Dr. Mark Trotter
I Timothy 1:12-17
"Amazing Grace" is always listed among the favorite hymns. It is an old one. It goes back to the 18th century, written by John Newton, who was on the sea from the time he was a little boy. When he was a young man he became the captain of his own ship, a ship that brought African slaves to the colonies to work the plantations.
Back in England, between voyages, he went to hear George Whitefield preach and was converted. He realized the evil of his occupation, left it, and became a priest in the Church of England and served the rest of his life as the rector of a little church in a town called Olney. He wrote a number of hymns which were printed in a collection called the "Olney Hymns," which is one of the classic collections of hymns in the Church, and "Amazing Grace" was one of them.
It is astounding, its popularity. I have heard it sung in the most unlikely places, by unlikely people. I remember back in the 1960's I went to a Joan Baez concert. She held that audience captive, tears coming down the faces of so many people, as she stood there on the bare stage, in her bare feet, with the light on her, hands at her side, standing there quietly, and sang all verses of "Amazing Grace" in this plaintive, Appalachian tune. It was a stunning moment.
It is amazing, its popularity. Even people who are not members of churches, and those who do not profess faith, find something about this hymn touching them. It is over two hundred years old. It is uncompromisingly Christian in its language. It is evangelical in its message, reflecting John Newton's experience of being found. "I once was lost, but now am found." Maybe that is the clue to its popularity, because it could be called the Christian understanding of our relationship with God. God has found us.
God is experienced in different ways in different religions. In some religions God's majesty and God's sovereignty are emphasized. In others religions it is God's righteousness that is emphasized. In still others God's hiddenness and the mystery of God's being are what are emphasized. In all religions it is God's love that is emphasized. But there is a distinctly Christian experience of God, and it is that sense of being found.
It was Hugh Montefiore, a Jewish biblical scholar, an Englishman, who said that there is something in Christianity that is unique. He said that most of what Jesus taught, however, was taught before him by the prophets, especially the ethical teachings. And there is much of what we believe as Christians that is shared by people all over the world. In all religions there are religious teachings that are universal. But there is this one affirmation that is unique, and that is the proclamation that God seeks us and finds us.
It is hinted at in Judaism, in the latter prophets such as Ezekiel, especially Ezekiel, where God is pictured as the shepherd who will come and save his sheep himself. God himself will do it because the shepherds of the people have abandoned the sheep. That is what Ezekiel says. In the Old Testament the shepherds are always the kings, the leaders of the people.
In our times, the shepherds would be the president, members of Congress, and the leaders of the people. They have failed to do their job of shepherding the people, of being leaders for the people. So Ezekiel says that when that happens, the people are not solely dependent on human leadership for guidance, for God himself will come to be with us and guide us in the way of righteousness, in the way that God would have us live.
So the expectation is there from the very beginning in Judaism, that God himself in times of crisis will come and save us. In every other religion we have to go to God. In every other religion God's holiness meant that we couldn't get close to God until we, ourselves, became holy. So in every other religion, God is way, way up there, and we are down here, and some of us are way, way down here. The job of the priests in all those religions is to mediate, to appease God through offering sacrifices so that God will like us, and we will be acceptable to God.
But in Christianity the proclamation is just the opposite. It says we don't have to find our way to God, because God has found his way to us. What is unique, Montefiore said, is that God seeks us and God finds us. That is why the classical, prototypical Christian experience is, "I have been found." "I once was lost, but now am found."
And nowhere is that proclaimed as clearly, and as beautifully, as in the 15th chapter of Luke. The Gospel of John will pick up Ezekiel's theme of the good shepherd, and Jesus, in the Gospel of John, will say of himself, "I am the Good Shepherd." John makes a great deal of it. But so does Luke in this chapter, the 15th chapter, our text for this morning.
The 15th chapter also contains the famous parable of the Prodigal Son. We don't look at that this Sunday. This Sunday we look at the two short parables that precede it, that introduce it. These parables you could say are the warm-up acts for the celebrated Prodigal Son. For that reason they are very often overlooked, not taken seriously. But they are important and precious in themselves. They begin with this introduction: "The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, saying, `This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"
You are not supposed to do that if you are serious about being religious. Before Christianity it was taught that God is up there, and we are down here, and the gap that separates us is sin, our behavior, doing bad things. So if you are serious about bridging the gap between you and God, you don't do bad things. And if you are super-serious, or supercilious, about being religious like the scribes and the Pharisees were, then you don't associate with people who did those things. In fact what you did, and this is characteristic of Pharisees in every age, and every age has them, including our own, instead of associating with them, you point them out. You make sure that everybody knows what they did. You isolate them and label them.
Even in this country, back in the Puritan days, and I suspect even in our time, public humiliation has been a way that Pharisees point out that there are sinners among us, and that we are different than them. "The scribes and the Pharisees were grumbling, saying, `This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"
So he told these parables to proclaim something new to scribes and to Pharisees, and that is that God doesn't wait for us to bridge the gap between us and God. God bridges it. God takes the initiative and comes to us. It is like this:
I doubt that the scribes and the Pharisees objected to that last sentence about rejoicing in heaven over a sinner who repents. What they objected to was that the shepherd went to the sinner first. The shepherd sought out the lost. The shepherd ate with the sinner. That was worst of all. The scribes and Pharisees believed as all Jews did in those days that when the Messiah comes, the Messiah is going to eat with the righteous in his kingdom. This man eats with sinners.
The message was clear. In Jesus, we believe, God has come to us. In Jesus, we believe, God seeks us, seek after us, until God finds us, and never gives up, never gives up on anyone. Even the lost he goes after. General Lee, at the end of the Civil War, said of General Grant, "He just keeps coming." Relentlessly, God seeks after us.
It is not because we have repented that God comes to us. It is because God comes to us that we find the grace that brings repentance, genuine repentance, change of life.
That is Paul's testimony. We have one version of it in the epistle lesson that was read to us this morning, the First Letter to Timothy. He also wrote about it elsewhere, especially in Galatians. And, of course, we have that dramatic version of it in the Acts of the Apostles, the Damascus Road experience, where Paul is knocked down and blinded, then led to Damascus where the Christians ministered to him. But this is the way Paul described his experience to Timothy:
The news there is not that God saved sinners. The news there is that God came into the world to save sinners. He didn't wait for sinners to shape up before he came. Paul couldn't get over that. As a Pharisee, this was amazing. He called himself a "Pharisee of Pharisees." Which means that he believed that he could find his way to God by being good. Instead, he found through being humiliated, that God had come to him.
So ever since Paul, the message that Christians preach to the world is that God has come to us. That is the gospel. That is the good news. Ever since Paul that message has enabled people to understand what has happened to them, given them words to express what it is that God has done in their lives, or to understand what can happen to them. This can happen to you, especially those who fear that they are lost, that they are not worthy of God's attention, or that God never could ever speak their name. God would never know me. This could never happen to me.
There is a wonderful story about Maya Angelou. She is an active member now of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. She wrote that years ago when she first came to San Francisco as a young woman she became sophisticated. She said that was what you were supposed to do when you go to San Francisco, you become sophisticated. And for that reason she said she became agnostic. She thought the two went together. She said that it wasn't that she stopped believing in God, just that God no longer frequented the neighborhoods that she frequented.
She was taking voice lessons at the time. Her teacher gave her an exercise where she was to read out of some religious pamphlet. The reading ended with these words: "God loves me." She finished the reading, put the pamphlet down. The teacher said, "I want you to read that last sentence again." So she picked it up, read it again, this time somewhat sarcastically, then put it down again. The teacher said, "Read it again." She read it again. Then she described what happened. "After about the seventh repetition I began to sense there might be some truth in this statement. That there was a possibility that God really loves me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew if God loved me, I could do wonderful things. I could do great things. I could learn anything. I could achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God, since one person, any person, with God form a majority now."
There are many people who are just like that. They think it is unbelievable that God would know me, that God would love me, that God would know my name. Just the grandness of it, as Maya Angelou says, that God would really love me. But that is the gospel. He seeks you until he finds you. She found that God found her, in San Francisco.
That's incredible to those of us living in San Diego that God could find anything in San Francisco, because God lives here in San Diego. But notice that I didn't say that she found God in San Francisco. I said God found her in San Francisco, which shows the lengths to which God will go to save us.
Jurgen Moltmann, a famous German theologian, was in the German army during World War II. He was captured by the British and placed in a prisoner of war camp in Scotland. It was there that God found him. It happened through two incidents. The first was in reading scripture. The chaplain of the camp gave Bibles to the prisoners. Moltmann said they were hoping to get cigarettes, but they got Bibles instead. He read the Bible, and he read the psalms. He said, "I was dumbfounded." He was like Paul on the Damascus Road, dumbfounded, knocked down. He said, "The words of the psalms were the words of my own heart, `Hear my prayer O Lord, and give ear to my cry. Hold not thy peace at my tears, for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as my fathers before me.'"
Then he turned to the New Testament and read of the passion of our Lord, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me." He wrote, "I knew with certainty this is someone who understands me. I began to understand Christ because I realized Christ understood me. And I began to summon up the courage to go on living."
The second incident came when some Christians visited the prison camp. Paul was knocked down on the Damascus Road, dumfounded, then led to Damascus. There the Christians came to Paul and ministered to him. I believe it was through their love that God changed the life of Paul. So Moltmann, after being dumbfounded by grace in the scripture, was visited by Christians who asked to see the German prisoners.
They were from Holland. Moltmann said, "I was afraid to go see them because I had fought in Holland. I was there at the battle for the Arnheim Bridge." The Dutch students said to the German prisoners, "We are here because Christ has sent us here. We will tell you that without Christ we wouldn't even be talking to you." Then they told of the Gestapo terror, of their homes being destroyed, of losing their Jewish friends. Then they said this. "Christ has built a bridge from us to you, and we come across it to greet you. Now you come across and confess your guilt and seek reconciliation."
Which they did. They all embraced. Moltmann wrote, "It was a richly blessed time. We were given what we did not deserve, and received the fullness of Christ, grace upon grace."
Help us to be masters of ourselves,
that we might be servants of others,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.