THE EVERLASTING ARMS
1 Timothy 1:12-17
1 Timothy 1:12-17
And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate. Luke 15:23-24
IS there any lesson for us in the stories of Superman, or of the Lone Ranger, or Captain Gallant? All those were television shows from long ago, with live actors. When people my age were young, we were very engaged in their fight against crime. They always caught the criminals. Only Superman had special powers; the others were terrestrials like us who were very well-trained and dedicated. When they caught the criminals we would talk about the long arm of the Law. The heroes extended the reach of the Law. In spiritual terms, that is what caught the young man in Jesus' parable. He found out that God's Law has a long reach. Neither does God need any deputies to extend His reach further. His "left hand" sends adversity, in contrast to His "right hand" that blesses.
Who was this young man? We call him "The Prodigal Son," that is, the son who wasted his goods. He was looking for happiness in all the wrong places. He thought if he could live in the fast lane, life would be wonderful, and it was as long as his cash lasted. When it was gone, so were his friends. Then the left hand of God went into action big time! Crops failed, the market crashed, employment was way down, times were harder than ever. There was no wheat to be harvested, no vineyards to be pruned, no bread to be baked, or oil to be pressed, or wine to be made; and if labor isn't needed, neither is management. Bailiffs, supervisors, and stewards were being laid off everywhere. With no crops, there was no need for tax collectors. It really got rough for the youth who had neither savings nor credit. God's left hand had this youth by the neck. He got a job feeding pigs. That was very humiliating. For a Jew to be feeding pigs is something like a teetotaler tending bar to make ends meet, but things got worse yet. Jesus tells us that he envied the pigs. He started eating the fodder. That was where he knew he had hit bottom.
From God's point of view, He was taking a chance. In this case it worked. Adversity is a tool that God uses to bring people to their senses. They hit bottom and know they hit bottom. It is a risk, but at least there is some chance. The self-centered heart always hopes the hard times will go away, that the problems will solve themselves. When that doesn't happen the heart has a crisis. One possibility is to turn and repent, but there is another option, namely hostility. The hostile heart confirms itself in rebellion, blames God for all its troubles, and eventually comes to hate Him. The devil encourages this second option. That's why he puts into our minds all sorts of excuses for our sins. He tries to convince us that we are really the victims of an unfair divine order. He urges us to run a little further the wong way, in order to escape from the everlasting arms, but God is more powerful than Superman. His long arm always finds you.
We would do well to forget that option and concentrate on the first one, that we repent. Be done with running away. Rather, go back and face the offended Father. That wins the current round, but the devil has not been knocked out. He resorts to fear. Look at your record! Do you really think you can go back after this? Don't just look at your public record, for that may not be so bad, but look at what God sees. Look at the sinful designs of your heart which will be Exhibit A on Judgment Day. Consider how inconsistent this devil is. A few minutes before he was making excuses for you, telling you that you were the victim. Now, he drags all your sins out in full view. He wants to drive you to despair, to believe that since you're a child of hell you might as well enjoy your sins. That is a dreadful counsel of despair. There is nothing God's left hand can do in reply, but He opens the right hand. He shows you your Savior and His grace. He forgives your sins and assures you that Jesus has made you a child of heaven. What could Satan say to that? Ah, he does have one more weapon. He says: OK, go back if you have to, but don't think you'll be an important person in heaven. God might let you in, but not as the heir.
This is all based on the false assumption that we can please God by our efforts. That is not the way of Christ. It is true that we are not loveable, and that we can do nothing to change that, but the right hand of God opens up, showing us the sacrifice of the Righteous One to atone for the sins of the world. Do you want to turn to God? Do not turn to a set of rules, turn to the cross. Believe it or not, the cross makes you an important person. Jesus tells us there is joy among the angels whenever anyone repents. The father in the parable shows us what to expect: we have a party, kill the fatted calf, invite the neighbors, serve the best wine. Then, don't forget this little detail - he gives his son the family ring. That tells all the world whose credit backs up this youth. In Holy Baptism we received God's family ring. Christ's death and resurrection became our death and resurrection. We were joined into them, born of water and the Spirit, assured of our portion in the Father's house that has no end. God may so order the world that such a symbolic cross is the only one we ever experience. Or He might choose to give us the entire course, as He did with the martyrs. Either way, God wants us "in."
The parable doesn't end there. It seems there are two ways of being "in." The other brother was never out. He put up with the father's eccentricities, and in general spent his life as a company man. He didn't cause his father the kind of anguish the younger son did. He had a different anguish to cause him. He rejected his returning brother. The same arm of the Law that reached into the pigsty for the Prodigal, reached into the father's house bringing a crisis to the older son. Would he also turn from his evil ways? Are we more like him, being tempted not so much to indulge ourselves as to put up with those who do? Do we begrudge anyone God's mercy? Again, the right response is to repent. We want the everlasting arms to embrace us and our penitent brethren. We should be glad that God includes these people.
So where does Jesus come into the parable? Jesus is the righteous Older Brother, but unlike the one in the story, He is a company man for us, earning the credit so He can give it away to those who have none, preserving the inheritance of the Father in order to share it with us. He is the righteous Older Brother who touches us with God's right hand, accepting the troubled sinners who are looking for help, standing before us with open everlasting arms. These are the arms of God by which He clutches us to His heart. The left arm is for discipline, the right arm for comfort, but by both of them He holds us tightly. In the arms of God we can be bold and merciful, and we can turn outward, and take a few steps toward our fellow sinners to embrace them as we have been embraced. the more returning sinners, the greater will be the celebration. AMEN.
~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross