The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 18, 2017
The Bible proclaims some very good news! But the news has a negative component as well as a positive one.
The negative is that, though we have desperate need of God’s help, we have no right to expect anything from God, and He has no obligation to give us anything.
The positive is that God chooses, when He does have to, to love us and to lavish upon us – in a wild, almost irrational extravagance of generosity – an infinite bounty of blessings.
When Paul writes this letter to a young pastor named Titus, it is toward the end of the Apostle’s life. He addresses Titus as “my loyal child in the faith “. He may well have introduced Titus to Christ, but he certainly has mentored him in the way of Christian leadership and grown to trust Titus’ faithfulness and integrity. Not so long before, the apostle had sent Titus to straighten out the mess in Corinth, and very soon again he will send Titus to secure the progress of struggling churches in what we now call Croatia.
At the time this letter is written, Titus is Paul’s representative on the island of Crete working to build up the new churches Paul and his co-workers had recently planted there. In this letter Paul is counseling Titus in how to deal with the challenges there.
In the midst of his giving Titus some solid practical advice, Paul – as he often did – breaks out into an exuberant celebration of God’s grace.
Paul begins by recollecting something negative: how we’d made a terrible mess of ourselves and ruined our prospects for life. “We ourselves,” he writes, “were once foolish, disobedient, led astray…despicable”.
Yet, though we had thereby lost any right to claim any help from God, Paul sings of something positive: how God’s “goodness” and “loving kindness” ran to the rescue only because, out of gratuitous kindness, God has put His heart on the line with how it goes with us. “God our Savior,” Paul exudes, “saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.” In other words, God delivered us from the consequences of our bad choices, not because we did anything to deserve such kindness or would do anything to earn it, but because He of His own free will resolved to intervene on our behalf and went to infinite pains to save us.
As a result, God gives us, all out of proportion to our rights or merit, every advantage: from “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” to an inheritance of “the hope of eternal life”.
The challenge in having faith is mustering the courage to believe this good news, to refuse to hedge our bet on it by seeking to build up a resume of good works on which to rely as a little insurance, to revel instead in the reckless extravagance of God’s generosity, and to hope in the outrageously lavish prodigality of His love.
The litmus test for whether we do all this is whether, when we fail morally or spiritually, we stay away from God until we feel we have improved ourselves enough to make ourselves more presentable. The truth is that we are unable to improve ourselves enough to impress God or win Him over by our good conduct. To have faith in the good news is to swallow hard and approach God’s throne of grace with anticipation just as we are, in awareness of our having no right to claim a thing and yet having every privilege in Christ to ask for anything.
We actually insult the greatness of God’s gift if we think can pay for it by some amount of self-loathing and/or self-improvement. Conversely, we magnify and honor God’s gift of grace if we come to Him with expectation from our appreciation of His open heart and hand, in defiance of our awareness that we bring no deeds of note but only needs of desperation. If we believe in God’s grace wholly and depend on it solely, we have reason to hope His grace will take us where we could never take ourselves.
We gain the courage and strength to believe like that by reading God’s word, listening to God’s Spirit, and experiencing God’s love through His children – whether they be strangers, friends, or family members. Why, we can even experience it from a good and gracious father – as my friend Jack did.
Jack is a bright, talented and decent human being. Growing up, Jack had every reason to think he would follow in the footsteps of his highly successful father, a prominent lawyer and much admired pillar of his community. But Jack drank too much and couldn’t stop – even when his drinking led to the frustration of his career, the termination of his marriage, the alienation of his children and the annihilation of his self-respect.
Jack developed a detailed plan for suicide. But in a last-ditch, impulsive decision, he left behind a letter, moved to another state and checked into a rehab institution there. None of us saw Jack for a long while.
When next we saw him, he looked better than a lot of us could remember. He said he’d been sober for over a month, and he told us he was committed to moving forward, one day at a time, in what he knew would be a life-long process of recovery.
He wanted us to know that a single incident – “an act of God’s grace”, he called it – was enabling him to put one foot in front of the other thus far.
His father had come to see him, and was invited to join a group meeting that included family members. In the course of that meeting, Jack confessed before all those addicts and strangers his shortcomings, character defects and issues. When he finished, he just stared at the floor three feet in front of him.
Jack’s father asked if he might say something. When people nodded assent, he stood up and said, “I want all of you to know, but I especially want Jack to know, that I have never loved my son as much as I do now. I’m telling you I am always going to be there for him, no matter what.”
Jack says that, at that moment, for the first time in his life, he could believe that God loved him just as he was and wasn’t about to give up on him. He says he then started to have the faith that if God and his father cared that much about him, and were that committed to his sobriety, he could persevere and make it. Last time I saw him, Jack was smiling a lot. He said, “I know I don’t deserve it, but I am believing in God’s grace, continuing to do my footwork and harboring hope.”
Let us all believe in God’s grace, continue to do our footwork, and harbor hope. Let us pray.