A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Luke 13:10-17 preached on August 21, 2016
Journalist and author Philip Yancey starts his book about the grace of God by sharing the story of a prostitute. She came to one of Yancey’s friends in a bad shape. She was homeless and sick, addicted to drugs, unable to afford food for her 2-year old daughter. Yancey’s friend said he had no idea what to do for her, no idea what to say.
Have you ever thought of going to a church for help?
Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!
A comment like that is a stunning indictment on the Church. When others look at us, they don’t see the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They see a finger pointed and wagging at them in judgment. They see a bunch of people who couldn’t care less about the down and out, because we’re too busy convincing ourselves of how much God loves us. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable like Jesus did, there are far too many churches that further afflict the already afflicted, and further comfort the already comfortable.
It’s fair to look at the Church and ask, “Where has God’s grace gone?” Haven’t we overlooked it and focused more on improving our own efforts to live upright and moral lives? When did the Christian faith get so tangled up in rules? When did we start thinking that our own efforts and upright behavior bring us closer to God, and that grace is only the backup system we’ll use if our good behavior isn’t enough to get us there? All this is to say that there are many Christian who know of grace but do not know grace. Who do not want to rely upon it. As C.S. Lewis has written,
To some of us grace is only a word; a nice idea, the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, or news from a country we have not yet visited.
Imagine what life was like for the woman in our story. For 18 years, she’s been hunched over, staring at the ground. Only able to look into the eyes of her son or daughter if they were kind enough to crouch down to her level or if she strained her neck upwards to meet their gaze. But most of the time she stared down at her own feet. Bent over—living on a lower level than anyone else around her. Everyone in her town knew of her, but because they never could see her eyes, what her face looked like, her smile, she quickly became invisible to them. And nobody ever looks in the direction of an invisible person.
For 18 years, her body has been tangled up and twisted in a knot—that’s at least what it felt like to her, and the words “crooked,” “crippled,” and “contorted” don’t just describe what her body felt like; they were also good words to describe how everybody else regarded her. And after almost 2 decades of that, it’s not hard to imagine how she began to regard herself the same way. As hard as it was to walk around in public this way, she braved the journey anyhow. It was the Sabbath, and she made her way slowly but surely to the Temple for worship. “Church!” We can imagine her crying, “Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!” But she went anyway. That day, she hobbled into the Temple just as she did thousands of times before. And as she made her way into the crowd gathered there on that Sabbath day, there was a man teaching whom she had never seen before. Little did she know, she had staggered her way into the very presence of God.
In the BBC movie, The Mission, Robert De Niro’s character, a mercenary and slave-catcher named Rodrigo Mendoza, makes his living kidnapping natives of the Guarani and other tribes who live along the Amazon River in South America in the 1750’s. Mendoza takes those he’s kidnapped to Spain and sells them to plantation owners. Mendoza comes home from one of these trips to find a man in bed with his fiancée, and kills him. Although acquitted for the murder, during the time Mendoza spends in prison, all the weight of his murderous ways catches up to him and he spirals into a deep despair. The only way Mendoza can see his way out of the darkness of his past is by changing his ways. A priest, whose name is Father Gabriel, visits Mendoza in prison and challenges him to undertake a suitable penance—a punishment to atone for his past. Father Gabriel takes Mendoza out to the Guarani tribe, the very tribe whom he killed and maimed and captured his last slaves from. But this time Mendoza would go the them as a missionary—to live life with them, to share meals with them, to understand their culture.
As a part of his penance, Mendoza has to make the long journey by boat and by foot carrying all of his old armor, artillery, and swords. He carries them in a net he drags behind him, the weight of it tied around his waist. He drags it up the side of huge waterfalls, literally bearing the heaviness of his past behind him with each and every step upwards. Mendoza does this for the 100’s of miles of their journey through the Amazon rainforests.
In a poignant scene in the movie, as the missionary team make their way into the territory of the Guarani tribe. They had just climbed up the rocks of a waterfall, and they are met by some of the tribes’ elders. Mendoza slowly hoists his way up onto dry ground, his net full of his past hanging over the side behind him. He recognizes the very natives whose family members he had stolen away from them.
One of the elders of the tribe comes up to Mendoza, who’s curled up on the ground in exhaustion. He holds a machete up to Mendoza—but instead of cutting him with it, the elder takes the rope tied around Mendoza’s waist, and slices through it, freeing Mendoza once and for all from the weight and burden he had been lugging around for all these miles and all these years. And once freed from that heaviness, Mendoza begins to weep.
Friends, that’s grace.
Both Rodrigo Mendoza and the woman in our story from Luke 13 would tell you that grace is that amazing gift of having all of the weight of our own past—all that we’ve been dragging behind us for years and years, for miles and miles—suddenly cut away from us, and dropped for good. They and thousands of others like them would tell you from their own experience that God’s grace is that straightening of all that once bent us over or dragged along with us, so that we can be freed to walk forward, loosed from bondage, made it a new person—no more burdens crippling our journey.
I wonder what the woman saw once Jesus placed His hands upon her back. It was at that moment that she could straighten up. Consider how her entire perspective changed. What did her first few breaths feel like now that her lungs could fully expand in her chest? For the first time in almost two decades, she could look straight into the eyes of a friend. She could hug her husband and her children. Imagine her staring up into the sky, taking in the clouds. Feeling the rain fall upon her face. Untangled, finally, standing tall and facing the world directly, this woman took the world in and enjoy it!
I wonder, though, who are the ones in bondage here? Whose sight was really obscured? Wasn’t it really the Pharisees who are the ones bent out of shape? Weren’t they the ones unable to recognize Jesus for who he is? The ones unable to see what’s happening right in front of them?
The Pharisees had no notion of grace. According to them, God’s favor was all tangled up with their own efforts to make good with God. The way they saw it, it was up to them to impress God. Climb your way up the waterfall all on your own and God will notice how great you are and will reward you in spades for all the back-breaking work you do! The Pharisees thought holiness is what happens when you put rules of purity and goodness at the center. Jesus’ idea of holiness is what happens when God’s mercy comes first.
Lest we think it’s those other people, like the Pharisees, who don’t understand grace, we need to turn our gaze inward and pay attention to our own tendencies. We get tangled up in this, too.
Today, it’s something called moralism that trips us up. Moralism is the notion—all too pervasive these days—that good Christian faith can be reduced to improvements in our behavior. Moralism says that God will love us if we behave, act right, and shape up. It’s the rigid obedience to rules that says above all else, our faith is about moral instruction and moral obedience, and as long as way behave, follow all the rules, we stay on God’s good side. Straighten up, fly right, be nice, and God will love and reward you for it.
We find this message in churches, we hear it in political rhetoric, on the radio, in advice columns of our newspapers. Moralism is so pervasive today that most people who call themselves Christian are actually moralists. We’ve traded in our Gospel faith for a lesser model. The apostle Paul said to the Christians in Galatia that He was amazed that they were so quickly deserting the God who called you by the grace of Christ for a different and lesser gospel. Moralism is one of those different and lesser Gospels. We should know by now, through Gospel stories like this one, that rigid obedience to rules blind us to God’s reign in the world.
Moralism isn’t Gospel; it’s just a new sort of Pharisaism; just another tangled mess of our own making that has us convinced that God is happy with us when we do all the right things. And it makes a mockery of the grace-filled message of Jesus Christ. God loves us not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ.
It is only when we know—profoundly and deeply know—that the grace that God has brought to us is far more powerful than anything we could ever bring to God, that we can stand up straight in God’s presence, be unbound, untangled, and freed to celebrate all the extraordinary ways that Christ is moving in our midst and setting us free to live full lives!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!