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Sunday, October 30, 2016

‘...And Grace Will Lead Me Home”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Chronicles 17: 16-22
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 30th, 2016  (Series: 5/7, Amazing Grace)

Is God’s grace real?  

The other day, my wife and I were eating in a Statesville Restaurant, in the town where I grew up, and a lady came over to our table, whom I’ve known as long as I can remember.   She came over to our table and one of the first things she said to me, was:  “You look happy…!”  I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me before. 

You can somewhat understand her words, because that woman has known me since childhood.  She lived on the same street.  My mother took care of her only son, who was one year older than me.  We played together.  We vacationed together.  Sometimes we got in trouble together.  We spent some of the earliest most formative years of our lives together.  

The reason my mother came to take care of her son was because his father had been killed in a car accident.   It was a very unfortunate event and we were too young to understand.  But he had to live it.   We were ‘thrown’ together by that tragic event, but we were very different.   My childhood friend and his mom were nice people, but they did not go to church.   Faith was not a part of their lives.   This is what made her words grab hold of me.  She then added,  “I wish my son, could live close to you again today!”   Her son, married at girl from my graduating class, became a helicopter pilot, and is retired living near the military base.   He had accomplished much, but still, she saw some kind of ‘strange’ grace in my life she wished for her son. 

Is ‘grace’ the reason behind who we are and why we are?   I could just as easily show you a few moments from my life that I’ve felt ‘grace’ left me behind too, instead of bring me “safe, thus far”, can’t you?    This wonderful ‘line’ about ‘grace’ bringing us safety, and bringing us safely home raises many questions in the minds of modern, scientifically, materialistically minded people.   When we are so used to going after so many other things and have so many other ways to describe and interpret our own lives, can ‘grace’ be real?

When John Newton wrote his hymn, Amazing Grace, he claimed, 1 Chronicles 17: 16-22 as the primary biblical inspiration for this hymn.   This text, focusing on King David’s prayer of thanksgiving to God, reminded the pastor and hymn-writer how his own life had been ‘spared’ and how God brought him through.   But has such a ‘prayer of thanksgiving’ estranged from our lives,  or does it still point to our great need to find lasting moments of saving grace.  
Can grace,  specifically, God’s ‘grace’ still bring us all ‘safely home’?

This text begins with King David asking with sincerely and intimately: "Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” …You regard me as someone of high rank, O LORD God!   What more can David say to you for honoring your servant? You know your servant.(1 Chron. 17:16-18).  When I read this part of David’s prayer, I can’t help but think of the spiritual phrase that claims: “The one who knows me best, loves me most…”   David’s public life began, as being chosen to be King, because, as God told Samuel, “He’s a man after my own heart!”  (1 Sam. 13:14).  The human tendency is to “look outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

However you approach the life, legacy, or even the spirituality of King David, the one thing you must grapple with, is that his ‘question’ about his own identity connects us with the question of our own identity, and the very reason, purpose, and belief about what it means to be human.    We live in a ‘secular age’, or at least a very distracted and fragmented time, when questions about life, human existence, and faith have been pushed to the back burner.  But what David reminds us is in our very short lives, someway, somehow we must connect ourselves with the ‘grace’ and goodness of the eternal, who is God.

In other words, life is either a ‘question’ to be lived, or it is a ‘question’ to be ignored, but life always points to this question: “Who am I?”.  This question of identity and destiny is a question only humans ask.  And if we can ‘ask’ this question, without there being some kind of ‘answer’ already present in our souls, then we, as Paul said, ‘are the people who must be pitted’ (1 Cor. 15:19).  

When a person nearly escapes death, especially on whose life was spared in an accident or in war, or reaches old age, while a friends or comrade’s did, often experiences a unique kind of ‘depression’ over their own ‘survival’.  They begin to wonder and question: “Why did I live, and they didn’t?”  “What is my life, now supposed to be about?”   Bouts of depression can become attached to moments of grief.  While this could lead to a more serious illness,  there is something normal, natural, and even necessary about people having the capacity to ‘question’ and ‘wonder’ and even feel some ‘responsibility’ for being alive, being blessed, and having the gift of life; especially in a world filled with death.  

I honestly believe that many of these strange feelings are connected with the kind of grace we also need to encounter and name.  Being alive right now and well now is a ‘gift of grace’.   This is where the ‘question’ should lead us.  Because if we lose this understanding of ‘grace’, we’ve also lose the mystical, spiritual, and moral ‘compass’ built into our hearts, calling and guiding us live our best each and every day.

But also, when David asks, “Who am I”, he not only askes this due to ‘blessings’ and ‘privileges’ he has experienced, but he becomes aware of these ‘blessings’ in spite of his own character flaws and his moral failures (2 Sam. 11:3ff).   His asking “What is my house?” means that David is amazed that God has regarded him ‘as someone of high rank’ and this still humbles him.   Even in his great success, David hasn’t forgotten where he came from, nor will he cease to give glory to God now that he has been so successful.   David recognizes that this success is not by David alone, nor is it about David alone, being only ‘your servants sake’ (v. 17), but he prays, Lord, ‘according to your own heart, you have done all these great deeds making known all these things’ (v.19). 

By blessing David, just as God blessed Abraham, God called David to understand this blessing was not just about ‘David’, but it was a blessing intended to ‘make known’ God’s grace to the whole world.    By acknowledging and recognizing grace in his own life, David was pointing to a ‘grace’ that should be ‘known’ and understood by the whole world.

There’s a certain ‘grace’ even in just learning to ask right questions, isn’t there?  But we must also try somehow, someway to ‘answer’ the question an experience of grace causes us to ask.   Discovering that your life is a “gift” should also make you reflect upon the ‘who’—the source of this gift of grace we call life.

May years ago, an English Philosopher, William Paley, who was at the height of his career when Flat Rock was established,  wrote that he believed that ‘life’ and ‘nature’ intelligently and intentionally points us toward the God the Bible ‘reveals’ to us in Jesus Christ.  He gave the analogy that if you were walking on the beach and you find a ‘watch’ washed up on the shore, that has been either discarded or lost, you must assume that there is some ‘watch-maker’ behind the watch.  A watch does not just come together by chance, and neither could the order of this universe, with it’s orderly sunrises, sunsets, it’s seasons, nor the planets or stars with their regimented orbits come together without some kind of ‘maker’.  

What Paley pointed to, still resonates among those who would seriously consider ‘why’ there is life here, and it seems uniquely here, in all the vast, infinite, expanding space, we call universe.  Of course, some could use ‘logic’ or their own ‘negative experiences’ of disorder and randomness to argue otherwise, and they do.  But when you’ve somehow come to experience a moment of grace, beauty, or blessing, it becomes harder and harder not to be thankful or feel a need to be thankful and grateful to someone.   In other words, who does an ‘atheist’ thank for the blessings, privilege, or this mysterious urge to give thanks?  David’s own experience of grace was very specific:  There is no one like you, O LORD, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears (1 Chron. 17:19-20).

Now, David has moved from, what we may call ‘preaching to meddling’.   He moves from general feelings of wonder, mystery, and grace; to becoming very specific, particular, and focused, perhaps even suggesting that is own individual experience of grace, should be ‘universal’ for all.    Isn’t this the problem many fear, when a religion begins to move from the particular feelings and emotions someone has, and to claim this is how it should be for everyone?   How can we dare claim, in a world that has become more complicated, very pluralistic and increasingly global, that ‘there is no God besides’ (v.20)…Israel’s God (v.24)?
Isn’t this taking ‘grace’ more than a little too far?

We can’t get into the specifics of how, who or what defines the true God, or why we should believe, as Israel believed, that ‘the LORD OUR GOD IS ONE’, implying this God is ‘the one’ (Deut. 6:4).    There is, however, something we must clearly point out.  It is the greatly mistaken idea at ‘all religions’ or all ‘gods’ are the same.  In this day, as increasing threats caused by distorted religious passion and religious ideology from the Middle East and beyond, we are constantly reminded just how ‘different’ and ‘dangerous’ religious claims can be when they are misused.   All religions are not the same, neither are all expressions useful and good, even when the religion is ‘true’. 

Our own faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in Israel’s faith, which is categorized as a ‘revealed’ religion.  In fact, Isalm, Judaism, and Christianity, all share as their foundation, God’s revelation to ancient Israel.   They acknowledge that humans could not and would not know any truth about this ‘one true God’, without God revealing himself.   When you understand the true nature of our ‘revealed’ faith, we should also understand that we cannot force our faith on others.  Since our faith is a ‘gift’, only revealed by God himself, it is the experience of ‘grace’ that finds us, we do not find grace.

What this experience of grace also means is that ‘grace’ not only finds us,  but when it does it should also define us, or it isn’t true faith, is it?   The answer to which religion is the true religion or which god is the true God, because of the nature of revealed truth, is a prerogative that forever belongs to God, not us.  Truth does not rest on our opinions, our whims, our interpretations, our politics, nor to our own theological definitions.  This was Israel’s experience of God from the beginning—faith is a revelation of God’s grace, mercy and love, was always and only God’s choice, never Israel’s.  

When Moses requested to see God’s face, God would not allow it, but only allowed Moses to see the ‘backside’ of  God’s presence.   The ‘mystery’ revealed to him was that the ‘true’ God would only be known at God’s own initiative, as he was revealing himself to be gracious by his own choice.  As Exodus 33: 19 attests:  “And THE LORD said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, 'The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (Ex. 33: 19-20).  Most ‘impatient’, demanding, know-it-all types, like most of us, have difficulty surrendering to only true God, because only God ultimately determines which ‘form’ of ‘revelation’ is true.  But the point we must not miss is that however, whenever, and to whomever God reveals himself, God’s revealed priority is to be ‘gracious’ and to show mercy.’   The experience of ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ is the right way and the only way to discover and receive the ‘truth’ of Israel’s God, as the ‘one true God.   

Through the experience of beauty, goodness, and grace, you and I have been given the revelatory ‘key’ that unlocks the ‘truth’ of God in the world.   Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said in the Beattitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, who find mercy, and ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5: 7-8)?    Only those who are ‘pure’ in their intentions to receive and to show mercy and grace in the world are the ones who are teaching, showing, and revealing the ‘truth about God.’   You can’t get any closer to the ‘heart’ of God, than to actively move in actions and deeds, toward God’s heart forgiving mercy and grace.  Surely, we can’t choose or force who will receive this ‘grace’, and we must also remember that God is also judge,  but judgment belongs to God, not us.   This is why we can only participate in God’s grace, not His judgment.   Only by receiving and revealing God’s grace, can we point to or prove the divine presence. 

Here, I recall my missionary work in very atheistic eastern Germany, right after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  I was working with a wonderful, passionate, and compassionate young man, who had been falsely ‘trained’ by atheism that God was a part of the belief of the past that should be past.  This young man was very concerned about the needs of the world, but he did not see faith in Jesus as part of the solution, but as part of past that got us in trouble.   When he was leaving our group of seekers to go off to the university, I knew that his heart was pure, so I challenged him.  “Christoph,” I said.  “I know that you have no room for Christ in your heart.  But I also know that you have a wonderful ‘heart’ for others.  My prayer for you is that someday, when you have exhausted all of your efforts to make the world better, and it still isn’t, or if your find yourself feeling all alone and helpless somewhere, that it is then that will come to know that Jesus Christ still has ‘room’ for you. “    I knew I could not ‘force’ him, nor ‘prove’ faith to him, but I could pray that he would remain ‘open’ to God’s grace.

When it comes to having faith in God or having a life-changing experience of God’s grace,  we can’t control it or force it, but we must ‘trust’ God to reveal himself.  This is what makes divine revelation, well, for a better word, ‘divine’.  It belongs to God alone.  He chooses us, we can’t ever ‘choose’ God until we know he has ‘first loved’ and ‘revealed’ himself to us.  It is most often the mysterious, unexplainable, but very real and tangible experience of ‘grace’ that freely gives that reveals ‘who’ is the true God.  For most of us, it has been the ‘grace of Jesus Christ’ that has, in some form or fashion, become ‘real’ to us.  And this ‘grace’ has often comes to us in some very specific ways; coming through an accident, an illness, or a time of distress or confusion.   Like the young preacher who came to Dr. Frank Campbell, once pastor of First Baptist, Statesville, who told Dr. Campbell that he just couldn’t preach the faith exactly as he was taught it as a child.  Dr. Campbell then asked the young man,  then what is ‘true’ to you; is love still true to you,  is grace still ‘true’ to you,  is knowing God’s presence in other ways, still ‘true’ to you?   Try to go back to your congregation and preach how God’s ‘grace’ has been revealed as ‘true’ to you, and try not to become ‘bogged down’ with those things you don’t and can’t know anymore.”   In other words, ‘focus on God’s grace, and this ‘grace’ will lead you home.   Can we do that too?   Can we focus on the ‘grace’ in our own experience and then try to take that message of mercy, hope, faith, and love to others.   This is our true task.   It is not a ‘task’ of forcing ‘truth’ on others, but it is a task of sharing ‘what we have known’ or ‘experienced’ with others, and letting God do the rest.

Before we conclude this message, urging us all to focus on the ‘grace’ and ‘goodness’ we can all focus upon, which we all need,  we come to one other part of David’s prayer, that is still very controversial; not only Israel’s God, but Israel herself.   As David concludes his prayer, he sounds very self-centered and narrow to suggests that this ‘grace’ that God chooses to give, has been uniquely given to Israel.  He prays: “ Who is like your people Israel, one nation on the earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making for yourself a name for great and terrible things, in driving out nations before your people whom you redeemed from Egypt?  And you made your people Israel to be your people forever; and you, O LORD, became their God. (1 Chr. 17:16-22 NRS).

It is still this kind of specific, particular, special revelation that makes people most wary of any kind of claim of ‘ultimate’ truth.   I recall a lady who once came up to me and said,  “I understand and believer there is a God, but this ‘Jesus thing’ is what I will never understand or except.”   I found that response very interesting, because most of the time I encounter the opposite.  Most people, at least in our western world, do have deep regards for the earthly Jesus, but it is still belief in a particular God that troubles the thinking world of today   To be ‘disturbed’ and to have your life ‘disrupted’ by Jesus, however, is closer to what this ‘good news’ of grace is about.  And this ‘Jesus thing’ is rooted right next to this ‘Israel thing’, so that if you ‘uproot’ one, you are in great danger of ‘uprooting’ the other.  

The point I’m making is that ‘this Israel thing’ is precisely what David prays in this text----that God particularly choose for himself a people from all the peoples of the world whom he named and whom we still call “Israel”.   According to the apostle Paul, we, anyone, who comes to God in repentance, humility and faith should now be called “Israel.” “All Israelites are not Israel” (Rm. 9:6), he told the Romans.   This naming of who is “Israel” really is, of course, still the ‘scandal’ of all scandals---the scandal of peculiarity and particularity which still disturbs and disrupts, as we come to name Jesus as Lord, or name Israel as God’s chosen people.   How do we dare still say that this ‘grace’ has been and could still be realized in such unique historical, ‘particular’ and ‘peculiar’ experiences of grace, still pointing us toward the reality of grace all of us can know as ‘true’?  

Well, the truth is, just like you can’t know Israel’s God is the ‘one true God’ unless God reveals it, we also can’t know Jesus is Lord or who God’s Israel is today, until we open ourselves fully and freely to God’s redeeming, saving grace.   This means, that we cannot ‘force’ our faith on others because ‘grace’ is God’s work, nor can we assume grace is or isn’t in other (including in geographic, political Israel) unless there is a positive response of God’s grace.   When God’s grace is at work,  I will not avoid my witness the grace that is in me, nor can the grace that is in me become license or allowance for me to force my faith upon you.   What’s we do witness to, when we know God’s grace, is God’s grace is the marvelous, matchless, saving and redeeming grace that belongs to God, and what my response should be, is to keep passing it along.  

Isn’t this where God’s revelation of grace, God’s choice of Israel, and God’s saving work in Jesus, has been taking us all along?   Just as Abraham was ‘blessed’ by God and called to become ‘a blessing’ (Genesis 12:2); and just as Moses (Ex. 19; 6;) pointed out that Israel was to be ‘kingdom of priests’ (Ex. 19:6, 33;16) and the prophets predicted God’s people would become a ‘light to the nations’ (Isa. 42:6, 49:6; 60:3, Rev. 21:24), or as the apostles fully preached Jesus to be the Savior of the ‘world’ (Mat. 5:14; Jn. 3:16, 4:42)--- only when we come to see God’s grace in these very particular moments of history, can we begin to grasp how that very same knowledge of ‘grace’ is what God intends to be ‘known’ ‘forever’ (1 Chron. 17:19, 22), to be reveal to ‘all’, going all the way back to when God ‘created’ the world and called it ‘good’ (Gen 1:4).   The ‘good’ that God intends is of course, to ‘be gracious’ and to ‘show mercy upon whom ‘he will show mercy’ (Ex. 33.19).   

What we know from Israel, through Jesus, and through the grace that was extended to the apostle Paul, and now to us in the world, is that to extend GRACE IS GOD’S NATURE, because ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16).  God’s grace has always been a ‘grace’ that keeps on enlarging, keeps on including, and keeps on growing and expanding, as the world continues to grow and enlarge.  With every new person, every new experience, and even with every new heartbreak, God’s heart, which is a ‘heart of grace’ grows larger too.  So do our own ‘hearts’ grow larger when we receive grace.  

So, when we sing, with John Newton, that ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home’, it is the continual experience of goodness, mercy, and grace in this world that defines God and defines God’s revelation to us.   This is why Paul put ‘grace and peace’ as his signature on the very first Christian letters.   God’s grace has defined where everything came from, what life means, and this ‘grace’ ultimately defines our destiny too.   It is either all ‘grace’ or it is all ‘nothing’.    You don’t define grace, but you must allow grace to define you.   And you let grace ‘define’ you, when you decide freely and fully to trust in His Amazing Grace.  This is how the soul finds it’s true ‘home’.    Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

’Twas Grace that Taught…”

A Sermon Based Upon James 1: 1-7; 4: 3-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 23rd, 2016  (Series: 4/7, Amazing Grace)

When you sing about God’s amazing, forgiving, redeeming and healing grace, it’s hard to think we must also sing about ‘fear’.   But this is exactly where John Newton’s lyrics takes us.   And we still sing, but perhaps don’t stop to think about it: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear….”  So, we quickly rush to the next part of the phrase without thinking,  “…and grace, my fears relieved”.   But it is still an important matter to answer first, “What does the Bible mean to instruct us still, ‘that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’?  (Proverbs 1.7).   What does it mean to have grace teach us to fear, then to have that very same experience of grace to relieve that fear?  What kind of spiritual, theological, or even perhaps, a very schizophrenic sounding reality is this?   Does grace really ‘teach’ us anything?   If it does, what in the world does ‘fear’ have to do with it?  This is what we are going consider today from John Newton’s great hymn in this 4th of 7 messages.

To help us reflect upon what we can grace that teach us, we are going to turn our attention, not to the Hebrew Old Testament, but to the practical and instructive book of the New Testament, the Letter of the apostle James.   There is already some ‘apprehension’ in my heart as we turn to this passage that speaks to ‘the twelve tribes’ of refugees, who are part of the Christian ‘dispersion’.   In other words, these are the Jewish Christians, who have had to leave Jerusalem as a result of the Jewish War of rebellion which was waged and lost against the conquering Romans.  Most of the Christians survived that time of “war” and “destruction” because they did exactly what Jesus said.  When the ‘armies surrounded’ the city of Jerusalem (Lk 21:20), if they followed Jesus’ recommendation, they ran for the hills (Lk 21:21), did not resist (Lk. 21:21; Mt. 5:39), and now they are have become living communities of Judeo-Christian faith, still rooted in the twelve tribes of Israel, ‘dispersed’ around their world.

It is all natural and expected, that to people who have had to struggle, suffer, and to deal with the hardships of being a ‘displaced’, pilgrim people, which in fact we all are, that James must begin his letter speaking directly about the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’.   If his words have any credibility at all, he must at the very first address the very real hardships and ‘trials’ they are facing, just as the Bible, must somehow address the ‘trials’ all people, even Christians, and we too, will at some time or other, ‘face’ in our lives.  

James addresses these trials by giving them a very ‘strange’ challenge, not only to learn to accept these hardships, but to accept them positively, even by ‘consider it nothing but joy’ (NRSV) or as other Bible version, even more radically expresses it, ‘to consider it ALL joy’ (KJV).   How can you, me, or anyone, learn to face the difficulties we have, in our faith, or in our lives, as ‘valuable’, ‘rewardable’, or dare I even agree, with ‘joy’?  To put it in John Newton’s song, do we have enough of God’s amazing grace in us that we are astounded and amazed at how we too have learned to deal with the trails and the hurts we also endure?

The whole idea that life can be hurtful, even after or because we follow Jesus, is not popular among ‘success’ or ‘wealth’ oriented preachers.   We’ve all heard those preachers who only preach ‘positive’, ‘heartwarming’, inspirational messages, as we might call them, but seldom find it appealing or profitable to preach the ‘whole counsel of God’, which must also include includes the message of the cross we are also called to bear with Jesus.   When Jesus was instructing his disciples about the coming attack and destruction of Jerusalem (Matt 14, Mark 13, Luke 21), he told them that they too would be persecuted, and some of them would be hauled in before judges, and asked to defend themselves, namely, as to whether they were a Jew who opposed Rome, or a Jew who supported Rome.   Rome, was not always known for being ‘kind’ or ‘fair’ in its interrogation procedures.   Jesus wanted to reassure his disciples, if they were captured and interrogated, not to be afraid, but that the “Holy Spirit” would give them the words to say and give them ‘defense’ they needed. 

Besides, this exactly how the Holy Spirit was later officially named, after the war and the consequent ‘dispersion’ (70 AD) of the church and the Jewish people.  By the time the gospel of John was written (95 AD), this Holy Spirit was formerly named a “Counselor” (RSV), “Comforter” (KJV) or an “Advocate” (NRSV) who would literally, not just figuratively, come beside them and be with them (see John 14-16).   While we can’t ever know whether Jesus actually meant to name God’s coming ‘counselor’ exactly this way, we can know that what made this resonate with early Christians was their own very real experience of God’s continuing, comforting, counseling Spirit, when they did suffer and were persecuted.  This “Holy Spirit” was alive in them, and enabled and empowered them to keep positive, remain hopeful and to be of good courage, even when they were in pain or under great pressure.

One thing the reality of life, and my own very real, vivid, lived and actual experience of trails and testings of faith have taught me, is that, I, and probably you too, cannot do this on our own.    We also need a helper, a comforter, a counselor, and an advocate to go along beside of us in life.    This is literally what the term ‘advocate’ means in German and in Greek: “The one who stands by and is beside of us along the way”.    You and I still need God’s Spirit alive within our own hearts in our lives, at both the best and worst of times, in order to be our ‘helper’ that enables us to deal with what we too have to deal with.   Life just doesn’t work, without the Spirit that gives us the power to hold on to faith, hope and love, especially when the worst happens to us. 
What we still have to ‘fear’ however, is that even though God, through the Spirit, will come along side of us, and is with us, this God who freely loves and loves freedom, still ‘allows’ life, and even perhaps some random, unexpected, unwanted, difficult, or even bad things to happen to us.   When bad things do happen,  they may not be directly ‘caused’ by God, but they are definitely either ‘allowed’ by God, or they are the channels for how God will continue to give his life and love to us, which must include, in this real world, the very real potential, possibility, and the probability of suffering, hardships, and pain.  

We need not ‘pin’ everything that happens on the perfect will and desire of God, but we must come to understand that God can and does work his perfect will for our lives through the things God permits to happen.   Why God has a perfect and a permissive will is somewhat mysterious to us (God told Job he couldn’t understand, even if God told him), what we can understand is that God permits life to be free so that love and life will continue to freely flow into the reality of whatever happens, which must include the good and beautiful along with the bad and the ugly that bring the potential hurts, pains, problems, and the difficulties we experience.  You just can’t have ‘reality’ as we know it, the great potential for good, without also having the potential for bad.  You can’t have pure joy, without possible pain.  You can’t have love, without allowing hate, and you can have physical life, at least as we now know it with all its glory and majesty, without it having to end in death.

Where I’m going with this, is to declare to you, exactly what James says and what I believe he means, that goes along with what I’ve learned in life, and ‘in the Spirit’ too.  What ‘grace has taught me’ is that now that God’s love and grace has come to me,  free, undeserved, unmerited, and unearned,  I know that the whole idea of ‘cause and effect’ and ‘judgment and condemnation no longer applies.   God is love, and because God is love, he is full of mercy and grace toward sinners who will acknowledge and live into that grace.  I also know that God is also on the ‘hunt’ for the sinner, not to destroy, but to save, even it is ‘by’ or ‘through fire’ (1 Cor. 3: 15).  It is the ‘saving us through the fire ‘ part that sobers me and should sober you to the God who loves, but also allows us to ‘freedom’ to learn encounter his love through the ‘testings’, ‘trials’ and pains of life.

James even outlines how he sees this ‘testing’ fire of life, having the potential to have a ‘positive’ effect in us: …”you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:3).  The word James uses the word ‘hupomone’ for the positive outworking of ‘trials’ or ‘testings’, which is used to express several ideas in the Greek language, being translated several ways in English, such as ‘patience’ (KJV), ‘endurance’ (NRSV), ‘perseverance’ (NIV). Or ‘steadfastness’ (RSV).   All these ideas are related, but the New International translation captures the Greek best and the Basic English Translation (BEE) simply interprets James plaining saying, “the testing of your faith gives you the power of going on in hope”.   In other words, when we prove our faith by living it no matter what, and when our faith is proven in us, no matter what,  it is this ‘strength training’ experience, much like an athlete endures, that gives believers the affirmation, the confidence, and the resolve to keep moving ahead in our life of faith against the trails and testings of life.

And of course, don’t forget the ultimate ‘payoff’ of enduring, persevering, or having patience in the midst of trouble and trials:  ‘…so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.’  Here, James is not speaking of what most people want, but he is speaking of what all people need and the world needs most, today and every day: character, morals, virtue, values, and ethic.   You don’t get this kind of moral maturity without enduring some kind of adversity or passing through some kind of ‘test’ or ‘trial’.   But even when the ‘trail’ and ‘test’ comes, this character, maturity, or completeness is never automatic.  We do not choose the ‘test’ or the ‘trial’, but we always must ‘choose’ how we respond, whether we endure, or the way we face that trial.

There is most always, in our lives, in our situation, and in our lives; a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to face and endure the trial.  Here, I recognize the ‘grayness’ of many decisions we have to make, but I’m aiming ‘how’ we decide, as much as ‘what’ we decide.   James gives us a great example of ‘how’ some were deciding to face ‘trials’ and ‘tests’ in their lives.  Moving to James, chapter 4, we find how some folks in the early church were ‘facing’ their various trials the ‘wrong way’; with ‘conflicts’ and ‘disputes’ (James 4:1) caused by ‘cravings’ or desires which sometimes led to hate and ‘murder’ (4:2).  Can you believe that some people in the church gave into ‘hate’ and ‘murder’ to face their ‘desperate’ situations?   If you can’t see how that could happen, you’ve probably never been in a truly desperate, life and death, situation.  

Of course, hate or murder is the wrong way to ‘endure’.  The ‘right way’ to face ‘tests’ or ‘trials’ was to take the problems ‘to God in prayer’, as the gospel song says.  “You do not have, because you do not ask…You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…” (4:2).    James says they asked ‘wrongly’ by only asking for luxuries, not necessities, demanding to have what they wanted for their ‘pleasures’, not for what they all needed to assure that God’s ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ would be known all (4:6).   In this way they made themselves ‘enemies’ of God’s instead of ‘friends’. 

The right way to get through these ‘trials’ was to lose their proud (4:6) spirit (4:5) God had given them, so that they would, in any situtation, humble themselves, submit to God, and resist the devil so that he would flee  (4:7).   That’s James’ formula for ‘enduring’, even the worst tests and trials of your life.   What you also realize, as you take it in its context, is that you adopt this formula for faith, without realizing it is a ‘formula’ that aims to allow God to show ‘more grace’ to ‘all’ (4:6) in the community, a ‘grace’ that is being given by God, but also enabled by the humility, the endurance, the submission and the maturity of everyone in the community of faith together, beginning with those who were  ‘at war within’ (4:1),  struggling with ‘cravings’ (4:1) only satisfy their own ‘pleasures’ (4:3)

Finally, what I think James reminds us,  just as John Newton taught us to sing in his song “Amazing Grace”,  is that it is only by learning of the ‘hard lessons’ by God’s grace, by both having ‘fear’ and then ‘having our fears relieved’ through God’s grace, of course, that we become empowered  and enabled to live our lives on a level of emotional, spiritual, and moral maturity.  In other words, only when we are given the grace to ‘endure’ will we receive the grace we need to ‘mature’ and ‘complete’ in our spiritual lives.  

Of course, this is not easy, is it?  And James does not say that it is.  Going back to James’ opening words:  To face trials is not easy.   To have your faith tested is not easy.  To ‘let endurance have its full effect’---‘endurance’ is not easy, and to become ‘mature’ and ‘complete’  so that you are ‘lacking in nothing’ is not easy.   It is not easy because sometimes  you can only become ‘lack nothing’, not because you ‘have everything’, but because you have ‘learned how to be content’ (Phil. 4:11) by not having, and not having to have, everything.  
But how do you gain a spiritual ‘wisdom’ and ‘maturity’ like this, in such a materialistic, consumer oriented,  have it all world?   It will come through ‘enduring’ hardships, but as I’ve already made clear, or tried to,  we also have to make the right ‘choices’ to deal with these ‘trials’ and hardships, in healthy, mature ways, which is,  ‘in faith’ (1:6).   How do we do this?  James plainly tells us:  “If any of is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you…but ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind, for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way,  must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (1:6-7).  

We don’t have time to ‘unpack’ all that James recommends to ‘empower’ and ‘enable’ us to make the right choices of ‘faith.’  But to simplify it, I think an ‘explanation’ or ‘clarification’ comes in how James addresses ‘how’ we should approach God in James 4, when he writes,  “But (God) gives all the more grace; therefore it says“God opposes the proud, but give grace to the humble.  Submit yourselves, therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee.”  Then, James adds, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (do you see the link?). …Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you… do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters…” (4:8-10).  

Can you see where James is going with this?   Can you see where and how you must go to be ‘mature’ and be ‘complete’?   It is only when we ‘want’ to mature, and only when we ‘want’ to ‘draw near to God’, namely, only when we learn to want what God wants---wanting what God desires to ‘give’ (4:6) and will give us ‘generously’ (NRSV), ‘liberally’ (KJV) and ‘ungrudgingly’; the grace that gives ‘wisdom’ (1:5) maturity (1:4), and of course,  his ‘grace’, which he freely  ‘gives to the humble’ (4:6).    Folks,  when we learn, ‘through fear’ to ‘want’ what God wants,  this is how we fully receive the ‘grace’ and ‘goodness’ God gives

When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry degree, each of the 9 students in the class, were required to write and preach a sermon on a given text.  The text I was given was the most ‘obscure’ less preached text of all.  It was an Advent and Christmas text from Titus, 2: 11-14.  Whoever preaches from Titus at Christmas?  But when I began to look closely at that text, I found a jewel of truth, I’d never seen before.  It could have been the very text that inspired John Newton’s line about ‘grace’ ‘teaching him’, because Titus speaks of ‘the grace of God’ appearing, ‘bringing salvation to all’, TRAINING US ….” (2:12).   Did you hear that.  Grace, comes to us, at Christmas, through Jesus Christ, to ‘train’ us, as a ‘teacher’.  It’s is, God’s grace that is a ‘teacher’ that ‘teaches’ us how to live. 

When I wrote that sermon, we had two ladies in the class, one, who was in line to become a Methodist Bishop in Virginia, and the other, who was a pastoral counselor in large Baptist church in Raleigh.  It was the ‘younger’ married lady, who told us when giving her life story, that she and her husband had just had a baby.  Guess what they named the baby?  Yep.  “Grace”.   Here was my chance to grab hold of an illustration that spoke to us all.  I said something like:  “When the Baby Jesus was born, Wise Men brought him Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  They bought him these ‘gifts’ because they hoped he would bring change into their world.  When our babies are born,  we have high hopes in them to.  We might not receive Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh at their baby shower, but when a baby comes into our lives,  that baby changes everything about our lives.  And perhaps this is how our ‘babies’ remind us of God’s Son,  who came as ‘grace’ to ‘teach us’ about what really matters, and to give us the wisdom we need to live our lives with maturity every child needs from us.    And the greatest thing any child will teach us, when we are learning to be their parent, is that what we all need most of all, is God’s grace.  Grace is the gift, and grace is the teacher that teaches us that ‘grace’ is what matters to God, and what should matter to us, most of all.

Isn’t this what John Newton learned?  It was the ‘precious belief’ that God’s grace came to him in that storm tossed ship and in his storm-tossed life, which ‘taught him to fear’ what could happen, without God's help.   It was also having his ‘fears relieved’ by God’s grace that taught him to want what only God can give, when he ‘believed’ and discovered the only ‘grace’ that could answer what was missing in his life.   What about you?  Can you find ‘grace’ in learning to want what God wants, and most of all, believing in what God wants for us all?  If you will, perhaps it will be just as ‘amazing’ for you. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

“Was Blind, But Now I See!"

A Sermon Based Upon John 9: 1-41
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 16th,  2016  (Series: 3/7, Amazing Grace)

What do you drive or walk by time and time again, but never notice?    I’m sure each of us does this countless times every day.  We go by familiar sights and fail to notice the changes or the details.   Of course, when you drive in a new or unfamiliar area, you see all kinds of new things.  You even look for them.  But when you live in a familiar place, you may drive by a something dozens of times and still not really notice. 

Early this year, I was driving from Union Grove turning onto Mullis Road, and noticed that Pilot Mountain was visible on that ridge.   Just before that, I was driving on Highway 18 from Wilkesboro to Lenoir, like I’ve done almost monthly for 9 years while trying to sell our house.  This time, instead of looking at the mountains on my left, as I normally do, I looked toward the more distant mountains on my right and saw a house built at the top of a mountain I haven’t noticed before.  If I drive down almost any road I know well, and start to look closely, I still catch new glimpses of things I’ve not seen before.

But it’s hard to see and notice everything, isn’t it?   As the brilliant TV commercial says, “Life Comes At You Fast!”  It’s probably a good thing that we don’t notice every detail as we go down the road at 55 miles per hour.   Besides the possibility of crashing our car, our brains would not be able to handle all the information at once.   This is why seeing things around us, is very much like reading the Bible.   You don’t and can’t see everything at once.   I’ve preached the Bible for almost 40 years, but it never gets boring because each time I read or study a particular passage, even a passage I’ve preached many times before, I find new insights.  

This inability to see everything at once, along with the opportunity to make new discoveries and to wonder at new sights, is part of the joy and excitement of being alive.  What is a bit more troubling however, are those times when we fail to truly notice things we should see, especially when we overlook, or fail to notice what and who matters most.  Just as we can pass by buildings or scenes dozens of times and not really be conscious of all that surrounds us, we can also allow the true identity, the life, and presence or pressing need of another person to fade into the background, just like another nameless tree on the roadside (This thought comes from Matthew Emery, from a sermon he preached at Storrs UCC Congregational Church, Storrs CT, at

In this discussion of the wonderful hymn “Amazing Grace,” today we come to a very short, but greatly important phrase, that concludes verse one: …was blind, but now I see.”   When ‘grace’ came into John Newton’s life after his life was spared on that storm-tossed ship, Newton began to see everything differently.  Some of us have had a similar experience.  We’ve come through a car crash, a life-threatening illness, or had a debilitating injury, and through that traumatic experience, we have learned, like Newton did, to see life in new ways.    

Today, in this text from the gospel of John, we also come across a person who ‘was blind’, but now, came to see life very differently because of the ‘healing’ grace of God through Jesus Christ.   Though this man was born blind, we are told---having never seen the color in flowers,  the beauty of the sunrise, his own mother’s face, nor any other part of the wonderful sights of the world around him---now, the saving, healing presence of Jesus Christ has given him his sight so ‘that the God’s works might be revealed in him’ (vs. 3).  

Of course, this is not the only time a blind person was healed by Jesus (cp. Matt. 9:27; 12: 22; 15:30; Mark 8: 23; 10: 46;  John 5:3) and this healing, though very interesting, was not as graphic as the man who was healed in stages, first only seeing  ‘people like trees walking’ (Mk. 8:24).  But what makes this description most important, how flow of the story uncovers a kind of ‘blindness’ that still persisted, and unfortunately still persists, among those who don’t want to see who Jesus was, nor to see what Jesus saw. 

There is a line in the middle of this story that is most revealing.   In verse 8, it tells us how ‘this man’s neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar…”    Before this man was healed, people looked at him differently, negatively, and even judgmentally.   Even the disciples own negativity about this man and his blindness sets up the whole story with a question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (vs. 2).

At the beginning of baseball season this year, came the announcement that ‘Chicago Whitesox’s baseball has a new TV voice, ESPN’s sports broadcaster Jason Benetti.’  What makes Benetti so unique, is not just his great voice, but also the handicap that he has overcome all of his life; his Cerebral Palsy.   But this had not hindered him, and he has overcome much and proven much to earn this position.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, economics and psychology from Syracuse University, and has a law degree from Wake Forest School of Law.  Why has Benetti been such an ‘overacheiver’?  He said in an interview,  that he had to ‘persevere and not be defined by his disability’ and to prove he was not disabled in his ‘brain’ or ‘voice’.  “The way I look or walk is such a small part of who I am as a person”,  Benetti said.    Now, with his own success, he says  if he ‘can help change one person’s attitude about how they perceive others, then I have made a positive difference.” (

Apparently, as Benetti has witnessed with his own handicap, we’re not the only ones who have perhaps passed, ignored, or misjudged people too easily.   Too often, we too can walk by people and either not notice them, or mistake a ‘neighbor’, as this blind man’s neighbor’s did,  as just a another unfortunate ‘beggar’.   They had seen him before, perhaps many times.  Who knows how often he had been stationed in the middle of their village.  Who knows how many times they had walked by him on the way to the market, maybe even dropped in a few coins as he sat and shook his cup.  They saw him, but did they really see or notice him---seeing him as their own neighbor--- as a man who deserved their own healing and helping touch?

Interestingly, as soon as his "condition" changed, this man born blind was no longer defined by the fact that he was blind—in fact, now that he could see—these neighbors of his weren’t even sure who he was anymore.   Did you notice how they still struggled to see him differently:  "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" (v.8).   That’s all they ever knew him as, the "man who used to sit and beg."  But even more astounding is the fact that they weren’t even sure it was him anymore.  As you heard, some were saying "No, … it is someone like him" (v. 9), and the healed man had to keep asserting, explaining, and emphasizing, as another translations puts its more emphatically,  "Yes, it’s me! (CEB).  “I am the man" (NRSV).  It reminds me of that scene in the Dickens’ play, “The Christmas Carol”, where the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is trying to show Ebenezer Scrooge why he should be a different person, and the dreaming Scrooge, standing on his own grave, now pleads with this “Good Spirit” to assure him that now that he sees everything differently,  he may wake up to ‘change these shadows… ‘by an altered life!”  (

The people living around this blind man were having difficulty, just like Scrooge did, seeing the possibility of ‘an altered life’---a life that had altered by healing love and grace.   Part of the reason they could not see, was not simply because the man had always been blind, but because they saw him, but hadn’t really seen him.  They had just looked at him as "the man who used to sit and beg,"  but they had never really encountered him, and never truly noticed him as a ‘man who could receive healing ‘grace’ and love.

But these neighbors are not the only ones in today’s story who failed to really notice and encounter this man.  As the story opened, Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road.   Jesus immediately ‘saw the man who was blind from birth’,  but his disciples, did not really see him, nor have pity on him, but they only thought of him as an impersonal, religious question they still needed to settle in their own minds: "Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" they asked. (vs. 2). 

Perhaps it’s still a linger, interesting question for many, especially those who still like to see reality as a matter of pure good, or pure evil,  ‘black and white’, or ‘cause and effect’.  That kind of mentality and spirituality definitely fit nicely into the common religious, cultural and theological worldview of the time.  If someone suffered some sort of physical limitation or disease, it was normal, even theologically necessary to assume that a person who was ‘handicapped’ like him, had to be suffering some sort of bad ‘karma’, a form of God’s punishment for a presumed sin, or a ‘cruel fate, determined by the gods.  For most of us today, this way of reasoning seems rather silly.   Fortunately, we have all kinds of medical and scientific knowledge our ancestors did not have access to.   This gift of human knowledge can point us to many other reasons, and sometimes the reality that suffering and illness comes to people for no reason at all.  

But apparently, and unfortunately, this is even more difficult for some people to accept, especially since, in their minds, they still have to have a God whose ‘in charge’ of everything that happens—no matter what happens.   In the wake of the recent the recent refugee crisis in Syria,  or when the great earthquake hit Hati, when the terrible Tsunami hit Japan, as when Hurricanes hit New Jersey or New Orleans,  there are always people, and not a few preachers, who will feel the need to claim that these disasters are ‘definitely’ some sort of divine ‘judgment’ send directly from God.   Even in smaller, more personal situations, this line of thinking is still around in our world.   It has even been known in our much ‘beloved’ American work ethic; the attitude that says you anyone can and must "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" results, not only in all kinds of foolish TV and Internet adds offering "secret ingredients" to success.  This idea that ‘I’ve worked hard to get where I am’, and so, the ethic says, ‘if you can’t do the same—regardless of what other circumstances, powers, and systems are at play in the world.   If you can’t make it, and if you can’t do it—then, it suggests, there must be something wrong with you.’   You or your parents, must have sinned!  Right?

Jesus say, “No!”  “Wrong!”   This line of thinking is dead wrong, because Jesus himself tells his disciples and he should tell be telling us, once and for all,  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (9: 3).    If you only look at people this way,  it results in an even greater ‘sin’  bring allows and invites even more suffering in the world because you will not really see the other hurting person as who they truly are,  a person who needs God’s healing’ and our own ‘helping hand’ of grace, that ought to be revealed through us.  The greater sin in this story,  is the ‘blindness’ of a way of thinking, even a wrong way of believing that becomes a way of escape so that we don’t or won’t truly notice a person and really encounter them, not just be repulsed by their suffering and pain, but to stop and feel for them enough to care.   

If there is any reason for the unexplained suffering in this blind man, or in anyone, for that matter, Jesus says, it’s so that “God’s works might be revealed”.  What works?   What kind of ‘answer’ is this to all the bad things that happen in this world.   Well, it’s the only ‘answer’ Jesus gives, because in reality, it’s the only ‘answer’ we need.   If there is any God given answer to ‘why’ bad things happen,  there certainly no absolute, healing answer, Jesus implies, in only trying to figure out ‘who did it’ or ‘why’ it happened.   Here, I only stop to think about how so many “Crime” shows, and even how so much real “Law Enforcement” only works to figure out ‘who did’ and the to discover the some kind of ‘motivation’ for why they did it.   You hear this continually on the news, from all networks.   After someone is murdered,  after an Isis bomb goes off,  or even after some plane crashes, a train wrecks,  or after an automobile accident,  there is a ‘rush’ to answer,  ‘who’ and ‘why’?   

There is, of course, in a world that demands justice and law,  valid reasons and right times to ask such questions.   But what the gospel of Jesus Christ has come to tell us, and what and experience of God’s grace in our own life will ‘alter’ our minds and hearts to see, is that sometimes, in fact, many times, perhaps even most of time, and I might even dare to suggest, probably, in one way or other ‘all of the time’,  the even greater ‘answer’ in all our human problems, pains—in all our suffering, in all our unexplained, impossible-to-understand world---  the only one answer that makes sense in every situation, for every person, and works to address every hurt, is ‘healing grace’.   The only ‘answer’ you and I, those who are alive, who survive, who are well, and who are blessed, must show and reveal, for life to have any meaning, love and grace left at all, is to reveal in our ‘seeing’ and ‘actions’ toward others, is to show them that God is at work, because he is definitely at ‘work’ through us.   

Figuring out how to ‘answer’ questions like these disciples pose is most often a defense mechanism, a stalling tactic, and a barrier to instinctively ‘protect us’ against getting close to pain.  It can also become a way to ‘animalisticly’ stand above the other, rather than to be with them, communing with them in suffering, and in their humanity.   Unfortunately,  the very real part of this story, and the reason it is told the way it is, is that we also still see ‘people’ for what we think they’ve done, or what they haven’t done, rather than for who they are, and who they might become, if only someone would show some form of ‘grace’ to be with them and work for them,  the ‘works of God’.

I could go on and on, my friends, because God goes on.  God wants us to overcome our defenses and let him be our true defender.   God wants us to forget about having ‘answers’ and to focus more on being an answer.   Through Jesus Christ, and his healing power, God wants us to meditate more on ‘healing grace’ rather than on the ‘condemnation of the law’.  The greatest law is love, and the greatest work is to extend God’s ‘amazing grace’.   God want us to have an even greater healing than physical healing.  I remember how wonderful it was in Union Grove Community when a sweet, graceful, spiritual elderly woman, who had been ‘blind’ since her childhood, finally received her sight through the development of medical science.  It was amazing, wonderful, and an incredible moment of healing grace.  But it was not greater than the ‘spiritual eyes’ she developed during her own many years of physical blindness, as she was determined in her soul, to pour out so much grace and love on everyone she met.   To gain and give that kind of grace; that’s the greater healing.  To have and receive God’s grace, to have our eyes open to really see each other, as God sees us,  whether our ‘answer’ comes or doesn’t, that’s the greatest healing, until that day, when God, through our coming Savior, will make all things new.    Will you open your eyes and see?   Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

“How Sweet the Sound!”

A Sermon Based Upon Ephesians 2: 1-10, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 2nd,  2016  (Series: 1/7, Amazing Grace)

The spring after we adopted our daughter in November of 1989, we made our first camping trip to Florida, where we would also visit Disney World.   We had a wonderful time experiencing the camping and Disney experience together. 

After the week was over we were making our way back in the middle of the night on Highway 95.   I had planned for us to make camp on Tybee Island, Georgia.   We turned toward the Island and we drove, for what seemed like hours.  It was much further than I had anticipated.  It was also very dark and we could see nothing.   Everyone was complaining.  The further I drove the worst it looked.   There was nothing.  I had no GPS, only a map.  When we finally arrived at what was said to be Tybee Island, it looked abandoned.   No one wanted to stay there.  We turned around and may our way back toward the main highway.  It was already late, and everyone was tired.   Finally, I pulled the little truck and camper off in a parking lot near the interstate and we all crawled into the camper and went to sleep.  It was like a nightmare.

Have you ever miscalculated your drive or your destination?   It’s harder to do that with GPS, but it still happens.  Once on route to speak at a church in town I was unfamiliar with, my GPS took me down a road that turned to dirt and finally ended up at a river with no bridge.  It was the shortest route to the church, but did not realize there was no bridge.

In our modern world with sophisticated satellites and GPS guidance systems, it’s getting even harder to admit that we can be lost or mistaken about where we are going, but it still happens.  It’s kind of like those drones, or unmanned aircraft, especially the military type.  They fly over a target, see some people who look like the bad guys, and perhaps really are.  Then they unleash the missiles and only latter we read that they ended up hitting building full of school children.   ‘Collateral Damage’, they call it.   It may be getting harder to miss our target or destination these days, but now when we miss it, we really miss it.  

In today’s text we read about missing the right ‘target’ when it comes to living our only chance to live our lives.   That’s how the apostle Paul defined sin in his letter to the Romans, as ‘falling short of the mark’ (Roms. 3:28), or missing the target.   Here, in Ephesians we find an very detailed elaboration of what ‘missing the mark’ truly means when you have only one life to live, which is, only one chance to hit the target right.   Paul also called the result of ‘missing’our mark the ‘wages’ (Roms. 6:23) or consequence of sin, which is ‘death’.   When we ‘miss the mark’ of living the right way, we end up arriving at the wrong place, hitting the wrong target, or hurting the wrong people, including ourselves.   In the history of this world, we human beings have an incredible strong, if not an overwhelming tendancy, when left to our own choices, our own desires, or our own ‘fleshly’ inclinations, to make the wrong decisions, to go down the wrong the road and to end up hitting the wrong target, even a ‘target’ which we sincerely thought was ‘right’ for us all along.   In other words, getting where we wanted  proved to be a ‘dead end’ in more ways than one.  As the tragic saying goes,  “We get what we want, and then we don’t want what we got.” 

The writer of Ephesians, either Paul, or one of his disciples who wrote for him, describes in great detail what ‘getting what we don’t’ want means when people ‘follow the course of this world’ by going with the flow or current of the ‘powers’ that are ‘disobedient’ to God’s intended target.   Paul does not say this is how the ‘world’ lived, but he says this is how Christians have lived also:  “You were dead through the trespasses and sins” (2:1).  “All of us lived among them in the passions of our flesh” (2:3).  We too have followed ‘the desires of the flesh and senses’ and have been ‘by nature children of wrath’ (2:3). 

These are strong words.  They are not chosen randomly but intentionally.  They are intentionally strong, which is too for most people, drawn to appear much more ‘politically correct’ today.   But the sad truth is that we’ve lost the value of God’s love for us, exactly because we’ve lost our vocabulary about ‘sin’, and because of this, we’ve also lost our God’s given ability to confront the reality and very real consequences of sin, which can wreck great, if not irrevocable havoc in our very short, precious but most fragile human lives.  

Australian Mark ‘Chopper” Read was beaten by his Father and then bullied in school.   He then got into a lot of fights at school, losing several hundred of them.  By age 14 he was made a ‘ward of the state’ and declared mentally ill and given shock treatments.   Between the ages of 20 and 38, he only spent 13 months outside of prison.  He became a member of prison and criminal gangs, in order to survive.   Once he launched a prison war.  He killed not to be killed.  He used a blow torch to punish his victims and burn off their toes.  Once he attacked a judge in court.   He had a fellow inmate cut off his own ears so he could temporarily leave the prison.   He claimed to have killed 19 people, and attempted to kill 11 others, many of whom criminals too.   Near the end of his life, he put many of his life stories into crime novels and a movie was made about his life.  ( 

The title of that movie: “One Thing Led To Another.”   That very intentional title, chosen by a notorious criminal, points how such a difficult, deadly, even degrading life got started from a very gifted, innocent, but hurting and brokenhearted child.   By the way, Mark “Chopper” Read got the name ‘Chopper’ not from the people he ‘chopped’, but from his favorite childhood cartoon character, a big bull-dog in the Yakky Doodle cartoon named “Chopper”.    
Few of us ever intend on ending up where we do.   Few of us ever choose the wrong road on purpose.  Most of us thought we were choosing the ‘right’ road, or we choose the ‘road’ or ‘route’ we wanted and we made the ‘choices’ we felt we had to, or wanted to choose.   It’s a free country, isn’t it? 

But Paul links our self-directed choosing with the ‘the passions of our flesh’ or the ‘desires of flesh or senses’ (vs. 3).   Today, this kind of language has completely reversed itself into a more positive packaging: “Find Your Passion”, or “Follow your desire.”  It all sounds very attractive and makes what the Bible presents to us appear terribly ‘outdated’ and/or ‘restrictive’.  

Would we dare admit today that our ‘free’ choices and our own decisions can still be influenced by the ‘ruler of the power of the air’ who is still at ‘work among the disobedient’?    Would we dare say that all that all that is destructive and deadly among us is only humanly inspired?   I remember what someone said after Donald Trump’s outrageous negativity and nasty rudeness which strangely kept getting him votes, against all political precedence or reason.  Someone said, “Either he is a genius or he’s an idiot!”  I could add maybe it’s neither stupidity or brilliance, but that other ‘powers’ are still at work underneath the negative intensity of our world.

There was another person, whose early life had too many hurts for such a tender, young child.   At a very young age, he lost his mother to illness, because his Father was a sailor, he had to be sent to boarding schools which often proved very difficult for unwanted or abandoned children.   

After Johnny ran away from school and came home, his Father began to take him off to sea with him.  Johnny began to love the adventure of the open seas, but the living the life of a sailor caused him to rebel against the faith his mother taught him.   His faith and life became ‘shipwrecked’ by his own ‘delight in sin’ and doing what he knew to be wrong.   After a short stint in the wartime navy, the free-spirited Johnny decided the regimented military life was not for him, so he went AWOL in search of his Father.   But this young,  self-serving ‘deserter’ was quickly captured, publically beaten, and stripped of his rank of midshipman, and placed in shackles.  

After his release from military confinement, feeling greatly humiliated, he contemplated suicide, but then managed to get on to an African bound freighter.   He managed to get onboard a ship headed for India, but behaved so poorly with crew of the ship, and was left with a West African salve dealer, whose wife mistreated him much as if he was a slave himself.  This time of exploitation and degradation only made little Johnny more rebellious, and he tried to soak his sorrow in all kinds of debauchery and dissolution.   Johnny was rescued from his abuser by the kindness of a sea captain, who had been asked by Johnny’s father to search for him, and to bring him back to England.    But on the way back to England, the slave trading ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Ireland.   The 23 year old named Johnny, found himself in the middle of the dark night, aboard a storm-tossed ship, quickly filling up with water.   After reaching the deck, he was ordered to ‘go get a knife’, but when he returned, the man standing in his place, had been washed overboard by a wave.   “That wave was meant for me”, he thought.   It was in that moment that Johnny called out to the God he remembered from his mother, “Lord, Have mercy!”   Not long after his prayer, the cargo shifted, stopping up the gaping hole of the sinking ship.  The ship then drifted to safety.    But during that long, slow drift, Johnny began to have thoughts he hadn’t had in years.  He begin to wonder if this God did ‘have mercy’ on this wayward child.   That young man is Johnny, who one day later, as John Newton, came to understand what had happened to him on the merciless, angry waves of life, and then came pen these powerful words we still sing today: “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, that Saved a Wretch Like Me….”  (

“Amazing Grace” is perhaps the most beloved hymn of all, or at least is the most sung in church and especially at funerals.   It is the theme of this song that still rings true to our hearts, because we too have at some time or other, been pronounced ‘dead’ spiritually, if not also physically, mentally or emotionally deadened---either because of our own sins and failures, or because of the failures and sins of others that have hurt us---have been taken by ‘forces’ and ‘powers’ we did invite, down paths we did not intend into dark places we did not wish to go,  putting us a place where there seemed to be no way back or no way out.   

This song, Amazing Grace, recognizes exactly what Paul also realized here in this wonderful text.  Had it not been for “God, who is rich in mercy out of his great love” (v. 4), who has come to interrupt and interfere with the whole downward spiral, and even to stop a false ‘upward’ one, we too could have become ‘children of wrath’ obtaining just enough ‘rope’ and power to hang ourselves.   This is where we ‘all’ have been, would be, or will end up, Paul suggests,  unless we also come to know the ‘grace’ (v. 5) of this God who has come to us in Jesus Christ, ‘to make us alive so that we can be raised up ‘together’ to ‘be seated with Christ in the heavenly places’ (v. 6).  Through Jesus Christ, and all his teachings, his living, and his dying and his resurrection is about, God wants to show the same ‘grace in kindness to us’ (v. 7) which God showed when he raised up Jesus from what human sin and death did to him. 

Just as there was no way for Jesus to get out of this world ‘alive’, there is no way for us to get out of this world ‘alive’ either, unless we also come to find this salvation God offers  to save us through our faith, by his grace (v. 8).   What makes God’s grace amazing, is exactly as John Newton discovered in that storm onboard that slave ship.  This is what Paul discovered and expressed too, when he wrote:  “It is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (v. 8-9).   You do get this picture, don’t you?   There is no way out of this world alive.  There is also no way out of your own situation right now, unscathed.   There is also no human way out of the messes we people make for ourselves, or get ourselves into, when left to our own devices, left to our own passions, desires and senses, unless there is this God who has entered this world through Jesus Christ to offer us His unmerited, unearned, unfathomable, and amazing grace. 

“For by grace, you have been saved…” (2:8).   If helps us to realize that Paul is writing these words of ‘grace’ to people who look around at the world, as it is, as it seems to remain, and as it appears to be getting worse and worse, and he says to them,  “You were dead…. You followed the course of this world… You lived among the passions of your flesh… you were, by nature children of wrath…. BUT GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY, OUT OF HIS GREAT LOVE… has
‘saved’ you ‘by grace’.   Because you have seen the lies of world, and the senselessness of your destructive desires,  you ‘have been saved through YOUR faith by grace’---saved through your faith in God, through Jesus Christ and saved by God through your faith given by Jesus Christ.  IT is Jesus who has restored your ‘faith’ and it has all been done by God’s grace.  

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith.  They began by eliminating possibilities.  Incarnation?  Other religions had gods appearing in human form.  Resurrection?  Again, other religions had accounts of returns from death.  The debate went on some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room.  “What’s the rumpus about?”  he asked.  He heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity unique contribution among the world religions.  “Oh, that’s easy,” Lewis responded.  “It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree.  The notion of God coming to us ‘free of charge’—no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of religion or humanity.  The Buddhists eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of Law---each of these offers only ways to earn approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.  At the center of the Christian gospel is a ‘lovesick father’ who is waiting for a ‘homesick’ child to come home---nothing said, no questions asked, only a party of love and welcome will be served.  It is an amazing welcome that is now provided through faith, but only ‘served’ by grace (From “What’s So Amazing About Grace” by Philip Yancy, Harper Collins,  1997, p. 45).

So what ‘s our own response to such amazing love expressed through ‘amazing grace’?    In his commentary on Ephesians, N. T. Wright tells an interesting story about fellow Englishman, James Herriot.  Perhaps you recall that James Herriot became very famous through his delightful and inspiring stories about people and animals in the local farms and villages o Yorkshire, England.  His book “All Creatures Great and Small” also spurred a TV series.

In one of his stories, Herriot tells how, after one of his books was finished, he planned to take his wife out for a small celebratory dinner at a restaurant some distance from home.    When he was about to pay, he suddenly realized that he had lost his wallet and had no means to pay.  However, to his complete astonishment, the waiter told him that the bill had already been paid.  Unknown to him, his senior partner had telephoned the restaurant and told them to charge the meal to him instead.  It was his personal gift to the couple  (Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters,  by N.T. Wright, WJK Press, 2002, p. 21). 

The astonishment, and the relief of such a moment, is a small, but valid pointer to the message Paul is still proclaiming to us.   In Jesus Christ, God has ‘paid’ the cost of our own reconciliation to God and others, and God has also redeemed us from a ‘life’ and from a ‘death’ that has no meaning or hope.   This is what God has done, as a free gift.  There are ‘no strings’ attached—none whatsoever, only ‘faith’ in Jesus Christ enables us to ‘receive’ God’s free gift of grace. 

But perhaps the most ‘amazing’ thing about God’s grace is not what it does ‘for us’, but what it does ‘in us’, as our text concludes by saying that we are not saved ‘as a result of works’,  but that we are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works’ (v. 10).  This is not a ‘trick’ salvation to get us from doing our own thing into doing God’s thing, but this is a ‘true’ salvation which gets us back to doing the ‘good’ and being the kind of people we have been ‘created’ to be.  This is what true faith does and this is what true salvation means--- because we ‘were dead’, but now, ‘we have been saved’ and made alive ‘in Christ,’ we will, most definitely, be doing the ‘good’ God had planned and ‘prepared beforehand to be our way of life’ (v. 10).   When we are ‘saved by grace’ we glad to get back to the ‘good’ we know we have been ‘created’ to be and to do.  We are ‘glad’ to serve, because we know who has given us back our life as a ‘gift’.

What happens to the moral and spiritual life of someone, who like Mark the Chopper Read, ends up feeling like the world is against them?  Or what happens to someone like John Newton, who knows, but has forgotten, that life, even with all its challenges, is still a wonderful, underserved ‘gift’?     The gospel of Luke makes this point when it reveals a great, contrast between religious leaders always arguing about who’s right, verses a ‘sinful’ woman who came bathing Jesus with her tears and kisses because she knows that Jesus loves her, no matter who she has or hasn’t been.   “Who is greater”? Jesus asks.  The sinner who sinned, but has learned to love, or the religious person never learns how to love, but only knows how to hate?   (My translation, See Luke 7: 36-50).  Only and full grasp of God’s ‘amazing grace, will enable us to fully receive or faithfully respond to such a gift.   It is a gift of eternal ‘kindness’ that God has come to ‘show’ (v. 7) still to us, through the ‘immeasurable riches’ of ‘his grace’.  Ame