Grace Plus Nothing

Psalm 78.17-24

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. 

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

A woman stands up in a crowded sanctuary.

The gathered people called church have been arguing and arguing about the one thing needful, about what they must do to be saved. 

Some suggest the baptism is the singular requirement, though then they begin to squabble about just how much water needs to be used, and how many people need to be present, and how old the person baptized needs to be.

While others offer thoughts about making a public declaration of faith, like kneeling at the front of the church during an altar call.

While still yet others boisterously complain that unless someone tithes to the church, they shouldn’t have any expectations of going anywhere but down at the end of their days.

The woman stands and patiently raises her hand until everyone stops bickering and they all give her their attention.

She says, “I’ve been doing some reading in this here book, and it seems to be that the whole of faith is this: Grace plus Nothing.”

“Excuse me?” A man shouts from a nearby pew, “If its grace plus nothing, then why bother being good or coming to church or doing anything really?”

The woman calmly responds, “Well, we do those things because they make life more fun.”

Another person interjects, “So, what  you’re saying is, in the end it doesn’t matter how you live your life?”

And the woman says, “Of course it matters how we live! But it doesn’t earn us squat in the Kingdom of God.”

It seems for the briefest of moments that the Holy Spirit has finally showed up through the woman, and yet, it only takes a few minutes before the room returns to arguing.

Now there are two camps – those who align themselves with those who raised objections, who were righteously offended by the talk of Grace plus Nothing and eventually they all storm out of the sanctuary to start their own church down the road.

Works-Righteousness UMC.

However, the other half, those who agree with the woman, they all perk up in their pews when she mentions Grace plus Nothing because for the first time they actually hear the good part of the Good News. So while the other half go off and start their own church, the half intoxicated by grace keep showing up week after week, dragging in all their friends – the disabused, the forgotten, the overlooked, the last, least, lost, and little and they relished in the Gospel.

This is a parable of grace.

And God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.

The Psalms understand the human condition – in them we catch a mirror glimpse of ourselves at our worst and at our best. The Psalmist, time and time again, lifts up their innermost feelings, articulating needs and fears, hopes and shames, in a way that none of us could on our own.

In short, the Psalms tell the truth.

God’s people were a lot more nimble, were forced to live truly by faith, while God was leading them through the desert. They had a portable tent for worship, they had the ark of the covenant which stood to remind them of the call to love God and one another. And yet, they couldn’t help themselves from looking backward all while God was leading them forward.

“Moses! Where are you dragging us? At least, back in Egypt, we had three square meals a day and water to drink. So what if we had to be slaves for it? Better to be a slave and full than to be free and hungry!”

Moses takes the staff that divided the waters of the Red Sea, strikes a rock in the desert, and water streams forth.

But it ain’t enough for the people of God.

“Moses! The water’s nice and all but can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re hungry!”

Therefore, the Psalmist tells us, when the Lord heard their complaints, God was full of rage, God’s anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith and did not trust.

Yet.

Yet!

Yet, God rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven.

This is a parable of grace.

Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all was said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh. 

Jesus’ response – You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.

“What must we do?” The crowds intone.

“Believe” Jesus answers.

“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”

And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”

“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”

And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”

Another parable of grace. 

What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner. 

Jesus feeds the hungry – that who Jesus is.

Notably, he fills the 5,000 and then tells the gathered people to work for the food that endures forever. The crowds prepare themselves to hear Jesus’ religious pitch (before he can speak again they’re already asking what’s required). 

But this time it doesn’t end with the guilt trip they’ve all heard so many times before. 

There’s no “I fed you so now you all have to go feed fifty people” or “Because I did this for you, now you have to do something for me. 

Jesus just says, “I, myself, am the bread. Whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.” Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread. 

Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?

No!

The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies. 

This is grace.

Grace plus Nothing.

Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – You didn’t listen in the wilderness! You haven’t loved your neighbors enough! – we actually get clobbered by grace. 

And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.

The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.

The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us. 

And yet, it can be very VERY difficult to receive the gift of God’s grace. 

Consider – Even after being delivered from slavery, God’s people still grumbled. Even after the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds want to know what they have to do. 

It is difficult for us to receive God’s gift because in our “you get what you deserve” world, accepting a gift can be one of the hardest things we’re ever asked to do. 

We’ve always been consumed by the fantasy of self-made people, that we can work for and earn anything our hearts desire. 

The grace of God, however, tells us that there is nothing about God’s love which we can earn, deserve, or work for. It has to be given. It can come only as a gift.

It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God. 

Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it. 

Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, even if we can only do so online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

And the answer is, quite simply, yes.

God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen. 

Stuck In The Middle With You

Luke 3.1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

“Repent of your sins and your debauchery!” 

“Repent, for the end is near!”

The words echoed across the campus. 

He stood on a makeshift soapbox clothed in a suit and tie and was yelling through a megaphone. And yet, it seemed as with every increase in decibels, less and less people paid him any attention. His “crowds” were college students after all, and the last things any of us wanted to hear about at the time were our sins and whatever it meant to repent of them.

Day after day he would stand from his perch in the exact same place spouting off the same words of fear, and challenge, and torment. And I never once saw anyone stop to talk to him.

But we talked about him all the time – whether we were in the dining hall, hanging out in the library, or even in our classes, the “prophet” (as we called him) was a regular topic of conversation: Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he really believe? 

And, like most college students, we spent way more time wondering about the prophet than we did about our classes.

Our best guess was that he was from one of the local baptist and/or evangelical churches, that he might’ve even been the pastor, and that he foolishly believed that by yelling at college students some of them would show up at his church on Sunday mornings.

The weeks and the months went by, and he remained steadfast in his mission. In fact, he became such a permanent marker in the landscape that on the few rare occasions that he wasn’t in his usual spot I actually got worried something had happened to him. But then the next day, he’d be back.

This went on like clockwork until Advent. I went to church on Sunday morning like I always did, hanging out in the back as the one and only token college student, and someone from the church went up to read the words from the gospel according to St. Luke: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.”

And I stopped listening to everything else. Because, for the first time, I saw the prophet on campus in a different light. Instead of assuming he was off his rocker or, at the very least, deeply flawed in his sense of evangelism, I began to see connections between the prophet, and John the Baptist.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then, the following week, I found myself walking over to him on campus while everyone was walking the other direction, and I didn’t even know what I was going to say.

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The season of Advent is all about being in the in-between; in between things the way they are and the way they ought to be. We often experience it as this time set apart that is dedicated to preparations – At home we are cleaning, and decorating, and cooking. We find the perfect Christmas tree and then stress out when all of the old lights fail to work. We pull out the box of ornaments and struggle to keep back the tears as we hold up the popsicle stick reindeer that someone made years ago.

And in the midst of our busyness and preparations, in walks the crazy prophet John the Baptist proclaiming a very different kind of preparation.

It’s important to remember that John was a PK, a preacher’s kid. He knew what he was supposed to believe, what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to dress in front of the religious crowds – His Daddy had been preaching it his whole life. And yet, John saw a very different vision of what it meant to be faithful. 

The people believed that all of the power was held in Jerusalem – John found it in the wilderness.

The people believed that God was on their side no matter what – John knew that everyone needed to repent.

The people believed in presenting the best version of yourself in front of others – John wore camel’s hair and ate wild locusts.

A new word came to John in the wilderness – the time had come to prepare for a new way, one in which every mountain would be dropped low and every valley would be lifted up.

He was bold and crazy with his words and actions: Take a good and hard look at yourselves! Repent of your transgressions if you want to be ready to receive the one who is coming!

Repentance is not something we think about during this time we call Advent. People outside the church are spending this time stringing up lines of popcorn in their living room trees, they are humming along to Bing Crosby while waiting in elevators, and they are sipping on eggnog at night.

But here, in the church, we are listening to a very different kind of tune – the challenging words of a radical prophet who calls those with ears to hear toward a ministry of repentance.

Repentance – its’ one of those words we either avoid or we throw around without really knowing what it means. Repentance, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.

And, as John says, it is in the metanoia that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The people who scream out about the kingdom of God from the street corners of life make us very uncomfortable. We see the cardboard signs, or we see the oblong megaphone, and we start asking ourselves all sorts of questions.

They make us uncomfortable because they are pointing at a reality that we often talk about in church, but they do so in a way that confronts us and interrupts us, whereas we usually show up here already knowing what to expect.

John the Baptist makes us uncomfortable. He joins the story of expectancy at the beginning of the gospel and knows something about living in the in between. He, more than most, understands the need to truly consider the condition of our souls, of our world. He witnesses to the difficult work of looking at our wrongdoings, our regrets, the damage we’ve cause, what we’ve said and done, and what we’ve left unsaid and undone.

John’s words and ministry upset the status quo of our complacency. The kingdom earthquake is shaking all the old expectations of what we should say and what we should do. The fault lines of change are running through the middle of history and God is announcing a new order that carries with it a whole new way of seeing the world. 

John calls out to the crowds and to us through the sands of time: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

These are rather uncomfortable words for us to consider during the season in which we most yearn to be comforted.

I walked across the quad with a focus that I should’ve reserved for my classes, and when we were close enough to see each other’s eyes the campus prophet froze in the middle of his oration. I realized, in that moment, that I was perhaps the first person to ever approach him in the middle of his pontificating and so we both stood there in silence while starring at each other.

I finally blurted out in a way that must’ve sounded as crazy as his message: “Why are you doing this?”

He slowly lowered the megaphone and calmly replied, “We’re stuck with each other in this crazy world, and I’m just trying to save everyone.”

Xmas_lights_DC

Our repentance, our metanoia, our turning around will likely involve us taking a hard look at our own lives and the structures/systems/people of the world in new and different ways. Repentance compels us to evaluate how we are living and whether or not we are helping to build the kingdom. 

In a world and in a time where all we want it grace, we forget that we need the grace because we are sinners. Whether we actively make the wrong choice (or make no choice and therefore sin by omission) or we tacitly participate in the powers and principalities around us which profit off of the marginalized, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

And Advent is the wonderfully strange time in which we pause, we reflect, and then we prepare to follow the One born in the manger, hung in a tree, freed from the grace, and the One for whom we are waiting.

Repent! Turn! The prophet from the wilderness of Judea and from my college campus is screaming for those with ears to hear. 

But what does our turning accomplish? Can we hear that challenging word and respond with a repentance and walk in the light to the end of our days?

The end of all our preparing and all of our repentance for Jesus Christ inevitably leads to strange and frightening realizations:

We cannot save ourselves.

We cannot save anyone else. 

And we can never really prepare the way for Jesus. It is only God in Christ who can actually make the way ready for the arrival. 

Jesus’ entering into the world is not contingent on our worthiness or our repentance. Though that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t repent. It is just a recognition that what we celebrate at Christmas, what we yearn for in the future, is not something that we can accomplish.

It is the power of God for salvation; we only get to witness it.

We are stuck with each other in the middle of time between Advent and the rectification of all things, we are in the middle of the way.

We are sinners, stuck in our sin, and even if we are strong enough to turn and repent, we eventually turn back to our own way again.

And yet we are called to metanoia, John and the campus prophet plead with us to do so. Not because it earns us anything, not because it is the prerequisite for Christmas, but simply because it is a behavior that is normative in the world inaugurated in Jesus Christ.

Repentance is simply something we do in the journey we call discipleship.

Ultimately, John is the least likely person to call us to turn. He is like the campus prophet screaming into the ether day after day. John is the type of person most of us ignore today.

A prophet in the wilderness of life, an unlikely person in an unlikely place.

We never really know from where the Word of the Lord will come, but it always does.

It might even come from a place we would never expect – like a worship service, like the middle of a college campus, or even a manger. Amen.