Sermon: Grace-full Life: When God Comes Down
Scripture: Romans 8: 1-17
Date: October 15, 2017
Last week we began our church wide study of God’s Grace with a consideration of the prevenient grace of God. And I said that prevenient grace is the grace that calls us to come home – no matter where we’ve been hiding, no matter what we’ve been doing, no matter what we’ve become – because of God’s grace we can come home free and clear. Today, we are going to continue the discussion with what John Wesley, who was the founder of the Methodist movement in 17th century England, described as grace that justifies. You see Wesley believed that the Christian life is a journey. It begins when each one of us are born as children of God and so covered by the prevenient Grace of God. Wesley said it was the grace that goes before us in the world, prevents us from being totally hidden from God no matter what the world tries to cover us with, and ultimately calls us to God. We can not journey far enough to be separated from God’s grace working in us. But the Christian journey does not culminate when we hear and heed the call to come home. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that is just the beginning. Last week I talked a little about the story that Jesus told of the prodigal son who left his father’s home in search of that magic fruit which enticed Eve and Adam. And Jesus said that after a time of trying to hide away, the son decided it was time to emerge from his hiding place and turn for home. You see, it was the prevenient grace of God that called him home. But let me suggest that it was another manifestation of God’s grace, what Wesley called justifying grace, working in him that led him there. And it was that justifying grace that caused the father to receive him with out reservation or condition. But the boy’s journey did not end when his father met him on the road to welcome him home. To truly restore him to his rightful place, there was more work to do. If you are following along in your Bible, keep your finger in Romans 8, but turn for a moment to the 15th chapter of Luke. I really like the way that Jesus tells about the moment in the 18th verse when the son resolved to go home. Jesus says, “He got up and went to his father.” You see in telling this story, Jesus I think is assuming that there are those times when the world will knock us down. Life, and the bad choices that he had made, had knocked him down, and so to return home, it was not just a matter of reversing direction, but rather he needed to make the decision to pick himself up from wherever he had been hiding, and go home. There was no doubt the prodigal son had been knocked down and he could have chosen to stay down, wallowing in his misery, with the pigs, but Jesus says “He got up” It is that moment of decision for this young man. His life was being transformed by God’s grace. It is that moment when the prevenient grace of God becomes justifying grace and at long last, we get up and we head home. Some of you heard God calling you last week and you made that decision “to get up’, to emerge from your hiding places, and head home to where the father was not only waiting, but was searching. I think the implication that Jesus makes is that when his youngest son left, the father turned over the running of his estate to his oldest son, and then he spent his time gazing down the road, searching for his prodigal son. And wherever he traveled, he called out his son’s name, calling him home. And so finally, the boy, tired of running and hiding, “got up” and went home. Now Jesus tells us several things about this home coming that are essential in understanding this justifying grace of God. First, we need to know that for every disciple there is that moment when we must get up and turn for home. For some that moment comes when we, like the prodigal, have fallen as far as we can. The world has knocked us down. We have tried to hide as best we can. Wandered great distances. Engaged in a sinful life. We’ve been knocked down. And the grace of God compels us to get up and return to the Father.
And then secondly, Jesus tells us that when we do “get up” and head for home that the Father meets us where we are. Jesus says, when the boy was still far away, the father came to meet him. Because of His grace, our God meets us where we are. And no matter what we’ve done, He forgives us. Jesus justifies us before God so that He can lead us and welcome us home. We who are His Sons and Daughters are so important to Him that no matter what, He loves us with an unconditional love and meets us where ever we are. One preacher says this:
I learned the doctrine of justification from my favorite Sunday school story. I memorized this story through a song that to this day stands as perhaps my earliest Sunday school ditty. To this day I can think of nothing more beautiful in nature than a white sycamore against a blue sky because of this song. You know it:
Zaccheus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree
And he said, “Zaccheus, you COME DOWN, For I’m going to your house today.”
You see, the Zaccheus story hinges on two words, the words that Jesus spoke to Zaccheus: Come down.
There is no better encapsulation of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith than these two words: Come down. The Christian tradition is all about a God who is willing to COME DOWN.
Last week we thought about Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the garden. I wonder if even for a moment, God thought about putting an end to this human experiment right then. After all one of the first acts of humanity was an act of disobedience. Surely He must have known that He had created human beings with a propensity for sin and disobedience. But instead of starting all over, the story says that God “came down” and met Adam and Eve in the garden where they were. The grace that justifies meets us where we are. It is a grace that forgives. A grace that restores us to who we were created to be. Into our sinful life, God comes down. Through His grace, God comes down to meet us where we are and in spite of our unworthiness, leads us home. Justifying Grace offers forgiveness to each one of us no matter what we’ve done. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says it this way: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. And to the Romans, Paul writes: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If it were not for the justifying grace of God none of us would make it home. The prodigal says Father I have sinned against you and God. I am not worthy to come home. But it is grace that forgives and makes us worthy.
And then Justifying grace is a grace that restores us. The son in Jesus story does not come expecting to be treated like a son again. He had rejected his father and squandered away his birthright in worldly diversions. He did not deserve to be restored. All he was seeking really was survival. But what He experienced through the justifying Grace of God was restoration. While he was still far off, the father came down and met him where he was on the road. But that was only the beginning of the justifying grace of God beginning it’s work in his life. Because Jesus tells us that not only does the father “come down” to meet him where he is, but he also gave him three very specific gifts to recognize his forgiven and restored status which comes through this justifying grace of God. . The first gift was “the best robe”. Now most scholars identify this robe as in keeping with the custom of offering a fine robe to special guests. But that description doesn’t make sense to me because the father’s desire was clearly to show that as far as he was concerned, his son was not returning as a servant as the son had asked, or even as a special guest. The father’s purpose was to show that through grace his son had been restored to his rightful place in God’s home. The justifying grace of God restores us as the sons and daughters of God, no matter what. So let me suggest a different understanding of the robe. You see, in Christian tradition the words robe, and cloak and Shaw are used interchangeably to refer to the prayer garment that is presented to every Jewish male at the time of his Bar Mitzvah. It symbolized that from that time on the now Jewish man would live under the law. But when the son left the father’s house, he in essence was saying that he no longer intended to live under the law. So he had no doubt thrown off the prayer robe and left it behind. But the father had kept it, in the hope that his son would someday return and embrace God once more. Embrace his faith. And so when he did come home, the Father returned his robe to him, indeed the best robe, as a symbol of his intention to once again live in obedience to the laws of God and the restoration into the father’s home was nearly complete. The journey home is not just a physical journey, it’s a spiritual one. Remember when Jesus was crucified, the Roman Centurions divided his possessions equally among themselves. But the prayer cloak was all one piece and so rather than divide it equally, they cast lots for it. You see, I believe that when the winning Centurion put the cloak on, it opened him up to God’s justifying grace, and when Jesus said from the Cross, Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing, the Centurian believed He was speaking to Him and that he was the one whom the Gospels say that when Jesus died, he recognized Him for who He was and exclaimed: “Surely He was the Son of the Living God.” Only the grace of Christ on the cross could have opened his eyes to that. By offering his son the robe, he was offering restoration.
And then the second gift the father ordered was that a ring be brought and he placed it on his son’s finger. Now understand what this ring was. It would have been the signet ring which had on it the symbol of the father’s household. It served as the signature on any legal documents, wills, bills of sale, etc. So by replacing it on the son’s finger, the father was saying to all – this is my son and he speaks for me. You see he was telling the world that he had forgiven him for the bad choices he had made and restoring him to his rightful place as an heir to his estate. He was saying in essence, I trust my son with every thing I have. No wonder the older brother was so upset. In this 8th chapter of Romans, Paul may have this story in mind and the gift of the ring for the prodigal when he writes this: “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” The justifying grace of God makes us heirs and begins the process within us to make us Christ like. What a gift the ring is. It says that this is my son. This is my heir.
And then finally the father orders that the fatted calf be killed and that they have a great feast. Understand that one of the common signs of peace and reconciliation in Jesus’ day was the sharing of a meal together. Enemies would sit down and break bread and share the cup. The Passover meal was a meal of reconciliation, remembering the reconciliation of the Jews with their God after hundreds of years of separation. When Jesus offered the Disciples the bread and wine at the last supper, He knew that one was going to betray Him and the others would deny and desert Him, and that there would be times in the days ahead when all sons and daughters would deny and betray Him. So He offered this meal of reconciliation and said, every time you gather be reconciled to me through My justifying grace that comes to you through my sacrifice on the cross. And so, the final gift that the father gave the son was a feast of reconciliation and restoration. His homecoming was complete.
In this 8th Chapter of Romans, which many scholars say is the most important chapter in the Bible, Paul describes the justifying grace of God when he writes this:
The Holy Spirit does not merely change us, giving us a new nature and thus delivering us from our sinful former selves.
The Holy Spirit gives us a new standing before God! What a standing this is!
Before, we were slaves, wicked and condemned slaves at that. Now we have become God’s daughters and sons, by which we cry, “Abba! Father!” (8:15), and confidently present our deepest questions, sharpest hurts, foulest sins and most pressing needs to him. Because by going to the cross he took all of those on himself and offered His justifying grace in their place. That’s what He offers us today.
You see, it is the prevenient grace of God that goes with us, protecting us and preserving us in our wanderings, and calls us home, but it is the justifying grace of God that enables us to come home. That forgives us. And restores us. And reconciles us with the father and the family of God.
And then there is one more thing that we need to understand about this justifying grace of God and that is that justification is the work of God. We do not earn it or deserve it. In Jesus’ day the belief was that you could find justification in the law. If you brought the right sacrifice to the Temple and did all the right things to keep yourself spiritually clean then you could stand before God as worthy to be His son or daughter. But Jesus “came down” and said you can’t earn your salvation, that salvation comes through the grace of God and by going to the cross He showed us the way home. The way to forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration and finally salvation. So when we like the prodigal “come to our senses” and get up turn for home, it is His action on the cross that paves the way for us, leads us and ultimately welcomes us – home. And so Paul writes what I think may be the most reassuring words of the Bible:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
No condemnation, only forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation for those who are justified by grace through faith. For those who get up and head for home.