The Brightness of Grace

The First Sunday in Lent 2021

The Brightness of Grace

Romans 5:6-8

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.


The September 11, 2002 issue of TIME magazine features the story of then 31-year old Genelle Guzman. Genelle was the last of just four people caught in the debris of the Twin Towers to be found alive.

After the planes hit the World Trade Center, Genelle was descending a staircase from the 64th floor of the North Tower. 

Steel beams weakened to their breaking point. Solid concrete was pulverized. But somehow her body found an air pocket. Her right leg was pinned under heavy concrete pillars. Her head was caught between stacks of wreckage. But somehow she was still alive. 

For twenty-seven hours Guzman lay trapped and seriously injured. 

In recent months before the attacks Genelle had started attending the church called Brooklyn Tabernacle, and wanted to get her life turned around. 

So while she was stuck in the rubble, she started to pray. She’d trail off into sleep — wake up and pray some more.

Shortly after noon on Wednesday the 12th, she heard voices. So she screamed as loud as she could, “I’m here! HEY, I’M RIGHT HERE!” 

A rescue worker responded, “Do you see the light?” She did not. 

She took a piece of concrete and banged it against a broken stairway overhead–probably the same structure that had saved her life. 

The searchers found the noise. Genelle wedged her hand through a crack in the wall, and felt someone grab it. 

She heard the voice of a rescuer–her savior, in a sense–say, “I’ve got you,” and Genelle Guzman said, “OH GOD, THANK YOU.” It took another 20 long minutes, and then she was saved.

In many ways, Genelle Guzman represents the spiritual plight of all people. We are buried under an enormous mess of sins — ways we have wronged our perfect God. Like Genelle, we have no hope of freeing ourselves. 

We’re stuck. In need of rescue. 

But by admitting the need to be forgiven — by reaching out and saying, “God, help me! I can’t get out of this unless you save me,” we can be confident that he hears and helps. 

That’s what we remember that God reached down into the rubble and saved us by the death and resurrection of Jesus.


Paul’s words here in Romans 5 are short  and to the point. He’s clear that God is the primary actor in these verses. It is God who acts. We respond. It is God’s timing. It is God who saves. It is God who, in His Son, dies for us in order to save us. 

From start to finish, our rescue is a work of God.

At Just the Right Time

God’s Timing

Paul uses this phrase, “At just the right time.” What does he mean by that, I wonder? Perhaps you wonder too? How was it the right time? Why? Is there a wrong time for rescue, for salvation?

We can look at the words of Jesus in John 17 in order to try to answer that question. Just before the events that will ultimately lead to his crucifixion, Jesus prays what’s called his “High Priestly prayer” in John 17. And there he says, “Father, the hour has come…” And he goes on to pray for himself in facing his upcoming ordeal and to pray for his people, ourselves included–that we may be one as He and the Father are one.

Then, in the Book of Acts, Peter delivers his sermon on Pentecost–found in Acts 2–and he tells his listeners that Jesus was delivered to the Romans according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (v. 23).

So–bringing us back here in Romans 5–it’s just the right time because it is the time that God has ordained for salvation. 

The timing of Jesus birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension accords with the plans that God made in eternity past to redeem a people from the fallen race of humanity. 

It was God’s choice and he chose ancient Palenstine in the Roman Empire.

God had a plan. God has a plan. He has a plan for redeeming his people. And he has a plan for equipping and sending his people into the world as witnesses. He has a plan for us. And in 2021 we are going to be intentionally talking about that plan, discerning what it means for us as a people, and then living into it. 

Our Weakness

It’s also the right time because it was the time of our deepest need. According to Paul, it was the right time because it was the time in which we were powerless to save ourselves. God acts when we are “weak” (6), “still sinners” (8) and “enemies of God” (10). It’s when you’re weak that you need to be rescued. It’s the perfect time for a savior.

In C. S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in The Chronicles of Narnia, there’s a character named Eustace Scrubb. And Eustace is a know-it-all. He’s the sort of kid who’s too sophisticated to believe in God. He thinks God’s a myth. He believes in science, progress, and technology.

Eustace gets into Narnia. Narnia–if you’re not familiar with the books–is the land where the books are set. Narnia is a world that’s sort of parallel to ours. The world is ruled by Aslan, a lion, who is the one true King of Narnia and sort of a Christ-figure. 

Eustace makes all sorts of trouble in Narnia. No one likes him. And finally his stubbornness and willfulness results in his becoming a dragon–because everyone knows that the gold in a dragon hoard is bewitched. And Eustace begins to have “greedy, dragonish thoughts” and falls asleep among the treasure, waking up as a dragon.

So Eustace, now a dragon, realizes his folly. He recognizes he was wrong. He believes that Aslan is real and that he is the true King and Creator of Narnia. And he repents–he turns away from his old ways, and he turns to God, and lives in a new way.

And he wants to become a boy again–because he knows that under all those scales that’s what he really is, a little boy. He tries to cut away his scales, but every layer of scale that he removes, reveals another layer, sort of like an onion. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot peel it away.

Then Eustace describes how Aslan rescued him. In his own words,

“Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off … And there was I, as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”

Like Eustace, we cannot peel off the scaly skin of our sinfulness, of our brokenness, of our habits. 

Like Genelle Guzman we cannot lift the beam from on top of us and pick our way out of the wreckage of sin. 

We are powerless. 

We can’t do it.

But God can. 

God will. 

God has.

At just the right time–when we needed it most, when we were at our weakest, when we were farthest from God–Christ died for us, the ungodly.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. He say in John 10:

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

He knows his sheep–he knows you, warts and all. He lays down his life for his sheep–for you, for me in full awareness of our brokenness–on Good Friday. Then he takes his life up again on Easter Sunday and gives us everlasting life.

Friends, this is good news of the gospel. Don’t try to move the pillar. Don’t try to rub off your scales. Don’t try to save yourself. Don’t trust in your good works or your upstanding character. Those things cannot save you. 

Jesus can. So say yes to him today. 

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ,

You are the center of heaven’s happiness,

the wellspring that fills saints and angels.

There is as much happiness in you as happiness exists.

Whatever excellency is in heaven, it is in You.

Whatever belongs to glory is found in You.

You are all good things to all your saints in heaven:

beauty to their eyes,

honey to their mouths,

perfume to their nostrils,

health to their bodies,

joy to their souls,

light to their understanding

content to their wills.

You are time without sliding,

company without loathing,

desire without fainting.

You are Alpha and Omega, the beginning and ending.

All the virtues, beauties, and goodness

in people, animals, trees, and any other creature,

are nothing but passing sparks compared with your glory.

You are dust

Prayer before the Imposition of the Ashes

Gracious God, You created us out of the dust of the earth and breathed into us the breath of life.By Your hand we live and to Your hands we return when all our days are done.
Grant that the awareness of our mortality may lead us not to fear, but to faith.
In our weakness teach us to look to You for strength, in our failures to turn to You and find forgiveness, and in our dying to await the gift of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen

Imposition of Ashes

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Blessing

The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you for ever. Amen.

Meet the real and deadly enemy of effective gospel witness in our culture

Christians who want to meaningfully address their diverse communities are going to have to address white Christian nationalism

“I’ve met the enemy and it is us.”

I had to write an essay on that quote when I was in high school. I have no idea what I said, but the quote strikes me as timely today. A week after the deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol, it’s become clear to me that the single biggest barrier to effective witness to the gospel today is us.

In a jarring post, Thomas McKenzie argues that to many in our post-Christian culture “evangelical” is dangerously close to being associated with terrorism just as many associate Islam with terrorism. And he notes, it is with good reason:

It’s about time for us Christians—especially those of us who are theologically evangelical—to recognize that we’re in this situation right now. The majority of terroristic violence and death in America since 9/11 hasn’t been committed by Muslims or Communists or Antifa, but by White Christian Nationalists. On January 6th, we yet again witnessed something that can well be described as Christian Terrorism.  

Thomsas McKenzie

Chances are that as you read that paragraph, you grew angry. I get it.

I’d like you to set that anger aside and consider what MacKenzie is saying. Reluctantly–and indeed with great sorrow–I have to admit that he’s probably right.

Please note, I’m not saying–and neither is MacKenzie–that voting for Donald Trump makes you a white Christian nationalist. He notes:

Over 74 million Americans voted for Trump in 2020. A large percentage of them identify as Evangelicals. I am convinced that the vast majority of these are intelligent, good-hearted, patriotic people. They are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. In fact, in a recent survey, 82% of people who voted for Trump said they opposed the actions of the terrorists who stormed the Capitol building. 

Thomas McKenzie

At the same time, the events of the last week–indeed of the last four years–show that there is a small minority within Trump supporters who are inclined to idealogical extremism.

These people, and their beliefs, are enemies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

White Christian Nationalism is one of the most deadly diseases of the soul that I’ve encountered in my 27 years of ministry. It’s false, destructive, and evil. It may well be the single greatest hindrance to the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus to the unbeliever in this generation. Why would any unbeliever want to join us right now? Why would a good-hearted person look at this terroristic train-wreck and want to get involved? Come, Lord Jesus!

Thomas McKenzie

We have a challenging road ahead of us!

What comes next?

Congregations need help to discover what their new normal will look like

COVID-19 has changed everything. That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. Just over a year ago, I there were a bunch of things that I never thought would be part of my life. Things like working from home most of the week, recording worship services on my iPhone, having my kids give a weekly saliva sample for COVID surveillance, wearing a face mask in public, and ordering groceries from Instant Cart. Those things weren’t part of my life then. They are now.

All of us have experienced changes to our way of life since the pandemic began. It’s easy to think that when it’s over–whatever that means–things will go back to normal. We want that–we think we do, anyway. It’s not likely to happen. The single biggest change over the last year has been to make “home” the center of our universe.

Before 2020, many of my neighbors and I spent less than seven waking hours in our homes each now. Most of us, today, spent most of our waking hours in the house. It’s our office, our restaurant, our gym, our accomadation, and even our church. That’s not going to change even after the pandemic ends.

This raises some really significant questions for congregations who want to be wise stewards of their resources and intentional about reaching their communities. Congregations cannot base their future plans on what things were like prior to the pandemic. Things won’t ever be the same.

In planning for the future, congregations need to figure out how members, friends, and their neighborhood or community is likely to behave after the pandemic is over.

There are three options based on an article in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Sustained behaviors – activities that are likely to return to their pre-crisis state.
  • Transformed behaviors – activities that will continue, but with fundamental changes.
  • Collapsed behaviors – activities that are unlikely to continue at all.

We can illustrate these different types of changes by looking at the travel industry after 9/11. After the attacks, people immediately stopped flying and staying in hotels. Over time, however, those activities resumed. Hotel owners needed a plan to “make it” through this short-term disruption until things normalized. This is an example of a sustained behavior.

When people resumed their business and personal travel, they did so under new security protocols. Those changes in security are transformed behaviors. Travellers began to get used to removing their shoes prior to going through security. They adjusted to whole body scanners. These measure were inititally disruptive, but in the end, travellers overcame them.

Other behaviors went away almost completely, collapsed behaviors. Curbside bag check-in. Carrying coffee through security. If you made your living as a Sky Cap or owned a coffee shop on the departures level, you probably don’t now.

The question for congregations is: which of our ministry models from before the pandemic, will collapse?

Not all of our ministries will collapse. Some will be transformed significantly.

My take-away is that congregations need to identify collapsed minstries and make plans to let them go. The name of the game is keeping ministry simple.

With the transformation that is happening in ministries like worship and small groups, congregations need to intentionally muster their resources to invest in meeting these new challenges so that they can continue to be effective for the Kingdom of God.

A throne is a seat for one

Matthew 2:1-12

Read

Introduction

I’ve always been interested in the Kings and Queens of England. 

Growing up in England, I had a genealogy on the wall of my room that followed the succession of the throne of England from Alfred of Wessex to Queen Elizabeth II.

You probably don’t know much about the Kings of England–and possibly you don’t particularly care–but one of the interesting things about the line of monarchs is that they rarely go straight.

Actually, that’s true for all of us. 

house on green landscape against sky
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of our family trees have strange twists and turns in them. It’s part of what makes the holidays so special, right?

Well, these twists and turns come to have really big significance when you’re talking about who gets to rule a nation or an empire.

And the twists and turns that take place in the line of kings and queens often come about for a couple of reasons. The first is that a king fails to have, in the old days, it was a son. 

Well, if the king doesn’t have a son then he has no one to inherit the throne and the throne will move to the next branch of the family. Maybe the king’s brother or sister has a son and he can ascend to the throne.

The second reason is if the king has too many sons. Perhaps he doesn’t have a son with his wife, but he has a bunch of other sons with other women. It happened all the time. 

These illegitimate children were sent off to monasteries to get them out of the way, btw. That way they couldn’t interfere with the family’s plan for who’d be the next monarch.

Well, if you have several children of the king with varying women and no legitimate child then these other children can make a claim to the throne. And, in some respects, the biggest thing a claimant to the throne needed was popular support.

It gets even more fun when you consider that somewhere like the United Kingdom is actually three nations–two kingdoms, England and Scotland, and a principality, Wales–under a single monarch, today, but centuries ago there were separate holders of the thrones. 

Charles Edward Stuart–also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie–claimed the thrones of England and Scotland. 

He’s also known as “the young pretender.” He was a pretender because even though he had a claim to the throne, others had a stronger claim.

And across the history of nations there are individuals who have claimed the throne who have had questionable right to it. 

They’re called “pretenders” or “usurpers” because they’re pretending to be something they aren’t in reality or they’re attempting to stop the legitimate monarch from sitting on the throne.

The story of the Magi is a story of a true king and a pretender. 

Herod the Pretender

The first main character we meet is a Herod. Herod was a false king. He was a usurper, a pretender. 

Herod was a ruler that the Roman Empire allowed to be King because he was committed to looking after their interests and playing by their rules. 

He was from southern Israel near what is modern day Jordan and Egypt. There’s some disagreement on whether Herod practiced the Jewish faith. Some say he did; others claim it was just a fabrication for the benefit of the Judeans.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod was old and wiley. You know the sort. The sort of political player who, at 70 years of age, knew all the best ways to get rid of enemies and competitors. 

He’d spent his life gathering power from the Romans and extracting wealth from the Jews. He had no intention of being compromised by the birth of a Messiah, a real “King of the Jews.”

You see, the Jews themselves *hated* Herod. They knew he was not their king and that had clawed his way onto the throne by power and by violence. And he planned on staying there till the very end.

The Magi

Sometimes people on the “outside” of a situation can see things more clearly than those close to the situation. That’s part of the reason why you called me as your transitional pastor. I can see things that you yourselves cannot see because you’re so close and invested in the life and ministry of this fine church.

The Jews had been expecting a Messiah for ages. Given that God’s deliverance of Israel in the past had included parting the Red Sea, sending plagues upon Egypt, sending food from heaven, and guiding them by means of a pillar of fire at night and a cloud by day, you really can’t blame the Jews for being caught off guard by the birth of a child in Bethlehem.

And yet, the Magi–these strange figures who travel from afar to greet the new-born king–seemed to be completely aware of something that the jews themselves were confused about.

Jesus is often confusing. God’s ways are often perplexing. And its largely because of our own lack of attention or our own wrong assumptions that we miss how He is working. 

What little we know of the Magi, tells us that they were priests from the ancient Kingdom of Persia, modern day Iran. They read the sky–that is, the stars–and learned from them that there was a new King of the Jews. 

In what might be called by some a slightly indelicate move, it appears these Persian priests show up at Herod’s door and ask for this replacement. Well, that’s awkward.

You don’t have to be a historical scholar to realize how Herod received the news. He checks with his advisors and they tell him that there is evidence that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

Not good news for Herod. So, he comes up with a plan.

You see, 

  • When a pretender is on the throne, he won’t part with it without a fight.
  • Pretenders always get others to do the dirty work for them.
  • When you discover a Herod go as far in the opposite direction as you can.

Jesus the Always King

Jesus is the true King. He sits on the throne and he was born to it. Anyone else who sits on Jesus’ throne is just an imposter and a pretender. 

Anyone else on the throne is bad news.

A throne is a seat for one. Only one can sit on it. Throne’s aren’t for sharing.

When we let someone other than Jesus sit on the throne then we commit spiritual treason. We allow a usurper to take our savior’s place and it will not end well.

The Main To Do

  • In 2021 let your only resolution be to let Jesus be the only one who sits on the throne of your life. 

Why It Matters

  • A pretender will always let you down. 
  • A pretender doesn’t care who gets hurt.
  • A pretender will tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. 
  • A pretender always is always looking out for number one, and when he or she discovers that you can’t help him get what he wants, he’ll throw you under a bus as quick as can be.