When I was around 15 2/3 or so years old I was learning to drive. Had my learners permit and my dad had picked up an old 1967 Ford galaxy, two-door fastback, in which to exercise my newfound skills.
A very rare thing happened. First of all it was rare to have both of my parents out of the house at the same time, and it was even rarer to have them both out in the evening, and it was almost unheard of for them to be out late in the evening. I forget what the event was but I knew they weren't getting home until around 11:30 or so that night, maybe even midnight. As I was sitting around the house by myself, I forget what I was doing, listening to the ballgame or whatever else, a little thought came to my mind and took root. I walked out to the garage and I lifted those keys off the nail. I grabbed our little dog Roxy and went up to dad's shop where the Ford was parked and I got in and I started the motor.
Now we lived out in the boondocks. I like to say we lived so far out that if you went any further out you were coming back in. We had no police force. We were just served by state police. Most of the town property was covered by reservoir and state forests. Three different state forests in our town plus the Hartford reservoir property, so there wasn't a whole lot of room for people. So if I had turned right out the driveway I could've gone up to the main road and across the road was the state forest and the reservoir property, but if I turned left I could go down the hill on our little back road that no one ever went down. Our house was right on the crest and then you went over the edge and then it nose dived for about a 10th of a mile or so and then it would partially gentle out where a neighbor's house was and turn the corner and then it nosedived some more down to the flats. You could proceed on across Ender swamp and to Ender state forest to the dirt road.
So down the hill I went and across the swamp, down to the dirt road, went down the dirt road, turned around, came back home, backed the car into the driveway, got out and started walking away and a fateful thought came into my mind. Kind of the equivalent of the guy who yells to his friends, hey! watch me! I said, let me do it one more time.
So I got back in the car, put the little dog Roxy, 15 pounds, next to me on the seat and I started down the hill and on that first super steep I stepped on the brake and it wasn't bad but I stepped on the brakes a little harder than I needed to and poor little Roxy went flying down into the foot well. She was on her back flopping like a dead fish trying to get up right. I said, oh, I've got to help poor little Roxy. So I stepped on the brakes and just as the car was coming to a stop, I leaned over and reached down into the foot well and started lifting her out. What I didn't realize was that when I leaned over I lost some pressure on my right foot. Of course when you lean over, what do you do to your steering wheel? All of a sudden I heard a grinding noise, and I panicked and I slammed my foot on that brake but it was too late.
There was a spot on the right side where you had the old wood fence posts and the double cable and when you get to the last post the two cables come down into one into the ground and there's a dummy post. Somehow I just missed the dummy post and hooked my right front wheel on the outside of that cable and I rode it right up and hooked my bumper on top of the wood fence post and I was not going anywhere.
In that moment, my life flashed before me because I had two very good parents who would not tolerate such mucky- muck. I knew that I was going to die. It was certain. There was no hope. It was just a matter of when the lightning would strike. And I knew I well deserved it. I had no complaint. The best I could do was walk up the hill with little Roxy. Got back to the house. It was probably about 11 a clock. I figured at least a half an hour before they get home. I said, I can't die in the kitchen or the living room. If I'm going to die I'm going to die in my bedroom. So I went up and I lay down on my bed.
I don't know what was wrong with me but I managed to doze off. I figured that dad would see that that car wasn't in the driveway. We had two driveways, one for the house and one for his shop and this was in the shop driveway. You drove by that driveway to get to the house and he's going to see the car is missing and I might as well die in a comfortable place. I woke up from my doze and I knew instinctively that it was midnight. Without air conditioning on a hot summer's night, all the doors and windows were open and I could hear my parents talking and I know that they've just gotten in the bed.
He hasn't seen the car, but I said, it's sitting there hanging in the road, I've got to tell him. So I mustered myself off the bed prepared to die and I walked to their bedroom door and I said, I think I need to talk to you. So I told him what I had done and where the car was and I waited for the lightning to strike. My dad simply said, let's go get it. He got up and he got dressed. To make a long story short, we spent an hour getting that car off of that post. It was a two-man job to get the car up to the house because I broke a tie rod and so we finally got the Ford in its place. It was about one o'clock in the morning, and we were walking back down that hill now to get his van, to bring it up, and I'm still waiting for lightning to strike and the shoe to drop. Knowing that I full well deserved it. I had no excuse. Please bring it on and get it over with.
In that regard I think I know a little bit about how this woman in the story we read this morning felt, for you see they had just finished the feast of tabernacles which is kind of like going to camp meeting for a week, and here at the end of this great spiritual, religious, revival event, this woman, who probably had gone to the services and worshiped with everybody else, the night when camp-meeting ends, is having a final dalliance with a lover not her husband.
John sees fit to tell us that we're at the very early morning service, probably before breakfast. Early enough that being the day after camp meeting, we get to sleep in a little bit, and so she may be enjoying the last few pleasures before they get up that morning, when suddenly the door gets kicked in and there's shouting and noise and I suspect that she really didn't have a chance to get too modest. Probably grab a bed sheet or a pillow case and that was about all she had a chance at. This R-rated spectacle gets dragged back to the temple in front of the watching world, the equivalent of dragging her down the aisle, possibly wrapped in a bedsheet.
She had to be utterly embarrassed beyond words. Shamed. She knows what the penalty is for adultery. Not the same as it was in the Roman world. The Roman world didn't care quite so much about this issue except for protecting the purity of the nobility bloodlines and so if nobility gets caught in a dalliance with non-nobility, big trouble, but as long as you kept it within the ranks, we wink at it more. It might cause a family squabble or something like that but as long as you don't mix nobility with non-nobility, it is not too bad.
But Judaism has a law from God and a design for marriage that says erotic expression is supposed to be reserved in marriage between a husband and wife and when you get married you make a vow, right? That I'm reserving this activity and my affections, etc. etc. and I forsake all others, till what? Death. Why til death? God designed this to be a permanent union and hence it was called a covenant. It was viewed as being a covenant. What is a covenant? In very simplistic terms a covenant is a promise that you guarantee with your life. Your life was the collateral for faithfulness to the covenant, and hence by guaranteeing faithfulness to your marriage with your life, till death do us part, Jewish law allowed you to be prosecuted with a death penalty for adultery, because you had guaranteed your faithfulness with your life and now you have violated it and in fact the guilty couple should have been stoned to death.
So she's in a hopeless situation. She's literally been caught in the act. She knows that it's death by stoning if she gets caught and she's brought as a public spectacle into the temple in front of all the worshipers, and all she can do is stand there, crimson with embarrassment, probably with her head down, avoiding eye contact, and waiting for the first stone to hit, and if I'm lucky, it hits me in the head and knocks me out so it ends relatively peacefully. She was utterly hopeless. She knew she hadn't a prayer, which is why she was in position to be surprised by grace.
I'd like to argue that grace is unmerited favor but in order for favor to be unmerited we need a basis of establishing the unmerited-ness of it, and that comes in the law and judgment. So in order to have grace we must have a doctrine of judgment and accountability with God or else you have no basis to establish hopelessness that one can be surprised by grace. Hence it should not surprise us that the greatest preacher of grace, Paul, had a very vigorous doctrine of judgment. So vigorous in fact, that higher critical scholars who tend to believe that the New Testament church kind of cobbled their religion together, you know it wasn't inspired by God; these New Testament scholars have a penchant for saying that Paul, as he wrote Romans and Galatians and this and that that Paul depicts a very angry God, because he depicts a very vigorous doctrine of judgment, and yet this is the man who preaches salvation by grace alone, because I believe Paul saw a relationship between judgment and grace.
Let's take a quick survey. Romans 1. One of the reasons that they like to say Paul had an angry God is that he loves to use the word wrath in association with divine judgment. The wrath of God. Romans 1:18. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. We don't like to hear about God having wrath today. Please tell me about Jesus loves me this I know, and if Jesus loves me how could he possibly have wrath? And yet Paul loves to, later on, somewhere in chapter 3, say that Christ saves us from the wrath of God. We go to the end after Paul describes what happens to people who are suppressing the truth of God and they have various forms of immorality. Paul, being a good choleric, has his vice list here. He closes in verse 32, though they knew God's decree or ordinance that those who do such things deserve to die, they did not do them but approved and practiced. Paul clearly says that there are some things that God has put an ordinance of death decree on, and these people know it and they misbehave anyway and therefore they deserve a judgment term to die.
But he's not finished. We go on to chapter 2, and he says, you have no excuse, oh man, whoever you are, when you judge another, in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself because you the judge are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. Again, Paul has a very clear, explicit doctrine of retributive judgment by God. Do you suppose, oh man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance, but by your hard impenitent heart you are storing up wrath, there it is again, for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgement will be revealed, for he will render every man according to his works. To those who by patience and well doing seek for glory, honor and immortality he will give eternal life, but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. Paul doesn't mince words here. He gives a very strong picture. Wrath! Fury! Verse 9. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek. This is the preacher of grace talking, folks.
But he's not done. We go to chapter 3. He's arguing that our unfaithfulness doesn't make God unfaithful, particularly here with the Jews. God called them to a mission. They failed. Does that mean God has failed? No! So does their faithlessness, verse three at the end, nullify God's faithfulness. No way. Verse four. Let God be true, let every man be false, as is written, that thou may be justified in thy words and prevail when thou art judged. He's quoting here from a Psalm and in the Psalm God is judging the wicked and the court says, God, you did a good job judging the wicked and punishing them. They deserved it. So it's not that God is being judged and people are not, it's that the court is agreeing that God was doing the right job in his judgment and is justifying his wrath on sinners. We often misquote this text.
We continue. But if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God by retribution, what shall we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us. I speak in a human way. No way. For then how could God judge the world? It is most crucial. Paul is desperate to have a God who is able to judge the world and bring about retribution for evil, because this sets up two issues that are of crucial interest to Paul.
Before we get to those two issues let's just look at one more text. Go to chapter 3, verse 19. We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law so that every mouth may be what? Stopped. Stopped. Quieted. Silenced. Why would your mouth be stopped? Silenced? Precisely because you recognize yourself as a transgressor of the law and you know you deserve nothing but judgment and you've no excuse to make, and like the woman brought before Jesus, all you can do is hang your head and wait for it to come. That is the condition we need to be in before grace can become grace and effective to us.
Paul has two reasons that he develops in other places. If we move quickly to Romans 12, I'll take the minor reason first. (If you go back a year or so in our archives you can find my sermon on the truth of the little horn and develop this fully.) Verse 17. Repay no one evil for evil but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. Insofar as possible as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Verse 19. Beloved, never avenge yourself but leave it to what? There's that 'W' word again. The wrath of God. For it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.
Paul is a victim of persecution and many injustices that he has no power to get resolution on. When you're a persecuted minority, that's just the way it is, right? The great hope of those who suffer injustice and have no recourse to get satisfaction of justice is the final judgment of God. They won't slip through his court untouched.
He makes the same point in Second Thessalonians 1. The Thessalonians are suffering phenomenal persecution and he praises them, how their an encouragement to him, and then in verse 5, this, that is, your patient endurance of persecution, is evidence of the righteous judgment of God. You don't have to lose your cool in injustice because you know there's a judge waiting. It's not hopeless. That you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God for which you are suffering since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to grant rest with us who are afflicted when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. They shall suffer punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. Here it is again. Inflicting vengeance to settle the scores of the injustices that were perpetrated without proper resolution. So for Paul, divine judgment is crucial to have hope that your life will ultimately receive justice. But that's a two-edged sword, because I have rebelled against God and his law and so justice means I'm toast.
Which brings us to our second of these two reasons for Paul. First Corinthians 15. Paul here is trying to convince the Corinthian church that Jesus really rose from the dead and don't listen to these people who say he didn't. He gives a line of evidence of eyewitness sightings of Jesus. Starting with verse 5, he appeared to Cephas and then the 12. He appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James. So we've got at least 502 witnesses. Actually 514. The 12 and the 500 and so forth. So we've got over 500 people who had seen the risen Christ. Are you going to deny 500 people eyewitness.
We continue. Last of all, verse 7, he appeared to James and then to all the apostles. Last of all as to one untimely born he appeared also to me, for I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God. And this is not the only place that Paul mentions that. Paul reminds the Galatians and several other churches how he lives under the burden of having taken Christians to their death, fighting against Christ, and against God himself in a frontal assault, unambiguous revolt against God's sovereignty. As such Paul knows that he deserves what any treasonous rebel is entitled to and that is the basis of Paul's sense of the meaning of grace.
I would argue that if we expect grace, it is no longer grace. Grace is not an entitlement. It's something undeserved, and yet today we have gotten so used to grace that we think we're entitled to it, and when we think we're entitled to it, it fosters further rebellion and misbehavior, because God is going to forgive it anyway.
We become like the Pharisee. God, I'm not like other men. I keep the Sabbath. I'm a vegetarian. I pay tithe. I don't watch pornography. I don't cheat on my income taxes. I know I lost my temper with my kids this week but Lord you're gracious, and our mouth has not been stopped. As opposed to the publican who stood before the Lord and said, Lord I've got nothing to say. Could you consider being merciful to me a sinner? Again I will say, we cannot have grace unless there is first judgment that establishes the undeservedness and stops our mouths.
This is why I am concerned about some veins of Adventist "theology" that float around that teach that God does not judge us but we judge him. Not only does that undermine the hope of justice but it undermines the very foundation of grace. To deny that God judges retributively is to deny that God can be gracious.
Remember that Paul, the preacher of grace, is the one with this vigorous doctrine of judgment. But for Paul it was precisely because he was in frontal assault, rebellion against God, that God should have nothing to do with him. He deserved no kindness at all, and yet Christ appeared to him on the Damascus road and says, how would you like to change sides. I've got a plan for you. For Paul it was incomprehensible that someone so in revolt against God, who so firmly opposed Jesus Christ, would be approached by Christ and asked to work for him. Talk about undeserved.
So Paul continues. Let me repeat verse 9. I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God. Paul's mouth was stopped, but he continues. By the grace of God I am what I am, that is an apostle, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary I have worked harder than all of the others, because Paul was surprised by grace. It was truly grace, and Paul enjoyed being under grace in collegial relationship with Christ. Cordial relationship with Christ, and he didn't want to go back to the old way of life. So he said, I'm so happy to be under grace that I out work all the apostles.
Which brings us back to the woman brought before Christ. Standing there feeling helpless, hopeless, worthless; and indeed she was helpless, hopeless, and worthless. Her mouth was stopped. There was nothing she could say. So the surprise of grace hit her ears. Neither do I condemn you, now go leave your life of sin.
Expected grace enables rebelliousness, but when you are surprised by grace, it changes the heart. You want to take appropriate advantage of the unexpected favor and show appreciation of grace with proper behavior and responsibility.
So it was, my father and I were walking back down that hill about one o'clock in the morning. I'm 15 2/3 years old and I want to be a man so I know I've got to buck up and take my medicine. Let's get it over with. You're walking down the hill side-by-side, but you know, you don't want to look too chicken so you can't walk too far away, but at the same time you know the shoe is about to drop so you don't want to get too close. A little bit of buffer here. We were walking down that hill in silence. Me feeling utterly beyond hope. Suddenly in the darkness I felt an arm around my shoulder pulling me to himself. Not a word was said. In a moment I was surprised by grace. 15-year-old boys don't like to admit it but I sobbed like a child. Yes, I did pay for the car parts. I was lucky, just a broken tie rod end.
But until I got married I walked by those keys which were returned that next morning to the same nail in the same garage and those keys never appealed to me anymore, because having been surprised by grace I didn't want to fall back out. God's grace is similar. May your mouth be stopped so that you can rejoice in his grace.
Lord Jesus. Help us to feel the condemnation of the law that our mouths may be stopped so we can truly be surprised by grace. In Jesus' name,
Hymn of Praise: #221, Rejoice, the Lord Is King Scripture: John 8:2-5 Hymn of Response: #109, Marvelous Grace
Return to McDonald Road Sermons Index
Return to McDonald Road SDA Church Home Page
Sermon at McDonald Road transcribed by Steve Foster 10/20/11