1 The Grace of God Sermon preached on Sunday 14th March 2010 at BHAC, North Turramurra. Just under twenty years ago, in June 1990, a most extraordinary wedding banquet was held in Boston, in the US. Well, it wasn’t really a wedding banquet, though it started out as that. A woman and her fiancé went to the Hyatt Hotel in Boston some months before their wedding and paid thirteen thousand dollars to hold their reception there. But just a couple of weeks before the wedding, the fiancé got cold feet, and backed out. The woman, angrily, went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception. She was told that she could cancel it, of course, but (as you might guess) that she would get back only a tiny fraction of the money that she’d already paid. It was then that a crazy idea dawned on her: she would go ahead with the reception anyway. But who to invite? Not the guests who would have been coming to the wedding banquet…instead, the woman decided to invite the homeless, the vagrants and down-and-outs of Boston. She would treat them to a night on the town. So, having changed the banquet menu to “boneless chicken” (in honour of the groom!), she sent invitations to the city’s missions and refuges and homeless shelters. And so on the night of the banquet, Hyatt Hotel waiters in tuxedos served chicken cordon bleu to bag ladies, vagrants, and drug addicts. Those who were used to eating scraps, sipped on champagne and ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to the music of the big band late into the night. Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s a story that makes my heart sing! Everything about that story is counter-intuitive…but that’s what makes it so good. The sheer “recklessness” of the money spent. The incongruity of the image of shabby guests swanning around in a hotel ballroom. The inability, and indeed the non-requirement, of the guests to pay. It’s so good, it’s almost unbelievable! And yet, it’s a true story! But let me say, it’s also a parable. It’s a modern day parable…indeed very similar to one of the parables that Jesus himself taught. And the truth that this parable illustrates is a truth about the particular character of God that we are looking at today as we continue our sermon series. Namely: the grace of God. And I don’t think it’s over-egging the soufflé to say that if we understand the grace of God, and that God is gracious, then we understand the most thrilling and stunning characteristic of God there is. But what is the grace of God? How do you define “grace”? When you think about it, the word grace and its offshoots have lots of different uses in English. We talk about saying grace at dinner, falling from grace when we’ve done something bad, being congratulated when we’ve done something good, and being grateful for someone’s kindness. But when the Bible uses the word grace to describe God’s character, it means something quite a bit different from those I’ve just mentioned. In the Bible God’s grace is the goodness or kindness or gift that he gives to people who don’t deserve it. To use slightly older language, it’s his “unmerited favour”. Grace, in that sense, is the flipside of mercy. If mercy is not getting the punishment you do deserve, grace is receiving kindness that you don’t deserve. It’s in that sense that the story I began with is a parable of the grace of God. Just as that remarkable lady treated the hobos and vagrants of Boston to a wonderful banquet which they 2 didn’t earn or pay for or deserve, so God has acted time and space (at great cost to himself) to give the gift of salvation to sinners like us. And perhaps the best place in the Bible where we see this great doctrine expounded is in the passage that we heard this morning as our Bible reading, from Ephesians chapter 2. Have you got it there? Now, the most important thing to say at the outset as we come to explore the grace of God is that we will undoubtedly misunderstand grace if we don’t first understand how truly undeserving we are of God’s kindness. And that’s why, when Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus (in this chapter) about grace, he started out by reminding them about their sinfulness and moral culpability first. Just look again, for example, at the first phrase he uses to do that, in verses 1: he reminds them that they were “dead in [their] transgressions and sins…” Before they’d been converted to Christ, the people to whom Paul wrote these words had been Jews and Gentile pagans. Living in the time and culture they did, in some ways, they may have been quite religious, maybe even devout. But for all their religiosity, Paul is utterly bleak in his assessment of them spiritually. They were morally and spiritually dead as far as God was concerned. That is, they had as much spiritual capability of responding to God or pleasing him, as a cadaver has the ability to respond to having its name called (if you’ll excuse the morbid image). But let’s not leave this description out there in the realm of “they” and “them”. Because the fact is, these verses are a description of you and me, and everybody else in the entire world (for that matter), in our natural, default state. We are spiritually dead towards God. It’s not that we don’t have a deep-seated hunch that life is more than “the physical”, or that we don’t yearn for spirituality. We do. Every culture (almost without exception) expresses this desire. Richard Dawkins says that this is an unfortunate and dysfunctional byproduct of evolution; the Bible says that every human being is made in God’s image, and that our yearnings are an echo of that divine spark in us. The problem, however, is that nobody by default expresses that spiritual yearning as they should, that is: through glad submission to, and obedience towards, and love for God, to his glory and praise. No. Instead, we go precisely in the opposite direction. See how Paul describes it? He says (v. 1 again) we were dead “in our transgressions and sins.” We rebel against God’s rule. There’s a hardwired, in-built hostility towards God. We break his laws. We make God out to be untrustworthy. And so we run, belligerently, tragically, the other way. It’s just like Paul describes… he says that before they came to Christ, the Ephesians (v. 2) “followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (which is a cryptic reference to Satan). He describes them as “disobedient”, “gratifying the cravings of [the] sinful nature”, and like everybody else, “objects of wrath”. To many people in this world, the thought that they are spiritually flawed, or dead, or that they’re a rebel against God’s rule and fit only for God’s condemnation, never enters their head. 3 But this is the truth: we are, by nature (and, I might add, by what we have done and not done) objects of God’s wrath. Because of God’s holiness and justice and righteousness, God cannot be true to himself unless he expresses that settled anger at our sin in punishment. We deserve judgement. And the whole world is in the firing line. Now, I’ve laboured this point, because as I said earlier, unless we understand how truly undeserving we are of God’s kindness, we will not properly understand grace. Imagine, for example, you’re flying in an aeroplane and another passenger taps you on the shoulder and says: “Here’s a parachute. Put it on. It will save you!” You’d probably think, “Who’s this crazy idiot? Why would I need this?” But imagine if the pilot came back and whispered to you, “Here’s a parachute. Put it on. It will save you!” Well, that’s a different story! Then you’d be grateful. The reality of the threat makes the offer of rescue meaningful. The extent to which we actually think we need saving is directly proportional to the extent that we’re grateful for the rescue. That’s why Paul talks about our spiritual deadness, and our sinfulness and moral culpability first, and of God’s anger that hangs over us. Only then, when that is established, does Paul turn to what God has done for us instead. He writes: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith You see? What we deserve is punishment and judgement. But what God gives instead is love…great love; and mercy…rich mercy; and kindness…; and grace. We were dead in our transgressions… completely unable and unwilling to respond to God or please him… and in that state, God saved us. I want to explore that that salvation looks like in a second, but let me quickly explore the means of God’s salvation by grace. The logical link between grace and salvation is pretty clear, isn’t it? As J. I. Packer says in “Knowing God”, “grace and salvation belong together as cause and effect”. “It is by grace you have been saved,” Paul writes. But how was God’s grace manifested in actual fact? The apostle Paul doesn’t explain the mechanics of how God showed his grace towards us in this chapter, but he did in other letters he wrote. Listen, for example, to what Paul wrote in Romans 3:23 and following. He writes: [A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement… 4 Paul is talking here, of course, about the death of Jesus. When Paul talks about Jesus being a “sacrifice of atonement” he’s saying that Jesus has substituted himself for us and taken our punishment in his death, to wipe out God’s anger at us. When Paul says that we are “justified” he means “declared innocent”, “as if we’d never sinned”. And when he talks about the “redemption that came by Christ Jesus”, the word “redemption” is a word borrowed from the slave market. Slaves could be redeemed, set free, when their owner was “paid out” for their freedom. The price is paid, the slave goes free. See how Paul heaps up the words to paint the picture of our salvation? At peace with God… declared “not guilty”… liberated from bondage. All through Jesus’ death. I mentioned in passing Richard Dawkins before. Someone pointed out to me this week that he had been on Q&A on the ABC this past week. In that programme he posited this question: God, the all powerful creator of the universe couldn’t think of a better way to forgive humanity’s sins than to have himself put on earth, tortured and executed in atonement for the sins of humanity? What kind of a horrible, depraved notion is that? It’s horrible and depraved if you don’t believe in sin, and it’s horrible and depraved if you don’t believe the extent that free grace will go to deal with it. Because that’s how this great salvation come to us: “Freely, by his grace.” And just so that we’re clear that this salvation is thoroughly undeserved, Paul says later in Romans 5 verse 8: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We live in a world where we can barely imagine doing good to someone who is in the process of doing evil to us. But that is how God acts towards us. It is grace that God showed when he acted for our good while we were shaming him. It is grace that God showed when he stopped being our judge, and instead became our saviour. Now at this point, let me say a quick word about God’s grace that I think needs to be said, lest we think that “grace” was an idea that only occurred to God in the NT. It is true that the NT says “…grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”. It’s true that when we think of how God related to his people in OT times, we often think that it was on the basis of law-keeping they were justified. But I want to stridently affirm that grace, as A.W.Tozer wrote, “takes its rise far back in the heart of God in the incomprehensible abyss of his holy being”. In other words, the good pleasure of God that inclines him to pour out blessings on the undeserving is, and always has been, and always will be part of his divine nature. If you say “But why didn’t we see God’s grace in OT times?” I say: “We did!” Again and again, God showed grace to people. Think about Abraham… God chose him, to bless him, not because of his piety (because after all he was a pagan!) but because of God’s free grace. 5 Think about the greatest and most spectacular act of salvation recorded in the OT: the exodus. There was no law at that stage. The nation of Israel were not earning God’s favour by living by the law. No: God rescued them from slavery in Egypt because and by his grace. Sure, there were other impulses as well for God to rescue his people, like the impulse to honour his promises and glorify his name among the nations…but grace was certainly there. Grace was also there when God raised up good kings like David and great prophets like Samuel to lead his people. Grace was there when God sent rain onto the fields of the wicked and sun to ripen their wheat. Grace was there when God brought his people back from exile in Babylon, and when he made a new covenant with his people, and promised to send them his Holy Spirit. In short, God’s heart beats to a rhythm of grace. And, as the passage we’re looking at today remarkably affirms, it will continue to do so for our benefit into timeless eternity. Did you see what Paul says about what God has in store for those on whom he has already poured out grace? Look at v. 6. He says: God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. Consider this: the grace that God poured out upon us in the past through Jesus’ death (to bring us to spiritual new birth, to raise us up, as it were, into the heavens)…that grace is just a fraction of what God will pour out upon us into eternity. God will spend eternity exhausting his inexhaustible grace upon you. In summary then, grace sets Christianity apart from every other “religious system” in the world. Once, during a conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world were trying to agree on what was unique about the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis wandered into the room and asked “What’s all the rumpus about?” They told him what they were debating, to which he replied: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” In the end you have to agree. Every other religious system works by the adherent earning approval or enlightenment. But in Christianity, the doctrine of grace says God’s love and salvation and forgiveness comes to us free of charge, with no strings attached. All that’s required for our salvation has already been done for us, through Jesus…by grace. To discover that grace is what saves us, and not our works (as Paul says in v. 8), can liberate us from a life of perpetual trying and failing to do enough for God. Now, I don’t know how that makes you feel, but I think I know how it should make you feel. It should make you feel overwhelmed with wonder and joy and love for God. It should sweep you off your feet in joy at the thought that the living God… the source of all that is delightful and satisfying and sweet… will spend eternity pouring out upon you the incomparable riches of his grace. Well, how do you feel to the news of God’s grace for you? Do you feel overwhelmed? Grateful? Humbled? Perhaps if those are alien emotions, you haven’t grasped grace. 6 Grace can, and should, be life changing. I want to invite someone who found this passage (and v. 8 in particular) liberating and life and changing to share for just a minute how that happened: Brad Bulow. [Brad’s testimony was given here.] Again, I don’t know how reflecting on God’s grace makes you want to live, but again, I know how it should make you (and me) want to live. We should be humble, not boastful, about our relationship with God…after all, it’s by grace not our efforts that we have been saved. And we should want to relate to others by grace ourselves. Now, I know how hard that is. The world, and my life, and maybe your life as well, is full of what Philip Yancey calls “ungrace”. Our world teaches us that it’s normal and right to return hurt for hurt, and grudge for grudge, and unforgiveness for unforgiveness. Our world says that the cost is too high to treat people with grace. It’s too risky. But the implications of being treated with grace by God, is that we should want to do the same for others. Because God has forgiven us, we should want (as Jesus said) “to also forgive those who sin against us”. We should want to break the cycle of ungrace by trusting in God and handing over to him those hurts that we have received…instead of holding grudges. We should delight do the good works that God has prepared for us to walk in (as it says in v. 10). What good works can you think of that God calls you to do, that will require you to show grace? There is so much room in our lives for grace. We desperately need it. The world desperately needs it. We cannot thrive without it. We will not see heaven without it. Let’s talk about this over morning tea and encourage and challenge each other. Let’s ask that God would open our minds and hearts to his grace, and living by grace, and that our church and our community would be increasingly transformed as a result. Let’s pray.