Please listen very carefully again to these selected verses from our Second Lesson: Acts 10…

Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.  …  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."   Thus far our text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

What do you think of Peter’s first words: I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  Do you always fear God and do what is right?  Yeah, me neither… at least if what we mean by “doing what is right” has to do with true obedience.  If my being accepted by God hinges on my ability to obey fully, or even being just adequately obedient, then the truth is I am in big trouble.

Fact is, I am a ragamuffin.  Here’s a Merriam-Webster definition of ragamuffin: a poorly clothed, often dirty child.  And here’s a definition from Brennan Manning (who we will hear about and from later on): Ragamuffins are the unsung assembly of saved sinners, who are little in their own sight and aware of their brokenness and powerlessness before God.  A ragamuffin knows he is only a beggar at the door of God’s mercy.  Honestly, I am a ragamuffin… and I can only assume that you are one, too.  But that is something that we all have to realize for ourselves.

I am going to share with you again a deep level of brokenness that I have been painfully led to realize about myself.  This is an area in which God has helped me to grow, but I still have a long ways to go.  I am going to do so with lyrics from a song that I think nails it for me.  The song is really a prayer to Jesus called, “I’m Not Alright” by Sanctus Real: “If weakness is a wound that no one wants to speak of, then cool is just how far we have to fall.  And I am not immune, I only want to be loved, but I feel safe behind the firewall.  Can I lose my need to impress?  If you want the truth, I need to confess: I'm not alright, I'm broken inside, broken inside. And all I go through, it leads me to you, it leads me to you [Jesus].  Burn away the pride, bring me to my weakness, until everything I hide behind is gone.  And when I'm open wide, with nothing left to cling to, only you are there to lead me on… 'Cause honestly, I'm not that strong. I'm not alright, I'm broken inside, broken inside. And all I go through, it leads me to you, it leads me to you.”

It has become painfully and increasingly clear to me that so much of what I do, especially the good that I do, is at least partially (in reality, significantly) motivated by a need to impress… which is kind of a dangerous thing for a pastor.

I’m not entirely sure of what’s created such a need within me.  It may have something to do with my family system.  I’m a middle child, 4th in a family of 6.  Some who have studied such things say that middle children often grow up with a need to impress because they did not receive as much attention as their oldest and youngest siblings.  Could be something to that for me.

I also grew up in a home with a father who was very demanding, and who was very difficult to impress.  Growing up, my dad was much quicker to criticize than to praise.  I don’t blame him for that… I’m pretty sure that was what he grew up with.  Later on he became much more loving and supportive, and he has blessed me with words of praise and commendation.

You know, it could also have something to do (maybe a lot to do) with being short.  Some psychologists would describe this tendency as being related to the Napoleon Syndrome.  Short guys tend to develop a need to try to impress others.  I don’t know… I think all of these are factors.  But what I believe is that it all boils down to the brokenness of sin.  The need to impress is powerfully driven by self-centeredness, which is the very heart and core of sin. 

Of course, sin expresses itself in other ways in my life, but I think this is at the deepest level of my own personal brokenness.

So, why am I sharing this uncomfortably personal stuff?  Because I need you to know how much I need grace.  I’ll say it again: If my being accepted by God hinges on my ability to fully, or even just adequately, be obedient, then the truth is I am in big trouble.  I am a ragamuffin… and that’s a good thing, because ragamuffins understand how much they need grace.

God spoke to me earlier this week.  No, I’m not going to claim to have heard the voice of God as others say that they have.  God speaks to us in different ways.  Sometimes He just puts something in front of me. And when I am wise, I listen.  I shut up, I slow down and I listen. 

No, I did not hear the voice of God… at least not directly.  First, I heard the voice of Therese Burns, asking me for input on resources for the Bible studies our Tuesday Small Bible Study group is doing with guys from Harvest Farm.  She said something that struck me… (I actually believe it was the voice of God)  She said something like this: “We need to find something that can help these guys really forgive themselves.  They struggle a lot with grace for themselves.”

You know what?  We all really struggle with grace for ourselves… or at least I know that I do.  Just because I preach and teach about it a lot, doesn’t mean I fully or consistently understand it.  So Monday morning I was moved toward grace, and when I am moved toward grace I often find myself reading or listening to Brennan Manning, who I have quoted quite often, and I have perhaps given away more copies of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, then any other book.

Let me tell you a little bit about Brennan Manning, which will set the stage for next Sunday’s sermon, which will also be about grace.

Brennan Manning was a life-long alcoholic.  He was a recovering alcoholic who had to re-recover over and over again.  He once described himself as having fallen off the wagon more times than he could remember… “more times than my whiskey loving brain can remember.”  The truth is, when Manning died here in the last year or so, he was suffering from what is called “wet brain.”  His alcohol consumption had done so much damage to his brain that it very negatively impacted his health during his final days.

To the very end, Brennan Manning was a ragamuffin, and he knew it.  And I believe that is why he developed such a profound understanding of grace.  Here is just one of his descriptions of grace (I will share more next week): “For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,’ He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. … “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”

We will close where we began, with Peter’s words in our text.  What did he mean when he said  anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”?  He answers that for us in the closing words of our text: everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."   To believe in God’s love and grace, extended to us through the sinless servant life, crucifixion, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, is the foundation of faith, and then of obedience.

That is grace.  Next week I will share more from Manning, and then tell the story of Rich Mullins, a very talented but struggling Christian song-writer whose life was significantly impacted by Brennan Manning... really by the grace that he so powerfully communicated.

+++

In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, and in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question, “Did you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus, I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it.”

But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our churchgoing, are gonna have to reply, “Well frankly, no, sir. I mean I never really believed it. I mean I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. In fact, I gave quite a few myself. But I always thought that was just a way of speaking, a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on.”  And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land.  No one can measure like a believer the depth and the intensity of God’s love, but at the same time no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, pessimism, low self-esteem, self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us.

Do you see why it is so important to lay hold of this basic truth of our faith? Because you’re only going to be as big as your own concept of God.

Remember the famous line of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal? “God made man in His own image, and man returned the compliment.” We often make God in our own image and he winds up to be as fussy, rude, narrow-minded, legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, and unloving as we are.

In the past three years I’ve preached the Gospel… (all over the world) … and honest to God, the God of so many Christians I meet is a God who is too small for me, because he is not the God of the Word, he is not the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ who this moment comes right to your seat and says, “I have a word for you:  I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now, I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship.  And my word is this: I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you’re never gonna be as you should be.”

   November 2018   
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