The Coming of Saving Grace
In this Season of Advent, we celebrate the coming of God among us as incarnated in Jesus. In particular we celebrate the birth of a holy baby. It is the First Coming as opposed to the Second Coming.
We talked a number of Sundays about the Second Coming. We talked of it as the end point of our helping God build up the Kingdom of God in the way Jesus taught and showed us. And the central event of that Second Coming was the Great Judgment where God would separate the righteous from the unrighteous.
But this Advent, this First Coming isnít about judgment. It does not arrive because we have labored in Godís fields to build up Godís Kingdom. No. This First Coming arrives from sheer grace Ö a gift from God of Godís own self to raise us up out of sin, out of our alienation from God and Godís way, out of the meanness and desperation of the current age.
The birth of Jesus is given to us without any conditions on it. And so Advent and Christmas rightfully are joyous times. Indeed, Christmas has spread through the world as a time of joy and gift giving and gatherings of friends and families. †From a religious perspective, it often seems watered down to Santa Claus, trees, gifts, music, shopping and eating. Even folks who are not Christian celebrate the secular side of Christmas.
But I feel that it is a gift Ö a gift we Christians give to the world: a time to rejoice in family and friends and the blessings we have no matter what faith we have.
But for us it is Godís grace that comes into the world. But more than just a grace that gives without conditions. It is saving grace Ö grace that not only gives without conditions, but grace that transforms our lives from the drudgery and worry of everyday living into lives of hope and love.
Indeed saving grace is Godís gift of the Kingdom of Heaven right hear on earth. And Jesusí life would be all about what that saving grace means to us.
The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming the advent of the Messiah. John is a child of the old order. John descends spiritually from the prophets. And like the ancient prophets he lived out his proclamation.
The people were oppressed, occupied by the brutal Roman army. They lived in a time where justice was understood by the rulers to be preservation of their power. The Jewish leaders whose rule was barely tolerated by the Romans, feared that if the Romans were pushed too far, they would destroy the Jewish people. (By the by, they were right because about 30 years after John, the people would rise up in arms to battle the Romans and for a couple of years ruled until the Romans retaliated and drove the Jews out of the Israel into the Diaspora.) And the people were not just oppressed politically, but also economically. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Many people were in debt to their landlords. The people had no rights Ö no right to appeal their treatment, no right to speak out, no right to assemble, no right to trial, no right to life. Fear and poverty stalked the land.
And the people were dying spiritually: the Pharisees did all they could to preserve the Jewish way under the constant pressure of Rome. But many of them had fallen into a legalistic frame of mind and couldnít see beyond the current broken order. The Romans tolerated their religion as long as it helped to keep the peace.
Keeping order was paramount to the Romans Ö keeping order at all costs, including slaughtering innocents if that would get rid of the rebels in their midst.
This is the world Jesus would be born into. This is the world that an unmarried pregnant teen-ager would claim her pregnancy was Godís fault and submit to Godís request that God be born among us.† And consider her parents:† They were pious Jews. What were they to think about her? Only pagan gods impregnated women, not the one true Yahweh.
This is the messy, desperate world into which God was coming.
John was of the old order that waited for the Messiah to come. But the Messiah to which the people looked forward was a righteous political and spiritual leader, a descendant of David, a great warrior who would wage the last war, defeat the Romans once and for all, and restore Israel to its rightful place in the world.† Peace, justice, and righteousness for the whole world would follow. This leader would put everything to rights and those who lived under him (and it would be a ďheĒ) would benefit.
This is what the people expected of the Messiah and this is what John expected. John knew that the time had matured and it was now, Johnís very day, that the Messiah would at last come. And so he lived in the desert and dressed in homemade clothes and ate whatever he could find growing in the desert Ö for he vicariously represented what the people must do:† let go of all that ties them to their age and turn to God who will then raise up a righteous, holy (but not divine) leader. He proclaimed that baptism would purify them from their sins of the present age and free them to march with the Messiah to victory. And the people flocked to him.
And then Jesus showed up at the Jordan asking to be baptized. And John knew from that spiritual voice that comes out of the blue Ė the voice of God, that here was the Messiah.
Saving grace. Thatís what Jesus was about. It was not what John or his followers expected. It made no sense and yet Johnís followers would leave John, at Johnís request, to follow this strange, unexpected, impractical Messiah.
Saving grace. But Johnís followers and even Jesusí disciples would have a very hard time to shake off their old order notion that the Messiah was a conquering hero that would free them. Is that so unexpected?
Do we not yearn for the same type of leader? Do we not wish we had leadership that was righteous, just, in favor with God? Do we not wish that with the power that God (or we) endowed in them that they will free us from our economic and spiritual oppression? That they will vanquish our enemies: Terrorists, Communists, and anyone else that threatens us? That they will herald an age of peace and justice and prosperity? Donít some of us wish that the Occupy movement had such a leader? This is the Messiah of the old order.
But Jesus brought a new order with his ministry. It was the order of saving grace.
Grace was always a part of the old order. Good people would give of their wealth to help a poor beggar, a sick friend, a cheated neighbor Ö and thereby get points in heaven for doing good deeds. But Ö society was unchanged. There would always be poor and sick and cheated folks. Thatís just the way it is. Good people need to help them when they can, but the most we can do is to limit how many suffer. Voluntary charity is always a part of the old order.
Those who manage to make a life in society are blessed and can go on with their lives with that feel-good sense that they helped those whom they can Ö and didnít ask for anything back. And in the moment of the need, that was grace.
But there was no salvation in that. No hope for the marginal other then basic survival. And the hope was that the Messiah would change all that Ö but would he be able to without saving grace? Would the Messiah sitting at the top of society as its ruler be able to help all of those needy folks?
So what is saving grace? Why does that make Jesus the Messiah instead of the righteous leader?
Consider this possibility. What would you do if you walked by a homeless woman who begged for a few bucks for lunch? Would you give you $3? Or would you think maybe itís a scam and sheíll buy liquor or drugs?
And thatís a reasonable dilemma. She just might Ö and to be a bit cynical Ö probably willÖ buy contraband. And it makes sense to walk by and not be an innocent accomplice in her fall from grace.
But itís Christmas and you think Ö well I shouldnít be cynical. Iíll give her the three bucks. And maybe since its Christmas and thereís a shelter just around the corner youíll give you the three bucks and take her into the shelter. Thatís grace. You didnít have to do it. Indeed, youíve probably done many acts of grace not just at Christmas but year around providing food for the hungry, support for sick neighbors and so forth. And all of that is so important and so gracious Ö and enriches are spirits. But itís not saving grace.
But Ö just maybe Ö saving grace comes over you. And when you take that homeless woman into a shelter you ask one of the directors what can be done for her? And he says not much. We feed them and give them some shelter. We try to make Christmas joyous. But we have no illusions that sheíll return to the streets.
But maybe saving grace introduces you to a different director. Maybe he says if only Ö she could read Ö if only she could break her drug habit Ö if only she could be given meds for her mental illness Ö if only.†† And without thinking of the consequences you ask, what can I do? And not one to pass by a gift, the director sits you down, gives you a reading curriculum and enrolls you as a one-to-one reading tutor.
And you carry it through week by week until one week she sits there with you and reads a high school level story. Saving grace comes to her that moment when she realizes she can pass through the dark night of the soul.
That is saving grace Ö that one step that led to another that led to another until the Kingdom of God embraced one more lost sheep. And all from Jesus Ö thatís what makes him the Messiah. He was no conquering hero or president who rules in some distant palace. He is a teacher and a savior who walks among us.
Jesus the Messiah came to establish a new order, not the old order of the long expected Messiah who would have tried to establish the Kingdom from the top down Ö ruling a nation. Jesus did not come to rule a nation. The new order establishes the Kingdom from the bottom up Ö one lost sheep after another, one small step by one small step Ė one person, one family, one town, one county, one state, one nation and one world until the Kingdom comes.
And thatís what Christmas is all about Ö one small innocent baby born to an oppressed unmarried teenager in an improvised town. One baby who incarnated God and walked among us step by step Ö and still does to this very day.
Think about it Ö
Godís grace and love be with you Ö