Falling into the Arms of Grace

03
Feb

A sermon preached on January 30th, 2011.  

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  

 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they  persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  (Matthew 5:1 – 12)

Drew Morrison left this world one year ago today, entering the kingdom of heaven.  It is striking to think about the beatitudes of Jesus in relation to Drew.  It is an oversimplification, but the first half of Drew’s life was lived under a different set of beatitudes – those by which the world lives by. 

This world’s beatitudes declare that it is the successful who are blessed; the powerful, the popular, the invincible.  Blessed are the winners.

For the first half of Drew’s life that is what he was – a winner — or, at least appeared to be on the outside.   He grew up in an All-American family; he was handsome and popular.   He was a star football player, winning a full athletic scholarship to college, where he set school records on a team that won a national championship.  He accumulated many trophies. 

Drew’s glory days on earth faded into the past following his graduation from college.  Things began to fall apart for him.  He suffered from severe depression and addiction.  He developed a variety of serious chronic health problems which eventually took his life when he was yet in his forties. 

From the human point of view it was a terribly unfortunate turn of events that befell Drew’s life, the sort you would never wish on anyone, and yet the defeats Drew experienced after all his initial victories led him to a place where the beatitudes of Jesus came to make sense to him in a way I suspect they never had before. 

Blessed, said Jesus, are the poor in spirit — those well acquainted with their emptiness, who are familiar with despair.   Blessed are those who mourn what they have lost in this world.   Blessed are the meek.  

No longer a mover and a shaker in the kingdom of this world, Drew opened his heart to another kingdom – another kind of glory.   And for that which he glimpsed with his heart broken open he would gladly have traded all his trophies for. 

Which begs the question – Is it better to live a comfortable life of success and earthly glory if in the course of such a life you never get turned on to God’s glory?

The Beatitudes of Jesus are either total foolishness OR they speak of a truth that can only become apparent when we have been broken by life (and sooner or later, life will break us.)

There is an unseen world — the one we often refer to with the word ‘heaven.”   The unseen world is intertwined with the seen world.  The unseen world is eternal; this one, though very important, is passing away.  This world primarily provides our souls with opportunities to grow.   It is a place to learn the simple truths that the prophet Micah witnessed to in our Old Testament lesson, that in the end, life is about three things:  seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord

I read a book this week entitled, Heaven if for Real, in which a young pastor tells the true story of his four year old son getting really sick with an appendicitis that went undiagnosed and nearly took his life.  He described the experience of his son being wheeled into the operating room with no assurances from the doctors that he would survive the surgery, his son screaming to him to do something.  But there he was absolutely powerless to help his son. 

He describes how he found a room where he could be alone, and proceeded  to pray a bitter prayer to God, letting God have it with all the venom within him for letting his little boy suffer so. 

Amazingly, his son came through the surgery, making a full recovery.   Some time afterward, the four year old began to make comments about what had happened to him while he was in surgery – for instance, how he had been lifted up out of his body and had seen his dad in a room alone praying (how did he know that?!)  And how he had sat in the lap of none other than Jesus himself while angels sang to him to calm his fears. 

The father was struck by the fact that at the very moment he was letting God have it with all his fury and despair, Jesus was holding his son in his lap.  That Jesus had been answering his prayer, even as he lashed out at him. 

E. Stanley Jones was a great Christian missionary in India.  In the 87th year of his life he suffered a stroke which disabled him.  Afterwards, he wrote these words:  “I had fallen, but I had fallen into the arms of grace.”  Perhaps it requires a fall to discover that there are indeed arms of grace waiting to hold us. 

Eugene Peterson in his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant refers to Dostoevsky’s great novel, Crime and Punishment.  The main character, an intellectual named Raskolnikov

“picks out a socially worthless person to run an experiment upon, an experiment in murder.  It would matter to no one whether the man was dead or alive, for he had absolutely no usefulness to anyone or anything.  Ralskolnikov kills him.  And then, to his great surprise, he is shaken to the core of his existence:  it did matter.  This worthless old man was a spiritual power simply by being human.  Even a bare-bones human existence contains enough glory to stagger any one of us into bewildered awe.  Raskolnikov was awakened to an awareness of spiritual heights and depths that he had never dreamed of in the people around him.  (p. 60)

We lose sight of the glory that God has knit into our lives, and set off seeking glories of our own.  We come to assume that the only glory worth possessing is found in the successful life, the beautiful life, the popular life, the monied life.  The world deceives us.   Like Jacob awakening from his dream of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, we need to realize again that “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

The church is the community where together we seek to live out of the eternal glory.   One way or another, we have been broken, and the beatitudes have begun to make sense in a way they don’t to the world at large. 

I heard a story about a woman who came to see a pastor about joining his church.  She said her doctor had sent her. Recently she had a facelift and when her doctor dismissed her he gave her this advice: 

“My dear, I have done an extraordinary job on your face, as you can see in the mirror. I have charged you a great deal of money and you were happy to pay it.  But I want to give you some free advice.  Find a group of people who love God and who will love you enough to help you deal with all the negative emotions inside of you.  If you don’t, you’ll be back in my office in a very short time with your face in far worse shape than before.”

That’s what we are:  a group of people who love God and who love one another enough to help us deal with the negative emotions that reside inside all of us.  The true beauty of who we were created to be emerges only after we begin to let go of our obsessive need for the world’s glory.