St Michael’s, 15th January 2017
Readings – Isaiah 40:1-11; John 1:14-28
Have you ever had too much of a good thing? There’s a saying, ‘Too much of anything is good for nothing’. Or the more familiar, ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’ with the implication that any more is likely to be no good for you at all. We’ve all heard stories of multi-million pound Lottery winners who end up miserable, or at least no better off than before winning … some reports suggest that most people who win big on the lottery (both here in the UK and in the US), use or lose the lot in four years, and that four times as many as usual end up divorced. But I suspect we’d all like to find out for ourselves if it’s true?!
Yet in our reading this morning, John tells us that God gives us grace upon grace (John 1:16) – not ‘grace in place of grace’ as in the more recent NIV translation … a direct translation might read ‘grace on top of grace’ … as if God were piling up layer upon layer upon layer of grace. It’s as if he is saying, you just can’t have too much grace!
And indeed, John uses this word grace again and again,
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace (upon) grace.
17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
In these verses, John tells us three things about grace: that Jesus is full of grace (and truth), that Jesus is the source of grace (and truth) and that we receive grace through him.
Which begs a couple of questions … what is grace, and how do we obtain this grace?
What is grace?
At it’s simplest, grace is ‘mercy not merit’ … grace is not getting what you deserve, but receiving from God that which you can never earn for yourself. Grace is life in place of death. Forgiveness in place of sin. Hope for the future. Joy in the present, whatever your situation. Or to put it another way, grace is the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it. Grace is the heart of the good news, and it is at the heart of all God’s dealings with people.
Grace is not simply a warm fuzzy feeling about God and the church family, or a prayer we pray while looking at each other, or thanksgiving for our food. We use a lot of different words to describe our salvation, our relationship with God through Jesus … technical, biblical words like redemption, renewal, propitiation, justification, sanctification … words that we have to explain, but that are never quite adequate in describing the amazing truth that God is willing to do whatever it takes to bring us into a relationship with himself, for ever. These are all aspects of grace, but there’s more …
Grace is for everyone. No matter your age or ability, background or profession, colour or education, grace is for you. For the elderly and for the children, for the disabled and for the active, for the employed, self-employed, unemployed, retired … grace is for you.
Grace is for everyone, but not everyone benefits from grace … a little earlier in the chapter, the bit we read every Christmas, John wrote,
He (Jesus – the Word) was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God … John 1:10-12
It’s as children of God that we receive grace, experience grace, inherit grace. It’s not only for those that understand the Bible, or who pray regularly, or who can explain the doctrine of justification and all those other words I mentioned. Listen again,
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God … John 1:12
The only qualification we need (if that’s the right word to use), is to believe and receive.
That’s why John says of Jesus that he is full of grace and truth (v14) and that grace and truth came through him (v17). If we know and trust the truth, we receive grace. It’s that simple.
That’s why, Sunday after Sunday, and in our small groups, we spend time with the bible, exploring truths about Jesus and the good news. It’s so easy to assume that we know what the bible says or means. For example, we know that Christians are supposed to be good people, so we try to be good … as if being good is the reason people are Christian. But that’s the wrong way round … we try to be good because we have received grace, not in order to receive grace. Receiving grace changes us, and we live differently as a result.
That’s perhaps the most common misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian, that the good behaviour comes first. Grace means exactly the opposite. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans,
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
At the heart of grace is a paradox, a conundrum, a riddle: how can a good God love sinners. Because he is also a just God, and justice demands that sin has a price that must be paid – he can’t, won’t simply ignore our sin. So grace provides a way – Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus died in our place for our sins … that’s grace.
Our need for grace is because we are sinners … the word sin isn’t used much in our modern society – unless you go to Weightwatchers, that is. But we all know what it is … it’s the opposite of good, it’s evil at work, it’s unkindness, violence, temper, malice, self-interest … it’s everything ungodly and unloving about us and about our communities.
But not only are we forgiven through the cross, we are also transformed … Jesus didn’t simply take our place … we took his … as beloved children of God. That’s grace, too … and it goes on … God doesn’t simply leave us to get on with our new life, he moves in. Through his Spirit living in our hearts, God lives every moment of every day with us … that’s grace. The Spirit prompts us to live for God, and moulds us little by little into the family likeness. That too is grace.
And although Isaiah didn’t use the word grace, he clearly knew and experienced grace. Listen to the first part of our reading from Isaiah 40:1-2,
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
Everything I’ve already said about grace is illustrated here … comfort for the people of God, who have sinned and been forgiven, a double portion of grace (that is, grace upon grace) in place of their sin.
And in verse 11,
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
He doesn’t then leave them to get on with it, but lives with his people, keeping close, guiding and protecting them.
Grace is the underlying principle in all God’s dealings with us … and grace is ours in abundance, freely given, once we recognise our need of forgiveness, and his provision of a saviour.
Grace upon grace … layer upon layer upon layer of grace. You can never have too much grace!