Listen to these scandalous words from Dostoyevsky: “At the last judgement Christ will say to us, ‘Come, you also! Come, drunkards! Come, weaklings! Come, children of shame!’ And he will say to us, ‘Vile beings, you who are in the image of the beast and bear his mark, but come all the same, you as well!’ `and the wise and prudent will say, ‘Lord, why do you welcome them?’ And he will say, ‘If I welcome them, you prudent, it is because not one of them has ever been judged worthy.’ And he will stretch out his hands, and we will all fall at his feet, and we will cry sobbing, and then we will understand all, we will understand the gospel of grace.” The Sahara desert covers 3.6 million miles and it extends through Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. The Victoria Falls (‘The Smoke that Thunders’ is its older name, thus called because the waterfalls generate so much mist they can be seen more than 12 miles away) occurs at the place where the Zambezi river is more than 1.2 miles wide as it cascades over the lip of the plateau and plunges down some 354 feet (some 107 metres). The story is told of how two men from the Sahara travelled to the Victoria Falls. When they reached their destination they were struck dumb - it was so immense, so huge, so much water! And the noise! For hours upon hours, they just stood, rooted to the spot, watching with awe and wonder the astonishing overflow of water. Eventually, someone asked them whether they were OK, and why they hadn’t moved all day. They replied, “We are waiting to see when the water stops!” My dear brothers and sisters, we are like those Africans standing before the Victoria Falls. We are standing before the powerfullest, the most abundant overflow of God’s grace in Christ, a true cascading waterfall of grace and kindness. In its immensity and infinity, it makes the Smoke that Thunders look like a mere trickle. In Jesus’ name I tell you: there is optimum grace to be found in Christ, and for that grace to run out or dry, he would have to deny who he is in his very being. AND THIS HE CANNOT DO. Get a hold of this, you who carry around within you, your own desert, your own weary parched land: know this, the Lord by his Spirit is coming towards you to flood you with his life and peace and mercy and love and joy and power and faith that you may never thirst again. I tell you, the desert knows the power of water to transform, and so will you know Christ in his grace, transforming and renewing you. Let’s see if I can't help you understand more of this grace, and best of all, to know and rely on the God of all grace, who has only your best interests at heart - for we must remember at all times that he loves us at least as much as the person who loves us most. In actual fact, we shall see that he loves us even more... Why is this so vital to grasp? Well, CS Lewis, wrote, tellingly, “We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness.” Leanne Payne commented on this insight: “Born lonely, we try hard to fit in, to be the kind of person that will cause others to like us. Craving and needing very much the affirmation of others, we compromise, put on any face, or many faces, we do even things we don’t like in order to fit in.” You know this, don’t you? Evil tells us we don’t belong, that we are not acceptable, that we are not significant. And so to cope with this searing, aching scar in our souls, we invent IDEALS, and we say to ourselves, ‘If only I can be just that person, if only I can achieve that, or own that, if only I can get to that level of success, if only I can have enough sex, if only I can travel, if only I can make enough money, if only... if only’ - and the list is endless, for it is the list of our human inadequacies. We hate feeling so alone, so unpainted, so friendless and so abandoned. Deep down in our spirits we feel like orphans. And so to the very core of our being, this logic of falsehood, this stinking lie takes root and insistently cries out to us, in a vicious cycle of repeats:’YOU ARE NOT - NOT ATTRACTIVE, NOT INTELLIGENT, NOT LOVEABLE, NOT LOVED, NOT LIKED - EVEN GOD HAS ABANDONED YOU!’ And this insinuating, undermining lie runs and ruins our lives and our secret thoughts and emotions - and we are wounded and we wound others. (Clergy are some of the worse at this.) When a little girl believes there is a monster lurking in the cupboard or under her bed - what happens to her? It is as if a razor is slicing through her soul, and we may say she is baptised with anxiety. The end result is that she has her freedom to enjoy just being herself and life itself curtailed and destroyed - she no longer plays and laughs with the same proper childlike abandonment. She has been turned in upon herself and fear takes over. Behold so many of our responses to God - we have made him into a monster hiding from us, out to get us when he can, WHEN ALL HE HAS EVER WANTED IS TO HAVE US
CLOSE TO HIM, HELD WITHIN THE EMBRACE OF THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE HOLY TRINITY. My dear brothers and sisters, what we must come to see, to know, to yield to, if we are to ever get out of this pit and walk in the sunny uplands of God’s favour is that there is an invisible river of glory, a torrent of grace, that is running through this phenomenon we call life - and it is a river that abounds in goodness and beauty and truth and joy and love. And the very life of this river is found in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our very humanity is meant to be illuminated by the Holy Trinity - whether you are cooking, reading, completing jigsaws, writing, managing a hardware store, running, being a doctor, being a teacher, being a mum or a dad, being yourself; whether you are gardening, making music, listening to music, painting, laughing, making love, feasting or forming friendships - whatever - all you do and all you are occurring because of the Trinity including you in their life. You and your life are the expression of that great waterfall of life, that torrent of grace, of dance and blessing, of truth, beauty and goodness, flowing through and from and in and all around you. If you listen carefully, you can hear the roar of the Lion of Judah, the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world: “ I did not create you to perish. I did not create you to flounder in misery, and pain, to live in brokenness, heartache and destitution. I created you for life, to share in my grace, and my life and my glory. I created and redeemed you to participate in the very freedom and fullness and the free-flowing friendship, the goodness and the wholeness that I share with the Father and the Spirit - and I will have it no other way. It shall be so.” I hope the winters in your souls are beginning to thaw. Spring is coming. And where do we see this outburst of grace chiefly but in the Incarnation and the Atoning Death of Christ, and it is to these that I now want to turn. In his gracious desire to communicate with us, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity decided to become human and he entered all the darkness, the loneliness, the fear, the brokenness and estrangement, the frustration, the anger, the bitterness, the depression, the envy, the jealousy, the strife, the lust, the slander, the isolation, the guilt, the sorrow, the sadness, and even the murder of our human condition. Into this non-being and extinction (as Athanasius saw it) Christ entered, crossing all possible worlds, to lift us up out of the miry pit, and place us next to him, with a new song in our hearts - a song of praise and deliverance to our God. Human existence, broken and estranged from God as it is, must be radically recreated, utterly transformed, and put back together again, whole and healed - what the Bible calls “reconciled.” And Jesus died on the cross so all this could be accomplished. He died there because the Father could not and would not forsake us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He died not to change God, but to change us. He died that awful abandonment to do away with our alienation and estrangement. His life for ours. In TF Torrance’s memorable phrase, Christ hammered fallen Adamic existence back into real relationship with the Father - with every nail smashed into his body and every sin held to his account. Religion posits a god untouched by human need, gods that refuse to get their hands dirty. The Triune God, alone among the pantheon (actually the pantheon is under his rule), higher and more exalted than all angels and demons, is intent upon relationship and he goes to every length imaginable to bring us home. In his grace, by his self-giving, we are safe and secure. He has rescued us, he holds us, he keeps us, and he lives his life in, through and for us. His is the grace we need. His is the faith we need. His is the power we need. He is the energy of his own commands, he is the life we draw on. He is the Bread of life that alone sustains and nourishes us. So we belong, right there within the heart of God, within his grace, we are at home. The prayer at the end of Ephesians 3 includes the four dimensions of height, depth, length and breadth. It is easy to see the dimensions of the cross in these terms. It is wonderful to think of God’s love in these dimensions. But I think it best to see them as referring to what Paul has already been talking about in this letter. Thus:
The “length” is what he calls in chapter 1 “the hope to which you are called” (1:18) - a hope we are told that began before the foundation of the world, in eternity past, and reaches on through all recorded time and history into the ages ahead, into the unsearchable, limitless reaches of eternity yet to come. This is the length of God’s gracious involvement with us. We are caught up in the arms of grace, a vast cosmic endeavour we can call it, to bring us home, to adopt us.
The “breadth” is of course “the riches of his inheritance among the Gentiles” (also 1:18). All humanity is caught up in the riches of Jesus Christ, in his torrent of grace: Jew, Gentile, black, white, rich, poor, male, female - it doesn’t make any difference, all are included.
The “height” is the place to which we are raised with Christ, risen to sit with him in the heavenly places (2:6), far above all principalities and powers, above all authorities in this age and the age to come. Seated with Christ, we are freed from all that would drag us down, or that would twist us into anxiety, or disturb our calm, or injure or defile or demolish us. We are freed from all that would destroy us. We shall know the fullness of the name “Jesus” - for he will save his people from their sins. • And finally the “depth” is that place of death and separation, where Christ has entered as Victor, and thrown aside the gates of death and hell, and lifting all those in Adam out of the grave. Out of the depravity of our natures, into which Christ descended, without sin, God called us out into his life and love and ... yes, you have guessed it ...GRACE. In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes a woman who has come home to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: “The Happy Trinity is her home; nothing can trouble her joy. She is the bird that evades every net; the wild deer that leaps every pitfall. Like the mother bird to her chickens, or a shield to the armed knight, so is the Lord to her mind, in his unchanging lucidity. Bogies [ghosts] will not scare her in the dark; bullets will not frighten her in the day...He fills her brim full with immensity of life; he leads her to see the world’s desire.” I quote Athanasius again: the Christ of Grace “makes life a continual festival, a festival without end.” Don’t you love his grace? Don’t you love him as he is - not just for what he has done and is doing for you? He is the reckless Shepherd who goes sear hing for that one lost sheep - you are that sheep. He is the wild lover, the faithful friend, who doesn’t rest content till he has brought us home and we are safe. Have we forgotten the nature of his grace when the only thing that commends us is our very lostness? No wonder the angels sing when the lost are brought home!
There is no shame, no disappointment, no condemnation, no hiding any more. We are home at last. And we are free.
God is so good, always good, only good.
If what I have said is true, if I have only be able to convey the slightest outline of the reality of grace, what more can we do but throw our heads back in unrestricted glee, merriment and laughter?
God is for me. I am his child. Christ is beside me, Christ is in me, Christ is with me. He is my big brother, and I his. He is my great High Priest, who will not ever give up on me. He goes ahead of me to prepare a place for me. He lifts me up that I may be where he is. Even now, he is praying for me, perfecting my stumbling prayers. I live by his faithfulness.
Right now, wherever I am spiritually, whatever I have done, I have full, free and final access to limitless joy. Right now I am loved, enveloped in the blissful embrace of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If I have a contractual view of God (‘If I do such and such then God will be pleased’), if I have a contractual view of repentance (‘if I repent then God will love and accept me’), THEN I haven’t understood the scandalous abundance of grace. God’s love is COVENANTAL, sealed in the blood of the Lamb and we are saved “by the power of God”, whose “grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginnings of time” (2 Timothy 1:8,9). Before I did anything, before I thought that my religiousness would please God, before I did and thought and said anything good or bad, God looked upon me and said, “you’ll do nicely.”
All the sweat in seeking God is removed. Sure he loves us when we deliberately set the Lord before us, but I must understand that when I come to God, the entrance fee has been paid - no speeches are necessary, no offering is required, no religious systems or sacrifices are required.
Nothing is required. As Henri Nouen says, “All this time God has been trying to find me, to know me and to love me. The question is not, ‘how am I to find God?’ But ‘how am I to let myself be found by God?’ The question is not, ‘How am I to know God?’ But ‘how am I to let myself be known by God?’ And finally, the question is not, ‘how am I to love God?’ But, ‘how am I to let myself be loved by God?’ God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”
I mustn’t get all screwed up wondering what I can do for God, or what he is calling me to. We love being with him and in him - but we love because he first loved us. He will guide and keep us. We are in his best interest. And it is a poor marriage when either partner mutters darkly, “do I HAVE to love you?’
Being comes before doing. Nothing I do can commend me anyway. I stand before God, I stand before others, I stand even before my mirror with nothing to boast about. The finished product of my life will never be judged apart from Christ’s gracious kindness to me. Throughout my life, and throughout eternity, I have to say, “not I, but Christ”. And he makes glory out of my nothingness; he makes life out of my death... which is why being comes before doing: there is no pressure to be perfect, there is no pressure to perform, there is no pressure to produce, there is no hassle to do anything or be anything, there is no ‘failure me’ - just Jesus, only Jesus, always Jesus.
I can breathe easily. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.” (Romans 8:31-33) Here are the facts: THERE ARE NO GHOSTS OR SKELETONS IN MY WARDROBE; CHRIST HAS FINISHED THE JOB AND ONE
10 DAY, IN TIME AND FOR ALL ETERNITY, I SHALL SEE HOW FINISHED IT REALLY IS. HE’S TAKEN AWAY ALL MY SIN, ALL MY BADNESS AND BROKENNESS - AND HE SEES ME, INVITED INTO THE LIFE OF THE TRINITY, HELD UP BY GRACE, RECEIVED WITH JOY; AND THERE I AM, JOINED TO HIM THROUGH HIS DEATH, RESURRECTION AND ASCENSION. THE OLD ME HAS DIED. I MUST DO MYSELF A FAVOUR: FORGET ABOUT THAT OLD ME - ALL NAVEL- GAZING, ALL WITCH-HUNTING, ALL DIGGING DEEP INTO MY CONSCIENCE - I MUST STOP ALL THAT! I AM LOOKING FOR WHAT DOESN’T EXIST. I MUST STOP TRYING TO FIND OUT WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME. INSTEAD, I AM IN CHRIST, AND THAT IS MORE THAN ENOUGH.