Some of you may have noticed that there are a lot of books in this building. There are shelves of books in the Koinonia Kafe, available to be borrowed and read. There are books in the Pastor’s Office, which Laurie and I brought here with us. There’s a wonderful collection downstairs, a Children’s Library, available for you. Plus the Bibles and hymnals in the pews – lots of books.

As I was rooting around through some of the books one day, I came across two books that have some very interesting stories in them, and I thought I might tell you some of those stories today. The odd thing about both books, however, is that they each seem to have some pages missing, because it appears that the whole stories aren’t in there, just pieces. And it gets frustrating, because they’re good stories, and we want to know the rest; we’d like to hear the whole thing.

One of the stories that is complete, that doesn’t have anything missing, is one I told you last week. It’s about a man and a women who lived in a garden and had everything they needed, and were taken care of, but still weren’t satisfied. They did the one thing they weren’t supposed to do: eat a piece of fruit from a certain tree; and they had to leave the garden.

That story was in the same book as the next couple I’m going to tell, but, like I said, I’m afraid they have some pages missing.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Abram. Abram was living in a town called Haran, and one day this person called “God” – I guess it’s a person; the book doesn’t say – this person called “God” told Abram to leave the town of Haran, to leave his home and his family and go to a faraway country where he’d never been before. And God said, “I’ll make you famous, and I’ll give you a big family, and I’ll always be on  your side. Any friend of yours is a friend of mine; any enemy of yours is an enemy of mine.” I guess God was a pretty powerful person.

Well, this must have sounded like a pretty good deal to Abram, because he packed up his belongings and took his wife and servants and did just what this God-person said. He went to a place called Canaan, and I guess God must have gone along, ‘cause God shows up again once they get there. And this time God says “I’m going to give you all this land.” Just like that! No deeds, no negotiations, no real estate agents, nothing. God gave Abram the land, and Abram settled there, and went on to have a pretty good life after that; everything that God had promised him – land, wealth, family, fame – he got. So he lived happily ever after.

Now the part of the story that’s missing, that I really want to know, is what this Abram-fellow had done to make God like him so much. The story doesn’t say a word about that, it just starts out, “God said to Abram . . .” Before that, just a list of his ancestors, nothing about him. The way we have it, it sounds like God just appeared out of the blue one day, and picked him for no reason, and gave him all these things, just ‘cause God felt like it. The story doesn’t say Abram’s a particularly good guy, or that he’d done God a favor, or anything! I wish I knew why God liked him so much. I wish I knew why he deserved all these gifts.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Jacob. And Jacob had had the misfortune of being born the younger son instead of the oldest son. Because Jacob was this rich guy Abram’s grandson, and if he’d been the oldest, he would have inherited all the family wealth that God had given Grandpa. But he wasn’t; he was born second. So he was doomed to just get the leftovers.

Or was he? See, Jacob, apparently, was a real scoundrel, and he schemed his way into getting some of his older brother’s stuff. One day, for example, his older brother, named Esau, came back from a long trip and was about to starve to death, and Jacob had some food. And Jacob was so nasty that he wouldn’t give his starving brother – his own brother! – any food until Esau promised to give him lots of the stuff he was going to inherit.

Then later, Jacob played a trick on his own poor old blind sick father. He pretended he was his brother Esau, and he tricked poor old Dad into giving him some more of the good stuff that was supposed to be for Esau. He lied, right to his face! “Yeah, yeah, I’m Esau. Give me the stuff.” Then when Esau got mad, Jacob ran away to hide behind his uncle, the little coward. Yeah, he was a gem, this guy Jacob.

And then . . . there’s some pages missing. There must be, because the next thing the story talks about is God appearing to this lowlife Jacob and blessing him. Making him lots of promises about giving him land, and giving him a big family, and giving him fame and power. And then giving it to him. And Jacob lived happily ever after. Once again, the part is missing about what Jacob had done for God to make God like him. What did he do to deserve all those good gifts? All we’re told about is his slimy behavior. I wonder why God liked him so much. I wonder what he did to deserve those rewards.

Well, the book goes on with more stories: Once upon a time, there was this group of slaves in the country of Egypt. They were poor people, and they were powerless people; they had no way of getting themselves out of the mess they were in. God came along again. And this time God intervened to help a whole big group of people. God did some things to the king of Egypt, like turning water into blood, and sending locusts and gnats into the land, and God wouldn’t stop until the king finally agreed to let all the people go. So the people finally escaped, and God even pushed a sea out of the way so they could put some distance between themselves and the Egyptians. And after all this, the people started to complain. “Why did God bring us out here?” “There’s not enough food or water.” “I want to go back where we had cucumbers to eat.” – they became a real bunch of whiners.

Well, God kept up with their requests, kept feeding them, kept them from getting lost in the desert, but then the first time God wasn’t looking, they started giving all the credit to some golden cow they had made, and started calling it “God” instead! God finally got mad, for a little while, but kept helping them anyway, and finally led them to a new country, and gave them a bunch of great farmland – even chased away the people that already lived there so the ex-slaves could move in. And they never had to go back to slavery again – they lived happily ever after.

And I wish I had the whole story! Once again there are those pages missing, this time right at the beginning, while the people are still slaves. We don’t have the part about why God cared about them. What did they do to deserve this intervention on their behalf? Why did God still like them after they complained so much, and poked fun with that gold cow? Why did God like them in the first place? I wish I knew what they did to deserve all the great gifts they got.

There’s another story like that one later on: This time the people aren’t slaves, but they are stuck far from home, in a place called Babylon. And once again God acts to get them sent back home, even though the reason they were in Babylon in the first place is because they didn’t do what God told them. And once again we’re not told why the people deserved this second chance. All it says in the story is that God arranged it: since they couldn’t behave on their own, it says, God decided to make it easier for them.

And one more from this book: Once upon a time, there was a motley crew of fellows in a place called Judea. There were a couple fishermen, a tax collector, a revolutionary, some others. And a man named Jesus decided to spend some time with them. Now this Jesus was a very special person. The things he said were very wise; he had the power to heal people; he had the power to do other miracles like feed a whole lot of people with just a little bit of food.

He was a popular guy. He probably could have spent his time with anybody he wanted. But he chose that little group. Even though they didn’t understand half of what he said. Even though they couldn’t do some of the things he told them. Even though they ran away when he made some enemies. Right up to the end, he said he loved them and that he would make sure they were always taken care of, forever and ever, even if he couldn’t be around himself. He really loved them. I wonder what he saw in them; I wonder what they had done to deserve all that love.

The other book I found was this one, called The Story of Christianity. Apparently this Jesus guy started a movement that lots and lots of people became interested in. They became aware that through a connection with him they could find a better life and an eternal life, two things that together they called “salvation.”  Here’s a story from that book:

Once upon a time there was a king named Constantine. And while he was at war with a couple other kings one time, he had a dream that he would be victorious if he put a symbol standing for Jesus Christ on his shield. He did that, and he was victorious, and this started a process for him by which he became a Christian and made the whole area he had conquered a Christian land. But Constantine was never baptized until just before he died, and this was the reason: he thought that baptism was what washed away all your sins, and he was afraid that if he got baptized too long before he died, he would have time to sin again afterward and that then he wouldn’t attain salvation. So he waited till the last second, just before he died, so he wouldn’t have time to mess up his salvation.

Well, eventually the church came along and said that the way Constantine thought wasn’t correct – you didn’t get your salvation by being baptized and then staying sinless until you die. Salvation, the church said, is something that was attained for us a long time ago, when Jesus died on a cross and wiped away all our sins forever at once. Our salvation was taken care of by his action; it doesn’t depend on a baptism. So Constantine could have been baptized before, and even sinned afterward, and he still would have lived happily ever after.

And there’re those missing pages again. OK, fine, baptism isn’t the way a person earns salvation. But what is? What do we have to do so Jesus will save us? How can we earn it? What can we do to make him love us enough to die for us, to include us? It isn’t baptism; maybe it’s something else.

Once upon a time, there was a practice in the church called “the selling of indulgences.” It was a great new way to guarantee salvation! All you had to do was have one of your relatives give a bunch of money to the church after you were dead, and that would instantly spring  your soul out of this place called “Purgatory,” and into a place called “Heaven,” a place of living-happily-ever-after. Why not? The money was for a good cause, right? That sounds like a good way to make Jesus’ actions work for your salvation, too; that’s how to buy into the reward.

Well, a guy named Martin Luther came along and said that that wasn’t the way, that indulgences weren’t the way to earn salvation and had to be cleaned out of the church. And finally the church came around and admitted that he was right, and they stopped selling indulgences, stopped telling people that that’s what you do to get salvation.

And that’s the end of that story. Great – baptism didn’t work, and now indulgences aren’t the answer. How do we earn this salvation? How can we make Jesus love us enough to save us?

Well, Martin Luther’s the one who stopped the indulgences – maybe he’s got the answer: Once upon a time, there was a monk named Martin Luther. And he was a pretty happy monk, until his superiors recognized some special talents in him and decided he should take a step up to priest. The first time he celebrated Mass, he was gripped by terror, thinking that he was holding the very body of Christ in his hands. What if he wasn’t worthy? What if God got mad at him for daring to presume that he had earned that right? So in order to make sure he’d escape God’s wrath, Luther entered into the most drastic system of good works and penances the world had ever seen. He would prove to God that he was good enough, that he had earned Christ’s love. He constantly examined every one of his thoughts and feelings to make sure it was pure. He confessed every little sin he could think of. He drove the other priests crazy.

And still it didn’t work. Still he thought that he had not yet earned his salvation, and he was in a state of despair. It seems you can’t even earn your salvation through good works and confession of sin. His superior, not knowing what else to do, decided a period of study might help Luther resolve his difficulties, so he was ordered to teach, to prepare some courses on the Bible to teach at a university. And while preparing a course on a book of the Bible called Romans, Luther came across some phrases like these:

  • “Now that we have been justified by faith, we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  • “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
  • “While we were still helpless, Christ died for the godless.”
  • “Christ died for us while we were still
  • “We were reconciled to God through the death of Gods’ Son.”

Given to us? Christ reconciled us sinners to God? Luther wrote, “I felt that I

had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened.” You don’t have to earn salvation; it is given to us. Not because we’re righteous, not because we deserve it, not because God’s returning a favor, but just because God wishes to give it. Just because God loves us.

Centuries after Luther, another Bible scholar named Cranfield would say this about Romans 5: “Christ’s work was not according to the ‘God helps them that help themselves’ of Poor Richard’s Almanac. He did not wait for us to start helping ourselves, but died for us when we were altogether helpless . . . the divine love is not the result of {some special} work of the objects, but is self-caused and confers worth upon them . . . the initiative in reconciliation is God’s.” End of quote.

And that’s the missing piece of all the stories. God didn’t help out Abram, and Jacob, and Hebrew slaves and exiles and disciples because they’d done something to deserve it; God just loved them, so gave things to them. They didn’t have to do anything to make God love them. God loves because that’s who God is; that’s what it means to be God. Even when we sin, like those first people in our first story, and everyone since, God responds with love. God arranges things so that we sinning people can be saved, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as a free gift. God responds . . . with grace.

Once upon a time a group of people in a church in Paris, IL heard some stories about God doing  things for different people. And they heard again the lesson that God has acted to reconcile them to God after they had sinned, to give them a better life and an eternal life. And they were grateful to know that they didn’t have to earn God’s favor and God’s love, but that it was freely given. And when the end of the sermon rolled around, they all joyfully said together: AMEN.