August 2, 2015 – Grace … or Consequences

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Ever since the first Book of Common Prayer was compiled by Thomas Cranmer, in 1662, Anglican worship has begun with a prayer called the Collect for Purity. I stand up here and I pray this ancient prayer every single week at the beginning of our worship. But today, because it is easy for things to become too familiar to us from hearing it week after week, I decided to shake things up a little, and save the Collect for Purity until now, at the beginning of the sermon.

So, let us pray: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Last week, if you remember, we read the story of King David’s fall into lust and adultery and treachery and murder, and how God took all that evil and brought about the best good that ever happened to this creation, because the great-great-great-great-great-many-times-over-grandson of David and Bathsheba was none other than Jesus himself. And I talked about how that was the ultimate example of the grace of God in all its outrageously illogically abundant goodness: the love that he lavishes on his children in all our unworthiness.

But today it seems like the hammer came down on David. All that grace stuff sounded too good to be true, right? And here you go, yeah, God is gracious to mankind as a whole, but when you come right down to it somebody’s got to pay the piper. So here comes the prophet Nathan, to tell David a story about a poor man and his little pet lamb, how the poor man’s neighbor, rich and greedy and cruel, took the poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it to feed his company so he wouldn’t have to take a lamb from his own flock. And King David was beside himself with righteous indignation, until Nathan pointed out the fairly obvious moral of the story. “I’m talking about you, David.”

It says a lot about David’s humility and his true devotion to God that he confessed without making excuses, without pointing a finger at anyone else. He just said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” But Nathan made it clear that there were going to be consequences – evil would come from David’s actions. People were going to suffer for David’s sin – not just Bathsheba who was mourning her dead husband, not just Uriah who was betrayed and murdered; David’s sin would impact his whole family, and his whole kingdom, and as we keep reading in the Second Book of Samuel that becomes abundantly clear.

So here’s the question: is truth the ugly side of the coin of grace? How do grace and truth fit together, really? Do grace and truth fit together – or do they just cancel each other out? Grace sounds like a great idea, theoretically, but in reality, is the punishment for our sins just hidden in the fine print, like the hidden costs in the used car advertisement, where your monthly payments of $150 end up really being more like $500, after finance charges and taxes and shipping costs and things?

John opens his gospel with this description of Jesus: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Savior of the world came to us as grace and truth – inseparably – because that is what the mission of Jesus is: grace, the lovingkindness of the Father in action, not ignoring evil or tolerating evil or excusing evil, but utterly obliterating evil in the full, blinding light of the truth.

When the world envisions a loving and all-knowing God, what it comes up with is Santa Claus – “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good, for goodness’ sake.” Santa is that kindly old gentleman who loves all the little children of the world, but if they step out of line he’ll put coal in their stocking. That’s the kind of god the world comes up with because the world gets truth – they understand rules and obedience – but they just really don’t get grace. And without grace, truth is just judgment.

John, chapter 1, goes on to say that “the law was given to us through Moses – the Law with its rigid demands and merciless justice – but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” That perfect union of truth and grace accomplished what the law could never do: Without truth, grace is just whitewash, just something pretty to cover up the stain of sin, and that does us no real good. And without grace, truth is just “merciless justice” – just punishment and retribution – and that isn’t good news for anyone. But united in Christ, grace and truth are salvation and health for us.

I grew up Roman Catholic, and there were many good things about that. I grew up with a reverence for God and a desire to be obedient and faithful. But I also grew up with a lot of fears and insecurities, and with a very poor understanding of the grace of God. And in particular, I did not understand what we called the sacrament of penance – what we just call confession. There was an air of mystery and – to be honest – terror in the whole process of making one’s confession as a little girl. You had to go into a dark cubicle and speak to a shadowy figure on the other side of the screen, and wrack your brains to come up with suitable material for a proper confession.

And then the priest, who I am sure had a genuine concern for my spiritual health, would give me a set of prayers to rattle off for a penance: so many Hail Mary’s and so many Our Father’s. And I was off the hook for another week. I had no real sense that God saw deeply into the darkest places of my little heart, no real conviction, like King David, that I had “sinned against the Lord.” And I also had no real sense of joy in the grace of forgiveness, because I had not really confessed, and in my mind I had paid for my trivial sins by the trivial offering of my penance. For my vain and foolish young self, confession was an obligation, grace and truth conspicuously lacking all round.

But true confession is an opportunity for grace and truth to enter into our lives, as Paul wrote, in Romans, chapter 5: “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The acts that spring from our broken and rebellious nature: the wrong choices we make, the temptations we give in to, the easy paths we take – these things bring about pain and evil in the world, just like David’s sin had far-reaching echoes of pain and loss and brokenness. Our actions have consequences; that’s the natural result of the freedom God gave us to make choices for good or evil. But the consequences of our actions are never God making us pay for our sins. I can say that with absolute confidence, because our sin is all paid for already. The payment for all sin for all time for all human beings was accomplished on the cross by Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ, who came into the world for that very purpose, full of grace and full of truth.

When we come to God in confession – which we are going to do in just a few minutes – it has nothing at all to do with condemnation or punishment. But it has everything to do with grace and truth. It has to do with truth, because when we make our confession, no matter whether we are praying privately at home or making our confession together as a congregation, each of us stands in the presence of the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. We don’t need to hide, because everything we are tempted to hide or explain away is known already. We might have been able to convince other people, or even ourselves, that we were justified when we said or did – or didn’t do – the very thing we have to confess, or that it really wasn’t so bad. But in the presence of Jesus Christ, who is truth itself, we have nothing to hide. Truth is the greatest freedom.

And our confession has everything to do with grace, too, because no matter what we have done, and no matter how much of a mess we seem to have made of things, and no matter how tired and discouraged we have become with ourselves, God’s unchangeable plan is to bring an abundance of goodness and healing that will reach farther and do more and last longer than the most far-reaching of consequences. “I know the plans I have for you,” he told us, “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” The consequences of human sin are real but God’s grace trumps anything mankind could possibly set in motion. Man’s sin nailed Jesus to the cross, but grace burst victorious from the tomb. Grace always wins, big time.

Jesus came to make God visible to us in the grace and truth of his presence. Grace is always married to truth; you don’t get one without the other. Jesus came as the Bridegroom who loves us with the outrageous abundance of his grace, in the shadowless light of absolute truth. He has called himself our husband, binding himself to us in that most intimate of human relationships. And that means he knows us exactly as we are. It is only people who really know us, who love us as we really are, whose love we can trust.. The God who came in grace and truth sees us naked in every way. He sees us without our makeup first thing in the morning – metaphorically, but also literally. He sees our dishonesties and our unkindnessses and our petty jealousies. He understands our joys and our fears and our hopes and our despair. He sees everything we hate about ourselves, everything we are ashamed of, everything we try so desperately to hide.

The God of grace and truth is not far from you; he doesn’t keep you at a distance; he knows you. “To him all our thoughts are open, all our desires are known, and from him not one of our secrets is hid” – and that is your hope and your salvation and the very best news, because he is absolutely and totally and eternally in love with you.

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