The Goal of Grace is Praise
If you look at pictures of old football and hockey players, you’ll notice that the players aren’t wearing helmets. The evolution of the football helmet in particular is kind of interesting. They started out with nothing; then went to a leather helmet that covered just the skull, then they switched to plastic with some padding inside, and eventually they added facemasks. Protective helmets are a more recent addition to hockey. The last NHL player to not wear a helmet during a game was Craig MacTavish, and he played his final game, having played his entire career without a helmet, in 1997. And they still haven’t figured out that if they add a face mask of some kind, they’ll still have the teeth God gave them.
These days we wear helmets for lots of activities, and that’s a good thing. Roller skaters and skate boarders and bicyclists wear helmets pretty much all the time now. When Aubrey was in high school, it was still common for the older riders, high school and up, to not wear helmets in western classes. And it was during that time that the equestrian organizations almost universally instructed their judges not to knock a rider in a western class for wearing a helmet instead of a western hat.
You know, I think we should wear helmets when we come to worship too. In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, author Annie Dillard writes, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” Can we take up an offering to put a rack of crash helmets out in the foyer to hand out to people coming in for worship?
One of the last places we expect to find passionate, heart-filled worship is in the closing words of a great work of theology. To us, theology – which literally means the study of God – is dry, purely intellectual, heady stuff, and boring. It’s full of big words and hard to understand concepts. And yet, if theology is our study of God, our attempt, with our finite minds, to understand, as best we can, the infinite creating, saving God of the universe, shouldn’t theology move us to praise. Shouldn’t our thinking about God move us to praise God? If theology doesn’t move us to praise, we’re doing theology wrong.
And St. Paul understands that truth all too well, because as he concludes his letter to the Christians in Rome, what we know as the biblical book of Romans, he breaks out in praise. Romans is perhaps the greatest theological text ever written. Written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it was certainly Paul’s magnum opus. His painstakingly careful description and exposition of what God was doing in Jesus Christ. In Romans, Paul delves deeply into the dark and murky sinfulness of humanity, and then he rockets to the heights of God’s amazing grace, and he lands us in a practical description of the transformation that happens in our lives as a result of God’s amazing grace in Christ. Sin, grace, and transformation. Those are the three acts in the three part epic Paul wrote to the Roman Christians. And having been on that journey with us, his readers, his heart and mind equally lost in the rapture and miracle of it all – God’s rescue of us, his dead enemies – he can’t do anything BUT praise God. I say heart AND mind because worship ALWAYS involves both. Worship is an emotional experience, but it isn’t JUST an emotional experience. Worship is an intellectual experience and exercise, but it isn’t JUST an intellectual experience. Worship that doesn’t involve both our hearts and our minds, our emotions and our intellects, isn’t really worship. God interacts with us as we worship, and he interacts with us a whole people. Turn with me to the concluding words of Romans, Romans 16:25-27.
He begins by praising God for his wonderous work. And what, specifically, is the wonderous work that God has done that causes Paul’s heart and mind to break forth in praise? Is it the glory and magnificence of creation? No. It is God’s work strengthening his people. Look at V. 25. God is able to strengthen us. The phrase “is able” comes from the same word we get our word dynamite from. It describes a power that cannot be stopped or called into question. It is an inherent power. In other words, this ability, this power, to strengthen us is inherent in who God is. It is God’s dynamic power at work. And God’s dynamic power is at work strengthening us. The word “strengthen” here is often translated not as strengthen but as “establish.” It means “to make stable.” It is God who establishes us, makes us stable, strengthens us. God firmly plants you and I in his kingdom, and no thing, no where, no how, can move us from that place where God has established us.
This image of being strengthened and established by God is one of the favorites of the Psalmists. Psalm 16:8 says “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” Psalm 62:6 says “He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” In Psalm 10, it is the godless one who says “I shall not be moved,” but in the end, God brings him low for the sake of his people. God establishes, strengthens, his people.
But where does God establish us? In Jesus Christ. In the kingdom of God. In the faith. The rock upon which you are established by God is nothing less than Jesus Christ himself. All of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is pointing us to Christ? Why? Because Christ is the one through whom God rescues his dead enemies. Because Christ is God’s grace in action, in the face of our human sinfulness. Because Christ is God’s grace in action transforming us day by day as we live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Because Christ is God with skin on.
Rebecca Pippert was an agnostic, in other words, she openly admitted she didn’t know whether there was a God or not. Eventually she became a Christian and a prolific author. When she was an agnostic, she had one question she continually wrestled with: How can finite limited human beings ever claim to know God? How do they know they are not being deceived?
In a book published just last year, she writes:
One sunny day I was stretched out on the lawn … when I noticed that some ants were busy building a mound. I began to redirect their steps with twigs and leaves. But they simply bounced off and started a new ant mound. I thought, This is like being God! I am redirecting their steps, and they don’t even realize it!
At one point, two ants crawled onto my hands and I thought, Wouldn’t it be funny if one ant turned to the others and said, “Do you believe in Becky? Do you believe Becky really exists?” I imagine the other ant answering, “Don’t be ridiculous! Becky is a myth, a fairy tale!” How comical, I thought–the hubris of that ant declaring that I don’t exist, when I could easily blow it off my hand. But what if the other ant said, “Oh, I believe that Becky exists!” How would they resolve it? How could they know that I am real? I thought. What would I have to do to reveal to them who I am?
Suddenly I realized: the only way to reveal who I am, in a way that they could understand, would be to become an ant myself. I would have to identify totally with their sphere of reality. I sat upright, and I remember thinking, What and amazing thought! The scaling-down of the size of me to perfectly represent who I am in the form of an ant! I know; I would have to do tricks! Things that no other ant could do!
Then it hit me: I had just solved my problem of how finite creatures could ever discover God. God would have to come from the outside and reveal who he is.
If your image of who God is and what God is like doesn’t look like Jesus, you’ve got the wrong image of God. As Paul has plumbed the heights and depths of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ in this letter, he knows that he has come face to face with a God who deeply loves his human creations, who desperately longs to be in relationship with us, and therefore has made a way for that to happen where no way at all existed before. That’s amazing grace, and it’s also the great mystery. Look at Vv. 25-26.
The great mystery is our union with Christ. His life becoming my life, his death becoming my death. His resurrection becoming my resurrection. But why is this a mystery? Because to the human mind, it doesn’t make sense. The entire Old Testament points to Jesus Christ, and the people of God were the recipients and caretakers of the Word of God in the Old Testament centuries before Christ came. They read it. They studied it. They memorized it. They could quote it word for word. And they missed it. They failed to understand. Why? Because it doesn’t make sense. 1 Corinthians 10:18-19 says “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Every man-made religion is some form of “make yourself acceptable to the divine.” Be good enough to merit heaven. Make sure the good in your life outweighs the bad. Leave this world and all of its pleasures and pursuits behind and seek oneness with the divine. Live a perfectly righteous life. And along comes Jesus Christ, who says “You CAN’T make yourself acceptable to God, no matter how hard you try.” In fact, as a general rule of thumb, the holier you think you are, the less holy you are in reality. In the eyes of this world, it is foolishness to think that those who don’t deserve anything from God, but who acknowledge that and humbly ask for forgiveness and salvation will be the ones to receive it. It just doesn’t make sense.
Human wisdom says the deserving will be rewarded. But human wisdom consistently fails. About ten years ago, Futures magazine did an article in which journalist Lora Lee listed some of the most audacious predictions in all of history. Here are some of them.
In the year AD 100, the Roman engineer Julius Sextus Frontinus said this: “Inventions have long since reached their limit. I see no hope for further developments.”
In 1895, a very worried teacher of Albert Einstein sat Einstein’s father down and said, “It doesn’t matter what he does, he’ll never amount to anything.”
In 1949, no less a scientist than John Von Neumann who worked on the Manhattan Project said, “It would appear we have reached the limits of what is possible with computer technology.”
In 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, “The Japanese don’t make anything that the people in the U.S. would want.”
In 1986, Roger Smith who was then chairman of the board of General Motors made this bold prediction: “By the turn of the century, we will live in a paperless society.”
And as recently as 1995, Bob Metcalf, the editor of Info World said, “I predict the internet will go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
There’s nothing like letting facts get in the way of a good opinion. You see enough of this, and you can see why Paul would say, “The only wise God.” If you want the fullness of unfailing wisdom, you’ve got to look to God. God’s wisdom, seen fully in the cross of Christ, is foolishness to the world. But to us, to those who believe, it is the power of God at work. Who but God could have come up with this? The answer is an unequivocal “NO ONE!!”
Jesus Christ is the grace and glory of God at work. When we as human beings try to come up with a logical way to be saved, our ideas fall into the realm either of love or of justice, but never both at the same time. For some, because God is love, God will allow all people into his presence. But this means God has to let go of justice, because all people means all people. The good, the bad, and the truly evil. Abraham, Moses, and Hitler all on a level playing field.
On the other hand, if you go the justice route, the route of deserving what you get, you’ve got to be good enough. But how good is good enough? Who decides that? When we think of justice, we think of the scales of justice, right? Pile up your good on one side and your bad on the other, and hope the good outweighs the bad. But the truth is, the bad will outweigh the good in even the best of us. No one wants to meet God in terms of justice if love isn’t a part of the mix, because none of us will measure up, and those we think of as the best of us will be the first to tell you that their best doesn’t measure up.
Mother Teresa might be the person most thought about when we think about a truly good person, and yet of she said “I am told God lives in me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” Another time she said, “I want God with all the power of my soul – and yet between us there is terrible separation.” A third time she wrote, “Heaven from every side is closed.” All human solutions to the problem of human sinfulness fall into one of two categories – love without justice or justice without love. Only in the cross of Christ are the two brought together. Only in the cross of Christ is your sin, and my sin, and the sin of every person who has hurt you, punished and dealt with once and for all. It was at the cross that God dealt with human sin in both justice and love, as Jesus took upon himself the punishment for your sin and mine, and because he did that, he paved the road for you and I to live in loving relationship with God, and with one another. And that is reason for praise. Let us pray.