The Grace of God has Appeared
Based on Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20
This is the time of year for giving and receiving gifts. In fact, there is no other single time in the year that is more about gifting. Gifts come in all shapes and sizes – in all states of being wrapped. Most end up under an evergreen tree waiting to be opened on or about December 25th. If I might be so bold to ask…what gift did you most treasure in the year 2000? How about 1985 or 1965, or 2015? Can you even remember what gift you liked the most from Christmas last year? Let me come at this from a different angle…possibly one a bit less uncomfortable. Who were you with in your most memorable Christmas(es)? What was it that made it/them so memorable? I daresay that it wasn’t the gifts at all, but the people with whom you gathered.
God understood that relationship is what makes a truly memorable gift some 2000 years ago. Do you remember the moment that you first accepted the gift of Jesus into your life? For many folks that is a life-defining moment that they remember forever. The Gospel according to John says that God loved humans so much that God became human in order to save humanity. God’s freely offered gift of relationship with God’s-self comes with no strings attached. We have the free will to choose to accept God’s gift (referred to in religious circles as grace), or we can ignore it and simply go about our merry lives like 80 million “nones” do every day. It is staggering to think that so many people could say no to the most memorable gift ever given – Emmanuel, “God with us”…seems like a good time to ask for God’s help through prayer…
We probably all know the Lukan account of the birth of Jesus by heart. Mary impregnated by the Spirit, travel issues at tax season, lack of hotel reservation, delivery in a barn, angels and shepherds…standard crèche scene when the Wise Men are brought in from Matthew’s Gospel. It is so well known that we tend to miss the wonder and awe that surrounded the fact that God had indeed come to earth. In fact, “all who heard” what the shepherds had to say “were amazed”. Only Mary, who had already been visited by an angel, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and who had sung of God’s great deed through her, seemed to take everything in stride. But she was still wondering about this news from the shepherds as she “…treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart….” And looked down upon the very face of God. Looking upon the reality of God’s grace in human form as one of your children would give you reason to ponder, I would think.
Isaiah speaks of the coming of a King who will return Israel to her former glory. A King who will bring light and freedom to God’s people. A King under whose authority “…there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom….” Christian tradition has long felt that this passage, which originally was written about King Hezekiah, is really speaking about the coming of Jesus – the ultimate conclusion of the lineage of David. This is why Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem, the “City of David” in order to be seen as the heir of David. We are told that the “zeal” of God will do this; a synonym for zeal is love.
The writer of the letter to Titus helps us out the most with this set of scriptures as he reminds the faithful in Crete about how they are to live as Christians. He has talked about false teachers among the Jews; and admonished all followers of Jesus to be above reproach in their behaviors. Then he pens this wonderful phrase at the start of verse 11, “…For the grace of God has appeared,…” The grace of God has appeared…God’s great love has come down to earth and has lived among us and nothing can ever be the same as it was before that time. The grace of God appeared and all who heard about it were amazed! The grace of God appeared as a human and changed all those who believe into “…a people of his own who are zealous (lovers) of good deeds….” It is probably time to focus in on just what we mean by God’s grace.
This is where it becomes important that we are Methodists – followers of a doctrine of faith put forward by the Wesley brothers. John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England, thought about God’s grace a lot, and with the help of William Otterbein, a Bretheren minister, gave Christianity a fuller understanding of God’s freely given gift of love…grace. Wesley taught that there are three aspects of God’s grace; prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. Prevenient is that portion of God’s love that seeks us out and calls us to God, before we even understand that there is a God. Justifying is that part of grace which helps us understand that we are sinful, broken people in need of salvation. Justifying grace helps us admit our sins and repent and become believers in Jesus. Sanctifying grace builds from there to help us grow in our faith until we reach the perfection of having the mind of Christ. God’s love for us creates in us a desire to be in an ever deepening relationship with God.
Now all this is well and good and will help you score well in a United Methodist seminary on the test about the three types of Wesleyan grace, but is this what the writer of the letter to Titus was talking about? Is this what this fourth Sunday in Advent is about? The answer, in case you’re stuck, to both questions is an emphatic no. The writer of the letter was adamant in his point that God’s gift of love (grace) wasn’t some three-pronged mystery that we couldn’t touch, hear, smell or feel. No indeed…he made it clear that God’s great love for us was made real and tangible and human – just like all the rest of us. The reason that Christianity developed into the worldwide force that shaped much of the history of the last 2000 years, is because we remember the gift of God’s appearance in a manger in first century Palestine. Because without “God with us”, we would never have been able to overcome our “impiety and worldly passion” as the writer puts it.
Sadly, however, the consumer economy has indeed forgotten about this greatest of gifts. The grace of God appeared, but over the last two millennia, it has been relegated to a re-enactment of a small portion of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew at churches in one season of the liturgical year. The greatest gift imaginable…an all-powerful God coming to earth in human form as a servant to all – it makes no sense to a world that understands power in a very different way. A world where gift giving is most often a quid-pro-quo event – not a one way, freely offered gift that comes with absolutely no strings attached. The U.S. will spend in excess of $680 billion during the holidays this year – more than ever before; and yet it is safe to say that most of those gifts will be forgotten in a very short time. Yet the gift of the grace of God appearing came freely, cost more than any of us could ever repay, and is unforgettable.
The grace of God appeared and began a transformational process in all believers that will lead to the ultimate gift of that very same grace re-appearing. The grace of God appeared to humanity in the form of Jesus – God’s love came down at Christmas as the old hymn reminds us. This love of God, this grace of God, brings salvation to all who freely choose to believe – calling us, in the words of the writer of Titus, “…to renounce impiety and worldy passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ….” The grace of God appeared so that we might choose to be in right relationship to our Creator. This is a gift without measure, a gift that is priceless, a gift of relationship, the only gift that is designed to keep on giving and transforming. This is the reason we remember and celebrate each and every year the fact that “…the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all…” All praise, honor and thanks be given to God for this most memorable gift. AMEN!