Sunday, 23 October 2016

Bible Sunday: Gracious Words

“All were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth.”

You know how you can read something year in year out and not notice the detail? Well that’s what happened to me when I looked at the very familiar Gospel reading we heard today. It was that little phrase “gracious words” which made me suddenly sit up and take notice. “All were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth.” “What does that mean?” I asked myself.  What are “gracious words”? I wonder what you think.

Today we tend to say that someone has spoken graciously if they’ve got a nice turn of phrase, or if they’ve managed to say something difficult or painful in a way that’s easier for others to accept. Responding graciously to an insult means not sinking to the level of your attacker, but finding something positive to say in answer to them.  It would be great to see some more “gracious words” in the US election campaign!

Thinking about graciousness might lead us on to think about other closely related words too – words like “graceful” and the word that gives rise to them both, “grace”. What do these words mean to us? The dictionary lists some synonyms – elegance, agility, refinement, polish.
Talk about grace and what do you think of? Maybe the kind of serene poise of Audrey Hepburn or one of those other old fashioned, impeccably groomed film stars. A good dancer might be called graceful too, someone who can place every step perfectly and effortlessly.
Gracefulness is often seen as a quality you’re either born with, or not.

But the grace of Jesus’ words in that synagogue in Nazareth wasn’t anything to do with eloquence or elegance. The congregation there wasn’t amazed by his clever arguments or uplifting sentiments or sophisticated style.

To understand what they might have meant when they called his words gracious we need to dig back to the Greek and Hebrew words for grace – the ones Jesus’ congregation would have known and used.  They are charis in the Greek and khen in the Hebrew, if you’re interested. And once you start to look, you find those words all over the place in the Bible. Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, it says. David found grace in the eyes of King Saul – at least at first. Ruth, a Moabite refugee to Israel, found grace in the eyes of Boaz, who ended up marrying her. The letters of Paul are full of prayers that people might know the grace of God. We use one of his greetings as a prayer we call the Grace – the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Some Bibles translate khen and charis as “favour” instead of grace. It’s the word Gabriel uses when he tells Mary she will bear Jesus. “Hail, favoured one, the Lord is with you.” “Hail Mary, full of grace” as older translations put it.

All this gives us a clue that for the people of the Bible, grace was much more than an Audrey Hepburn like polish. Fundamentally, it was something that had to do with relationships. Grace –or favour if you prefer – was something granted by someone who had power to someone who needed their help. It wasn’t an innate talent, something you were born with; it was something you were given. If you found grace in someone’s eyes it meant that they affirmed you and accepted you, supported you and sheltered you, gave you their protection and approval. In the Bible most often it is God who is the giver of grace – in fact it’s one of the things that defined God for the Jewish people   “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” - that’s Psalm 145. Again and again when they were in need they cried out to God for grace. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted,” says Psalm 25.


In the New Testament, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are described as charismata – graces -  everything from dramatic things like prophecy and healing to the less obvious like administration and helpfulness. Charismatic people aren’t people who are charming or persuasive; they are people who are filled with the gifts of the Spirit, deeply connected to the life of God and dependent on him.


According to the Bible, then, being a gracious, or a graceful person, means being secure in our relationship with God, knowing that he accepts and loves us, confident that he’ll support and uphold us.


So let’s go back to that synagogue in Nazareth and those “gracious words” which Jesus spoke. The thing which amazed people that morning was not that he spoke fluently, but that what he said reflected enormous confidence in his relationship with God.  


He‘d read words some very familiar words from the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”. Isaiah was one of the best known, most quoted books of scripture at the time of Jesus, so his hearers would have known knew these words like the back of their hands. But who was Isaiah talking about? Interpretations varied.  Some people thought it referred to the whole people of Israel; others saw it as a prophecy about a particular promised leader, a Messiah – literally an anointed one. But people wouldn’t normally have applied it to themselves as Jesus did here. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.  To do that would have sounded presumptuous, a bit mad maybe – unless, of course, it was true.


But the fact that these are described as “gracious” words implies that, to some of those who heard them, at least, Jesus claim seemed authentic, grounded, powerful. It rang true to them. And let’s not forget, these were people who knew him. In other places in the Gospels, people are amazed at the authority with which he speaks too, so it wasn’t just them. This is a man whose words are shot through with assurance that God is with him and for him. That’s why they are called “gracious”. He knows he is secure in the grace of God. He doesn’t just speak gracious words, he is the Gracious Word – God’s word of grace -who  “became flesh, and lived among us…full of grace and truth” said John (1.14)


So, we might say, that’s all very well – it tells us something about Jesus – but what difference does it make to us?


It makes a difference to us because this man, who was so secure in his Father’s love that he was prepared to die for his message, didn’t just believe that he was “graced”; he believed that we were too. “You are the light of the world,” he said. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” “Ask and it will be given to you”. The joyful, hopeful message of Jesus is that all of us are chosen, called, “graced” by God, brought into a relationship with him that is safe, certain, indestructible. All we have to do is to learn to trust it.


But of course, that’s easier said than done.  The disappointments and betrayals we encounter in life often damage our ability to trust. If we’re lucky, there’ll be people in our lives whose love we can rely on, but most people, in my experience, struggle at least some of the time to believe they really are acceptable and accepted, and for some it is a lifelong battle to feel secure.  Why should anyone – let alone God - be with us and for us? But according to the Bible that’s the message which Christ lived and died to proclaim, and if we call ourselves his disciples, which literally means learners, then this is the most important lesson we need to learn.


And perhaps  that’s where these Biblical ideas of grace do, in fact, connect with the images we started with.  Graceful dancers know where to put their feet because they’ve practiced, repeating the steps time and time again until they are secure in them.  Gracious speakers can rise above the level of those who insult them because they are sure of their own worth. They are sure of their ground. They have learned that they don’t need to put others down in order to win the argument. Gracefulness and graciousness aren’t magical qualities which some people have and some don’t, even if it sometimes looks that way. They’re things we have to learn and practice if we want them to be embedded in our lives.  


That’s true for the dancer or the public speaker, but it’s also true for us in our normal daily lives. If we want to be graceful, grace-filled people we need to practice, to take in day by day the truths God wants us to learn about him and about his love for us. We practice that through prayer, through coming together for worship and fellowship, learning from and with one another. We practice, too,  through reading the Bible – today is Bible Sunday – taking into ourselves the gracious words of scripture which were written, said our first reading so that  “by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”  


Last week at our All Age Worship, I talked about Promise Boxes – boxes of cards printed with Bible verses. have a look on the red table if you’d like to know more about that. They are one way of taking in the gracious words of God day by day, but however we do it, it is important that we learn to recognise and own the grace of God that is given to us, that message of security – or salvation if you want to use a more theological word – which Jesus died to proclaim.


It matters because it’s the knowledge of God’s grace, his loving acceptance of us, with all our faults and failings, that gives us the confidence and courage to speak gracious words to others, even when they hurt us, insult us, let us down, misunderstand or ignore us.  And the world surely needs as many gracious words as it can hear today!


So today, on this Bible Sunday, as we give thanks for the gracious words of God, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and evermore. 




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