The Puzzle of Grace
A sermon on Luke 18:1-8 & Jeremiah 31:27-34 by Nathan Nettleton, 17 October 2004

The relationship between God’s work and our work in salvation is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived in prayer and faithful discipleship.


Sometimes our thinking about God and our relating to God throw up puzzles which seem impossible to solve. Some of these are more like riddles than anything else, and probably don’t cause anything more than a bit of brain strain. For example there is the question that was mentioned in the catechumenate studies last week about whether it is possible for an all-powerful God to create something that an all-powerful God is powerless to control. These kind of questions are fun for philosophers to think about, and every now and then they do have implications for the way we are relate to God in real life, but most of the time they are little more than amusing brain-teasers. There are other puzzles though which go right to the heart of how we relate to God, and what we can expect of God and what God is expecting of us.

Today’s scripture readings threw up a couple of those questions for me, and as I began to reflect on them in light of my own faith journey at the present time, I began to see connections between them which might be worth us exploring a little. The more obvious one came in the gospel reading. Jesus tells a story about a corrupt magistrate who has no interest in justice, but only in what he can milk from the legal processes to feather his own nest. And Jesus says that even with such a corrupt magistrate, if you are doggedly persistent for long enough, he’ll eventually settle the case just to get rid of you. And so, Jesus is saying, how much more sure we can be that God will act quickly to answer our prayers. But there is a problem with that, isn’t there? Because the passage actually says that Jesus told this story in order to make people realise how important it was to be persistent in prayer and never lose heart. And those two things are a bit contradictory, because if God can be relied on to answer quickly, then there would be no need to persist and no danger of losing heart. We need to persist and never give up precisely because it seems that God does not always respond quickly. It’s quite a puzzle.

The other one in today’s readings is not as obvious, and perhaps the reason it looks like a puzzle to me has got more to do with where I’m at at the moment than with what it actually says, but I know that some of you reckon that I preach best when I speak out of the experience of my own struggles, so I’ll try to do that again here, and to the rest of you I apologise if it just seems self-indulgent!

The reading from Jeremiah speaks of the promise of a coming day when God’s law will be written into our hearts and we will not have to teach one another to know the Lord for we will simply all know the Lord, all of us, from the least to the greatest. Now the Christian tradition generally teaches that that day has come with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so if that is so, then we are living in the days when the law of the Lord is written on our hearts and we can know the Lord without having to be taught. And I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like heaven. It sounds like I shouldn’t have to struggle with my own selfish desires anymore, because the Lord has overwritten them with God’s own desires. It sounds as though knowing God and being godly should now come pretty easy, because I don’t really have to do it myself. God has saved me, fixing me up from the inside, reprogramming the desires of my heart and setting me free to follow the paths of truth without much effort at all on my part. And that seems to fit pretty well with what the Apostle Paul says about how we are saved by faith and not by works. It is all God’s doing. There is nothing we can contribute to our salvation by our own efforts. We simply surrender ourselves to God, and God takes over and transfigures us from within.

Well, if that’s the whole story, then how come I still have to struggle with selfish desires that seek to derail me and push me down another track? And I don’t think I am alone in that, because I know some of you well enough to know that it is the same for you. Am I right? And I also know that the same Apostle Paul also wrote, “The things I want to do I cannot do, and the things I do not want to do I end up doing. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” So how can we reconcile this? How can we simultaneously affirm that we can do nothing and it is all up to God, and that we must continue to work at writing God’s law into our own hearts and striving with all our might to conform our own lives to the righteousness of God?

I am feeling the sense of stalemate in this rather acutely at the moment because of a kind of stalemate I have run into in my own growth of late. For me at the moment, it is not so much about a struggle with dark and selfish desires, but with the impossibility of some of my good desires. I have a deep desire to see various things change for the better, both inside myself and in my relationships with others around me, and so my instinct is to work really hard at bringing about within myself the changes that will enable me to bring them all about. But the trap is that one of the things that is most needed to make these changes possible is for me to stop thinking and acting as though I am in control and I can engineer the world to conform to my desires. I need to surrender and accept that I am not master of my own universe. And yet, even my efforts to accept that truth and surrender to it become yet another attempt to create, by myself, the right conditions to allow the changes to occur. And so I find myself impossibly stuck in one of my own theological puzzles. Only God can save me, and yet even when I try to allow God to save me, I am caught up in my own trying and have not truly surrendered. Even as I try to allow the Lord to write the law of God into my heart I am caught up in trying to write the script myself. Every way I turn, I am still trapped in my own efforts to stop trying to do everything by my own efforts.

I can’t solve that puzzle, and that one’s not just a brain teaser. For me, that one is presently front and centre in my real life relationship with our risen Lord. How does the sovereign work of God interrelate with our own faithful efforts to journey deeper into the life of God? Such a question really matters. But, there is something else that matters too, and that is that I, and any of the rest of you in similar predicaments, do not get totally distracted by trying to solve the puzzle. Because, when the rubber hits the road, such questions are not really puzzles to be solved, but mysteries to be lived. I am not called to come up with an intellectually satisfying solution to the puzzle. I am called to live faithfully within the puzzle and to resist my impatience and wait for the mysterious and sometimes slow work of God to have its way with me and transfigure me according to God’s script rather than my own. And that might mean that I have to live with the pain and perplexity of this puzzle for quite a long time. Like Paul, I may for a good while to come be frustratedly praying, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

And that is where this dilemma brings us back to the other puzzle from the gospel reading; the puzzle about persevering in prayer. You see, somewhere in the mysterious and unfathomable ways of God, God’s work and our work do get bound up together, and so there are many many times when we cry out to God to do something, but that very something is dependent on a change being wrought in ourselves which we are not yet able to surrender ourselves to. And so our need to persevere long and hard in prayer is not to try to twist the arm of a reluctant God, but to place ourselves at the mercy of God long enough for God to do the work within us that we cannot do ourselves, and cannot even name ourselves, but which is part of the work of saving us and saving the world of which we are a part and for which we pray.

So for me at the moment, the call is to persevere in a prayer that says, “God, I can’t do it. I can’t make the changes I need to make. And I can’t even change myself enough to let go and let you make the changes. It’s all up to you now.” And I can have no idea how long I will be stuck in that prayer, but I do know that persevering at this prayer is essential to keeping myself in the space where God can break through the impossibility of it all and do something new.

And I also know that it is precisely when things are utterly impossible that the good news of Jesus the Christ becomes our last and only hope, and becomes the power of God. For it was from the complete impossibility of finding life in the midst of betrayal, torture, humiliation, death, and burial, that God brought something new. From the grave where all our hopes of salvation were buried, God raised Jesus the Christ to new and impossible and unimaginable life. And this was no mere resuscitation, for if it had been, death could have regrouped and had another go. No, this is something totally without precedent, and totally without parallel. This is something which no words can capture and which no philosophy can make sense of, and yet it is something which is so earth-shattering, that no puzzling tomb of impossibility can ever be regarded as impossible again. It doesn’t tell us how or when our impossibilities will be broken open by God’s impossible grace, but when we gather around this table and open the Word and break the bread and find ourselves in the presence of the impossibly risen Christ, we can know that impossible has been defeated, that all things are possible for God, and that even the most frustrating puzzles and deadly stalemates will eventually be the empty tombs from which we have been raised to new life to the glory and praise of God.

©2004 Nathan Nettleton