Wednesday, November 16, 2016

November 13, 2016 Building Grace

This morning we begin a new series of messages based on the theme of building.  Several weeks ago I began to sketch out the themes for our messages in the coming months.  Along with the four-week series on Your Life I made a list of the first messages in building.  I have taken, for this theme, the words of Jesus from Matthew 16:18 – on this rock I will build my church.  I was thinking about those words recently and that word build just jumped out to me.

In that verse from Matthew’s gospel we find those famous words spoken by Jesus in response to Peter’s great confession of faith.  Jesus, you will remember, had traveled with his disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi, where he then asked of them, who do people say the Son of Man is?  Answering Jesus, they began to mention names such as John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or, perhaps, one of the other prophets.  Jesus asked them a second question, this one a bit more personal – but what about you?  Who do you say that I am?  In response, Peter declares, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to which Jesus replied, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it (Matthew 16:15-18).

I thought, what a great theme for a series of messages; there are so many way in which to consider that idea of “building.”  Next week we’ll talk about Building Generosity and in other weeks it will be Building Gratitude, Building Hope, Building Love, and other messages carrying on with the theme of building.

This morning we are talking about Building Grace, and for our Scripture text we’ll read what I believe to be not only one of the most dramatic stories in all of the Bible, but also one of the most dramatic examples of grace.  Found in John’s gospel, chapter 8, verses 2-11 we read these words –

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group
and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.
In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

As people, we are products of a particular context and, very often, we are not aware of that context and how it shapes us.  For instance, the general tone of preaching in our country, for about two and a half centuries, was set by an 18th century minister by the name of Jonathan Edwards.  In 1741 Edwards preached one of the most famous sermons in American history – Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God.  This sermon was the archetype for countless others that followed, in that it portrayed God as an angry divinity, ready to pronounce judgment upon his creation in the most extreme manner imaginable.  Here is an excerpt from his sermon –

Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.
The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.
The devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion.  The devils watch them; they are ever by them at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back. If God should withdraw his hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls. The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

Well now, that’s a cheerful thought, isn’t it?  And that’s one of the more tame passages.

The life and ministry of Jesus was about grace, and in today’s text we find such a dramatic example of that grace, and from this passage I want to say a few things –

1.  Jesus did not disqualify anyone from his grace.
If we are truly people of grace – truly – we do not put qualifications on those whom we will love or accept.  Jesus was constantly in conflict with religious leaders and authorities who wanted to serve as God’s gatekeepers and determine who did and did not qualify for God’s grace.  In this passage, and in others as well, we see the focus of their attention as this woman who is brought before Jesus.

Have you noticed someone is missing from this story?  Do you know who it is?  It is the man who was part of the relationship.  It is no accident that they chose a woman to bring before Jesus.  Obviously, because of a charge of adultery they could have brought the man as well but they didn’t, because they had no regard for this woman.  They had no regard for her, first of all, because she was a woman and they did not provide her with any kind of standing or dignity simply because of her gender.  They force this woman to stand before the crowd, with their rocks in hand, and with bloodlust in their hearts they stand at the ready to stone her.  Those men couldn’t have cared less about her, she was merely an object to be used.  History hasn’t changed much, has it?  Men have from the beginning seen women as objects to be used.  Not all men, of course, but plenty enough.

It’s sad to say that for much of history women have often been treated in such a manner.  And they have been, and continue to be, treated unequally in many religious settings as well.  For the life of me I cannot understand why some churches have been so discriminatory in the way they treat women.  I know all the passages that supposedly limit the roles of women and have studied them for many years, and I will tell you that not one of the discriminatory interpretations that are offered of those passages will stand up under good scholarship.  But it’s not just women who are discriminated against by some religious people; there continue to be those within the church community who want to serve as God’s gatekeepers, determining who is and who is not worthy of his grace, and they find, unfortunately, others with whom they take issue.

To come here, we believe, is to come to a place – a church – where you do not have to qualify for God’s grace or justify yourself in order to be given God’s grace.  God is not look ing for you to qualify or justify yourself to receive his grace.  Nothing disqualifies you from his acceptance or his love.  Your politics do not disqualify you.  Your ethnicity does not disqualify you.  Your education level does not disqualify you.  Your gender does not disqualify you.  Your sexuality does not disqualify you.  Your marital status does not disqualify you.  Your economic status does not disqualify you.  Your beliefs do not disqualify you.  God’s love and grace is open to all.

2.  Jesus stood up for those disqualified by society.
John says, in verse 6, that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees used this poor woman as a means to trap Jesus and thereby discredit him. 

Notice how Jesus diffuses the situation.  It is tough to be graceful in an emotionally charged situation (and it certainly seems as though we are now living in such a context), especially when rocks are about to be thrown.  It’s hard not to imagine the sense of righteous anger that must have been roiling in Jesus, but in this scene he is calm, unlike when he erupts in such passion aainst the moneychangers in the Temple.  Though he is calm, it does not mean he is without anger and passion against those who want to condemn, and, sadly, to condemn in the name of God.

When we talk about grace it is important to remember that an emphasis on grace does not preclude the call to stand up for those who are disqualified, mistreated, and cast aside by society.  In fact, grace compells us to speak up for those individuals.  Jesus was the great champion of those whom society had determined to be unworthy of consideration, of those who were seen as expendable, and of those who were not deemed worthy of inclusion or love.  So grace does not at all mean to overlook injustice or suffering or prejudice or discrimination.  Grace will offer love to all, but grace will also rise up when someone is being oppressed or treated unjustly.

Jesus did not hesitate to stand up for this woman, and he did so in the face of a crowd that cried out for her blood.  That takes some nerve, doesn’t it?  It takes some courage, doesn’t it?  It takes some conviction, doesn’t it?  It’s really easy to be quiet in the face of a crowd.  It’s very easy to remain silent when the mass of people are angry and threatening.  But sometimes the crowd is wrong and someone needs to speak up.  Aren’t you glad to know that Jesus spoke up for this woman, even in the face of an angry mob armed with rocks and stones?  I am.  And I hope I can follow his example.

3.  Don’t be the person holding a rock.
It doesn’t take much of a rock to cause a world of hurt.  If you have been struck by just a small pebble you know that a very small rock causes a great deal of damage.  David, remember, felled Goliath with small stones that he scooped up and put in his sling, not large ones.

I hope we don’t have anything in common with those teachers of the law and Pharisees who stood, with stones in hand, to accuse and judge this poor woman.  But I do fear there is one way in which we are similar – we’ve all got at least one rock in our hand, reserving it for someone, or some group.  Am I right?  I’m afraid I am.

Sometimes I get tired because I’m carrying so many rocks.  And when I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full to be filled with the grace that God has called me to share.  When I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full to receive the blessings that God wants to give to me.  When I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full and too weighed down to reach out a helping hand to the one who needs my helping hand.  When I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full and too weighed down to embrace the one who needs my embrace.

Are you ready to put down your rocks? 

Building is not easy.  We found this out with our new church playground.  First, it had to be moved because of the power line running through the area we had chosen.  Then, as we awaited delivery of the equipment, we learned that the truck driver quit – en route with the equipment – and we expected our schedule to be rearranged.  Thankfully, we were able to proceed on schedule.  After the equipment arrived and was unloaded we faced the daunting task of putting it all together on Friday and Saturday.  It was a lot of work.  Among the final pieces of work yesterday was the installation of four benches.  Three of the benches we managed to install without any problems, but one of them seemed to have a will of its own and was determined to make things difficult for us.  Once in place we secured it with twine, which kept breaking and allowing the bench to fall forward.  For some reason, it only happened with this one particular bench.  Someone finally secured it with heavy-duty straps.  Last night, after Light Up Shelbyville, I drove here to the church with Nick and Tanya, because I wanted them to see the playground.  As we drove up the driveway I turned on the car’s bright lights and the first thing I noticed was that same bench, once again having fallen over, in spite of the heavy-duty straps holding it in place.  Now, I was certain, it was just taunting us.  Thankfully Dave Kerchner fixed it this morning, but I would not at all be surprised to walk out of the church after the service and see it leaning forward once again!

Building is not easy and always – always – reveals the unexpected. Building grace is really not easy, but it is our calling.  Let us be people of grace.  Let us go about building grace.  We live in a world, after all, that is much in need of grace.  Let us go forth in grace!

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