Joy is very much like love: precious to us because it comes at a cost. The deserts that we go through in our lives are the downpayments we make for the joy we will come to know.
If "Grace Actually" were a movie, this is how it might begin: We glance back at this year and wonder: where is the grace? Where is the kindness? Where is the decency? Where is the mercy? Where is humility? And what is wrong with humanity? But then we take a better look around and it isn't hard to see. Grace is everywhere. You won't read about it in the newspapers, but it's there, in a million small things and some big things, too. The truth is that every single day we are being rescued. Every single day someone is dying to one life and being reborn in another. Just go to a hospital. Go to a homeless shelter. Go to the bathroom and look in the mirror. In every single moment, we are upheld by grace. And when things fall apart, grace is what glues us back together. So all the bad news this year has given God all the more opportunities to give us the good news and it has made us all the more ready to hear it and to share it. Despite all appearances, grace actually is all around us.
There is no time that is sacred anymore. Before it ever arrives, it's already spent. Like the oil in the foolish maidens' lamps, there isn't enough of it to get us through the night, let alone the next day and the next and the next. And so we are in a perpetual panic, a constant state of unreadiness. It's only when we crash and burn or get sick or our kid is in crisis or we have a parent go to the hospital or to the mortuary that we see how foolish this all is. When we are sitting in the dark because our lamp has burned out, where is Jesus when we really need him? Does he shut us fools out because he does not know us or do we shut ourselves out because we don't know him?
Young people are not all rejecting Christ. Many of them are simply rejecting what passes for Christianity in too many congregations across this country. So it is long past time for a new encounter with Jesus and a new reformation of faith in this land of the free and the brave.
So Wesley wasn't just responding emotionally to the Bible study. It wasn't that he was caught up in the "heat of the moment" as we would say. What Wesley was caught up in was the saving grace of God. And that encounter didn't just change his feelings. Whether he knew it at the time or not, it changed his whole being. When Wesley's heart was strangely warmed, his whole life was being transformed.
If you think this was unfortunate because it forced everyone into one liturgical straightjacket, consider this: Thomas Cranmer and the English reformers were just doing what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount when he was teaching his disciples to pray. Jesus knew that his disciples were going to be at a loss when he left them. What could keep them together when they came together? Today, Christians all over the world pray "The Lord's Prayer."
Within a few decades, the backlash started to build and that backlash is called the Radical Reformation. The Radical Reformers wanted to be totally free from the authority of the institutional church and the state. As they saw it, the true Church was not an institution that protected its power. Rather, the Church was a group of people who wanted to protect the purity of their beliefs.
Despite Calvin's best efforts, his descendants have not been able to make society look like the kingdom of God. But we keep trying. We just have to remember what Calvin said about power. We have to remind every pastor and every politician to be careful, because all power comes from God and all people who are in a position to use that power will be held to account by God. In fact, it was Calvin's insistence on the total sovereignty of God and the supreme lordship of Christ that gave one Reformed theologian by the name of Karl Barth the strength and courage to stand up to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Luther's focus on faith—not the Church's faith, not the pope's faith—but the individual believer's faith was the fuel for the fire that became known as the Reformation. But it's impact went far beyond the Church. This new focus on the individual is arguably the foundation of modern Western Civilization. From individual faith comes a belief in individual rights and from a notion of individual rights comes a yearning for political, economic and religious freedom and from freedom comes the long march to democracy. So regardless of religion, on the inside of every American is a little bit of Martin Luther.
Paul tells them that this is a test. Paul is testing the genuineness of their love against the earnestness of the Macedonians. And how will he measure their generosity? By a very big yardstick, the standard set by Christ, who "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor." Against that standard, no gifts are too big. But Paul is not preaching to billionaires. He is saying that if the eagerness is there, if their hearts are really in it, then there are no gifts too small, either. Their gifts will be measured according to what they have, not according to what they don't have.