Here is a slightly edited transcript of a mission sermon from a few years ago.
If you belong to a trade union you probably didn’t think much of the Bible reading we've just heard. In fact, you might sympathise with those who objected to the Lord giving the labourers who came at the eleventh hour the same pay as the ones who had slaved away all day.
But it’s not really about who should get paid what in the workplace (although I believe that Jesus would expect a living wage to be paid to ALL!)
You know, he told this funny story, this amusing parable, to help us understand the scandalous generosity of God. The story’s not about award wages or union demands. It is about God who gives and gives and gives and keeps on giving. It’s about his blessing, his love, his forgiveness, to people like you and me who’ve done nothing whatsoever to deserve it. That’s what we mean by the word “grace.”
Some of you might have heard of John Newton. He was born in London in 1725, and went to sea with his father when he was only eleven. As a teenager he was forced to serve on a warship, and hated it. So he deserted, and was then captured, flogged, demoted, and badly mistreated. After a while he was allowed to swap over to a job on a slave trader’s ship, working the waters off Sierra Leone, Africa. He was abused and beaten up there, too. (How many of you know that the abused so often become the abusers!) But Newton’s luck changed, and he was rescued by the captain of another ship who had known his father. By this time, though, Newton had seen the big money he could make in human trafficking. He worked his way up the greasy pole, and eventually became captain of his own slave ship.
He prospered. Actually, he became filthy rich! He wasn’t held back by any namby-pamby religious or moral ideas. He just went for it. I don’t know if he believed in God in the back of his mind; but if he did he certainly didn’t care what God thought about his life.
One day everything changed. Newton was trying in vain to steer his ship through a violent storm. The winds blew. There was lightening. Torrential rain. Waves crashing over the deck. Newton and his crew thought they were going to die. This was the end. Then, just as the ship was about to sink, he cried out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” And, you’ll never guess what happened. The storm died down! (OK. I promise you . . . that’s really how it happened!)
Well, it got to Newton. He tried so hard to persuade himself it was just a coincidence, that it wasn’t really real. You know how it is! But he thought a lot about it, and after a while he realised that God had spoken to him through the storm.
To cut a long story short, his life changed, and he got out of the slave business. He went back to England for good, and got married. You’ll never guess what he did next. He studied the Bible and its teaching about God, and got ordained as a priest in the Church of England. And, you know, he spent the rest of his life helping other people to know and love Jesus. But more than that. He always felt for all those people he had caused to suffer when he was young, so he inspired the politicians and their friends who worked so hard to end the slave trade.
And he wrote songs! Actually, I’m sure that if you don’t know any other church songs, any other hymns, you’ll know his most famous one: Amazing Grace. It turns up at funerals and weddings all the time, and I love that, because it gives me a chance to share the Good News of God’s love with people, many of whom in their own way are as lost as John Newton was.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Now, is there anyone anywhere who thinks that John Newton didn’t deserve for God to save his life? (You don’t have to put up your hand!) Just think of how many thousands of people were abused and dehumanised on Newton’s ships . . . how many hundreds – maybe even thousands – died in transit and were dumped overboard as if they were just refuse? And what about the thousands who WISHED they had died! All so that Newton could make a lot of money.
But you see, God had never stopped loving John Newton. His life was vile. It was ruined. It was hopeless. He had no morality. He’d caused so much suffering and death. But I want to tell you something. There is little verse tucked away in the letter St Paul wrote to some new Christians in ancient Rome (where life was also pretty tough), and what he says covers Newton’s situation: “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” (Romans 5:20). Let me say that again, because today sin sure abounds . . . everywhere. “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more!”
Many years later, when he got old, John Newton used to shuffle around on his walking stick. His memory was fading, and he was in very poor health. But people would still go to see this old man because they knew he could help them to get in touch with God. Do you know what . . . Early in 1807 when he was 82 and he knew he didn’t have much time left, he wrote these words:
“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
Later that year he died . . . just after the British government passed a law ended the slave trade.
You can still visit Newton’s grave today. It was moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire, where he’d spent most of his time as a priest. In the corner of the churchyard the inscription on his gravestone says:
“John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”
Newton had written those words himself. He also wrote,
“And I earnestly desire that no other monument, and no inscription but to this import, may be attempted for me.”
God’s grace worked in the life of a man who had ignored him, rebelled against him, spat in his face and sinned shockingly for years. No “victim-less sins” there!
Yet, do you dare say that God is unjust?
Well, don’t! Because you and I are sinners. Because . . . actually . . . seen against the love and holiness of God, you and I are just as vile as Newton was. There’s as much sludge in your heart and mine as there was in his. And if you've already come to Jesus, you know, as I do, that you and I deserve NOTHING. We are sinners saved by grace . . . amazing grace.
So we can hardly begrudge John Newton HIS opportunity to respond to God’s love and be transformed.
That’s what the story Jesus told is really about. I don’t understand why God works the way he does. If that’s what you’re interested in then you should see a professor of theology! All I know for sure is that God comes to different people at different times and in different ways with the story of what Jesus did to save us. I see some of you who heard his call early in your life. You’re like the ones who were hired at the start of the day. And I see others of you who cared nothing for Jesus and his love until middle age. But . . . here you are! And you know that “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. Old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new! (I Corinthians 5:17) And for others, still, it’s not until you’re old . . . the eleventh hour. And I’ll tell you something. Never write anybody off. Because sometimes I hear people slag off at death-bed conversions. Well, who are you to tell Jesus that he’s not allowed to turn up and say “I love you” to people who’ve spent their whole lives as atheists, or even as really evil people. Of course it isn’t fair! It’s not meant to be. It’s GRACE!
The thing is . . . whenever it is that he calls us, he wants to claim us as his own; he wants to forgive us, transform us, heal us, make us new, pour his love into our hearts and give us a reason for living.
And that means YOU. Maybe you feel that you have not been the person you could and should have been. You are right! You haven’t been. Neither have I . . . or anyone here! But knowing the Lord is not a reward for being good. I hope you’ve got that by now. It’s not a reward for being good, it’s GRACE, amazing grace. God’s free gift of himself. His wonderful love. But whatever stage you are at in your life, I want to tell you that no matter what you have done you haven’t missed your opportunity for salvation. God’s grace is so amazing that it reaches you right now, even in this service, even if – ESPECIALLY if - this is for you the eleventh hour. There is still time for God to turn your life around, if you let him.
The Lord is trying to draw you to himself tonight. He wants to flood your life with his love. He wants to make up for lost time. And he doesn’t want you to waste any more time or let this opportunity pass you by. He loves you. He wants you. And if you say “yes” to him you will discover how amazing his grace really is.
Hey, I know it’s a bit of a struggle. But let’s sing those words that John Newton wrote. And if you can feel God nudging you to open your heart to him tonight, do you know what I suggest you do . . . As the song goes on, just step out into the aisle and come down the front here to the altar rail as a sign that you know you need help and you’re going to let the Lord come into your life. That way, everyone will pray for you when they see you coming to the front. Then, we’ll have our final prayer, and one of us will have a chat with you about what to do next. Come on, let’s sing together . . .