A few years ago Julia and I took part in the BBC programme Cash in the Attic. Very popular at the time, the programme purported to find various antiques hidden away in people’s homes which could be then sold at auction and raise money that the participants could then spend on holidays or hobbies or whatever. At the time we were both Ministers at Beckenham Baptist Church in Kent, and we were raising money to build a large Community Garden at the rear of the church. The idea was to create a beautiful and peaceful space that could not only be used by the church but also by the community – a place for reflection and prayer as well as fun.
Someone donated a sapphire ring with the suggestion that we could auction it and put the money towards the Community Garden Fund. This inspired me to contact the BBC, tell them what we were doing, and suggest that they do a programme based on our church, a programme about people attempting to raise money for a charitable cause and not just to fund a foreign holiday. The BBC liked the idea, both the church and the community bought into it, people donated various antiques, and we even discovered various antiques of our own squirreled away in various parts of our church buildings. We ended up with a great programme (that you can still find on You Tube) and raised a lot of money for the project. Although we were told unofficially by the programme producers ‘not to talk about Jesus … the BBC don’t like too much of that’ we ended up having a number of deep conversations with both the presenters and the programme staff about the difference Jesus can make in a person’s life. The programme culminated with a great open air concert at the church in which we were able to display just what a multitalented bunch of people we had in Beckenham. ‘Wow!’ said one of the cameramen, ‘I didn’t think Christianity could be like this!’
A major part of the programme was the actual auctioning of the antiques, in our case filmed at Chiswick Auctions. The BBC filmed the auction element of two programmes on the same day. The other programme filmed the same day as ours featured a nice Jewish couple. I got into conversation with the nice Jewish lady who, when she found out that I was a Christian, asked me if I had been to Jerusalem. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘Did you pray at the Wailing Wall?’ she asked. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘What did you pray for?’ she asked. ‘I prayed for my son’ I replied, ‘he has a heart condition and I prayed God’s blessing on him!’ ‘I prayed for my son, as well’ the nice Jewish lady said, ‘he was still single, and living at home, so I prayed that the good Lord would find him a nice Jewish girl to marry.’ ‘Did God answer your prayer?’ I asked. ‘Yes …’ she replied hesitantly. ‘What is she like?’ I asked, sensing her hesitancy. ‘She is a right shrew’ the nice Jewish lady replied, ‘she is very, very religious … insists that we all keep every jot and tittle of the Jewish Law … its dreadful!’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s partly why I am a Christian and not a Jew.’ ‘What do you mean?’ the nice lady asked. ‘Well,’ I responded, ‘our Bible tells us that as Christians “we are no longer under the Jewish Law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).’ She looked at me with a puzzled look on her face. ‘Grace! Grace!’ she said, ‘What’s all this grace business?’ Good question … and I was able to spend a few minutes explaining to her not only that Jesus was indeed the Promised Jewish Messiah, but also the difference coming to know him as Saviour and Lord makes.
Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and traditionally the theme for this particular Sunday is ‘The God of Grace’, and we often think specifically of the role of Mary the Mother of Jesus in the Advent/Christmas story. Luke tells us that when the angel revealed to Mary that she was to be the mother of God’s Son, he greeted her with the words, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28). ‘Grace’ is one of the most wonderful words in the Bible, in the Christian Faith. It signifies the unmerited favour of God freely given to weak, sinful people like us. We cannot buy it, we cannot earn it, it is the free gift of God. It is that which carries all the various blessings of God to us – ‘one blessing after another’ (John 1:16 RSV). It was God’s grace, and grace alone, which enabled Mary to go through all that she had to go through in order to fulfil her calling to be the mother of God’s Son.
‘Grace’ is at the very centre and core of the whole Bible. ‘Grace’ is the most important concept in the Bible, Christianity, and the world. ‘Grace’ is the unmerited favour of God. It is the love of God shown to the unlovely … the peace of God given to the restless. ‘Grace’ is God reaching down to people who are in rebellion against him. ‘Grace is the love that cares and stoops and rescues!’ (John Stott). It is most clearly expressed in the promises of God revealed in Scripture and embodied in Jesus Christ!
Mary was not the only one full of grace. John tells us that at that first Christmas God, in the Person of his ‘one and only Son’, came among us – ‘moved into the neighbourhood’ (The Message) – ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14-16). Indeed Jesus came ‘full to overflowing’ (which is what the word means). So much so, in fact, that we are the beneficiaries of this amazing grace – we have all received ‘grace in place of grace’ or ‘one blessing after another’ (RSV). Common Grace that keeps us all alive – the very air that we breathe. Special Grace that comes to us in the Person of Jesus Christ that enables us to become spiritually alive!
Moreover, God’s grace is available to all who will turn to God in and through Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith (in a sermon entitled Standing Close to the Lightning Strike) suggests that God’s grace is like lightning and transforms whoever it strikes. ‘Martin Luther found that out. Walking through the forest one day, praying and working through spiritual torment, literally, the lightning did strike close by. And he felt that as the summons of God. Luther came closer, and when God sent the lightning strike, it was grace. It was what he needed to turn his life around.
John Wesley found it out. Serving as a missionary in the Georgia penal colony, he was a miserable failure. He sailed home in distress, not sure what he would do with the rest of his life. But in a little chapel in Aldersgate Street in London, listening to someone comment on the Scripture, Wesley says that he “felt his heart strangely warmed, and did know that Christ was his saviour.” Wesley came closer, and when the lightning struck and God got his attention, he found that it was grace, all grace, and hope.
Jim Vaus found it out. As a professional criminal, working for the Cohen gang in New York City, Vaus chose to steal, swindle, maim, or even kill to get what he wanted. But there was a nagging feeling inside that it meant nothing. The things that do not satisfy. The FBI arrested Jim Vaus and he was sent to prison. But in prison he heard the gospel, and knew that it was for him. The last I knew, Jim Vaus, ex-criminal, ex-con, was running a youth ministry in a place aptly called Hell’s Kitchen. The lightning struck, and it was grace.’
‘Grace! Grace!’ What’s all this grace business?’ Well, it is something very special that is available to all of us in Jesus Christ. True, we can read all about it in the Bible, hear about it in Church, learn about it from countless testimonies, biographies and autobiographies … but so much better to turn to God in Jesus Christ and experience it for ourselves!