Sunday, September 16, 2007

And Still the Same

Texts: Isaiah 65:1-12; Luke 15:1-10

BACK IN THE SECOND CENTURY AFTER CHRIST, THERE lived a man by the name of Marcion.

Marcion believed that the god of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different gods. He taught the false doctrine that the Jewish god was wicked, cruel, and wrong, while the god Jesus preached was loving, good, and right.

We Presbyterians are not Marcionites. We believe that the God of Abraham is the God of Jesus Christ. We believe that the God who spoke through the prophet Isaiah is the God who inspired Luke the Evangelist, too. As two of our hymns today say, "From age to age, He’s still the same."

Sometimes, though, we wonder. Like when we look at today’s Scripture lessons. "Lord, what are you saying here? In Isaiah 65, it’s all judgement and retribution, sword and slaughter! But in Luke 15, Jesus Your Son tells us that heaven rejoices when You recover one single sinner! Aren’t You contradicting Yourself, Lord? How can these both be true?"

If honest questions like this are going through your mind, be assured that your Father God hears you in mercy and love. He wants you to get an answer you can understand. Questions like that aren’t unbelief. Unbelief is doing what Marcion did, throwing out most of the Bible because he couldn’t wait for the Holy Spirit to explain its difficulties to him. Unbelief is running up against some hard or disturbing part of Scripture and saying, "Oh, I don’t want to worship a god that’d do something like that!" and throwing Christianity out the window, without trying to get an answer.

No, your heavenly Father is the giver of good gifts, and especially He will give you the Holy Spirit and understanding if you will ask Him! What can the Holy Spirit tell us to make these passages clear?

Well, first thing, He reminds us not to go off half-cocked. We mustn’t read the Word of God with closed minds or lazy eyes. So let’s look carefully at our verses from Isaiah 65.

In the very first verses, the Lord, the God of Israel, speaks of how He reveals Himself in love to all mankind, Jew and pagan alike. Yes, Israel is His special chosen people. But even to the Gentiles (verse 1), even to those "who did not ask for me," He has revealed Himself. And to some of them, He gave grace to find Him, even though they weren’t even looking for Him at all. Even to a nation-- any nation-- who didn’t call on His name, the Lord has said, "Here I am! Look at Me!"

As for His own people Israel, as the Hebrew says, it’s like He’s spreading out His hands in prayer to them, despite their obstinacy and their wilful ways. Continuously-- "All day long"-- He calls and calls to them to return and know Him and His goodness!

Does that sound cruel to you? Does that sound like a god who takes pleasure in retribution and slaughter? No, that is a God who bends down to His undeserving human creation in patience, mercy, and love.

The teaching that God is love was not something first mentioned by Jesus or the Apostle John! It runs all the way through the Old Testament and on into the New!

But the love of our God is not careless, or indulgent, or weak. God cares how His people treat Him, one another, and themselves. He has a right to be angry when we spit in His face and say we’ll disobey, whether He likes it or not.

And most of the Jews of Isaiah’s time were spitting in God’s face. They offered sacrifices of animals and incense in gardens on brick altars, when the Lord had commanded them that their sacrifices should be offered only in His temple, on an altar of bronze.

Not a big deal, you say? All right then, why didn’t they obey God’s command? Why did they insist on making their sacrifices when and where and how they pleased? If they truly loved the Lord as He did them, couldn’t they please Him in this little thing?

But it was symptomatic of how bad their hearts were towards Him. His people practiced necromancy, telling the future by sitting in graveyards and bringing up departed spirits. Didn’t they have the living Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets to listen to? Of course they did. But they wanted their own word, not the Word of the Lord. As it says in verse 11, they worshipped the gods of Fortune and Destiny, instead of the Creator of the universe who orders everything everywhere by the word of His power!

Their ritual meals were a deliberate offense to the Lord their God. If you have a ham at home in the oven on timed bake, this condemnation of those who eat the flesh of pigs is not directed at you. After Jesus fulfilled the Law, God declared that all living creatures were clean for us to eat, as we read in St. Mark and the Book of Acts. But up until Jesus Christ, eating pork was forbidden for the Jews. God used pork and the meat of certain other animals to symbolize the unclean ways of the Gentiles that they were to reject and avoid. But here His people are happily slurping down pork soup and dog meat and horseflesh and who knows what all else, as part of a religious ritual, and along with it they’re slurping down all the other vile Gentile practices a meal like that would involve.

And to cap it all off, these rebellious souls think their practices make them especially holy! They turn up their noses at those boring, unimaginative people who kept on going to the temple to worship the Lord. They’d say to them, "Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you."

Did you get that? "I am too sacred for you." This, after they'd indulged in every sort of vile, God-provoking practice they could think of! They know what they’re doing is wrong in God’s eyes, but they keep on doing it, they embrace it, they identify with it, they’re proud of it-- and they put down people who won’t join them in it.

So the Lord gives the rebellious ones what they have earned. The wages of sin is death, in the Old Testament and the New. For a long time, our merciful God has been withholding the deadly wages these people have earned. But now, the day of reckoning has come. He will pay them back in full, into their laps, individually, every last penny. They did not reject the sins of their fathers: fine, they will receive their fathers’ back pay as well. All their worship of false gods in gardens and on mountain tops, all the open and deliberate defiance of the Lord their God-- it will be compensated to the full.

But why doesn’t God forgive them? Isn’t He a God of love?

George MacDonald was a mentor to C. S. Lewis, and he once wrote of a person who prayed to God, saying, "I thank thee, Lord, for forgiving me, but I prefer staying in the darkness: forgive me that, too." And the Lord replies, "No; that cannot be. The one thing that cannot be forgiven is the sin of choosing to be evil, of refusing deliverance. It is impossible to forgive that. It would be to take part in it."

That’s what God has to say to any petition like that. There are truly some things God cannot do. He cannot take part in evil. For the sake of His faithful chosen ones He cannot. For the sake of the Gentiles who have found Him He cannot. For the sake of the holiness of His own name, He cannot. God cannot and will not forever endure willful obstinacy and sinful rebellion, or all the world would be swept away and destroyed by it. His love is not a careless indulgence, it is a refining fire. Those who insist on remaining lost, He will give them their own will and let them have the godless life they desire. The horrible thing is, the godless life is death.

But our God is the God of patience and love, the First and the Last, from age to age the same.

And He says:

As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes,
and men say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is yet some good in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants.
I will not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah those who will possess my mountains.

In mercy God the Lord will seek those who seek Him. He will give them and their flocks rest in the pleasant places of the land. He will show His love to them, even in their weakness, and forgive their sin. For when He revealed Himself, they found Him. When He called to them, they answered. When He came to seek them, they let themselves be found.

In the Old Testament and the New, our God is a God of love. His love is not alien to His justice, nor is His justice alien to His love. In Isaiah’s time, in Luke’s time, in our own time, He is still the same.

He was still the same as He lived and taught His people in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are truly beautiful pictures of the love of God. At the same time, they depict how terrible it is to stray out of the Father’s love and care.

It’s hard for us to grasp this. We’ve never been a smallholding shepherd with only a hundred sheep or a Middle Eastern woman who’s lost part of her dowry, that she might need to live on if her husband dies. To speak of the seeking love of God is also to speak of the terror of being lost from Him. If there was nothing wrong with a sheep going off by itself, the shepherd wouldn’t bother to recover it. If the woman didn’t care that one coin had disappeared, she wouldn’t put aside all her other chores and sweep and search till she finds it. Jesus is saying that being lost from God is a terrible, terrible thing, and that’s why His seeking, saving love is so amazing.

There is one big difference between the New and the Old Testaments, but it’s not a difference in God. It’s a difference in how He reveals Himself to us.

God revealed Himself to His Old Covenant people Israel through the Law, and called them to obey it. But they could not obey it. Even at their best, they wandered and failed. In the New Covenant, God reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus lifts from us the burden of keeping the Law, for He kept it for us perfectly in our place. As Isaiah says in chapter 53, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him--" (that is, Jesus) "--the iniquity of us all."

In our Luke passage, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law think they’re sheep who’ve never strayed. But they’re just as lost and wandering as those tax collectors and sinners who are repenting their old sinful lifestyles and following Jesus and His word! Our Lord Jesus speaks ironically in verse 7 about "righteous persons" who don’t need to repent. Don’t they realize that none of us are "righteous" in the eyes of God? We are all lost sheep who need to be found! We are all sinful and need to repent. We are all under judgement; not one of us can do the least thing to save ourselves.

The New Covenant tells us, Stop trying! Without Jesus, we’re like that coin the woman worked so hard to find-- senseless, helpless, dead. We’re like dumb sheep going after the next thing, the next thing, the next thing, and straying farther and farther from our Shepherd and God. We need Christ the Son of God to clean away our sins on the Cross to restore us safely to the Father’s treasury. We need His resurrection power to rescue us from death and bring us to eternal life.

The Old Covenant law couldn’t do that for us. But the Old Testament warning remains: If you reject God’s saving love, if you insist on going your own way, provoking Him to His face and worshipping gods of your own making, He will let you have what you want. He will let you have what you want, even if your false god is your own attempt to be good instead of trusting wholly in the saving goodness of Jesus Christ. God will not send you to hell: you head there of your own volition, when finally and forever you say, "My will, not Thine, be done."

It’s an awful choice, isn’t it? Either you admit your helplessness and receive God’s love and life, or hold onto your godless autonomy and go down into darkness and death.

The Holy Spirit calls you to seek in faith the Good Shepherd who in mercy has sought you. He is the God of justice and of love, the One who was and is and is to be, and still the same. The Lord who made the world, who called Abraham and the prophets, is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And by faith in that same Jesus, this Lord is the God and Father of you and me. He’s been faithful to His promises of love from the beginning and He’ll be faithful to them forever. Let us praise Him for His holiness, let us praise Him for His justice, let us praise Him for His love.