In the second half of the 1800s, Presbyterian teacher, author, and musician, Julia H. Johnston, sat down to pen a hymn that would explain the Grace the the Apostle Paul preached to the Churches at Roman, the words became the lyrics for Grace Greater than our Sin:
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt! Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, There, where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.
Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that will pardon and cleanse within; Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that is greater than all our sin!Julia H. Johnston
In proclaiming Christ, John said:
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.john 1:15
Grace is a difficult concept to explain no matter who you are speaking with. The apostle Paul found this to be true as he attempted to teach the concept to the churches at Rome.
Paul was writing to churches that consisted mostly of Jewish believers but a growing group of gentiles (non Jewish believers as well. It was a difficult concept – receiving something for nothing. It was especially difficult when the learners are accustom to a religousity that sets up many dos and don’t, as well as many gos and don’t gos. He started was our human condition – using references from the teachings that the Jews would have grown up with:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”Romans 3:9b-12
And then Paul expands.
‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;
it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the lawRomans 3:19-26, 31
Understand? Everything crystal clear?
Don’t worry it it is all still a little fuzzy, or even hugely fuzzy. It was fuzzy to most of those hearing Paul’s words as well.
Paul, recognized the existing fuzziness, so he illustrated by painting a word picture that most, could identify with. Ironically, it is an explanatory picture that is possibly even more understandable, and relatable, today.
Paul took the listeners, and he takes us, back to a common figure – Abraham.
Abraham, given the label ‘Father of Our Faith’ by the three major world religions is a difficult individual. Let’s face it, the man used his wife, twice, as a human shield to protect himself. He gave her away so that his life would be spared. How is there anything redemptive in a person that would disregard his wife in such a calculated manner.
And, to make this matter more NOT understandable, he is rewarded for doing this – receiving riches from a ruler!
I have to be honest, I spent a lot of time this week trying to redeem the man Abraham, to no avail.
It finally occurred to me, the story of Abraham, is not a story of a saint, it is not the story of a near saint, it is a story of a man who needed a lot, I mean a lot, of grace. It is a story that allows us to see the what grace is and what grace does.
The one thing about Abraham, the thing that puts him into this story, is that he is a man who often sincerely said:
‘Here I am.’
(or at least of verbal or action form of ‘okay’)
That is all that grace needs, ‘Here I am,’ and ‘Okay.’ These are two powerful statement. “I Am Here’ the opposite of what Adam and Eve said when they hid from God in the garden; the same as what Isaiah said when God called him to be a prophet. It is a statement of vulnerability. ‘I Am Here’ just ‘Here’ no where great, and ‘I Am Not Perfect’ but ‘I Am Here.’
It is then, that grace, met by his willingness to say ‘okay’, that God moves him from our ‘Here’ through his own resistance to go to God’s ‘Far Away.’
Grace is not necessary to people who are Saints, it is not needed by perfect people, it is of no consequences to those people who are self sufficient, it is wasted on those who can go through life with a single minded focus that never sways away from God.
In reality, the raw reality where we all live, none of those people exist, so grace is always needed, always available, and is always the balm that heals our soul.
So, let’s reintroduce ourselves to Abraham:
He gave his wife away to protect himself…..twice.
He owned people, he had slaves.
He would have definitely have been a target of today’s ‘Me Too’ movement.
He quickly accepted his wife’s hall pass to sleep with another woman.
He sent that ‘other’ woman, and their son, out, surely, to their death.
And, that is just some of what is documented, his first seventy-five years are a mystery.
When his deceased brother’s son needed a new dad, Abraham said, ‘I Am Here’.
When God told him to pack up his family and possessions he said, ‘Okay’.
When God made a ridiculous promise that, in no way, was possible, he said, ‘Okay.’
When he needed to put his own life on the line and risk everything he had to save his nephew, he said, ‘Okay.’
When his son, Isaac said, ‘Dad?’ Abraham said, ‘I Am Here.’
The good does not outweigh the bad by any means. That is why Abraham gives us the perfect understanding of grace, the grace that he needed, the grace that we need.
The promise from God was made to him that he would be the father of many people and many nations even though his wife was barren and considered too old for pregnancy; He was promised to have a land, even though he was a nomad; He was promised to be a blessing to all, even though his own house was dysfunctional.
Like most of us, Abraham had his safety net, his backups in the case God needed help with his plan. He had his long time beloved servant Eliezar – Eliezar could be the heir to Abraham, he could birth many people and ultimately a nation – but God said ‘no’. He still have his loved nephew Lot, but then Lot left, he wasn’t really interested, he had other plans.
It was at this point that Abraham began to be stressed and distressed. His back up plans had been rejected or they had withdrawn from being a option.
In the midst of Abraham’s depression, God showed up. The promise still held, even without Eliezar and Lot. Only this time, God specified that the son would be a biological son of Abraham.
Abraham said ‘Okay’. It was crazy, it was impossible, it wasn’t going to happen, but Abraham said ‘Okay.’
Now notice, Abraham says ‘okay’ but we are still not to a perfect, saintly Abraham. But, even with what takes place next, God still credits Abraham’s heart felt, and sincere, ‘Okay’ as righteous.
Promise is repeated, grace is extended, that is what grace is, it is not about our actions, it a gift that we don’t deserve. God received a sincere heart ‘Okay’ from Abraham, grace was offered, grace was given. Even while Abraham was still painfully imperfect. Grace Goes Before Us
Then, there seemed a loophole had been exposed, it seemed that there was a back up plan that Abraham was unaware of.
The servant of his wife, she could be the biological mother and Abraham could be the biological father! It was genius. And, the best part of this brilliant plan was that it was first suggested by his wife Sarah. How could this fail?!
So he agreed, Sarah agreed, and, of course, the servant Hagar didn’t have to agree. It would work, and it did work, Hagar had a son by Abraham who was named Ishmael.
But that wasn’t God’s plan.
‘Sarah will be the biological mother of the Son that you have been promised,’ God said.
Then Abraham swallowed hard, and Sarah laughed.
Abraham didn’t say much – after all, he did still have a back up – there was his son Ishmael outside playing.
But then, Sarah, probably due to the double rejection by Abraham, not to mention how quickly he had a baby with Hagar, Sarah became jealous. Hagar and their son Ishmael were sent away.
Now, no Son, and no back up plan. No safety net.
But then, as Abraham is without a back up plan, and Sarah apparently is without a viable womb – Sarah birthed a son. To everyone around it was a miracle, a crazy miracle. The kind of miracle you read about in the line to pay for your groceries.
To God – it was his plan. It was the most basic requirement of his promise. A Son.
Abraham and Sarah now have a son. Neither needs a back up plan or a safety net, they are the biological parents of this promised son.
There is one more thing, and this thing is about Abraham. It is a necessity for Abraham.
It was time for Abraham to grow into God’s grace. It was time for him to be a man of Faith and to live a life of faith.
God called on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac
Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, was fascinated with the story, and person, of Abraham. In 1843, under a pseudonym, Kierkegaard wrote a book titled Fear and Trembling based on Philippians 2:12, ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’. He focused on the inter anxiety, and turmoil, that Abraham must have experienced as he said “okay’ to God’s call to sacrifice the only son he had left and the son that he so deeply loved.
Kierkegaard, in this book which many thought was an autobiographical account of his own faith, developed the concept of ‘Infinite Resignation,’ which, he says, is the final element in the process of ‘working out your salvation.’ It is the giving up your backup, the one thing that you have held back from God, the one thing that you are unable to surrender to God, the one thing that you withhold from God, the one thing with which you are unable to fully trust God.
“I am here.’a conversation between God and Abraham
God knew it was time for Abraham to move from here to ‘work out his Salvation with fear and trembling.’ He told Abraham that he was to offer his only son, the son that he loved, as a burnt offering, a sacrifice.
We don’t hear Abraham say, ‘okay’, but he did obey. He got up early and headed to the place, with Isaac, that God would show him.
On the way, as they stopped to prepare, Abraham looked, far away to where he was to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. It was far away. Far away from Sarah, far away from home, far away from him. There was no way he was going to get there. However, he still said, ‘Okay.’
‘I Am Here Son.’
‘What will we Sacrifice?’a conversation between Isaac and Abraham
It was a long journey, far away always is. The two must have talked about everything, everything except the sacrifice. That was a personal journey for Abraham, Sarah nor Eliezar could share it, Isaac definitely couldn’t. It was a lonely journey to ‘far away.’
Abraham was ‘working out his salvation’ as he traveled far away, he separated God’s promise and God’s provision. He asked himself if he trusted God enough, did he have faith enough to trust the promise and surrender the provision?
According to Kierkegaard, ’Infinite Resignation is the last stage before faith, so any who one has not made this movement does not have a full faith, for only in Infinite Resignation does an individual become conscious of his external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.’.
Simply put, one must give up all of his, or her, earthly possessions and must also be willing to give up whatever else it is that he, or she, loves more than God.
Abraham received God’s grace when he said ‘I am here,’ as well as when he said, ‘Okay,’ to God. He received ‘Grace upon Grace. It was then that he began his journey of faith, a faith that would carry him through life. Grace was given long before he reached the point of surrendering everything.
It was then, at the mental surrender, he was truly a man of faith, it was then that the world could look at him at the Father of Our Faith.
As Abraham was about to plunge the knife into the body of his dear son, an angel cried out, ‘ABRAHAM!’
‘I Am Here’an urgent conversation between angel and Abraham
Abraham, far away at a place that he never wanted to go to, held the knife steady and said, ‘I Am Here.’
Sure, we know that this was a test from God. Isaac was never going to die. Abraham probably considered the possibility as well, but to even go through the motions, he had to ask the question, ‘Is this for real?’ He had to make the decision the sacrifice would be offered.
In offering his son, Abraham made the sacrifice. He was now living by faith in God.
The comparison with God’s giving of His son are there, the painful resignation to surrender that which is most valuable is obvious.
We, however, have much to surrender. All of us, if we have said “I Am Here’ and ‘Okay’ are on a far away journey. We are called to a sacrifice, God is showing us the way. Not only those things that we hold dear, but also those we hold dear. We have been asked to isolate at home and, when we are out, to wear a mask for the health of others. It was just a preparatory sacrifice as God, now asks us to sacrifice our long held prejudices and judgements. Our own way of looking at others, especially those who are different from us and that we do not understand. We are being called to take the initiative, to not only understand, but to love beyond words. To become uncomfortable with the status quo of our faith in this current reality, to become unsettled with the contradictions seen in our faith and in the reality of the world – to see the disconnect between the life of Christ then and the life of believers now.
This turmoil that we are in, in a world that cannot control the disease and the disgruntled protests in the street – It is All Part of God Moving Us Far Away – to a place of Sacrifice.
It all seems very far away. But God’s grace took him there. This was not something great historically about Abraham, we see little else about him after this story. But, the life he now lived was fully, and completely lived in faith.
This far away faith journey was for him, it is what Christ meant when he said ‘I came so that you may have life, and have it abundantly!’
God is calling us, are we ready to say, ‘Here I Am’?