John 8:31–36, Romans 3:19–28, Jeremiah 31:31–34
Let me begin by telling you a story about a time when a woman by the name of Florence Littauer was speaking at a Church Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. She told the crowd of a time when she was at a speaking engagement where she was focusing on the sinful nature of all human beings, and our need for God’s grace.
So Florence asked, “Does anyone here know what grace means?” A 7 year old girl in the front row, stood up and raised her hand. “‘I know, Miss Littauer, I know,” she said. “Grace is unmerited favor from God!”
Well, Florence couldn't believe what she had just heard. She then asked the young girl to step up to the platform with her. “Great answer,” Florence said, “now tell the audience what that means.” The little girl folded her hands and shrugged, I don't have a clue!”
Folks, I’ve been talking about grace for over 20 years here now. Preaching about it. Teaching it in confirmation classes. Explaining it in new member classes. And that little girl’s definition of grace is close to the definition that I use. The definition of grace that I use I learned from my pastor when I was in confirmation. Way back then I learned that grace is “God’s undeserved love and favor.” Say that with me, “Grace is God’s undeserved love and favor.”
And that’s a great answer if you ever have to give an answer on a quiz. But let me say that it’s one thing to know the definition – but it’s another to experience it. It’s one thing to know it. It’s another to experience it.
If you remember from last week, I told you that trust is God’s answer to worry. Trust in God is God’s answer to worry. Today I want to tell you that grace is God’s answer to sin.
Today we celebrate Reformation Day. The color for the day is red – and I’m happy to see that many of you remembered to wear red today. No big deal if you forgot. But today is the day that we celebrate the reformation of the church. We remember today a man named Martin Luther, who on October 31, 1517, started the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.
One of the things that plagued Luther was the problem of sin. More to the point – the problem of his own sinfulness. For Luther the problem was this. How do you satisfy the demands of a holy God? And what does God do with people who either cannot or will not clean up their act? And more to the point – how can God expect perfection from human beings who are totally incapable of being perfect?
If you’ve ever struggled with those kinds of questions, then I think you have a good grasp of what it was Luther put himself through. Luther wanted to be perfect. He believed that God wanted him to be perfect. Luther tried to be perfect. But let’s be real. We all know that there is no one – absolutely no one – who is perfect. There is no one who is without sin.
The Bible tells us – from our reading today from the book of Romans – “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Folks, we are all flawed. We say things we shouldn’t say. We do things we shouldn’t do. And – we think things we shouldn’t think. And in the process, we hurt people, we disappoint people. We even disappoint ourselves. And we disappoint God.
Folks, I don’t want you to think that I am beating up on you today. I’m not. I’m simply telling you what you already know. Sin is real. And the problem with sin is twofold. First, sin hurts people. Second, sin separates us from God. Sin hurts people, and sin separates us from God.
Now understand this. God’s desire for you and me is that our lives might be filled with things like love, joy and peace. But sin gets in the way. Sin won’t let that happen. Sin hurts people. Sin destroys relationships. Sin can even destroy our bodies. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. People whose lives have been broken because of sinful, destructive behaviors.
And sin acts like a prison. We become slaves of sin. Sometimes our sin blinds us to our own condition. Have you ever noticed that? Have you ever noticed how – other people – are blind to their own sin? Ever notice that? Well, don’t look now, but they’re saying the same thing about you.
But, hey! You didn’t come here today to hear me park on the problem of sin. But there is an answer. God does have an answer. Jesus says in our reading from John’s Gospel, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
When Jesus says “You will be free,” he is talking about being free from sin. Freedom from self-destructive lifestyles. Freedom from the sin that hurts people and destroys relationships.
So sin hurts people. The second thing that sin does is that sin separates us from God. That’s what sin is and that’s what sin does. Sin separates us from God. But the important thing for you to know – what you need to remember is that God loves you even though you and I are sinners. No matter where you go – no matter what you do – no matter what you say – no matter how long or how far you’ve been away. God loves you.
And God forgives. In our reading from the book of Jeremiah, God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That’s one of my favorite verses in the Bible. “I will forgiven their sins, and remember their sins no more.” When God forgives, God forgets. Thank God God has a long-term memory issue! I am so thankful that God cannot remember my sins. So the next time you’re reading through the book of Jeremiah, I want you to circle this verse. I want you to circle this verse, because this is God’s promise to you. “I will forgive their sins, and I will remember their sins no more.”
You see, God wants you to be free from sin. God wants you to be free from the power of sin. God’s answer to sin is grace. God’s answer to the power of sin is Jesus. He is the One who sets us free.
But let me tell you. It’s one thing to know that. It’s one thing for you to know that sin is real – that sin is a real problem in your life and mine. It’s one thing to know that God paid the penalty for your sin and mine when Jesus died on the cross. It’s one thing to know that grace is God’s undeserved love and favor – AND that it is because of God’s undeserved love and favor – because of God’s grace – that God says to everyone of us this [afternoon] [morning] – your sins are forgiven. I love you. I forgive you. My Son’s sacrifice on the cross is effective for you. And I give the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation to you because of my great love for you – because of my grace.
Listen to me very carefully – even if you think you know all about grace. Everyone of us here today needs to EXPERIENCE grace. All of us need to EXPERIENCE God’s love and forgiveness. It’s one thing to know the definition of God’s grace. It’s one thing to understand it intellectually. It’s quite another to EXPERIENCE God’s grace.
Many of you know Marla Grefrth. Marla is our choir director. She sent me a story this past week. It’s a story on grace and forgiveness from a book by Max Lucado, entitled “Grace Happens Here”. Listen! “On a November evening in 2004, Victoria Ruvolo, a forty-four-year-old New Yorker, was driving to her home on Long Island. She’d just attended her niece’s recital and was ready for the couch, a warm fire, and relaxation.
She doesn’t remember seeing the silver Nissan approach from the east. She remembers nothing of the eighteen- year-old boy leaning out the window, holding, of all things, a frozen turkey. He threw it at her windshield.
The twenty-pound bird crashed through the glass, bent the steering wheel inward, and shattered her face like a dinner plate on concrete. The violent prank left her grappling for life in the ICU. She survived but only after doctors wired her jaw, affixed one eye by synthetic film, and bolted titanium plates to her cranium. She can’t look in the mirror without a reminder of her hurt.
Nine months after her disastrous November night, she stood face to titanium-bolted face with her offender in court. Ryan Cushing was no longer the cocky, turkey-tossing kid in the Nissan. He was trembling, tearful, and apologetic. For New York City, he had come to symbolize a generation of kids out of control. People packed the room to see him get his comeuppance. The judge’s sentence enraged them — only six months behind bars, five years’ probation, some counseling, and public service.
The courtroom erupted. Everyone objected. Everyone, that is, except Victoria Ruvolo. The reduced sentence was her idea. The boy walked over, and she embraced him. In full view of the judge and the crowd, she held him tight, stroked his hair. He sobbed, and she spoke:
“I forgive you. I want your life to be the best it can be.”
She allowed grace to shape her response. “God gave me a second chance at life, and I passed it on,” she says. “If I hadn’t let go of that anger, I’d be consumed by this need for revenge. Forgiving him helps me move on.”
Her mishap led to her mission: volunteering with the county probation department. “I’m trying to help others, but I know for the rest of my life I’ll be known as ‘The Turkey Lady.’ Could have been worse. He could have thrown a ham. I’d be Miss Piggy!”
Folks, grace is God’s answer to sin. Grace is the gift that God gives: a grace that grants us first the power to receive love and then the power to give it.
People who experience God’s grace are grace-filled people. Grace filled people – the grace-given – give grace. Forgiven people forgive people.
Folks, God wants your life to be the best it can be. So today – you don’t need to be afraid of God. God’s not mad at you. You don’t have to fear the judgment seat of Christ. Our reading today lets us know that, “23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified” – in other words you are made right with God – “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”
Hey! You came here today to hear good news. Is that good news, or what? This is what we call the Gospel. Good News! This is what God in Jesus Christ has done for us. Because of what Jesus Christ has done for us – grace is God’s answer to sin. And if you can believe what I have shared with you today, and receive God’s grace by faith, then you will be free.
You will be free indeed. Amen