Lent 4 (B)
A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
The Fourth Sunday in Lent -- March 30, 2003
Text: Ephesians 2:8-10
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m going to make three claims about God right up front this morning, and they might be claims that seem odd or even sacrilegious at first. They certainly will rub up against what many folks will tell you about God, and yet, they are at the very heart of the Good News as today’s readings proclaim it. God’s Word often works against our common sense and our expectations, so let’s listen carefully and let it surprise us.
Now, then... What about those three claims? First of all, I’m here to tell you that God is unfair. There was never anyone less fair than the God we worship. And then, I want you to know that God is a lousy investor, the worst there ever was. Finally, you need to know that it is the best thing in the world for you that God is both completely crooked and a terrible investor. Now that I’ve got all that on the table, are you still with me?
Good. I don’t see anyone walking out of the church just yet, so I’m going to assume we’re still OK here. Since I’ve dug myself a good hole already, let’s see if the Word can help me preach my way out of it.
First of all, I’d like to talk about the fairness or unfairness of God. Back in Washington, my internship supervisor used to enjoy asking the confirmation kids what God was like. They gave all kinds of answers; good answers, too. Some kids liked to talk about how powerful God is, that he can do anything he sets his mind to. Others said God was eternal, that he has always been God, and that he always will be God. Some of the kids told Martin that God was everywhere, that there’s no place you can go to hide from him, but also that there’s nothing that can keep him from being there with you. Still others would say how much God knows—he knows everything, in fact! Martin would nod and acknowledge each kid’s contribution to the discussion, writing all of their descriptive words about God down on the white board.
Then he’d throw them a curveball. “What about fair?” he would ask them. “Is God fair, too?”
“Of course he is!” the kids would say, all at once. God is good, they told Martin, and how could that very essence of goodness not also be fair? Fairness and goodness go hand in hand.
And so Martin would ask them a few questions. Cain killed his brother Abel. That was the first murder in the world, but instead of killing Cain in revenge, God put a mark on him to protect him. Was that the fair thing to do? Absolutely not.
Jonah was a prophet, a man who spoke for God. The Ninevites were truly evil people who had done just about every wrong thing you can think of. When God told Jonah the prophet to preach to the Ninevites, Jonah wouldn’t do it, and he ran away. By turning tail and running off, Jonah openly defied God; didn’t he deserve to be punished? Even so, God brings him safely to Nineveh, rather than letting Jonah waste away in the belly of a fish. And when Jonah preaches to those Ninevites, they repent, and God decides not to destroy them after all. They’d done every bad deed in the book! Was it fair that they should go unpunished, just because they had a little change of heart at the eleventh hour? Not a chance.
Or consider Jesus. Here was a man who had truly done no wrong. Try as hard as you like, you wouldn’t be able to pin a single sin on him. And yet God allowed every last one of our sins to pin him to the cross, so that we might be forgiven. Is that fair? Not by a long shot. But it’s what we confess every Sunday.
“God is crookeder than a dog’s hind leg,” Martin concluded. Time and time again, God takes the fair thing to do and turns it on its ear. He gives love where punishment is earned, mercy where death is appropriate. God’s crookedness, you see, is always a very particular way of being unfair, and in the church we have a special name for it: grace.
Grace, by its very definition, is getting what you don’t deserve. The mom who hugs her little boy instead of spanking him when he knocks over her favorite lamp has just shown her son grace. The judge who reduces a teen’s sentence in the detention center, instead of throwing the book at the kid, in hope that he might learn and grow and be reformed…that judge has shown grace, too. And the wife who chooses to forgive her husband for getting carried away in his work and forgetting their anniversary, rather than to make him pay for it ever day for the next year—she’s showing grace toward her husband.
In each example, someone deserved some kind of punishment. But in each example, another person was unfair, and acted in love and kindness instead of in fairness. When you choose love and kindness over fairness, that’s called grace. And that’s how God has chosen to treat us.
You’ve maybe heard of “cheap grace,” but real grace is the most expensive thing you can imagine. When God chooses to treat us with love and kindness instead of exercising his divine right to judge us, he’s making a tremendous sacrifice. By doing so, God deliberately sets aside his right to press his case against us, and instead chooses to forgive us. God gives up any future right to accuse us or to remind us of our old sins; as far as the east is from the west, that’s how far he puts those sins away from us. He won’t bring them up ever again.
As if giving up that right isn’t a big enough cost, divine grace comes at an even higher price. In the end, forgiveness cost the life of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We don’t deserve God’s forgiveness, but he gives it to us anyway. Not a single thing we do can earn God’s love, but he pours it out on us freely because it pleases him to do so. In the end, even the faith we have in God is a gift inspired by the Holy Spirit and not something we can claim as our own work. We depend completely on God’s grace—on his unfairness toward us—and this is the best thing in the world for us.
I also accused God of being a lousy investor earlier. Let’s kick that one around a bit.
There are dozens of traits that go into making a person a good investor, but the most important is discernment. What I mean is, sometimes caution is required in investing, and sometimes daring maneuvers are just the ticket. A good investor can look at a situation and know whether to play it safe or to take a chance. When investing, you can’t just go and toss your money around willy-nilly and expect to get a great return. More likely, you’re going to lose your shirt.
God would never make it as an investor. He takes a chance on every last “investment opportunity” that comes his way. Every chance he gets to show grace to a sinner, God takes it. He doesn’t do some divine calculus to figure out if we’re worth the investment of his grace; there’s no heavenly credit bureau to determine whether we’re likely to amend our ways or whether we’ll keep on sinning and “default” on God’s gracious investment in us.
Instead of discerning when to be cautious and when to be bold, God takes a huge chance on each of us every day. Such is his love for us. God may know when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run…but he plays each of us as if we’re a royal flush every last time.
Doesn’t that open God up to all sorts of cheaters who will take advantage of his grace? You bet it does. But God loves those cheaters, too.
It reminds me of an old friend of mine. He’s had some interesting girlfriends in the past, and several of them have run into financial difficulties. These usually are of their own making. Still, when they come to him begging for help, my friend scrounges and cashes in favors, and always finds a way to come through for them. We both know he’ll probably never get back half of what he “invests” in them, but that’s not the point for him. He makes a lousy investment because it’s the gracious thing to do. His love for his friends makes him vulnerable that way, but I’m glad he is, just the same.
Our relationship with God is a lot like that. What seems to be frivolousness on God’s part is actually a priceless gift of grace. Paul tells us that God’s foolishness is wise beyond our own wisdom, and the Good News today is full of that foolishness.
Take joy in God’s foolish grace and careless investment in you. God surely does. May God’s grace turn your heart toward him today and bear unexpected fruit. Amen.