Preaching on the theme of “Help” for the first of the Moravian Church’s Holy Week readings I decided to turn to Karl Barth’s sermon “Saved By Grace.” Here is a shortened version of his sermon that I preached in the evening.
(Karl Barth, in a sermon on the topic “saved by grace” tells the story found in a Gustav Schwab poem. A horseman is riding through the night, anxious to reach the town that lies on the edge of the great Lake Constance. His plan is to spend the night and the next day take to cross the lake by ferry. He rides and rides, never knowing how far he has gone or how fast he has traveled. When he finally reaches the town after dark he asks a woman how much further to the lake. She then tells him that he is passed the lake, on the far side of the shore and ferry. It then dawns on the rider that he crossed the frozen lake by mistake. He is overcome by the fear of what could have happened to him, falling through the ice in the darkness.)
Every prayer for help, the great and the small, the prayers for help we don’t even know to make, each is caught up in the phrase “you have been saved by Christ.” This Palm Sunday, as we once again let the truth of these words sink into our bones, as we set off on the Easter path, I offer to you words that aren’t my own. I want you instead to hear a part of Karl Barth’s sermon on what it means to have our prayer for help answered in the cross of Jesus Christ:
“But now listen. Into the depth of our predicament the word is spoken from on high: By grace you have been saved! To be saved does not just mean to be a little encouraged, a little comforted, a little relieved. It means to be pulled out like a log from a burning fire. You have been saved! We are not told: you may be saved sometimes, or a little bit. No, you have been saved, totally for all times. You? Yes, we! Not just any other people, more pious and better than we are, no we, each one of us.
This is so because Jesus Christ is our brother and, through his life and death, has become our Savior who has wrought our salvation. He is the word of God for us. And this word is: By grace you have been saved!
You (now know) the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told where he came from, he broke down, horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask: ‘Do we really live in such danger?’ Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved…
But more important than the fear of sudden death is the knowledge of life imparted to us: ‘By grace you have been saved!’ Therefore, we have reached the shore, the Lake of Constance is behind us, we may breathe freely, even though we still are in the grip of panic, and rightly so. This panic is but an aftermath. By virtue of the good news the sky truly opens and the earth is bright. What a glorious relief to be told that there I was, in that darkness, over that abyss, on the brink of death, but there I am no longer. Through this folly I lived, but I cannot and I will not do it again, never again. This happened, but it must not and it will not happen again. My sin, my captivity, my suffering are yesterday’s reality, not today’s. They are things of my past, not of the present nor of the future. I have been saved! Is this really so, is this the truth? Look once again to Jesus Christ in his death upon the cross. Look and try to understand that what he did and suffered he did and suffered for you, for me, for us all. He carried our sin, our captivity and our suffering, and did not carry it in vain. He carried it away. He acted as the captain of us all. He broke through the ranks of our enemies. He has already won the battle, our battle. All we have to do is to follow him, to be victorious with him. Through him, in him we are saved. Our sin has no longer any power over us. Our prison door is open. Our suffering has come to an end. This is a great word indeed…
Dear brothers and sisters, where do we stand now? One things is certain: the bright day has dawned, the sun of God does shine into our dark lives, even though we may close our eyes to its radiance. His voice does call us from heaven, even though we may obstruct our ears. The bread of life is offered to us, even though we are inclined to clench our fists instead of opening our hands to take the bread and eat it. The door of our prison is open, even though, strangely enough, we prefer to remain within. God has put the house in order, even though we like to mess it up all over again. By grace you have been saved!–this is true, even though we may not believe it, may not accept it as valid for ourselves and unfortunately in so doing may forego its benefits. Why should we want to forego the benefits? Why should we not want to believe? Why do we not go out through the open door? Why do we not open our clenched fists? Why do we obstruct our ears? Why are we blindfolded? Honestly, why?
One remark in reply must suffice. All this is so because perhaps we failed to pray fervently enough for a change within ourselves, on our part. That God is God, not only almighty, but merciful and good, that God wills and does what is best for us, that Jesus Christ died for us to set us free, that by grace, in him, we have been saved–all this need not be a concern of our prayers. All these things are true apart from our own deeds and prayers. But to believe, to accept, to let it be true for us, to begin to live with this truth, to believe it not only with our minds and with our lips, but also with our hearts and with all our life, so that others may sense it and finally to let our total existence be immersed in the great divine truth, by grace you have been saved, this is to be the concern of our prayers. No human being has ever prayed for this in vain. If anyone asks for this, the answer is already being given and faith begins. And because no one has ever asked for this in vain, no one may omit praying like a little child for the assurance that God’s truth, this terrible, this glorious truth, is shining even today, a small, yet increasingly bright light. By grace you have been saved. Ask that you may believe this and it will be given you; seek this, and you will find it; knock on this door, and it will be opened to you.
This, my dear friends, is what I have been privileged and empowered to tell you of the good news as the word of God today. Amen.”