November 29, 1998
FULL OF GRACE AND TRUTH
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
You open the mailbox. The bold print on the envelope screams, “Congratulations! You are a finalist for our grand prize!” A finalist! Just one more step, and the pot of gold is yours! You’ll be swimming in money. So, are you jumping for joy? Are you planning where you’re going to spend all that cash? Not if your brain is working. You remember other junk mail breathlessly declaring you a finalist, and you wonder how many million other “finalists” there are this time.
Actually, there was one giveaway where there weren’t just a lot of phony “finalist” messages but where a lot of people really did win. It happened several years ago. A soft drink company wanted to boost sales in a certain country, so they ran a bottle-cap promotion promising a grand prize of a million pesos, or about $36,000, to any person whose bottle cap had the winning number. Sales were brisk, and when the winning number was chosen, it turned out to be 349. And—wonder of wonders!—there weren’t just one or two winners. More than 500,000 people found the number 349 stamped on their bottle cap. Imagine their delight!
At that point, though, company executives said it was all a mistake, “a computer glitch.” If they paid every winner the money they had promised, the company would have to shell out over $18 billion! The company bosses claimed they were under no legal obligation and then gave the people with a 349 bottle cap nineteen dollars each. As you’d expect, thousands of angry customers filed lawsuits. Nineteen dollars is okay, but it’s not exactly $36,000. That’s life, isn’t it? The only time a giveaway is as great as advertised, it’s declared a computer error.
Freebies tend to make us cynical. We don’t trust people who seem too nice any more than we trust companies that seem too nice. Let’s say somebody starts being nice to you for no apparent reason. Do you immediately marvel at how kind and loving and gracious that person is? More often than not, you get suspicious. You say to yourself, “Hmmmm. I wonder what that person wants.”
Grace is in short supply these days. We don’t trust others to be generous, and we can’t afford to be generous ourselves. Grace? A generous, unconditional gift motivated only by kindness and love? Does such a thing even exist? Is there anybody who’s generous just to be generous, who’s kind just to be kind, who offers help just because he or she cares? Not likely.
And grace isn’t the only thing in short supply. Truth is also hard to find. We’re bombarded with all sorts of messages, and it gets harder and harder to believe any of them.
Take advertising, for example. If you have trouble attracting someone of the opposite sex, your troubles are over. All you need to do is shower with the right soap, wash with the right shampoo, brush with the right toothpaste, gargle with the right mouthwash, put on the right antiperspirant, splash on the right scent, squeeze into the right jeans, drive the right car, sip the right coffee, guzzle the right beer, and your only problem with romance will be trying to pick who you’d like best from the crowd of gorgeous specimens pursuing you.
The problem is, it doesn’t work that way for you. It only works for the models in the advertisements–and for the corporations that hire them. They make a fortune selling you the lie that their product can improve your love life and make you irresistible. “Truth in advertising” is an oxymoron, it seems.
If corporate advertising doesn’t turn you into a skeptic, there’s always politics. One American president says, “Read my lips: No new taxes” and then presides over an enormous tax hike. Americans elect a new president, but this man lies to his family and his cabinet, he lies to the entire nation on television, and he even lies in a court of law. Presidents and other politicians don’t seem to be very good at telling the truth.
But let’s not pick on the advertisers and politicians too much. They aren’t the only liars. They’re just public examples of a problem that also shows up in our private behavior. Truth is often just as scarce in our personal lives. “I’m late because of the traffic.” “The check is in the mail.” “For better, for worse, till death do us part.” We’ve had too much experience with lies and broken promises to put much stock in anybody’s word. Is there anybody who tells the truth no matter what and keeps promises even when it hurts?
It’s possible to get so cynical that you give up on grace, and so skeptical that you give up on truth.
When you become cynical, you can’t accept kindness from anyone without wondering what they’re after. You can’t accept something for nothing, and you can’t give it. You see the worst in everything. You trust no one. You take what you can. You manipulate when you must. You resign yourself to living in a world where self-centeredness is the only reality. That’s the way of the cynic. It’s easy to become a cynic who gives up on grace.
And it’s just as easy to become a skeptic who gives up on truth. You don’t trust anybody, and you don’t believe anything. You don’t conduct business with a promise and a handshake; you demand a written contract full of lawyer’s jargon. You don’t get married “for better or for worse till death do us part”; you draft a prenuptial agreement. You look at all the different religions in the world, and you figure nobody really knows what they’re talking about. You’re not going to believe anything or anybody, at least not very strongly. You’re a skeptic.
Skepticism gets to be a way of life for many individuals, and it’s become the rule in many academic circles. According to many postmodern professors and scholars, truth isn’t a matter of accurately describing the way things are. That kind of truth is an illusion, they say, because thoughts and words have no reliable connection to objective reality. So what is truth? Well, they redefine truth to be “whatever the people around you will let you get away with saying.” If you insist on thinking of truth in the traditional sense, then there’s one truth you can be sure of: you can’t be sure of anything.
The cynic gives up on grace and love; the skeptic gives up on truth and faithfulness. However, even when we think we’ve given up on these things, it’s not quite that simple. None of us can get rid of our built-in yearning for grace. We long for love. And we can’t escape our craving for truth, either. We need truth. We need to know solid facts, and we need to know someone we can believe, who won’t lie to us. We need grace and truth, and very few of us can survive as full-time cynics and skeptics. If we can’t find grace and truth, we start looking for substitutes.
One place people look for a substitute for grace is the bar. After a few drinks with your barroom buddies, you can do anything you want, you can say anything you want, you can relax with people who are a lot like you. It’s a place to escape pressure, a place to belong, a place to fit in. The trouble is that in the long run, fitting in with a group of drinking pals isn’t a satisfying substitute for being genuinely loved and accepted.
Another substitute for grace is sex. Deep down, everyone wants to be loved. But if real love isn’t available, then what? If you can’t believe in love for a lifetime, sex for the moment is the best you can hope for. A lot of promiscuity isn’t just due to overactive hormones. It’s due to despair. People give up on love that is unconditional and fully committed, and they settle for physical gratification. Sex becomes a substitute for grace.
At the level of ideals, we also seek substitutes for grace. Many people who give up on grace find themselves settling for the ideal of tolerance. Grace means loving people in spite of their flaws–and loving them enough to help them change. Tolerance, on the other hand, means overlooking faults and pretending they don’t matter. You just let everybody do their own thing, no matter how disgusting and perverted, and you don’t challenge it in any way.
When we don’t know the grace of being forgiven and of being helped to change, the best we can do for each other is pretend that there’s no need for forgiveness and change. And so “live and let live” becomes our only ideal. But once again, that’s not a very satisfying substitute for the grace our souls crave. Our deepest desire isn’t to live and let live. It’s to love and be loved. Just below the surface of much so-called tolerance lies the attitude, “If you want to destroy yourself, that’s your business; and if I want to destroy myself, that’s my business.” Tolerance is no substitute for love. Whatever we latch on to as a substitute for grace, it doesn’t satisfy.
The same thing happens in relation to truth. We all need certainties to build our lives on and promises we can count on. But if we can’t be sure about anything, if we can’t be fully confident in anybody, we often settle for substitutes.
One substitute for truth is information. We may not have any great truths to believe in, but we sure have access to a lot of facts and information. We even say we’re living in “the information age.” We know more about physics and chemistry and biology, we have access to more statistics and data, than any civilization in history.
But although this is the information age, it certainly isn’t the truth age. We’ve got computers to store all sorts of information and perform all sorts of calculations, but they still can’t do our thinking for us. They can’t show us what really matters. With all our information, we’ve become experts in Trivial Pursuit, but can’t make up our minds about anything that goes beyond trivia. Still, if we swim around in a sea of information, maybe we won’t notice that we don’t have a clue about the truths that really matter.
Another way we cope with our shortage of truth is to follow trends. If I can’t decide what’s right, if I have no basis for my opinions, if I don’t have access to solid truth, I can at least read the public opinion polls. I can look at what other people are doing and keep up with the latest fashions. If I don’t know whether something is right or true, I can at least take comfort in being part of the crowd. But keeping up with trends is a cheap substitute for living by the truth.
Beneath all our searching lies a basic need for grace and truth. We need to be loved, and we need to be certain about what our life is built on. We keep searching, but no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to find what we’re looking for.
There’s a comedy routine in which the comedian is on a dark stage with one small circle of light. He’s looking around in that circle of light, obviously trying to find something. After a while a policeman walks up. “What are you looking for?” “I lost the key to my house.” “Oh,” says the officer. “Let me help you.” They both search for a while, but they still can’t find it. Finally, the policeman stands up and says, “Are you sure you lost it over here.” “Oh no,” says the comedian. “I lost it over there.” “Well, why are you looking over here, then.” “Because,” replies the comic, “there’s no light over there.”
That’s the story of our lives. Somewhere along the line, we lost grace and truth. We’re searching desperately to get them back, but we’re looking in all the wrong places. We search in barrooms and bedrooms and classrooms and wherever else we have little circles of light where we can see, but that’s not where grace and truth are found.
Grace and truth, love and faithfulness, originate in God. And the problem is, God is hidden in darkness. As the Bible says in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God.” Grace and truth can’t be found in the places we can see, but we keep searching there anyway. What else are we supposed to do? How can we find what we’re looking for if it lies where we can’t see? How can we find grace and truth if we can’t see God?
The bad news is: we can’t. We can’t find grace and truth. But the good news is: grace and truth have found us! That’s what Christmas is all about. In John 1 the Bible puts it this way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the father, full of grace and truth… From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another… grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
This is the answer, the only answer, to our desperate need for grace and truth. The Word was with God, in fact he was God, and on that first Christmas, this divine Word, God the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity–the invisible Word became visible flesh as a newborn baby. The divine Lord became human. The God we cannot find found us. The God we cannot see showed himself in human form. Grace and truth have come to us in Mary’s baby.
Jesus is full of grace. A cynic says, “You don’t get something for nothing. Nobody gives freely just because he’s kind or loves just because that’s the way he is.” But God is love, and his Son came to us full of grace. The Lord owed us nothing, but he gave up everything for our sake. Scripture says,
Christ Jesus. … being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)
The manger of Bethlehem and the cross of Calvary stand forever as proof that grace is real, that Jesus Christ is full of grace. When you see the Son of God give up his heavenly glory to become a baby in a manger, when you see him sacrifice his very life and pour out his blood to purchase salvation for others, your cynicism dies. There really is such a thing as grace after all. There really is enormous, uncalculating love. There really is a precious gift freely given. “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.”
Jesus is full of grace, and he is also full of truth. He embodies the truth of God. As he himself put it, “I am the truth.” Let’s face it, truth is hard to find on the religious scene. Every religion and every guru claims to know the truth about God, and it gets pretty confusing. They can’t all be right. After a while, you get to wondering if any of them are right. But in Jesus we encounter God himself. He’s not just one more person claiming to have religious insights. Jesus doesn’t just teach the truth; he is the truth. He doesn’t just tell us about God; he is God. As God, he knows and expresses perfectly who God is. And as man, he makes the reality and truth of God available to humanity. God is no longer hidden. Truth has a body and a name. Truth is Jesus.
Jesus is full of grace and truth. What’s more, Jesus keeps grace and truth together in perfect unity. Unfortunately, there are people and churches that tend to separate grace from truth.
Churches can become so eager to be gracious and accepting that they lose their concern for truth. They condone any behavior, they never challenge sin or call for repentance. They want to be kind and gracious. If two people with no Christian commitment want a church wedding, the church obliges. If people who aren’t practicing Christians want their baby baptized just out of family tradition or sentiment, the church is happy to get the child wet. The sermons are all love, no judgment. All grace, no truth.
Others prefer all truth and no grace. They’re sticklers for orthodoxy, they’re experts on the smallest details of personal behavior, they emphasize detailed knowledge of the Bible and theology, but grace seems to be in pretty short supply. The sermons are all judgment, no love. There’s not much room for people who aren’t already perfect. Every few years there’s another nasty disagreement and another church split in the name of holding to the pure and undiluted truth. All truth, no grace.
But grace and truth belong together. Grace without truth isn’t grace at all; it’s permissiveness. And truth without grace isn’t God’s truth; it’s legalism. What churches need, what families need, what we all need, isn’t a little more grace or a little more truth. What we need is a lot more Jesus. He’s full of grace and truth–both at the same time–and a church full of Jesus will have plenty of both.
Jesus comes to us full of grace and truth. When Jesus met a Samaritan woman with a soiled history, he was very gracious. He sat with her and began talking with her about how she could have eternal life. He was full of grace for this sinner–but not at the expense of truth. He also talked about her relationships with five different husbands and a live-in lover. Grace and truth.
When a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the men who wanted to stone her, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all drops their stones and left. Jesus told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you.” That’s grace. But then he added, “Go and sin no more.” That’s truth. He showed her God’s love, but he also told her the truth about her sin.
Or think of the Pharisees. Jesus was painfully truthful with them. He called them hypocrites, white-washed tombs, snakes, and blind guides. But in telling them painful truth, he never stopped being gracious. When the Pharisee Nicodemus wanted to talk with him, Jesus spent time with him. And when the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus was trying to stamp out the followers of Jesus, the Lord showed him grace. He showed Saul the truth about his evil conduct and the truth about salvation in Christ, and he forgave Saul and transformed him into Paul the apostle. Truth and grace, even for nasty Pharisees! Jesus is “full of grace and truth.”
God’s gracious truth in Jesus is that, behind and beneath and beyond everything we can see or touch, there exists Someone of unimaginable power and splendor and wisdom and love, and this glorious Someone has come near to us as a man. God’s gracious truth is that despite our cynicism and skepticism, despite our futile search for substitutes, despite our sin and inability to find the invisible God, he has found us and brings to us his forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. In Christ, God bridges the gap between us and himself and makes us partakers of the grace and truth we could never find on our own. This is the true meaning of Christmas.
Jesus is full grace and truth, and that calls for a response from you and from me. In John 1 the Bible says,
Jesus was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:4,10-12)
Jesus has come. Believe him. Receive him. In a world where so much is dark, the light continues to shine. Don’t surrender to cynicism and skepticism. Surrender to Christ. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, full of grace and truth.”
Loving Father, we praise you for shining your light into our darkness and for sending your Son into this world as one of us. Rescue us from sin and despair, we pray. Satisfy our hearts with your grace and our minds with your truth, and fill us with the joy and wonder of Christmas, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.