June 21, 2015
Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church
This worship time began with a moment of silence in memory of and prayer for the victims at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC.
Remove, O Lord, any tension or anxiety, any stress or worry, anything, which may keep us from fulfilling Your wishes of who we could be. Fill us with the grace of the Father, the strength of the Son, and the hope of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
18 months ago, November 2013, I was in utter reliance on someone else for my health and well-being. After a stupid decision that it was more important for me to get to work “right now” rather than wait for 45 minutes for a ride, I got on my Yamaha on an icy-street day. As a result, I was forced to wait for someone for a ride to work for the next several weeks!
On that day in early November I shattered my tibia plateau (the top of my shin-bone right behind my kneecap). Two-days later I was out for the count, and under the surgeon’s knife and tool-kit, and then spent the next 18 months (and still counting) recovering.
This was a situation where I was helpless to help myself. I was totally dependent on my surgeon – who knew what to do, how to do it, and had the equipment to do it well. If this surgery had relied on me to make it happen – I’d still be crying in my sleep – or I just wouldn’t be around anymore to tell this story….
I am not the only one in this room who has a story like this to tell. Every single one of us has been, for a time, totally dependent on someone else – our mothers when we were infants, for instance.
Does anyone here remember the story from Chile 5 years ago? 33 men trapped 2,000 feet below ground when the mine they were working in collapsed. They had rations, but no way out. Something like 60 days underground – surviving on two-spoonsful of tuna, a sip of milk, and a morsel of canned peach – every other day – for 60 days! And all they could do was wait … and pray. And that’s what they did.
After two months of rescuers trying to dig into the solid rock and save these men, they were finally brought forth into fresh air and family-reunions! These men, a great-grandfather, a 19-year old boy, a 44-year old family-man, and 30 others, all trusted someone else to save them. After just a few days of staring into the stone-cold walls of what might be their tomb, they each realized the truth – they could not save themselves! They needed someone from outside to come down to their place of anguish and rescue them.
Have we, have you, come to this same conclusion? We are in a series which explores the depth and the height of God’s Grace – how it is more than we deserve and how it is greater than we can imagine. Our scripture today comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. This is from the chapter that describes how Abraham, the Father of the Hebrew people, and the founder of the Jewish race, had been justified by his faith and total trust in God as the only reasonable recipient of his worship and praise. Listen to these words from Romans 4:13-17…. —-
“13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written [in Genesis 17:5]: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.”
May God bless the reading, hearing, receiving of His Word which never fails.
What we see in this passage is God’s Word to you and me that we are stuck in our state of desperation – we are on the hospital operating room table and we cannot repair our own shattered tibia plateau (or perform our own triple bypass surgery, or do our own C-Section, or whatever…); we are crammed into a rock-hard tomb (or financial hole, or rocky relationship, or whatever…) with no escape; we are sinners who have broken the 10-Commandments (if not in deed, certainly in thought), and we cannot save ourselves!
We cannot save ourselves – we cannot do enough to earn that eternal reward; we cannot complete enough tasks; we cannot start enough new projects; we cannot make enough calls or serve enough hungry or clothe enough naked or visit enough homebound.
Why am I unable to do enough good to deserve a heavenly reward? Because the divine justice demand is not that our good outweigh our bad, but that there be no bad! That’s what Jesus emphasizes in His sermon on the mount in Matthew 5 when He says, “You have heard that it says, You shall not commit murder, but I say that even if you get angry you have committed murder in your heart!” No matter how much good the murderer does, the act of murder still insists on its proper consequences. That’s the whole deal with the Rachel Dolezal story – no matter how much good she has done for civil rights, her deceit requires consequences. Even more to the point, Dylann Roof, the young white man who shot and killed 9 church members in a prayer meeting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC – no matter how much good he has done, he killed 9 people and that requires justice!
Friends, that is a major problem with every religion out there. The word “religion” comes from a medical term. A ligament is a connective tissue that unites two bones together. “Religion” means to re-attach, re-connect ourselves to God.
We think we do that by trying harder, being better, accomplishing more, being busier. While it is true that as followers of Jesus our lives should show improved moral standards and better ethics and nicer, more honest dealings with people – we simply are not able to do enough good to outweigh the consequences of the bad.
So, Paul reminds us that even Abraham’s Old Testament promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham.
In Ephesians 2:8 Paul says, “it is by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God!”
This does not give us permission to be mean or lazy, or to do cruel or selfish things, or to stop loving and serving others. It does not mean that at all – but it does mean that our life’s behaviors will not earn us God’s favor, it is merely a reflection of the depth of God’s grace we have actually received! Did any of you see the family members of the victims in SC? They spoke words of hurt and pain and loss, and grace to their loved-ones’ killer. A reflection of the depth of God’s grace on them!
How good do you have to be to deserve God’s reward of heaven? I would say we have to be perfectly good, without flaw or failure – no sin whatsoever, no self-serving ambition or experience of envy or pride or deception. And since we know that we do not qualify under those standards, what hope do we have?
The number of non-church-member funerals I have been invited to officiate where the family has tried to convince me how good their loved one was, how deserving of glory, is nearly uncountable! And I remind them of God’s perfect grace which, for everyone who receives His Good News, covers every imperfection we manage to muster – people start to relax about their loved-one’s secret sins.
Paul says in Ephesians 2:9, we are saved “not by works, so that no one can boast!”
One of the Reformation era points of doctrine – one of the religious teachings about which Martin Luther and John Calvin taught in opposition to the then-current Roman Catholic practice – teaches “Sola Gratia” – Grace ALONE! This teaches that there is absolutely nothing we can ever do to earn God’s grace. The truth is that I cannot do anything in this life to make God love me any less than He already loves me, and there’s nothing I can do to make Him love me more! He already already loves me perfectly! He wants me to continue to become more like Him – and I will, the closer I walk in His light! But He will not love me more, or less, because of what I do! And that’s true for you, too.
In 1999 even the Roman Catholic Church agreed that, by “grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to do good works.”*
With my shattered tibia plateau, I learned in Grace Alone! I could not possibly have helped my surgeon in any way!
The Chilean miners trapped in their tomb-tunnel learned Grace Alone. There was no way for them to help their rescuers do their job.
In regards to our salvation – do we really believe in Grace ALONE? Or do we sort of believe in Grace A LOT? Do we believe our salvation is dependent solely on God’s perfect grace? Or do we believe that God is mostly responsible, a lot responsible, for our salvation, but we’d better kick it up a notch if we expect to actually make it?
“God helps those who help themselves” is true in as much as it means we shouldn’t be lazy – but God saves those who rely solely on Him and His grace!
In another week or so our Thursday morning Bible Study class will read in I John 3:23-24 where it says this: “… This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them….” Our job? Believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ – and that will result in loving one another as He commanded us!
And friends, since the time of Abraham, 4,000 years ago (2,000 years before Jesus walked this planet), Paul tells us in Romans 4:16, we have a promise from the God who invented Promise Keeping, that this Grace is Guaranteed! What if I sin, and die before I have a chance to repent? Grace Guaranteed! What if I sin and die without taking the time to repent? Grace Guaranteed!
Does this mean we are invited to sin all the more? Of course not! But it does mean that God is bigger than our most outrageous sins.Does this weaken our faith, or make it less powerful? Just the opposite! And because that’s true, our life response will give evidence of God’s perfect Guaranteed Grace everywhere we go everyday!
And may we never forget the challenge of Hebrews 12:15: “Let no one fall SHORT of the grace of God.” Let’s pass God’s invitation on to our children, our grandchildren, our neighbors, our co-workers, our classmates, to come into contact with the GRACE of God! Amen.
“Dear God, by Your transforming grace, help Your church point beyond itself through word and work to the Good News of Jesus Christ our Lord. Fill this room again, with Holy Spirit power take hold of each person that is open to Your spiritual gifts and anoint us in ways everyone will know is from You. Fill this place, ignite our faith, fan the flame, and burn brightly through Your people into our neighborhoods, by Your Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Lucado, Max; Grace: More than We Deserve, Greater than We Imagine; Thomas Nelson; Nashville, TN; 2012; Pp. 43-49.
*Joint declaration on the doctrine of justification, by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church on The Holy See.