A sermon by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga.
February 3, 2013
O God, our Father, each time we pray we feel like we ought to confess again our sin. We know our hearts, and if we know them so well, we recognize that you do, too. May our time of confession earlier in the service express our true desire to tear down any barriers at all caused by our sin. Do not hold our pride, our anger, our jealousy, our selfishness or even our blindness against us. Forgive even the sin that we cannot see in ourselves. Pour out your grace upon us. Help us to receive and to know the love and the blessing that you give us every day, the love and blessing you give simply because it pleases you. Thank you for loving us, sinners though we be. We know that we are errant children and wandering sheep and our need is for a patient parent and a gracious shepherd. We acknowledge our need and your greatness today. We acknowledge that if it were up to us we could never earn your love nor find our way back to you. We thank you for never giving up on us and never withholding yourself from us. We thank you for grace that is greater than all of our sin. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
In those times of teaching when I ask Christians to make a list of the words that are a part of our faith that sometimes cause them trouble, some of the words are complicated. They have been studying up on theology or they have been paying close attention to somebody’s sermon and they will say, “I need help understanding atonement or justification” or one of the other words with lots of syllables. But there is usually one word on the list that is a very simple word. It is a one syllable word. It is a word that a second grader could read and probably rhyme a dozen times. It is the great theme of scripture that we look at today. It is the word grace. Ask a group of Christians to make a list of words they would like to know better, words they are not sure they fully understand, and you will get the complicated words but, invariably, near the top of the list will be this simple, fundamental word that is popular in hymns. It is a word that is elusive to comprehend. What does the word grace really mean?
I did a survey this week. I used the King James version of the Bible because that is the most common language to everyone. In the Old Testament, the word is used dozens of times, and the majority of the time it is used in an expression such as, “If I might find grace in your eyes or in your sight,” or in a prayer, “May I find grace in your sight.” Of course, we don’t have to look exclusively to find the word concept. How could anyone have written the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,” without knowing that sense of God’s provision, God’s leadership, and God reaching out to us? Who could write the 23rd Psalm unless they understood the idea of God’s grace?
It is ironic in the New Testament that the word grace is never recorded on Jesus’ lips. Did you know that? There are occasions where Luke says that he “grew in grace.” The Gospel writer, John, says he was “full of grace and truth,” but Jesus never utters the word grace. Although we don’t have to look very far, we can find stories and examples of Jesus’ teaching that was all about God’s grace.
When the Prodigal Son returns home and the father sees him from afar and runs to meet him, isn’t that a picture of God’s grace? When he tells the parable of the publican and the Pharisee and the one who says he cannot lift his eyes toward heaven because he knows his heart, he says, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus says, “Surely, he went down to his house justified.” Is that not a perfect picture of grace?
Read the story about the man by the Pool of Siloam in John 5. Quite honestly, he is not a very attractive individual. He is a bit of a complainer and doesn’t really demonstrate any faith whatsoever, but Jesus heals him anyway. It is a demonstration of God’s grace.
Of course, when we get to the Apostle Paul, Paul has a couple of different realms of vocabulary. On one hand, he speaks about flesh, death, law, and works. On the other hand, he has this wonderful realm of vocabulary that is about the spirit, life, grace, and believing. He is usually contrasting the two spheres of these words against each other. He is reminding us, time after time again, that we did not deserve what God has done for us in Christ.
If you look up the word grace in the dictionary, it is usually going to say something like “unmerited favor” which sounds rather cold and stark to me. If we think in terms of our own culture, one of the words that is popular in commercials and used a lot to get our attention is the word deserve. You deserve a particular car. You deserve a particular vacation. You deserve a particular makeup. You deserve all number of things. When we hear that, we think, That’s right. How many times do we try to tell ourselves, I bought this as a present to myself because I deserve it? You deserve that. That word, and the way we use it so regularly, makes us immune to the concept that when it comes to what God has provided for us in Jesus Christ we don’t deserve any of it. I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness. There is nothing I have done that could or will make me deserve God forgiving me, God’s blessing my life, God’s listening to my prayer, God loving me, God sending Christ to die on the cross for you and for me. Which of us has ever done anything or could ever do a single thing that would make it where we deserve that? It is all because it is what God chooses to do. Not through any work, not through any part of the flesh, not through the law, but simply through the spirit. Through faith and the grace of God, we have the opportunity to receive all of these things.
The passage in Galatians 3 does not specifically use the word grace, but it is about these two different realms. I chose the passage because I have fallen subject to one of the most common temptations there is as a Christian, and that is the longer we are a Christian, the easier it is to forget grace. It is easy to convince ourselves that there really is something pretty special about me or us or anyone who wants to stop and think about God’s blessing in our lives.
Once upon a time, we came to a realization that there is sin in our hearts and we made a decision to accept Christ. We talked about what a blessing forgiveness and grace were. As time goes by, we are good people and we do good things. We think God certainly loves us for some reason. I can think across my lifetime and the different things that I have heard people add to faith in Christ and God’s grace as ways that we come to find God’s grace.
Are you familiar with the Coke Zero commercial where the boy goes “and.” The boy gets the ice cream cone and says “and.” He gets the sprinkles with a cherry on top, a job offer, and stock options. We all want to and God’s grace. We all want to say, “I am saved because of God’s grace and I am a recipient of God’s blessing in my life because God has extended his grace toward me and. . .”
A little church I pastored when I was in seminary was on the rural urban fringe of Louisville, Kentucky. The church was started in the mid-50’s with a tent revival. I heard many of the charter members who were still there when I pastored talk about how they were out in the tent having a revival, and there was a church of another faith tradition that set up pick-up trucks on the edges of the field and the preachers from the other denomination tried to shout down the Baptist preachers because they thought all the Baptists were going to the hot place. They thought, “We are saved by God’s grace and by being a part of a particular faith tradition.”
In the 1960’s, it was never stated quite as bluntly but this was the hay day of Sunday night church and people were better Christians if they received God’s grace and went to Sunday night church. If you stayed home to watch Walt Disney, did you feel second class?
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was theology. You were saved by grace and by believing the right things. We had to have the theology correct. I could name some of the questions but I would probably get in trouble. You might find out I did not believe them.
It has now become politics. We are saved by grace and by being a member of a particular party. I have heard preachers say that you cannot be a Christian and a Republican. I have heard preachers say that you cannot be a Christian and a Democrat. I guess that means the Independents have it sewn up. Do you realize we have added things to it? We want to add things to God’s grace. I am a Christian because of God’s grace and what? Because I believe certain things theologically, because I am a member of a particular denomination or I vote a particular way?
What Paul is saying to the Galatians is you started off with grace. You started off believing in the work God was doing in your life because you simply believed and you received the spirit. Now you want to turn it into something that is a part of works, something you think you have done that puts you in a particular place where that is how people get God’s favor. There is no and. It is strictly grace. It is strictly, purely 100% grace.
One of the things I have noticed is that no one ever adds an and to the Gospel unless they already have it. This is true in this passage and it is true in life. If I am going to add an and, it is because I think I have it and I think everybody else should. Have you ever heard anybody else say there is something else that you need to do that they need to do? No. We always want to believe that some work, some belief, some action on our part has put us in a position where we think, Of course, God would love me. That is just the opposite of grace. The further we move away from our experience of Christ, the easier it is to forget that it is all about grace.
The longer I live, the more I recognize that it really is all about grace. Sooner or later, we all make mistakes. Sooner or later, we all fall on our faces. Sooner or later, we fail somebody we love. Sooner or later, there is a reason for someone to deny us, reject us, stop loving us, whatever it is. It is all about grace.
How can we expect it to be about grace for us and not extend grace to one another? But that works sometimes. We are very ready to want to talk about what God’s grace means to us but yet stand in judgment of somebody else. We want to extend grace to one kind of mistake but not to another kind of mistake. We want to extend grace to one group of people in our lives but not another. We are very uneven in the way that we distribute grace. Let me just say that it is all about grace. The only reason we are here today is because of God’s grace. The only reason we can sing these hymns that stir our hearts and remind us of God’s goodness to us is because before we ever even made a first failed attempt to do something right for God, God loved us. In Romans, Paul says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”
How can we come to the table of the Lord and see the symbols of his body that are broken for us and his blood that is shed for us and not believe in grace. Is there anything in our lives that we could have done to have caused Jesus to do that? Is there anything we could have done to make ourselves worthy of this? And, of course, the answer is no. It is all about grace. God loves us because he chooses to. God extends his mercy and forgiveness to us, not because we deserve it, but because that is the way his heart is. God loves us still because of his grace.
Copyright 2013. P. Joel Snider. All rights reserved.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.