Whether we are aware of it or not, the world spins on the axis of grace; without God’s mercy life as we know it would cease to exist. Judgment and death are never the final say over the earth – grace is the word that changes everything and transforms the impossible into the realm of reality.
The large Old Testament book of Isaiah is thick with the message of judgment for both Israel and the nations that surrounded her. The sins of Israel were many. The primary offenses were injustice toward the needy with the have’s taking manipulative advantage of the have-not’s; and, empty worship rituals toward God. Social and spiritual corruption was rampant. God pleaded with the people through his prophets to stop doing wrong and start doing justice, encouraging the oppressed, and defending the causes of people who do not have the power to defend themselves (Isaiah 1:10-17).
Although God’s judgment was imminent through the powerful Assyrian Empire, God would not annihilate his people. God promised that a Righteous Branch would grow up from the seemingly dead stump of Israel. A child would be born. A Messiah would be given. There would be hope in Israel. Heartfelt authentic praise will again fill the air. Proclamation of God’s great name will again be on the lips of Israel.
What is remarkable about all this is God’s grace. God made promises to Israel not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to his people by his own radically free love. It was not a situation of making a deal – “if, Israel, you get your act together then I, God, will be good to you.” No! Before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be gracious and merciful.
If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation because only grace can save us. What we have in common with the Israelites of old is that we both are totally dependent upon God’s amazing grace. Without grace, we are lost. There is praise because it is a response to the incredible grace God gives which is completely undeserved (Isaiah 12:1-6).
Grace is the thing that is distinctive about Christianity – no other religion, no other place will you find grace amidst the awful muck of the world. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is recklessly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace does not demand – it only gives. Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. That is what God did for Israel. That is what God has done for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, there is a cascade of praise that comes rolling out of our hearts and onto our lips.
The prophecy of Isaiah is an adventure of God’s reckless love toward unlovable people, which is why it is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and all our anglings to be respected. Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort to justify and validate ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And when we get a glimpse of it we are forever altered and undone by its mercy. Grace brings praise.
When grace takes hold of a congregation there is no mumbling of songs – there is a shouting aloud and singing for joy because God is great! Grace brings such joy and gladness that we do not care what we look like to other people; we are going to shout and sing and express our joy! Yes, there is an important place for contemplative, reverent, reflective worship… and, there is a place for completely letting go, becoming unhinged, and dancing before Jesus!
The season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness. Let us return to the Lord. Let us be captivated by grace. Let us renew our love for Jesus. Let us lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us. Let us worship Christ the King. Let us proclaim his name as exalted over everything.