Laurie has two sisters. One of them, Beth, lives in Pittsburgh, and we see her when we do our twice-a-year “Pennsylvania loops” to visit both of our families. The other, Debbi, lives in Massachusetts with her family. We have often visited them at Thanksgiving – a New England Thanksgiving.
When we visit Debbi, we often spend one day in Boston, joining many tourists who visit many tourist attractions there. And one of the still-popular tourist attractions, even though the TV show has only been available in reruns for many years now, is the bar that’s shown on the opening of “Cheers.” Yes, there is a bar called “Cheers” in Boston, just off Beacon Hill – but tourists need to be warned of something before they go there: while the outside of the bar is exactly the same as you see on the opening credits of the TV show, the interior, I’m afraid, was something just created for the show. The real Cheers looks nothing like that inside. The real Cheers, in fact, is more of a restaurant than a bar, with lots of booths and little rooms. I think it even has ferns in it, and regular fans of the show know that Norm and Cliff just hate ferns in a bar.
If you visit the real Cheers, you won’t see the bar where Norm and Cliff sit when they make fun of bars with ferns – or of Diane or Rebecca. You won’t see the pool table; you won’t see the big bell, and the racks of glasses over the bar. You won’t see Norm and Cliff and Sam . . . and you won’t see a little waitress by the name of Carla Tortelli.
Now if you’ve watched “Cheers” regularly, you know Carla’s last name isn’t always “Tortelli”; she did get remarried at one point. But it was for several years, and it was because she used to be married to a guy named Nick Tortelli. Nick Tortelli . . . was a real loser. There’s no other way to put it, and the show never tried to make us think he was ever anything but a loser. He was rude, and mean, and selfish – the only reason he could even survive as a character on a comedy show is that he was also pretty dumb, so they could make jokes at his expense. He also treated Carla poorly – he would show up every once in a while to say he had changed his ways and that he wanted to make it all up to her, but every time, it was just because he wanted something from her.
Carla had fallen in love with Nick Tortelli way back in high school, though, and they were married for many years, and had several children, and it took a long time for her to finally get over him and not fall for his stories. For years she would finally give in, finally admit that, yeah, she still did love him after all – and then she would get disappointed again. It was inevitable – every time she tried to trust Nick Tortelli, every time she acknowledged her love for him, he would return to his old self and abandon her, and she would be left angry, and hurt, while still loving him. In fact, the reason she was hurt was because she still loved him – if she didn’t care about him at all, it wouldn’t bother her when he screwed up yet again. She got hurt because she always loved him, and because he always messed up.
Hosea was a prophet in the 8th century BC, called by God not only to preach to the people of Israel, but also to act out, in his own life, a message that God was trying to send to Israel. God told Hosea to marry a prostitute – in fact, he may have been told to marry her twice – even though he knew that she was going to return to her old ways, that she was going to pull a Nick Tortelli, and end up hurting him all over again.
God had Hosea do this because God was trying to say to the Israelites: Can’t you see that this is what you’re doing to me? I try to love you, in spite of all the times you’ve disappointed me in the past, but every time, you mess up – you go chasing after other gods – and you hurt me, and I have no choice but to let you go off and ruin your own life. You make me so angry sometimes that I don’t know what I’m going to do with you – I don’t know whether to love you or punish you or just not care anymore. What am I supposed to do with you?
Listen to chapter 6 verse 4 again: “What am I to do with you, Israel? What am I to do with you, Judah? For your love is like morning mist, like the dew that quickly disappears.” We find God saying things in the book of Hosea like: “I shall punish them for their conduct, I shall pay them back for their deeds”; and “They (Samaria) will pay the penalty for having rebelled against God; they will fall by the sword”; and even “I shall love them no longer.”
But we also find God saying, in the same book, “I shall betroth you to myself forever” and “I shall cure them of their disloyalty, I shall love them with all my heart.” God is pretty much at a loss with these people, for, as Hosea writes in chapter 7, “I have rescued them again and again and . . . they are still rebelling against me . . . though I supported and gave strength to their arms, they plan on how to hurt me.” God is hurt, by those God loves. Hosea 11 contains one of the most tender sections of the whole Bible, featuring God as a loving mother: “When Israel was a child I loved him and I called my son out of Egypt. But the more I called, the further they went away from me; they offered sacrifices to Baal and burnt incense to idols. I myself taught Israel to walk, I myself took them by the arm, but they did not know that I was the one coming for them, that I was leading them with human ties, with leading-strings of love, that, with them, I was like someone lifting an infant to her cheek, that I bent down to feed him . . . O Israel, how could I part with you? How could I give you up? . . . My heart within me is overwhelmed.”
God finally did have to give Israel up. God’s heart was broken, as the people kept turning away, and finally were carried off by the invading Assyrians, never to return. The northern ten tribes of Israel were dispersed, and never heard from again. Only the two southern tribes, called “Judah,” were left. Despite the intensity, and the immensity, of God’s love, as expressed in chapter 11, what finally prevailed was Israel’s lack of ability to be faithful. Their love was always “like the morning mist, like the dew that quickly disappears.”
One reason the Old Testament is so significant to us is that Israel is so much like us – Israel often represents the human race, each one of us – in this case, trying to love God from time to time, but unable to keep it up, unable to stay faithful. Human beings apparently just can’t love God the way we should; we always fall away – we always mess up.
The good news brought to us by the New Testament today is that God found a way to get around our inability to be faithful. The love that Hosea 11 speaks of found a way to overcome our inevitable messing up. We heard the answer expressed directly in I Timothy 1:12 and 14: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength . . . the grace of our Lord filled me with faith and with the love that is in Christ Jesus.”
It’s true that we couldn’t do it by ourselves, that we always wandered off and messed up and fell away when left on our own, but God has decided to help us love, to help us be faithful. After being hurt time and time again by Israel’s inability to be faithful by themselves, God responded by extending God’s own strength and love to sustain us. Since you can’t love me by yourselves, God says, I’ll help you: the grace of our Lord filled me with faith and with love; Christ Jesus our Lord has given me strength. Maybe it isn’t inevitable that we go our own ways and drift away from God after all – maybe there’s help. God’s love is so great that it can even be the source of our faithfulness.
Jesus tried to illustrate this for his listeners in the parables we heard today. When the one sheep gets lost, and wanders off, does it finally find its own way home? Does it set itself on the right path and go bounding back to its shepherd, promising never to run off again? NO, it’s the shepherd who goes out and finds the sheep – all the effort is on the part of the shepherd who searches and hikes and wanders around until he finally succeeds in reuniting sheep and shepherd. And then he rejoices. Bible scholar Ken Bailey points out that he even rejoices while carrying the sheep home, rejoices in the bearing of the burden. He joyfully takes it on his shoulders, verse 5 says, even though carrying a sheep through a desert after a long search can’t be a whole lot of fun, and then he gets home, calls together his friends, and they rejoice again.
We’re told very directly that the hundred sheep, with one lost, stands for one hundred people, including one sinner. Who can the shepherd in the story be, then, but God? God’s effort brings the sinner back home, and God is glad to do it – God rejoices all the while.
When the coin gets lost, in the other parable, and rolls, say, into a dark corner, does it pick itself up and roll back into the middle of the room and jump into the woman’s pocket? Does it yell out, “Over here, over here, come get me”? NO, it’s the woman who lights a lamp and sweeps out the whole house and searches thoroughly and finally finds the coin over in its dark corner. She calls all her friends together and they rejoice, and Jesus tells us again: the coin is like a sinner restored to God. And who does the restoring? Who makes all the effort? Who can the woman in the story be but God, rejoicing in being able to do the restoring. Sheep, and coins, are pretty much passive things – they just sit around or, if anything, seem to try to get themselves lost. But God’s love is big enough to bring them back; God helps.
These two stories serve as an introduction to a third, which we didn’t read today but which you probably know: it’s usually called “the prodigal son.” Ken Bailey says that a better title for the story would probably be “The Loving Father”, for it’s the father who is at the center of the action in both halves of the story. It’s the father who goes running down the road to greet his lost younger son, restore him into the family, and call all his friends around to celebrate – just as the shepherd did, just as the woman did. It’s the father who goes out to the angry older brother and tries to bring him inside too, to pull him back into the family and the celebration. The key to the parable is the father’s love extending out to both his sons, trying to bring them back; and once again, what can the father’s love represent here but God’s love? God’s love, extended to bring us back even when – or especially when – we mess up.
Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and see in that supper and what it commemorates . . . the greatest example of all of God’s love extended for us, to bring us back into relationship with God. Christians are advised to prepare for the Lord’s Supper, by praying and meditating and resolving any conflicts they have with other people in their lives. As we prepare, I suggest we think about how the Lord’s Supper, and the death of Jesus Christ which soon followed, are a demonstration of God’s love, how they are actions taken by God to overcome our inability to remain faithful on our own – how they too demonstrate for us what the author of I Timothy has stated for us: Christ Jesus our Lord has given us strength; the grace of our Lord has filled us with faith and love. God, like the shepherd, the woman, the loving father, pursues us and rejoices in bringing us back into relationship. God helps us. The love of God strengthens our love, and that is the source of our faithfulness.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for persisting in your love for us, even when we, like Old Testament Israel, or a straying sheep, or even Nick Tortelli, wander away into places where we shouldn’t be or do things we shouldn’t do. Thank you for your grace, which gives us the chance to be faithful to you – and help us be faithful, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.