“God’s Grace in Life”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 25, 2017
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 1:27-31; 3:1-13 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2, 14-15
This story began 10 years ago when I was serving as the Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Well, no, that is not quite true. Actually, this story began when, as a child, I was given a book for Christmas—this book. Well, no, that is not quite true, either. It wasn’t this exact book because, sadly, that one got lost somewhere along the way. It was, however, this publication. As you can see, it is a children’s Bible Storybook.
By now most of you have heard me mention I was not raised in a loving, Christian home so the fact that I even received such a gift—a children’s Bible Storybook, well, that was a special grace in and of itself. Being a child in an environment of brokenness, sadness, and fear, it is probably no surprise that I poured through these pages with wild-eyed wonder. How could I not fall in love with larger than life characters like Joseph and Moses, Ruth and David? Soon I began to wonder: Could these larger than life stories be true? Could they contain a smidgeon of truth? If so, sign me up because larger than my life was what I was searching for!
Undoubtedly, most people are spiritually formed through the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ—which is entirely understandable. But for me, formation began before Bethlehem. For me, the story started with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” Grand stories of light and love, stories of chaos overcome and injustices made right—those were the kind of stories that captured my young imagination and gave me hope. So imagine my surprise when, as a minister, many years later, I heard from the lips of believers, ‘I don’t like the Old Testament where God is angry. I prefer the grace of the New Testament.”
“But wait!” I responded, “God’s grace is all over the pages of the Old Testament.” Repeatedly I found myself defending the Hebrew Scriptures. The situation bothered me—a lot—so I began to ponder how I might encourage others to fall in love with the old stories of our faith. Finally, I spoke to the senior pastor about an idea that had come to me: Why not preach a sermon series on our favorite Old Testament characters to remind people that God’s grace has always been alive and well. Thus began the sermon series I will be sharing with you this summer. Together we will look at the lives of people like Esther, Jeremiah, Hannah, Joseph, and Daniel—people who displayed amazing faith in God even before the example of Christ was set before them—people who make up that great cloud of witnesses who are part of our faith story.
Of course, we are told about the great cloud of witnesses in the Letter to the Hebrews. More like a sermon than a letter, it is written to a community of Jewish Christians who are facing persecution for their faith—so much so they are tempted to abandon Christianity altogether. For the author, Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. As a result, the letter offers encouragement so that believers will not shrink back to the synagogue, but instead stand firm in their faith in Christ—Christ who is better than the angels, Christ who is better than Moses, Christ who is better than the Levitical priesthood.
Chapter 11, sometimes called the “Hall of Faith” is the climax of the sermon in which many “heroes” or “witnesses” of faith are named. Abraham and Sarah are in their number—no surprise there! There are others, however, that seem less likely to be found in a list of the faithful. If Jacob, Samson, and Jephthah are named, perfection is certainly not a requirement. Indeed, the list includes murderers, adulterers, liars, thieves, and harlots. What a family tree! Yet, they all have something in common. They live by faith.
One scholar has defined faith as the belief that ultimate reality lies not in the here and now or in things visible, but in things yet to come and things that cannot be seen. Faith believes that God “is” even though God cannot be seen—that God rewards those who seek him if not in the present age, then the age to come.[i] This surely describes the witnesses found throughout Hebrews 11.
And where did they get such faith? Ephesians 2:8 says that faith is a gift from God. We know that grace, too, is a gift from God. By definition, grace is undeserved favor, blessing, or goodwill. The term I like best is “unmerited favor.” In our sinful condition as humans, undeserving as we are of God’s love, grace is God’s goodwill and unmerited favor reaching out to redeem us. But grace is not, as some would have us believe, new to the early Christian community. God’s grace has been at work since the beginning of time.
Recall Genesis 1. God creates the earth and says that it is good. God creates a beautiful garden and creates man and woman to dwell there. And as a way of saying thank you, what do Adam and Eve do? Well, they get cozy with a stranger—the Serpent—they buy into his lies and they turn their backs on the goodness of God. They are deserving of anything but God’s kindness and love. But what happens? God comes “a calling” as God does every day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding out. God knows their sin and surely life will never be the same for humanity, but God doesn’t turn away. Instead, God confronts them and then we are told in Genesis 3:21, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” God the Creator of all that is, God who loved us and created us in his image—this God, after being rejected by his own creation—sits down, takes out needle and thread and becomes God the Tailor, sewing clothing for the very ones who have broken his heart[ii].
We don’t have to look far to find other examples of grace. God chose the people of Israel to be a light to the world. Because they deserved it? Because they were greater than all the other people? Hardly! God chose the people of Israel because he loved them and then, out of this great love, he gave them laws so that they would know how to live. He gave them the Sabbath day of rest; he gave them all that they would need to be the people of God, a witness to God’s goodness. And what did the people of Israel do? Time and time again, they turned away from God, running after other gods, running after the lies of this world. Yet, God still loved them.
I once read a story about Philip Yancey attempting to read the Bible with fresh eyes. He settled into a mountain cabin in Colorado in the winter and started reading. A couple of weeks later, he reached the end. The experience affected him profoundly and left him with the sense that all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of God trying to get his family back. We are God’s family and God’s love for us is limitless. Were it not so, God would surely have washed his hands of us by now. What a mess we make of things! The world is marked by unrest, poverty, homelessness, the breakdown of families, wars and violence. Surely the world is starving for grace—God’s grace!
In Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? he made reference to the movie Forrest Gump. You may recall that the movie is about a fellow with a low IQ who has a habit of repeating clichés handed down by his mother: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” He also does incredible things like rescuing his buddies in Vietnam, being faithful to his girlfriend, Jenny, regardless of her behavior, and committing to love his child to the best of his ability with every fiber of his being. Yancey writes,
A magical scene of a feather opens and ends the movie—a note of grace so light no one knows where it might land…Many thought [the movie] naïve, ridiculous, manipulative. Others, however, saw in it a rumor of grace that made a sharp relief against [other violent films of the day]. As a result, Forrest Gump became the most successful movie of its time. The world starves for grace.[iii]
The world has always been starving for grace—and God has always been the Great Provider. Thousands of years have passed since God created the heavens and the earth and male and female in his image. Yet, not much has changed. Like Adam and Eve, we are guilty. Like the people of Israel, we are undeserving. Like Rahab, we are surprised by God’s grace. Nevertheless, God’s unmerited favor is poured down upon us like rain. God’s grace woos us and calls us into a relationship. God’s grace draws us to God, justifies us by faith in Jesus Christ, and sanctifies and empowers us by the Holy Spirit.
The story of God’s grace is Christianity’s gift to the human race. But the story began long before Bethlehem. It all started, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” Grand stories of light and love, stories of chaos overcome and injustices made right—those are the kind of stories we will be delving into throughout the summer. It is my prayer that through these stories, we may draw strength from the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and be reminded of the importance of faith in God—a God who cannot be seen but who rewards those who seek him. Thanks be to God!
[i] The Lectionary Commentary; Van Harn
[ii] Grace in a Tree Stump, J. Ellsworth Kalas, 7.
[iii] What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey, 40.