EASTER: ALL ABOUT GRACE

We are uncomfortable with grace. We cannot get our minds around it, or adjust our feelings to it. It upends our inner scale of justice because most of us live under the merit system.

A murderer gets the death penalty and we’re okay with that. It makes sense to us. We resonate with reward, and punishment. Do good, work hard, keep your nose clean, and you will be rewarded. Be selfish, be mean, be slack, be criminal, and you get what you deserve.

But deserve and reward are words that have no meaning under grace. That is the scandal –- even a Timothy McVeigh can receive a full pardon from God.

“For the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Death is something we earn. Life is a gift.

If you have trouble absorbing that, consider these three thoughts.

Grace Is Costly

Justice was done. Sin was paid for but not by us. “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the film The Last Emperor, a young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command.

“What happens when you do wrong?” asks his brother.

“When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy king answers. To demonstrate, he shatters a jar, and one of his servants is beaten.

God reversed that pattern. When the servants sinned, the king was punished. Grace is free only because the giver has born all the cost.

Grace Is Extravagant 

Think of the parable Jesus told about the lost sheep (See Luke15). The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open country, vulnerable to theft, wolves, and wandering, to find the one, and then celebrates with friends.

That’s extravagant.

I would say, “Miserable little ingrate sheep. Let him wander. Wolves would do me a favor if they ate him.” But not God. God’s grace is extravagant.

Grace is Overwhelming

Some of us have done things that we are ashamed to admit, and some of us have done things–violent things, cruel things, and heartless things–that, in the clear light of day, horrify us. Not only would we never tell someone else about them, we can hardly tell ourselves. Some of us still find ourselves, long after putting faith in Christ, doing things we regret deeply and cannot explain.

The Apostle Paul was like that. He confessed, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” and “ … I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[1]

That same grace — God’s Amazing Grace — is here, now, offered to us. The resurrection proved that it is true. That is why we celebrate Easter.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 7:18-19, 24-25.

PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

THE PHISHING SCAMS OF LIFE

The emails look like they are from my daughter, because her name, which is unusual, is spelled correctly. They come to my personal email address, not the office. They say something innocuous like, “you might be interested in this,” and include a link. I almost clicked on the first one, but paused because something didn’t feel right, and looked at the return address. Not my daughter’s address!

I marked it as phishing and deleted it, grateful that I caught it before it infected my computer.

Something similar happened, long ago on a moonless night that changed the outcome of World War II.

Major William Martin, a British subject, was the bait in the greatest phishing expedition of the war. Martin had recently died of pneumonia, and never saw battle. But the Allies, who had just invaded North Africa, thought they could use him, even in death, to great effect.

The Germans thought the next logical attack was coming in Sicily, but needed more accurate intelligence before they could deploy their defenses. Thus: Operation Mincemeat commenced.

One dark night, an Allied submarine came to the surface off the coast of Spain and put Martin’s body out to sea in a rubber raft with an oar. In his pocket were secret documents indicating the Allied forces would strike, not in Sicily, but in Greece and Sardinia. The Allies had calculated the tides and currents in the area and knew within reason where the raft would land.

Major Martin’s body washed ashore, and Axis intelligence operatives found him, thinking he had crashed at sea. They passed the secret documents through Axis hands all the way to Hitler’s headquarters. Thus, while Allied forces moved toward Sicily, thousands and thousands of German troops moved to Greece and Sardinia. Hitler fell for one of the biggest phishing scams of the war.

But phishing scams aren’t limited to wars and computers; they happen in everyday life: in marriages, in jobs, in government, and churches. Jesus called them “temptation,” and we need to know how to avoid them.

Temptation is sophisticated. It presents itself as what we think we want or need. It comes to us in a crisis of desire, or danger, when necessity is upon us, and the stress is overwhelming. We’re looking for the solution, the release, or the fulfillment, all at the same time. The Axis needed inside information. The Allies gave it to them. Temptation gives us what we think we need.

Temptation is rarely hasty. It is, like the sunrise, a gradual reduction of rational arguments against error along with a slow but sure gathering of seemingly sane, balanced, and coherent reasons. Little by little the unthinkable becomes the ordinary, rational answer to our problem. The information planted on Major Martin slowly made its way up the chain of command to Hitler’s headquarters. Each office that passed it on gave it one more stamp of validation. Like my daughter’s name in the address bar, temptation validates itself in order to draw us in.

Above all temptation feels right. It feels like the natural way out of a difficult, intractable situation. It feels like “the answer.” The doors are all open. The path is smooth. We want it to be so. The Nazis wanted Greece secured. They wanted to believe what the information told them. We want to believe what our feelings tell us, even when it is not so.

Finally, temptation makes the alternatives seem harder. There is always another approach, another way to solve the problem, or meet the need. But that way seems unnecessarily inflexible, demanding, and more than our resources can handle. The Nazis knew they could not cover both fronts effectively. They had to choose where to concentrate their resources. Operation Mincemeat made it easier to choose Greece. Temptation always presents the easier path. Why go to the trouble of vetting? Just click the link.

Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”[1]

In other words, pay attention to what’s in that address bar, and pray for the wisdom to spot the phishing scams of life.

[1] Matt 26:41 NIV

THE DEACON & THE HOOKER

It’s a simple story told in Luke’s characteristically lucid style.[1] Jesus is dining with a Pharisee named Simon. Picture him as the successful, well-dressed chairman of the deacons and you’ll be in the ballpark. A woman steps haltingly into the room. Her name is not given but it is not needed. Everyone knows her, the local hooker. She is not composed, not there to impress or seduce. She is weeping with gratitude, on her knees over the feet of the reclining rabbi from Nazareth, pouring out years of pent-up guilt, little rivers of happiness and shame, down upon his ankles and between his toes. She bends further and wipes the watery dirt away with her hair. Then she withdraws an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and empties it on his feet, rubbing it in with her hands as the sweet aroma fills the room.

Simon is aghast. The Pharisees were known for their righteousness, their religious purity and high moral character. They were the successful middle class evangelicals of their day. They didn’t hang out with sinful people nor approve of those who did.  Scenes like this were too much for such men. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” he grouses within.

Jesus knows exactly what she is, a broken woman experiencing forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame for the first time in her life. But Jesus also knows something else: what Simon is, a successful man in need of humility, a man every bit as lost in his self-righteousness as the hooker had been in immorality. The only difference between the two is that the woman knows her sin and knows she needs a savior. Simon’s success blinds him to both.

Jesus tells Simon a story of two forgiven debtors, one who owed eighteen months wages and one who owed about two months. “Now which of them will love the forgiving moneylender more?” He asks.

Simon can’t help but answer, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

Then Jesus says the most important thing in the whole story, the thing that reveals who he really is. “Correct!” He looked at the woman. “See this woman? I came to your house yet you have not offered me the least of common courtesies. But she has not ceased, since the moment I walked in, to show me the greatest love and devotion. Therefore I tell you, her sins which are many have been forgiven, for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

In other words, “Simon, in the grand scheme of things I’m the lender, I’m the one that everyone is indebted to. I’m God. Your achievements in life and religion matter not at all. Your relationship to me is all.”

And as if to put an exclamation point on it he turns to the woman with something only God has the authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It isn’t what we’ve done or not done in life that determines our salvation. It isn’t how religious we’ve been or how irreligious, our successes or failures. The only thing that matters is our ability to acknowledge our sin, to own the guilt and the shame, to the one who “holds the note” on it and trust him to forgive the one and remove the other. Then every room we enter will be filled with the aroma of our love for him.

[1] (Luke 7:36-50)

THE PARABLE OF VANNA WHITE

Vanna White needed a new transmission. I guess I should explain that.

Tradesmen often name their trucks. The maintenance crew I worked with in the early nineties was no different. The ancient, white Ford Econoline 150 panel van that the carpenters used was so reliable, doing the same simple tasks day after day, well past her prime, that they called her Vanna White. Only now her transmission was slipping. It was time for a rebuild.

I put her on the lift, removed the big automatic tranny, dismantled it, cleaned it out, installed a rebuild kit in the old case, and hoisted it back into place; a six or seven hour job. Then I filled it with transmission fluid and took it for a drive. It slipped, right between first and second gear.

So I did it again, looking carefully for mistakes; and it slipped again. So I did it again. And again. And again. And again. It kept slipping! I was ready to quit!

Now let’s pause this parable and ask a question: Is there some part of your spiritual life that isn’t working? Are you continually disabled by a slip into sin whose source is invisible to you? Have you gone over the details again and again, tried as hard as you can to solve your problem, and failed?

Good. Coming to the end of our resources is the best place we can be because only then are we ready to receive the power to overcome the “sins that so easily entangle us.” The Apostle Paul explained it as the difference between living in the “flesh,” translated “sinful nature” in the NIV, versus living in the “Spirit.” (See Galatians 5:16-25). Jesus spoke similarly in John 6:63 when he said, “The flesh counts for nothing. The Spirit gives life…”

Everything about us, our bodies, our minds, our emotions and personalities, were permanently weakened by the power of sin. We “slip between first and second.” Until the day we physically die that power will remain. In fact the only way to conquer the power of sin is through death. That is the beautiful thing about the gospel. In Christ we did die, not a physical death, but a spiritual one. We died with him to the power of sin. When the Holy Spirit baptizes us into Christ his death and his resurrection become ours in spiritual fact (See Romans 6). The trick is to learn how to live in the power of those things.

Remember Vanna White? The sixth time I pulled the transmission from the old van I remembered another Ford E 150 in our fleet. The engine had died and we junked it, but not before pulling all other usable parts, one of which was the transmission. Automatic transmission casings are cast with hydraulic control circuits critical to their operation. If the case cracks in the right place, a place invisible to the naked eye, those circuits will leak under pressure and the transmission will slip. I pulled the new parts out of Vanna White’s original transmission case and installed them in the one from the van that had “died” and Viola! No more slipping between gears!

The problem most of us face in overcoming sin is that we try to stuff new parts into our old life. We need new parts in a new life. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us we can overcome by exchanging our life with Christs. Only when we have given up on trying to improve ourselves by our own will power are we able to begin operating in the power of the Spirit. Only when we have exchanged Christ’s life for ours are we able to know his power to overcome.