Isaiah 11:1-6; Jeremiah 31:3, 13b
One summer early in my high school years, when I attended church camp, one of our counselors gave us a challenge to read four chapters of the Bible every day. He said if we would read four chapters a day it would help us greatly in our faith and in how we lived our daily lives. But we had to be sure to read at least four chapters a day; in that, he was very adamant.
I went home and tried to live up to that challenge. I did okay for the first few days, but it didn’t take long before my good intentions started going south. I started reading it as quickly as I could, not worrying about getting anything out of what I was reading; I was simply trying to complete the reading. I soon was skimming those chapters so quickly that I didn’t comprehending much of anything. And then I started missing some days. When you miss a couple of days in a row those four chapters a day multiply really quickly. When you have to read twelve or sixteen chapters a day to catch up it’s easy to become discouraged. I don’t remember when I gave up on the four chapters a day, but it was probably before the summer was over.
As I’ve moved through the years, I’ve found that someone is always anxious to tell you what you must do to be a faithful follower of Christ. Here is the prayer you should pray every day; here is the book you must read; here is the Bible study you use; here is the conference you must attend. And while those may be helpful tools, to be honest, it always seemed to be more of a burden that a joy, because their methods involved a lot of work and expectations and regulations. Faith can become like a job, full of duty and devotion, which steal away the sense of excitement and joy. People also want to tell you what kind of music you should – or shouldn’t – listen to. I received a lot of the you shouldn’t listen to that kind of music. I am a child of the rock and roll era, and I like to listen to, and play, rock and roll. When I was younger there were plenty of people who scolded me for listening to and playing that kind of music. They also criticized me for the movies I watched and other any manner of other things.
I’ve noticed over the years that ministers sometimes specialize in imposing those types of burdens upon people. Ministers sometimes add any number of rules and regulations to people’s lives. I attended one minister’s group where they were constantly seeking to impose regulations upon people. One time the group made a proposal that none of us would perform a wedding ceremony unless people would agree to specific rules and expectations. I’m all for strengthening marriages, but most of the proposals were unrealistic and burdensome. Then they had the idea that before any of us would agree to baptize someone, the candidate must agree to all manner of theological tests, where their beliefs would be examined and judged whether or not they were acceptable. Then they decided we should agree that before someone could become a member of a church, they would have to agree to more regulations and rules and expectations. Their logic was this – if you raise the bar high enough in terms of expectations and duties, people will become more serious about their faith and more committed to both their faith and the church.
You know what I think? That kind of approach just wears people out. Who wants to be loaded down and bludgeoned with rules and regulations and expectations? I sure don’t. In my experience, most people are simply trying to get through daily life, and they want their faith and their church to be a source of strength that will help them get through each day, not to be an additional burden.
I think this is one of the reasons why so many people today will claim they are spiritual but not religious. I believe they are certainly not reacting against God, but are most likely reacting to the stale, cold religion they see practiced and encouraged by far too many people, and they have decided they want no part of it.
As we continue through Advent, this morning I want us to consider Christmas Grace. Jesus was born into a time when much of the religion was stale and cold and dead. It was stale and cold and dead because the religious establishment had turned it into a burden. Instead of being a source of freedom, encouragement, and joy, faith was turned into lifeless, unappealing religion. They turned much of faith into a lifeless, unappealing religion because they forgot about grace.
Jesus was about grace, not burdens. He came to give life, and to give a more abundant life. He offered a burden that was light and easy in comparison to the heavy burden of regulations and duties offered by the religious leaders.
William Graham Tullian Tchividjian is the author of the book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World. While you may struggle to pronounce his last name, as do I, you will recognize his first two names. Tchividjian is the grandson of Billy Graham. His also a pretty good theologian. Listen to what he writes in his book –
While attacks on morality will always come from outside the church, attacks on grace will always come from inside the church because somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that this whole thing is about behavioral modification and personal moral improvement. We’ve concluded that grace just doesn’t possess the teeth to scare us into changing. As a result we get a steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons; we get a “to do list” version of Christianity that causes us to believe the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian. So we end up hearing more about “Christian living” than the Christ.
We think this will be what gets people to clean up their act, to fix themselves, to volunteer in the nursery, to obey, to read their Bibles, to change the world–but it actually has the opposite effect. A steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons doesn’t cause people to do more or try harder…it makes them give up. Legalism produces lawlessness 10 times out of 10.
Isn’t that an interesting statement – legalism produces lawlessness 10 times out of 10. Loading people down with rules and regulations, giving them stale, cold religion rather than a living, vital faith that connects them with God will indeed fail to produce love and faithfulness. It will instead produce discouragement and the tendency to give up rather than live a life of faith.
I’m not big on theological language. Seminary burned me out on a lot of theology, because it didn’t always make a lot of sense to me. Some theology is just badly written. There are, I think, two kinds of theologians – those who write with an impenetrable prose that really doesn’t say anything, but sounds so profound that people treat it as such. I didn’t then, and I still don’t like reading that kind of theology, which specializes in statements such as God is the ground of our being, as our being is found in his being, as he is the being of all being, and we are called to find our being in his ultimate being, so we are ultimately placing within his being, our being. I just made that up, but that’s how a lot of theology sounds to me. It just goes in a circle without really saying anything. The other kind of theologian is the one who can take difficult and profound theological concepts and put them in a simple and easy to understand form, using language that will speak to our hearts as much as to our heads. The great theologian Karl Barth, for instance, in very simple, yet profound, theological language said God is reached by the shortest ladder, not by the longest ladder (Why Does the World Exist? Jim Holt, pp 251-242). There’s a lot of people attempting to make us climb an incredibly long ladder to get to God, adding so many requirements and so many regulations, but the goal isn’t to make faith more difficult; it is to remind people that faith is based on love, which is so wonderful and so life-giving that we are joyfully compelled to respond to God.
Grace desires that we respond to God out of love and gratitude, not obligation and responsibility. Grace, unlike obligation and duty, calls out of us joy and life. In fact, when we respond out of grace, we are more likely to be the kinds of people God desires us to be, because we actually do better when responding out of love and grace. Charles Spurgeon, the famed 19th century British minister, nailed it when he said, When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I beat my breast to think I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good.
In the same way, I was far more likely to do what my parents wanted me to do, not because I feared them or because they loaded me down with rules, but because I knew they loved me and I wanted to respond to that love by becoming the person they desired me to be. I was the type of kid that, when given a rule, had the tendency to want to break the rule. I don’t know why I wanted to do that; it’s just the way I responded to rules. My parents didn’t load me down with a lot of rules, thankfully, and I wanted to live up to their expectations of me because I was well aware of their love for me.
In this morning’s Scripture passage Jeremiah says that God has loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness (Jeremiah 31:3). The intent of God is not to load us down with so many rules, but to draw us to him through his love. Rules and regulations are not attractive to anyone, but love certainly is.
Sometimes, faith and Christmas suffer the same difficulty – people load so much upon them both. People add so many obligations and rules to faith, just as people sometimes add so many things to Christmas, making it far more complicated than it was ever meant to be.
On Friday evening, almost at the end of the cantata, came one of those interesting moments that sometimes occur, moments that provide a flash of insight into something important. We were singing the final song, which is just a piece of Silent Night –
Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.
At the moment we sang the line radiant beams from thy holy face, I heard the cry of a young child. It was a moment that seemed destined to serve as a reminder of the cry of the infant Jesus. In the midst of a world so full of struggle and chaos, the humble birth of Jesus was overlooked by almost everyone. In the hustle and bustle of our modern Christmas, though we sing the songs and enjoy the activities of the season, we can still miss the cry of the Christ child.
May our hearts and minds hear his cry, and allow his grace – Christmas grace – to draw us to him.