a weapon that we hold by the blade.”

Moses, what were you thinking, you had the power the prestige and the position to make a difference in your world and you blew it.  Obviously you weren’t thinking were you? You ever feel like Moses?  You had it all and then you  blew it, and all because you couldn’t control your temper.  Some Need God’s Grace Because of Their Temper, we say and do things in the heat of the moment and hurt those around us.

Some called him King, others said he was a man after God’s own heart, she called him honey. David was Israel’s greatest King.  He had taken the Jews from being nothing more than a collection of Nomadic tribes to being one of the most powerful nations in the known world.  It was under David’s leadership and direction that Israel reached the high point of her history.  Economically, politically and spiritual Israel was at its peak. And David was riding high on the crest of popular opinion.

Now I don’t know if David got bored or if he was going through a midlife crisis thing or what happened but one day when his troops had all gone off to war, David stayed home.  And you know what they say, “Idle hands are the devil’s hands.”  Well David should have kept busy doing what he was supposed to be doing.

The bible tells us that one afternoon that David has just gotten up from taking a nap, a nap, must be nice to be king.  And as he’s strolling along the roof top of the palace he notices that one of his neighbours is taking a bath in the buff in the backyard. Well this lady was not hard to look at all and David sent someone to find out who she was.  The answer came back that she was Bathsheba and that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers, a man named Uriah.  

David didn’t waste any time, he had Bathsheba brought to his home, I don’t know what he was thinking, perhaps he didn’t know what he was thinking, perhaps he wasn’t thinking.  Maybe it was all innocent and he wanted to compliment her on her beauty, or maybe warn her that when she bathed in the buff in the backyard that it wasn’t nearly as private as she thought it was.  Or maybe he knew all along where this would lead.  It was Scottish Writer Margaret Opliphant who so wisely pointed out “Temptations come, as a general rule, when they are sought.” 

Well it may have started out innocent but it didn’t end innocent, I think David must have been a fan of Robert A. Heinlein who wrote “Always yield to temptation, you never know when it will pass your way again.” The bible says they slept together and if that is all they did there wouldn’t have been a problem, but the next time David sees Bathsheba she had some news for him, she said something like “Hi Daddy.”  David, David, David.  What have you done?  Well we know what he did, but why did he do it.

Well David begins to think, and scheme after all he didn’t get to be King for nothing.  And he sends for Uriah thinking that Bathsheba could seduce her husband, although he had been away from home for a while so there probably wouldn’t need to be a lot of seduction, and Uriah would think the child was his, he must not have been real good with math.

But that isn’t the way it happened.  Uriah refused to go home; he said his fellow soldiers were out defending the country it wouldn’t be right for him to be spending the night with his wife.  Oh drat, it’s on to plan “B” then so David invited Uriah to dinner, proceeded to get him drunk and then sent him home, but still Uriah refused.  Well if you can’t blame hubby then get rid of hubby, and that’s what David did, he had Uriah’s commander send him deep into enemy territory and Uriah was killed.

So let’s see, David, you slept with another man’s wife, and then you had her husband murdered.  Hope she was worth it.  David you were thinking with your hormones and not your head.  And if you were to get what you deserved under the law of your kingdom and your God you would be killed, you are in serious need of God’s grace. 

 Some Need God’s Grace Because of Their Actions.  How many of us have done what we knew we shouldn’t be doing?  Because we going to enjoy it for the here and now regardless of how it might affect our future or the future of those we love.

For three years Peter had walked with Jesus.  For three years Peter had listened to Jesus.  For three years Peter had been Jesus closest friend.  And in three statements he dismissed those three years as irrelevant and non-existent.

Each month we celebrate communion, or the Lord’s supper; the first time it was celebrated was with Jesus and the twelve apostles the night before he was to be crucified.  He knew what was going to happen but the rest of them didn’t, so at the end of the meal he tried to bring them up to speed.  When Peter heard Jesus talk about how things would turn out he tried to reassure his friend that he wouldn’t be alone.  He made statements like: “Even if I have to die for you I’ll never desert you.”  And Jesus looked at him and said “Peter the truth is, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”

Well, you can’t say he wasn’t warned.  I’m sure that most of you know the rest of the story.  Jesus is arrested and hauled first before the High Priests and then before Pilate, the Roman Governor.  Peter who had been so filled with bravado just hours before followed from a distance and found himself huddled for warmth around a fire with servants of the high priest.  As the flickering flames lit the faces around the fire one of the servant girls looked at Peter and asked if he was one of the disciple, “nope, not me.” He replied, “Must be someone who looks like me.”  At the words another person looks up and says, “She’s right, I’m sure that you were with the one they call the Messiah” and again Peter shook his head and denied it.  It wasn’t long and someone said “you were with them; you even talk like a Galilean.” And with that Peter began to curse and swear, denying that he had even met the carpenter.

I wonder what Peter was so afraid of?  These weren’t people of influence, they had no authority, they weren’t even making accusations, they were just curious.  But in Peter’s mind they held his freedom if not his life in their hands.  Ernest Hemingway had it right when he said “Cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.”

And then the rooster crowed.  Peter, fisherman, apostle, coward.  How could you do that to your best friend?  Peter, you’ve painted yourself with such a bright yellow? As a Christ follower have you ever denied Christ?  Maybe it wasn’t with words but with the lack of words, you knew you should have spoken up and you didn’t.   Some Need God’s Grace Because of Their Waffling.  One day they claim Christ with their words and deeds and the next day their words and deeds say “I don’t know Jesus”  

Have you ever felt like you had blown it in your Christian walk?  Have there been times that your behaviour has been less then admirable?  Perhaps like Joseph you just can’t seem to get it right, and you know that God must be angry at you or you wouldn’t have such rotten luck.  But the story hasn’t been finished yet.  Joseph eventually became the second most powerful man in Egypt and because of his position he was able to save his entire family during a famine that affected entire Eastern Mediterranean.  He summed up his life in a conversation that he had with his brothers in Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.
Maybe like Moses you have a temper that needs to be brought under control, and let there be no doubt about it, if you have a problem with your temper it will need to be brought under control.  But Moses story didn’t end with him on the lamb, instead God brought him back to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel from slavery to freedom.  That was where the original Passover celebration came from.    When the writer of the book of Hebrews was listing all the heroes of faith in the bible he gives Moses five verses, more space than anyone else on the list.  This is only part of it Hebrews 11:27 It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible.
Have you struggled with moral failure like David?  Figure that you’ve blown it and there is no hope for you?  Don’t know if you can fall much further than David fell, and yet in Psalm 51 we read David’s prayer of repentance Psalm 51:1-2 Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.
And?  Well in 2 Samuel 12:13 David is talking to Nathan the Preacher who confronted him with his sin, and this is a part of that conversation:  2 Samuel 12:13 Then David confessed to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “Yes, but the LORD has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin.
The story wasn’t over.  In the New Testament Jesus is referred to as the Son of David on at least 15 occasions.

Do you ever feel like Peter?  In your life, or your behaviour or your words you have denied knowing Jesus. You can’t imagine that he could ever love you or forgive you after your betrayal.  And yet it was after Peter’s betrayal, after his denial that Jesus gave him three opportunities to express his love.  One affirmation for each denial.  And then Jesus looked at him and said “then take care of my sheep”, entrusting the early church to Peter.  If we read through the book of Acts we discover Peter preaching in front of thousands of people, and when he was arrested and pulled in front of the authorities who commanded him to stop never again speak or teach about Jesus listen to what he said, Acts 4:19 But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him?
And maybe you have nothing in common with Joseph, Moses, David or Peter but here is the reality:  We All Need God’s Grace Because We Are People
Each of us is far from God, and according to his word justice for us would be to be separated for eternity from God and goodness, and light and love, and compassion.  In our tradition that is called hell.  Mercy for us would be annihilation, to simply cease to exist at death.  But instead God offers Grace, the thing we don’t deserve, eternal life in his presence. 
Why did Jesus come?  It was the tax collector Matthew who recalled a prophecy from the Old Testament that speaks of the coming messiah, the one we call Jesus Matthew 12:20-21 He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious. And his name will be the hope of all the world.”
It was that great American philosopher Yogi Berra who said “The game isn't over until it's over.”  If you feel like you’ve failed in your Christian walk Jesus isn’t going to crush you or put out your flame, even if that is what you deserve, he is there to pick you up.  Listen to the promise of the Bible, this is for you this morning, I don’t know where you are on your spiritual journey but this promise is for you.
Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

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