Sunday, June 8, 2008

Good News: It’s All About Grace and Faith!

(A sermon based on Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26. Second in a series. To read the first sermon in the series, go here.)

What are you looking for? If I tell you what you’re looking for, will you stop looking? If I tell you where it can be found, will you be satisfied?

First, let me tell you what you’re looking for. You’re looking for healing. You’re looking for wholeness. You’re looking for peace. You’re looking for meaning. You’re looking for those things because you are sick, because you’re broken, because you’re anxious, and because you’re floundering. In short, you’re looking for life. You know that death hovers over you and you know that so many things threaten to drain the life from you, and so you’re looking for life.

Second, let me tell you where healing, wholeness, peace, and meaning—where life—can be found. They can be found in Jesus Christ. But that leads to a second matter: where and when can Jesus Christ be found? The answer is right here and right now. That leads to a third matter: how can Jesus Christ be found here and now? The answer is by faith. And that leads to a fourth matter: where do we find faith? The answer is that we find faith in our need and in God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel text we meet three people. One is Matthew, who responded positively to Jesus’ call to discipleship. All we know about Matthew is that he was a tax collector, which in his culture made him the friend of no one but other tax collectors. He spent his time and energy making money in all the wrong ways, most of which had to do with taking advantage of people. But when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Matthew did. His faith was a response to the grace of Jesus. Jesus offered the invitation in spite of and because of Matthew’s sin. Matthew found what he was looking for in the Jesus who came walking by.

We all can relate to Matthew because we know sin and guilt and we all know the need for grace. In his need and in God’s grace Matthew found faith, and in finding faith he found life.

Another is a father who asked Jesus to bring life to his daughter. “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live,” the man said, and all of us who are acquainted with grief can hear the plaintive tone in his voice and can see the desperate hope in his eyes.

We all can relate to this father because we all know how much our lives are tied to the lives of our loved ones and we all know the pain of loss. In his need and in God’s grace this father found faith and in finding faith, he found life.

Another is a woman who wanted to touch Jesus’ robe so she could be healed. She had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years. That condition was debilitating physically but it was also debilitating socially and religiously.

We all can relate to this woman because we’ve all been sick; many of us are sick. Perhaps most of us have trouble relating to the outcast status of the woman but surely we’ve all had experiences in which we were on the outside looking in. In her need and in God’s grace this woman found faith, and in finding faith she found life.

In every instance these individuals exhibited faith that was a response to the grace that they perceived in Jesus as they experienced their need. In every instance they had to look no farther than right in front of them to find the one who was the answer to their problems. Out of their need they experienced the grace of Jesus and that combination of grace and need led to their faith.

No doubt the father and the woman had heard of Jesus and of what he could do, and perhaps so had Matthew, but that wasn’t enough—it was their own experience that prompted them to go to Jesus. Brennan Manning has written of “the movement from belief to experience via the bridge of faith” [Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1988), p. 31]. Maybe because of some previous encounter they had come to believe that Jesus was a teacher and a healer and might even be more, but that intellectual belief wasn’t enough. They would come to know him in a saving way only in their own experience with him. And it was the “bridge of faith” that was built out of their need that would lead them to him.

One of my favorite science fiction stories is Ray Bradbury’s "The Man," published in 1949 [Ray Bradbury, “The Man,” in Bradbury Stories (New York: Perennial, 2003), pp. 260-271].It’s about a space traveler named Captain Hart, who along with his crew, is traveling by rocket from planet to planet in search of glory and commercial enterprises. Hart and his men are in competition with two other rockets that left Earth at the same time they did. The story opens with Captain Hart asking his crewman Martin why no one from the city near which they had landed had come to meet them.

As they talk, Captain Hart asked, “Why do we do it, Martin? This space travel, I mean. Always on the go. Always searching. Our insides always tight, never any rest.”

Martin replied, “Maybe we’re looking for peace and quiet. Certainly there’s none on Earth.”

Captain Hart sent Martin into town to find out why they were being ignored. Several hours later Martin returned, nearly overwhelmed by what he had found. Martin reported that the people were not coming because something more important had happened the day before. When pressed to explain, Martin said,

Sir, yesterday, in that city, a remarkable man appeared—good, intelligent, compassionate, and infinitely wise!... (H)e was a man for whom they’d waited a long time—a million years maybe. And yesterday he walked into their city. That’s why today, sir, our rocket landing means nothing.

When asked what the man had done that was so remarkable, Martin answered, “He healed the sick and comforted the poor. He fought hypocrisy and dirty politics and sat among the people, talking, through the day.” When the captain said he didn’t understand, Martin replied, “Captain, if you don’t understand, there’s no way of telling you.”

Captain Hart tried everything he could to explain away what had happened. When he interviewed the residents of the city, he did not believe their testimonies as to what the man had done for them. He believed that one of the rival rocket captains was responsible for the stories he was hearing. Finally, though, the captain became convinced that that the man was who the people believed him to be. He insisted on knowing where he had gone. Finally he blasted off to search other planets for him. After had gone, the mayor of the city said to Martin, who had remained behind,

Poor man, he’s gone…. And he’ll go on, planet after planet, seeking and seeking, and always and always he will be an hour late, or a half hour late, or ten minutes late, or a minute late. And finally he will miss out by only a few seconds. And when he as visited three hundred worlds and is seventy or eighty years old he will miss out by only a fraction of a second, and then a smaller fraction of a second. And he will go on and on, thinking to find that very thing which he left behind here, on this planet, in this city---

Captain Hart was in search of wellness and peace. He was going to search the universe to try to find the one who could give those things to him. What he failed to realize, because he could not cross the bridge of faith from need and grace, was that the one who could help him was right there where he was.

And that’s the way it is for too many of us. Jesus Christ is right here in front of us just as surely as he was in front of Matthew and the grieving father and the sick woman. Our need is as great as theirs was and his grace is as available to us as it was to them.

The fact is that we all are in search of life. And the truth is that Jesus Christ, who overcame death through the power of his resurrection, is right in front of us, waiting to give life to us. Paul tells us that the blessing of God comes to those who trust, like Abraham, “in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Will we trust in the presence of the God who gives life?

Wholeness and healing and peace and life are found in the presence of Jesus. You need him. His grace is calling out to you. Will you get up and go to him? If you will, you will find life. That doesn’t mean that you will always get well. It doesn’t mean that things will always be easy. But it does mean that you will always know the presence of Jesus Christ in your life. It does mean that he will enliven you no matter what happens and that when you lay down to die, he will be with you and he will take you home.

Many years ago I knew a man who had liver cancer. I went to visit him one day and he asked me if I had heard of a certain “healing evangelist.” I had. He said, “Well, I went to one of his crusades a few days ago. And the Lord healed me.” I try not to be suspicious of anyone’s testimony, but I couldn’t help but notice the yellow shading of his skin. He continued, “Oh, I still have cancer. I’m still going to die. But the Lord healed me.”

What did he mean? He meant that he had found “the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” He had found life and wholeness and health and peace. God had helped him build a bridge from his need and God’s grace to faith.

Your need is great. God’s grace is great. Will you make the leap of faith and go to him so that you can have life?

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