A sermon from John 1:43-51, preached on Sunday, April 12, 2015.
It was Christmas morning, and I was 12 years old. My parents tortured me and my siblings in the usual way, making us wait in the kitchen and eat a complete breakfast before setting us loose to descend upon the Christmas tree and find what was waiting there. Once I got the go sign, I tore down the hall and into the living room, and I found a gift that could only be for me. The guitar was much too big for my little sister and brother. To my 12-year-old eyes, the guitar glowed with an aura of cool. The head of it was shaped like a Fender Stratocaster - this was a beginner’s acoustic but it had just enough distinctiveness that I could imagine myself shredding through a solo one day. It was an undeniably cool object.
But here's the thing. I hadn't asked for a guitar for Christmas. I hadnt really asked for anything that year, so I wasn’t disappointed. I was just confused. It had never really occurred to me before that I could be the sort of person who played a guitar. I had taken 4 years of piano lessons but could barely remember how to play chopsticks. There was nothing in my life that suggested I would be any good with a guitar, either. Don’t get me wrong, I loved music. I loved listening to music, I loved singing along with music. But until that Christmas the thought of playing music seemed as relevant to my life as a Mongolian election. Both these things mattered a lot to some people, but neither seemed likely to affect my life.
But suddenly, on that Christmas, there in front of me was a gift that changed everything. Someone had seen me as a guitarist, and now that I had my very own guitar, I realized I could see myself as one too. For the first time in my life, I realized that I kind of wanted to play the guitar.
On that particular Christmas, the gift came before my desire. But when the gift came, it created a desire, and it changed something fundamental about me. In the space of about twenty minutes, I went from being the sort of person who wants to observe music, and I became the sort of person who wants to be part of the music.
That guitar was the sort of gift that gave me a new identity, and a new image of myself. It was a most graceful gift.
In our church, we define grace as “the power of God, freely given, to transform us.” We believe that the most fundamental reality of existence is that God has filled the cosmos with grace. God is pouring out the power to transform us. God is always giving grace, and inviting us to accept it. We don't have to earn God’s grace, we don't have to make it happen, all we do is learn to recognize it. And embrace it.
In fact, in our church we say that God’s grace is so powerful, it can change us before we even want it. Grace is a gift that goes before us, like that Christmas guitar that was changing me before I even wanted it.
When we read the gospels, we see this kind of grace at work time and time again, especially when Jesus calls his disciples. Think on the most typical stories of how Jesus called his disciples. Typically, Jesus walks up to someone during their workday, somebody just going about their regular business. Matthew is collecting taxes; James and John are mending their fishing nets. And Jesus shows up and says "follow me," and they go! None of those guys started the morning saying – “I want to take a three-year road trip with an itinerant preacher and miracle worker.” None of those disciples had any idea what they were getting jnto. But when Jesus came and said, “I can make you my dsiciples,” they decided this was a gift worth having. In today's story, Jesus's grace goes so far ahead of Nathaniel that Nathaniel can hardly comprehend it. Nathaniel isn't just ignorant of Jesus, he is actively hostile – “can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. But even before Nathaniel chooses and desires Jesus, God desires and chooses Nathaniel. God sends Philip to invite Nathaniel, and though he is reluctant, he accepts that gift. Then, before Nathaniel can even speak, Jesus says “I have known you and seen who you could be since long before you can even imagine.” Jesus says “When I see you I see a faithful Israelite, and the rest as they say is history.
Our church, the Methodist church, coined a phrase hundreds of years ago to describe the way that God’s grace goes before us. Grace is lots of things, but before it is anything else, we say that Gods grace is prevenient.
Can you repeat that for me? Prevenient
Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us. On our own, none of us knows how to seek after God, none of us chooses God. Left to our own devices, we would be all too happy to ignore God. We see the music of creation and never imagine how God the part God has for us to play. We sit beneath a tree and never imagine that something good - someone who is truly good - is walking our way right now. On our own, we do not desire God, but thank God, God keeps giving gifts to help us imagine something more. That why this church is so very glad to baptize infants, or the mentally challenged. No, they don't really know what's going on, but that's not the point! The point is that baptism is one of Gods gifts! It is grace! It unites us with the Holy Spirit; it unites us with the church, and all of that is a gift that stirs up in us a desire for what we could never want on our own. Think of all the people, all the circumstances, all the things Through all the years that have happened just so you could hear the good news. Somebody had to tell you, someone had to go before. That's grace too! And think on this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. When we didn't even want forgiveness, Jesus was forgiving us. Grace always goes before us. Prevenient grace is the grace that makes us desire God.
This understanding of grace is at the core of everything we are and everything we do in this church, and it is a message that our world desperately needs to hear. I want to close with three quick points about the prevenient grace of God: why is this good news, what result it brings, and how we can seek it.
Prevenient grace is good news because it is our answer to your objection that you're not good enough. As a pastor, I often find folks want to apologize for themselves – they wonder if maybe they just aren’t capable of believing the way other people do. People tell me things like “I probably don’t love God the way I should. I probably don’t follow Jesus quite like I should.”
Of course you don’t! Neither do I. But the point of this story has never been about how good we are; it’s about how good God is. It is about recognizing that if there is anything in us that desires God – that is a gift! If there is only the smallest little piece of you that is interested in following Jesus, that is a God-given beginning. God doesn’t pick between the chosen and the excluded, God chooses everyone by giving us the capacity to choose God. Think of Nathaniel, he who accepted the invitation of Phillip reluctantly, doubtfully, begrudgingly, but he did accept it. And that was enough. Once he received the first gift, he received another gift in the welcome of Jesus. This is why we practice an open table at communion, because we think that no matter you thought about Jesus before you came to worship with us, if there is any part of you that wants to desires the gift of God, then that desire is grace, and we believe grace will increase and transform you when you receive the sacrament of communion.
And what sort of transformation do we expect? What is the result of this grace that goes before? From the beginning of Methodism, John Wesley said that the natural result of prevenient grace is repentance. Now, I feel like I need to do a little rehab on the word repentance. When someone tells us to “repent” we often think that what they mean is “feel really bad about yourself and what you’ve done.” And sometimes, that is part of repentance, but its never the most important part. The word “repent” isn’t about feelings at all; to repent is to “turn around.” It means we go in a new direction. When we repent, we change our direction because our God-given desire says we should be headed toward Jesus.
In the process of turning toward Jesus, some of us might experience a lingering guilt over the direction we were once headed. I think of the Apostle Paul, who was going to Damascus to kill Christians when Jesus put him on a new path. Certainly, Paul must have had deep regret for the direction of his old life. But I also think of Jesus’ other Mary. When Mary announced the good news of her pregnancy, she said that Jesus was coming to pull down the proud and lift up the lowly. When you turn toward Jesus, you might need lifting up or you might need pulling down. Probably, we all need a bit of both. Some of us regret the direction we had been going, others of us are glad to leave it behind. The one thing we have in common is that we changed direction.
When I received that guitar, I had to change my life. I had to find time to attend lessons, and I had to find time to practice. And if I had taken more time to practice, I’d probably be a lot better guitarist than I am today. It didn’t matter if I really wanted to be a guitarist, what mattered was whether I was willing to begin taking the steps to discover what being a guitarist means. When first see ourselves and see the world through God’s grace, the next step is for us to begin turning toward that goal. Once we receive the desire for God, we turn toward God and desire more. We may walk slowly, or stumbling, but we can’t embrace grace if we aren’t headed in its direction.
So, lastly, how do we change our lives so that we can find the grace God is giving? We Methodists have a plain answer – a “Method” if you will – we say that we pursue grace through practice. Specifically, there are five exercises that we ask anyone who joins this church to practice: prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. We don’t do these things to please God, or earn our place, or even to improve our selves. We do these things because they help us see grace.
I think of Tim, a member of the first church I ever served. Tim’s kids were long grown and out of the house, and he was recently retired from his career at a big pharmaceutical company when he agreed to chaperone a youth mission trip deep in the mountains of West Virginia. For a week, Tim helped us minister to people who live in desperate poverty – their sewage emptying directly into the city’s river, their homes falling apart, their beautiful surroundings being stripped away by the mining industry. I’ll never forget Tim giving testimony in church after we got back; he said “I never realized how much I have, and how much I have to give.” When Tim chose to serve, it opened his eyes to the gifts of grace that God had already given him, and once he saw them, he saw everything differently. The practices of our faith are “means of grace,” and it is in these habits that we learn to see recognize the grace of God, and embrace it.
Of course, that doesn’t finish the story. We aren’t done simply because we get started in the right direction. On the day after Christmas I took that guitar to my grandmother’s house in Graham, TX. I studied my chord books all the way up. When I got to my grandmother’s house she said – “Play me something” and of course, I couldn’t play a thing. Over the next several months even my best efforts weren’t that great. I inflicted a lot of bad music on my family. And I neglected my practice much more than I should have. If you turn toward Jesus and follow him, you will also find very soon that you aren’t naturally as graceful as you hoped. You will fail and fall short. You'll also find yourself asking forgiveness, and you will need assurance that God won’t let you fall short of the promise of grace. .
That’s next week. Trust me; grace isn't finished with any of us yet.
But because we know that grace has gone before us, today – and everyday – can be the day that grace begins.