A truly amazing grace

Here is my sermon that will be delivered today. It is what has detracted me from my blogging all week. I guess it is true what I said somewhere on the internet at sometime. Ministers save up all of their blogging, iron it out, and deliver it on one day.


Good morning.

This week I lived out a strange conviction that I’ve had for the last few months. I just kept putting it off and off. You probably know how that is. Lindsay and I don’t really have the extra money to pay the consequences for what I had done, so I was always a little hesitant to fess up in case they would be harsh with me. But Tuesday I worked up enough courage, finally did it, and cleared my conscience.

Let me take you back in time.

It was a dark, muggy, summer night, just right for stealing a stop sign. I always seemed to have friends staying the night during my teenage years, and this night was no exception. We seemed to have been a little extra ornery that night. There was a stop sign on a side road about a block from my house that had been knocked down. We came up with a plan to steal it and put it in our clubhouse in the attic. One of my friends with a ratchet went away to do the deed. I sat back and watched television with my other friends. Twenty minutes later, although it seemed like an eternity, my friend arrived back at the house with a stop sign in hand.

It was a decoration that brought us pride whenever we played cards in the clubhouse, but that is all it ever did during those teenage years. Then we stopped using the clubhouse. The stop sign sat there gathering layer upon layer of dust. It became a worthless relic of the beginning of a period of sin in my life. I guess I should've paid more attention to the words on the sign.

Tuesday, I called the police and asked them if I could return a stop sign I had stolen 14 years ago. I was told to call them before dropping it off to make sure someone would be at the police station when I returned it. I was hoping they wouldn't fine me or anything. If they did, I deserved it.

I woke up early Wednesday. It was a perfect morning. The stars were shining bright. The cool air filled my lungs. My dog hopped in the back seat of my car and we drove over to my parent’s house. I climbed the stairs up to the old clubhouse in the attic. My dog following me every step of the way. The clubhouse had been turned into a storage room. The stop sign had been entrapped by boxes. I pulled it out and carried it downstairs. I got out some paper towels and cleaned it. I figured it was clean when I originally stole it, and I was always taught that we should return things the way we got them.

Then I called the police again. The policeman on duty told me that he wouldn't be there and that I should just leave the sign in the hallway outside their offices. I was relieved and said okay. My dog and I hopped into the car and drove down to the police station with the stop sign, which was shining like the day it was stolen. Although it was dark outside, the lights surrounding the police station were luminating. There wasn't a shadow to hide in as I pulled the stop sign out of my back seat, walked across the road, and opened the screen door to the police station. I laid it there gently against the wall and proceeded back to the car. It looks like I won't have to pay any fine after all, but they do have my name.

Please turn with me if you have your Bibles to the first chapter of Isaiah.

Isaiah seemed to be mainly in the business of stop signs. He was trying to put up all the stop signs that the nations of Israel and Judah had torn down. Israel wouldn’t have to be destroyed if they would pay attention to the stop signs that said turn back and follow God. Isaiah was trying to get the people who claimed to be the people of God to actually step up and be the people of God.

And true, when we read the Old Testament and books like this we sometimes think this doesn’t apply to us. These passages are from the old covenant. We don’t have sacrifices anymore. But the underlying principles still apply to each one of us here today.

<>(Isa 1:11-15 NASB) ""What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?" Says the LORD. "I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, And the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats. {12} "When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? {13} "Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies-- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. {14} "I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me. I am weary of bearing them. {15} "So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you, Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood."

Isaiah is pretty harsh. These people had enough of a “relationship” with God to go through all of the motions of following Him, but that was not enough. If the people of Israel would not get rid of the sin in their life, Isaiah says that there worship and prayers would not be heard. That’s harsh, but true. Even true to us. If we are not right with God, all of our acts of worship – whether it be prayer, Bible study, singing songs like we did this morning – all of our acts of worship are meaningless. They’re even one step worse than meaningless – they’re displeasing to God.

Isaiah isn’t alone in saying this. This isn’t just one case in Scripture that we can somehow justify away and disregard. It is throughout the Scriptures. Take Amos for example.

Amos 5:21-23 reads, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

Thursday on my way home from work, I noticed that my wedding ring was gone. I’ve lost 40 pounds since we’ve moved down here and haven’t had my ring resized during that whole time, so it was beginning to fall of easily. But when I noticed that it wasn’t there I freaked out. I looked around my car. I felt around my car. I looked around and felt around some more. It was nowhere to be found. I was frantic.

Then it hit me because I had been thinking about this sermon all week. A wedding ring is like our songs. It is like our prayers or bible study time. Those are signs that I have a relationship with God just like my wedding ring is a sign to everyone that I have a relationship with my wife. If my wedding ring falls off, it doesn’t mean I’m no longer married. My marriage to my wife is a state of my heart. Many people can wear wedding rings and not be married in their heart. Just like many can do the outward signs of faith and not really mean it with their heart.

You’ve probably seen Road Runner cartoons where Wile Coyote turns a road sign so the directions are pointing the wrong way. It used to say the town was over there and the cliff over here, but with a little spin, the cliff is now over there and the town over here. But just because the sign says that is the way it is, doesn’t really make it so. Signs can lie.

When we adorn ourselves with the outward signs without practicing the inward state, we are only fooling ourselves. God is not impressed. He even goes so far as to say that he despises it. The outward actions of religion don’t cover over our sins. Just because we get up every morning, if you’re one of the few who do this, and read our Bibles doesn’t mean we’re right with God. Just because we’re here on Sundays, doesn’t mean we’re right with God.

What makes us right with God?

Isaiah goes on in verses 16-17.

(Isa 1:16-17 NASB) ""Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, {17} Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless; Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow."

Isaiah says to make ourselves clean. We need to cease to do evil, but it doesn’t just stop there. Too often Christians think they are right with God if they refrain from doing wrongs or if they go through the rituals of a personal spiritual life – prayer, Bible study, and singing. Isaiah and the rest of Scripture takes it a step further. We need to refrain from doing wrongs, but we also need to learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Jesus shares a similar scary passage.

Matthew 25:31-45 reads…

(Mat 25:31-46 NASB) ""But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. {32} "And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; {33} and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. {34} "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. {35} 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; {36} naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' {37} "Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? {38} 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? {39} 'And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' {40} "And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' {41} "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; {42} for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; {43} I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' {44} "Then they themselves also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' {45} "Then He will answer them, saying, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' {46} "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.""

We are to be the sort of people that clothe the naked, house the homeless, welcome strangers, take care of sick, visit prisoners, seek justice, rescues the oppressed, defend orphans, and plead for widows. Our goal as a church needs to be that when people in Antwerp are in any sort of financial, emotional, physical, or spiritual need, they think that Antwerp Community Church is the place to have those needs met. We need to be the light that is shining throughout Antwerp.

Are we? We might be those types of individuals, but I think there is more to it than just that. Are we that type of church? Are we that way as a community of believers?

Because if we want our songs to be more than just noise, if we want God to love our gathering together, if we want God to work through our times of learning, then we need to make sure we, first, refrain from sin, and, second, are the loving hands of God in our community.

The movie Chocolat is one of my wife’s favorites, and I enjoy its point. In the movie there is a gypsy-type lady and her daughter who moves to a tranquil French village. It is a village that is ran by the mayor who is also the power behind the church.

There are outcasts in this village - a diabetic grandmother, an abused barkeep’s wife, and a group of traveling “river rats” who arrive at port. The new lady takes to loving all of the unlovables while the mayor is worried about enforcing the rules and having the appearance of being a good town. It’s a battle between holiness and love. This movie is an example of what the world tries to constantly do. They try to pit holiness and love at odds with one another. “You can’t be loving if you’re worried about right living.” Or “You can’t love them because they’re too immoral.”

However, Isaiah and Jesus both propose that we do both. That we love others while striving to be holy. When we emphasize both and begin to live them out in our lives glorious things are going to happen. We will become glimpses of the beautiful kingdom of God to those that encounter us.

Isaiah finishes off his condemning passage with some of the greatest hope in Scripture. You see, we’re still filthy sinners separated from God. And our righteousness can’t get us there. Isaiah states later in his book (64:6) that our righteousness is like filthy rags.
God is not impressed by our works, although he does tell us to do them. It’s only when we realize our true sinful state that we realize how amazing God’s grace truly is.

(Isa 1:18-19 NASB) ""Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool. {19} "If you consent and obey, You will eat the best of the land;"

None of us here live up to God’s expectation for our lives. Does that give us an excuse to not strive to be holy? Of course not. Does that give us an excuse to not love our neighbor, to not love our enemies? Of course not. Those are two essential things to the Christian life. But it’s only when we realize that we don’t live up to God’s expectation for our life. When we realize we aren’t as holy as we need to be – we aren’t as loving as we need to be. Then we are ready to receive God’s amazing grace.

No past sin is too dark to be washed out. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Our sins will be washed away. No matter how great they are.

I am always amazed at God and who he uses to do his will. Let’s travel back 2000 years and pretend that I am Jesus. Okay, here I am ready to start the biggest thing the world has ever seen, the church. Something that is going to last longer than any of the kingdoms that are currently in existence. I have to choose 12 people to lead it. I would sit down and do interviews. I would have a list of what I’m looking for. We would need one of the best lawyers, one of the best accountants, one of the most charismatic leaders, an amazing speaker, one of the best administrators, an incredible writer, the list could go on and on. But who did he choose. He chose fishermen. He chose a tax collector. He chose nobodies.

Or take Paul. Again, if I was the one calling the shots I wouldn’t have chosen Paul. Here is a guy who went around killing Christians. He probably woke up in the morning, hopped out of bed like Mr. Rogers, put on his slippers and thought to himself, “What am I going to do today?” “There are some Christians hanging out on the other side of town. Let’s go kill them.” God looked at him and saw his potential rather than his sorry state. And he looks at each one of us and sees our potential rather than the sorry states we find ourselves in. Whether that is in a deep struggle with some persistent sin, a deep hatred for another person, an intense selfishness, materialism, a desire to keep up with Jones’, gossip – whatever our poison is, God looks beyond that and sees what we can be. And he doesn’t just stop there. He takes the next step, provides the antidote and begins to help us reach that potential he designed us for.

How many of you have seen the movie Seabisquit? It’s a movie about a wild old horse, a wacky trainer, and a washed out jockey. They find an owner who believes in them. He takes time with them. They fail, but he continues to believe in them. He brings out all of their potential and turns them into the best in America.

And that is what God wants to do with each one of us. Whether we are a little too wild, a little on the wacky side, or just washed out, God wants to help each one of us be who he designed us to be.

My first two points today might have been a little harsh. But it is necessary to acknowledge our failings. It is necessary to realize that we probably are wild, washed out, and wacky nobodies, but we need to be wild, washed out, and wacky nobodies ready to be used by God. It’s time for us to throw away our resumes (whether they are littered with shameful failings or filled with prideful achievements) and allow God to use us despite our past.

So what do I hope we learned from this passage in Isaiah today?

When people came to God with changed lives rather than mere words or songs, he listened to them. Now, I understand the current popular belief that we need to come to God with our unchanged life and let him help us change it. I don't think this is contrary to that view. God knows people's hearts. He knows when people's hearts are turning to Him. Words, Thoughts, or Actions don't cut the cake. They are just signs that can be faked, and God can see past signs. Churches throughout my life have been putting a bigger emphasis on one of these signs and ignoring the others. God is looking for a complete change of one's entire being - a change of the heart that results in a change of our words, thoughts, and actions. When one's heart changes, God will be there to help everything else change. He was already the one trying to get the heart to change in the first place, and every day of the week, including right now, he is trying to get us to take that next step in our relationship with him.

<>True grace allows us the freedom to look our failings in the face. We don’t have to hide from ourselves anymore. We can acknowledge our failures in our life and in our church. And true grace shows us that God will use unlikely people, like you and like me, to fix things. Not all of our wrongs can be fixed by us. Some sins are done and there is nothing we can do about them. In that case we need to just forgive ourselves because, if we are striving to be right with God, he has forgiven us. But in those cases where we can right a wrong of the past or present, like my stop sign story, we need to step out and fix our wrongs. If there is someone we need to apologize to, then we need to get together with them and do that. God is in the process of healing each of us, but sometimes that means we have to do something about it. Here is what I think God is saying to each of us today. “Return your stop sign. You might have earthly consequences to pay, but I will forgive you and help you through them.” It’s truly amazing grace when God knows our wrongs but still accepts us and uses us despite our being extremely unlikely people.