(A sermon based on Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31; Matthew 7:21-29)
It was decades ago that Anne Murray sang, “We sure could use a little good news today.” That hasn’t changed. So for a while I want to talk about good news. Indeed, I want to talk about the best news, because it is the good news about Jesus Christ, including what he has done, is doing, and will do that saves us.
I want to begin today by saying that you don’t have to be frustrated. Now, that statement assumes that some of us are frustrated and I believe that to be true. I know that I have at times lived in a state of frustration. Here’s where it comes from: I really want to know in my heart that I’m living as a Christian but when I try too hard to do so I get into trouble. My efforts end up serving to make me aware of how incapable I am and of how far short I fall. I really want to be righteous—to be in right standing with God so that I live a life that is pleasing to him. I’m sure that you want the same thing.
So here is the good news for today: you really can be right with God.
Here is the basis for that good news: God has already done what needs to be done to make you right with him and to enable you to live a life that is pleasing to him. God has done that through the life and death of his Son Jesus Christ. Through the death of Jesus God has dealt with the sin that separated us from God. Now, all of us sinners, which of course means all of us, can be made right with God. It happens because of the gift of God’s grace that comes to us in faith. All that needs to be done has been done. We need only believe. We need only accept.
Sometimes we have trouble accepting a gift. We might think that it comes with strings attached. We might think that we will be obligated to return the favor. Or, more to the point, we might think that we are not worthy or deserving of the gift. But deserving has nothing to do with it. This is about God and God’s righteousness. God in God’s righteousness sent Jesus to die for our sins and God in God’s righteousness makes salvation available to us by God’s grace. It is God’s doing; it is God’s business. When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty ludicrous to think that God should not give us a gift that God wants to give us!
God has already done all that needs to be done to make us right with him. We need only accept the gift. No other effort is involved.
Ah, but what of living a life that’s pleasing to God? Doesn’t that require effort? Don’t we have to try hard to do that? Isn’t it important to know what the right things are to do and then to bear down and do them? Well, no, not really. And this is so very important to moving past a life of frustration and fear and anxiety. What we need to do rather than try harder and bear down more and live in fear and anxiety is to live out of the grace that God has poured into our hearts.
In the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, Mr. Holland, a high school music teacher, is trying to help one of his students learn to play the clarinet. She’s trying so hard that she keeps making mistakes and the more trouble she has the more tense she gets and—well, it’s a vicious cycle. Finally, Mr. Holland tells her that playing music is supposed to be fun. He tells her that music is more than the notes on the page; music is feeling alive and having fun. “I can teach you the notes on the page,” he says, “but I can’t teach you that other stuff.” Then he asks her what she likes best when she looks in the mirror. “My hair,” she replies, “because my father tells me it reminds him of the sunset.” Mr. Holland smiles at her and says, “Play the sunset.” When she closes her eyes and “plays the sunset,” beautiful music happens. What she needed was inside her and she just needed to let it out.
Now, she still needed to know the notes on the page. But so long as she was focused on just playing the notes on the page, she was going to become more and more frustrated. She had to play out of love and joy if she was going to really play.
That’s the way it is with us. We have the grace of God. We have the forgiveness of God. It comes from God and now it’s in us. And it produces powerful love and joy. We need only let it come out in our lives and in our actions.
But make no mistake about it—such actions must come from a heart that has been changed by the grace of God. It’s about more than doing what we can do.
While it is important that we confess Jesus with our mouths, simply saying the right words is not enough. Besides, saying the right words is something that we can do on our own and how long will it take us to start wondering if we are saying enough of the right words or if we are saying them often enough or loud enough? While it is important that we do good things in Jesus’ name, simply doing good things while professing faithfulness to Jesus is not enough. Besides, doing good things is something that we can do on our own and how long will it take us to start wondering if we are doing enough of the right things or if the things we are doing are right enough?
The truth is that if we build our lives on what we can say or what we can do, they won’t stand very well when the storms inevitably come. If we build our lives on what we think is best for us or on what gets us praise or on what we think leads to reward, we won’t stand very well when the storms inevitably come.
Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:24-25). What are the “words of mine” to which Jesus refers? They are the words of the entire Sermon on the Mount. And to what kind of life do those words point us? They point us to a life that emerges from a heart that has been changed by God—a life that practices radical trust, radical forgiveness, radical grace, and radical witness. But it’s not enough to know the words on the page. Only a person who has been touched by the grace of God can hear and act on such words. We have to play the sunset.
God’s grace is there for us. All we have to do is have faith. And once God’s grace comes into our lives, then our living of God’s kind of life emerges from our changed hearts.
Paul said, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Put all of that together and this is what you get: it is by grace through faith that we come to know God and it is by grace through faith that we come to live a life that pleases God. It is not a matter of trying harder, of clenching our fists and our jaws and saying “I will….” It is rather a matter of resting in the grace of God and saying, “In me God will….”
You see, you can be right with God, but only because God has done what needs to be done to make you right with him. In God and through God, you can live the life that he wants you to live. Have you opened your life up to God? Have you trusted in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are you trusting in that grace?