A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.
December 9, 2012
Several days ago I made my annual trip up to our attic to bring down our Christmas decorations. In our house that means walking down two flights of steps, and it also means I get to complain about what a burden Christmas is while Joani gets to roll her eyes about my complaints.
Actually, foraging around in your attic or basement can be fun because you never know what you might stumble upon by accident. I remember poking around in our basement once and finding a canvas bay full of love letters and cards from Joani to me, some dating all the way back to college. I stopped what I was doing and began reading back over those letters that took me back in time to some wonderful places. Joani’s heart-warming gift to me had been sitting there all along, and somehow I had forgotten.
The season of Advent sends us into the attics and basements of our lives as we make preparation for the coming of Jesus. Advent gives us time and opportunity to not only decorate our homes but examine the nooks and crannies of our lives for the bad stuff that needs to be thrown out, and the good stuff that’s have been there all along and yet forgotten.
Good stuff like the amazing grace, and the tender mercies of God.
When most Christians hear terms like grace and mercy, they think first and foremost about Jesus dying on the cross so they might be forgiven of their sins and go to heaven. And this is understandable, since we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves by our own works. Like the Protestant reformers said, it is grace and grace alone that saves us.
But if this is the only way we think of God’s grace and mercy, we shortchange them…big time. Because the tender mercy of God goes well beyond what Jesus did on the cross.
Just ask the first family we meet in the Gospel of Luke—Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son John the Baptist. Luke’s introduction of Zechariah and Elizabeth doesn’t sound very promising when it comes to grace. We learn that Zechariah is a priest, and he and his wife have lived blamelessly before God, obeying the law to the letter. And yet, they’ve had no children, a sign of disgrace rather than grace. And now they are too old to have children.
Then suddenly, without any warning, grace and mercy abound.
One day Zechariah is performing his priestly duties when an angel of the Lord named Gabriel suddenly appears. Gabriel announces to Zechariah that his prayers for a child have been heard because his wife Elizabeth is about to conceive and will bear a son whom will you name “John” (literally, “God has been gracious”). Furthermore, says Gabriel, your son’s mission will be vital because he will prepare people for the coming of the Lord.
To have a sudden intimate encounter with the divine is surely an act of grace, but many of us aren’t prepared to receive that kind of grace. Zechariah, a priest of all things, didn’t have a category for a God who could interrupt the flow of daily life and produce a baby from a barren womb. It wasn’t just the miracle Zechariah struggled with. That kind of mercy and grace was just too amazing to grasp.
And so Zechariah paid a price for his disbelief. It was a steep price for a preacher, since he lost the ability to speak and hear. And we notice that not even God’s grace always spares us from the consequences of our actions.
That said, the streams of God’s mercy continues to flow in Zechariah’s family. After Elizabeth conceives she is so overwhelmed she goes into seclusion and marvels over how God has looked favorably on her and replaced her disgrace with his grace. Meanwhile Mary comes to visit, carrying the Son of God in her womb. Elizabeth is beside herself with joy, and asks “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Fast-forward a few months, and Luke tells us Elizabeth gives birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her.
A discussion arises among these neighbors and relatives about the baby’s name. The crowd on hand for the baby’s circumcision naturally assumes the boy will be named for his father. When Elizabeth insists the boy’s name will be John, the crowd turns to dad for his opinion. When Zechariah writes the name “John” on a tablet, his tongue is freed and he sings a magnificent song of joy.
Once again mercy is at work. A humbled Zechariah gets a second chance to speak and hear despite his past transgression. And aren’t we glad! Where would any of us be without second chances?
Tradition calls the song of Zechariah the “Benedictus”. But it could have been the first rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”
“Looked favorably” is just another way of saying God has showered his mercy upon his people.
“He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
And has remembered his holy covenant,
The oath he swore to our ancestor, Abraham,
To grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
Might serve him without fear.
Zechariah predicts in this song that his son will prepare the way of the Lord by letting people know that their sins can be forgiven and their guilt forgotten. And then he adds,
By the tender mercy of our God,
The dawn from on high will break upon us…
To give light to those in darkness, and peace for those in conflict.
Friends, the message of God’s word long before we get to Jesus’ death is that our lives really are all about grace, all about mercy. That we exist at all is a gift of grace. That we have air to breathe, and lungs to breathe with is a work of God’s mercy. Every moment of every day is grounded God’s love and grace.
Since returning from sabbatical I am learning of things that I missed during my travels…like, for example, the testimony about heaven published by Dr. Eben Alexander, a native of Winston Salem who currently lives in Virginia. Many of us have heard of out-of-body, life-after-death stories, but when one of our own who happens to be a Harvard trained neurosurgeon reports on his experience, we tend to listen.
Dr. Alexander’s fascinating story is far too long to tell here, but well documented in a recent article of Newsweek magazine, and his book, Proof of Heaven. If you read history, I want you to notice what Dr. Alexander heard telepathically from a heavenly being he met on during his sojourn into heaven. The message ran something like this: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” “You have nothing to fear.” “There is nothing you can do wrong.” (Or put another way, “You can do nothing that will make God love you any less.”)
As I delve deeper into the world of spiritual formation, I am learning that this is precisely the same message the mystics have heard through the ages. God says, “I love you more than you can imagine. You are swimming in an ocean of my grace, a tsunami of my mercy, a cascading river of my love. You have nothing to fear. So don’t push the river. Ride the river of my love.”
Brothers and sisters, do know the author of that tender mercy? What would be different if you did?