Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Without Grace

If you think of Grace at all at Christmas it probably relates to the short prayer that you will say over the dead bird at Christmas Dinner and you probably wouldn’t necessarily think of Amazing Grace as a Christmas song but you can’t really celebrate the Christmas Story without seeing Grace written all through it.

Now before we go much further we probably need to define what we mean by the word “Grace”.  Grace is one of those words that can have a multitude of meanings?  For example here are the definitions given by Collins English Dictionary:
  1. elegance and beauty of movement, form, expression, or proportion
  1. a pleasing or charming quality
  1. goodwill or favour
  1. the granting of a favour or the manifestation of goodwill, esp by a superior
  1. a sense of propriety and consideration for others
  1. (plural)
    1. affectation of manner (esp in the phrase airs and graces)
    1. See in someone's good graces
  1. mercy; clemency
  1. (Christianity)
    1. the free and unmerited favour of God shown towards man
    1. the divine assistance and power given to man in spiritual rebirth and sanctification
    1. the condition of being favoured or sanctified by God
    1. an unmerited gift, favour, etc, granted by God
  1. a short prayer recited before or after a meal to invoke a blessing upon the food or give thanks for it
  1. (music) a melodic ornament or decoration
And while those are good definitions of grace I like mine better.  “Justice is getting what you deserve, Mercy is getting less than you deserve and Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.”
And while I have used this definition for thirty years it’s not original with me.  It was over thirty years ago I heard a preacher by the name of Stuart Briscoe for the first time and Stuart defined Grace that way and I liked it.  As a matter of fact I loved the way that Stuart taught and that probably shaped me as a young preacher.
One of those funny stories, the first time I heard Stuart I was a staff pastor in NY, the next time I was pastoring in Truro then we moved to Australia and had only been there a year or so when Stuart came to town and I’ve heard him a couple of times since we’ve been back in Halifax. I feel like Stuart and I are linked by Ruth 1:16 . . . “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”
So to reiterate:  “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.  No 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 2014 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. 

And so we will hear that folks are looking for the Justice of God.  Trust me when I tell you that we don’t want to get what we deserve.

 Solomon tells us in Proverbs 21:15 Justice is a joy to the godly, but it terrifies evildoers.
And maybe you’re thinking “Sure but I’m not an evildoer.”  How do we measure evil and good and bad?  Do you have to be a Hitler or Stalin, or a Bin Laden to be evil?  What about the fact that justice is a joy to the godly?   How do we measure being godly?  Do you have to be a Mother Theresa or Billy Graham to be Godly?

Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-20 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
And then for the next 22 verses he lists what these folks have been up to, it wasn’t just “Big” sins, granted murder is there, we can understand that.  But the list also includes things like: they didn’t worship God, they traded the truth of God for a lie, and they were backstabbers and didn’t keep their promises.  They were greedy, hated some people and Gossiped about others.  And then after listing things which most of us have to some degree or another participated in he ends by saying, 
Romans 1:32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.  And then in the next verse he says Romans 2:1 You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse!
Yikes, no, justice definitely isn’t what you want from God. 

One of my favorite scriptures is 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.   Which is very similar to what Mark Twain said “Heaven goes by favour (grace); if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

Luke 2:8-9 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them.
If there Was No Grace, The Shepherds Wouldn’t Have Been Invited

If there is one scene that seems to shout Christmas to us it would be the shepherds on the hillside staring in wonder at an angel choir in the sky.  And we all know the story and Christmas wouldn’t be complete without the keepers of sheep pressed in tight to see the one who would be called the Lamb of God. 

And although they weren’t lead characters, the shepherds were part of the chorus in the production of the first Christmas.  When I was in high school our school was known for the great musicals we put on.  And during my three years we performed The King and I, South Pacific and the Music Man.  And when they were casting the musical they would cast the male lead and the female lead and then the supporting roles.  And all those roles had names, and were highlighted in the program.  And then they got to the bulk of the players and they were called the Chorus.  And that’s where I ended up, in the chorus.  But you couldn’t have the musical without the chorus.  If you just had the leads you wouldn’t have a musical you would just have a small ensemble.

In the same way there were the leads in the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph, the angel Gabriel and the baby Jesus.  They get top billing.  And then there were the supporting roles.  The innkeeper, King Herod and the Wise Men.  They got second billing.   And then you have the chorus.  That would be the angels and the shepherds.  If you were doing up a program from that first Christmas they would be listed in a group after all the others in the play it would say “and the shepherds.”

But they weren’t just peripheral or window dressing they were a vital part of the story. 

But do we ever stop and think about who the shepherds were?  And you are probably thinking “Well that’s a no brainer Denn, they were shepherds.”

For most of us the closest we’ve ever come to a shepherd is wearing a wool sweater and eating lamb chops.  And so because when we think of shepherds we immediately shift to the Christmas story we have kind of romanticize who they were what they did.  But really they were just guys who watched sheep.  Probably wasn’t an intensive training program for the job and they probably weren’t anywhere near the top of the economic heap.  Nor would they have been near the top of the social heap or even the religious heap.

The problem was their jobs, the demands of the flock were so great that even if the shepherds were inclined to be religious all of the rules and regulations of Judaism, with the various hand washings and other parts of the ceremonial law, were out of their reach, so they could never really be “Good Jews.”  It wasn’t that they were hostile toward their religion it just didn’t matter because life had pushed it aside.  Their father’s had probably been shepherds before them and this was the life they knew.  If there was a word to describe them it “Apathetic”  And yet God reached out to them and invited them to be a part of his story. 

That was me, before my best friend invited me to church it was simply irrelevant in my life, I didn’t have anything against the church, it just wasn’t a part of my life.  And yet God stepped and interrupted my life and invited me to join His story. 

And maybe that is where you are today, you are here but only because it’s easier than not being here.  A spouse or a parent or a child has pressured you to be here, you’re not hostile to the church but it’s just not where you are at right now.  But God’s grace is being extended to you today. 

Matthew 2:1-2 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
If there Was No Grace, The Magi Wouldn’t Have Been Invited   

We know very little about the Magi, but we do know that they were from the country of Persia which is now Iran.  And we know that the Magi were originally from a tribe of Medes who tried to overthrow the King.  When their little coup failed they put their political aspirations behind them and chose safer work as holy men, priest and teachers of Kings.   It was from this occupation that we discover that Magi is the root word of Magic.  Now we don’t know why the sign came to these men, maybe it was there for everyone but only these few choose to follow. 

Regardless of the reason, it was the Magi who followed the star to visit the Christ child, and maybe it was simply to signify that Christianity would ultimately be for the gentile as well as the Jew. Because even though Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah we are told that there was this sense of expectancy over the entire area of the world concerning the coming Messiah of the Jews.  The belief was summed up by the Roman Historian Suetonis when he wrote “There had spread over all the orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.”

While the Shepherds reacted in surprise to the announcement of the birth of Jesus for the Magi they were anticipating their invitation.   This was what they were looking for, they were excited because they had been anticipating the event.  Maybe this is where you are at, perhaps because of a life event you feel a need to connect with God

Every once in a while I meet someone who is God aware and are actively trying to connect with their creators.  They are seekers.  Perhaps it’s because a child was born or a parent has died or maybe you just sense a deep yearning in your soul that can only be filled with the eternal.  And God is still offering his Grace to seekers today we are told in Psalm 105:4 Search for the LORD and for his strength; continually seek him.  And God promises us in Jeremiah 29:13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.
But it’s wasn’t only the apathetic and the seekers who were invited to the party on that first Christmas morning.  Let’s go back to the scripture we started with this morning.  Matthew 2:1-2 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
If there Was No Grace Herod Wouldn’t Have Been Invited

Maybe this is a bit of a shock to you, after all Herod has received a lot of bad press through the years.  You ever get the feeling that sometimes we need to tear heroes and historical figures down just on principal.  In Australia they talked about the “tall poppy syndrome” and that was the desire to pull anyone down who had risen among the herd.

In Herod’s case it may very well have been valid.  Now granted he wasn’t perfect but he wasn’t entirely bad either.  After all he wasn’t called Herod the Great for nothing.  Herod was half Jew and half Gentile.  He had curried favor with the Romans during the civil wars in Palestine and kept the locals in line for the Romans.

While this did nothing to endear him to the Jewish population it endeared him to the Romans and if nothing else Herod knew which side his bread was buttered on.  In 47 BC he was appointed Governor of Palestine and seven years later he was appointed King by Octavian who you would know better as Caesar Augustus.  Not even Provincial Governments can do patronage like that, appointing somebody King.

The title Herod the Great wasn’t simply an empty title, he kept peace in Palestine throughout his reign which was not idle task, he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, built many great fortresses including the mountain top fort of Masada.  In the year AD 12 he underwrote the cost of the Olympic Games in Greece and was named the games “Perpetual President.”  And he wasn’t all bad, during the lean years he stopped collecting taxes, boy there’s a suggestion, and in 24 BC he had his gold plates melted down to buy corn for the poor.

But he did have one small, little problem.  I mean face it we all have one problem or another don’t we.  Herod’s problem was that he kept killing people.  Not just anyone, just anyone he suspected might be a threat to his leadership.  You see he was insanely suspicious and paranoid and he was always afraid that people were trying to usurp him.  Not that they weren’t.  And the older he got the more suspicious he got until someone even referred to him as a “Murderous Old Man”

During his reign he had his wife Mariamne executed along with her mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, his middle son Alexander and his third son Aristobulus.  Barlcay tells us that Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had said “It is safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son.” Which was a lot more poetic in the Greek where the word for Pig was Hus and for Son was Huios

When Herod was 70 he felt that he was near the end and he retired to Jerico and had some of the most notable and distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested on trumped up charges.  On his orders they were slaughtered at the moment of his death.  You see Herod knew how people felt about him and he said that he was determined to have tears shed at his death.  It worked.

And so it was as this old man who was crippled with hate and suspicion was told about the one who would become King of the Jews.  And by this he was a little disturbed. The Bible says in Matthew 2:3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, “troubled” now there’s an understatement. Herod got ugly.  And when his plans to find the child and do him in failed, he flipped. Matthew 2:16  Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  The only thing that saved Jesus was that an Angel visited Joseph in a dream and told him in Matthew 2:13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”
Some people wonder why genocide like this wouldn’t be mentioned in history.  Well, remember that at the time Bethlehem probably had a population of no more than 2000, less than half the population of Kingswood.  So we are probably talking the death of 25 or 30 children tops.  In a time when murder and unrighteousness was so wide spread the only people who would have been outraged at this tragedy would have been the parents.
Herod represents all those who are hostile to the claims of Christ.  God interrupted Herod’s hate filled life to let him know that there was a new King in town.  And the implication was that Herod didn’t have to react to that news bitterly, he lived in the Jewish culture and would have known the predictions of a coming Messiah who would offer grace and salvation.  And he could have welcomed and embraced the Messiah, but he didn’t.
Does God still offer grace to those who are hostile to his claims and his Son?   There is a story told in the book of Acts about a man named Saul whose man goal in life seemed to be to eradicate the early church.  He was there when Stephen the first Christian Martyr was killed, and we are told in Acts 8:1 Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. and the next time we see Saul it is recorded in the next chapter Acts 9:1 Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. Definitely hostile, and yet God reached down and through his grace invited him to be a part of the Jesus story and we know him as the Apostle Paul, probably Christianity’s greatest theologian and statesman who introduced Christianity to Asia and Europe and wrote a good part of the New Testament. 
One of my favorite hymns is Come Thou Fount and it was written by Robbie Robinson.  When Robinson was invited to join the Jesus story he was with a group of young men who had gone to heckle and throw stones at Methodist preacher George Whitefield.  It took three more years before he accepted the invitation but he started out hostile to the claims of Grace and Christ.
And maybe you know a friend a spouse a child who would have nothing to do with the Jesus story who is now a part of it, all because of Amazing Grace.
But here is the great part, have you ever noticed how God reached out to each of these groups.  With the shepherds, the apathetic He made sure they would be comfortable in approaching His Son, think about it?  Where was he born?  In a stable, had he been born in a nice home they would never have felt welcome, and yet God reached out to those who didn’t even know they needed reaching out to.

For the seekers the Magi, who were astronomers he set a star in the sky, relevant to them, but millions of others saw the start but never saw the significance.  And to Herod he sent the Magi, men who would have been familiar with the Royal Courts of Persia and would have carried the influence necessary to sway the King, imagine the shepherds trying to get in to see the King.
How is God invited you to join the Jesus story?  And what will you do with his offer of Grace this morning?


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