16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus arrives on the scene, after being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days, and here, at the start of his ministry, he proclaims exactly what he was sent to do. Freedom? Is that what you think of first when you think about religion, about church, about the God you learned about in Sunday School, or Catholic school or even, if you weren’t raised Christian, is this what you think of when you hear people talking about evangelism? A quick surf around the ‘net will tell you it’s the opposite of what most people think about in reference to religion. Most equate religion with the bringing of oppression, the enforcement of rules and a loss of freedom.
This is not the God I always heard about from the beginning of my life. Oh, he was there in brief and fleeting glimpses, in Mom’s smile and unselfish love, in a Sunday School teacher’s kindness and the comfort of early morning prayers. But, sometimes between the fiery sermons and the faded flannel graphs of Jesus holding baby lambs, He got confusing. Was he the angry man in the sky or the gentle shepherd? He sure did seem to have a lot of rules about how we dressed, yet Mom insisted God judges the heart, not the appearance, while others seemed to think you could tell who was in or out by how long their skirts or sleeves were. And Chapel at school was certainly confusing. All Rock music was bad, along with all movies and T.V. And most of the time, it did seem that God was all about rules. Maybe he only died for those who kept them all perfectly all the time? But weren’t snide comments and gossip by the Christian kids at school sins, also? I was the quiet one who observed and learned from people’s behavior, that things aren’t always what they seem.
Many years later, as an adult, I heard a radio preacher winding up to deliver his killer pitch, and at the height of the tale was Rebel Joe, of course. I knew Rebel Joe well, and when Radio preacher spun his tale of Joe roaring by the revival meeting on his motor bike, I couldn’t help but laugh, and say to myself:
“It’s either going to be a telephone pole or a tree.” I knew he would hit one or the other, and his young life would end, because I knew the story by heart from hearing it repeated in Chapel service. The preacher who had Rebel Joe get decapitated gets extra points for creativity and creating fear induced altar runs. Wait, didn’t some of these kids get saved last week, too? I sat still and wondered if I was Rebel Joe.
The stories that frightened the others only hardened me against the God I thought was real. The one who apparently said we all had to wear our hair the same and dress alike and listen to the same music. It wasn’t that I had a problem with hell and certainty not that I doubted Jesus was real. I had felt the Holy Spirit’s call many times, and not all the preachers were scary, some did emphasize a Savior of love. The roadblock in my mind was what I thought God was out to do. To take my fun away, then wait for me to mess up so he could disown me. Perfection wasn’t possible, and I think even then, I knew by observation that those who claimed perfection didn’t possess it. So, what chance did any of us really have to escape the pit?
Somewhere along the way, I got tired of myself. God didn’t beat me up, he just waited for me to get worn down. God, I found, was no respecter of persons or preachers. The Holy Spirit was sneaky and would arrive at the scene when I least expected him to. He didn’t need fiery altar calls, he only needed to show me how miserable I was left to my own selfish whims.
But, as a believer, I still struggled with the belief that one sin could damn me at any moment. How do you get through the week, or even through the day without thinking one wrong thought, and instantly falling from grace? Even if an angry thought didn’t qualify, maybe I was just a little disobedient to my parents, or maybe it was a lustful look. My sins didn’t seem all that big, I mean, no fornication, no murders or stealing, but they were certainly real, nonetheless.
I really think it did take quite a few years to understand that God wasn’t out to get me. I remember I was writing a news letter for the Wesleyan church we were going to many years later and the piece started “ I thought God was out to get me.” then went on the portray God’s grace as being far more forgiving then I’d thought at one time. Surprisingly, they published it.
From where I stand now, let me just put it this way: I have resonated a lot more with the “Ragamuffin Gospel” ( by Brennan Manning) then with Francis Chan’s “Crazy love” I didn’t understand why at the time, but, although “Crazy love” is a good book in a lot of ways, it comes from a perspective of : if you aren’t a super Christian, you’re not a Christian. In other words, it’s a very works based view, which always ends up with Christians judging who is worthy or not based on what they are seen to be doing for God. What is the entrance fee for salvation? “Believe on the Lord and you will be saved.” I know, it can’t be that simple, right? Don’t worry, if it’s real, you will do works for God. They might be stumbling and awkward and may look small, or they may be huge and world changing to others eyes. But, they will be done from love, not fear.
Listen, if you think you’ve reached perfection, you haven’t. How do I know? Because if you had, you wouldn’t even be thinking about yourself, for one thing. Sorry if this offends anyone, but yes, saints still do sin. Jesus spoke of the Pharisees putting heavy weights on people, trying to make them live by extreme laws, and many of us have felt that weight, under certain versions of Lordship salvation. If you could get to heaven by doing perfect works, heaven would be empty, because only Jesus ever lived up to that standard. And let me just acknowledge that Churches can be confusing, especially if you’ve spent any time at all as a church hopper. You find out very quickly that the emphasis between radical grace and radical service varies widely from one congregation to the next, and yet, they all read the same Book.
And you might even start asking how this is possible, that we get such different views from the same source. Is God really the God of the lifelong alcoholic who still holds onto his faith, or is he the God of only the radical Christian who gives all he has to the poor, and lives in rags? Is Mother Teresa more saved than the person who constantly falls back into sin and constantly confesses? Hopefully we all want our kids lives to look more like Franchis Chan’s picture of radical service then Manning’s pitiful alcoholism. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that entrance to the kingdom is not based on how much tithe you put in the offering plate or how often you evangelize. Perhaps it would be good to just admit right here, that the lives of most believers fall somewhere in the middle. When Manning says that God loves you as you are and not as you should be, we feel relieved, because we know that’s us. When Chan chastises us for not stepping out of our comfort zone and giving more to the cause, we know he’s right, and we at least dig deeper in our wallet next Sunday. Are we lukewarm at times? You bet. Do we really love Jesus? You bet. Because that love is based on his love for us, not our performance for him. We are all of us, bundles of paradoxes wrapped in contradictions, committed Christians one day and moody doubters the next. And I remember my Uncle Andy, a Methodist pastor saying something similar and then adding. “That’s ok, if we admit it.” I remember being rather stunned by that simple admission. That’s not an exact quote, it’s been a lot of years gone by. And perhaps things are different now. If there’s one thing we’ve gotten a bit better at in the Church community, it’s admitting we are not perfect people, and allowing broken people in without asking them to fix themselves first.
This might seem like a strange place to quote Paul Simon, instead of say, the Apostle Paul, but the metophor fits: “I have reason to believe we all may be received in graceland.” and the Apostle Paul confirms that we all may be received:
You can’t earn your way in, you can only accept the gift. You can’t clean yourself up enough to be worthy. The Prodigal son still smelled like pig manure when the Father embraced him and welcomed him home.
When writing these things, I usually know what they are about long before I know what they are for. In this case, I thought I was writing about my life, when really it was all for a different purpose. No, not to say you should be a lukewarm believer or that you shouldn’t do good works, but to say, ok, you’ve messed up a lot, you’ve been the sloth or the prodigal, but don’t think you are disqualified and kicked out because of all your past screw ups. And don’t think you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be better, either. Only God can make you better, so you do what the prodigal did and fall on his grace.
One of Satan’s favorite tricks is to tell people we aren’t good enough for God to love us . And it works, because it’s true that we aren’t good enough, and there is something in the natural man that tells him that he has to earn his way into God’s grace. Look at just about any other religion and you can see this clearly. It’s all about saying your prayers often enough, and doing enough good stuff that God might take notice and allow you to meet him. Grace turns all that upside down.
James is known as the a book about doing good deeds. In fact, some will say that Paul and James were at odds as to how salvation is earned, because James emphasized deeds and Paul emphasized faith. But, listen to what James says:
8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”a you are doing right. 9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”b also said, “You shall not murder.”c If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2)
We all know about the Ten Commandments, but maybe you didn’t know that there were a lot more than ten. Actually, there are 613 commandments in Jewish law. In case you want to take a look and see which ones you are currently breaking: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/756399/jewish/The-613-Commandments.htm
And James said if you break one, you’ve broken all. He wasn’t saying don’t even try to do good, just the opposite, but it’s quite obvious that no one has ever earned heaven by keeping all of the law.
Paul puts it this way in Galatians 2:
15“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith ind Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
19“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”e
That’s a pretty strong statement. But he gets even more emphatic about it in the next chapter:
10For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”e 11Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”f 12The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”g 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”h 14He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
If you rely on the law to save you, you’re under a curse? What’s he saying? Christ took the curse of the law on himself. Paul says elsewhere that if you rely on the law to save you, Christ will be of no use to you.
1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
I’m not going to copy the whole book here, but you should read it for yourself, if you’re stuck on trying to earn your way into God’s grace. It can’t be done. And if you think it can, if you live like it will, you will move away from Christ, not towards him. It doesn’t matter if you wear all the right clothes and say all the right religious stuff and refrain from dancing and bacon. None of that earns you any points with God, because God is concerned about your heart. If you think you’ve sinned too much or strayed too far for God to want you, let me assure you, you haven’t. If you had, you wouldn’t care at all about God. There are people in that state, who have seared their conscience and feel no guilt for their sins. But as long as you are awake enough to feel remorse, you can and should also feel hope, because God’s grace is still there waiting for you to receive it.
7“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
The old law was a long list of rules. The new law is love.
1John 2:1My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
When you fail even in that, and you will, you can rest assured that confession will result in forgiveness. Every time. So, live in the freedom of love, not the in the bondage of useless laws.
Shalom, peace to you.