Words on the Word – Sunday 20th September

The Lectionary Readings for today:
Exodus 16:2-15
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalms 105 and 145
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

These readings can be found together online.

The Outrageous Gospel of Grace

In 1997 Philip Yancey published the now classic book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
If you’ve never read it, buy a copy now. It is filled with story after story exploring examples of grace that catch people completely off their guard. One of the most powerfully moving books on grace ever written. You’re goin’ to need a bigger box of tissues…

Grace is the story that can never be told too often. Grace is the treasure that needs to be seen in churches far more than it is. Grace is the character that demonstrates the transformation we receive when we become Christians, and shows others what God is like. Grace is amazing, radical, outrageous. It flies in the face of the way the rest of the world works. Grace does not use language like “deserves”, “earns”, “worth”, “merit” or even “expected”. Grace is wasteful, prodigal, unconditional, unquestioning.

I want to start today by looking at the Parable of Jonah. What was the truth being conveyed by this story? The truth is, simply, that God is gracious, merciful and slow to anger. The parable provides a helpful and fun way to understand this deeper truth. Jonah is absolutely furious that God desires to forgive Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want them to repent and be forgiven, he wants them to get the punishment he feels they deserve. The Jews hated the people of Nineveh (see Nahum 2). But God shows that ‘the punishment they deserve’ is precisely what is going to be erased by grace. Jonah’s fierce objection is represented by his going in the opposite direction and by his constant complaining. His sermon is probably the worst ever preached: “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!” – that’s the whole sermon, yet God uses it mightily to convict the people of Nineveh to repent, and they are forgiven after all.

Is there grace in the story of the Exodus? Of course! In this week’s passage we hear more complaining, whining and moaning. The whole congregation of Israelites tries to make the case that they were better off as slaves in Egypt, where at least they had food; indeed, they claim that they would have been better off dying in Egypt than wasting away here in the wilderness. Yet God does not punish them for their petulance. God does not send them back to Egypt in anger. God showers upon them blessings of food in the form of quail and “what-is-it?” (= “manna”), and God commands Moses to strike the rock at Horeb so that they have clean fresh water to drink. Everything in abundance. It’s all grace.

The two psalms set for today recount the story of God’s grace as a call to worship. The God who led our ancestors through the desert is the God we worship today. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! Give thanks to the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Paul urges the Philippians to show grace, even to their opponents. After all, he explains, this is what Christ Jesus showed to his opponents. Father, forgive them. So live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Finally, then, we open our gospel reading to find an example of grace so shocking that it continues to anger Christians today. Even church folk say, “It’s not fair!” but this parable, like those in Luke 15, opens up our eyes to the possibilities of God’s grace far exceeding our assumptions of rewards in proportion to effort. Everyone receives what they were promised when they were hired – is that not fair? No-one receives less than the salary agreed. So think instead of the workers in the story. Think of it, if you will, like those dreadful team-picking ordeals at school, where being picked last was only out of grudging duty. Who are the labourers picked first? Why, the healthy, the young and the strong. These people represent the righteous and the ‘religious’ – yes, they get their reward. So who is picked last? Well now it is the weak, the elderly, the infirm. These people represent the ‘outcasts and sinners’. Does the owner of the vineyard treat them the same – oh yes!

What is Jesus saying in this parable? Clearly, that it matters not what ‘points’ you have accrued in your lifetime by the long list of your good works, your church service and your religious behaviour (whatever that means!) – is this becoming a laboured point? I hope so! Whether you have been a Christian all your life, or whether you turn to Christ with your dying breath like the thief on the cross, the reward is the same.

That’s grace. And it really is amazing.

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