This week we are beginning a new preaching series entitled Big Rocks. And we are going to be looking at the big rocks or tenets of the Christian faith; Grace, salvation, discipleship and sanctification, and the idea of being a covenant people. Today we are beginning with the idea of Grace and how Grace impacts and informs our lives as Christians.
Fitting it All In
This morning we had the children put our jar together. Focusing on the idea that we need to place the greatest importance on the big rocks, and deal with this first. Once we take care of the big rocks then the little rocks, sand, and water fit into our lives much easier. If we had placed either the little rocks, the sand, or the water in first we never would have been able to get the big rocks in. The same is true in life, if we allow ourselves to get bogged down with the small stuff, place all of our attention on them, then we risk the chance that we will forget or ignore the big rocks.
What is Grace?
Well today we are talking about the big rock of Grace. Grace is a concept that not many people really understand. Some think that it is simply being nice. Others feel that Grace is our chance to show others the love of Christ. And while both of those are right, Grace is so much more.
I think the struggle with our understanding of Grace is that this culture does not lend itself to the idea of something for nothing. Now a days when you receive something from someone we have almost been conditioned to wait for the “other shoe to drop”. There was an old TV show that I used to like to watch called “The Equalizer”. This man, the Equalizer, would help people that found themselves in dire straits and he would do it for nothing. But his “other shoe” was that they would have to do something for him at sometime, at some point in the future, and they could not say no. If you agreed to those terms then he would help you.
While he was incredibly helpful and did truly generous things, that was not Grace. Grace is the unmerited favor of God in our lives. God’s Grace in our lives is an expression of His love for us. We can do nothing to earn it and we certainly don’t deserve it. And so it seems almost suspect to us, that God would extend His Grace to us.
But Grace is expressed throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament God extends Grace to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, God’s promise of Grace is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Grace is made known to people through the life and ministry of Jesus and is demonstrated in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross which results in the redemption of humanity through the forgiveness of sins.
But there are two examples of God's Grace that I want us to focus on today and these are found in the lives of Jacob and Paul. These two men were not good nor kind men. If fact they were headed down paths of destruction, but as we will see God's Grace redeemed them, justified them, and allowed them to be wonderful tools for God.
Grace in the Lives of Jacob and Paul
I am sure many of you know the story of Jacob. Jacob was a man known for deception. The very name “Jacob” means, “he grasps the heel, he deceives.” Jacob was named this because when he was born, he was grasping the heel of his twin brother Esau who preceded him. The story of Jacob’s life is a story of one con after another, using deception and manipulation to pursue his own ambitions. First of all, he tricked Esau into giving up his right to his birthright for a bowl of soup. Then when the time came for the blessing to be passed down, Jacob schemed with his mom to cheat Esau from the blessing and even deceived his elderly, crippled father so he could be the one that was blessed. To escape Esau’s wrath, he had to flee the area. You’d think that he would have learned from his mistakes, but he just repeated his old patterns. He marries two sisters, and neglects one of them so much that it fuels the rivalry between them. Then he schemes to increase his flocks of sheep and goats through tricking his father-in-law and had to run away again. Later he would favor one of his twelve sons, Joseph, to the point that his brothers felt they had no other choice but to get rid of him. Again, not a nice man.
Despite the fact that Jacob would have flunked anyone’s morality test, there are times in his life when we can see God’s Grace at work. At two critical times just as he was about to lose heart, God met him in dramatic personal encounters. The first time came as Jacob was running away from Esau. God sought him out and confirmed for him that all the blessings which God had promised to Abraham would indeed apply to Jacob. The next encounter is the one we read about from the Old Testament this morning. It is the night before Jacob is to meet and reconcile with Esau. In the intervening years, Jacob has learned many hard lessons, but as he thinks about the rendezvous he trembles in fear. After pleading with God to keep his promises, he receives in response a supernatural encounter as strange as any in the Bible. Jacob, the grasper, has met a worthy opponent at last: he wrestles with God himself. After this strange night, Jacob will always walk with a limp, a permanent reminder of the struggle. Along the way, Jacob also picks up a new name, “Israel,” a name that puts the final seal of God’s Grace on him. Jacob the cheat becomes the namesake of God’s chosen people, the “Israelites.”
Though they lived hundreds of years apart, the lives of Jacob and the Apostle Paul had a lot in common. Paul had also gone through a name change. At one time, he had been known by the name Saul. Saul was a well-educated Pharisee, who was famous for his persecution of the Christians. In fact, he had been present at the stoning of Stephen, considered to be the first Christian martyr. Saul was instrumental in starting the severe persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem and also in the surrounding countryside. When he would find Christians, he would drag them off to jail, men and women alike. Doesn’t exactly sound like someone deserving of much Grace does he?
Despite the fact that Saul had spent most of his life fighting against God, God loved him anyway and there is one major episode in Saul’s life where we can see God’s Grace at work. One day on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, Saul encountered a blinding light from heaven and the voice of God which confronted him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And the people who were traveling with him were speechless because they heard the voice and saw no one. And the light blinded Saul, so his traveling companions had to help him into Damascus. And there he was for three days until God sent a man named Ananias to him who laid hands on him and healed his sight. Along the way, Saul picks up a new name, Paul, the Gentile version of his name. And the great persecutor of the Christians became the greatest theologian of the early Christian church.
The lives and Jacob and Paul hold several important lessons for us about God’s Grace. The first one is the fact that God's Grace is for anyone. Jacob and Paul were deceitful and conniving individuals and God did wonderful things through them. The same is true for us. You see God's Grace is not just about being forgiven. It is about being loved. God created us to be in relationship with us, to have a reciprocal connectedness with us. That means that God will go to great lengths to have just that. Jacob and Paul where chosen by God for wonderful purposes. They did not deserve God's Grace but that was not a factor. God's number one desire for us is to be connected with God. There is a theological term called prevenient Grace and it basically means that God's Grace is available to us before we even know we need it. Think about that. God is searching for us, forgiving us, restoring us before we even understand that we need it. People that is love! A love that you will never find anywhere else.
And that leads me to another point and that is God's Grace is life changing. Once you accept this gift...watch out! God will change more than just your name. Your outlook, your priorities, you ability to love will all be changed. And that is the point. As we are, fallen and sinful, prohibits us from being in a right relationship with our Creator. But God's Grace will change our lives and allow us to enter into that restored state where that relationship is possible.
Another point and the most important point is that God's Grace is free. It is undeserved, unable to be earned, and costs more than we could ever pay. There is nothing that we can ever do to earn Grace or pay for it. It was paid at the price of the life of Jesus Christ so that we could all spend eternity in God's presence. Again we are sin prone, we have sinned and will sin again. And sin is that which separates us for God, ourselves, and those around us, and the only way we can be restored to God is by God's Grace. By being given that free gift that God so desperately wants us to have.
There are no strings attached, no interest to pay back, no requirements to be fulfilled. God wants you to spend eternity with Him and God has gone to great lengths to make that happen. But despite all of that we still have the power to refuse it.
The Lost Girl
Max Lucado tells a story about a girl named Christina, who was longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood and see the world. Discontent with a home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. One morning she slipped away, breaking her mother's heart. Knowing what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, Maria hurriedly packed to go find her. On her way to the bus stop she entered a drugstore to get one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janiero. Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. When pride meets hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture--taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, fastened to a corner phone booth. And on the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn't too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.
It was a few weeks later that young Christina descended the hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet. Yet the little village was, in too many ways, too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina's eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation. "Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn't matter. Please come home." She did.
God's Grace is a wonderful gift that is for everyone, is life changing, and free. It does not matter who we are, what we have done, or where in life we find ourselves. It is for everyone! Our challenge as believers of Jesus Christ is to understand this, live into this, and tell others. This is too big a rock for us to keep a secret. Too important for us to keep to ourselves. God loves you, is crazy about you, and has gone to great lengths to spend eternity with you. The only thing you have to do is let it happen.