Finding Grace

I Kings 21:1-21a           I Kings Lectionary Reading

Galatians 2:15-21

Luke 7:36-8:3               Luke Lectionary Reading

birch1 agedvign10x8We all have times in our lives when we lose sight of what’s really important.  There are times when get so focused on the small things that we miss the big picture.  We all have moments when we think to ourselves, “Hey!  I was told there was a beautiful forest around here somewhere, but I can’t find it because of all these darn trees blocking my view!”

Those are the moments when we tend to focus on ourselves and our ideas so much that we lose sight of what God is doing in our lives and in our world.  We focus on our own immediate situation and put our trust in our own power and our own works, rather than giving thanks for the grace and goodness of God.

In the Old Testament lesson that went with today’s readings — 1 Kings chapter 21, the story of Naboth’s Vineyard — King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had become so obsessed with inflated ideas of their own royal powers and rights, that they completely forgot about God’s power and authority over Israel.

Do you remember this story?  King Ahab wants to buy Naboth’s ancestral land — a vineyard that generations of Naboth’s family had worked hard to cultivate — so that he can tear out all those carefully established grapevines and use it for a vegetable garden, since it’s conveniently located close to his palace.  When Naboth refuses to sell, pointing out that this land is a trust from God, which Naboth is supposed to protect and pass on to future generations, Ahab is blinded by his own pride and greed.  Ahab sees Naboth as ‘the bad guy’, the villain in this story.  Naboth is the problem, because he is selfishly refusing to do as his king wishes, when in reality, of course, Naboth had merely told the king an uncomfortable truth:  that God’s will matters infinitely more than Ahab’s whims.  Ahab pouts and whines about it, turns his face to the wall and refuses to leave his bed or eat anything, until his wife Jezebel decides to fix the problem by having Naboth falsely accused of a religious crime and killed.

Then when Ahab goes to take possession of the dead man’s vineyard, he’s confronted by the prophet Elijah, telling him that God knows Ahab and his wife are murderers, and that they will be killed as punishment.  Again, Ahab completely misses the ‘big picture’ and thinks that Elijah is the problem, the one who’s going out of his way to be perpetually unpleasant to the king for no good reason at all!   The old meanie!

Ahab’s view of reality is so distorted that he completely ignores the power of God in his world.  So, everything he does — or that he gets his wife to do FOR him! — in order to ‘fix’ his problems only makes things much, much worse for them both in the end, adding to the sum total of broken commandments and shattered lives that God will make them answer for.   Jezebel, at least, has some excuse for her ignorance, since she was born and raised in a different country, and every other country outside of Israel and Judah at that time believed that the king was the ultimate power.  The king was the one who spoke for the gods, telling the priests and others what to believe, and the king‘s every whim was to be considered law.  But Ahab should’ve known better.  He’d been raised in Israel and should’ve been aware that the King was only one form of authority under God in Israel.  The King had certain rights and duties, but he shouldn’t dare to try to take over the  job of priest or prophet as well, much less directly flout the law of the land.  Ahab’s blindness to God’s ways had no excuse at all.

And we can see a similar sort of blindness afflicting the Galatian Christians to whom Paul is writing.

Paul had gotten them off to a good start in the faith, he felt, but recently they’d gone astray.  They were now so absorbed in squabbles over details of Jewish ritual law that they’d completely lost sight of the Grace of God that was the real and ONLY basis for their salvation.  The Galatian Christians — many of whom had been Gentiles rather than Jews before their conversion — were worried that Christ alone simply wasn’t enough to save them.  There were those who claimed that true salvation required keeping all the laws of Moses (including all the more detailed prohibitions and ritual requirements in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere, and not just the ‘big ten’ commandments in Exodus), with Christ’s death on the cross being just sort of a nice accessory to go with righteousness under the law.

In other words, some of the Galatian Christians had started to see faith in Christ as more like the ‘cherry on top’ of their own efforts to get right with God, instead of seeing that the grace of God in Christ was the whole ice cream sundae of their liberation from sin and death.  Put another way, Grace isn’t just the cheese sprinkled on top — it’s the ‘whole enchilada’, Paul tells them!

If anyone could be saved by being circumcised according to the Law from birth and keeping all the laws as perfectly as humanly possible from earliest childhood, Paul argues, it would have been he himself.  But it doesn’t work that way!  Instead, the law just makes you more and more aware of how sinful you are and how desperately you need God’s grace in Christ to save you.  This need for Christ’s salvation is so desperate and so radical, Paul argues, that it’s like being completely transformed from the inside out.  Salvation by grace means the end of the old life and the start of a completely new life, lived in Christ and only made possible by faith in Christ — faith which is itself a gift of God’s grace, rather than something we achieve through our own power!

Grace is everything, Paul insists, and he’s afraid that the Galatians are missing it, trading it in for a false faith in works righteousness under the old ritual laws!

And in Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner really lost sight of what was important.  This Pharisee was so blinded by his attention to details of ritual law and the need to keep himself apart from more sinful and ritually unclean people that he honestly couldn’t see what this sinful woman of the town was getting so emotional about.  All he could see was the impropriety of her behavior, coming into HIS house uninvited and putting her sinful hands and hair all over the bare feet of his male guest.  How incredibly inappropriate this was!  And all he could think about was how disappointed he was in Jesus for allowing this sinful woman to touch him — how much it lowered his opinion of Jesus as a possible prophet, that Jesus seemed unaware or uncaring of the many, many religious laws this woman had broken.

The Pharisee is so busy judging the sinful woman and Jesus, and finding them both lacking, that he feels no joy, no gratitude, no recognition, even, that the Messiah, the Son of God, the savior was seated at his table.  What a loss!  What a thing to miss out on!

Grace, as Paul reminds the Galatians, is the forest in which Faith, Hope, and Love stand like giant redwood trees.  Grace is the ground under our feet, as Christians, and the air that we breathe.  Grace is the very life in us, the new life lived by faith in Christ’s death and resurrection and by the power of Christ’s abiding presence within us.

And it is grace that this nameless sinful woman of the city had seen and heard in Jesus’ message and which brings her into the Pharisee’s house in joy and relief and wondrous, tearful gratitude.  All of which the Pharisee — a highly intelligent and educated man and devoutly religious, someone who would have been eagerly looking for the arrival of the promised Messiah — somehow managed to completely miss, even though it was literally right in front of his face.

How do you miss something that big, that momentous, that important when it’s happening right in front of you?  How do you not see the grace of God in Christ?

Well, the evidence of today’s Scripture readings — and my own, painful personal experience! — suggests that it’s surprisingly easy for us human beings to lose sight of what’s really important, to overlook the Grace of God which surrounds us and supports us and gives us life, like a fish in water, and wander off in search of something ‘better’.

But how do we get so turned around?  How do we become so willfully blind?  And how do we get back on track?  How can we open our eyes and begin to truly see again?

One way we can lose our sight is if we follow the examples of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  Underneath all the many, many other things that are obviously wrong with these two people, I think their major problem is that they’ve made themselves the center of their universe.  They have no awareness of anything greater than themselves, anything more important than their own immediate wants or needs.  They may claim to worship the false god Ba’al, but Ba’al is really just a mirror to their own vanity and fear.

Because they are mortal and sinful and stupid, and therefore incapable of providing a stable center for their own world, Ahab and Jezebel have become willfully short-sighted, looking no further than the very next moment, the next appetite to be satisfied, the next small, selfish goal to be achieved.  They can only see other people as irrelevant details, at best, or — in the case of Naboth and Elijah — as problems to be removed from their path as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.  They’ve lost sight of where they are (Israel, God’s Promised Land) and whose they are (they — like all humans — belong to the God of Israel, the God who created all that is), so they have no sense of where they’re going in life or anything to hope for at the end of their journey.  They are hollow people, and can never be filled or satisfied.

Another way we can go astray is if we begin to undervalue the Grace of God, as many in the Galatian Church seemed to be doing.

Yes, the Galatians had been getting some very bad advice from false teachers.  There were people who had come to them during Paul’s absence and told them that they needed more than the Grace of God — that they needed to be circumcised and observe all the ritual laws of the Jewish faith, before they could derive any benefit from Christ’s death on the cross.  Christ had come to save the Jews, and so you had to become a good Jew first before the cross could do you any good.

But that bad advice, that false teaching, shouldn’t have found them so receptive.  They knew better.  Yet, somehow, they must have begun to question in their own hearts first.  They must’ve become discontented with the idea that Christ had done everything to save them, and that it was no credit to them.  They hadn’t earned their salvation through their own strength and wisdom, and so they began to doubt.  Surely, they thought, there must be more to salvation than just a whole-hearted, life-changing faith in Christ?  Again, perhaps it was vanity and pride getting in their way.

And Simon the Pharisee was a member of a group — the Pharisees — who had assigned themselves a huge task, the job of holding together the faith of Israel, in the face of Roman occupation of their country and persecution of their beliefs.  With such a big job to accomplish under very difficult conditions, it was all too easy for the Pharisees in general and this Simon in particular to fall into the trap of judging every person in terms of how useful they can be towards achieving their goal.  Only perfect obedience to the law (which was only possible if you were pretty well off financially, because many of the ritual requirements were rather expensive) was good enough, could set the right example for the rest of the Jewish people to try to live up to.

Simon is so busy trying to figure out whether or not Jesus is worth his time and worthy of his hospitality, whether or not Jesus can be useful to the cause, that he forgets to observe many of the hospitality customs himself.  He fails to welcome Jesus as a guest should be welcomed.  And when he sees Jesus’ tolerance — even compassion — for a sinful woman, he’s ready to write Jesus off completely.  Clearly, someone so willing to tolerate imperfection could not be a real prophet, much less a useful tool for encouraging the people to stick closer to the law and be more virtuous.  Therefore, blinded by his own prejudices and pride, Simon completely misses the fact that everything he wants and needs for the salvation of himself and his people is right there, offering him forgiveness and salvation.

Fortunately, others were not so blind, as Luke points out in the following verses, where he notes that in addition to the twelve disciples Jesus was followed by some well-known women of means who’d experienced Jesus’ healing power and had become the major financial supporters of his preaching mission.

The nameless ‘sinful woman’ left Simon’s house to go her own way in peace, forgiven and saved by the Grace of Christ, through faith.  Others, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna, followed Jesus to the cross and then to the empty tomb and the resurrection.

We don’t know what happened to Simon the Pharisee, since he’s never mentioned again.  Perhaps he was never able to see past the end of his own nose and realize who Jesus truly was.  Perhaps, like the nameless woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, he eventually accepted Jesus’ forgiveness and went back to his regular life, freed and redeemed.  Perhaps he later joined the followers of Christ, after the resurrection.  But I hope, for his sake, that he did open his eyes to the truth of God’s grace, whether sooner or later.

Like a divine, loving father, God surrounds us with evidence of God’s love.  We’re surrounded by signs of God’s grace, which came at such a terribly high price — the willing death of God the Son, on the cross, for our sins.  But we can be very foolish, frightened, ungrateful children, at times.  With evidence of God’s grace — of God’s great love — all around us, we still go astray, we still lose our way.  Our sight becomes clouded and unreliable, and we complain that God has let us down or abandoned us, at the very moment when God’s arms are reaching out to us, holding us up, keeping us from falling or tripping over our own pride and fear.  If we were fish, we’d be swimming in Grace.  If Grace were dish soap we’d be ‘soaking in it’, as in the old Palmolive ads.

Finding Grace isn’t hard.  God offers it freely, through Jesus Christ.  God even gifts us with faith, as the Holy Spirit moves within us and helps us to accept the Grace that is offered, to believe in the gift of salvation from sin and death.

When we open our eyes and our hearts to the reality all around us, and when we accept the gift of God’s Grace, we affirm with Paul that Christ did not die for nothing!  Christ died for us, and we can only accept that gift with humility and joy.