December 20th, 2015

Piling on Grace

The Bible’s story is layered with delicious varieties of grace.

John 1:16

The last best word

It seems appropriate at a service like this to begin the meditation with some hook to connect with whatever might already be on your mind. But it’s not as easy as you might think to find the right one. I can think of 14 good reasons to mention the Carolina Panthers, and no Giant reasons not to. A Christmas blockbuster movie is playing, but speak of Star Wars, I will not. I could discuss presents and Santa Claus, but honestly, we intentionally plan Candlelighting a few days before Christmas to remove some of those very distractions.

So let’s talk about how Candlelighting has become an occasion for too much sinning. Consider the following fictional family. Mom is nagging everyone because if they don’t leave soon they won’t get to sit together. Little brother says, “Why do all these people have to come to our church anyways and take our seats!” Dad doesn’t want to leave the couch because the game’s not over. Teenage sister says, “I’ll head over early and save our seats since you love football more than Jesus!” By the time everyone arrives nobody’s in the mood for peace on earth, good will toward men.

Some of you think I made that story up. Others wonder if I spied on your family. Whether it’s competition for seats, conflict in the home, pride, anxiety, or judging others for any of the above, every year I hear more rumors of sinning at Candlelighting.

And that’s not all bad, because it reminds me of who we are as a church and why we’re here. The church is a community of sinners who know and share grace.

Author Philip Yancey has called grace “the last best word,” from a Christian perspective. By that he means that some historically beautiful Christian words like charity have been modified through usage to mean something undesirable. Nobody wants your “charity” any more. Other words, like love, have been sufficiently diluted that you can’t really be sure when someone uses them that they mean what you mean. But even in standard dictionaries and common usage, when you hear the word grace or its relatives – gracious, gratuity, grateful, for example – they probably mean what the Bible means by grace – a generous gift or kind act that is undeserved and expects nothing in return.


What turned my thinking toward grace this week was a phrase in the Gospel of John, chapter 1, which is John’s version of the Christmas story. Luke uses his zoom lens to focus attention on Mary and shepherds. Matthew relates stories about Joseph and wise men that we would never have heard without his gospel. John uses a wide-angle lens, providing the Google Earth description of the same event. All of time and space, even all eternity and the whole universe, places the manger story in context.

The line in John’s Christmas story that has captured my attention is in verse 16. It reads in your pew Bible, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” I don’t like that translation much, because it makes Christmas too much like Thanksgiving – “God, thank you for turkey and green bean casserole and our nice house and beautiful weather and family and Jesus.” Jesus is so much more than just another “blessing”!

I love Thanksgiving, but Christmas is better. I love blessings, but grace is better. The “blessing” approach tends to distort God. If God’s number one objective is to bless my life, I quickly turn on him if my prayers aren’t answered or if, well, he doesn’t bless me. We cannot reduce Jesus to being part of “one blessing after another.”

The most common translation of John 1:16 is “grace upon grace.” Grace is different than blessings. John insists Christmas is about grace and more grace.

As you probably know, every English Bible is an effort to convey the thought of an ancient language for the modern reader. This wording of the end of verse 16 in the Greek original tends to puzzle translators: “grace against grace.” So let’s say we understand what grace is – God’s undeserved gift – the puzzle is the preposition in the middle. The Greek is “anti,” and you don’t have to be a Greek scholar to realize that “anti” means “against” – a contrast, the opposite, even an enemy. John’s version of the Christmas story says that in Jesus we all received grace-anti-grace. What could he possibly mean?

Layers of grace

On a fairly regular basis, pastors hear complaints about church members. Two weeks ago I had a voice mail from a person in the community who said someone who attends worship here is homophobic. This past week it was an e-mail from a church member who implied a staff member was insensitive. Occasionally someone feels the need to report to me that one of our members is dishonest in business or has a foul mouth or is having an affair. I’m never surprised that someone in the church sinned or messed up. I’m usually surprised that anyone would think that’s surprising.

In the minds of some, usually those outside the church, a church is a Gestapo-like organization with rigid rules and a cadre of enforcers, me being the chief enforcer. If sin at Candlelighting is a problem it’s my problem to deal with it. The problem is that sins are a lot like the moles in the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. You squash one sin and another pops up. In the meantime the Whacker can become terribly arrogant.

What we need to practice in the church is not conformity. It’s grace. We don’t see sin as a problem to be investigated and eradicated. It’s already been eradicated by Jesus. We see more sin as an opportunity to pile on grace. Why? Because God has piled on one grace after another.

Back to what John says: “Of his fullness we all received “grace against grace.” The key to understanding it is in the next verse, which says, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John is contrasting the old system of laws and sacrifices and enforcers, and the new system of Jesus: grace and truth.

That old system was about grace too. It was about the grace of God telling his people what he expected, giving them some remedies in the form of temple sacrifices, and sending them judges and poets and prophets as his messengers. All that was undeserved giving. God didn’t owe them anything. These were gifts of grace.

In Jesus God removed the old system of grace and replaced it with… more grace. The Bible’s story is layered with delicious varieties of grace, like my wife’s Ice Cream Sandwich dessert (a layer of ice cream sandwiches, then Cool Whip, then caramel/chocolate/pecans, then more ice cream sandwiches, more Cool Whip, and more caramel/chocolate/pecans). Every layer is a contrast, but every layer is sweet. Pastor Paul’s image this morning was of a boogie board on a stormy day at the North Carolina coast – wave after wave after wave of grace tumbling you end over end.

Every new thing God does is just a different flavor and texture of grace. Even among the stories of Jesus, there are different layers of grace. God becomes man. That’s grace enough. The baby King is laid in a manger. Grace. Angels announce his birth to shepherds. Grace. He grows up in an obscure village where nobody recognizes who he is. Grace. He teaches, heals, raises the dead. Grace. He meets a woman caught in adultery and says, “Neither do I condemn you.” Grace. He submits to suffering and a death he didn’t deserve as he prays, “Father, forgive them.” Grace. He rises again and shows himself. Grace. He ascends to his Father where he prays for us. He’s piling on grace, even now.

Doesn’t piling on grace encourage more sinning? That’s a risk God is willing to take. Why don’t I just love you like you are, forgive you when you believe in Jesus’ name and receive this gift of grace, and let radical acceptance transform you?

Does that mean we’re soft on sin, that sin doesn’t matter? Sometimes it looks like that, but that’s also a risk we’re willing to take. Why? Because God takes that risk. No, the more I realize God is piling on grace the more motivation I have to deal with sin.

What we have to keep learning is that our job is to do what God in Jesus has done – keep piling on grace. Add another layer of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. Sacrifice your rights and even your life for sinners. Never, ever give up on them. Give second chances, offer the benefit of the doubt. Make allowances for others the way you want them to make allowances for you. Refuse to walk away. Love them unconditionally.

Why? Because that’s how God has piled grace on you! He has loved you, he has pursued you, he has found a way to completely eradicate the power and penalty of sin for you. “Grace upon grace.” That’s the Gospel, and that’s the message of Christmas. Amen.

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