April 4, 2010

The Fresh Air of Grace

He is risen! What a great morning it is to proclaim the words of our risen Savior. His words are the words of life and even when they sting a little bit, they are still aimed at helping us live the abundant life in every way. And this past Friday evening we saw how those words can indeed sting a little bit. This morning we are talking about the fresh air of grace, but in order to be able to truly breathe deeply of that fresh air we have to first clear our noses of all the false smells of sin that swirl about in our culture and keep us from taking it as seriously as we should. For those of you who couldn.t make it on Friday, let me review these false smells for you. Sometimes sin smells like Christmas cookies—a bunch of stories fed to us as kids in order to keep us in line. Other times, for we who are perhaps more familiar with the teachings of the church, sin smells more like a classroom—a list of hard and fast rules that we must obey or risk getting our names on the board. Of course, when the Teacher.s not looking… Finally, sometimes sin smells like a carnival with all of its promises of a great time. Now this is a carnival off-limits to the adherents of that old-timey, stuffy religion, but if you sneak out the back when the lights are out no one.s going to know. All three of these are common thoughts about sin in our culture and all three of them are totally and completely false. They work in conjunction with one another to keep us from the truth about our states apart from God. What did Jesus say about the truth? It
sets us free.

So then, what are the results of understanding more deeply the real smells of sin? Well, we said Friday that if we don.t know the smell of sin, we.ll never know the fresh air of grace. And indeed we saw the horrors of sin on Friday night. It was to save us from those very horrors that Jesus went to the cross. Yet He didn.t stay dead. On the third day He rose, clearing the air so that all who turn their lives over to Him might be able to breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace. But what does this mean, this breathing more deeply of the fresh air of grace? As it turns out, that.s exactly what I want to talk to you about this morning.

Around Christmastime the Hallmark Channel always comes out with a slate of new holiday movies. Usually they.re all kind of cheesy, but pretty good in spite of themselves. This past Christmas there was one in particular that stood out to me. The movie was called Mrs. Miracle and was kind of a modern take on Mary Poppins with a Hallmark holiday twist. There was one character in the movie who had some truly bitter feelings towards her sister. You see, she was engaged to be married to the man of her dreams. On the night before the wedding, however, he ran off and eloped with her sister. By several years later when this story was taking place she had still not forgiven her sister and gotten past her hurt and anger. In fact it had all steamed together in a bitter soup that made it impossible for her to even talk to anyone else about her sister. She ended relationships over this issue because she couldn.t deal with it. All the while she kept telling herself that she didn.t have a problem. She had been breathing a number of different false smells about her sister and about her attitude towards her sister for many years. Late in the movie she finally came to a point of being able to go and both apologize to her sister for holding her hostage to hatred and bitterness for so long and also to accept her sister.s heartfelt repentance. All this allowed her to finally clear the air and breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace for the first time in many years. What would you do if this were you her in place? The first thing she did was cry. She cried and cried and cried.

She cried from the relief of having this incredible burden finally lifted from her shoulders. Do you know the feeling of having a huge burden lifted? The only grandfather I ever knew died when I was ten. I remember sitting on my dad.s lap at my grandparents housing and crying when the news came. At the funeral, though, I didn.t shed a single tear. I took all my grief and locked it away because I didn.t want to seem soft to the people around me. A few months later in Sunday school we were talking about death of all things. That morning God spoke to me from His word and released me from the burden of grief I had been carrying for months. I cried my eyes out. I sobbed uncontrollably for two hours. My dad had to take me home from church because I couldn.t pull myself together. Yet when I finally calmed down I was past my grief. There was grief in my tears, but there was also a heavy dosage of relief with the newly lifted burden.

The woman in the movie also cried when she realized the gravity of her offenses—that she was able to hold on to something so horrible for so long. She had literally held both she and her sister captive to her bitterness for years. It affected all of her other relationships—even her relationship with her mom. She was a friendly, bubbly girl, until you got close to this huge, gaping wound. Then she spilled poison and vitriol on everyone and everything around her. Think of the addict who finally confesses his addiction and sees for the first time what his addiction has been doing to his family. The brokenness he was causing comes to bear and he cries in anguish at the pain he caused.

The woman.s tears were not all grief and anguish, though. She also cried with the joy of the new relationship she was now able to enjoy with not only her sister, but her new brother-in-law (the deadbeat fiancé had run off on the sister too), and her niece. Lisa and I watch Extreme Home Makeover every Sunday night. It.s a great show. Two weeks ago they built a home for the family of a man serving in Afghanistan. As a surprise to his wife and kids they were able to get leave for him approved for the week of filming. When he showed up behind them rather creatively at Disney World his wife melted in tears of joy. She was a blubbery mess in her joy of wrapping her arms around her husband. These were far from the only tears of joy for the week. At the end of the week when they were going through the new house, the soldier saw the prominently placed picture of his sheriff.s badge (his full-time job) that the family held tightly in his absence to remember him, he melted in tears at the joy of seeing how much he meant to his own family. And I was a blubbery mess by the end of the episode with the joy of seeing this deserving family receive blessing upon blessing.

You see, when we are finally able to breathe in deeply of the fresh air of grace, our first reaction is to cry. We cry in relief as the burden of sin has finally been lifted. We cry in repentance at the horrors of the lifestyle we were living. Indeed, seeing sin through God.s eyes should always be a humbling experience that leads us to tearful repentance. We cry out at the joy that stands before us: the same joy that empowered Jesus. vision on the cross. We cry out in need. We cry out: I need you Jesus! In the words of the great theologian Charlie Brown, this is truly “good grief.” This is the grief that allows us to mourn of our inability to handle life on our own, or our brokenness, of our frailties. And what did Jesus say about those who mourn in such a way? Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. In this place we cry out with Paul in Romans 7: “But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can.t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don.t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can.t do it….I.ve tried everything and nothing helps. I.m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn.t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”

Yet breathing deeply of the fresh air of grace cannot simply end with years. After all, we look forward to the day when our heavenly Father will wipe away every tear. And indeed we find this is the case. When we understand the truly awful smell of sin, we are freed to worship God in ways we have perhaps never thought possible. We talk about the fact that we worship God because He is worthy of worship. This is true, but if we.re really honest, for most of us it isn.t really enough. Let me give you another good reason to worship God: He has saved us from our sins.

Do you see now why it is so important for us to know the real smell of sin? If sin is simply a myth to keep us in line, then God couldn.t have saved us from anything. What reason is there to worship God if sin is just naughtily disobeying some impersonal rules that we didn.t have any say in making? Some days in school I got in trouble because I wasn.t very interested in staying out of it and other days I stayed out of trouble because I didn.t want to get in it. Who needs help when we can get ourselves in and out of our own messes just fine. If sin is really forbidden fun, why would we even want to be saved from it? This is the message of the movies Footloose and Girls Just Want to Have Fun. They didn.t want to be saved from dancing because dancing was fun and the folks who were trying to keep them from this good thing just needed to loosen up and get with the picture. But, if we have offended a loving parent to His face, if we are suicidal, if we are enslaved to a harsh master and are rolling around in grave clothes then we have truly been saved from something. If we do not fully understand the nature of the sin that so easily entangles us then we cannot properly praise God for rescuing us from it; we cannot truly thank Jesus for dying in our place and living once again to declare sin and death defeated. Such an understanding roots our hearts deep in the well of gratitude. For we were buried under a mountain of sin and found guilty beyond all thought of restoration. The only reasonable sentence was death and our execution was set. Yet as we were escorted down the long hallway to the execution chamber there was a sound coming from the room. As the door was thrown open, there was Jesus sitting in the electric chair in our place…and the current was on. He died because of our sins…but He didn.t stay dead. On the third day He rose to declare the forces that had been celebrating their victory over Him impotent from that day forward.

Consider this story from Jesus. life to give you a better idea of what I.m talking about. Luke tells the story of the time when Jesus was invited to the house of Pharisee named Simon for a dinner party. Jesus arrived at the party and was shown in, but it was made clear to Him by His reception that He was not as welcomed as perhaps some of the other guests were. Many of the normal customs employed to make a guest feel welcomed were not offered to Him. Simon did not greet Him with a kiss of friendship. He did not even give Jesus the basic cultural welcome of having a servant wash His feet. As the dinner party progressed something incredible happened…and it had nothing to do with Simon. At some point during the meal a woman came into the courtyard. She was most decidedly not on the guest list. The reason for this was not that she was unknown to the crowd gathered at the house of this Pharisee. In fact she was well known to many of them…at the very least in reputation. You see, she was a woman of the city. She was a woman who made her meager living by engaging in a host of sexual sins that were decidedly unorthodox as far as the broader community was concerned. This was a woman who knew of the depth of her brokenness. She had cried many tears as she raged against the sin that ruthlessly held her captive to its enslaving power. She had found herself on the brink of death more times than she cared to count. She had seen the anguished disappoint on the face of her father when she set out down this path. Here before her, though, was a way out of all this. Here was the source of forgiveness and restoration to real life, not the farce that she had been living for far too long. We.re not told how she knew this, but she unquestionably knew. She knew and desired to act on this knowledge more than anything else in the world. And so as the dark of the evening set in she quietly approached the outstretched feet of her Lord. At first the other guests assumed this was a servant coming to check on the needs of Jesus. At the sound of the breaking pottery all heads gathered around the long table snapped around and all eyes focused on the woman. Their noses quickly told them that the pottery had held fine perfume. The woman broke open the jar and emptied the contents on Jesus. feet. With tears of grief, anguish, and unspeakable joy she washed off the fragrance that was quickly filling the courtyard and dried His feet with her long, unbound hair. She had repeated this same gesture with cheap fragrance and other men dozens of times but the intimacy of this act of worship was a spiritual, not a physical one.

As he watched in horror of the thoughts of his guests, Simon thought to himself: “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.” And then with an immediacy that made Simon fear he had inadvertently given voice to his thought, Jesus looked straight at him and announced He had a story to tell. With permission quickly given (who wants to be the focus of Jesus. attention anyway?), Jesus told this story: “Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?” The answer was obvious. Jesus looked over His shoulder at the woman as she continued her obscene act of worship, oblivious to the rest of the men watching her with feigned horror and grotesque desire, and spoke further to Simon. “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and fried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn.t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn.t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

So what does this have to do with the fresh air of grace and the risen Savior we celebrate this morning? Those who have been forgiven much love much. If we carry the attitude that Jesus really hasn.t saved us from very much (after all, we were pretty good people before we “got saved” and we were still pretty good people afterwards) then we will keep our noses clogged to the real smell of sin. As long as we breathe in the false smells of sin we will be unable to pour out gratitude to Jesus for coming back from the dead to make us the same offer He made this woman because our hearts will be in the place of Simon. But when we breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace we will know the truth. We will no longer have to walk in darkness. We will finally be able to freely worship God as He desires for us to do. The frank truth of the Gospels is that we are all this woman…even when we fool ourselves into thinking we are actually Simon. My friends, breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace. Let it fill your lungs and your spirits. Let it invade every pour of your beings, from your head to your toes. Know the truth for it will set you free. You will be free from the constraints of “polite society.” You will be free to be fully who God created you to be and to experience the joy such an awakening will bring with it.

Let us be honest with each other this morning. Most of you here know this story every bit as well as I do. Jesus came to earth as a baby, lived a sinless life, was put to death because of the sin in the world, and rose on the third day to proclaim His victory over sin and death. Now, there are some of you here this morning who have never given your lives to this story. You are still living in a world of false smells, blindly held captive in sin.s deadly sway. You are lost, my friends. I invite you to be found. I invite you to give your lives to this incredible story. Experience for the first time in your life the real freedom and abundant life Jesus came, died, and lived again to bring you. The death clinging to you everywhere you go need not be the end of your story because we live in a world with a risen Savior. Rejoice for salvation is at hand. The words of Paul to the church in Rome are a great guide to this process: “The word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as close as the heart in your chest. It.s the word of faith that welcomes God to go to work and set things right for us. This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God—„Jesus is my Master.—embracing, body and soul, God.s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That.s it. You.re not „doing. anything; you.re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That.s salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: „God has set everything right between him and me!. Scripture reassures us, „No one who trusts God like this—heart and soul—will ever regret it.. It.s exactly the same no matter what a person.s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. „Everyone who calls, “Help, God!” gets help..” Breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace.

There are others of you who have given mental and even verbal assent to this truth and even entered the baptismal waters in proclamation to the world of what you had done. But some of you have not yet given your heart to this truth. You.ve let the false smells of sin clog your theological noses and felt distant from God because of it. Rest assured that your mental and verbal assent to the truth of the Gospel are important and set you far down the road to a real relationship with your heavenly Father. But they aren.t enough by themselves. I did the same thing and was baptized for it on this very Sunday 19 years ago. It was another eight years, though, before I finally gave all of my heart to it. If you find yourself here, let go of the pride holding you back and put your heart all the way in it. In fact, you don.t have to do anything public. Unless God calls you otherwise, sit right where you are and put your heart fully in His hands. That.s what I did. Let God have every last corner of your heart and worship Him for all you.re worth. Breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace.

Finally, there are those of you who have given your full hearts and minds to Him. What you have in this morning is another reason for rejoicing. Rejoice to the fullest friends and take as an encouragement and exhortation the words of the writer of Hebrews: “Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual far, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished the race we.re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever.” Breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace and breathe out satisfied with your Savior. Rejoice for our Savior lives. The air is clear of the lies of this world. Breathe deeply and know the truth. The time and the reason for hoping are here. Worship in freedom as your soul so deeply longs to do. Breathe deeply of the fresh air of grace.