Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people." (verse 68)
My first thought was that surely the translation is wrong. God had not redeemed Israel. At least not yet. In fact looking at Jesus' ministry now from a historic perspective, we would say that he failed. Sure he wanted to and told people that he had come in the first place to "save the lost house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24). But in the end he looks down in sadness on Jerusalem, weeps over it and says:
If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:42-44)
God's intention was to redeem his own people first but clearly, as we have seen, he failed. So Zechariah's words were wrong and perhaps expressed God's wish rather than his accomplishment. But is that true?
Enter a whole flurry of thoughts that nearly stopped me in the middle of my journey. First I was taken back to some words of the old 1662 Book of Common Prayer Infant Baptism service where the Minister prays over the newly baptised child these words:
"Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ's Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning."
(1662 Book of Common Prayer)
There it is again, someone speaking of something that is done, completed, finished, before it is done, and by 'done' I mean before the child has had a chance to grow up, learn the truths of God's saving grace, and respond in faith. Like the words of Zechariah surely the words have lost something of the original intention/meaning behind writing it.
Coincidentally I have been working for some time on a new setting of some words written by a retired priest (Walford Roberts) who works alongside me in St, James. The words are excellent but I had been bothered by one line of the first verse and was considering asking him if I could change it. Here is the verse with the 'offending' words in bold:
Father, have I been forgiven?
Are all sinners really free?
Is there any point in living?
Day by day but without Thee?
"Yes my child you are forgiven.
yes you really now are free
yes there is a point in living
just believe and follow me.
I began to feel that I was somehow on to something. Like some evasive memory or a half remembered tune, I was beginning to feel that there was more to this. But what was it? Cue the words from Robert Farrar-Capon an Episcopalian priest and author whom I quoted a few blogs back. Here is the bit that resonated with the way my thoughts were heading:
"The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not."
Is this what John meant when he pointed to Jesus and said:
"Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)
Taken at face value - as the above quotes from Luke and the BCP - what John is saying is that everyone has, in effect, been forgiven. That the paedophile and the pervert, the murderer and the terrorist, the fraudster and the felon, the man waiting his turn in the electric chair and the wife-beater, the pimp, the drug-dealer, the gangster and the adulterer, the idolater and in fact every sinful, fallen, imperfect human being on the planet is the undeserving recipient of the grace of God as expressed, demonstrated and articulated in the death of Jesus who died to take away the "sin of the world"!
This means that potentially everyone is already saved, everyone is already forgiven and everyone is now an inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven because of Jesus' all-embracing, non-excluding, undeserved and unearned grace. Everyone is "home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or no" to quote Farrar-Capon. Suddenly grace took on a different sort of shine and it really is gracious grace. This means that the Bible is true when it says "While we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly." (Romans 5:8) i.e. Christ didn't wait until he knew whether every sinner would appreciate or respond to Christ's death or not. Also "God desires that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) God's desire is so strong - as strong as his love - that he has done all that is necessary to secure everyone's salvation. how could he not unless Paul was mistaken.
And suddenly other passages of Scripture began to make sense. Why did Jesus choose Judas? Just so that he could betray Jesus and dot the i's and cross the t's of the Old Testament prophesies? Or was it that Judas was chosen because of the grace of God which included him in his plans irrespective of his opposition of Jesus. And what about the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24? After the refusal of the first wave of invitations, Jesus sends out two more 'waves' - the poor, crippled, the blind and the lame on the streets (verse 21) and then all those on the roads and country lanes (verse 23). Everyone is included. And there are many more passages I could add.
But hang on isn't that universalism where everyone is saved whether they want to be saved or not? The answer is simple. No. Why? Because God's grace is only one side of the story. It's the greater side, certainly, but only one side. There is still our side and we have free will. We can - amazingly - reject his grace. We can - and many sadly will - opt out.
In the Parable of the Great Banquet some refused the invitation and did not get to sit down and eat with the generous host. God redeemed Israel but how many rejected Jesus' redemption and forgiveness. When babies are baptised every single one is made regenerate, but how many grow up to claim their inheritance? Every one is saved, forgiven, loved, blessed and have an invitation and access to the Kingdom of Heaven which is near to everyone or even inside them. But how many have received it, accepted it, responded to it or recognise that it is in fact available to them, gratis? Judas was included in the 12 for goodness sake, and what did he do? Opted out and decided there was more in it for him to betray Jesus. How mistaken was he.
And today every single person in Wales and the world is a forgiven man or woman, a regenerated man or woman, the object and beneficiary of Jesus' saving death and an inheritor of the Kingdom. But how many know about it? And how many have chosen to receive it for themselves?
Imagine everyone was given a billion pounds which was put in the bank in their name. They need not ever want for money ever again. All those in grinding poverty would be able to live and eat well. All those in debt would be able to pay it off. All those struggling to pay their mortgages, pay for their child's education, give up that soul-destroying job they have or pay for that operation which would turn their life around. All they have to do is accept that it is there, in the bank, in their name, and go along and draw it out. But say many of their responses are something along these lines. "I don't believe it. There are no free lunches in this life." or "It's a scam" or "it's a lie" or even "there is no bank account" or "it's too good to be true" or even "I don't want no hand outs, I can make my own way." Although these replies mean that the money is never withdrawn and the benefits enjoyed, that does not in any way diminish the generosity of the One who put the money there for them in the first place. Because they don't believe what they are told it does not mean that the money is not there, waiting for them. But it does mean that they will continue in grinding poverty, hungry, burdened, ill or deprived when they could live as kings and queens.
That is what the Gospel of grace is, for me. God has done all that is necessary, given all that he has, and attached no preconditions to what is on offer other than one simple one. Receive it. Open your hands and let him fill them.