|Grace Upon Grace|
I have grown up in churches that were stingy with God's grace; I have grown up in churches that were lavish with threatening words and guilt. Even in seminary, I remember being at a chapel service. The focus of the chapel was World Relief, so a special offering was to be taken. The chapel worship leader, just before the offering, chided us--both student and faculty alike--for how poor the offering had been the year before. I don't remember all the tirade of words spoken, but I'll never forget the outcome. The next day the individual announced at coffee that the largest World Relief offering had been collected in anyone's remembrance at the seminary. Guilt is a powerful motivator! It's also an immediate motivator! Almost always the message of guilt, "you're not doing enough," brings immediate results. I'm afraid sometimes we as pastors--precisely because we love you so much, and want to see you make a move for the better--resort to the harsh message because it brings those immediate results. There is a problem though. Guilt never is a long term motivator; in the long term the harsh shoulds only distill into joyless duty and obligation, leaving a person burnt out. They left me burned out.
What if there is a motivator in the Christian life that isn't nearly as effective in the short-term, but over the long haul of a surrendered life its dividends are permanent. When this motivation grips your life, no longer do we pastors have to chide you to do the right thing, because, you will find yourself wanting to do the right thing. How come we have to be so stingy with grace? How come I feel like I have to apologize for grace? How come I find so many people yearning for grace? Jesus put it this way, to all those who were burned out on the heavy, religious demands of His day, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." But to those who were loading them down with the heavy loads of religious duty and obligation, Jesus said, "Woe to you! For you load people down with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them." What if all of us are really spiritually malnourished for want of grace--and we just don't know it, because we are so used to a lesser diet?
Paul in Titus chapter two says: "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age." This verse begins with that well known idea that God's grace has brought us salvation. But notice what it goes on to say: "For the grace of God has appeared . . . instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age." I was taught growing up in the church that commitment and discipline and self-effort are the attitudes and actions that will bring a person to deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in this world. I was taught that good deeds were also born out of this very commitment and self-discipline. But what I find so surprising is that it's not all the rules of our own making, nor of the church's making, nor is it our discipline and commitment, but the kind and tender grace of God that instructs us to live the way God wants us to live. So many people I come across are struggling in the inner crevices of their life with very real ungodliness--sin--with little hope of victory. So often we pastors have just told them, "Buck up, and try harder!" Rather, what I have discovered is that grace has taught me and continues to teach me to say "no" to sin. I suspect that so many people in our churches have no heart for people in the world because we so struggle with worldly desires: bigger houses, bigger churches, better cars, better recreational vehicles, nicer clothes. . . and the list is endless. Conventional wisdom in the church has said, "deny yourself." But what I find after years of hearing that message is that very few of us ever come around to really denying ourselves. The radicalness of Paul's words assert that God's grace is what instructs us to say "no" to all of these worldly desires.
God's grace also instructs us in a positive direction: His grace teaches us to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in this present age. Putting this together then, if Christians are having a sin and worldly desires problem, they are having a lack of grace problem--they are malnourished; they are starved for grace! And, if Christians are finding that a sensible, righteous and godly life seems ever beyond their reach--just one more time promising, "this time Lord I'll do it right," "this time I won't fail you," they are lacking the very real knowledge of the grace of God! The end result of the grace of God in this passage is a people ZEALOUS for good deeds--zealous for the very acts God wants us to do! When we find Christians who lack that wonderful zealousness for good deeds, I suspect we'll find people who are starved for grace. Could it be that with all our wealth and food and leisure and recreation and big wealthy churches that we as an American culture and church are a people starved for God's grace?
Sometimes the word grace though seems so abstract to me. Is grace really practical? Will the grace of Jesus really become that life long transformer and motivator? One of my life verses is Galatians 2:20, a verse that describes an inner grace: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." I am a dead man--in-of-myself! We have died with Christ. Then comes grace, "It is no longer I who live." It is no longer you who live. We are not responsible for doing or producing the living! Rather, Christ lives in me! Jesus lives out His life and in and through us! And our task is to simply trust Him, the one who loved you and gave His life for you!
When I was in high school I took up skiing. Not having much self-confidence I rented some skis, and got a pamphlet on how to ski. On my first time ascending the slopes on the bunny tow up at Snoqualmie, when I got to the top I realized I had no idea how to turn in order to get myself off this thing. I promptly fell and everyone behind piled into me. I told myself, "Grant what you need is better equipment and maybe a friend to teach me." So I went out and bought new inexpensive skis and my friend Jon came over to our house. I strapped my new skis on and standing in the living room he showed me how to do snowplow turns. The next time on the slopes I ventured onto the big rope tow, and I managed to make that first turn. As I skied down the hill, to my horror, I realized I had no idea how to stop. I crashed into a group of people at the bottom of the hill waiting for the rope tow. Well at this point I suppose I could've told myself, "Grant, what you need is the best equipment, and you need a professional skier to teach you to ski." I never pursued this. But lets say I go out and buy the top of the line skis, bindings and boots. I outfit myself with the newest and coolest ski clothing. Now I look hot! Now, I find myself at Stevens Pass with the Olympic Gold Medalist, Steve Mayer, on the top of the chair lift, and he begins to teach me. Never happened, but I suppose in the natural realm this is how we get better--through discipline, training and practice. I was told that the Christian life was like that. You discipline yourself. "Practice makes perfect"! And, eventually, after years of self-effort and discipline we'll get to living something like the authentic Christian life. But what if learning the Christian life isn't like at all. What if the Christian life is all about this inward grace, as if I could invite the Olympic Gold medalist to take up residence in my body, and now my job is to relax and trust and let him ski through. Now coming down the mountain, people see me skiing with beauty, power, and grace. As long as I simply trust and let him ski through I'm a wonder to see. But as soon as I take over and start trying to ski out of my own ability, I crash into the first tree. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."
Jesus said, "I am the vine you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do--nothing." Or again from Paul, "Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God." "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." Or again, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."
Just who is this Jesus who has come to live out His life within and through us? In John and Colossians we're told that through this ONE all things were created. In Colossians we're told that in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. This same Jesus is the one who everywhere He went He was moved with compassion and grace and love. To the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you." To the leper wasting away by inches, Jesus said, "I want to heal you. Be cleansed." To Peter with the memory of a cock crowing echoing around in the emptiness of his shame, Jesus restored him, "Feed my sheep." "Tend my lambs." Are we not people of the resurrection? Has not this one--through whom all things were created, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, in whom all things hold together, in whom is found all compassion and love and grace--hasn't He come to dwell within us--to live out His life in and through us? Inward grace!
Yet, God also provides outward grace--grace in the everyday circumstances of life. Ephesians 2:8-9 are well known verses to us, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God--not because of works, lest any man should boast." These verses explain to us how we're saved. Verse 10 explains to us how we live; it explains to us this outward grace: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." We are saved by grace--not because of works--but for the purpose of works. Each of us in coming to Christ have become new creations: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of God works." But look what Paul adds, "good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should we walk in them." In the grace of God prior to our ever being born, God has prepared good works for us to walk in--not self-produced, but woven into the tapestry of our daily lives--seemless--but more real than anything we could ever produce ourselves.
I preached on Ephesians 2:10 several years ago. That afternoon as I was looking forward to a long afternoon of rest, the church phone rang. The caller blurted out, "Do you sit with people who are dying?" In the moment before I responded, I heard my own sermon coming back at me: "For you are God's workmanship." As I child I had sat with my mother through three years. I sat with her through the days of her dying. With grandmothers and aunts, I've sat through the days of their dying. I often accompanied my father--who was a minister--on his visits to the hospital. In my weakness it's the very thing I dread; in the kindness and grace of God He has worked into me the grace of sitting with those who are dying. "Yes," I responded, "I sit with people who are dying." Later that afternoon, I met Elizabeth, in her seventies, dying from cancer. The first thing she asked me, "I don't have any peace. Can you help me find peace. "For you are God's workmanship." I've found peace with God--precisely because of His grace. And Christ living within gave me words, and afforded me the privilege of seeing Elizabeth into His Kingdom, a good work prepared for both of us before the foundation of the world--not of my making: I dread sitting with people who are dying. Yet, "When I am weak, then I am strong!" Over the next couple of weeks, I got to visit Elizabeth, as she was soon moved into a nursing home. Six weeks later, after finishing a Sunday evening Bible study in our home, I was ready to collapse with a migraine. The still small voice of the Spirit said in my spirit, "Grant, you need to go visit Elizabeth, tonight." "I can't Lord! I can barely see straight." "Grant, you need to go visit Elizabeth." "Yes, Lord, but you're going have do something about this headache." Driving over to the nursing home in Port Orchard the headache faded into the darkness, and when I entered Elizabeth's room I found her dying--and dying alone. In my weakness, I sat with her, holding her hand, stroking the side of her face. I read scriptures. I sang hymns. I stumbled through. About three in the morning Elizabeth took one final breath, and exhaled--and she went home into the arms of her new found savior. Grace! Grace to Elizabeth, and grace to me! "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk them."
What variety of things has God created you for? What good works might be hidden in the fabric of this day? What good works might you stumble upon at your job or with your neighbors, family and friends? Even in this day good works have been prepared for you--from before all time--woven into the tapestry of your day! We have this all surpassing grace within--the inexhaustible compassion and resources of Jesus. Our days are filled with the outward grace of good works prepared for us! Lord, give us eyes to see them! Lord, give us ears to hear them! Lord, give us hands to grasp them! Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:8: "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work." Could it be that because we are so wrapped up in our self-effort--what we can do for God--that we really are malnourished for want of grace? Are we a people who are starved for grace? "And God is able to make all grace abound to you!" Grace upon grace! Grace upon grace!