It’s a small town – one of those kinds of towns people make jokes about. You’ve heard ‘em – “that town is so small that when you dial the wrong number, the person on the other end gives you the right number. It’s so small that there’s no place to go that you shouldn’t. It’s so small that Third Street is on the edge of town. “
Valentine, Texas is such a small town – a dusty hamlet nestled between Van Horn and Marfa on State Highway 90. Population: a mere 187.
But once a year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, this small town becomes very popular, a romantic mecca of sorts as cards & letters pour into the tiny adobe post office. The reason? Lovers want their correspondence stamped with the Valentine, Texas postmark, which is newly designed every year by a student from the Valentine school system.
One morning, Postmaster Maria Elena Carasco was moving a box of Valentine cards when she heard a faint, mysterious voice: “Hola, bonita,” the voice said in Spanish. “Hello, beautiful.” For a split second, she felt like the tiny post office was haunted. Was it the voice of her dearly-departed husband, who had died unexpectedly of a heart attack? Maria Elena pulled out the cards and began hand-canceling each one with the Valentine postmark. Then she came across a talking greeting card, the kind with the electronic voice box inside. “Hola, bonita,” it said. “Hello, beautiful.” Maria Elena laughed. The card would soon make its way to someone’s hands and heart, reminding her again of why Valentine’s Day was her favorite time of the year.
Two thousand years ago, God sent a Valentine’s Card to earth, postmarked with the precious blood of his own Son. The outside of the card was simple, even rustic, but the inside contained a message that was as stunning as it was beautiful:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)
“Hello, beautiful,” God has written. “You are my unique creation. I have made the ultimate sacrifice for you. I want you to follow me, and when you’re ready to leave the earth, we can spend all of eternity together. What d’ya say, Beautiful?”
The card has been signed, sealed and delivered. It waits – begs – to be opened. All it needs is someone to say “Yes” to the invitation.
Someone like you.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, compared God’s grace to a house. The porch is “Prevenient Grace,” the love of God for us that precedes our love of God. It’s a big porch, because everyone is there: saints and sinners; men, women, youth and children; classical music lovers and gangsta rap fans; the New Yorker who takes the subway and the Indian who travels by canoe down the Amazon. Everyone gets a generous dollop of prevenient grace on God’s big front porch! In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas give a prevenient grace message when they arrive in Lystra, a town in Asia Minor. These apostles tell the crowd that God kindly testifies to his goodness by “giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; (God) provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
But the porch isn’t the house. God stands on the other side of the door and beckons us to come in and possess the entire mansion. His love requires a response. Wesley said that the door of God’s house is “Justifying Grace,” sometimes called “Justification.” Big words. . .big concepts. What does justification and justifying mean?
If you look up the words in the dictionary, you will find several definitions.
In printing terms, justified type is a block of text that is even at the margins. God’s justifying grace takes a life worn ragged by sin and lines it up with love, mercy and tenderness.
“To be justified” is a legal term means you have been vindicated. According to Romans 6:23, we are all guilty before God and “the wages of sin is death.” We have been brought into the divine courtroom for sentencing. We wince as the charges are read, knowing that we have broken God’s law. The gavel comes down with awful force as the verdict thunders throughout the halls of justice: ‘NOT GUILTY!’ We look up, stunned. The bench is empty. The Judge has removed his robes and now stands beside us, offering to take the rap. He goes off to our punishment, setting us free. “While we were yet sinners,” Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.”
“To justify your actions” means to prove that you are right. However, the Bible tells us that “there is no one righteous – no, not one” and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In financial terms, we have made some bad investments, freely spending the currency of jealousy, greed, selfish ambition, irreverence, lust, gossip (okay, enough of my own personal list)—and now it’s time to pay our Divine Creditor. But we can never overcome the arrears of sin through our good deeds – the debt is too astronomical, like trying to pay off the federal deficit in nickels. But God has a Chapter 13 of his own that requires no lawyers, no legal maneuvers, no heavy documentation – just a simple “yes” to his Son that wipes out our debt of sin and credits our account with righteousness. You don’t have to understand it all. To be justified doesn’t mean you have to have a PhD in theology that enables you to spout off Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement. All you have to understand is that God loves you and sent his Son to you.
Years ago, a woman in my church shared that she was watching Jesus of Nazareth, the 1977 mini-series, before her husband got home from work one afternoon. She had been struggling with the notion that God loved her personally. She could buy that “God so loved the world,” but she wasn’t sure that God loved Rhonda. While she was watching the crucifixion scene, she said the Holy Spirit testified to her spirit that Jesus, indeed, marched to the cross for her. When the realization came, she dissolved in tears right when her husband walked through the front door. Of course, he assumed that he had screwed something up.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
Rhonda looked up with tears streaming down her face and snot coming out of her nose and said, “Jesus loves me!”
Okay, it may not be that dramatic for you. When I opened my love letter from God, there were no tears or cartwheels. Just a quiet acceptance of God’s acceptance of me. It was 1983. I had been married for a year, and those of you who are married know how fun that first year is! Much too difficult to make it without God. But we tried, anyway. I thought things would magically fix themselves. But they didn’t. The marriage got more frustrating. My life was going around in aimless circles. I was drinking too much. I wasn’t very lovable and I felt I didn’t deserve much love. Who was my God at that point? That dubious trinity called me, myself and I. You see, whatever we devote ourselves to is our god—and I found out that I make a very poor god!
One day Laura suggested we go to church. I looked at her like an iguana had crawled out of her ear. Hey, I wasn’t that desperate!
“Church?” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Guys in robes, trilly organ music, blue-haired ladies? No thanks. If I want to be tortured, I’ll go to a family reunion.”
But she persisted. We finally went. And I found that it wasn’t half-bad. It was actually scratching an itch. We returned. Then we joined a Sunday school. I met the youth director and started helping him.
Then one day I did the unthinkable….I dusted off my old confirmation Bible…and I started reading it….on purpose!
And in the pages of Scripture, I discovered a Jesus I never knew. This wasn’t the stained-glass, goody-two-shoes Jesus that I had concocted in my mind. This was a God who walked dusty roads, hobnobbed with sinners and went toe-to-toe with religious phonies. His bearing impressed me. His words inspired me. His agenda to include the outcasts moved me. I joined the 1st century crowds in asking, “Who is this man? Where did he get his authority? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Yes, but more—a divine craftsman whose Spirit began shaping and sanding my rough heart.
Jesus said he came to seek and save that which was lost. I was lost. He said that he would die for the sins of the world. I had sin. He claimed that he was Bread from Heaven and Living Water. I knew I was hungry and thirsty for God. So I finally placed my trust in Christ. I got off the porch and walked through the door. I quietly responded to his love letter and have been in love with him ever since.
Believe me, when you accept this amazing, justifying grace, your problems don’t magically vanish and you don’t become whole overnight. If you hung around me for a week, you’d see that very clearly. Sometimes I don’t react well to pressure, I still struggle with “issues” from my past and my wife and I even have an occasional spat – she never lets me win. But my decision to respond to the Grace that had been there all along has made all the difference in the world. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, “I’m not perfect, but I am forgiven.”
And being forgiven makes you feel empowered. Like you can start over at any time. That God’s desire is not to condemn you, but commend you. Such grace takes root in your heart and grows faith, hope and love in your life. I love this line from the Michael Card song, The Way of Wisdom: “You can stop pretending that it all depends on you; for it’s not how much you love, but how much He loves you.”
Listen! Can you hear it? “Hello, Beautiful.” Sounds like a come-on, doesn’t it? Well, it is! God’s come-on! But it’s a come-on with a huge payoff—abundant life, now and forever. Come on, Beautiful, open my love letter! Come on, Beloved One, get off the porch and come into my house! Come on, my Precious Princess, hand over your sins and let me wash you as white as crisp linen! You are worth it!
It’s a great offer, isn’t it? The Creator of the universe offering you a chance to get right, get clean, and get going toward heaven. But an offer pre-supposes a response, doesn’t it—a reply?
So the question is. . .what is your answer to Jesus?