Sermon preached by Penny Wheble, at St Martin's on 2nd January 2011
It’s like a door being opened. The darkness that John speaks of is suddenly illuminated by the one who is light. For those who welcome the open door, there is life in abundance. Yet what is overwhelmingly obvious to some is by no means clear to all. John will unfold a story in which such contrasting attitudes continue to co-exist. What he will demonstrate is stated right here: what Moses gave was good, but look, Jesus is even better.
John opens his book with the Prologue, or the beginning, so rather than start at verse 10, which began our reading today, I’ll take us back to the beginning.
Some bible commentators consider the prologue to be a poem, or at least rhythmical prose, and some suggest that verses 1-5, 10-12 and 14-18 may have been parts of one or several early Christian hymns. Others have thought that verses 14-18 were used as an early church confessional statement, to which John added his stamp of approval.
The first thirteen verses summarise the Word’s relationship to the world as its rejected Creator, Visitor, Light, and Saviour. Yet throughout the opening paragraph, John doesn’t identify the Word as being human, except in the personal pronouns.
‘On New Year’s Eve, the boss gave several of his employees the sack. We thought he was a real hard-hearted villain, but he said the firm would have gone bust if he hadn’t. His one saving grace was that he had spent the last few weeks secretly getting each of them a job offer from other firms nearby, to begin in the New Year.’
This story’s fiction, though tragedies like that do happen all too often. The phrase, ‘his one saving grace’ often refers to a redeeming feature, which helps us to see that an apparently wicked person isn’t all bad – a saving grace!
Grace is one of the key words in the Bible. It means mercy or forgiveness; although we don’t deserve it, God in his mercy graciously forgives us for all the sins we’ve ever committed, as soon as we repent. The hymn, Amazing Grace, talks of the generosity of God’s forgiveness, offered to every one of us, even the most wretched of sinners.
In verse 16 when John speaks of Jesus benefitting his people with one gracious blessing after another, he was affirming that he had never found Jesus lacking in any way. John’s description conveys a subtle invitation for us to trust Jesus ability to meet our needs. That we have all benefitted includes all the believers, not just John and the apostles. All believers receive Christ’s blessings, but nothing can deplete Christ – no matter how much the believers receive of him, he keeps on giving. The blessings given by Christ can never be exhausted.
Grace comes at no cost to ourselves; forgiveness can never be earned – we can never do anything to earn God’s forgiveness, - it’s just the fruit of God’s love.
Philip Yancey in his book ‘What’s so amazing about grace’ says “it’s on tap for every person who comes through these doors. One who has been touched by grace will no longer look on those who stray as "those evil people" or "those poor people who need our help." Nor must we search for signs of "love-worthiness." Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.
Grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us. Ask people what they must do to get to heaven and most reply, "Be good." Jesus' stories contradict that answer. All we must do is cry, "Help!"
Repentance, not proper behaviour or even holiness, is the doorway to grace. And the opposite of sin is grace, not virtue”.
Here’s an example:
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates.
St Peter says, ‘Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I’ll give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.’
‘Ok’, the man says. ‘I was married to the same woman for fifty years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ says St Peter. ‘That’s worth three points!’
‘Three points? he says.
‘Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.’
‘Terrific! says St Peter. ‘That’s certainly worth a point.’
‘One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.’
‘Fantastic that’s good for two more points.’
‘Two points?’ the man cries. ‘At this rate the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God!’
‘Come on in!’
So what is grace? In a nutshell, at its heart grace is the loving relationship between a generous God and his trusting worshippers. It’s God’s undeserved love and the power it gives us.
And saving grace? It’s a very small step. God wants to save each of us from the fear of death and the guilt and power of sin. There’s nothing we have to do to earn this saving grace; God can give it to us of his own free will in the second that we ask for it. It’s given for people who up to now have lived a wicked and selfish life, the moment we repent.
Going back to the story I told you at the beginning of the employer who had one saving grace, I think most of us would forgive him because of the care for the employees he’d had to dismiss. How much more must God search for any redeeming feature in your or my selfish life – the saving grace which releases the spring and catapults us into the totally undeserved bliss of heaven!
John wrote: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . .
From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.’
Jesus the Son, who is himself God can communicate God’s glory to us. He is near to the Father’s heart, and has told us about God. Jesus is the one who explains about God. He came to earth and lived among us – to explain God to us with his words and by his person. No-one can know God apart from Christ, God’s explainer. Again, this mirrors verse one, where the Son is called the ‘Word’ – the expression of God, the communicator of God.
I’ll end by inviting you to read with me the words of a song we sing here at
St Martin’s as a prayer. It’s I’m special - Number 325 in Mission Praise.
I’m special because God has loved me,
For he gave the best thing that he had to save me.
His own son Jesus, crucified to take the blame
For all the bad things I have done.
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord,
For loving me so much;
I know I don’t deserve anything.
Help me feel your love right now,
To know deep in my heart
That I’m your special friend.