Oct. 26, 2016: Amazing Grace

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We know the Bible tells us that God is gracious. We are assured our God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a). But how often do I lose sight of the overwhelming nature of His grace?

As a small boy growing up in the U.K. I sang in a church choir in what was considered (especially by all of us who went there) as most probably the largest and grandest church in the town. I wore a black cassock and a cotta with a ruff that was starched so as to keep my chin up. These were the days of rank political incorrectness and so there were absolutely no girls allowed in the choir! I, and all the rest of the small boys, sang on cue (well, occasionally) and for the rest of the time passed the tedium of the service by either attempting to sleep with our eyes open or fighting each other quietly beneath the pews! Occasionally something exciting would happen – like a Christmas floral tribute would catch fire, or one of us would pass out or have a nosebleed (very dramatic against the white cotta!). Looking back, I can see that I was in the midst of very faithful and loving people, and the church had a rich liturgical tradition. As a small boy this was all, very sadly, lost on me and for the most part church services were made up of long, long periods of boredom interspersed with some boisterous singing.

I recall a very theatrical Maundy Thursday service. Our job was to sing in the dark as the sanctuary was progressively stripped bare in readiness for Good Friday. Actually, singing in the dark was about as much fun as we had ever had. Unseen, but probably not unheard, all of us choirboys were having quite an entertaining time – until, I recall, the last item was ceremoniously taken from the sanctuary and the little wooden gate that separated us from the red carpet (where only the priests were allowed to walk) was clicked shut. At that exact moment (with no exaggeration) an enormous crack of thunder and lightning shook the building and lit up the dark sanctuary, exposing the faces of 30 small choirboys who were now utterly convinced that God had seen their wickedness and had shown up in thunder and lightning to condemn them.

So were we right? Is God a demanding, angry legalist? Well, actually – yes – He is angry. He is angry at the devastation that sin has wrought in our lives and in our world. He is fiercely angry about inequity, needless suffering and heartless cruelty. And actually – yes  – God is a legalist because His law is finally love. And we don’t even begin to measure up (“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” - Romans 3:23). But our mistake was to think that if God was angry and a legalist then His desire was to condemn us. Jesus was very clear on this point: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” (John 3:17).

In that dark church, all those years ago, how ironic that we choirboys anticipated His condemnation in thunder and lightning while we were preparing to remember Good Friday, the day when Jesus actually stepped into that place of condemnation – and only because He loved us. On the Cross, Jesus accepted all condemnation for all our sins, all our failure to keep the law of love.

How can it be that God, who is not in the least bit ignorant of all the ways I’ve sinned against Him, who knows everything I have ever done, is somehow able to stomach me? How is it possible that His knowledge of who I really am never impedes His love for me? How can it be that He is completely aware of all my mixed motives in all my so-called “righteous” deeds and yet He still chooses to reach out to me in love and embrace me as His child? This is the grace of  God, a grace that is for all of us. “…God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

If the Apostle John were asked “What is your primary identity, your most coherent sense of yourself?”, he would NOT reply, “I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist.” Instead, accepting the grace of God, his answer would be, “I am the one Jesus loves.” (John 21:7). Paul Young took up the theme of God’s grace with the same boldness in his bestselling novel The Shack, an allegory of God’s love. In an encounter between God and Mack, the main protagonist, God says, “I have no favorites. I am just especially fond of him.” To which Mack asks, “Are there any you are not especially fond of?” “Nope,” replies God, “I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”

How can God be intimate with all of us? Because He especially loves you! Because You really are the one that Jesus loves. Brennan Manning speaks for all of us when he wrote of God’s amazing grace: “That in the end, my sin will never outweigh God’s love. That the Prodigal can never outrun the Father. That I am not measured by the good I do but by the grace I accept.”