A budding 5th grade clarinetist eventually asked her band director, “What’s that tiny little note before the big note in the fifth measure? I don’t get it.” That’s when the director explained what a grace note is.
A grace note on a musical score is ornamentation. It doesn’t have to be; yet it is. Its note value doesn’t even count as part of the total time value of a measure. Such a timing oddity can fluster even the best young orchestral student. Welcome to the world of grace!
Grace is a large word with only five letters that precedes every goodness we know. Grace is always previous. It always comes before.
When the Apostle Paul begins his letters to several young churches he makes certain that they hear the word grace before they even get to read the words of mercy and peace.
The Hebrew people got the ordering of grace straight. Life for them began not at sunrise, but at sunset. “There was evening and (then) there was morning,” the first, second, and every day. When we finally shut down our busy lives enough to fall asleep, that’s when God does much of His best work.
As Eugene Peterson used to say, “We wake into a world we didn’t make, and into a salvation we didn’t earn." Grace is underway before we even reach the cornflakes. And we’ve seen that time and time again in our 47-week study of Genesis and over 31 years together!
It might be nice if Jesus had given us a plain definition of grace, but He never used the word. For Him, grace was ever-present. It was something to be appreciated and lived, not just talked about. That’s why John speaks of the incarnation the way he does…”For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus.”
So when grace shows up on our doorstep in odd-shaped packages, it often takes us by surprise. It offers us help we never counted on and love we never deserved. Even if it doesn’t supply us with what we want, we come to realize that it provides us with what we need. No wonder Jesus avoided trying to plastic wrap the rich reality of grace in a single word.
Of all the major religions in the world, only Christianity proposes that God’s love is truly unconditional. No strings attached. No conditions laid down. No qualifications required. Other faiths have their own “earned approval strategies” to which Christians instinctively feel drawn. Maybe we’re eager to believe that we deserve what we have. Whatever our flesh tells us, grace is never anything a person can “get.” It is only a treasure that one can receive. No wonder the grace-filled friends in our lives feel like undeserved gifts.
In a memorable “Dennis the Menace” cartoon, Dennis and his friend, Joey, are leaving Mrs. Wilson’s house loaded with a plateful of cookies when Joey turns to Dennis and says, “I wonder what we did to deserve them?” Dennis is quick to reply, “Look Joey, Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we’re nice, but because she is.”
So goes the arithmetic of God. He doesn’t love Jacob because he’s a cheat or David because he’s an adulterer. God, in His infinite love, loved Jacob because he was Jacob, and David because he was David. The same goes for Esau and Saul. The gospel has nothing to do with our goodness, except as some kind of by-product. It is not interested in our charm or brilliance. No, the gospel demands us to remove ourselves from the center of attention and to remember that grace always arrives as a gift from someone well outside of us. As a friend of mine says, “Grace always flows downhill.”
Clear-thinking Christians love to underscore the priority of grace for it is the center core of the gospel that can never be fully plumbed. We don’t sight-read music full of grace notes better than anyone else. It’s just that when we read the Bible and encounter the incarnate God, we find out that we’re in much worse shape than we thought we were, and we are far more loved than we ever dreamed. And it’s to this truth that I wish to speak this Christmas Sunday – my last Sunday at Hebron.
In preparation for a message entitled “All Is Grace,” you may wish to consider the following:
- If you know Tim Williams, do you remember his first sermon at Hebron in 1996?
- Do you remember how he came to preach at Hebron?
- What do you make of the context of Exodus 20:22-26?
- What is the Lord instructing His people and why?
- How important is the charge against Jesus in Luke 15:2 that He eats with sinners?
- What is the significance of His eating with them?
- What do the words, “And he came to himself” mean in Luke 15:17?
- Why is this story called the greatest story in Scripture?
- What’s at the heart of the older brother’s anger?
- What’s at the heart of his father’s response to it?
See you Sunday!