This illustration of God’s saving grace and our response is great fun, slightly messy and very memorable. Give it a go from the front of church, or let folks have a go themselves.
You will need:
- A deep sided tray – cat litter trays (unused!) work well
- Two 2-litre pop bottles
- Two 2-litre jugs of water – add a little squash to make it more visible
- Funnel (optional)
Prepare one bottle by filling it to the brim with water. Keep this out of sight. Cut pencil-sized holes around the base of the other, so that it will not hold water. Stand this bottle in the tray.
Give a jug of water and funnel to a victi … volunteer, and challenge them to completely fill the empty bottle with water. Of course, the water will run out the bottom. Explain that the water represents our good deeds, and all the good things we do, however worthy, will never be enough to earn our place in heaven. It’s not a case of the good deeds out-weighing the bad. Is there more water in the jug or the bottle? It doesn’t matter. There was exactly enough water in the jug, and even one drop lost would mean the bottle cannot be filled.
It is hopeless!
Now replace the empty bottle with the full one. Take off the lid and ask how much needs to be added so that it’s full. Nothing! Jesus has done everything that is needed for our salvation. We could not do it ourselves, so God, by his grace, has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.
So what shall we do with the jug of water now? We don’t need to do good stuff so that God will like us, but if we love him we will want to please him. Since he has done so much for us, we could join in his work. Now pour your jug of water into the bottle. It will overflow and spill into the tray. We proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
As I write this, students up and down the country are taking their GCSE maths exams. Pass / Fail. It’s as blunt as that. If you worked hard enough, you’ll pass. If you didn’t, you’ll fail.
But other exams are different. My eldest is taking music, and by the time the exams come around most of the work will already be done. Sure, there’s an exam, but it’s only 40% of the marks, so even before she puts pen to paper she will (hopefully) already have a something like a pass mark, because of the hours and hours (and hours and hours) she has spent composing, rehearsing and performing. The exam itself, even with perfect marks, is not enough to pass. But what has already been done, is.
Often the Christian faith is portrayed like the maths exam. If you do enough good things, you’ll get to heaven. If you don’t, you won’t. But really, it’s more like the music exam. No matter how well you do on the exam, you’ll never get a pass mark on that alone. The exam is not enough. But the performances and composing are. On their own, even with zero in the exam, they could get you a pass.
And so it is with the Christian faith. We affirm that Christ’s work, clearing away the sin that keeps us from God, is more than enough for our salvation, in a way that our work, no matter how good a life we lead, could never be. However, just as it would be daft to do brilliant performances and get top marks in composing then sit back in the exam and do nothing, so the fitting response to Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement is not to sit back and say, “I’m saved now, I can do what I like.”
And that’s what we read in our passage here.
Really? Are you sure you’re reading the same passage as me?
Yes, it’s right there in this passage from Exodus. In fact, it’s all through Exodus, and Deuteronomy, and the whole Old Testament – the story of grace.
Sometimes Old Testament readings can feel a bit samey – a list of what you can and can’t eat, or what to do when you find a bird on a nest of eggs. At first glance this passage looks like that – journey … wilderness … Sinai … Moses … obey the commandments. Yup, heard this a hundred times before.
But just look at the order of things. It’s not what you might think.
First God does the saving and the bearing up on eagles’ wings, and then Moses says they should obey. Because of what has already been done. (You see the link to the exams there?) Therefore. Because of God’s grace. Not so that.
I’m going to say that again, because it’s something that, to our discredit, Christians often teach wrongly. God’s covenant with the Children of Israel was a covenant of grace. God’s grace was shown to them and their loving obedience was a fitting response. They did not earn their salvation by obeying a load of laws. The Old Covenant is not, was not, never was, salvation by works. It always was salvation by grace. Always. Even in the Old Testament. Look again at our passage.
Who acted first? God. Why? Certainly not because the Israelites deserved it! And certainly not because they were obeying the Ten Commandments (they come in the next chapter). No, God rescued Israel simply because he’s nice like that. Grace.
The obeying is a response of gratitude and love to the one who did all that was needed for their rescue. They could not have done it themselves. It’s like the music exam, like God did all the performances and compositions for me, and got perfect marks. And he slaps me on the back as I walk into the exam hall and says, “You’ve already passed, now go and do me proud.”
(Note – no illustration is perfect, and I’m not implying that God will do your exams for you. You still gotta revise folks!)
So while we no longer seek to show our love to God with sacrifices and wearing blue tassels, we do still have an obligation of loving response to God’s undeserved grace. We are still called to be ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1 Pet 2:9).
How can we act in response to God’s grace, that declares his mighty acts?
Exodus 19:2-8a New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’
So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.