Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Trinity, August 13, 2017
“But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”
HOW DOES GOD feel about you? What is His attitude where you’re concerned? Has He been impatient with you lately? Given you a lot to think about? Have you given Him cause for anger over your sins, high crimes and misdemeanors? How does He feel about you?
In ancient days, people watched the weather to see how their gods were feeling. A bright and beautiful day meant the gods were appeased and things would go well on earth. Thunder signified their gods were brooding and angry, ready to lash out in a violent storm out of heaven. Wind, rain, excessive heat: these all meant something about the deity, having temper tantrums like little children who need to be bribed to be good.
The Judeo-Christian idea of God may correct a lot of that, but our reading of the Old Testament can convey the image of Yahweh brooding, or shining, or distant, or threatening revenge. It seems a natural thing to portray God much like a man, someone’s angry father. We learned to obey Dad through the application of his belt. God must be even more so.
Adam and Eve sinned in the perfect garden, so they were thrust out and punished with labor, subordination and death. Cain killed his brother and was sent into exile. The world became very sinful and God sent the Flood. We fear and almost loathe such a god. People will foolishly talk of a god of the Old Testament and prefer the God of the New, introduced to us by Jesus.
Exodus and Numbers tell of the emancipation of the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage through the desert for forty years, to the edge of the river Jordan. We read passages where God repents Himself of choosing these people, Moses appealing to God please not to strike them all dead. Several times they rebel against God, against Moses, against Aaron, against leaving Egypt, against crossing the river. They make a golden calf and worship it. They sinfully party with seductive Moabite women. God sends plagues, poisonous snakes, opens the ground under them to swallow them up, and judges Moses at the last unworthy to enter the Promised Land. God is clearly not having a good day much of the time in these records.
Do we have a God of Mercy? Or one of Justice? Is He kind or strict? Do we hope for Grace or some legal Clemency? God chose the Jews, and then He wiped them out, first Israel, then Judah, letting foreign armies decimate their cities and families. When we look in the face of God at long last, will He be smiling, or will He be angry at us?
We’d better understand sin, and what it does to our Lord when we sin. We think of sins as natural, like sweat or tripping over a rock. Nobody means to do it, no one is really hurt, are they? The young couple in the garden only ate a little piece of fruit: what was God’s reaction all about? Is He such a perfectionist?
Think of a perfect world. You’ve never lived there, never seen it, nor had it very well described. I don’t know what it would be like, but think of heaven on earth. Nothing is wrong there, all is peace, everything radiant, positive and safe. Now drop a bomb. Make it a biological weapon. Turn crystalline ponds into fetid swamps, drop birds from mid-flight in agony. Crack the sky and let fatal rays strike down death from outer space. Kill the grass and trees. Make the very air radioactive, unfit to breathe. Sin is like that. From the created perfect order where everything is given, all is sacred, nothing good is denied us: now turned to shreds and tatters of a dying planet. No less damage was done as mankind discovered how to rebel against both nature and nature’s God. Does God have reason to react? Yes, and just how does He react?
He asks. He identifies the breach. He separates the sinful from the place of their disaster, and sets up struggle for them, where they will learn what life is truly for, and how they need to work in order to make it. He isn’t harsh. The rules have changed. They must come back to Him.
We once had a friend who did that separation thing between the “God of the Old and New Testaments,” but with a twist. She said the God of the Old Testament was always bringing His people back, restoring them, forgiving them, making a way for reconciliation with Himself. Then came Jesus. The watershed. Once there is Jesus Christ, there are only two ways you can go. No more testing the waters, no more testing God. You either go with Jesus, and it’s heaven for you, or you go to hell and there is no more reprieve. The God of the New Testament, she reasoned, had had enough of our vacillation. Last call to board His train for glory. Not coming? Goodbye.
God did give many calls back to Himself in Old Testament days. Even during the 40 years, as recounted by St. Paul to the Corinthians, they rebelled, He punished, and then He restored them. Like a four year old. They learn the word ‘no’ and then they learn to sneak and do exactly what you’ve told them not to. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shall have no other gods before me. Make no graven idols nor worship them.” He had just said this, Moses had gone up the mountain, and what do they do? Moses’ own brother commands a molten calf, and they worship and have an X-rated party. God sets up a covenant, a contract of peace with His people, give them freedom they’ve never known, set a Promised Land out before them to claim, and leave them for 40 days. And 3-Mile Island. God is not irate: He is amazingly patient.
He chastens. He guides. He punishes in measured amounts. And He doles out devastation to those who will never turn, never hear Him, never learn. That’s when He sent out Israel to wipe out the Amalekites. They were a culture so deeply ingrained in evil, raising their children to satanic ritual abuse, debased and deranged in thinking, painting evil as good – that God had to stop it from spreading. Death did not mean damnation. It only ended the disease. He could figure out eternity for such creatures in His own time.
Everything God does has a good purpose. We have to believe that. In the very act of judgment, God is being merciful. He restrains His kindness at times, for it’s at such times we need to feel the heat. We need a hard edge on truth, and a sharp sword to separate our lying words from a real picture of who and what we are. St. John puts it perfectly when he says that if we claim not to sin, we are lying, and make His sacrifice of no use. If we confess our sins, however, He is merciful, faithful and even just when He grants forgiveness. Why is that just?
Jesus tells the most wonderful story in the Prodigal Son. Three men in one family and by the sixth word we enter the action. The younger of two sons wants his father to give him the inheritance he would receive at his father’s death, right now, for he was leaving. “Packing up. Going away. Give it to me now, for I count you both dead to me.” The father did so, and off he went. This son knew nothing of mercy, and wanted none. “Just the cash, man. I’m done with this family.”
I’ve seen adult children reduce their family members to cash value, and want more than their share. The patron dies, and a son unleashes lawsuits and fateful, deadly words against the others. It’s shocking. It’s a world suddenly polluted and ruined, a family torn apart by greed.
This young man headed out of town, across the border, to wallow in his ill-gotten wealth. He was too wasteful. Prodigal means wasteful, and soon the girls were done entertaining him, his bar bill ran up and he couldn’t pay, and no one was his friend anymore. There was no mercy to be found in that land where everything done there stays there.
He hired himself out to a pig farmer. Imagine a Jew feeding pigs, and not even able to eat their slop! He hit bottom. His pride had held back feelings for his family right until then, but his pride was a bitter substitute for food. He had come to the end of himself. His father had servants, mere workmen, and he treated them better than this! Why not sell himself into slavery to his dad? It wouldn’t address the wrong he had done, but at least he wouldn’t starve. There was no mercy in this Prodigal Son, not yet. Not even for himself. But a glimmer of wisdom was behind his rehearsed words of feigned humility: “Father, I have sinned against you and heaven. I’m not worthy to be called your son…”
The father was still at home. Notice that he didn’t chase his errant boy. He never went to that foreign land, though he doubtlessly knew his condition. This had to be so. If the son was going to come back, he had to choose to return. We might think this unmerciful, but the father is wise. A forced return home wouldn’t have broken, or healed, the young man’s heart. He had to come of his own accord. But the father sees him staggering up the road, through the settlement where others knew the story and would shake their heads at the return of the prodigal one.
Mercy broke over the scene and the father, rather than to let the boy cross that distance in shame, alone, ran up to meet him. He threw his arms around the emaciated form of his poor son and hugged him with a powerful love. This man whom the boy had called ‘dead’ to himself now gave life back to the youth who struggled to give his little speech. “Father I have sinned…”
He was silenced as the old man took off his cloak and set it around the shivering back of his son, covering his dirty body and his shame. He took off a ring and put it on his son’s finger, then called the servants to begin preparing a supper like nothing they’d seen in years. “Kill the fatted calf! My boy was dead, and look! He’s returned to us, alive!”
Mercy, not judgment, was fitting in this beautiful scene of restoration. We hope for this from God when we come to His throne and are set before Him to be judged. Do we understand the dynamic of that powerful moment? I dare say, we don’t. We turned a peaceful stream into the Love Canal, the miracle of the atom into Chernobyl. And He doesn’t blow us to kingdom come. He constructively, meaningfully shows us the path back to Himself. If we’ll take it, His mercy overwhelms us. If we refuse, well that’s not on Him. It’s on us.
The celebration begins. Now, anybody else would leave the story at this point, but Jesus set another character in the plot, one we haven’t yet heard from. He’s the elder son, the one who stayed home, working the farm, laboring day after day, not playing around, having no particular fun. “And what’s this? A party for his good-for-nothing kid brother? Dad’s killed the fatted calf for him? I’m not joining that abomination! No way do I even speak a word to the jerk!”
Dad comes out, having been told the elder son’s reaction, to entreat for reconciliation in the family. The man is livid. “How many years have I served you? Huh? Have I ever gone off like that? Left all the work to you? Have I? And in all those years, have you ever once sacrificed so much as a baby goat for me, so I might make merry with my friends? No! But this son of yours, this whoremonger, returns after throwing away the family funds and what do you do? You killed the calf and throw a big party! How could you?”
This man does not, at this moment, want a God of mercy. He wants a god of wrath and eternal judgment, exile, death, destruction, annihilation. It would be better had his brother died. What is he being asked to do, what distance is he being asked to cross? He’s denied himself such pleasures. He’s worked like a slave. Now his brother who wants to be a family slave is rewarded for his wickedness! It’s not fair!
It’s not fair. Truly, what God is doing with us this very day is not fair. He is pure. He is mighty. He is just. He is passionate about truth and perfection and heaven’s rules. And we are so far from that. We have wallowed in pig stuff and can’t even smell ourselves. What did we demand from our Father, and how many times have we called Him dead to us? How many smoking holes have we left in our lives, destroyed family ties, given others only the view of our back walking away, given ourselves undue pleasure and wasted our very lives? Do we want a god who forgets? One who says, “No big deal. I understand. Let’s just say it’s over, shall we?” Would God be God if He were so foolish?
He is not foolish. And He will not forget. Every sin is dealt with, and harshly. Every failure is met with equity, punished and exacted by blood, death and anguish. And that measure of God’s wrath is poured out, in judgment for all mankind’s many sins, on the back of His Son, in the form of a servant, in the visage of a slave, silent before His accusers, forgiving us all from His cross. Forgiving, not forgetting. It is dealt with. He is merciful, He is mercy itself. The God who sent us into this fallen world is running to greet us, covers our shame with His own cloak, covers us with His hugs. It is all known to Him and nothing is forgotten, He forgives us, having paid that huge bill with His own blood. We wasted much, but He paid it all. How good a God have we?
How does God feel about you? He loves you enough to die for you. It’s a serious business. He will not let anything go, but everything that you and I have ever done amiss, He forgives in the sacrifice of Jesus. That’s His promise. And that’s what He means by mercy.