Luke 2:52

Growing In Grace

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Merry Christmas!  It was good to see most of you at the Christmas Eve service, just two days ago.  How time flies!  I trust you were able to weather the winter storm and have a joyful celebration of Christ’s coming in the warmth of your homes.

In case you haven’t heard, I’ll be leaving after church today to drive to Cedar Park, Texas, where I’ll join my boys and their families for a little post-Christmas gathering.  From there, we’ll drive down to the Texas Gulf Coast, where we’ll spend a few days together playing with the kids on the beach.  Eat your heart out!  I’ll be back on Saturday in time to get ready for the big service of ordination and installation of elders next Sunday.

I can’t wait to see the kids.  Let me take a minute to give you a quick roll call: First, there’s Noah, John and Jennifer’s oldest.  He’s eleven.  He’s the one who went with me to Washington, D.C. this summer.  Next is sister Jordan, age nine; and her little brother, Nathan, who’s four.  Then there’s cousin, Hank – Patrick and Emily’s son.  He’s also four.  Bringing up the rear is Caitlyn – Chris and Trina’s daughter – who’s anything but a terrible two-year-old.

They grow so fast.  One day they’re little babies; the next day they’re ready to take you on in a wrestling match or a competitive game of checkers or one of the electronic games on Wii.

I mention this, not to brag, but to make a point: Growing up is fundamental to children.  We measure their height and weight to mark their physical progress.  We monitor their motor skills and verbal skills to measure their cognitive functions.  And we take note of their attitude and behavior to make sure they’re on track in their social development.

We chart their progress and celebrate their accomplishments, marking every milestone along the way, saying things like, “What a big boy/girl you are!”  “I’m so proud of you!”

This goes way back.  For example, the Old Testament writer said of the prophet Samuel, when he was just a child,

“The child Samuel grew on,
and increased in favor both with Yahweh,
and also with men.” (1 Samuel 2:26)

Luke said virtually the same thing of the boy Jesus, that he …

“increased in wisdom and stature,
and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52)

Growing up is essential to children, but where does it end?  Does there ever come a time when you no longer need to grow in faith and understanding?  Do you ever reach a place where it’s O.K. to kick back, take your ease and be content with where you are on your faith journey?

There’s always more to learn, isn’t there?  There’s always room for improvement.  The problem is personal growth doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it.  And this is my thesis in the sermon today: Just as children must work at walking and talking and doing all the things that healthy children do, so must we work at growing in faith, hope and love.

My hunch is we stop growing too soon.  We pick up expressions of faith and theological insights at some point – hopefully, as little children in Sunday school – but then, instead of continuing to grow over a lifetime of study and reflection, we repeat what we learned as children over the course of our lives.

And so, my question is this: How has your faith grown over the years?  Are you closer to God now than before?  In a word, are you growing in grace, or are you just growing older?

When our kids were little, we had them stand in front of a door and marked how much they’d grown in the past year.  Well, to see how much you’ve grown over the years, I’ve devised a little test.  See how you fair.  Here’s the first question:

How’s your prayer life? Do you find yourself spending more time with God each day?  When you pray, do listen as much as you talk? If the goal is to “Pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), are you closer now than you were before?

The story is told of a professional athlete who spoke at a high school sports banquet.  Everyone listened in awe as this Adonis-of-a-man spoke of his experiences and achievements on the gridiron.  When he finished, he invited questions from the audience.  A young man in the back raised his hand.  “What about your prayer life?” he asked.  “How do you go about the business of praying to God?”  The athlete said, “That’s simple – I just say the same prayers I said as I kid.”

Sadly, he speaks for a lot of people.  And that leads me to ask: How has your prayer life grown over the years?  Are you praying more frequently and fervently than ever, or are you recycling the same prayers over and over?  Here’s the second question:

In your daily devotion, do you use the whole Bible in searching out God’s Word for your life; or do you gravitate to favorite verses and passages and Bible stories with which you’re already familiar?

On Christmas Eve, Larry Brown brought several copies of this little pamphlet to share with you.  It’s a method for reading the entire Bible over the course of a year.  Personally, I’ve used the One Year Bible in the past, but this is as good as any.  So, here’s the deal: I invite you to join me in reading the entire Bible over the course of the coming year.

I can give you three reasons to say yes: First, it’ll do you good to set aside a few moments each morning before you get busy doing other things to read a small portion of the Bible.  It’ll get your day off to a good start.  Second, using a method like this will help you stay on track and deal with passages you might otherwise skip over.  I warn you: You’re likely to find some parts of the Bible tedious and other parts, just plain boring.  Plod through them anyway.  God may use them to speak to you in unexpected ways.  Finally, because a method like this is not linked to a particular study or season of the year, you’ll be free to let the scripture speak to you as it will.  Let’s move to question number three:

In dealing with the issues of everyday life, do you look for creative, innovative solutions, or do you gravitate toward what you’ve done in the past?

You know the old joke: “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?”  The answer: “Change?”

To grow in the grace and love of God is to be willing to take a new approach from time to time, to try a different tack, to have an open mind and a teachable spirit.

Dr. Phil on TV likes to ask his guests, “So, how’s that working for you?”  Most of the time, the answer is obvious: It’s not.  “I tried to tell my kid what to do, and she just looked the other way.”  “I suggested my old lady do something with her hair, and she didn’t speak to me for days.”

So, how’s that working for you?  It’s a good question, and it applies to a lot of different areas of life; point being, if you’re not getting the response you want, it may be up to you to try a different approach.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The seven most deadly words to any healthy church are these: “We’ve never done it that way before.”  God told Isaiah,

“Behold, I will do a new thing.
It springs forth now.
Don’t you know it?” (Isaiah 43:19)

Part of the reason the people of Israel didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah was because they already had their minds made up as to what they were looking for; so, when the Promised Messiah came in Jesus of Nazareth, they rejected him.  He just didn’t fit the image.

Listen: If you don’t hear another word I say today, hear this: Life is dynamic, not static.  Situations and circumstances change.  So do people.  What worked in the past is probably not going to work in the present or the future.  The only way to stay abreast is to be adaptive and willing to grow.  Let’s move on.  The next question is a no-brainer:

How has your stewardship increased over the years?

Sue told the Session at our December meeting that, of the 38 pledges received for 2010, almost a third represented increases over the previous year.  That’s good stewardship!  Obviously, there’s a lot more to consider than the bottom line.  For example, if you’re out of work, it’s going to affect your giving.  Duh!  So is being under the gun for a lot of expenses you didn’t count on.  Yet, barring unforeseen circumstances, your giving to the church and other charitable causes is a good indication of your spiritual growth.  All things considered, the more you grow, the more you give back to God.

Years ago, one of the members called the church to say she’d been out of town and hadn’t turned in her pledge card.  The financial secretary took the call and offered to send her another pledge card or, better yet, take her pledge over the phone.  The woman said, “Just put me down for what I gave last year.”  Jesus told his disciples,

“…To whomever much is given,
of him will much be required;
and to whom much was entrusted,
of him more will be asked.”
(Luke 12:48)

It’s not a matter of the amount, but the percentage: How much of your personal income are you willing to entrust to God in gratitude for what God has entrusted to you?  I won’t belabor the point.  Here’s the last question:

When your life is over, how do want to be remembered?  If others were to describe you in a single word, what word would you hope they’d choose?

Growing in grace is like choosing that word and then letting it guide you in how you live out your life, day by day.  This is what Paul told the Colossians:

“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance;
bearing with one another, and forgiving each other,
if any man has a complaint against any;
even as Christ forgave you…
Above all these things, walk in love,
which is the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of God rule in your hearts,
to which also you were called in one body;
and be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…
Whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do all in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father, through him.”
(Colossians 3:12-17)

As far as Paul was concerned, we put on such values as compassion and kindness, meekness and patience.  They don’t come naturally.  They have to be cultivated and developed.  For example, when someone hurts you, your basic instinct is to get even.  You have to learn to be forgiving.  In relating to others, your basic tendency is to look out for number one.  You have to learn to love others as God loves you.

Remember what I said at the outset?  Personal growth doesn’t automatically – you have to work at it. The Good News is that we all have the potential to put on Christ and so, reflect the image of God in which we’re created.  Think of it as wearing a uniform at work or a costume in a play: We put on the mantle of Christ and, no matter how awkward it may seem at first, we wear it, day by day, until it feels comfortable and fits like a glove.

The story is told of a young prince who fell in love with a young princess in a neighboring kingdom.  He wanted her to love him in return, but he was afraid for her to see him up close because he was so ugly.  So, one day he went to the king’s tailor to be fitted for a new suit of clothes, and the tailor asked him why he was so sad.  The prince told him that he loved the princess with all his heart, but he could never hope to win her favor, as ugly as he was.

The tailor smiled and said, “Then I will make a mask for you to wear.  Then she will see you as the most handsome prince who has ever lived.”  And he did.  Sure enough, when the prince put on the mask, he was, indeed, the most handsome prince you’ve ever seen.

The prince then journeyed to the neighboring kingdom to meet the fair young princess.  As you might guess, it was love at first sight.  He was, without a doubt, the charming young prince of her dreams.  They courted day in and day out.  He brought her gifts, wrote her poetry and sang her songs.  In return, she gave him her heart.  But with one condition: That he remove his mask.

The prince thought surely her love for him would die when she saw how ugly he was, but then he had no choice.  Slowly, carefully, he peeled back the mask and held it in his hand.  She smiled all the more and kissed him on the cheek and said, “Oh, you are even more handsome than I had imagined.”  Astonished, he reached for a mirror, and when he looked at the reflection of his face, he saw the image of the mask he’d been wearing.  His muscles and skin had conformed to its shape until he had become the very person he had so hoped to be.  They were married shortly thereafter and had children of their own, every bit as beautiful and handsome as they.  And they all lived happily ever after.

Well, it’s only a fairy tale.  But this is the gospel you can take home with you today: As we put on Christ, we’re transformed into his likeness.  Each day we become a little more like him.  It’s a matter of growing in grace.  And it begins with this simple prayer:

“Take my life, and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days;
let them flow in ceaseless praise.

“Take my will, and make it Thine;
it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own;
it shall be Thy royal throne.

“Take my love, my Lord, I pour,
at thy feet its treasure store;
take myself, and I will be
ever, only, all for Thee.”
(Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 391)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.