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Amazing Grace

How do you spell grace?

Here’s a pretty good spelling, definition and a great acronym: GRACE is:

·      God’s 
·      Riches 
·      A
·      Christ’s 
·      Expense. 

Now, here is the key question: How do you respond to it? Do you accept God’s grace in Jesus Christ for yourself, and do you share it with others without perception of limit? Or do you respond in some way that is less than that? Do you limit God’s grace to yourself and others? Those are some of the questions I think our Scripture reading poses today. Listen for God’s word to you from Luke 4:21-30…

Then he [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[d] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I would like to focus with you this morning on one line, even one phrase, from our Scripture reading. Luke tells us that, “All spoke well of him [that is, Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious wordsthat came from his mouth.”

The word translated “amazed” is the Greek word θαύμαζον. It means “towonder at”, “to marvel”, “to be astonished out of one’s senses”, to be “awestruck”. When was the last time you felt anything like this?

The word translated “gracious” is the beautiful Greek word χάριτος. It means “grace, as a gift or blessing brought to humanity by Jesus Christ”. Grace is God’s undeserved favor, his kindness towards us. I’ll say it again: Grace is God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. 

As I have been meditating on this verse over the past two weeks I have wondered: is this the verse from which John Newton developed the phrase, “Amazing Grace”?

Do you know the story of the man who wrote what the Gallup Poll has called Americans’ favorite hymn? Christian History Magazine tells the story…

John Newton was nurtured by a devoted Christian mother who dreamed that her only son would become a preacher. But she died when John was a child, and he followed his sea-captain father to a sailor’s life. John didn’t care for the discipline of the Royal Navy: he deserted ship, was flogged, and eventually was discharged.
He then headed for regions where he could “sin freely,” and ended up on the western coast of Africa, working for a slave trader who mistreated him. Newton’s life during that period bore the appearance of a modern Prodigal Son’s: “a wretched looking man toiling in a plantation of lemon trees in the Island of Plaintains—clothes had become rags, no shelter and begging for unhealthy roots to allay his hunger.” After more than a year of such treatment, he managed to escape from the island, in 1747.
The following year his ship was battered by a severe storm. Newton had read The Imitation of Christ, and during the life-threatening voyage he became a Christian. Ironically, Newton then served as captain of a slave ship for six years…

Newton became greatly influenced by George Whitefield and the Wesleys. He married his long-time sweetheart and began studying for the ministry and preaching in whatever vacant building he could procure. Known as the “old converted sea captain,” he attracted large audiences. He was ordained within the Anglican Church, and in 1764 he took a curacy in Olney.
Newton felt dissatisfied with the hymns of the traditional psalter. He began writing his own, many autobiographical in nature, including “Amazing Grace!”
He also befriended poet William Cowper, and they collaborated to produce Olney Hymns, which became the standard hymnal of evangelical Anglican churches. The hymnal, which includes Newton’s hymns “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” was reprinted in England and America for the next century.

In his old age, it was suggested that Newton retire because of bad health and failing memory. He replied, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”[1]
And that is not the end of the story. In another place, I read this week…
So popular was his [Newton’s] preaching, that the church could not accommodate all those who flocked to hear him. Newton began to deeply regret his involvement in the Slave Trade. After he became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, in London in 1779, his advice was sought by many influential figures in Georgian society, among them the young M.P., William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry. Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was”. Wilberforce took his advice and spent the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery. 
In 1787, Newton wrote a tract supporting the campaign, ‘Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade’, which was very influential. It graphically described the horrors of the Slave Trade and his role in it. He later joined William Wilberforce in the campaign for abolition of the Slave Trade. In February 1807, when the act to abolish the Slave Trade finally became law, John Newton, nearly blind and near death, “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news.”[2]
I wonder: Is grace still amazing to us, or has it become a cliché? Is grace as amazing to us as it was to John Newton, to William Wilberforce, and to the countless slaves who were freed as a result of the work of these grace-filled men? If grace is not amazing to us, it ought to be.

Still, I wonder: how many of us are just like Jesus’ neighbors at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth? Is amazing grace fine when it is for “us”, but when it is for “them” do we get upset? The people of Nazareth didn’t like it when Jesus told stories of Sidonians and Syrians being included in God’s kingdom plan.

Why was that? Well, the people of Sidon and the people of Syria were those who lived to the north of Galilee. They were completely outside of Israel. To use a modern phrase: they lived on the other side of the tracks. The people of Israel thought of themselves as God’s chosen. How could God choose to show his grace to anyone else? Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth were apparently afflicted with a severe “us vs. them” mentality. We are chosen. They are not. We are good. They are evil.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote in his book, The Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? 

Tell me who you can imagine being saved by Christ, and who you cannot imagine being saved by Christ and that will tell me something about how big your God is.

Can you imagine Christ saving a John Newton or a William Wilberforce or some little-known slave of yesteryear? What about Solzhenitsyn? Or Putin? What about Donald Trump? Can you imagine Christ saving him? Or what about Hillary Clinton? Or a gangster like Jim Vaus or Mickey Cohen? Or let’s get really crazy—what about Hitler? Can you imagine Christ saving him?

Tell me who you can imagine being saved by Christ, and I will tell you how big your God is.

Today is Communion Sunday. And the table that we come to today has a way of reminding us of two things:

1.     We are all sinners, no exceptions.
2.     God’s grace in Jesus Christ is for all, no exceptions.

I remember once many years ago attending an Episcopal Church. I loved the service, but when it came time to go forward and receive Communion, I realized I was standing in the line that would receive the elements from a female priest. Now, at that time I did not believe in the ordination of women to Christian ministry. I wrestled with God in prayer as I inched forward in the line. “Should I switch to the other line so I can receive Communion from a male priest?” Something inside me, maybe it was the voice of God, told me that I would be a hypocrite if I did that. I stayed where I was and received Communion from the female priest. That was probably the beginning of my change of mind regarding women’s ordination.

Years later, I was again attending the worship services of an Episcopal Church. Once again, I was forced to change my mind, to open my heart, to see that God’s circle of inclusion was much larger than mine, as I knelt on many a Sunday at the Communion rail next to a gay, married couple.

The circle of fellowship for people in Jesus’ hometown synagogue included Jews but excluded foreigners like Sidonians and Syrians. Jesus challenged them straight up about this. And Jesus’ hometown circle did not like being so challenged, so they drove him to the edge of a cliff to push him off.

I wonder: who does our circle of fellowship include and exclude? How does God want you to expand your circle? How does God want me to expand my circle?

I will never forget what a priest at the Falls Church Episcopal once said to me when I asked him his opinion about gay marriage. He said, “I cannot imagine that God is going to condemn me on judgment day for drawing my circle of fellowship too wide.”

I wonder: where do you draw the line? Where do I draw the line?

The poet, Edwin Markham, once wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!
Is it not amazing, that when God visited this world in person, human beings, his creation, drew a circle to shut him out? Jesus was not accepted as a prophet in his home town. They drove him to the edge of a cliff to push him over. And when his people, his creation, were not successful in that attempt, later they drove him to a hill where they put up a cross and they nailed him there.

And is it not even more amazing, that God, when he could have drawn a circle excluding us, he didn’t do that? Rather, in Christ, God proclaimed acceptance, the year of his favor. God drew a circle to include whosoeverwould come to him. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) 

Thatwhosoeverincludes you. It includes me… if we want to be included.

The same John Newton who wrote “Amazing Grace” once said,

If I ever reach heaven, I expect to find three wonders there: First, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had thought to meet there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there!

I definitely believe there are going to be what I call “surprises of grace” in heaven. 

Jesus is the One who puts amazing into grace. Let us not be the ones who ever take it out. Once we have received the grace of God in Jesus Christ, how can we limit it, how can we squelch it, how can we deny it to any other person: whatever the color of their skin, the creed of their heart, or the orientation of their life? Don’t ever deny God’s grace to anyone, including yourself. Receive it. Bask in it. And share it…without perception of limit.

Let’s pray…

[1]The Golden Age of Hymns,Christian History, no. 31.


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