Some months back, following a funeral here where we sang the hymn Amazing Grace, someone asked me if I would write a sermon on AMAZING GRACE. I have been collecting thoughts for months but confess to you at this moment I feel a little like St. Augustine who when asked "What is grace?" responded "I knew until you asked me, but now when you ask me, I do not know."
So what is this thing called grace? I dare say I speak to some degree for both of us... neither you nor I can come up with clear, precise definition of grace. Maybe that is because grace is something we experience but cannot always define. In the course of life I have seen hundreds of examples of God's grace being experienced. People talk about what they are experiencing... about what the church has meant to them at a particular moment of joy or crisis; some new sense of God through a Bible verse or a prayer, some new feeling of satisfaction which came from doing something for others... delivering meals, helping with a habitat house; some new glimpse of what God is really like at the birth of a child, a baptism, a wedding and even seeing the goodness of God at the time of the death of someone we love... a goodness which tells us we can trust God to care eternally for them! Some new understanding of God when we find ourselves helpless on our own to handle life and the moment we admit it God comes to our rescue.
There is a phrase which we use frequently that can be misunderstood. I hear people say "There but for the grace of God Go I!" If by that we mean that God's grace is selective and only a few are recipients of God's grace we make God into something of a monster. But if we say that God's grace is free, unmerited, unearned, undeserved but must be received before it becomes real... then and only then can we say "There but for the grace of God go I." Not in condemnation of others but in pity for them that they refuse God's grace, God's goodness to them. But if we say "There but for the grace of God go I" and do nothing for those who have not welcomed God's grace, then we are guilty of trying to hoard God's grace selfishly for ourselves.
In recent years there has been a resurgence in popularity of the hymn Amazing Grace. The hymn has a particular relevance because it emerged from the life experience of its author John Newton, whose life story it reflects. John Newton lived between 1725 and 1807... eighty-two years. He was a most unlikely person to write a hymn on the grace of God. He lived an immoral and rebellious life as a youth. His father was a sea captain and like his father he became a sea captain of a merchant ship... its cargo... slaves. For years this was his life. In those days the slave trade was a moneymaker, but it was a wretched and miserable life for the slaves. The slaves were brutalized in body and spirit.
On those long voyages there was much time to fill and a book was a great treasure. One day, John Newton discovered a book in a sea chest written by Thomas a Kempis. John's mother had died when he was six years old. She was a devout Christian and she used those six years to plan some seeds of faith. One day a mighty storm at sea struck terror into the hearts of all on his ship and John Newton was shaken to the depths of his being. Miraculously the boat survived the storm and miraculously John Newton began to think about his need for God. He wrote of this turning point experience this way: "I can see no reason why God singled me out for mercy, unless it was to show, by one astonishing instance, that with God nothing is impossible."
It was John Wesley's 1774 pamphlet condemning the slave trade as an abomination in the sight of God that awakened Newton to its moral wrongness. Newton could not wipe from his memory the wretched human stench on board his slave ship and he knew he was the cause of that wretchedness. So the words of Amazing Grace came right out of Newton's life experience and he wrote it in 1779.
AMAZING GRACE, HOW SWEET THE SOUND
THAT SAVED A WRETCH LIKE ME!
I ONCE WAS LOST BUT NOW AM FOUND
WAS BLIND, BUT NOW I SEE.
From that moment on John Newton testified before the British Parliament out of his own experience how terribly the slaves were treated. In 1807 the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished... nine months later he died.
This grace comes to us right in the very midst of life, especially in that part of life that Tennyson describes: "Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break."
Heartbreak comes to those who are living with terminal diseases; HEARTBREAK comes to those who get caught in messed up family problems; HEARTBREAK comes to those who are caught in circumstances which they did not cause or even in circumstances for which they are responsible.
Years ago I was told of a visit Archer Wallace made to a Canadian city to see an older woman who was in a home for what was called "the incurables." He found her in a rather bare room and suggested that they go out on the verandah for their visit. "I have never been out on the verandah," she said; "I have a spinal condition which prevents me from being moved from this bed."
This seemed a cruel condition to Mr. Wallace and he asked her how long she had been there. "Twenty-six years" she answered. He thought of twenty- six years and of all that had happened in his life over the past twenty-six years. "Do you mean to tell me that you have never been out of this room in twenty-six years?" She replied, "I have never been over the threshold since I was brought here twenty-six years ago!" Then that woman said something I shall never want to forget!
She said, "It only comes one day at a time and God is so good." Wallace thought to himself twenty-six years of almost continual suffering and yet she found strength for the days because she met them one at a time. Then he said, "If I ever saw clear evidence of God's grace at work, it was with this dear woman!"
To live by God's grace means that we learn to take nothing for granted, but to take whatever comes with profound gratitude to God knowing that God will be with us to inspire us and to empower us... no matter what comes, and no matter what happens.