The Three Rivers of Grace,
September 10, 2006
The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor
Montgomery United Methodist Church
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syro-phoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning! It is so good to be back with you. Did you have a good August? A good summer? Yes? I did, too. It was a blessed time for which I express profound thanks to you. I examined my heart before I left and now, and I feel energized and relaxed and strengthened. I’m so grateful for the blessed time that you have provided for me. And thank you again for your wonderful birthday greetings – the cards, the blessings, the party and everything. It was wonderful. Thank you so very much.
I had a very exciting and wonderful vacation. I was able to get to the shore and swim and ride my bike a lot, walk a lot, do exercises, take Dylan to fairs and stuff like that. We had a great time. I studied a lot of classes about the Mac computer – Wow! That’s a powerful instrument. I took a number of classes on Bible study and scholarship. So it was a great summer, and I thank you.
Our sermon for today – I’d like to talk to you this week and for the next two weeks about one of the most beloved concepts in all of Christianity. This is a concept that can give us enthusiasm and strength for the future and can help us take a closer walk with God. it’s a beautiful word that I’d like for us to explore together. And the word is grace.
We sing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Amazing Grace. Suppose a non-churched person came to you and said, “You Christians talk about this word, grace, but what is it? What do you mean?” What would you say?
May I suggest a very simple definition of the word grace? Grace is simply God’s love. It’s love! It’s God’s love. The classic definition tells us that grace is unmerited favor. A key component of it is that it is unearned. We don’t have grace in our lives because we’ve earned it or even because we particularly deserve it. We have grace in our lives for one reason and one reason only: because God loves us. God loves you so much He has provided this unique, unmerited, unearned love called grace.
Do you know who was fascinated by grace? John Wesley, the founder of our United Methodist Church. Wesley talked about three kinds of grace. The way he talked about it sounds a bit academic, so I’d like to reframe it just a little bit and talk to you these three weeks about three rivers of grace.
Today, let’s talk about the first river of grace. Wesley called the first river of grace, of God’s love, prevenient grace. That’s what we’re going to talk about today. Prevenient grace is a beautiful thing, an energizing thing. Prevenient means ‘to go before, to run ahead.’ Prevenient grace is God’s love in advance. While we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. Before we knew about God, God was loving us. Before we affirmed God, God was taking care of us, and He saw the good in us. Before we asked God for His blessing, God was blessing us. That’s what prevenient grace is all about.
Prevenient grace is the grace that runs ahead of us. Picture this, if you will. Picture a beautiful mountain with three streams running down. We’re going to explore the first stream. The first stream is a beautiful mountain stream, crystal-clear and cold, and thoroughly nourishing and life-giving and refreshing to drink from. It’s the original Poland Spring, and it’s not even delivered in a truck. No, it comes from the heart of God to our hearts. It’s God’s love, to you.
Now, as you look at this stream that’s flowing by, and you take a life-giving drink, you see that the stream flows on and turns a corner. You can’t see exactly where it’s going, but you know the stream is up there. And along the stream there runs a path, and that path is your life. And friend, no matter where you are on that path, if you stay close to the stream, you can turn to it, and it will nourish you.
I hope that this is a tremendously comforting concept to you, because it says that no matter what corner we turn, God is already there. No matter what we face, our faith is that God is providing for it in the future. No matter what life holds for us, we are assured, through the prevenient grace of God, that His blessing, His favor, His gifts, and His companionship, will be there, wherever we go, wherever we turn. That’s what prevenient grace is about.
I remember going through a hard time several years ago, and I turned to a dear friend who said, “Everything is going to work out all right. It always does. It always will.” I’ve never forgotten that. And it’s true. That friend had a real good grasp of prevenient grace. It’s the grace that runs ahead, the grace that gives you courage to propel you into the future, the grace that allows you to step forward bravely into tomorrow without being afraid. That’s what prevenient grace is about, my friends.
I tend to be a worrier. How about you? My radar is up all the time, and I’m always looking at the possibilities and what might happen and what might go wrong, trying to cover all the bases. But you know what? Maybe I need to stop worrying so much and just start drinking from the stream of prevenient grace. Amen? How about you? Do you need to drink more from the stream of prevenient grace? From the knowledge that God took care of you yesterday, takes care of you today, and will take care of you tomorrow?
Move forward bravely into the future. The same God who made the sun rise yesterday made the sun rise today and will make the sun rise tomorrow. Yeah, I know this is a bumper sticker, but it is still true: “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”
God’s love runs before you and blesses your future. I wish I knew the author of this statement. It’s so beautiful. “Everything I have experienced in the past teaches me to trust God for everything I have yet to experience.” Prevenient grace – the grace that runs ahead and provides for our future.
We’ve got a great example in the Gospel this morning of God’s grace through the earthly Jesus. Can you imagine? Did you find yourself a little jarred by the Gospel reading this morning, the Syro-Phoenician woman coming to Jesus? She came to Him with a real need. She was a Gentile woman. She said to Jesus, “My daughter has some kind of disorder. She’s possessed by a demon. Can you heal her, please?”
Did you see Jesus’s response? “The children should be fed, and the bread shouldn’t be given to the dogs.” What? Did that strike you as strange? It doesn’t square up with the Jesus we know to make a statement like that. But maybe, just maybe, God was using that Syro-Phoenician woman in Jesus’s life to help Him to come to a new insight.
The woman said to Him, “But sir…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s hand.” And in that space, between the end of that sentence and the beginning of the next, was something like a lightning bolt. It was as though Jesus, up to that moment, thought He had come just for the Jews. It was through her presence in His life that He realized no, His ministry is for everyone.
And did you see what the scripture said at that point? Jesus said, “Woman, for your faith, your daughter has been healed. Go home, and you will find her well.” And she did. And Jesus was blessed with new insight for His mission and His ministry. It was prevenient grace. It was the love of God, active in His life.
And so it is for you and for me. Can I tell you a story about something that happened to me this summer that was pretty amazing? It was last Sunday, September 3rd. I’d gone to the service of worship at the Great Auditorium at Ocean Grove to hear my mentor and the most respected minister I know, the Reverend James Forbes from the Riverside Church. He was preaching that morning, and it was a glorious morning. His message was very exciting and very challenging and inspiring. The choir sang beautifully. And in the line after the service, I was waiting to greet Dr. Forbes. I heard a gentleman’s voice behind me with a decidedly Indian accent. He said, “Good morning, Tony. How are you? It’s good to see you.” I turned around, and it was Bishop Devadhar and his wife. It was good to see him and to be able to introduce him to Dr. Forbes.
But I want to tell you what happened after that, as I was getting ready to leave. A member of the Board of Directors of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association came up to me and said, “We’d like to ask you a question.”
I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “The pastor who was supposed to assist Dr. Forbes tonight and compose and present the Pastoral Prayer cannot be here. We’d like to know if you’ll do it.”
Deer in the headlights – that’s what I felt like! Deer in the headlights. “Anton Rubenstein will be playing tonight and we’d like to know if you’d like to be on the program.” It was very scary, but I was honored. I thought about it for about 1/100th of a second, and I said, “Yes!”
But, then I realized I couldn’t do it, because I don’t carry dress-up clothes when I go to the shore. Khaki pants and a sport shirt will not do for a situation like that. They’re very concerned about that sort of thing. I thought, “Ah, what an opportunity missed!” But then I realized that prevenient grace was real. I had dress-up clothes! I had a jacket and the right pants and shirt and tie in my car, because I’d come home to do the funeral for Miss Lilly’s husband, and something told me, “Take a shirt and tie.”
“Just take a shirt and tie.”
So there it was. Before I understood, before I knew what was going on, God was blessing me. I was so very grateful for the opportunity to assist Dr. Forbes last Sunday evening. He was extremely gracious in his words, and I’m very, very thankful for that whole experience.
As I presented the prayer that night, I just have to tell you that I was very aware of two things. I was certainly in the presence of Dr. Forbes’ greatness, but more importantly I was in the presence of the Lord in presenting a prayer on behalf of the people. And I was very mindful of you, the congregation that has loved me and prayed me back to health so that I could have an experience like that. So you were certainly in my mind and my heart when I was praying that prayer.
Prevenient grace, the love of God that runs ahead, is there for you. It’s going to propel you into the future. It’s going to give energy to your steps. It’s going to give confidence to your living. Think about it this week, won’t you? Think about the ways in which God is providing for you every day and is providing for your every tomorrow…because, God loves you. I do, too. Have a blessed week. Amen.
© 2006 Anthony J. Godlefski