Consider Mary, and Jacob, and David, and…
Pentecost XX (O. T. 29); October 22, 2017
We have heard sermons on the Reformation principle "Sola fide," that it is by faith alone that we know the salvation of God. We know we are saved not because of our good works, but we know because of our faith. Now we are beginning a short series of sermons on "Sola gratia," "grace alone," that God saves us by grace, not by our good works.
Consider Mary. That is, Mary the Mother of Jesus. She is a very interesting and rather enigmatic character, absolutely key to this enterprise that we call faith, but mysterious in many ways. We know very little about her: she was from Nazareth, she was engaged to be married to Joseph. We know quite a bit more about what became of her later, of her complicated relationship with Jesus and that she devoted the rest of her life to his work. But who was she before the Angel Gabriel appeared to her? Why did God choose her for her blessed and difficult calling?
You can find plenty from people trying to answer that question. A Google search yielded 1 2/3 million results in a bit more than half a second. And a quick scan of the top responses made me happy: they seemed thoughtful and faithful, both evangelical and Catholic. You often run into suggestions that Mary was a particularly pious girl, especially interested in the ways of God. Portrayals of Gabriel's visit to Mary usually show her reading or praying. And Catholics have built up an impressive theological scaffold around her, including the papal assertion of Immaculate Conception: that she was born without the stain of original sin.
But the best answer I saw was, "Because God chose to." One choice I have made as a Pastor is to avoid, as much as I can get away with, explaining God to people. I'll describe God, talk about God, tell about the work of God. But if someone asks, "Why does God…?" then often the best I can do is shrug my shoulders. Look, a lot of the time I don't understand people; how can I hope to understand God? This much I know very well: God is gracious. The choices God makes are not governed by human logic, but by divine grace.
Let me say that again: The choices God makes are not governed by human logic, but by divine grace. God has God's reasons for choosing Mary, and they have less to do with anything you and I might think of as virtue or piety than they have to do with the loving, gracious purposes of God.
The short passage I chose from Deuteronomy makes the same point about God: God's choices are not governed by human logic, but by divine grace. Pastor Sara's Wednesday Bible study discovered that I had surgically removed it from a section in which Moses is instructing the people in absolute loyalty and ethnic cleansing. The whole section is dark and difficult. This piece of it, though, shines out. Why did God choose you? Because you are numerous and powerful? Because you have a bigger military budget than everyone else? Because you are smarter and better-looking? No, God chose you because God loved you, and because God made a promise to your ancestors.
Consider one of those ancestors: Jacob. The story of Jacob is one of the reasons I fell in love with the Bible when I was a child; it's a wonderful story. Jacob is the younger of a pair of twins, and so by human logic his brother should be the blessed one. And the brother comes across as honorable, loyal, and forgiving. Jacob, on the other hand, is something of a scoundrel. He cheats his brother out of the rights of the eldest and out of his blessing. He gets wealthy by pulling a fast one on his father-in-law. He doesn't lie or cheat, but he makes a deal and works it to his own benefit.
But, for some reason, God chooses Jacob, not Esau, his brother. Oh, according to the story, everything turns out all right for Esau, but still… it doesn't seem right. God is supposed to prefer the nice guy, not the scoundrel; right? I keep hearing in my head a conversation between Han Solo and Princess Leia:
Solo: You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life.
Leia: I happen to like nice men.
Solo: I'm a nice man.
Leia: No, you're not; you're…
And they kiss. Not long enough, though, before C3PO interrupts them.
Okay, I'm not claiming that God likes scoundrels, but that God sees more than you and I see. Perhaps God saw Jacob's possibilities, what Jacob would become. Perhaps God is looking ahead to that haunting night when God and Jacob wrestled all night, or to the family that Jacob would build and what that family would become. I don't know; God's choices are governed not by what I think makes sense but by God's own grace. And God chooses people and God shapes their experiences and their activities to God's own gracious purposes.
Consider David. I have seen people get infuriated about David. David was the apple of God's eye; God describes him as "a man after my own heart." David was a poet, a singer, a warrior, a lover, a dancer, and deeply devoted to the Lord his God. David was also an adulterer and a murderer. Once a Christian got right in my face and angrily asked me, "Why did God choose David? Look at the bad things David did! God should not have made David King!"
Part of a good response, of course, is that no one is perfect. You have to expect people to sin, and those who have the greatest potential for good also have the greatest potential for wickedness. David lived large: his good works were mighty and his sins were massive. That's perhaps why people who love the Bible are less concerned about the failings of our leaders. If God could use Jacob and David, then God can use the senator who has a weakness for women and the representative who has a weakness for men, and the CEO who struggles with liquor and the minister who has a bad temper. Human logic might dictate that God should choose to bless those who never lie, cheat, or steal. That would leave me out. And you, I have no hesitancy in declaring.
"Sola gratia" is a Reformation principle. "Grace alone." Why does God choose Mary? Grace alone. Why does God choose Jacob? Grace alone. Why does God choose David? Grace alone. Why does God choose us? Grace alone.
Consider Jesus. Jesus, the embodiment of divine grace. He is the one Mary gave birth to, Mary raised, Mary followed. He is of the line of Jacob and was acclaimed as "Son of David." He told stories about the wildness and strangeness of God's grace. He lived those stories, associating with the wrong people and the right people. And he maintained an attitude of grace to the end: refusing to turn on his accusers, accepting the death we sentenced him to, defying human logic by going the way of the Cross, living divine grace.
Usually people expect a section in the sermon that says to you, "This is what you should do." Okay, here it is: be grateful. Give praise. Sometimes the most faithful thing the people of God can do is to quiet the voices constantly haranguing us to be better and to do more and simply praise God for being gracious and giving thanks for God's grace. It is no accident that "grace" and "graceful" and "gracious" and "gratitude" all come from the same root: gratia. The best response to grace is gratitude.
When the Angel greeted Mary, he said, "Hail, grace-filled one, the Lord is with you."
Hail, grace-filled people, the Lord is with you.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master