2nd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Philippians 1:3-11;
Luke 3:1-6; Mal. 3:1-4
“PARTAKERS OF GRACE”
My youngest son Joshua is in third grade. And he gets extra points these days if he lists synonyms and antonyms to go along with his spelling words. I taught him how to use Roget’s Thesaurus for the synonyms. The antonyms are tougher, though. He’ll ask me, for example, “Dad, what’s the opposite of ball?” And I’ll answer something like, “Gee, Son, I don’t really know. Is bat the opposite of ball? Or cube? Some things don’t really have an opposite. They just are.” Yes, antonyms can be tough.
I have an antonym for you this morning. What is the opposite of gift? Think about it. What is the opposite of gift? Got any suggestions? I have a suggestion for you: the opposite of gift is debt. Debt. As in that alternate form of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” And that makes me also think of a synonym for gift, one we use all the time in the church: grace. Grace is a free gift, we say. And we often qualify it with that word free. Grace is a free gift. That’s opposed to gift, I guess, where we end up feeling like we owe someone something. In other words, we often feel indebted to those who give us gifts. Gifts are supposed to be free. They are supposed to be the opposite of debt. But they don’t often work out that way, do they? We get a gift, and what’s often the first thing we think of? That we owe the person a gift back someday — or at least, a thank you. We owe them a thank you. We are indebted to them. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Do you suppose he’s trying to teach us to live by grace in praying this prayer? That gifts actually are free? Like forgiveness is free? And as a gift, a grace, forgiveness is the opposite of indebtedness. Forgiveness is the release of debt. We do keep score, after all, don’t we? When someone hurts us we keep tabs on those hurts; we mark them as debts. And we assume that God does the same for us. But Jesus came proclaiming a God who freely forgives, one who releases all those debts. And he invites us to live in the same way, releasing all the debts we hold against one another. Pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” It’s grace, a free gift.
Gifts are an important part of this season, aren’t they? We spend a great deal of time buying and wrapping gifts. It’s a tremendous amount of work! And often we go into significant debt to buy all those gifts. Gifts and debts seem to go together for this season.
But what makes it all worth it? The hectic pace, the aggravations, the exhaustion. The children make it worthwhile, don’t they? Especially the young children when they receive their gifts. Why is it such a highlight for us? I think it’s because the children so easily accept gifts as free. They don’t have money to buy gifts themselves, so they can’t easily be made to feel like they owe someone a gift in return. And when children do give gifts, it is for the sheer pleasure of giving them. We adults? It’s much more difficult for us to enjoy the gifts so freely, isn’t it? We so easily get to feeling like we owe someone a gift in return when we receive one. We get a gift, but is it free? Not really, if we feel indebted to the giver when we get it. Gift and debt are opposites, I think — or at least they should be.
Then how is it that we so often receive a gift and feel like we owe a debt? I would like to suggest to you this morning that the answer to this question — about why we so often receive gifts not freely but with a feeling of indebtedness — is at the very heart of Gospel. The Good News from God is that we are offered a new world to live in, a world marked by grace, a world that revolves around the fact that life itself is a free gift from God. This is Good News precisely because we ordinarily live in worlds marked by debt. We have such a hard time accepting gifts as free because everything else we do revolves around keeping score with other, around keeping a running tab of who owes who what. Our lives are run through with debt, and not just monetary debt. We keep all kinds of debts against each other. I already mentioned one of the other kinds of debt: hurts. We keep a tab of the times others hurt us. The payback is called revenge. It’s a system of debt that keeps us hurting one another, not just on an individual basis, but even on the level of nations. If the Palestinians kill an Israeli, then some Palestinians need to die for it. If a terrorist bombs one of our ships, then someone must pay. This is a system of debt that goes back much further than money.
Jesus came proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. Somewhat following John the Baptist, Jesus came proclaiming “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3; 24:47). He taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Essentially, Jesus is calling us to live in a completely different reality than the one to which we are accustomed. In our second lesson, St. Paul says that “all of you share in God’s grace with me” (Phil. 1:7). The older Revised Standard Version gives us a more literal translation: “you are all partakers with me of grace.” Partakers of grace. That’s who we are called to be! We are called to be people who no longer live by all the debts we pile up against each other. We are called to be people who live by grace, by the fact that life itself is a free gift from God. In fact, seen in this light, we might say that sin is precisely our tendency to live by debts instead of by grace. Sin is all the ways in which we keep score against each, all the ways we keep a running tab, all the ways we keep debts. Sin is living life without recognizing that life itself is an utterly free and complete gift from God. So Jesus came to teach us that, first of all, God’s Kingdom is completely different than our kingdoms. God’s Kingdom is debt-free. It’s grace, it’s free gift, even as life itself is a free gift. And so our sinfulness is precisely all the ways in which we persist in living in our own worlds of keeping debt. Jesus came to forgive our sin, and to call us to live by grace. We are called to be partakers of grace.
How easy is it for us to fall into our worlds of keeping score? We preachers fall into it easily, too. I’m sure that I could go over many of my sermons of the past and find examples of where I became scandalized by what I see as sinful behavior and was less than gracious about it. I feel uncomfortable with the fact that the following example is from another preacher, but it happened just yesterday, and it’s truly what sparked me to this sermon. It started under difficult circumstances: attending the funeral of my son’s viola teacher. The preacher tried to use her life as a good example for us, a laudable thing to do. But at one point, he defined life in a way that he said he’s accustomed to do: he said that life is a series of choices we make and the consequences of those choices. A voice inside of me — I hope it was the Holy Spirit — said, “No! Life is grace! It’s a free gift! We’re going to get in trouble if we begin with life as a series of our choices. The main choice that counts is God’s choice to lovingly share the power of his eternal life with us.”
How tough is it to stay away from our sin of keeping debts? This preacher’s definition sounds so good, doesn’t it? It’s the sort of thing we often try to teach our children: Life is about making choices and living with the consequences. To be fair, that’s not in itself a bad guidepost. But when we don’t begin with grace, and so the power of sin can more easily get a hold of this approach to life, what happens? We immediately fall into our games of comparing our personal choices to those of others. How do our choices stack up against each other’s? Whose is better? Which are the bad ones, relatively speaking, and which are the good ones? Before you know it, we’re well on our way to defining the winners and losers in these games, and sometimes the losers even get killed. We punish them for ones we deem to be particularly bad choices, and sometimes that punishment is like the one Jesus received: execution. In fact, says St. Paul, the wages of our sin of debt-keeping is death.
Or think of it another way. Perhaps you do your best not to compare yourself to others. You try to stay focused on your own choices and their consequences. This is better, perhaps. But still deadly. Let’s say you’ve made good choices: you’ve worked hard at school, graduated, kept a good job, been a faithful spouse and parent. You’ve made all the right choices, right? Then, suddenly, after 30 years of hard work, you’re downsized at the company you’ve given half your life to, and your life begins to unravel. Life itself seems like it owes you a big debt! Or perhaps you’ve made all those right choices and the doctor tells you that you have terminal brain cancer. That’s the tragedy, really, that befell my son’s teacher. She made so many good choices in life, including being a faithful Christian, a truly loving, giving person. And, in the context of looking at life as choices, what were the consequences of those actions? Death. A life seemingly cut short. Death is the ultimate mocker of all our score-keeping, all our efforts to make good choices. Death seems the ultimate winner.
Unless . . . unless we learn to not keep score at all. Then death can’t win. When we come to know life as grace, as sheer gift, then we can also learn to trust that death is not the final end, anyway. God’s power of life just keeps on going, keeps on giving. Jesus came to show us how to live such a life of grace.
Let me finish, then, by returning to Scripture, to this amazing letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. [Open in your pew bibles to page 198.] In chapter 3, in the section marked “Breaking with the Past,” St. Paul says,
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4b-6)
What’s St. Paul saying here? Isn’t he saying that he truly lived a life that brilliantly met this world’s standards of debt keeping? He lived a life of making all the right choices. He was a good person, an outstanding citizen. If life is defined as the choices we make and their consequences, then he should have received an A+. He was blameless.
But what does he go on to say?
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
Isn’t this incredible? He came to count his former life as “rubbish” — and that’s a tame translation. “Dung” would be more accurate, or perhaps another choice word that we can’t even say in church. Instead, he is willing to take on suffering and death in order to know the power of Christ’s life. How can this be?? Is he crazy? What kind of life is that, and how does one come by it?
We need to turn, finally, to the heart of this amazing letter in chapter 2. We come by this life, as we said last week, by focusing our lives on Christ and taking his as an example. St. Paul calls us to open ourselves to the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil. 2:6) In other words, Jesus refused to keep score. Even though he was equal to God, he didn’t go through life keeping a running tab of whether he or his heavenly Father was up or down. Rather, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…, and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8) What kind of life is this? It’s one that trusts so completely in God’s gracious power of life that it gives itself away. When life is a gift, you can be bold to share it with others. It can never completely run out because, if we have faith through Jesus Christ, we know that God’s gracious power of life is eternal. It never runs out. A life lived as gift is a life that gives itself away, only to keep receiving itself back. Such a life is free from the power of debt-keeping and its ability to make us live in fear of death.
This Advent/Christmas season we once again anticipate and celebrate the greatest gift of all: our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to forgive our sin of keeping debts, and to show us how to live life as a free gift. We are all “partakers of grace.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, December 10, 2000