December 29, 2019
Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14
During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until author C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the commotion about?” he asked, and he heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
Grace is the theological equivalent of passing go in Monopoly; no matter how many times you pass it, you receive the same treatment every time. God’s greatest gift is endless, limitless, and free. Someone once said, “Grace is everything for nothing to those who don’t deserve anything.” Should we take that apart just a bit? First, grace is everything for nothing; okay, why does this sound a bit suspicious to us? We seriously doubt you can get something for nothing, so how can we believe God offers us everything for nothing?
Well, the easy answer is we must take God at His word because we have no way to refute this truth. Grace is entirely the purview of God’s being, the monumental gift the world has yet to process. When God chose to enter into humanity’s messy existence, He did so in a way that would forever bond us to Him in a relationship unrivaled anywhere. Yes, humanity was in a relationship with the Creator from the time we were created in the divine image, but our determination as a species to sever those ties whenever it suits us left a large gap in our wholeness, in our personhood. This is where we became those who don’t deserve anything.
Thanks to God’s bond to humanity, grace is sacrificial. Justice is getting what you deserve; mercy is not getting what you deserve; grace is getting what you don’t deserve. It’s the last-minute stay of execution, the early release from prison, the ripping up of the traffic ticket by the officer who stopped you. The apostle John tells us that God is love. I conclude that Jesus is grace.
The apostle Paul gave Him that designation in the book of Romans when he wrote, “By grace you have been saved; and this is not from you, it is the gift of God.” This gift is what we acknowledge and celebrate in this season of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily think about the birth of Christ in that way, as a gift of grace. For that we must look forward to Lent, a good seven weeks away, a season seemingly unwelcome and foreign to the one we see all around us, whose arrival we await with some of the busiest days of the year.
As the way of getting ready for any birth involves preparation and busyness, we don’t ascribe any shame to our frenetic shopping, baking or decorating. After all, we reason, we’re doing it for the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth. So why don’t we feel that joy in the store fighting for the last Lego kit or cookware set? It’s likely because we don’t always remember why we’re celebrating until we make our way to church on Christmas Eve.
It’s the nature of Lent to place us in the right frame of mind to think about the sacrificial nature of grace. We hear the familiar words of David in the Ash Wednesday readings, confessing his wrongdoing and guilt, asking God to create a new, clean heart in him. This is the way grace works, and who else but the man after God’s own heart could have described so eloquently the nature of this gift we take for granted and can’t quite comprehend?
There is no definitive way to explain grace or begin to understand it fully, only that with grace we can see our way forward to explore the depths of God’s love for us, the love that enabled Him to become one of us, completely devoted to the plan of salvation, and this after spending three years living among us, delivering the greatest teachings the world has known.
We hopefully come to realize over time the way grace works, but in case we have missed a lesson or two, these are three ways we come to understand the work of grace in our lives. A United Methodist Bishop said we interact with grace in these ways: 1) grace is unconditional. Any other relationship we have will never stand up to our relationship with Jesus because humans always have limits. 2) grace is transformation, in the way David understood God to work in his life. 3) grace is invitational, as seen in the life of Paul who was called into service by God to become an evangelist.
At the beginning of Advent season, I proposed to relate how Christ’s appearance in the world was tasked with bringing change to human hearts and human society. Therefore, grace is the subject of our worship today. When do we not need to hear about it? If anything, we need a refresher course each year.
The late Bishop Rueben Job wrote, “Our earthly existence takes on new meaning when we choose to remember the God put on our humanity and chose to wear that humanity as an ordinary man. Our ordinary existence is not so ordinary when we remember that God chose this existence to give us a true picture of the divine. Therefore, there are no ordinary moments in any lifetime. All are precious gifts of opportunity to know and serve the One who made us and chose to stand with us and like us in the gift of life.”
We may need to familiarize ourselves with grace and why we need to receive it, need to give it, need to communicate it. This short passage from a tiny book containing a single letter of Paul to a young leader packs a mighty strong spiritual wallop, so let’s break it down so we can do it justice. What we read today is an explanation of the instructions Paul gave to Titus for overseeing new believers. He told him how to mentor the new believers, then continued to tell them why their behavior was important.
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope -” I’ll leave it there until we take a closer glance into this statement. What he was describing here was the birth of Christ, the conduit bringing salvation from God to a world in turmoil, to people who living under the oppression of the Holy Roman Empire.
One could easily imagine what barriers to spiritual growth might have existed in that world. It would have been difficult to focus on faith if one was a slave or someone with struggles making it hard to practice the fundamentals of a religion based on one man’s sacrificial death. As John Wesley once said, “Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace.”
Like blowing on a dying ember, the faith of these believers would grow, and it would spread, but the burden for continuing in grace would be theirs. As the rest of the verses tell us, before Christ returned, they were meant to accept His power to transform their hearts, to transform their lives and their situations. This is reflected in the writings of a 12th century monk, who said, “God it is absolutely necessary to me is Your grace if I begin to do something good, to continue with it, and then to complete it. Without your grace I can do nothing, but with it strengthening me I can do all things.”
Our reception of grace is absolutely vital if we look to become the people of faith God desires us to be. We are the bearers of the light of God, living within us. We are the conduits of His love, visible to the hurting, the grieving, the generations of people who have grown up with no knowledge of the God who loves them as well.
Jesus reminded people of this frequently, about the transformation from self-centered sinner to humble servant. The love of God is visible in the believer who has surrendered to His transforming grace. How we have overlooked the gift of grace when it stares us right in the face! Truly it is everywhere apparent through the acts of those who have found it, employed it, lived it.
A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII. He was a colorful character who used to take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.
Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.”
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
This is similar to what Jesus did. He first paid the penalty for us and then he taught us to respond to that amazing grace by practicing true religion. Grace is greater than any of our sins; it is the response God gives to the crags and rocky places within us, smoothing the sharp points and smoothing out a strong dwelling place for grace to live.