The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 7, 2016
This is perhaps my favorite passages in the entire Old Testament. For by it we get a glimpse into the loving and long-suffering heart of God.
From their enslavement in Egypt long ago, and even before, God had reached out to His people, taken good care of them, and kept inviting them to walk through life with Him. Yet, over and over again, they had rejected His overtures of love. Though He had bent down to them and fed them, though He had lifted them up to His cheek like a mother her infant, though He had taught them to walk, healed them when they were hurt and led them with cords of kindness and bands of love, they took His tender mercies and generous compassion for granted, and refused to acknowledge any debt of gratitude or loyalty. Here, with a heart heavy from frustrated, unfulfilled love, God laments, “The more I called them, the more they went from me.”
And it is not just that they showed bad faith in their primary relationship in life; they also treated their fellow mortals unfairly, callously and cruelly. So God abandons them to the consequences of their bad decisions, in the hope that such tough love will bring them to their senses. Thus, God decides, they shall “return to the land of Egypt” – Egypt standing for all enslavement – and be oppressed again, this time by Assyria. Maybe, God must wish, the shock of hitting that bottom again will awake them to the mess they’re making of their lives.
God is however torn between giving them the punishment they’ve earned and giving them yet another chance to remember His grace and return to His love. God recoils at the possibility of their destruction, and cries out, “How can I give up Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah [a neighboring city to Sodom and Gomorrah that shared in their judgment and destruction]? How can I treat you like Zeboiim [another city like Admah]?”
With an aching yearning, God still dreams of His people’s running back to Him like lion cubs scampering home at the roar of their mother, of His people’s flying home like the birds of Egypt and the doves of Assyria. God longs for all His children to come back to Him.
And to this day God still harbors the dream that His lost children will return. That why He keeps trying to prove to them His love, and spares no effort in the attempt – like the preposterous but passionate efforts seen in the leaders of the Southern American country of Columbia just a few years ago.
Governmental leaders wanted to convince leftist guerilla rebels to disarm and re-enter society. The officials thought outside the box and, of all things, hired a marketing executive named Jose Miguel Sokoloff, charging Him to reach out to the rebels and to persuade them of the grace that was there for them.
In December of 2010 Sokoloff initiated an ad campaign called “Operation Christmas”. At nine strategic places in the jungle where the rebels travelled, they strung hundreds of Christmas lights on tall trees. When the rebels walked by, motion sensors set off the lights and a recorded message that announced, “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home.” That campaign moved 331 rebels to re-enter their community.
The next Christmas they ran a similar campaign entitled “Rivers of Light”. They filled over 7,000 buoyant, translucent plastic balls containing battery lights, small gifts and warmly-worded notes inviting the rebels to come home, no questions asked. As the rebels crossed certain rivers at well-known points, the balls would be released from upstream and the rebels would see the balls, lit up and floating on the river toward them. They couldn’t resist pulling them up on the bank and drawing out the gifts and the notes. Hundreds of hearts were won by the thoughtfulness and kindness of it all.
The third Christmas the ad agency ran “Operation Bethlehem”. This time they projected bright lights into the night sky which in huge, shining letter proclaimed the message: “This Christmas follow the light that will guide you to family and freedom.”
It’s all wild stuff, but true love runs wild. The hearts of many of us here have been captured by the wild, outrageous, extravagant love of God in Christ. It found us in our jungle, rebels from God’s presence; and it persuaded us to drop our arms, walk home, and enter our Father’s house again.
God proved His love decisively at Calvary; but, day after day still, He reaches out to show it to people anew. It does not compel us to respond to the grace it offers, but it confronts us with a decision: whether to deny and distrust, or to take the risk of stepping out of hiding to give it a try.
Once we do, and we experience its reality, all we can do is give thanks and seek to give still others a taste of God’s wild, extravagant love.
We can gain some sense of what that might mean for us by considering the advice proffered by a twenty-something named Abraham Piper. Abraham is the son of the well-known pastor, much-in-demand speaker and best-selling author, John Piper. At the age of 19 Abraham walked away from his parents and his Christian faith. For four years, Abraham says, “I just wanted to drink gallons of cheap sangria and sleep around.” Then he came to his senses, returned to the Lord, and reunited with his parents. Here are three bits of the counsel he shared for winning back to God the rebels in our lives.
First, Abraham says, don’t focus of their bad behavior. It is a product of the sickness that befalls any heart out of touch with God. In behaving badly they’re just following the dictates of their spiritually damaged hearts; and the solution will come, not from our changing their outward conduct, but from God’s changing their hearts. The best we can do for them is to give them reason to give the Great Physician access to their hearts, that He might repair their hearts and, by that inner repair, repair their outer conduct.
Second, Abraham continues, fully welcome them back into the world of believers, with few requirements or stipulations, making it as easy as possible for them to dip a toe into the waters of God’s grace. Don’t insist on their conforming to every detail of our lifestyle. Put up with their strangeness. Accommodate them in their differences. If they smell like weed or an ashtray, refrain from taking a deep breath, but throw your arms around them in a warm welcome. If they are pregnant, don’t scold, but provide them rides to the OBGYN. If they’ve gone broke from loose women, or men, don’t loan them money, but don’t let them go hungry or unsheltered.
Third, Abraham says, point them to Christ. No one’s real problem is drugs, sex, pride, laziness or a sense of entitlement. The real problem is always not seeing Jesus clearly. So act like Jesus, and bring them along with you to places where they can catch a glimpse of Him. For only His love can draw them from their perilous pursuits and embolden them to give the life of faith a second look.
We have been greatly loved. Let us then love greatly, in the name of the One who loves to love us all! Let us pray.