Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.

This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.

When God made the covenant with Abram, which we read several weeks ago, He said, “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.” While Abram was given the promise of the Promised Land, slavery and four hundred years of waiting was what Abram and his offspring received that day because the Amorites had not yet become sinful enough. God was patient with the people of Canaan, but in the meantime His chosen people suffered. This was a disgrace.

Abraham believed the promise. Abraham continued to believe the promise even when it took more than thirteen years for Isaac to be born (Ishmael was thirteen years older then Isaac.) Abraham continued to believe the promise even when it was not fulfilled when Sarah died thirty-seven years after Isaac’s birth. He believed until his dying day, at one hundred and seventy-five years. That is a long time to wait: more than a normal human lifetime in our day. We can barely wait a few days for the weekend or a few weeks for a special occasion. Can you imagine waiting a dozen years, a half century or four hundred years for a promise to be fulfilled?

Now, God’s people continued to live according to His word in Egypt. They continued to be circumcised and they cried out to God in the midst of their suffering. They listened to Moses and followed him out of Egypt and to Mt. Sinai. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the patience of Abraham. Moses was only on the mountain for forty days and they turned from the God who delivered them out of bondage. They created a golden calf and turned back to the rituals and worship they knew in Egypt. Despite the promise of God and the miraculous escape, they weren’t patient enough to wait a few more days to receive what they’d waited four hundred years to be fulfilled.

And so, they would wait another forty years. God’s response to their lack of faith was to send them wandering in the wilderness. The generation that turned from Him would not see the fulfillment of the promises. They would not enter the Promised Land. And so they set out together, although they did not do so with complete trust. They complained, they argued, they thought about turning around and returning to the place of comfort, Egypt, despite the suffering they’d experienced there. It is easier to live in slavery than to go forth into uncertainty in faith. This, too, was a disgrace.

They weren’t prepared for those forty years of wandering, and so God provided. He gave them manna to eat. He provided water for them to drink. He took care of them, despite their grumbling. And when the final person from that wicked generation passed from life into death, He took them into the Promised Land. During those years they did not uphold the covenant. They did not circumcise. They did not remember the Passover. Israel was following Moses who was leading by God’s hand, but the relationship between God and His people was broken. But in today’s Old Testament passage, we see Israel restored to her God.

The manna in the wilderness was God’s means of grace: to keep them alive while they were apart from Him. In Joshua we see the Israelites finally being restored to the covenant relationship with their God. The Israelites were circumcised, the required sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s offspring. They could not continue further into the Promised Land without being reconciled with Him. He would accompany them, and they would be His hands in dealing with the sins of the people of Canaan.

God said to Joshua, “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” The NRSV uses the word “disgrace” instead of reproach. This statement can be understood two ways. First, we can see the four hundred years of slavery and waiting as a disgrace, but the day the people entered into the Promised Land those days of suffering were left behind. The promise was fulfilled, and the pain was in the past. Their brokenness was no more: they were reconciled to the God of their forefathers. Grace overcame disgrace.

This puts God at fault for their suffering, and while this might be a difficult thing for us to understand, it is important for us to consider. Not that we blame God for our suffering, but that we remember that God is merciful to all nations, not just His chosen people. The four hundred years of waiting was not a lesson for Israel, or so that they would be tested in the wilderness. They were left in Egypt because the sin of the Amorites had not yet been fully realized. He is the God of second chances for His people, and for others.

The passage can be understood in terms of the human failure, too. God’s people turned from Him at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They wandered the desert for forty years as one by one the wicked generation passed. This was disgraceful. Imagine how the nations must have looked upon these people who escaped life in Egypt for this life of uncertainty. The Egyptians surely knew that the Hebrews had not found a place to settle. And the people of Canaan had no reason to worry. They must have considered the wandering Israelites a joke, a people fallen from grace.

But that all changed the day they crossed the Jordan, because God once again showed the world His power over everything. The Jordan was halted so that His people could cross. The people of Canaan realized they had something to fear. There was no disgrace for the people of Israel. It was rolled away on that day, forgotten with the mercy of God’s grace and His forgiveness.

The Israelites, restored to their God through circumcision, were ready to take on those who stood in their way. They had celebrated this reconciliation with a Passover meal, a remembrance of their escape from Egypt. They had only held the celebration once: at the foot of Mt. Sinai one year after they escaped. Now they are called together again to remember the great things God has done for them. Everything is new. Everything is made right. Everything was ready for God’s people to begin their journey into the Promised Land. On that day they stopped receiving manna because they were no longer wandering in uncertainty. They were home, and though there was still work to do, they had received God’s promise.

“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” These could have been the words of those Israelites on that day. The psalmist knew the kind of suffering that came from being separated from God. He or she knew the kind of physical, emotional and spiritual trauma came when transgressions led one away from God’s grace. But he or she also knew that the person of God who cries out to Him is heard and God is faithful to respond. In our times of distress, we are encouraged to call out to God. He is there, even if we have had to wander in our own wilderness, because He is there to lead us into the Promised Land. Happy are they who know God’s forgiveness, and happy are they who trust in the Lord.

That’s what we see played out in today’s Gospel message. We are very familiar with this story, the story of the Prodigal Son. I just realized that I understood that title incorrectly many years. I had never looked up the word “prodigal” and I always assumed it referred to the fact that the son came home. We hear it used in that context, as a response to someone who has gone away and returned. The word “prodigal” actually means, “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure.” The prodigal son was not the one who returned, he was the one who wasted all the good things he’d been given.

In this story, the younger of two son decided he wanted to go out into the world and make it on his own. Of course, he didn’t want to do it alone: he wanted his share of his father’s estate. This was most unusual, but apparently the father was well off enough to give the son his share of the estate without concern for the work of the estate. Even though the second son would only have received one third of the wealth, it sounds like it was a great deal of money. He used his inheritance lavishly, fulfilling every decadent desire. It didn’t take very long for the entire fortune to disappear.

The timing couldn’t have been worse: just as he spent his last coins a famine took place in the country where he was living. He had nothing and he had no way of getting anything. He was left hungry and frantic. He managed to find work doing menial labor, but it was not enough to meet his needs. He was so desperate that he was willing to eat the pig’s food to keep from starving, but that was not an option. There was no one to help him. He was alone.

One day he realized that the workers at his father’s house were given more than enough to eat. He did not know why he continued to suffer in a foreign land suffering of famine when he could return to work for his father. He expected nothing more than a job so that he could feed himself and stay alive. He received far more. The son did not demand anything from the father. He faced reality repentant and humble, bowing before his father with confession and apology. But his father would have none of it.

Instead, 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 only wanted a job. Not everyone was happy, however. The son left behind realized that his father was heaping his inheritance onto his prodigal brother. To him, the prodigal was the father, too. He was offended by the waste of money and excitement. Why should his future be risked for the sake of the son that ran away to play while he was stuck at home doing all the work?

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? The young son sought out the father, asking for mercy and got far more. The elder son expected everything and missed out on the joy of being in his father’s house. In the father’s eyes, however, both are loved. I suppose it is easy for the one left behind to thing that the actions of the father seem as if the young son was the favorite. After all, the father gave in to his demands for his inheritance before it was due and then received him with mercy and grace when he came home penniless.

But the father has no favorite, or if He does, it is the son that stays. He answered his son’s anger, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” This is a story of reconciliation, of restoring that which had been broken and making it whole. We see in this passage a similar response from God as is found in the story of the wandering Israelites: what matters is not the days that were lost by their foolishness, but the hope of the future, living in His grace. The disgrace is gone, the sin forgiven, the opportunity bright.

It was a disgrace that the young son was living as a servant in another country. He might have deserved it, after all, he did waste all he had. The forty years of wandering in the wilderness was also a disgrace and it was the fault of the Israelites. But God looks beyond our faults and frailties toward the reality of His promises. He has mercy even when it is not deserved. He keeps His covenants even when we fail to do so. He rolls away our disgrace and takes away our sin. Happy are we who are forgiven.

Happy and blessed, indeed, are we who are forgiven, because we are made new. Like Israel, when the people had crossed over the Jordan, renewed their relationship with God and began the journey to the fulfillment of God’s promises, we are beginning something new. Paul tells us that everything old has passed away. It is for us that our desert wandering and our prodigal adventures are forgotten when we are reconciled to our God. We were broken and restored. We are broken and we continue to be restored. The world is broken and we are called to bring reconciliation to others.

But we often feel like that elder brother. We’ve been here all along, why should we receive someone who has wandered away? Why should we accept them again? We look at others and think that they are beyond redemption. The things they have done are too wrong, they are too divisive, they are too outrageous. They’ve wasted too much of God’s grace to be reconciled and restored.

If we think someone is beyond redemption, we’ll never bother to share the Redeemer. We might even make up excuses for doing so—they won’t listen, we don’t want to force our religion, we can’t change the spots on a leopard. But we are called to be like the father in the story of the prodigal son. We are called by Christ to reconcile people to God. As Paul writes, “We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

We are changed by God’s mercy. Instead of seeing the world through human eyes, we see our neighbors through the eyes of Jesus Christ. We no longer see what they did in the past, but what can be in the future. 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. We act on mercy and love. God reconciled the world to himself through Christ and freely gave forgiveness to those who sought His face. We are sent by Christ with His authority to restore those who were lost and reconcile those who are broken.

Jesus was gathered with the tax collectors and sinners, sharing the message of forgiveness with them. The Pharisees and scribes were offended by Him. They grumbled about it. They were like that older brother that stayed home while the prodigal wasted the kingdom’s resources. How could anyone receive them with such mercy and joy? But Jesus answers their grumbling, “They were dead and now they live.” We are now His ambassadors, given the power and authority to continue sharing that forgiveness with those who are dead so that they might have new life in Christ.

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