Grace in an Unexpected Place
APRIL 13, 2021
by Barry Smith
I had a “Wow!” experience while listening to a sermon last week. You’ve probably had an experience like that before. You know the kind. You’re listening to a sermon on a text you’ve read many times, maybe not even really paying attention, and then the Spirit breaks through with a flash of insight and you see something that causes you to go, “Wow! What a great God we have!”
The sermon I was listening to was on the Great Commission, the text Matthew 28:16-20. When he was nearly finished, almost as an aside, the preacher mentioned that Jesus said to the disciples “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus-said-I-am-with-you-always! A light flashed in my soul and I felt like I was transported back to one of the worst times in my life.
Fifteen or so years ago, I made a dreadful mistake. During a terrible time of depression, discouragement, and despair, I found relief in an after-dinner drink or two. It wasn’t long, however, before those one or two drinks became three or four or more, and after-dinner drinking became all-day drinking. I had become an alcoholic.
Things fell apart rapidly. Within just a few months, I was dismissed from my job as an executive pastor, my wife asked me to leave our home, and, with no place else to go, I found myself living in an inner-city rescue mission.
It was like being a leper. As lepers were cut off from the community and lived in leper colonies, I was cut off from my family, friends, and church and was living in a “colony” of other alcoholics and addicts.
During the last conversion I’d had with my pastor before I was dismissed, he’d said to me, “You know, according to Bible, what you are is a drunkard.” Roget’s Thesaurus lists these other terms for a drunkard: bad person, wretch, blighter, bum, lowlife, good-for-nothing, derelict, worthless fellow, human wreck. All those were things I felt about myself.
That’s what I’d become. I was a modern-day leper, a low life, good-for-nothing, human wreck, bum.
Knowing that I needed Jesus, I started reading through the gospels. After finishing Matthew, I began on Mark and in the first chapter got to versus 40-42:
And a lepercame to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
In that instant, I had a visceral sensation that Jesus was with me. Just as he had, with pity, moved toward the leper, touched him, and made him clean, I knew, I knew, that Jesus was with me and, with pity, had moved toward me. I knew that Jesus loved me, that he touched me, and I was okay with him. It was then that he began the long process of putting me back together.
What was the flash of insight from that sermon last week that made me think, “Wow! What a great God we have!”?
When I was in the rescue mission, I’d thought that I had gone far away from Jesus. As my drinking had gotten worse, I’d thought that the distance between Jesus and me had become like a great chasm. I was far away from him. I felt totally alone.
But I was wrong. I hadn’t been alone.
I’ve said many times that Jesus came and met in the rescue mission when I was reading the gospels. But I now see that’s not quite right. Jesus didn’t come to me in the rescue mission. He’d been with me the whole time. Jesus said, “I will be with you always.”
He’d been with me while I was falling apart. He’d been beside me as I walked through the doors of the mission. He’d been sitting next to me when I picked up my Bible to read. In the darkest, most terrible time of my life, Jesus was with me.
I saw that, in fact, I had never been alone. And when the time was right, he revealed himself to me. He let me know that he was there, that he loved me, and he was not finished with me.
Wow! What a great God we have!
Whatever dark place we find ourselves in, be it an inner-city rescue mission, a prison cell, an illness, depression, whatever it may be, this is the truth—we are not alone. Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”