Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 12:1-6
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.

Survival experts have what’s called “the rule of threes.” You can survive three minutes without air, three hours without protection in a harsh environment, three days without water and three weeks without food. And they say that it is not pleasant to experience any of these circumstances. We need air, shelter, water and food to survive.

My focus today is water. We need water to live, to survive, to be healthy. We need water to drink and we need water to grow our food. We need water to clean our bodies and to make our homes sanitary. We use water in other ways, too. We use water to play. We use water to cook. We use water for beauty as in fountains. We use water for transportation.

The earth without water becomes parched and dry. I took a photo of our lawn this week, if you can call it a lawn. We are dealing with a pretty severe drought in our region and we’ve been unable to restore our lawn which had been neglected by the previous owners for at least a year. In some places, particularly where the sun shines harsh, there is nothing left but cracked dirt and a few hardy weeds. We experience dust storms when the wind blows. Without water, farmers are unable to grow crops or feed livestock. Food becomes scarce and people go hungry. It does not matter how much gold you have, you will die without water.

I suppose that’s why water is often used to describe God and His work in this world. Jesus is the Living Water. God quenches the thirsty desert and soul. He will make rivers flow in the dry places. Streams of living water even flow out from His throne in heave. Water means life, not only in the physical sense, but also in the spiritual.

The psalmist writes, “My moisture was changed as with the drought of summer.” This psalm begins as a song of thanksgiving for the great mercy of God. It describes the life of one who has been forgiven. The psalmist goes on to tell us why he needed to be forgiven. He describes the life of one who is separated from God, who is suffering from the absence of God’s grace. In verse four the psalmist admits that his life is without life, and that there was only one thing left to do. He confessed his sin to God, and in repentance received the forgiveness that God has promised.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” The word here is sometimes translated, “Happy.” So, how do we experience the same happiness, or blessedness that the psalmist proclaims? First we recognize our sinfulness and our need for God, and then we turn to Him in confession. He forgives and forgets our sin. In this we are truly blessed. Our drought-ridden flesh and spirit are giving new life with the waters of grace.

Isaiah writes, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” The text from Isaiah also begins with a song of thanksgiving. In this passage, we see God repenting. That might sound odd, since we generally think of repentance as the act of the contrite heart that turns to God. In this case, we see that God turns His wrath from the sinner. God’s heavy hand is removed and His saving grace is applied, so that we can sing for joy and drink from the wells and experience life in His grace. Without God we are parched and thirsty. With God we are happy, blessed and thankful, no longer thirsty.

The son had everything. He had a home, food, water. He had the love of family and a future of prosperity in the estate of his father. He wanted something different. Perhaps he thought the family business was boring or too much work. He may have just wanted to see the world, live in a city, or experience something new. Home and family was not enough. He may have felt oppressed or trapped, by the expectations. He may have wanted to go to a place where he was honored and respected. After all, he was the younger son. He would never control his father’s estate. He would always be number two. He wanted to be number one.

He asked his father for his share of the inheritance. Now, at that moment he would have received just one third of the value of the estate at that moment. He did not know if the value of his portion would grow over the years; he was willing to take the risk to escape. He accepted what his father offered and left home to see the world. That portion was probably enough to begin a wonderful life. He could probably buy land, build a house, and begin a trade. Instead, the younger son squandered all the money. It is very easy to spend vast fortunes if you are not a good steward of your resources.

He didn’t foresee the future that was ahead of him. Not only did he lose everything with reckless living, but the country where he settled fell into a severe famine. No water meant farmers are unable to grow crops or feed livestock; food became scarce and expensive. People went hungry, including the son. He found a job, but it wasn’t a very good one. As the hired hand who fed the pigs, he had to suffer the humiliation and frustration that the pigs were eating better than he was.

He knew that at his father’s house he could find everything he needed for life. They had water, food and shelter. Even the servants were living better than the son. He had no hope in this new life he chose, but knew that as a servant at home he’d live well. He decided to repent, to turn around and go confess his sin against his father. He was willing to be a servant, to work for his food and shelter. It would be better to servant feeding the pigs in a place where he would have bread to eat, than to wither away into death in freedom.

Now, I imagine that the son looked much different at this point in the story. He might have had some good times, but in the end he experienced hunger and exhaustion. He was probably thin and dirty, tired and forlorn. He may have left home in fine clothes, but he most certainly returned in little more than rags. He was probably unrecognizable. The words of the psalmist come to mind as I imagine what the son must have looked like: bones withered away, moisture dried up as in the heat of summer.

I wonder if that’s what God sees when He looks upon us as we dwell in our sin. We are dirty and exhausted, wearing nothing but rags. Without God, we are that son. We aren’t any different than him. We want to be in control. We want to take the gifts of the father and use them for our own purpose. We want freedom. We want our own life. But we quickly find that when we are all alone, separated from God by our sinful selfishness, that there is no water or food or shelter for us. There is nothing. We are nothing.

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not conceal my guilt.” Lent has historically been a time of repentance, of confessing our sin before God in preparation for the events of holy week. As we realize our sinfulness we come to a greater appreciation of the work of Christ on the cross. After all, it is our sin that sent Him there. Jesus took our sin upon Himself so that we would not suffer the wrath of God. Through Him, the Living Water, we are given new life.

Just as the son realized that life would be better in the shadow of his father, so too we see that we will have true life in the Kingdom of our Father. We see our sin, confess our sin and our Father restores us to Himself. He recognizes us, though we are unrecognizable. He sees us coming and does not wait for us to come to Him. Like the father in the Gospel story, our Father runs to receive us, to clean us, to feed us and to celebrate our new life.

It is no wonder that Isaiah and the psalmist sing about thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace. Paul writes, “Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new.” We are changed by our relationship with God, no longer looking at the world in quite the same way. We see things through grace. God reconciled the world to himself in Christ and freely gave forgiveness to those who sought His face. This is something to celebrate.

In God’s kingdom, He’s the one that throws the party. The father received his son as if he had died and come back to life. He heaped upon the son the best robes and gold rings. He slaughtered the best lamb and opened the finest wine. He threw a party when the son was willing to be a slave.

Isn’t it interesting that the younger son was willing to be a slave but was received as a son, but the older son thought of himself as a slave even though he’d been loved as a son all along? The young son sought out the father, asking for mercy and got far more. The elder son thought he earned the gifts of the father and expected everything, but missed the joy of being in his father’s house. He thought the party was proof of the father’s love, and he was offended by the waste. After all, the father never threw a party for him! In the father’s eyes, however, both were loved.

The prodigal story is about restoring that which had been broken and making it whole. During Lent we discover that our bond with God is broken by our own selfishness and it has left us like the desert in a drought. We are all selfish, whether we are like the young son who took the blessings of the father’s love and ran away to be free or like the older son who wanted to celebrate his own goodness. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We are all separated from God and need to be restored to Him. We are all thirsty and need the Living Water for life. And as we are restored and welcomed into the house of our Father, we will joyfully drink of the waters of His salvation forever.

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