notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
The grace of God has appeared
Good Shepherd 24/12/2004 (Christmas Eve Midnight Communion)
Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-14
The Grace of God has appeared... says Titus. As the angels announce good news to the shepherds and on a cold, dark Bethlehem night, God's glory shines around.
The Grace of God has appeared... do we know what that means? Can we see what that means for this world, tonight?
Grace is one of those very hard-to-explain words. Some people say grace before meals, thanking God for the gift of daily bread. We are grateful for someone's kindness, gratified by good news, congratulated when successful, gracious when we let friends into our home. Grace is something to do with thankfulness, generosity, giving freely.
In Britain we still address royalty as Your grace. Workers or students may get a day's grace to help them do something important elsewhere. Parliament declares an act of grace to pardon a criminal. We also learn about a word from its opposite. Newspapers speak of people who have fallen from grace. We criticise a person by telling them: You're a disgrace! A truly hateful person has no saving grace about them.
On the other hand, even the most hardened person can have their life turned around by grace. Remember the story of John Newton, a man who had been brutalised by a life at sea. He deserted from a warship, when he was recaptured he was publicly flogged and demoted to the rank of common seaman. He transferred to a slave ship, and became the servant of a slave trader who brutally abused him.
But grace broke into Newton's life - first when he was rescued by a sea captain who had known Newton's father. With his fortunes restored John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, a slave trader.
And grace broke in again, some time later, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, when he experienced what he later called his "great deliverance." When all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he cried, "Lord, have mercy upon us." Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had spoken to him through the storm and that God's grace had begun to work for him.
And as we know, John Newton later wrote all this down in that wonderful hymn of praise Amazing Grace.
"Grace contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun," says the writer Philip Yancey. "The world thirsts for grace in ways it does not even recognize; little wonder the hymn 'Amazing Grace' edged its way onto the Top Ten charts two hundred years after it was composed. For a society that seems adrift, without moorings, I know of no better place to drop an anchor of faith."
When Jesus was born on earth the grace of God appeared. Only grace would first reveal the Son of God to society's outcasts, the grubby, despised shepherds. Only grace would locate the greatest birth in history in a smelly outhouse. Only grace would make Jesus' parents two displaced young people, miles from home, low on cash, low on status, low on self-esteem. How grace turned their lives around!
This is the grace God offers to us today.
If we open our eyes we might see God producing acts of grace everywhere. Small acts of kindness - someone asking after you if you're unwell, an unexpected gift or call.
Things that surprise us, like a discount in the corner shop when we've run out of change; like a workman turning up on time to do that repair, and when he has to go out to his van to look for the replacement part, finding one without delay.
And bigger things - we may find grace in the smile of a new-born baby; laughter among those we love; the family reunion after maybe years of separation; a good conversation with a new neighbour which makes you think you could be friends.
Philip Yancey sees grace in the great events of history - the people from both sides of the Berlin Wall bringing it down; South African blacks queuing up in long, exuberant lines to cast their first votes ever; Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands at a peace conference.
We know that in life the state of grace can prove fleeting. For a moment, grace descends. But then Eastern Europe sullenly settles into the long task of rebuilding, South Africa tries to figure out how to run a country, Rabin is assassinated and Arafat dies a lonely, failed man.
At times like those grace seems like a dying star, about to give in to the darkness again. But we must remember that the star of Bethlehem was just a sign which led people to Jesus. When they found him, the star's work was done. Then it was up to the people to receive God, to open themselves to God's grace. So now that God's grace has come to us, we can live new lives. Graceful lives. In the words of Titus,
... the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Or as John Newton put it so beautifully,
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
This sermon draws on Philip Yancey: What's So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997). I gave a fuller sermon on this subject at St Cleopas' Toxteth, 23 February 2003