Monday, October 3, 2011
You know how it is that you can drive down the same street only to see something there that you had never seen before. In reading the Gospel lesson for today, our great temptation is to focus upon the outcomes of God's seeking: a servant beaten, another killed, another stone, and still more beaten, killed, and stoned, and the son whom they killed. It is easy then to preach caution against those who presume the kingdom and refuse to bear its fruit in their lives. Well, this time we will drive by and focus on another detail – the grace of God that keeps sending prophets and even the Son. This grace perseveres when reason and prudence would suggest, enough, already. But not the grace of God. It is mystifyingly persistent.
Why didn't God give up? His servants the prophets were rejected and beaten and killed. The final prophet John was refused and finally beheaded. But through it all God kept on sending. Finally He sent His one and only Son. Him they killed but still God did not give up. Raised from death, the voice of grace kept calling to sinners. God does not relent; He does not give up. His Word continues to speak, His voice continues to call to us, and His Spirit continues to work in and among and through us. Even when we reject Him, He keeps calling us. If His grace is so persistent, why do we give up on Him?
That is where the Gospel lesson for today intersects the Epistle. For St. Paul, this is not theory but the most practical thing of all. He writes as one whom the Lord should have written off but did not, turning an enemy of His grace into a spokesman for that grace. And because of the Gospel, St. Paul is willing to write off everything else – from the heights of glory to the worst loss and suffering he can endure. All so He might know Christ and the surpassing power of His resurrection, the persistent grace that kept Paul keeping on, straining forward, pressing on to the goal of the prize that is Christ. Grace becomes his one and only boast.
This is Paul getting personal. He should have had it all – a circumcised and observant Jew who delighted in the Law of the Lord. But he counts it as nothing. His righteousness was nothing and His pedigree counted for nothing – only Jesus Christ alone. The Gospel reached into the heart of Paul to remove him from the shakey foundation of works to the sure and solid footing of grace. Now, the only thing he is and the only thing he has to boast about is Jesus Christ and the persistent grace that sought and won him for the kingdom of God.
Now St. Paul is no superman. He admits to the struggle within him. He wants to parade his works in pride but he knows that his works do not commend him. He wants all the things that we want out of life yet he has learned that in order to have everything he must have Jesus Christ alone. He has lived in poverty and in abundance, in ease and in persecution, and he has found the only thing of worth or value is Jesus Christ and what His grace has won for him. Only in Christ is he rich and only in Christ is he the victor.
Because of that persistent grace that continued to work even when Paul was its enemy, now Paul has learned to persevere through the struggles of one called to proclaim that saving Word. Paul has learned to endure. Paul has learned to keep on keeping on. Paul has learned to strive not for his goals or his desires but for the surpassing goal of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection. It was grace that convinced his heart to fear – not reason or logic or fact or proof. Only grace. Only God's persistent grace.
Well, what about you? What do you see in the persistent grace of God? Why is it so easy for you to give up or to become bitter or to judge or to despair? Why is it so easy for forget about this persistent grace and remember every one of life’s disappointments, wounds, or sorrows? God’s persistent grace is the only real hand hold in life. This persistent grace that builds in us persistence, endurance, and patience. We have been sought and won over and over again and we have learned grace is enough.
We come here week after week confessing the same old tired sins – we are hardly creative in our wickedness but thoroughly predictable. You might think that God would get weary of hearing those same sins confessed and give up on us. You might think that God would simply say, “Enough, already!” But Jesus’ parable speaks of persistent grace, that knows and pays the cost of this persistence, and still goes forth calling sinners to repentance, the fallen to be restored, and the guilty to be released from their past.
Because of Christ, the terrible sins hidden in us have been dragged out of us, washed clean, and now we are free. Because of Christ, our track record of failure has been met and won with the victory Christ won for us. Because of Christ, we let go of any claims of righteousness or superiority in order to stand as equal sinners redeemed by equal grace. Because of Christ, we forget the hurts and wounds of others and are made whole by His healing love. Because of Christ, what was said or done to us and what we said or did to others no longer stands – only the cross, only the power of grace, only the relentless love that seeks us still.
Because of Christ, we are not overcome by the defeats handed to us by the world and our own failures and failings. Because of Christ, we press on toward the goal, striving for the prize that has our names upon it in Christ. Because of Christ the downward call of death, despair, and darkness are overcome by the upward call of life, hope, and light. Because of Christ we do not give up – not on God and not on God's cause – which is YOU and ME. This is no pep talk but the courage and confidence of a people who marvel at God’s persistent grace, His relentless love, and His refusal to let us alone in our sin and death.
God's perseverance is our power to persevere. God's own forgiveness is our power to forgive. God's own righteousness is our power to seek the good. God's own enduring love is the power of our love. His grace is relentless – in Christ. It is not that our troubles, trials, and temptations are not real. Of course they are real. But even more real and more powerful is the persistent and persevering grace of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord. If we are to endure, it is not our character that will sustain us but grace, pure and simple. Even when the prophet’s issued the call to judgment, it was the voice of God’s love calling. God just does not give up or change His mind or write us off. Even in a parable reminding a proud people of their refusal to repent, we hear the voice of love that will not let us go, headlong and head strung into death.
It is as if God is telling us: Don't tell me you cannot go on. Don't tell me you feel you are worthless. Don't tell me the hurt is too great. Don't tell me the sins are too bad or too big. Only a relentless love would keep sending the prophets when those prophets were rejected. Only persistent grace would deliver up His own Son for the sake of proud and self-righteous people. Despite rejection God did not give up – not then... not now... not on His people then... not on YOU now. His persistent grace refused to quit. Now St. Paul calls upon us to awaken to its power to persevere, to endure, to press on in faith, to obtain the prize Christ won for us. Do not be timid, Christians. Be strong in Christ and in the power of His persistent grace and relentless love. Amen