prevenient grace

At Just the Right Time

Romans 5:1-11 (NLT)

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.


We are making a major shift in Romans as we reach the fifth chapter. By this point, Paul feels he has clearly established that faith in Christ’s work on the cross is all we need for salvation. Believe, and we are made right with God.

Paul now wants to explore the benefits of faith. We will hear some of these interrelated concepts come up again over the next few weeks. He mentions:

Peace. Paul’s notion of peace is what I would call beautifully complicated. At times, Paul uses “peace” as if he means the cessation of hostilities. In other words, we have been at war with God because of our sinful natures, but through faith in Christ’s work, hostilities end. “Peace” also represents what we receive from this reconciliation: a constant sense of well-being, an understanding there is nothing to fear.

Joy and Rejoicing. We are so assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth about our salvation that our basic way of experiencing life is changed. We are lifted up in a way that is hard to describe until it has been experienced.

Endurance and hope. Yes, suffering continues to be a part of our lives, but we are changed so we can endure what others might find unbearable. We talked about this some last week as I asked you to think about the future.

Paul pulls no punches. Life can be hard, and we should expect difficulties to arise. But filled with the assurance the Holy Spirit has given us, we know what lies ahead, and we can plow through life without losing our ability to rejoice.

Our Focus: God’s Timing is Perfect

Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church, and I want to focus on a timely thought in our passage. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time for us sinners.” Today we celebrate the image of Christ coming for us, riding into Jerusalem to save us in a most unexpected way.

We hear the story of this timely arrival told in slightly different ways in all four gospels, in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19. In short, Jesus rides a donkey into the city as a prophetic act, and the Jews who have packed the city for the Passover cheer him like a king as he enters. “Hosanna!” they cry in a cheer of praise.

They didn’t really understand what they were seeing. They were in the right place at the right time, but they cheered for shortsighted reasons. Most of them assumed Jesus had the potential to overthrow the political system and establish himself as an independent Jewish king, restoring the Jewish people to their former glory.

In less than a week, many of these same people would take up the cry, “Crucify him!” They would see Jesus as a failure, another rebellious wanna-be king crushed by the people in power. As big as their dreams had been, they could not see the incredibly big picture of what Jesus, truly the Christ, their promised Messiah, was doing.

When we read the story of the “Triumphal Entry,” it looks like a joyous scene, but it is actually a sad scene to contemplate. Of all the people who had ever lived and will ever live, the people gathered in Jerusalem were the privileged few allowed to be present at the pivot point of history. Remember the promise made to Abraham thousands of years earlier—these Jews were to result in a blessing that would impact every family on the earth.

Jesus was on his way to make that blessing possible. All of us who have walked through Holy Week with Jesus in past years know what is coming. Jesus offers some of his most intense and disturbing teachings to his followers, to the point where most abandon him.

His conflict with the Jewish leaders grows and grows until they determine they must get rid of him. And, working with the Roman Empire, they do—but not for long.

We will talk more about the “not for long” next week, of course, on Easter Sunday. Let’s stay focused right now on the work Jesus arrives to do in Jerusalem.

Paul is telling us that Jesus’ life and ministry, in particular the moment Jesus died on the cross to make it all effective, happened “at just the right time.” As time has passed, Paul’s meaning has become more and more self-evident.

Think about the time and place Jesus was crucified. What’s miraculous is that we ever heard about it at all. From a human perspective, if you wanted to plan a martyrdom to change the world, the last place you would start would be through the crucifixion of a backwater rabble-rouser who had lost most of his following, to the point that only a tiny remnant showed up at his execution.

From God’s perspective, though, this was the golden moment for the divine sacrifice to atone for all sin. Over nearly two millennia, it has proven to be golden. What an astonishing thing to consider; by our time in history, we can see how word of this obscure crucifixion and what follows has spread globally, touching nearly every culture on the planet!

Yes, God controls the big picture in ways we cannot see. And here’s some more good news: We’re part of that picture. And as tiny a part of it as we are, God’s perfect timing also is at work in our lives.

God’s grace—that is, the unmerited, unearned love he pours out on us—doesn’t always make itself evident when we think it should, but it certainly is poured out when it can be most effective.

At just the right time, we feel that gentle tug inviting us to turn toward him.

At just the right time, we are given the opportunity to understand salvation is being offered to us through the simple act of belief. And guess what: If we don’t respond right away, at just the right time we will get another opportunity, and another. God wants us to come back to him.

At just the right time, the grace we need to grow as his followers will flow to us. We will find ourselves open, vulnerable, and God will not miss that opportunity to pull us further from sin and closer to him.

At just the right time, when we think we cannot bear pain or grief anymore, God will be there, and we through his presence during our suffering will develop a deeper understanding of just how much God cares. Our endurance will grow, our character will grow, and we will be filled with a new hope.

At just the right time, we will see God with restored eyes, praise him with perfect voices, hear the angels singing with incredible clarity, and know that everything has been made righteous and holy. Certainly, we will see this in some way at our deaths. Perhaps some of us will see this in a resurrection that precedes our dying.

Either way, we are all subject to God’s timing, and we know we can trust him.


The featured image is “Christ Enters Jerusalem,” Wilhelm Morgner, 1912.

All the World at His Door

Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”


Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


To most people raised in even slight proximity to the church, the story of the wise men is familiar. But what does the story tell us about God?

We receive little detail about these men chasing a “star” in search of a newborn king, a star no one else seems to have noticed. Tradition has led us to think of three wise men, but the Bible doesn’t give us an exact number.

However many there were, it is likely they were astrologers from the area of ancient Babylon. It also is quite possible they made their journey because they saw what we would consider a set of complicated signs, all involving conjunctions of planets with a star in a particular constellation.

If such details interest you, I wrote about them during the Christmas season in 2013, linking to a useful NBC News article that has a great slideshow presentation at the end.

Today, let’s simply consider some odd facts. First, an event in a tiny village had distant effects via the stars and planets. Second, these wise men would not have understood God the way a Jew did, and yet God drew them into the story of his ultimate intervention in history. And third, didn’t I learn as a child in Sunday school that astrology is a pagan practice, something generally to be avoided?

It seems the big lesson God gives us in this story is how surprising he can be as he tries to shower us in grace and save us from sin. He not only will meet us where we are, he will work through our current practices to change us. (The Methodist term is “prevenient grace,” the love God tries to show us even before we acknowledge who God is.)

When I think of the wise men seeing signs of Christ’s birth in the sky, I also think of all the stories I’ve heard of nonbelievers discovering God in unlikely places: in bars, in prison, in dive hotels—any of those locations or moments where we might wrongly think God is not present.

On a less serious note, during this time of year, we always hear some of our more legalistic brethren claiming it’s improper to use Christmas trees or wreaths in our celebrations because they once were linked to a pagan practice. The issue will arise again at Easter when we decorate with symbols of new life, like an Easter egg.

But even if these items were once used in pagan rituals, it seems to me God’s magnanimous attitude shines through when we convert these symbols to celebrate Christ. Hey, we are a people who believe that one day, every aspect of creation will acknowledge God’s saving work through Jesus Christ! Is there something wrong with getting a head start on the conversion process?

This story of the wise men also has tremendous irony in it. Pagans from far away wanted to pay the Christ child “homage,” but the nominal leader of the Jews was terrified. After thousands of years of prophecy, he was positioned to lead when the great promise was fulfilled, but instead, King Herod and the people around him immediately began seeking a way to undo God’s great work.

Herod did not stand a chance, of course. What kind of people honestly believe they can undo what God has done?

Herod did have the power to inflict damage as he resisted God. Ultimately, he killed all the children age 2 or younger in Bethlehem, but not until after God had warned Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.

There’s another lesson for us. When we resist God’s will, we can do great harm—what is resistance to God’s will to be called, except sin? Sin leads to evil acts, and evil acts hurt people.

The last part of the story is the best, of course. God led the wise men on from their visit with Herod, and there was the baby, just as promised. They gave him gifts. What a joy that must have been, to give the Christ child a gift! And even better, they were able to kneel before him.

Was it worship? Translators debate how to deal with the word describing their act. We kneel in worship, but the wise men also would have been likely to kneel before a king.

We can say for certain that the moment marked a dawning awareness. These wise men would have understood God was working in the world in powerful ways, and that they had been drawn into the plan. They even would continue to hear from God in dreams, protecting the child and themselves in the process.

They were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ work on the cross decades later, and the church’s Holy Spirit-inspired work up to today. God truly calls to all people, regardless of their location or circumstances. After all, “For God so loved the world … .”

In 2017, may we worship with great certainty the Christ we have seen through Scripture and experienced in our hearts, giving him our gift of faithfulness.


The featured image is “Magi Journeying,” James Tissot, c. 1886, Brooklyn Museum.