Amazing Grace

Sermon  – September 15, 2019  Proper 19, Year C

Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Before we turn to our lectionary readings for today, let me tell you two stories.  The first story is about a man named John who lived-in eighteenth-century England.  John had been drafted in the Royal Navy at a young age, but he was more interested in drinking than in navy discipline and he attempted to desert his post.  He was caught and punished, but eventually was able to use family connections to get transferred to be a crew member on a slave ship.  At the time, England was still an active participant in the slave trade.

On one voyage, John’s ship was caught in a violent storm and he feared it would sink.  John prayed and the storm abated, and John started to become a Christian.  He continued in the slave trade, however, and even served as captain on three voyages.  John later described the conditions on his ship as follows “The slaves lie close to each other, like books upon a shelf. The poor creatures are cramped for room and chained, two together, by their hands and feet. This makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt to rise or lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other….Diseases often break out and I believe nearly half of the slaves on board have sometimes died.”  John was captain of such ships three times.  He himself could not abide the Royal Navy and was able to use family connections to escape that fate, and yet he commanded ships that treated human beings like disposable garbage.  Can you think of anybody more irredeemable than such a man?

Well, guess what?  This man later became an Anglican priest, authored the hymn Amazing Grace, and was a leader in the move to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain.  You see, God could and did redeem John Newton.  Later in life, John Newton wrote “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”  When Newton wrote the first verse to Amazing Grace, it was very real and autobiographical.  “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  Some think that the lyrics “saved a wretch like me” are over the top, but, if you know what Newton did in his early life, you know that describing him as a wretch is an understatement, if anything.  But Newton was redeemed by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ, was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and was used as an important tool in ending the British slave trade.

The second story I wanted to tell you is of an ancient king who lived many centuries ago.  This king had been richly blessed by God who had established him in his kingdom.  He had many wives and could have had more if he wanted.  As it happened, this king sent his army away to fight a war against a neighboring kingdom.  The king himself stayed home in his palace and one evening he happened to notice a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of a house near his palace.  The king sent for the woman and she was brought to him.  The king took the woman to his bed and slept with her.  Now, understand that in the ancient world you could not disobey the king, and so this woman could not have consented to this.  To put it starkly, the king raped her.

But that’s just beginning.  The woman’s husband was a loyal soldier of the king and as the war was dragging on, he wasn’t coming home.  After a time the woman sent word to the king that she was pregnant.  The king knew that he had sinned by raping and impregnating her, and he sought to cover up his crime.  He ordered the woman’s husband to be given leave from the army and return to his wife.  The king was thinking that the husband and wife would have conjugal relations, and everyone would think the pregnancy stemmed from this.  But the woman’s husband was a very honorable man, and he slept outside of his house, refusing to sleep inside with his wife while his fellow soldiers were still fighting.  The king’s plan failed.

So the king decided on another plan to cover up his crime.  He secretly ordered the commander of his army to start a skirmish where the woman’s husband was, and when the fighting grew fierce, withdraw everyone except her husband, so that he would be killed by the enemy.  This was done and the man was killed.  And so, this king not only raped the woman, but he murdered her husband, who had been a loyal soldier.  Can you get any worse than this?

Well, this king also was redeemed by God and became one of the greatest kings of Israel.  He, of course, was King David and the woman was Bathsheba.  It was in response to this great sin that David wrote Psalm 51 which we read today.

Let’s turn now to our lectionary readings.  This is one of the few Sundays where all three readings and the Psalm are all on point and they each have a particular message for us.  They each make a unique contribution to the overall theme for today.  Let’s begin with our passage from Exodus.  In this fascinating passage, we see a conversation between God and Moses.  God tells Moses of how the people of Israel have become corrupt and turned to idols so soon after he delivered them from the oppression and bondage of the Egyptians.  God’s people have spat in his face and turned their backs on him.  God says to Moses “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”  This is exactly what the people deserved.

But Moses intervenes for the people.  Moses doesn’t defend the Israelites actions.  He doesn’t say to God “well, they aren’t really that bad, God.  They try hard and you should cut them a break.”  No, Moses doesn’t go there.  Instead, Moses reminds God of the promises he had made to his people and their forefathers in earlier times.  Moses appeals to God’s grace to save the people, and God relents.  The reason this passage was added to the Scriptures was to remind the Israelites that God spared them despite their fully deserving to die in the wilderness.  This passage is a message of God’s gracious love triumphing over the punishment the people so justly deserved.

We turn now to the passage that we heard from Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Paul acknowledges that he was once a violent, blasphemer who persecuted others.  Before he had his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul actively persecuted Christians and participated in their killing.  Paul was a bad guy, and yet he too was redeemed.  Paul knows that he was not redeemed because he was such a good guy.  Instead, he writes that “[t]he grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Paul tells us that it was Jesus Christ who saved him from his sin, and that Jesus can save us as well.  Paul writes “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  This is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In our reading from Luke, a group of Pharisees and religious lawyers were criticizing Jesus for interacting with sinners.  The Pharisees and lawyers believed that they were capable themselves of following the law and making themselves right with God.  They had no compassion for others.  Pharisees today have a very bad reputation as religious hypocrites. But did you know that the religious philosophy of the Pharisees is actually very widely held today?  The Pharisees believed that it was we who seek God, and that we are capable of doing what needed to be done in order to be acceptable to God.  This idea is very common in America today.  Most reject the idea that we are lost in our own sin and in need of a Savior.  Our culture thinks that this philosophy is kind, but it is really rather cruel.  This thinking leads to the belief that good people deserve good things, and that bad people deserve bad things.  This is the underlying principle of the concept of karma – what goes around, comes around.  But the Gospel teaches us that Jesus Christ seeks out the bad, invites them into a relationship with him, and then transforms them through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The bad are transformed, not cast aside.

Jesus gives two illustrations to help us understand this.  In his one illustration, he speaks of someone who has a hundred sheep when one of them goes missing.  Such a person doesn’t say “well, too bad, so sad, but I still have my 99 sheep, so I don’t care about the lost one.”  Nor does the man assume that the lost sheep will find its own way home.  Instead the man searches high and low until he finds the lost sheep and then celebrates its finding.  In his second illustration, Jesus tells of a woman who has ten coins but loses one.  She searches all around her house until she finds the lost coin, rejoicing when it is found.  We are the lost sheep and the lost coin that God seeks out.  God doesn’t just let us find our own way back to him if we can.  God knows that we are completely incapable of doing so.  The whole purpose of Jesus is to find the lost and bring them back to the Father.

Let’s return to Paul’s letter to Timothy for a moment.  God isn’t through with us when he finds us.  That isn’t the end of the story.  God also intends to transform us so that we can be of greater service to him.  Listen to Paul “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

Paul acknowledges that he was the worst of sinners, and that he was saved through the grace of Jesus Christ.  But he also says that he was transformed so that he could be an example to others.  If God could transform a wretch like Paul, then others might have confidence that they too could be redeemed and transformed through the grace of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  We can count Paul with John Newton and King David as great examples for us of people who did very bad things but who were redeemed and transformed by God to do great things in the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

Paul was a mighty evangelist, King David was the greatest king of Israel and John Newton played a central role in ending one of the most barbaric practices in Anglo-American history.  But think about each of these men – Paul who initially was a great persecutor of Christians, was transformed into being a great evangelist.  David, who raped and murdered his own subjects was transformed into being the foremost God-fearing king of Israel.  And John Newton who initially was heavily involved in the slave trade was transformed into being a leading force in its eradication.  This is the power of the Gospel of Christ.

Before I finish, I want to look at Psalm 51 with you.  Psalm 51 was written by King David soon after God convicted David’s heart of the great evil he had committed against Bathsheba and Uriah.  I think that this Psalm can serve as a model for each one of us.  It is a model of repentance and turning back to God.  None of us has done the heinous things that Paul, or David, or John Newton did in their lives, but each one of us has sins that we must confess to God.  And this is not something we need only do once and then we are done.  No, we should be confessing our sins and seeking God’s transformation continually.

The verses in Psalm 51 that we read today can be divided into four parts.  In the first part, David writes: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.  Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  Here David is asking God to not count his sins against him.  David is acknowledging that he has sinned but asks God not to hold that sin against him.  As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins.  We can have confidence that if we trust in God and accept Jesus, God will not count our sins against us.

Next David writes: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.  Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.  Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.”  David is confessing not only his sins, but also is acknowledging his helplessness to save himself.  David teaches us humility in the face of God.  We should not be demanding that God accept us as we are, but rather acknowledging to God our innate sinfulness and confessing our inability to save ourselves.

David continues by writing “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.”  David turns now to some more positive requests.  He asks that God not only absolve him of his guilt but that God wash him and make him fully clean.  The focus here is not on the removal of the dirt and filth, but rather on the joy of being clean.  As Christians, we can ask God to show us how we can serve him now that we have been redeemed.

Finally, David finishes our passage from the Psalm with a very familiar verse: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”  David asks the Lord to renew his heart and his spirit and pleads with God not to take his presence or his Holy Spirit from him.  The removal of God’s presence from our lives is the greatest punishment that we could face, and many theologians believe that that is the very definition of hell.  David knows that his sin justifies God removing his presence.  David pleads instead that God would continue being present in his life and that God’s Holy Spirit would renew his heart and mind.  As Christians, we should pray for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives and for renewed hearts, minds and spirits.

Paul, King David and John Newton all were transformed into playing powerful roles in the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth.  For each of these men, and for you and me, transformation begins with God’s presence in our lives – both through our immersion in God’s word in the Bible and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Only God can renew our hearts, minds and spirits, and give us the ability to do great things in his service.  This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It has the power to turn the worst of people into powerful servants of God.  And it has the power to do the same for you and me.

Let us pray,

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.