Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday 10 March 2013 Lent 4

Theme                  When we are far from God        

Sentence             They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon     them, for the One who loves them will lead them beside the springs of water (Isaiah 49:10) [NZPB, p. 577]

Collect                  Heavenly Father,
                                You see how your children hunger for food, fellowship and faith.
                                Help us to meet one another’s needs of body, mind and spirit,
                                In the love of Christ our Saviour. Amen. [NZPB, p. 578]                  
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
                     Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

We all know the parable of the prodigal son. Or do we? What is the best title for this story? It is also known as the parable of the waiting father. It ends with the story of the elder brother. Should it be called the parable of the two brothers? Then there is the thought that the parable reflects traces of a very old story of Israel, a story involving a father and two brothers, inheritance, wastefulness, rivalry, and reconciliation, the story of Jacob and Esau. Does Jesus' telling of the parable also reflect traces of the later history of Israel (Jacob's other name) in which Israel went into exile (1 and 2 Kings) and returned to some hostility from those who never left (Nehemiah)? But if either or both of these influences are in the story, how does that influence the meaning of the story for us?

Let's come back to that question having explored the other passages.

Joshua 5:9-12 is an example of the lectionary doing its best to capture something important - the return of Israel to its promised land, after slavery in Egypt - but with a certain abruptness as the reading begins. The 'disgrace of Egypt' is the great throng of children born during the years of wandering in the wilderness who had not been circumcised. The story of the circumcision is told in 5:1-8. Nevertheless, these few verses in Joshua underline the inheritance of Israel under God. They were promised a land. They had begun to live in it. They were displaced through famine. Now they have returned. The land is doubly precious.

Psalm 32 is a prayer of confession. A sinner's psalm! We can imagine that if David wrote this he might be thinking of his guilt over his adultery with Bathsheba (though Psalm 51 is normally given that 'honour'). Whatever sin David has in mind, it has troubled him greatly. Most of us who say we feel a little bit guilty about this or that are not talking about our body wasting away, groaning all the day long, feeling the hand of God heavy on us and our strength drying up. David has been in the pits of oppressive guilt. He has not felt a little bit guilty, he has felt guilty distressingly. Then he experiences release. What is the key to this release? He confessed his sin to God. Has that been our experience, that we have been tormented by guilt, locked up in it and weighed down with it till we feel nothing but guilt, and then we have confessed (possibly through verbal confession to a confessor)? If, indeed, today we are oppressed with guilt then we must confess. It is the only way to be free.

The rest of the psalm is the psalm of the person without great cares: God is there for us, we should follow in his ways and trust in him; then, quite opposite to when we are weighed down with guilt, we are confident and grateful that we are surrounded by God's steadfast love.

Such confidence permeates Paul's gospel acclamation in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, the centre of which is this,

'in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them' (2 Corinthians 6:19).

Whether we are Israel in disgrace, David in guilty despair, or the prodigal son lost from his family in dissoluteness, the ultimate good message from God is this: the last word on sin belongs with God and not with us. Our sin may overwhelm us (Psalm 32) but it never overwhelms God who is both willing to and has acted on a plan to reconcile the world (each of us, in every generation) to himself.

Nevertheless, the last word from God on sin is not a set of words (such as we might say when someone apologises to us, "Oh, that's okay. Not much harm done. Let's be friends again."). The last word from God is the deepest and darkest deed possible in dealing with sin,

'For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' (6:21)

We will never be able to fathom the depths of this transaction. We can, perhaps, come up with an image or two to help us get the drift. One that springs to mind is a body full of poison which another person is able to draw the poison out of by absorbing it into their body.

One response to Paul's insight into God's reconciling work through Christ's saving death for us on the cross is praise.

Another, expressed in this passage, is that we might be 'ambassadors for Christ'. God has reconciled the world to himself, but the world is not reconciled to God until it responds to the ambassadors appeal, 'be reconciled to God' (6:20).

The epistle reading is most apt to be linked to the gospel reading. The son has declared his father as good as dead in claiming his share of the inheritance. In his pursuit of a way of life foreign to his father's and to his own Jewish heritage (highlighted by the fact that his life hits rock bottom in a pig farm), the son is driven as far from home and culture as possible. He is effectively dead as well as lost (see Luke 15:24). The gap appears too great for reconciliation between father and son but by the stories end, reconciliation has been achieved (but with a twist). The waiting father never gave up on wishing to be reconciled to his prodigal son. In at least this sense, the father is analogous to the God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself.

The twist to the tale lies in the exposure at the end of the story. The stay-at-home elder brother is as unreconciled to the father as his dissolute brother. He does not understand the heart of his father. In location he never leaves the father, in empathy of feeling what the father feels he may as well live on the other side of the world. It is not only the obvious trespassers of the world who need reconciling to God, it is also the outwardly right living folk who do not understand the grace of God and thus want no part of his reconciling work.

From this perspective we can see how the traces of older Israelite stories influence the meaning of the parable. Esau (the older brother) is cast aside from God's purposes because he has no understanding of God's true heart. Israel driven into exile through disobedience to God's commands nevertheless does not lose all understanding of God's great plan for the world. A remnant keeps faith, and expresses through the prophets the possibility of Israel yet returning to God and taking up its role as a blessing to all nations (see Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 42:1-6).

What then of us today?

Do we need reconciling to God?

As ambassadors of God, to whom are we making our appeal, 'be reconciled to God?'  

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