Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Definition: God’s righteousness consists in the promises God makes to us and keeps, in this world and the next. Our righteousness consists in the promises we make to God, to ourselves, and to one another, and keep, in this world. Eternity belongs to God by right; but not to us. Eternity is God’s gift to us.
In his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck traces the journey of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl family to California, which they regard as the Promised Land.
Tom Joad has just gotten out of prison, where he has been serving a sentence for manslaughter. Tom arrives home to find out that his family has lost their land and is about to embark on a journey to a new life. The traveling company includes three generations of Joads, Tom, who is breaking parole by going, his parents, his grandparents, his brothers, Floyd—and little Winfield, his sister, Rose of Sharron, her husband Connie, and a one-time preacher, a friend of the family, Jim Casey. They all join an exodus of “Oakies” following Route 66 west in hope of finding work in the fields and orchards of California. As the journey unfolds, the Joads make common cause with other families living at the margins, are courted by communist agitators, and find themselves constantly abused by unscrupulous farmers, bosses, and crooked lawmen, who serve not justice but the powers that be. Before the story is over, Tom’s grandparents die. The preacher is arrested and later killed. Both Floyd and Tom leave the family unjustly pursued by the law. Rose of Sharron’s husband Connie abandons her, and her baby dies. As the book draws to a close, the few remaining Joads have lost everything. They have taken shelter in an old barn. They are not alone. There is a dying man and his son. The boy pleads for his father’s life, saying, “He ain’t ‘et for six days. He gave me all the food. I didn’t know. I stole some bread last night, but he couldn’t keep it down. He needs milk. You folks got any milk?” In the final scene of the novel, in a supreme act of grace and humanity, Rose of Sharron nurses the dying man upon the milk that her baby will never need.
It is hard to believe that the heinous cruelty that drives this story happened in 20th Century America, but historians agree that it did. And readers, then and now, are forced to ask, “In the journey that leads from the jungle, where only the fit and powerful survive and the weak still perish to a civilization that seeks to preserve the life of every citizen, no matter how poor and weak— “Are we there yet?”
In her non-fiction book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson traces the migration of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow south for the comparative safety of northern cities like Oakland, California, Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and New York, New York. Readers are aghast that in six decades from the early 1910s to the middle of the 1970s, roughly 6 million black Americans fled states like Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina to escape laws that denied them the vote and equal justice before the law and kept them in a caste system that decreed that no matter how much education they got, how well they served humanity, and how much money they made, their lives would never be worth as much as the poorest white who drops out of high school, lives hand to mouth, and exalts themselves primarily by putting down all those with darker skin. It is a story of lynchings, beatings, and countless humiliations, great and small. As I read this book, I was reminded of drinking from water fountains marked, “Whites Only!”, and eating in restaurants with signs reading, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason.” And I remembered a great lady telling me, with tears in her eyes, about the Sunday in 1965 or so that members of her white church stood up and walked out when a black Ph.D. professor and his beautiful family tried to join. And I remembered how Dylann Roof, claiming to be a Christian, and bent on starting a race war, went into a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people who had gathered for Bible study and prayer. And I remembered the way that Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd, even when Floyd said that he couldn’t breathe, even when Floyd called for his mother and pleaded for his life. Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd for two minutes even after the arrival of the paramedics. And we might ask, in that journey that leads to “a more perfect union,” and the ready recognition that “all men are created equal,” and to the absolute reality that, in Christ, “there is no Jew, no Greek (that is no bias due to race!), no slave, no free ( that is no bias due to class), no male, no female (that is no bias due to sex) but all are one in him”—“Are we there yet?” (Galatians 3:28)
And in Ukraine, the Ukrainian people have shown their love of freedom, and the Russian assault has stalled miserably, thousands of Russian soldiers are dying every day, many others are deserting, and many of those who remain are reluctantly fighting and killing Ukrainians that were once their countrymen and countrywomen, and their children, and some of those Russian soldiers are joining the people of Europe and the world and asking, “Are we there yet?” “Can’t we just stop and Go home.” “How much longer must this madness continue?”
Now let’s talk about the texts before us this morning. People without faith say that we are on a journey that leads from the womb to the tomb, from the cradle to the grave. People with faith say that we are on a journey that leads from God to God. This means our journey leads us away from home, and then, if we are willing, right back home to the Father’s house.
Tina Turner said that some people like their music smooth and some like it rough! In the same way, some people like their life smooth. If life is an automobile, they want to keep the shiny side up in the center of the right-hand lane. And others like it rough, they are in a demolition derby banging and shoving their way toward the finish. They will run you down. They are not your friends. Still others, perhaps most of us, want life to be smooth, but we follow the easy path that offers no resistance—we follow our wants rather than our should, and discover that the smooth often leads to the rough. What did Jesus say, “Broad is the gate, and smooth and easy the way that leads to destruction, and many enter by it.”
In Psalm 32 we read how King David felt after he followed the easy way and ended up in the rough. Many scholars think that Psalm 32 was written after David committed adultery with Bathsheba the wife of Uriah, and then kept her pregnancy and his sin hidden by sending Uriah to the forefront of the battle so that he would be killed. Then, when Bathsheba bore him a son, David fasted and prayed for the life of the boy. It was only after the child died, and everything that David held dear was threatened, including his life and his kingdom, that the battered King wrote:
3 When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
There are some who, when hearing this story for the first time, might think “Poor David! There is no recovery from this.” “This is the end of the road for the King.” But those who say such things know neither the grace nor the power of God. Thankfully, David did know God’s grace and power, at least, he suspected it, and he proved it in his own act of repentance. He wrote:
5 I acknowledged my sin to thee, (O, Lord,) and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.
David’s journey was not over. He had a life to live and a long way to go. His way would never be easy; yet, the time came, long after David had gone to his God, when people said, “Despite all the evil that David did, despite David’s sin and failure, David was a man after God’s own heart!” Indeed, according to the Bible, King David himself was a type of Christ, his kingdom, a preview of the greater kingdom that God had in store for the whole world, in the Kingship of his Son, Jesus.
So, what is repentance, but turning back to God? And what is the fruit of repentance, but becoming the people God always intended us to be?
In Luke 15, Jesus tells us another story of God’s grace and power. It is the story of a prodigal son who stepped through the broad gate and followed the easy way. He wished his father dead when he asked him for his share of the inheritance. The boy’s father did not lay down and die, but he gave the boy what he asked for. And the prodigal son took his misbegotten gain and headed for the far country. There, he wasted his inheritance in riotous living. After he had spent all he had, he found himself working for a pig farmer. The boy was so overworked and underfed that he lusted for the slop he was feeding the man’s hogs. But his journey was not over, either. According to our text, “When he came to himself.” Or, as the late Gardner Taylor used to translate, “When the best that was in him reared its head!” The man’s son, no longer quite so prodigal, said to himself:
“My father’s hired servants have enough and to spare, and I am perishing here from hunger. I will arise and I will go to my father, and I will say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, so, just make me a hired servant.’”
And you know the rest of that story. You know how God, that is, how the Father, saw his son while he was yet at a distance, and had compassion on him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the prodigal followed the script that he had written in his head, and he said his little piece, but God, I mean, the Father, ignored the boy and said to his servants:
“Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
And the party started, and it has never stopped. And what about us? Are we there yet? Let’s see.
Some have remembered the home that has always been in their hearts, but their feet are still stuck in the muck of the far country. Thankfully, God is curbing them with the bit and bridle of life, still trying to turn them back toward home.
Others are still in the far country, but they have quit fighting against the bit and have pointed their feet in the direction of home. Many traveled a smooth downhill road deep to the far country, and the road out is hard going, all uphill. However, this time, God is with them, and that makes all the difference.
Thankfully many of us have already made a long journey from the land we want to forget—must not, and we have come within sight of the Father’s house, and by faith we see the Father coming to us in the distance. We may not be there yet, but according to the New Testament, thanks to Jesus, “we have passed out of Judgment into life.” And thanks to Jesus, “we have been translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.” And thanks to Jesus, we are “a new creation,” because “everything old has passed away,” and “everything has become new!”
And what is repentance but turning back to God? And what is the fruit of repentance but becoming the people God always intended us to be? And what is that? Paul says we are “Ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” We must never tire of telling the world about Him who knew no sin, but became sin for us, that in him, we might become the righteousness of God. We failed to keep our promises, but Jesus kept his, for us, and, by faith, his righteousness is “made unto us.” Now, people look at us, and where we have come from, and they say to themselves, “Well—If God can help him, if God can help her, then, maybe, God can help me.”
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.