Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio


Text:  Romans 3:21-24; 5:1-2, 6-11 (C.E.V.)

          Psalm 100

     I remember years ago, when I was younger and more easily fooled, I received a six by nine inch

envelope in the mail.  On the envelope were these words:  “Official Prize Notification, U.S. Claims

Division, Open immediately: award information enclosed.”  “Official?”  “U.S. Claims Division?”

“Award……enclosed?” Trembling with anticipation, I opened the envelope to find a parchment-like

document with an engraving of an eagle holding a quiver of arrows in one talon, and an American

flag in the other.  Underneath in large and bold lettering:  “Congratulations Mr. Lawrence Lallamma! 

You have been selected to receive a free five day Caribbean cruise aboard the luxurious Crown

Princess Steamliner.” 

    It went on to detail the accommodations that awaited me: deluxe stateroom

on the main deck; daily buffet in the posh Ambassador Dining Salon; nightly dancing and live big-

name entertainment in the Emerald Princess Lounge.  On top of that, I was guaranteed an additional

incentive of $100 free play at the Round Table Gaming Parlor. How could I pass this deal up?

      My first clue that all of this may have been too good to be true should have been that my name

was spelled with 3 L’s and 2 m’s.  I nonetheless continued to read down through this official, U.S.-

sanctioned prize notification, the print becoming smaller and smaller until I finally got to the minuscule

text at the bottom which included a 900 number.  I called that number [at 3.95 a minute] and

yes, my selection was verified.  There was just one little prerequisite before my tickets would be

sent.  I was required to travel first to a place called Bonita Shores, Florida, just north of Naples, and

take a look at some beach front property where I would surely want to retire someday.  Well, what

if I didn’t want the property; just that free Caribbean cruise?  The feminine voice with the Jamaican

accent on the other end of the line assured me that I could discuss that matter when I arrived at

the Flenderhook Real Estate office in Pine Ridge.  As I hung up the phone in disgust, I realized that

I’d just thrown away almost twelve dollars to learn that that free Caribbean vacation would cost me

plenty.  There were, as they say, “strings attached.”  These days, thankfully, I’m less easily fooled.

      Are we not conditioned by that old adage that nothing comes free?  I remember as a child my

mother always saying, as she tore up yet another Readers Digest sweepstakes notification, “In this

world, son, you don’t get something for nothing.”  Well, in the material scheme of things, that is

generally true; which is perhaps one of the reasons it’s so hard for many to accept seriously what

the Bible has to say in spiritual terms about God’s love for us.  We live in a culture of widespread

skepticism -- about things of the world; about things of the spirit.

      In my pastoral role – especially as I interview and counsel Door Ministry clients – I talk to a lot

of folks who are searching for genuine meaning in life.  In many cases, the conversation moves

in a spiritual direction.  I call it “God talk.”  It’s encouraging that most everyone I speak with –

whatever their station in life, whatever their religious conviction or lack thereof, whether they’re

what one might consider good people or not-so-good people – they at least in theory believe in

God.  But one thing which I’ve discovered is fairly consistent in people’s belief systems about God is

that if God’s going to love them, they’re going to have to earn it; that if God’s going to provide for

them, they’re going to have to, in some way, pay for it; that if God’s going to bless them, they had

better be blessing worthy.  That should come as no surprise as many of us have been taught at our

parents’ knees that nothing is free.  There are always some strings attached.

      In our human relationships – imperfect as they are – we often attach strings to love.  More  

often by our behavior than by our words, we make our love conditional or contingent.  Sure, I’ll

love you…..but here’s what I expect….. I’ll love you if….. I’ll love you when….. I’ll love you because……

So we become conditioned to believe that not only in the material scheme of things does nothing

come free.  We come to believe that in the spiritual realm, where love lives, where God dwells,

nothing comes free.  There’s often some fine print at the bottom of our notifications of love. 

      As Paul writes to the church in Rome, where pagan religions tried to appease dozens of imagi-

nary deities, he writes about what it means to be acceptable to the one, true living God.  He

refrains the good news that because of what God did for us in and through Jesus Christ, we receive

God’s love, God’s provision, God’s blessing as totally free gifts.  We don’t have to earn them. We

don’t have to meet certain preconditions or pre-qualifications to make ourselves lovable and

acceptable to the Force who creates us.  God has already paid the price and met the conditions.  All

we have to do is turn and accept God’s love.  Paul writes, “By faith [that is, by simply believing it]

we have been made acceptable to God.  And now, because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live at

peace with God.  Christ has also introduced us to God’s undeserved kindness on which we take

our stand.”

      To a lot of folks, living not only outside but inside the church, that seems too good to be true.

There must be a catch; some strings attached; some fine print we must carefully read; some 900

number we have to call to get the real story.  So we often find ourselves working hard to make

ourselves righteous enough; good enough; holy enough for God to love us.  Friends, the reason we

should be filled with great joy during this season of Christmas has little to do with gifts under the

tree; but much to do with the Gift sent from above.  The coming of Jesus means that God is freely

sending God’s love to each and every one of us.  All we have to do is receive and accept, as we do

the gifts from those who love us on Christmas morning.  And the free gift of God’s love will take

root in us and transform our lives. Our righteousness, our goodness, our holiness won’t be preconditions

for receiving God’s love, but rather our response to and outcome of God’s love freely given

and freely received. 

      I think there are so many people wandering around in darkness searching for genuine meaning

who deep within them desire God’s love and acceptance, but are afraid because they don’t believe

they’ve earned the right or met the conditions.  They want, and need, in fact crave God’s love, but

feel they don’t measure up.  They say things like:  “I don’t know the Bible well enough, or at all.”  “I

didn’t go to church growing up.”  I don’t know the words of the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s

Creed.” “I have some personal sin which makes me unworthy.” “I haven’t done enough.”  “I’m not

good enough.” “I don’t even have the right clothes to wear.” [I hear that one a lot]

     Christmas is time to put away those doubts and fears, and to believe in Paul’s words when he

assures us that “Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful.”  During Advent, I’d

back that up by saying that Christ was sent for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. Do we

grasp what that really means?  God’s love is here for us before we can say or do a thing, always

held out as a gift for the taking, without strings attached.  From our Methodist friends, Armenian or

Wesleyan theology calls that “prevenient grace.”  And once we take hold of that grace, that gift,

we’ll want to learn God’s word.  We’ll desire to be obedient to God; not out of fear of not being

loved, but in response to being loved.  We’ll have a craving to commit ourselves to following Jesus. 

We’ll have a yearning to shed the sin which clings so closely; again, not as a means of earning God’s

love, but as a joyful reply to the fact that God’s love is already here.  And at this time of year, we’re

reminded that love so pure came in the form of a Child; human as us; holy as God. 

      So as we are just a little over a week from Christmas, let’s prepare our hearts to receive the

totally free gift of God’s love.  Let’s step out in faith and accept what’s being offered to us…… no

strings attached.  Amen.