Undeserved mercy, unexpected grace

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:9-12

Yesterday I experienced one of the greatest kindnesses I have ever seen. It was a gift of mercy multiplied by grace.

Recently Carol and I had some new flooring installed in our home, a hard floor in the little breakfast nook and carpet in the den and stairway. Yesterday I walked down to the furniture store to pay the bill. Privately I was a little anxious because we’d already spent my annual housing allowance on other repairs and renovations. To be flat-out honest, I was suffering a bit of a private pity party. I know, I know. I shouldn’t engage in that kind of self-indulgent sulking. God has been so good to us. He is always faithful and worthy of our continuous trust. I ought not worry about such little things as paying bills. But I worry far too often, even when the Lord has provided the means to pay.

Most of my private pity parties are celebrated when I play the comparison game. When I compare myself to other people in general or other pastors in particular, it invariably drains my spiritual vitality. Pity parties invariably expose myopic vision. Whether I look good or look bad in the comparison, my eyes stray from Christ and turn inward to self. I carry a burden that isn’t mine to bear. Temporal responsibilities outweigh spiritual reality. That was my spiritual condition yesterday as I pulled out my checkbook. It wasn’t a picture of personal piety.

The clerk laid the bill facing her on the counter between us. I took a pen in my hand and waited for an amount to write on the check. Without any drama or fanfare, without raising her voice or changing her business-like tone, she announced that the bill had been paid in full.

“What?… Who?…” I stammered.

She wouldn’t tell me anything. No names. No places. No explanation. Just that the bill had been paid.

I was shocked. It was an undeserved mercy. I ought to have paid the amount due. Instead the debt I owed was removed. Someone else paid the full price.

But the clerk wasn’t finished. There was more. She wanted me to measure our kitchen floor. Whoever paid my debt also was going to provide a new kitchen floor at no charge. There were no conditions, no “ifs.” There was not a single “but.” It was a gift with no strings attached. I came to the clerk thinking she wanted something from me. Instead she had something for me.

I was speechless. Paying the bill I owed was an undeserved mercy, but adding a kitchen floor was an outrageous and unexpected grace. The prophet Isaiah would label this person a “Repairer of Broken Walls” and a “Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12).

Mercy is withholding punishment due. That’s the first mile. Exhibit #1 is Jesus’ atonement on the cross. He paid the debt we owe. He took the punishment for our sin so it didn’t fall on us. Grace is unmerited favor. It goes further than mercy. That’s the second mile. There are not conditions. There are no “ifs.” Not a single “but.” Exhibit #1 is God’s manifold blessings to us in Christ – election, justification, adoption, sealing, calling – to name a few. All provided with no strings attached. We approach God thinking he wants something from us. Instead he has something for us.

In Jesus I’ve experienced both mercy and grace. Exhibit #1 is a hallmark of my life.

This week I was privileged to experience Exhibit #2 of mercy and grace. Mercy paid the bill I incurred. Grace piled on blessings I neither sought nor expected. We were replacing a floor in my house, but God made someone a Restorer of Broken Walls in my heart. We were updating a little house on a highway, but God made an anonymous benefactor a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Don’t feel left out. You can approach a heavenly Father and find undeserved mercy and unexpected grace. That’s what Jesus has for us. No strings attached. Some­times Jesus’ people do it, too. It can make a big difference. I know because it happened to me this week. Now that I have received the blessing of undeserved mercy and unexpected grace, I get to pass it on to others. So can you.

The Clevenger Chronicles: Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow at the Grand Canyon

In late September, Carol and I toured three days at Grand Canyon National Park. We hiked down the beautiful Bright Angel Trail for a mile and a half into the canyon. Shortly after we turned around, a downpour soaked our path. It quickly moved out over the canyon and a bright sun emerged.

A brilliant rainbow formed beneath us in the canyon. It was breathtaking. We were over the rainbow! What Dorothy Gale only dreamed and sang about became a reality for us. It felt like a once in a lifetime experience. At first we were too stunned to think of taking our picture. Fortunately, another hiker offered to snap a photo. What a treat from our heavenly Father! Midday rainbows are impossible except in unique places like the Grand Canyon.

If you look at the picture above, you might miss that we’re actually over the rainbow because the camera is positioned above us and the vast expanse behind us looks like the sky. But it’s not the sky. It’s the canyon below. The rainbow stretches in front of the rocks in the picture—the canyon floor. Isn’t that an amazing sign of a divine covenant?

From the Grand Canyon we headed north to Yellowstone National Park. We drove through a hard downpour and arrived at Old Faithful just as the rain stopped. As we stood at the famous site, a rainbow hovered in the east over Old Faithful Lodge. What a beautiful sight! A few minutes later, the reliable geyser erupted right on schedule.

Two national parks. Two rainbows. One trip of a lifetime. One would almost think God is trying to tell us something. Actually, he is. Rainbows are the sign of a covenant God made with Noah. We are the beneficiaries of his unconditional promise never to destroy the earth again by water in judgment.

Rainbows are far more than a refraction of light caused by moisture in the atmosphere. They’re a reminder that God restrains judgment on us. The colors draw our attention back to a covenant relationship we enjoy with our loving, heavenly Father. Rainbows shout out a universal covenant. They illustrate God withholding his hand of judgment in mercy. We all need God’s mercy. Whenever we see a rainbow, we remember God’s mercy toward us.

But we need more than God’s mercy. We need his grace, too. Mercy only withholds the judgment we deserve. Grace bestows unmerited favor upon us. Grace is consummated in the incarnation, when Jesus came to earth. That leads us to Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah Jesus. The Savior brings us grace which extends far over the rainbow of mercy. He is full of grace and truth, fulfilling our deepest need. The rainbow is just the beginning. We also need the manger and the cross, all wrapped together in resurrection.

It’s a joy to hear from many of you during this time of year as we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus. May each of you have a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”  Genesis 9:12-16