Sermon: "God's Judgment and Grace"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
We can’t deny it – Jeremiah contains some difficult passages. Last Sunday we looked at Jeremiah’s visit to the potter, and heard God’s word, “Thus says the Lord: I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. But they say, ‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will” (Jeremiah 18.11b-12, NRSV). I suggested that, given our understanding of the love of God, God may not actually shape evil against us but merely remove the protection of God’s grace and let evil take its course for we reap what we sow.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah is even more stark – “A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse – a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them” (Jeremiah 4.11b-12; NRSV). Four times the text says, “I looked,” then depicts a picture of desolation:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
This calls to mind the account of Genesis: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1.2; NRSV).
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the Lord: the whole land shall be a desolation” (Jeremiah 4.23-27a; NRSV).
But wait a minute, we next encounter these words: “yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 4.27b; NRSV). Despite this picture of judgment, God provides a glimmer of hope – this is not the way everything will end.
Lest we perceive God as entirely vengeful and wrathful in this account, we should acknowledge God’s promise that this is not the end of those who were previously referred to as “my poor people.” God’s pity is evidence of his love. An important verse is omitted from our reading in which Jeremiah says “Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart” (Jeremiah 4.18; NRSV). The people have brought these events on themselves – they are reaping what they have sown.
In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus has a great deal more to say about God’s love for the lost. It is important to note that the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are immediately followed by the parable of the prodigal son. Let’s focus on the context: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes (the properly religious) were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15.1-2; NRSV).
As John Pilch observes, “A rabbinic tradition cautions: ‘Let not a person associate with sinners even to bring them near to the Torah’ (Mekhilta 57b on Ex 18:1). Feeding sinners is praiseworthy; eating with them is forbidden. “Hosting” or “welcoming” sinners, as Jesus does here (Lk 15:2), makes the Pharisees furious” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/24OrdC091519_1/theword_cultural.html ). Pilch further reminds us Jesus dealt with his “opponents by insulting them plainly and directly” (ibid.). Hence, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
At the end of the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” and similarly at the end of the parable of the lost coin, Jesus says, “just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15.7, 10; NRSV). Jesus’ message to the Pharisees and scribes is clear: God’s love is not reserved for the righteous – it also extends to sinners. God is seeking and saving the lost.
The lamb and the coin did not decide to become lost, so it is reasonable that God’s grace would extend to them. But what if someone willfully chooses to be lost? The parable of the prodigal son addresses this situation. Hence, the importance of connecting these parables.
As you recall, the younger son comes to his father and asks for his inheritance. The inheritance would normally have been given after the father was deceased, so the son is saying he wished his father were dead. The father grants the inheritance; the son moves to a far country where he squanders his inheritance on riotous living; when he reaches abject poverty, the son accepts a job as a swineherd. According to Jewish dietary laws, swine are unclean animals. What is this Jewish boy doing feeding the pigs?! This is as low as he can go. The son recalls the goodness of his father’s house, and realizes his father’s servants are far better off than he. He repents and decides to return home and accept the status of a servant, his father permitting. He rehearses his speech. While he is still far off, his father recognizes him, girds up his loins, runs after him, throws his arms around him, and smothers him in kisses. By running to meet him, the father spared his son running the community’s gamut of criticism and abuse from.
The son delivers his well-rehearsed speech: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15. 21; NRSV). What a confession! The father commands one of his slaves to bring a robe – the best robe, a ring, and sandals. Not only that, but the father throws a party for the community – the fatted calf is killed. But the older brother (the Pharisees and the scribes) is incensed: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command. [Yeah, we Pharisees and scribes have obeyed your commands!] The older son continues, “Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours [ The Pharisees and scribes are thinking those sinners and tax collectors are not related to us!) came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15.29-30; NRSV).
Then the father answers, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15.31-32; NRSV).
What a powerful and compelling story! We all choose to rebel against God, to squander our true inheritance on riotous living. But God searches for the lost, for us. When we reach abject poverty of spirit, when we own our complicity with evil and experience the hell we have created, we may then decide to return to our Father’s home. If not, we remain in our own hell; we continue to reap what we have sown. When we take the first step of our journey, our loving Father sees us, runs toward us, embraces and kisses us, then graciously celebrates our return. What a picture of the wonderful mercy of God.
Yes, God’s judgment is sure and certain – for we reap what we sow. This is not to say that all the evil or trouble we experience is a consequence of our own actions. But God’s grace and mercy are even more certain. God looks upon God’s poor people, waits for them, longs for them to begin the journey home, then runs to meet us!