When I was in eighth grade, my neighbor and best friend's father drove the two of us to school in his green 1976 Chevrolet pickup truck. I learned a lot of life lessons in that truck. For starters, in order to teach us humility, he honked and waved at the girls who were walking to school, while we sank down as low as we could in our seats. For an economics lesson, he would point to the national chain auto parts store that had moved in down the street from the local family business and talk about how important it is to "buy local." For our character education, he tuned in to Paul Harvey.
Every morning, as we approached the school, Paul Harvey would give us the news and tell us a heartwarming story. If you remember that radio segment, you will recall that he would begin the story, interrupt it with a commercial read, and then pick back up with "the rest of the story." We loved that show. I loved it so much that, during the next year when it was my father's turn to drive me to high school, I insisted that we listen to Paul Harvey on the way. Like so many listeners, I always wanted to hear "the rest of the story"--the surprise ending that pulled all the pieces together and revealed what it was that made the story worth listening to in the first place. Without "the rest of the story," Paul Harvey would have been just another voice on the radio.
In this Sunday's collect, we will articulate the first part of the story of salvation, and, although the collect hints at "the rest of the story," I think the preacher has some work to do to bring that essential conclusion home to the listener.
Don't miss what we will pray on Sunday: "Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves..." We are powerless. That is the starting point for salvation. Whether Step 1 in the 12-Steps of AA, whether the prayer of desperation uttered by Moses as God's people thirsted in the wilderness in Exodus 17, or whether the confession of the husbandless Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, it all starts when we admit that we are powerless. Think about how revolutionary that is in the twenty-first century of complete and total empowerment. For a century, the do-gooders across the globe have been working to empower people, and the gospel begins with a statement of universal powerlessness. You won't hear that in the self-help aisle. You can't buy that in an organic kale and millet smoothie. You won't get that in the everyone-gets-a-trophy t-ball league. You won't read about that in Joel Osteen's latest book. No one is talking about universal and total powerlessness except evangelical preachers who love talking about how miserably sinful we all are. And that's why it's important for us to preach "the rest of the story."
I hear that message of "we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves," but I hear it most often from fire-and-brimstone preachers who seem hell-bent on scaring the hell out of their congregations--literally! The only problem is that many of those preachers seem to stop before the get to the second half of the story of salvation, which is that God's love for powerless sinners is universal, unconditional, limitless, and guaranteed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "You are powerless over sin," the story begins, "but God can and will and already has saved you," the story must conclude. It cannot stop short. It cannot end with, "What are you going to do about it?" Because, if hope is only found when we admit that we are powerless, we cannot then undo that proclamation of powerlessness by placing the burden of action on ourselves. Are you powerless? Yes. What can you do about it? Nothing. That's the definition of powerlessness. Instead, ask what God is going to do about it. Or, better yet, ask what God has already done about it.
We must take our powerlessness to the same absolute limit to which we push God's unconditional love. The only way the gospel of grace makes sense is if we are totally helpless and God's love is completely limitless. We can do nothing, and God cannot not do everything. We are powerless, and God is always and unreservedly efficacious. We do not complete it. We do not choose it. We do not think or pray or believe (as an action on our part) our way into it. God does it all. Even faith itself is a gift. Salvation begins when we surrender, and it is not completed when we pick back up the burden of our own efforts.
Hear the good news of the gospel: you are absolutely, completely, totally powerless when it comes to saving yourself. And that's good news because, although you can't do anything about it, God can and will and has. Don't forget "the rest of the story," which is God's part in the story. Embrace true powerlessness by giving up the idol of faith. It's not even your decision to make. It is already finished.