Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming today.
I want to do something a little bit different this morning. I asked the accompanist to play just one line from a hymn. If you recognize it, hold up your hand!
OK, hands up – who recognized that tune? What was it?
That was pretty amazing. That is the one hymn which almost everybody knows by heart. And I think, if Anja had kept playing, that almost everyone here could have sung the whole song, all the way through!
I wonder, why that is? Why do we keep singing that song?
I mean, Amazing Grace is the one song that everybody knows. At Christmas time, most people know the first verse of the Christmas carols, and then when you get into verse 2 and verse 3, people start to hum and mumble. Like this:
Silent night, holy night, read the words by candlelight, hmm-hmm-hmm, hmm-hmm. . .
This is a problem for a whole lot of really good people, you know. You’re holding your candle, you’re trying not to drip wax on the carpet, you’re trying to keep your kid from setting themselves on fire, and it’s too dark to read the words.
This is why churches try to use simple tunes and familiar words – because the print is too small, and you can sing Glo-o-o-ria while you’re busy trying to keep your kids from taking off their socks for the third time.
But Amazing Grace – that’s a song we’ve memorized. It’s the one people always ask for, at funerals, or graduations, or any time there’s a place for a hymn.
Why is that? Why do we keep singing that song?
Well, familiarity of course. But it’s also a song that can have personal meaning to us, at almost any stage of our lives.
We don’t talk very much about grace. Grace is all the times when God influences our lives, often in ways we don’t expect and don’t deserve.
Grace is when God protects us from danger. It’s when God gives us strength we didn’t have before. Grace is when we realize that we’re loved and forgiven. It’s when we feel God close to us, when God seemed far away.
Grace is like an unexpected present, a surprise, a discovery. Grace is when we feel blessed beyond measure.
Grace is being healed. It’s being lifted up. It’s getting turned around. It’s all those things. It’s God coming into our lives in a thousand ways. And they all feel brand new.
We’re going to do something else different now. Instead of me reading a long Bible story, I’ve asked a bunch of you to read some short verses. Every one of these is about grace.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
And give you peace.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies?
Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.
Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.
Don’t be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
God so loved the world
that he gave his only son,
That whoever believes may not perish,
But have everlasting life.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives whatever you’ve done wrong,
who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Jesus said, “Go home to your friends
and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you
I will go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; his father ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Every good and perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights,
who doesn’t change like shifting shadows.
Blessed be the Lord, God our Savior,
who daily bears our burdens.
Our God is a God who saves.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me by still waters.
He restores my soul.
If you abide in me and my words abide in you,
ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.
Every one of these is about a different experience of grace.
We all experience grace in our lives. It’s that accident you almost had, that you didn’t have, when somebody ran a red light and almost T-boned you, and for some reason you looked in the right direction and hit the brakes at the last moment.
- Grace is when you made up and reconciled after a big fight. And you somehow found the right words to apologize and they were accepted.
- Grace is watching the sun rise after a long night in the hospital, when you thought you’d never make it through.
- Grace is the sound of laughter breaking in to your heart when you’re down.
- Grace is find the strength to say no to something, when you’re lazy or tempted.
- It’s saying no to an addiction, one day at a time. It’s saying yes to life, when you’re depressed or in despair.
- Grace is all the times you feel renewed and lifted up and inspired. It’s all the times you feel blessed, when you’ve been given a special gift.
You all know the story of Amazing Grace, don’t you? It was written by a man named John Newton.
He was born in 1725, and his father was a sea captain. His mother died of TB when he was only seven years old. He went to sea with his father when he was eleven.
When he was 18, he was forcibly drafted into the English navy. It didn’t go well for him. He tried to desert, and he was whipped in front of the whole crew, 84 lashes on his bare back.
He thought about murdering the captain and committing suicide by jumping overboard. Instead, he was transferred to be a crew member on a slave ship, bringing goods to Africa and slaves to the New World.
It wasn’t an easy life. When he was 20, he was captured by an African princess, and he became a slave himself for three years, till he was rescued by another English slave trader.
On his way home, the ship was caught in a storm off the coast of Ireland. The ship sprung a leak, and they all thought they were going to drown.
As the ship was about to sink, Newton prayed to God for mercy. The storm died down, and they made it safe to land.
He said that was his moment of conversion, but he kept on as a slave trader. He gave up swearing, drinking and gambling, but he said, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.” He was 23 years old. He went back to sea on a slave ship. He got rich, and he invested in the slave trade.
Then he had a stroke, when he was only 29. He had to give up going to sea. He got a job, and he started studying to be a minister. He got married, to a young widow. They’d known each other as children. He adopted the two kids from her first marriage.
It took him 10 years to get ordained as a minister. He served several different churches, before he was taken on at a big church in London.
All this time, he didn’t say anything about slavery. Finally, 34 years after he retired from the slave trade, he came out as an Abolitionist. He wrote an influential pamphlet about the evil of slavery. Because he’d been a slave ship captain himself, it was really convincing.
It got distributed to every member of the English Parliament. He spent many years working with his friends, to destroy the trade he’d worked in himself. At last, just a few months before he died, the government of England passed a law forbidding the traffic in slaves.
So, he didn’t write the hymn out in the middle of the ocean, while he was still a slave ship captain. But he did write Amazing Grace.
And that experience of God’s amazing grace is one we keep discovering everywhere.
The apostle Paul went, from being a persecutor of Christians, to being one of the most famous Christians of all time. When Paul met Jesus, the experience blinded him for three days. Paul thought he’d never see again.
But then another Christian, a complete stranger, who was scared of Paul’s reputation, had a vision from God, that told him to go to Paul, and pray for his healing. I wish we knew how that guy finished up!
Peter had an experience of amazing grace. First he almost drowned, trying to imitate Jesus. Jesus reached out a hand, and lifted him up. Then, right before Easter, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus. Three times!
Peter knew he was finished. But then, Peter found that Jesus was alive again. Jesus forgave him – three times Jesus forgave him, to balance out the three times Peter had denied the Lord. And Peter went on to be the rock that Jesus always said he was going to be.
Other people in the Bible had different experiences of God’s amazing grace. I won’t try to list them all. But everywhere you read in the Bible, you find people praying, people being healed, people overcoming, people winning battles, people turning their lives around.
Grace is what it’s all about.
It’s not that we deserve it. The people you meet in the Bible aren’t perfect. Far from it! Any more than we’re perfect, or any of the people we know.
And it’s not usually something we expect. Again, far from it! Over and over, you read about people heading into battle, and then they look up, and they say, “Hey, where’d all my enemies go? They’re gone!”
Or people who’ve been suffering for years say, “Hey, wait a minute! I’m healed now!”
Or people who’ve been crushed by addiction wake up and say, “Hey, I’m free!”
Or people whose lives have been immersed in evil, like John Newton and so many others, wake up and say, “I once was blind, but now I see. . .”
It’s not expected grace, or earned grace, or deserved grace. It’s amazing grace.
And we all experience it, many times in our lives, when we’re rescued, or healed, or get our head turned around, or our eyes opened, or when at last we’re set free.
It’s different for all of us. And it’s something Jesus does. That’s why we all keep singing Amazing Grace.