Monday, November 12, 2007

Little Big Words: Grace

(A sermon based on John 1:1-18)

A word does not have to be a big word to make a big difference. Take “Yes” and “No,” for instance. They are both little words. But in response to a question like “Will you marry me?” or “Do I get the job?” or “Did I pass the test?” or “Do I have cancer?” they are little words that make a big difference. They are “little big words.”

Over these next three Sundays I want us to think about some of the little big words of our life in Christ: grace, faith, and love. We begin with grace.

I know what it is like to be driven. Some of you will have experienced that dynamic in your life, too. When I was in elementary school I was not blessed with attractiveness, charm, or talent. But I discovered early on that I was good at school work. I did not have to work particularly hard to get good grades. Frankly, it was a gift. I was gifted with a love for reading and a love for learning. Exercising the gift was no problem. So, I made good grades. It felt good to be good at something.

Things changed, though, when doing well at what I was good at doing became too important to me. Before long, my self-esteem got all tied up in how good my grades were. If I made good grades, I was a good person; if I made bad grades, I was a bad person. What had been joy because it was a gift became a burden because it turned into an effort. What had been grace became works.

Really, though, the grace existed long before I found that I could make good grades. My good parents loved and accepted and embraced me as soon as I came into this old world. At that point they could not know if I would be gorgeous or plain, dull or interesting, a good student or a bad one, a jock or a nerd, sick or well, or struggling or successful. But they loved me. Why? For two reasons. First, I was there. Second, I was theirs. I existed as a human being and I existed as their child. So they loved me. They would always be there for me. They would always embrace me. That is grace—the love that comes prior to and regardless of any action that might seem to earn that love.

Henri Nouwen told of attending a bar mitzvah. After the thirteen-year-old boy had read the scripture and delivered a short blessing, he was blessed by his rabbi and his parents. Nouwen said that he could still hear the words of the father: “Son, whatever will happen to you in your life, whether you will have success or not, become important or not, will be healthy or not, always remember how much your mother and I love you.” Nouwen said that he thought, “What a grace such a blessing is” [Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 55-56].

I never had a bar mitzvah but I had the grace of such a blessing. How grateful I am.

It is not saying too much to say that Jesus himself knew such grace from his Father. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he heard the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Isn’t it interesting that Jesus heard these words of blessing from his Father before he ever preached a sermon, before he ever offered a parable, before he withstood the temptation of Satan, before he performed a miracle, before he healed a sick person, and even before he was crucified? How affirming it must have been for Jesus, as he was about to embark on his mission of service and sacrifice, to receive the love and affirmation of God the Father! The Father was pleased with him before he did anything. The Father was pleased with Jesus because Jesus was his Son.

The grace shown by my parents is but a magnificent reflection of the grace shown to me and to you by our God in the saving act that he carried out in his Son Jesus Christ. Listen again:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people….
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
(John 1:1-4, 14, 16-18)

The pre-existent Word of God, who has always been and without whom nothing was made that was made, became flesh and dwelled among human beings right here on this earth where we work, play, eat, drink, love, hurt, and live. It is so marvelous as to be almost unspeakable. Yet the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth so that he could be seen and felt and heard and talked about. The Word became flesh so that we could see in him who God is and what God is like. Jesus was full of that of which God is full—grace and truth. Jesus fully revealed the grace and truth of God.

Now, it is true that it is “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). It is true that not everyone will receive him and so not everyone will be saved. But it is also true that God loves everybody and that God has shown and continues to show his grace to everyone. Jesus came into this world so that everyone might know about the grace of God. By his very coming he showed that God loves everybody without exception.

So I want every person here today to hear this clearly and to know it absolutely: God showed his love for you by sending Jesus into this world; that love was made most obvious in the fact that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He loves you just because you exist. He loves you because he made you. He loves you because you are precious in his sight. He will receive and accept you just as you are. Salvation is not something that you have to earn; it is the free gift of God. He loves you. He affirms you. He will save you.

Christ has all the grace that we need and from him we receive all the grace that we need. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16). About the phrase “grace upon grace” A. T. Robertson said, “Here the picture is ‘grace’ taking the place of ‘grace’ like the manna fresh each morning, new grace for the new day and the new service” [A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. V (Nashville: Broadman, 1932), p. 16]. Because you lose a good bit of moisture during a night’s sleep, it is good to know that you can have some water in the morning to replenish your body’s moisture. It is good to know that each day we can have our supply of grace replenished. From Christ we receive abundant grace and endless grace.

When we feel like we’ve had all that we can take, Christ gives more grace.

When we’ve been hurt and wrong and think that we just can’t forgive, Christ gives more grace.

When we can’t take another step, Christ gives more grace.

When we get down on ourselves and start thinking that we are worthless, Christ gives more grace.

When we start wondering if we are worth anybody’s love, Christ gives more grace.

Brennan Manning tells this story.

Recently I directed a three-day silent retreat for six women in Virginia Beach. As the retreat opened, I met briefly with each woman and asked them to write on a sheet of paper the one grace that they would most like to receive from the Lord. A married woman from North Carolina, about forty-five years old, with an impressive track record of prayer and service to others, told me she wanted more than anything to actually experience just one time the love of God. I assured her that I would join her in that prayer.

The following morning this woman (whom I’ll call Winky) arose before dawn and went for a walk on the beach which was less than fifty yards from our house. Walking along the seashore barefoot, with the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping up against her feet and ankles, she noticed some one hundred yards away a teenage boy and a woman some fifteen yards behind walking in her direction. In less than a minute the boy had passed by to her left but the woman made an abrupt ninety-degree turn, walked straight toward Winky, embraced her deeply, kissed her on the cheek, whispered “I love you” and continued on her way. Winky had never seen the woman before. Winky wandered along the beach for another hour before returning to the house. She knocked on my door. When I opened it, she was smiling. “Our prayer was answered,” she said simply. [Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), pp. 93-94].

Every morning we can meet God afresh and hear him say “I love you.” What more do we need?

Every day Christ tells us anew that we are loved by God, that we are accepted by God, that we are saved by God, and that we are embraced by God. He takes our brokenness, our frailty, our failures, our successes, our weaknesses, our strengths, and our incompleteness and every day does a little more with us.

This is truly amazing grace!

Know today that God loves you. Know that God accepts you. Know that Christ died on the cross for you without your having to prove that you were worthy of that sacrifice. Know that he is waiting to save you. Know that he will never leave you nor forsake you. Know this little big word. Know God’s grace!

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