Mi 7:14,15,18-20; Ps103:1-4,9-12; Lk 15:1-3,11-32
“As far as the east is from the west”
Distance, great distance, unimaginable distance, this is what the LORD places between us and our sins. In Psalm 103 we hear the echoes of a heart singing, of a soul blessing, the Holy Name of the LORD who is kind and merciful. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.” This for us is a Lenten Song that arises from the depths of the heart of one who has repented. Indeed this Psalm reveals the jubilation of the repentant sinner. This inner dialogue has the mind and soul talking about how marvelous is the LORD. How could we ever forget all his benefits? The LORD pardons each and every iniquity, and the damage done by our sins He heals. The LORD redeems our life from self-destruction and outside danger, and He crowns our lives with kindness and compassion. The LORD does not rub it in; He never pours salt into our wounds; He does not put us down. He has no interest in making us suffer more and bear unbearable guilt for long. His wrath is fiery and cleansing, but it does not last forever. His wrath is a painful teacher, but this is how we come to know his love. This is how we come to know that there are boundaries and there are consequences to violating those boundaries. Best of all, the LORD does not deal with us according to our sins; we are not treated harshly, nor does the LORD shun us. Indeed, we are not requited according to our crimes. The strict justice we deserve never comes to pass. Indeed, the Justice of God is the Mercy of God. The prophet Micah has another image of the distance between our sin, and us--the LORD “cast into the depths of the sea all our sins.” This is the very mercy that the Lord Jesus weaves into the story of the Prodigal Son. It is a mercy so unfamiliar and so strange that the non-prodigal children just don’t get it. Indeed, the elder son didn’t understand why “we must celebrate and rejoice”!
The great good shepherd of Israel is the LORD himself. His prophet Micah pleads with him to come and shepherd those who were sent into exile because of great sin and rebellion against the LORD God. In his prayer the prophet remembers the days long past when the LORD’s flock was fed in Bashan and Gilead. He continues to pray by remembering when the LORD brought his people up from the land of Egypt, that place of idolatry and slavery. Micah reminds the LORD in his remembering that in those days he showed them such wonderful signs. Though the LORD never forgets, sometimes the people forget and the prophet uses his prayer to remind the people of the great mercy of the LORD God. Micah asks, “Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance?” He goes on to insist that this LORD is worthy of all our trust, even in our misery and exile. Indeed, the LORD does not persist in his righteous anger, but delights rather in clemency. Indeed, the LORD will have compassion on sinners, and on a sinful nation. He will tread underfoot all our guilt. This prayerful reflection and hopeful prophecy arises out of the faithfulness that the LORD has always shown to our ancestors, to that rascal deceiver Jacob and to his grandfather Abraham. The LORD has made promises, and he is faithful. Micah is certain that we have nothing to fear. In the midst of our fearful world, this is truly good news.
Micah had good news for the exiles returning and the Lord Jesus has good news for all the prodigals returning. The Lord Jesus takes the “delight in clemency” that God has for his people and shapes it into the three stories of mercy in Saint Luke’s gospel. This is the kind of mercy that the tax collectors and sinners had come to expect and look for in the ministry and storytelling of the Lord Jesus. He was not afraid to continue to preach and teach about the coming of the Kingdom of Mercy even when the Pharisees and scribes complained and condemned him. Indeed, the Lord Jesus wanted all his listeners, the friendly ones and the hostile ones to hear and be glad that like a merciful and loving father the LORD God watches out for us to come to our senses and return to his boundless mercy. Not only does the Father see us from a long way off, the Father runs out to meet us and embraces us tearfully. Such love stuns us, and we stutter with our weak attempt to confess humbly our sin and to repent heartily our rebellion. So often, all we really want is “three hots and a cot”. All we want is the creature comforts that the servants receive. This beautiful story of a father/son reunion could have been told by some of the Pharisees or scribes. Well most of the story would have been comfortable for them, that is until the Lord Jesus gets to the celebration part. If only the father had not been so happy to see his lost son. If only the father had been reasonable and tested his repentance. Perhaps then, after a long time of healing, the elder brother could have forgiven, even if he could never forget. It is the conversation of the first son and the loving father that is designed to catch the hearts of even his skeptical audience. In this encounter the anger and resentment of those who obey with clenched teeth is unmasked. The perfect son, the wise and older brother, is exposed for what he is, a proud and humbled son of the merciful father. He too needs mercy, and the Lord Jesus makes it clear that he is welcome even if it seems impossible to welcome home his prodigal brother.