Our closing hymn this morning is number 469, and we could probably just read the lyrics of the hymn instead of having a sermon today. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. That first line of the hymn is a wonderful image. The sea goes as far as the eye can see. It’s large and powerful and can’t be constrained. That’s what God’s mercy is like. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.
That image has been on my mind as I’ve reflected on today’s passage from Isaiah. It’s a passage full of hope and the inclusion of all people. God says that God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. In verse 8 God says, “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered,” which is a verse that some churches have posted inside their buildings. God says that God will gather other people in addition to Israel. In Isaiah’s prophecy, everyone is welcome and gathered together.
It makes me think of God’s mercy like the sea. Wide and strong. We can’t divide it up, no matter how hard we try, because human beings are no match for the power of the sea.
But as humans we often do try to control the sea of God’s mercy. We try to withhold others from accessing it. Or put requirements up so that others might try to become worthy of it. But God’s love and mercy is stronger than the ways we try to contain it.
Today’s prophecy from Isaiah is a remarkable passage of scripture. It’s inclusive and welcoming of all peoples, but what makes it more remarkable is that it contradicts other parts of scripture. We sometimes forget that the Bible is a collection of different perspectives and experiences of God. It contains developments in thoughts about God, and it also contains different perspectives that sometimes clash with each other.
Isaiah is written for the Israelites after their return from exile. Babylon had conquered them and taken them away, but now they have returned to their land where they can worship God and live. And this is the context for the prophecy we hear today of God’s inclusion and welcome of all people. But there’s a different perspective from Ezra and Nehemiah. For them the return from exile meant that they had to redefine the community and begin anew. And for them this meant to separate from foreigners. The foreign wives the Israelites had married were now to be divorced, families were broken apart, and relational ties with outsiders were cut.
For example, this is what it says in Nehemiah: “On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.”
Nehemiah’s perspective is that the foreigners need to be kicked out. They would never be welcome in God’s house and they didn’t belong in the community. And actually, Nehemiah held the same view as Ezra and Ezekiel and the writer of Deuteronomy.
Imagine what a difference it would make if we only knew of that one perspective from scripture, and thought that foreigners needed to be kicked out of the house of God and were unwelcome in God’s community.
It’s all the more remarkable when we hear the words of Isaiah:
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant–these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”
God will not only accept foreigners, God will bring them to the holy mountain and make them joyful. God will accept their offerings and sacrifices in the house where God welcomes all people.
This is a contradiction to the views of Nehemiah and Ezra and Deuteronomy.
How do we interpret scripture when we meet those contradictions? We take all of it and view it through the love of Jesus. We see the developments of theology throughout the Bible. We see the different perspectives that sometimes clash. And we hold it all in light of the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We look at his self-giving love and his death on the cross for all, and we see that his love is the lens through which we view scripture.
But it’s not just about scripture. It’s about how we live.
At this point in my spiritual journey, it seems to me that whenever there’s a question about how to think about or treat other people, it seems that the one that is welcoming and inclusive, the one that brings people together as the family of God, is the way forward.
We see it in today’s psalm. “Let your ways be known upon earth, *your saving health among all nations.”
In today’s reading from Romans where Jews and Gentiles both can receive the mercy of God.
In today’s Gospel where even after Jesus initially says he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel, he heals the persistent foreign Canaanite woman’s daughter. And at the end of that Gospel from Matthew, Jesus tells the eleven to make disciples of all nations.
Wherever we might have the impulse to close off or limit the love of God, the love of Jesus is always pushing out, making room for more to come in.
We would do well this morning to pause and identify the people we each deem unworthy of God’s love. Who are the people we harden our hearts against for whatever reason, from whom we try to withhold God’s love and mercy?
It’s through the love of Jesus that we view others who may be from a different place or believe differently or who may even be our enemies. It’s to see that no matter how me might try to determine who can have access to God’s love and acceptance, the wideness of God’s mercy is stronger than the limits we try to place on it.
We can waste our lives, trying to determine who is worthy of God’s love, or we can to get busy living, and see the wideness of God’s mercy that welcomes everyone into God’s house and family, where everyone belongs.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. Thanks be to God.