Several years ago I traveled to Mozambique and preached in a small rural church. Two hundred or so people crammed onto short, hewn wooden benches and mats on the ground under a thatch roof in the pouring rain.
That so many people were there that day was due in part to curiosity. For Mozambicans living in rural bush communities, visitors from America are rare occurrences. I preached the sermon that morning -- something I hadn't planned on doing. However the church folk insisted, since the way they had it figured, anyone willing to come so far to visit must have something important to say.
My mediocre sermon was vastly improved in translation. My interpreter, a longtime missionary, was impressive in his ability to translate not just the words but also the idioms and nonverbal aspects of the local language. Still, I strove to make it easy as I could, attempting to keep my sentences simple and clear of American colloquialism.
Not that I succeeded. I had departed for Mozambique the day after a blizzard, so I mentioned to the Mozambican church how happy we were to be able to enjoy the warmth of their climate, adding that we were also happy to enjoy the warmth of the people. My interpreter commenced to spend about five minutes translating this one sentence. As it turned out he was trying to explain to the perspiring congregation why I was so glad they were hot.
Local hospitality also dictated a presermon snack. Ours consisted of tea, bananas and goat liver. Not exactly my typical presermon fare, but not terrible if your stomach can handle adventure. As we sat and politely partook, conversation turned to the differences between Boston (where I was from) and rural Mozambique.
I described the blizzard that I had left in Boston, demonstrating -- a hand to my thigh -- the depth of the 25-inch snowfall in my neighborhood. The Mozambicans looked at my wife and I as if we'd lost our minds. How was it possible that we'd survived? Since all they knew of frozen precipitation was the occasional hail storm, all they could imagine was destruction of disastrous proportions. We explained that no, water crystallizes into small flakes and drifts to the ground a flake at a time, eventually piling up into something we also call drifts. They shook their heads in utter perplexity. "You come from a very strange place," they said.
In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the Lord famously announced to his people how "though your sins are blood-stained like scarlet, they shall be white as snow." I actually think the simile works better for Mozambicans than for New Englanders.
While for us, "white as snow" may suggest purity and cleanness (at least until the plows roll in), for Mozambicans, snow is a completely foreign concept, alien and outlandish. For them, to have God render sin "as white as snow" would be to blot it completely out of their conceptual consciousness.
The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth put it like this: "Grace as utterly opposed to sin, devours it. Grace digs sin up by its roots. Grace questions the validity of your present existence. It takes away your breath, ignores you as you are, and treats you as what you are not. Grace is to sin what possibility is to impossibility, what sense is to nonsense." As far as sin is concerned, grace is a foreign language in a foreign country. It is like snow in Mozambique.
This is why Christians believe grace to be so miraculous. And why it took Jesus' death and resurrection to make it happen. We celebrate it so fervently at Easter for it is grace that genuinely makes way for new life.
Daniel M. Harrell is the author of "How to Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus" (FaithWords, 2011). He is senior minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minn., and also author of "Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith" (Abingdon, 2008).