December 10, 2017, Double for All Your Sins – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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This week our eleventh grandchild was born, a little girl, 7 pounds 9 ounces, delivered by her father at home in the company of her two adoring sisters. As far as I know, her name is still under consideration. I think most people would agree that there aren’t very many things in the world that bring us more joy than our families – new babies and engagements and weddings and baptisms. It’s not even just the big events – just being together as family, as husband and wife or as giant extended family – these are some of the greatest joys of being human. But in spite of that – or I think maybe because of that – it’s also true that conflict in families can be one of the most destructive and painful human experiences.
Specifically, conflict between parent and child, that relationship that is so essential to our lives from the moment we come into the world until the moment we die – that can be devastating. It’s a reality, not a rarity, in this world which is made up of people just like us – sinful, headstrong, self-centered and stubborn. I imagine that pretty much everyone here who ever raised a child or who ever was a child themselves (I think that covers most of us) can remember times in our lives when there seemed to be real enmity in your family, between parent and child, between father and son, between mother and daughter. Maybe it was a momentary disagreement, a clash of wills, a blow-up of tempers, that cooled down after a good night’s sleep or a long talk. But sometimes in families there is conflict that causes a breakdown of relationship, where there is hurt and anger and guilt and blame and bitterness that lasts weeks or months or many, many years. Sometimes with the passing of time the wounds inflicted by those who ought to have loved us fester and grow instead of healing. I have known families whose conflict outlived them, where even after death forgiveness and healing and comfort could not be found.
Today we read the words of Isaiah the prophet, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and tell her that her warfare is ended.” I think that in this time of unrest and violence in the world we might think at once that Isaiah is talking about the end of wars between nations, battles and terrorism. That is certainly something we all long for, now more than ever. And it’s also something that God has promised to bring about – the end of bloodshed, the end of violence between human beings once and for all, and the ushering in of the peace that will come at the end of time and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God,when the lion lies down with the lamb forever. That is definitely our comfort and our sure hope. But it isn’t what God is talking about right here.
First of all, God tells Isaiah to announce something that is DONE, not something that is going to be done in the far future. Speak tenderly and tell her that her warfare is ended. Over and done with. Clearly the end of warfare between nations is with us still – Jesus said it himself “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Don’t be alarmed, those things have to happen; but the end is not yet.”
So what ARE the words of comfort that God has given Isaiah for his people? The tender words of God are these: that the warfare between God and his people has come to an end. The end of the Father’s enmity with his sinful, rebellious children, the end of the long, exhausting, bitter conflict with a people who seemed continually determined to do things their own way even to their own destruction, to resist his love and to rebel against his instructions, a people constantly, defensively and stubbornly intent on proving themselves right by means of their own wisdom and worth. Human beings. Us. Our God is not merely calling a unilateral truce with us – he is declaring real peace, once and for all.
God could have dealt with human sin by laying down the law or else – my way or the highway. Sometimes I think Christians think that’s what he did with all their rules and judgmentalism! He could have cut us all down to size with some mighty, terrifying show of power. He’s certainly big enough and strong enough. He’s certainly able to be scary enough, if he wants to be. But it was never God’s plan to overpower his people, to make them submit. It means something that God named his people “Israel”, which means “He wrestles with God.” The history of God the Father and his children is full of the kind of wrestling all children go through as they grow from infancy to adulthood, and especially in young adulthood, when it is our human nature to test boundaries and butt heads with authority. But the end of that history is so unexpectedly and ridiculously and absurdly gracious that the Father had to send out the prophets to help us get our heads around it. “Speak tenderly to them,” says our God, “tell them that the fight is all over. Tell them that all is forgiven. Tell them that all debts are paid for – twice over.” Jesus didn’t just pay the bill for our wickedness, like a parent who writes out a check to cover the damages from his son’s reckless driving. Hold out your hands – in Christ’s great work of love on the Cross you have received double, God’s grace poured out, overflowing, in a superabundance of love. God so loved the world that he GAVE.
It’s the story of the Prodigal Son on a universal scale – and in real life. Mankind, us, who rebel against the Creator on a fairly regular basis like the ungrateful, headstrong, foolish adolescents we are, determined to do things our way, and who only come slouching back in desperation and utter disgrace when we come to the end of our resources. But lo and behold when we come looking for some kind of penance to earn our way back home, here comes the Father, heedless of his dignity, not caring one bit about our show of shame and earnest remorse, but just running joyfully to meet us, arms outstretched, with a warm robe to cover our nakedness and a feast to fill our empty bellies.
We tend to think that we have pretty well comprehended the love of God for us. We sing about it; we lay claim to that wonderful verse “God so loved the world that he gave us his Son.” But again and again we fall back into our old fighting habits. I hear people say all the time – ALL the time – “I guess I’m a bad person; I keep doing this or that. Or I never do this or that. I should read my Bible more. I know I shouldn’t have turned off my alarm and skipped church. I really shouldn’t tell jokes about my weird next-door neighbor. I’m just a bad person.” When we think that God would love us better if we did something we think he wants us to, or if we didn’t do something we think we should quit doing, or if we were more like that person we know is so much more godly than we are – when we have any of those thoughts, or all of those thoughts, we are still engaging in that warfare. We are still ignoring the love that has already poured pardon and forgiveness into our empty hands until they overflowed. Here’s the truth: there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to make him love you less. The love of God is way more outrageous than any human being could have ever made up. Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to them. Tell them we’re all done fighting. Tell them everything is forgiven.
But how often does the Church portray the return of Jesus Christ as a threat to a sinful world, like mothers that say to their naughty children, “You just wait till your father gets home!” When the world hears the people of God condemning Muslims or gay people, or passing judgment on millennials or “those lazy families who live on welfare”: when they see us shaking our heads over the godlessness of our neighbors – how will they ever hear the words of comfort God spoke to us all through Isaiah? How will they ever know that the almighty, powerful God came in gentleness, like a shepherd gently guiding his flock who are with young, tenderly holding the tiniest lamb in his arms. How will they know that mankind’s long battle of guilt and anger and self-justification with a God they don’t even know they believe in is over and done forever, unless we show them? And how can we show them unless we believe it ourselves?
You might have noticed that we are praying the Song of Mary each week this Advent. And the reason for that is that Mary, teenaged girl that she was, young and uneducated and naïve as she most certainly was – she understood the tenderness of God’s coming. “His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation….he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy.” How is it that Mary heard the announcement of the angel without fighting it? What would we have said? “Oh, but I’m not good enough.” or “But I can’t get pregnant now” or “But what will Joseph say?” or “I’m a virgin; I can’t get pregnant anyway, you’re making a big mistake here.” But for Mary, there was no false modesty, no defensiveness, no protestations that it just wasn’t fair. No warfare. No interminable arguments. Just one simple and world-changing “yes”, because she recognized the mercy of God, and the superabundance of love in his coming, whether she understood how it all worked or not. That’s why Mary has been held up as an example of faith for us throughout all the centuries since the day the angel came to her to say “Well met, Mary! The Lord is with you!”
We have this much-needed message for the world this Advent: that the coming of Christ is for everyone who is wounded and worn out from the long warfare of trying to prove their worth and atone for their failures, and of running as far from home as they can possibly get only to find themselves lost and hungry and alone. As John wrote, “God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world; he sent him so that the whole world might have life through him.” So we have this word of hope for our weary and embattled brothers and sisters in the world, as well as for ourselves: “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to them, that their warfare is ended, that their failures are all forgiven, that they have received twice over from the Lord’s hand in payment for their sins. Because the promise of Advent is that in Christ, the Father comes running to embrace all his children, without condemnation, and with open arms.