In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
~ John 1:1-5, 14, 16 (NRSV)
Through the season of Advent so far, we have been reflecting on the themes of the verses of Silent Night. We’ve talked about not only “sleeping in heavenly peace,” but living our lives that way. And the “glorious streams” that brought the shepherds to God’s big amazing joy. This week’s verse calls us to think about redeeming grace, and what that might mean in our lives. But before we can imagine what redeeming grace might feel like, we need to understand what redeeming grace means. Because it’s one of those church phrases that gets tossed around a lot, but if we don’t understand what it means, how can we truly experience it and live it out in our everyday lives?
Well, friends, for me, redeeming grace is what keeps me going day after day. It’s the reason why I stand in this pulpit on Sunday mornings and why I have devoted my life to the ministry. Folks, here in Oldtown we often talk about the fact that life is hard, and that things don’t always go as we plan them. We all face struggles and difficulties in our lives. We make mistakes and lose our way. We wake up some mornings and want to pull the covers back over our head. And our prayers, if we pray, usually start with phrases like, “Why me God?” “Give me strength God.” “Help me through this God.”
I find it funny, because usually when I meet someone and they find out that I’m a pastor, they immediately sit up a little straighter, they apologize for something that they have already said in front of me, and they try to be on their best behavior. And I have to be honest, that drives me crazy. Because so many people live in fear of the church, or in the idea of God. And if that is what I represent, they feel uncomfortable around me too. Because when people meet me for the first time, and they find out that I’m a minister, the first thing that many of them think is that I’m going to judge them. They think that I am going focus on their shortcomings and look down on their decisions, which makes them immediately feel like they are not enough, and they begin to feel guilty for every mistake they have ever made. That’s just like the people that say, “Oh I couldn’t come to worship. If I stepped into a church, the roof would fall in!”
Friends, every time I meet with a family to prepare for a funeral service, I always start by saying the same thing. “Hi, my name is Kelly, and I’m the pastor of the First Congregational Church in North Attleboro. I don’t know if you have a faith background, and there is no judgment on my end either way, but I just want you to know that it is not my job to bring my church or my faith to you. My only job is to help design and carry out a service for your loved one that is appropriate for you and your family. So, if any of the language that I use is uncomfortable for you, please let me know.” At that point, jaws usually start to drop a little and I start hearing the question, “What church do you work for?”
Friends, as many of you know, the church universal has had a bad reputation as a place of judgment, guilt, and fear. But I have to be honest, that’s not the church or the God that I know, and that is one of the reasons why I went into ministry. Because I know that life is hard, and I know that families struggle, and I know that some days we just don’t want to get out of bed because our heads and more importantly our hearts hurt. And on those days and in those situations, I want to make sure that people have a faith foundation to stand on. I want to make sure that they know that they are not alone in the world, and I want to make sure that they know that they are loved no matter what choices they have made or what is happening around them. Because, friends, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, God loves you unconditionally, not because of the things that you do, but simply because of who God is. And that is what redeeming grace is all about.
Unfortunately, the church for centuries used their authority to try to scare people straight. For generations, the church did whatever it could to get people to live on the straight and narrow. They filled people with feelings of guilt and fear. It was a way of controlling and setting boundaries for the community in hopes of keeping people safe and orderly. But in so doing, they lost sight of the love of God and the true message of the gospel.
There is a famous sermon that was written and preached by Jonathan Edwards who was a revivalist congregational preacher in the early 1700s. His fire-and-brimstone preaching brought such fear and trepidation to people that they ran back to church in hopes of saving their lives! The sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was supposedly Edwards’ attempt to magnify the love of Jesus, but to this day, I can’t understand how he thought he was getting that message across. In his sermon, Edwards painted a picture of an angry God holding each sinner like a spider over the open flames of hell. He drew such a vivid picture that he brought his congregation to hysterics. By the time he got to the loving Jesus standing at the open door, welcoming sinners into his arms, no one was rational enough to hear, let alone understand.
Folks, the truth is, the message is simple. We don’t need to try to magnify it or scare people into understanding it. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about love. It’s about God’s unconditional and unending love for all us. That’s it!
And the Christmas story is about God loving us so much that God would come to us, as a tiny baby, to walk hand in hand with us when life is hard and when things don’t always go as we plan them. When we face struggles and difficulties in our lives, and when we make mistakes and lose our way. When we wake up in the mornings and want to pull the covers back over our heads, and especially when our prayers start with phrases like, “Why me God?” “Give me strength God.” “Help me through this God.”
As scripture says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
Friends, redeeming grace means that no matter what we’ve said or done, if we trust in God, God will forgive us. It means that no matter what mistakes we’ve made, God will continue to love us just the way we are, and I don’t think there is any better news than that!
Folks, redemption means “to pay for past mistakes” or “to free from the bondage of guilt and to save from sin and evil.” But the important part to remember is that in the church, we don’t just focus on redemption, but on redeeming grace. And that means that we don’t need to earn God’s love or pay for forgiveness. It a gift that we simply need to be willing to receive.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, and as you experience Christmas parties and gatherings, remember that the true gift of Christmas is Emmanuel, meaning God with us. And when you look at a nativity, remembering the story of the baby born in the manger so long ago, remember that it all happened because God loves YOU so much! Friends, it’s my hope and my prayer for you this week that you might begin to fathom just how much God loves you, and as you do, that you might go out and share that love with others.
My friends, may it be so, thanks be to God. Amen!