Grace Changes Everything (Isaiah 12:1-6)

In that day [to come] you will say:

“I will praise you, Lord.
    Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
    and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (New International Version)

The Bad News

The reason prophecies are made about better times ahead is because the times now are not so good. That was true of Isaiah’s day, and still remains true today.

It’s easy to identify what’s wrong in this world, especially during a political election cycle! It’s not so easy to recognize the ways we keep ourselves as Christians in bad times. A big reason why, and I unabashedly state it, even though I say it much to my chagrin:

Christianity in our day has mostly failed at spiritual transformation because we have not identified and named the real evils we face, thus leaving us largely irrelevant to a world desperately in need of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, speaking to religious folk who should have known better, said:

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV)

The tragedy of our age, which was the same tragedy of Isaiah’s age, is that there are so many godless followers of God. They fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters. Many Christians’ faith is not much more than conforming to cultural Christian norms while mostly ignoring the realities in front of their faces.

We say we need God but then turn to Google for answers and solutions.

We bemoan the lack of righteousness in the nation, then obnoxiously argue with others and create unnecessary relational wedges.

We decry the injustice of our cities and our world, then do nothing to address the problems and change it.

We talk about the need for others to change rather than first looking in the mirror. Yet, even when we do that, we walk away and forget what we look like.

“For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

The Good News

However, judgment is not the last word. Even though the prophecy of Isaiah is thick with it, and I started out with less than uplifting words, there is one word that transcends every word: grace.

The grace of God is remarkable! The Lord made promises to Israel in Isaiah’s day not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radical and scandalous grace. It wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal, with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.

I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace.

Because God is Love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we can live up to being the sort of people our dogs think we are already.

If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives. 

If grace isn’t the answer, we aren’t asking the right question. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is wildly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives. 

Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. 

That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.

The Bible is an extended drama of redemption; and Isaiah’s prophecy is an adventure of God’s steadfast love toward unlovable people – which is why Isaiah is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. 

Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected. 

Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort of justifying and validating ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of grace, we are forever undone by God’s mercy.

Grace leads us to praise God

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us… In love he predestined us… to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, NIV)

Grace causes us to trust God

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31, NIV)

Grace results in our comfort and satisfaction in God

Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17, NIV)

Grace creates in us thanksgiving to God

“We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15, NIV)

The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you. And if that isn’t something that gets you expressing gratitude to God, then you have failed to see God in your dog. We make known among the nations what God has done because God has really done something in our lives worth babbling our thanksgiving over to everyone. And grace helps us to do it.

Grace causes us to sing together to God

When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! We need times of both silence and contemplative worship and times of becoming unhinged with some noisy worship to the God who has saved us and given us something to sing about. 

Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. (Psalm 98:1, NKJV)

Conclusion

The world mostly ignores God. Some Christians take God’s grace for granted. The greatest sin of all is the sheer absence of grace – because where there is no grace, there is no God. God is the expert in transforming apathetic people into caring, compassionate, and concerned citizens of the kingdom who raise their voices and declare the works of the Lord.

Isaiah’s entire prophecy is about returning to the Lord. And the upcoming season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.

Let us, then, return to the Lord… be captivated by grace… renew our love for Jesus… lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.

Let us worship Christ the King and proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything and everyone.

Gracious God, we come with nothing but ourselves and our baggage of sin. Forgive, cleanse, renew, revive, refresh, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted through us, to your glory and honor. Amen.

He Has Done Great Things For Me (Luke 1:46-55)

Madonna of the Magnificat by Sr. Mary Grace Thul

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (New Revised Standard Version)

Mary’s great song of praise, her “Magnificat” came from having grasped the reality of being pregnant with the Messiah. She affirmed that the all-powerful God “has done great things for me.” 

Indeed, the Lord shows mercy to everyone who worships and adores such mighty acts. It strikes me that Mary, instead of being full of worry and afraid of the future, and as an unmarried teen with child, is full of the Spirit and faith. 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, neither complained nor fretted for the nine months of her pregnancy; she praised God and had clear-headed faith about the grace shown to her. Mary’s canticle gives us insight into the mystery of the Christ’s incarnation: God chooses the weak, those of low esteem, and the powerless.

Mary was quite ordinary for her day. She had no wealth. There was nothing which caused anyone to pick her out of a crowd. Yet, she is the one chosen by God.

Her wonderful response to God’s grace demonstrated that there is so much more to any person than what we can see with our eyes and perceive through our earthly glasses of high positions and strength of personalities.

What’s more, Mary had the wisdom to discern that her situation typified the Lord’s egalitarian work of leveling the field so that all persons have what they need.

Her son, the Messiah, would carry this into his own life and ministry – declaring good news to the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for captives, telling those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

Statue of Mary, Stella Maris Chapel, St. Joseph, Minnesota

God is full of grace, mercy, and strength to those who are powerless and in need of help. The Lord has our back. Perhaps if we all, both individually and corporately, continually used our words to identify and declare the great things God has done, then we would realize and have awareness of the Lord’s abiding blessing. 

One good way of gaining a greater awareness and appreciation of God’s gravity of grace is by journaling.

I encourage you to take some time today and write out some of the ways God has been good to you in the past days, weeks, or months.

Perhaps you might even craft your own song of praise, like Mary, and poetically and/or musically express your gratitude. Or maybe, instead of using words, a sketch or a painting may better communicate the great things God has done for you.

However you choose to do it, like Mary, offer praise for each act of mercy which comes to your memory. 

An outsider, looking in, might judge Mary to be helpless and weak, not the sort of a person who could carry a Messiah. Yet, we get a view from the inside, a glimpse into Mary’s heart. All along, she had her heart calibrated to detect the grace of God when it was present.

May we all follow her example of faith and confidence.

My Soul Magnifies The Lord ~ Chris Tomlin 

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Humanity: Make me worthy to understand the profound mystery of your holy incarnation, which has happened for our sake and for our salvation.

Truly there is nothing so great and wonderful that you, my God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, should become a creature, so that we might become children of God.

You have humbled yourself and made yourself small that we might be made mighty.

You have taken the form of a servant, so that you might confer upon us a royal and divine beauty.

You, who are beyond our understanding, have made yourself understandable to us in Jesus Christ.

You, who are the uncreated God, have made yourself a creature for us.

You, who are the untouchable One, have made yourself touchable to us.

You, who are Most High, make us capable of understanding your amazing love and the wonderful things you have done for us.

Make us able to understand the mystery of your incarnation, the mystery of your life, example, and doctrine, the mystery of your cross and passion, the mystery of your resurrection and ascension. Blessed are you, O Lord, for coming to earth as a man.

You have done great things for me!

Amen, and amen.

Give Thanks and Praise (Luke 17:11-19)

Eastern Orthodox depiction of Jesus Christ healing the ten lepers

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (New International Version)

Today’s Gospel story is both joyous and sad. The healing of ten lepers is astonishing and elicits praise and thanks… from only one. Maybe it’s because they stood at a distance. After all, it’s a close connection to God which causes praise and gratitude to arise within us – and not some appreciation from afar. Therefore, methinks we ought to consider what the nature of our own connection is. 

“Thanksgiving” to most Americans is Thanksgiving Day – a holiday filled with food, football, and family, the trifecta of American celebration. I myself admit to liberally indulging in all three. Although Thanksgiving has become a form of secular liturgical worship, I believe that underneath all the gravy, naps at halftime, and the occasional obnoxious relative, we know why we celebrate: To praise God and give thanks for our abundant blessings. 

It seems that even those who do not readily acknowledge the Divine intuitively know there is a power and source of blessing well beyond themselves which makes all good things occur.

Celebrations are a spiritual activity. God invented parties. When Israel was preparing for a new national life in the Promised Land, God told them to celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops (Exodus 23:16). The Levitical law prescribed how to go about giving thanksgiving offerings and offering praise (Leviticus 7:11-34).

Gratitude and praise was commanded, expected, and an important dimension of Old Testament worship. King David established a group of 288 full-time musicians to do nothing but praise and give thanks before God day and night (1 Chronicles 25).

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

Psalm 95:2, NRSV

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him; bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever
    and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:4-5, NRSV)

It ought to have been reflexive for all ten lepers healed by Jesus to offer their worship to Jesus. A Samaritan, considered by many of the time as the lowliest of the low, a “half-breed,” was the lone person who came and fell at Christ’s feet with effusive praise and heartfelt gratitude. While the other nine went about their lives, free from disease and glad for it, only one guy took the time to thank Jesus and give glory to God. 

The Samaritan leper alone gives thanks to Christ, by Unknown artist

Sometimes we need to be reminded that celebration is a spiritual practice. It’s important to celebrate Jesus and for the ways God has provided and blessed us. In Holy Scripture, it is often the homeless, the sick, the lowly, and the outsiders who lead the way and demonstrate what genuine praise and honest thanksgiving looks like.

We, the Church, who belong to God and possess the Spirit, are to always remember and be mindful of what we truly have in Jesus Christ:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7, NIV)

We, like King David of old, are to establish continual worship of God:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV

Our sacrifice as Christians is not with the blood of animals but with our lips and our lives:

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. (Hebrews 13:15, NIV)

And the worship service is eternal; it will never end:

And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying:

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
    the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
    and have begun to reign.” (Revelation 11:16-17, NIV)

Praising God and giving thanks to the Lord go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Since God created everything, and since Jesus has brought healing to us through the cross, every juicy morsel of goodness we have is to be received with the full cognizance that God is behind it all.

Our lives need to be punctuated with times of celebration, praise, gratitude, and even blowout parties. Otherwise, we become dull, boring, lifeless, and bereft of Christ’s lifeblood coursing through our spiritual veins. A joyous and raucous group of healed believers jabbering incessantly with thanksgiving of God’s goodness are winsome and peculiar (in a good way and not in the strange way of your weird uncle who wants the turkey neck to gnaw on at the Thanksgiving meal).

Seems to me that Christians really ought to be at the forefront of having maximum fun because we are forgiven people; we know and experience the presence of God; our lives are hidden with God in Christ; we are confident and can approach the throne of God with boldness; and we possess the power of the Spirit and the shepherding ministry of Jesus.

Remember to give thanks. Plan to praise – out loud and with others – for the God who stands behind every good gift of creation. Let thanksgiving (not complaint) shape your life. Be the person who comes back to Jesus and offers praise and gratitude – and see how such gratefulness and glory can change the world.

Gracious God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and steadfast love to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all praise you for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages and forevermore. Hallelujah! Amen!

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 – The Beauty in Brokenness

The Almighty God, the Lord, speaks;
    he calls to the whole earth from east to west.
God shines from Zion,
    the city perfect in its beauty.

Our God is coming, but not in silence;
    a raging fire is in front of him,
    a furious storm around him.
He calls heaven and earth as witnesses
    to see him judge his people.
He says, “Gather my faithful people to me,
    those who made a covenant with me by offering a sacrifice.”
The heavens proclaim that God is righteous,
    that he himself is judge.

“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
    I will testify against you, Israel.
    I am God, your God.
I do not reprimand you because of your sacrifices
    and the burnt offerings you always bring me….

“Listen to this, you that ignore me,
    or I will destroy you,
    and there will be no one to save you.
Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honors me,
    and I will surely save all who obey me.” (Good News Translation)

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

Ever since, the Lord has been on a mission, bending down, carefully looking for the broken shards, finding them, and picking them up. From east to west, God has been gathering together everyone on earth – the broken yet divinely lighted humans.

A major theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture is that God is reaching all kinds of people all over the world. Indeed, the Bible is a long unfolding drama of redemption in which the Lord does whatever it takes to restore a fundamentally broken world.

“Kintsugi” (literally, in English, “golden joinery”) is a centuries-old Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery with gold. Instead of rejoining broken ceramic pieces with a clear camouflaged adhesive, the kintsugi technique uses a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold. After restoration, beautiful seams of gold glint in the obvious cracks of the ceramic vessel. This also means that every restored ceramic piece has a unique appearance; no two of them are the same.

The Lord is presently in the divine workshop, putting broken shards of humanity together. And God isn’t trying to hide or disguise the cracks and flaws; it’s just the opposite: God celebrates the artifact by emphasizing it’s fractures and breaks. As it turns out, the restoration which the Lord employs brings the vessel to even greater beauty than it originally enjoyed. It’s the transformation of a new existence from the old.

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

Amidst the human pain all around us, and within us, we can observe the sacred light, and turn in the direction of beauty. We can hear the call of God to respond with gratitude and thanksgiving, instead of relying upon some physical or monetary sacrifice to suffice our spiritual obligations.

We are here to participate with God in redeeming that which is broken. The sacrificial activity that honors the Lord, and gathers the strewn shards, is a grateful heart with lips that speak thankfulness. Humanity can only see the power of God to save and restore, whenever us jars of clay practice gratitude and obedience to the Lord.

The world’s observation of a perfect vessel is not what draws anyone to faith. Rather, it is seeing an imperfect vessel, put together with a divine glue of gold, the cracks visible and showing for all to notice. Perfectionism is repellent to most folk; it smacks of others attempting to appear something they are not; it’s disingenuous and insincere.

Imperfection, however, speaks of being genuine and real; it brings solidarity with others; it relates and seeks to connect. Observing broken pieces put back together through God’s kintsugi communicates that suffering can be changed into beauty.

Today’s psalm is a reminder for us to stay optimistic when things fall apart and to celebrate the flaws and missteps of life. It teaches us that, when God breaks and destroys, this is not necessarily a mark of judgment. It lets us know that we can be calm when all falls apart. It reminds us that the fragility of humanity is not ugly but beautiful. It reminds us that amidst so much complexity, there is simple beauty all around us, if we will but seek and see.

In a world that has a hard time accepting all the breaks, scars, and imperfections of life, there is a God who is undisturbed by it all. The Lord gently, patiently, and skillfully puts us back together again so that a beautiful transformation of heart and life results.

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

Grant us, O God, not to be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly and, even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Christ our Lord, Amen.