Text: Isaiah 65:1-9††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††† W 4th Sunday after Pentecost
ďI Spread Out My HandsĒ
††††††††††† In the name of him who set us free from the curse of sin and made us the children of God, dear friends in Christ:† Iím sure you are all well acquainted with the parable Jesus told about the Prodigal Son. Itís a favorite for a lot of Christians because every one of us can closely identify with the younger son who rebelled against his father, demanded his share of the inheritance, and then went away to far country where he squandered his precious birthright on a short-lived spree of excess and immorality.† We do the same thing every time we consciously decide to do something we know to be a sin against God.† When you sin knowingly and deliberately, you despise your heavenly Father and take the great inheritance youíve been given in Christ and waste it for a moment or two of pleasure.† It places you far from your true home in spiritual bankruptcy and starvation.
And this is why we can take such comfort in this parable:† it paints a portrait of an open armed father who is always on the lookout, scanning the horizon for any hint that his wayward son may return.† The fatherís heart is every moment aching to receive again and restore his lost child.† The parable shows that this is our heavenly Fatherís unvarying attitude toward us. What he wants more than anything is for his children lost in sin to come to their senses and return home so that he that they can live again in his forgiveness, his grace, and his love. And so the parable reminds us that no matter how far we stray and what terrible sins we commit, the one constant is that our Father, who didnít want us to go away to begin with, is always eager to have us return home. When we come to him with repentant hearts, he is overjoyed to clothe us again in the righteousness of Jesus who gave his life for us.
In todayís Old Testament lesson, the prophet Isaiah is telling a slightly different version of the story.† Itís a storyline developed throughout the long book of Isaiah Ė we heard just a portion of it.† But like I said, thereís a twist Ė and I donít think the prophet would mind too much if I retold his story in a contemporary way.† In the parable of the prodigal son, the rebellious boy leaves home to pursue his lusts and work his way toward ruin out of the sight and supervision of his father.† In Isaiahís telling of it, the son rebels; but he does it in the comfort of his fatherís home.
So, to bring the story up to date and make it a bit more personal, letís imagine that you have an eighteen year-old son living in your home.† (If youíd like to substitute a daughter, go ahead and mentally make the adjustments.) Anyway, he dropped out of school several years ago because he just didnít want to be bothered with it.† Nevertheless, he expects you to feed, clothe, and shelter him, prepare his meals, do his laundry, clean up after him, take him to the dentist for regular checkups and to the doctor if he gets sick and buy whatever medicines he needs.† He expects a sizeable allowance so that he has plenty of spending money, and that you provide him with a decent car together with all the gas, maintenance, and insurance that goes with it.† He demands that you keep him supplied with his own unlimited use cell phone, a computer with unsupervised high-speed internet access, and that you provide him with all the other new techno-gadgets that every kid that age feels he must have.† Basically he expects a free and comfortable ride all the way around.
Ah, but he doesnít feel that he should have any obligations imposed upon him:† no regular chores, no expectation that he keep his room in order, no rules of the house whatsoever to obey.† Quite the contrary, he wants to be free to come and go as he pleases, do whatever he feels like doing, hang out with whomever he wants, and, in the privacy of his own room (which is off limits to you, of course, unless you happen to be bringing a snack which you are welcome to leave at the door) be allowed to drink alcohol, use illegal drugs, and have any number of girls of doubtful virtue spend the night with him.† Oh, and if he gets in any trouble with the law, he expects you to bail him out, pay his fines, and spend every penny youíve got to move heaven and earth in order to keep his precious little tush out of jail.
Got the picture?† This is your son.† Heís behaving in all the ways Iíve mentioned and worse; has been all his life.† And whenever you, in loving concern for the boyís future, express any kind of disapproval with him or his behavior, he sneers in your face, makes fun of you, and tells you in language not suitable for me to repeat to mind your own business and leave him alone.† Then he redoubles his efforts to pursue even more creative ways to ruin his life and makes yours miserable.
What, I ask, should you do with such a son? Whatís the loving thing to do?† (And hopefully no one is thinking, ďPlease, hurry up and tell me, because that sounds exactly like my child and I donít know what to do!)† The answer (and Iím sure most of you are way ahead of me here) is to give the kid a heavy dose of reality.† You grab him by the scruff of the neck and toss him out of the house.† If youíre feeling generous, you might drop by his room, stuff a pillow case with a few selected items carefully pried from of the top layer of the hard crust of dirty laundry lying about, and toss that out beside him so that heíll have a couple of changes of clothes.† And you tell him heís on his own, that he needs to find a job and a place to stay.† Either way, you make it clear that youíre not going to tolerate his behavior and encourage him in it by your support even for a second longer.
I need to stress that this is the loving thing to do.† Something has gone terribly wrong in this kidís understanding of the world. He has, up to this point, interpreted your patience for permissiveness, your compassion for license, and your forgiveness for approval.† And on top of it all, due to in part to your over-protection, the boy has never learned the important lesson that evil actions have unpleasant consequences.† Itís time he learned that lesson, and the only way you can teach it is by exercising some tough love.
†Itís necessary that you do this not just for the benefit of your rebellious son, but also for your other children living in the household. After all, theyíre watching to see how you handle the situation.† By allowing it to go on as it is youíre sending them the message that itís okay for them to pursue the same course.† And thereís more involved:† the kidís drug habit could get your whole house confiscated leaving you, your spouse, and the rest of your children homeless.† And too you have to consider what potential damage youíre doing to society at large by raising a kid in such a way that heís most likely to make his mark in the world as a dangerous felon. †Itís the loving thing to do all the way around to put him out of the house to face the world on his own.
Of course, your decisive actions will not likely be interpreted as being very loving by your son.† From his perspective, it will seem terribly out of character, cruel, heartless, and mean Ė and heíll tell you so loudly and bitterly. And right before you close the door behind him (the locks for which you had the good sense to change in advance), heíll likely say something like, ďFine!† Have it your way!† You donít love me, you never did.† And I donít need you anyway. I can make it on my own.† Youíll see.Ē† And then heíll stand there for some time waiting for you to reopen the door, say youíre sorry for getting upset, and let him back inside.
But if youíre smart and if you truly love your son, that wonít happen.† And then the learning will begin.† Junior will soon discover that getting by in life on his own is a lot harder than he imagined.† Heíll begin to appreciate all the things youíve been doing for him that he has long taken for granted.† And by Godís grace, maybe heíll begin to understand what a self-centered, disrespectful, rebellious brat heís been to you Ė and heíll be sorry for it.† He may even want to tell you so.
But hereís the trouble:† with the story of the prodigal son, the boy leaves home knowing that his father didnít want him to go away in the first place.† So, even when heís made a wreck of his life and feels heís not worthy to be called a son any longer, he knows his dad well enough to know that heís not going to let me starve.† He thinks, ďDadís sure to allow me back as one of the hired hands at least.Ē But the son in Isaiahís version of the story doesnít have that sense of assurance.† The last thing he heard from his folks was, ďIíve had it up to here with you. Youíre out.† Hit the road.Ē† The questions he has are: Do my parents still love me?† Can they forgive me?† And if I repent and agree to change my ways, can I come home?
Now, at this point, itís possible that a few of you are thinking, ďHang on here, Pastor, but Iíve read the book of Isaiah, and I sure donít remember this story.Ē† In response, let me say first that the story is there, though, like I said, Iíve updated it a bit.† And I did make a substitution.† In my retelling, itís the story of a single wayward son.† In Isaiahís original, heís talking about the entire nation of Judah.† As a people they were rebelling against the Lord.† Oh, they wanted to go on living in the Promised Land and enjoy the all the blessings of the inheritance they had received Ė that land flowing with milk and honey the Lord so graciously gave them Ė but they didnít want to recognize the Lord or honor him in any way.† Quite the opposite, they went out of their way to provoke him to anger.† The passage we heard mentions some of their practices: ďA rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices Ö sacrificing in gardens, making offerings on bricks, sitting in tombs, and spending the night in secret places, who eat the flesh of pigs, and drink the broth of tainted meat.Ē† These were occult practices of the pagans and had to do with the worship of idols, ritual prostitution, and witchcraft.† And when the prophets of the Lord tried to warn the people against such things in order to steer them back to the right worship of the Lord, they had the monumental gall to tell them, ďKeep to yourself, donít come near me, for I am too holy for you.Ē† That is, their minds were so twisted that they thought through their wicked behavior theyíd made themselves holier than the Lord himself.
At that point they were beyond reasoning with. Though they had been warned over and over again, the Lordís only recourse was to employ drastic measures. It was the only way to get through to them. †So the Lord brought the armies of Babylon against the nation of Judah and allowed them to conquer his people.† They had to learn the hard way what life without the Lord was really like.† Too long had they taken for granted his forbearance, his forgiveness, his care, and his protection. They had lived so long in Godís mercy that theyíd forgotten that sin has frightful consequences.† Frightful consequences indeed: thousands of Godís people died horribly and slowly in the depravations caused by the long siege of Jerusalem.† Thousands more were slain by the sword in a bloodbath of pillage and rapine when the city fell.† Those who survived were taken away and sold as slaves or they were put in what were essentially concentration camps in far off Babylon. There they were made to serve their Babylonian masters.† Then they were like the prodigal son on a national scale starving while feeding the pigs. But the difference was that they didnít wander there themselves while the Lord begged them not to go; instead, they were cast there by the Lord in a display of his righteous fury.
In the chapter before the passage we heard, Isaiah offers a prayer on behalf of these survivors.† And the underlying theme of the prayer is the question: †what is the Lordís attitude toward us?† You threw us out.† And you were right, we deserved it.† But are we cast off forever?† Have you turned your back on us for good?† Weíre sorry!† Will you forgive us?† Can we come home?
††††††††††† The opening lines of the Old Testament reading are the Lordís response to Isaiahís prayer.† He says, ďI was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me, ready to be found by those who did not seek me.Ē† The sense of it is the Lord is willing to receive even the vilest pagans who turn to him. How much more then, will he receive his own people when they repent.† He goes on, ďI spread out my hands all the day to you while you were in rebellion against me.Ē† What heís saying is that he never wanted to send them away in the first place.† He tried everything he could think of to avoid bringing disaster on them; but they refused to listen.† So he did what he had to do.† The point is that he never stopped loving them.† Even in their darkest hours when they were suffering the worst abuses their captors could dish out, they were in the Lordís loving care. No, it didnít seem that way to them at the time; but sometimes we leave the Lord no choice but to express his love to us with severe forms of discipline.† Sometimes the only way for him to get through is for him to beat some sense into us.
††††††††††† And thatís the image he gives us when he says, ďAs the new wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ĎDonít destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,í so I will do for my servantsí sake.Ē† That may be difficult to understand, but the idea is this: when youíre picking grapes and making wine, sometimes you come across a cluster that has lot of damaged grapes. Some are bird pecked or bruised and getting a bit rotten; others are all dried up.† You may be tempted to cast that bunch aside rather than throw it into the press to be stomped on with the others.† But donít do it.† Thereís still some juice in that cluster to be made into wine, so go ahead and throw it into the press too.† Thatís what the Lord is saying about his people.† You were a bad cluster of grapes; but I didnít throw you away.† Instead, I put you in the vat and I crushed you.† I love you, and I knew I could still get some good from you Ė namely, your repentance.† Thatís all I wanted.† And now that Iíve got it, I forgive you.† Now I can bring you home where I want you to be with me always.
††††††††††† The lessons for us to learn are pretty straightforward.† First, just as we can identify ourselves in the story of the prodigal son, so also we should see ourselves in this story as the kid who expects to enjoy the benefits of living at home without having to respect or obey his parents. †We do it individually when we continue in the church receiving the blessing of Godís Word of forgiveness Ė allowing him us to feed us with the body and blood of Christ Ė but we donít feel obligated to truly repent or change our sinful behavior. Itís easy for us to take Godís grace for granted.† We can do it collectively too.† There are whole denominations that have wandered from Godís Word and freely allow what God condemns as sin to continue among them unchallenged.† To be sure, many of them think of themselves as being more righteous for allowing what God calls an offense to him Ė and we are not beyond falling into the same kind of self-deception.† Either way, we make a terrible mistake when we misinterpret Godís forbearance and patience for approval.† Just because he doesnít drop the hammer immediately, doesnít mean he likes whatís going on.† Instead, in mercy, he gives us time to repent.
††††††††††† And if that fails, he loves us enough to do something more drastic.† Itís never his first choice; but when he has no other alternatives he does bring calamity on his people to bring them to repentance. And when he does, and we find ourselves suffering, we should never question his love or his willingness to receive us again.† As he says, ďI spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people.Ē† Itís the image he wants us to keep in mind:† of the Father ready and eager to receive again his repentant child Ė even the child he had to discipline.† But perhaps more to the point, it should remind us of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who spread out his hands all the day on which he was crucified for our sins.† If ever we doubt Godís love and his willingness to forgive and restore us, we have only to look there Ė at the nails in his open hands Ė and see to what great length the Lord will go to ensure that we will have a place in his home forever. †Therefore, keeping our focus on the cross, may we never doubt Godís love as we live lives of repentance worthy of our heavenly calling.† In Jesusí name.† Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!