Moments of Grace, Intro

October 11, 2015

For most of us, sometime over the next two
days we will celebrate the Feast of the Dead Bird, better known by many as
Thanksgiving Dinner.  And as a part of
that tradition at some point before we actually begin to consume food someone
will ask “Uncle Bob would you return thanks?” or “Aunt Martha would you say
Grace?” 
And for many folks that is what Grace means, giving thanks, or
perhaps asking for forgiveness.  Now
technically what Grace means as defined by the~Oxford English Dictionary: is “The
free and unmerited favour of god as manifested in the salvation of sinners and
the bestowing of blessings.”  Which is
definitely something to be thankful for.
This is week one of “Moments of Grace”, and for the next seven weeks
we will be following the thread of Grace through the bible. 
Grace is one of those concepts that even though it isn’t mentioned a
lot by name in the Old Testament it is evidenced through the story. 
The word grace isn’t used at all in the Gospels but the life and
ministry of Christ is a picture of Grace. 
The word and theology of Grace really comes to life in the New
Testament.    From the book of Acts through to the
Revelation every author speaks of grace. 
And because Paul wrote most of those letters he tells us more about
grace than anybody else.
Paul more than any other author and preacher in the scriptures reiterates
over and over again the fact that Grace is an integral part of our salvation. 
The scripture that was read earlier probably more than any other
reference nails that concept, and it’s a favourite for many people and that is Ephesians
2:8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for
this; it is a gift from God.
So, let’s begin this morning with the fact
that Paul Preached a Theology of Grace  For
most people if they ever think of Grace at all it was the same way that I
viewed Grace before I met Jesus.  Grace
was either the name of the lady who lived down the road from us, or was what we
said before we ate at my grandmother’s house. 
Neither of which was relevant to me. 
But Grace is more than a girl’s name and it’s more than the obligatory
prayer whispered before a meal when you have the pastor over for supper. 
For some it is completely wrapped up in the
song, “Amazing Grace how great thou art, that saved a wretch like me, I once
was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” 
And many of you know the story, how the
writer of the song was John Newton who in the early part of his life was an
outspoken atheist, libertine, and slave trader.
He had run away to sea when he was 11, had
become captain of his own vessel by the time he was 20 and became a Christ
Follower at the age of 23 after riding out a storm at sea, I’ve been in storms
like that when I was going to sea. 
Newton later was ordained an Anglican
priest and became an important voice in England against the slave trade.  It was during that that time that he wrote
280 hymns, but the only one we remember is the autobiographical Amazing Grace.
Not only is Amazing Grace the most loved
song in the Christian Church but Amazing Grace is indeed the defining doctrine
of the Christian Church. 
For too many people when they think of God
and judgement they think of either Justice or Mercy.  “All I want is justice” they’ll say, or “I’ll
ask God for mercy”.  But in Christianity
our eternal destiny doesn’t rest on either justice or mercy. 
 I
come back to it over and over again, Justice is getting what you deserve.  Mercy is getting less than what you
deserve.  Grace is getting what you don’t
deserve. 
The bible is clear, the fate of those who
are not reconciled with God is eternal separation from God and from all that is
good.  There will be no light, no love,
no God and no goodness.  If we were to
get what we deserve, that would be the fate for each of us. 
The bible tells that no one of us can span
the gulf between our sinful nature and a holy God on our own.  So to get justice, to get what we deserve
would be hell, and that really isn’t what you want. 
“Well then” they say “I will just ask God
for mercy.”  And that would be to get
less than you deserve.  And so instead of
an eternity being separated from God you would just cease to exist.  There would be annihilation, here today and
gone tomorrow.  
We would simply be no more.  But what about the Hitlers and the Stalins,
what about those who intentionally hurt people, what about those who spit their
gum on the ground and then you step on it and track it into your car where it
gets stuck in your carpet? But I regress.
“Oh” you say, “there should be justice for
the truly evil and for gum spitters, but for the rest of humanity, they should
get mercy.”  But who gets to make the
decision about how bad or how good you have to be?  Which of you has never lied, never hated or never
stolen?
But the bible offers us more than justice
with it’s requisite hell fire and judgement, and it offers us more than simply
an eternity of nothingness.   
What Paul tells us over and over again is
that there is so much more available for us and that truth is revealed in Acts
15:11  We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved
grace of the Lord Jesus.”  Not because of
how good we are or how pretty we are or how smart we are. 
You’ve heard it before but it bears
repeating, Mark Twain said “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you
would stay out and your dog would go in.”
To recap, the penalty for rejecting God is
eternal separation from the God we reject, but within the process of
reconnecting with God we need to acknowledge that we are separated from
Him. 
But a just God won’t simply say “No
problem.”  There is still a price to be
paid for our sinful behaviour, and  what
Paul is telling us in Ephesians 2:8-9  God saved you by his grace when you
believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.
 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us
can boast about it.  
Salvation isn’t a reward it is a gift. The
gift that is given to us is the fact that Jesus died on the cross so that the
penalty for our sin would be paid.  But
like other gifts the gift of salvation needs to be accepted and acknowledged
before it can do you any good. 
For example, here I have a gift bag.  And in this bag are a plethora of gifts, well
maybe not a plethora of gifts but many gifts. 
Well maybe not many gifts but some gifts, there is a banana, a signed
copy of the Penn of Denn, a chocolate bar and a Tim Horton’s Gift card that will
buy you not one but two small coffees. 
Who would like it?  And it was
that easy, but until I handed _____ the bag and they received it the gift was
worthless to them. 
So what brought Paul to this place? 
Well his Theology of Grace was Based on the Story of Grace I had
mentioned earlier that grace really seems to come alive the New Testament, in
particular from the book of Acts on.  But
that doesn’t mean that grace is non-existent in the Old Testament and the
Gospels.
In the book of Genesis, the story is told of the very first couple
that God created, and many of you know the story, but bear with me for those
who don’t.  When God created this couple
they were placed in a perfect world where they were able to live in fellowship
with God. 
And they could do anything they wanted to, except one thing.  God pointed to a single tree in the garden
and said, “Don’t eat from this tree.” 
And I understand the confusion, why? 
Why did there have to be a tree with forbidden fruit?  Why did there have to be one thing that
people couldn’t do? 
I’ve always felt that there had to be a choice.  There had to be an opportunity for people to
choose to align themselves with God, that they didn’t just do it because there
was no other option. 
And we can second guess the story and say “Well I wouldn’t have done
it that way” or “That didn’t seem fair”. 
But seriously, it was just a tree with fruit that they weren’t allowed
to eat. 
They could do anything else and everything else.  But by choosing to do the one thing that they
weren’t allowed to do they rebelled against God. They chose the path they would
walk and the path that humanity would walk, a path of rebellion, a path that
led away from God.
And God could have started over. 
God had told them that “If you eat from that tree you will die.”  And justice would demand that they got
exactly what they deserved, they knew the consequences of their actions and
well trite it’s true; don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. 
And yet from creation God extended His grace to humanity and reached
out and invited them back into fellowship. 
Throughout the Old Testament we see how God’s people would blow it
and how God would reach out and invite them back into fellowship.
The bible doesn’t try to white wash the behaviour of it’s heroes, so
we watch as Noah got drunk, as Abraham lied, Jacob schemed and David committed
adultery.  And God could have said “I’ve
had enough, I’m starting over.”  But he
didn’t.
And when the nation of Israel rebelled and walked away from God and his
ways, when they chose to worship other gods and idols and as a result ended up
being taken captive by the Babylonians and then the Assyrians listen to what
God’s prophet wrote in Ezra 9:8  “But now we have been given a brief
moment of grace, for  the LORD our God
has allowed a few of us to survive as a remnant. He has given us security in
this holy place. Our God has brightened our eyes and granted us some relief
from our slavery.”
Even after they had chosen to consciously
walk away from God, God didn’t walk away from them.
And Paul knew the stories of grace, he had
been raised in the Jewish faith and as an adult he had become an expert of
Jewish law and a protector of all that was Jewish. 
And he knew that God would send the Messiah
for Israel, but he wasn’t expecting the Messiah who would come.
Like most Jews Paul thought that God’s
grace would run out and that ultimately the Messiah would come as a conqueror
and that what God couldn’t accomplish through grace he would accomplish through
force. 
What he wasn’t ready for was the reality of
John 3:16  Jesus said “For God loved the world so much that he gave his
one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have
eternal life.” 
Somehow Paul had missed the prophecy in Zechariah
9:9  Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of
Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey— riding on a donkey’s colt. And while Paul
might have missed it but others didn’t. 
Because in explaining what happened on the day that we refer to as Palm
Sunday both John and Matthew point back to the prophecy of Zechariah.
We all know that Paul is not mentioned by
name in the Gospels listen to his account of the Last Supper, a scripture that
we read almost every time we take communion.  
In 1 Corinthians 11:23 For I (Paul) pass on to you what I received from
the Lord himself. . .    
And there are
those who would tell us that Paul simply received this in some form of
revelation from Jesus, maybe a dream or a vision.  But what it says is this 1 Corinthians 11:23 For
I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself.  Doesn’t say how he received it.  Hmmmmmmm.
In his story,
Paul tells us that he received some of his training as a Pharisee in Jerusalem,
he was close to the same age of Jesus, and he belonged to the religious groups
that brought charges against Jesus. So I wonder. Now understand that this is
just speculation, Denn’s mind doing what Denn’s mind does. 
I wonder if
the many stories that Luke told, in his Gospel, of Jesus meeting and debating
with the Pharisees came from a young eye witness named Paul? 
Or maybe one
of the many stories that are recorded where Jesus speaks with an unnamed
“expert in religious law”, if the person Jesus was talking to might have been Paul.   Just wondering.
When you read the writings of Paul it’s not
much of a stretch to believe that he had watched and witnessed the ministry of
Christ. 
That Paul had heard Jesus as he told people
to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile and to give their enemies the
shirt off their back.
To see the grace that was evidenced in the
life and death of Christ. 
I wonder if Paul might have been part of
the crowd that had gathered around the cross to witness the death of Jesus and
heard those incredible words of grace uttered by Jesus as he hung dying on the
cross of Rome Luke 23:34  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they
don’t know what they are doing.”
We don’t know why Paul rejected Jesus while
Jesus was alive, but later Paul would write in Romans 5:8  But God showed
his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still
sinners. 
It was almost as if Paul was thinking,
“While I stood at the foot of the cross, mocking Jesus, even then He loved me.”
Because even though Paul rejected Jesus,
Jesus never rejected Paul. 
If you know Paul’s story you know after the
death and resurrection of Christ Paul became a critic and enemy of the
church.  That he was there when a preacher
named Stephen was stoned to death for proclaiming the gospel.  One of the few descriptions we have of
Stephen describes him this way, Acts 6:8  Stephen, a man full of God’s
grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people.  A man full of God’s grace. 
Not only was Paul there for the death of
Stephen we read in Acts 8:1  Saul (Paul) was one of the witnesses, and he
agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.  
Paul would have heard the dying words of Stephen recorded in Acts
7:59-60  As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my
spirit.”  He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with
this sin!” And with that, he died.
 A
man full of God’s grace. 
And ultimately those stories of Grace Resulted
in a Testimony of Grace 
Saul rejected
the claims of Christ and did everything he could to destroy the early
church.  And then he goes on to become
the single greatest force in the shaping of Christianity. 
Changed lives
are the greatest miracle of God’s grace. 
The old Hymn says “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch
like me, I once was lost but now I’m found was blind but now I see.” 
Jesus never
leaves a person the way he found them. 
Instead he forgives their past and presents them with a limitless
future.
 Through the years I have met scores of people
who were radically changed when they turned their lives over to Jesus. 
Abusive
husbands and wives who have become loving partners, rebellious teens who have
become friends with their parents. 
People who have struggled with addictions who have been able to put
those demons aside.  
When they
accepted the forgiveness and grace that God had to offer they became a new
person, their old lives were gone and new lives began.   
And not
everyone could accept the change that happened in Paul’s life, there were
people who never completely trusted Paul, they would always see him through
glasses that had been coloured by his past. 
There are people in my life who when they think of me, if they think of
me, will think of things that I did or said before I met Jesus.  For better or for worse that is how I will
always be defined and identified in their minds.
But regardless
of what some people might have thought of Paul, God had a plan for his
life. 
If we skip
down in the story God calls a man by the name of Ananias, his job? To minister
to this man named Saul who was now in Damascus. 
Listen to Ananias’ response Acts 9:13 “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias,
“I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the
believers in Jerusalem!”   Ananias knew
about Saul’s past but listen as God reveals Saul’s future.  Acts 9:15 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is
my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well
as to the people of Israel.”
And that’s
exactly what Saul did.  For the next
thirty years he would travel across the known world, preaching the gospel and
starting churches and sharing God’s grace.
A hundred
years ago Irish playwright Oscar Wilde wrote “Every saint has a past, every
sinner has a future.”    And that summed
up the life of Paul, a man who was an enemy of Christ and the Church, and God
reached down and wrapped him up in his grace.
I don’t know
what might be in your past, but I do know that God has a brand new future for
you all wrapped up in his grace.  “The
free and unmerited favour of god as manifested in the salvation of sinners and
the bestowing of blessings.” 
And it was because Paul had seen the power
of Grace in his life and the life of others that he knew what people could be
like he Warns Us About the Error of Grace The error of grace?  Yep, it is easy to take God’s forgiveness for
granted and that is why Paul wrote these words to the early church in Romans
6:1-2  Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more
and more of his wonderful grace?  Of course not! Since we have died to
sin, how can we continue to live in it?  He
was reminding them that Grace is not a game.
The warning
was reiterated by Jesus’ brother Jude in Jude 1:4  I say this because some
ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s
marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. The condemnation of such
people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord,
Jesus Christ.
Every one of us needs the promise of Grace
in our lives, we can’t do it on our own. 
It is a gift, worth so much more than we could ever imagine or ever earn
on our own but it is also a gift to be treasured and not abused.