Sermon: “I Held Out My Hands All Day Long” (June 19, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“I Held Out My Hands All Day Long” (Isaiah 65:1-3)
June 19, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On this Father’s Day I am preaching a sentimental sermon with no apologies on the love of God the Father.

Father’s Day evokes various responses in everyone—admiration and gratitude in some, anger and resentment in others.  Some people consider their father among their closest friends, while others feel estranged or disconnected.  Some spend their lives trying to gain their father’s approval, even after their father has died.  Others live out of a sense of security and self-confidence based on feeling genuinely loved and accepted by their father.

One of my favorite memories of my father occurred at my 6th birthday party.  The theme of the party was pirates.  We had pirate hats, eye patches, little plastic swords, small toy treasure chests with chocolate coins wrapped in gold colored aluminum foil, and even the Disney record Pirates of the Caribbean playing in the background—“Yoho!  Yoho!  A pirate’s life for me!”

And in the middle of this celebration with five and six-year old pirates running around the house, another pirate suddenly entered the melee—my father, dressed like a pirate, donning an eye patch and wielding his Navy sword—“Aargh!  Ahoy, mateys!”  I had no idea my dad was secretly a pirate, who knew?  I have never forgotten that.  And a few years ago on Father’s Day my kids gave me the Blackbeard pirate action figure that’s in my office—full circle.

In today’s passage from Isaiah the great Old Testament prophet expresses the continual love of God the Father in spite of the continual rebellion of Israel:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.  I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name.  I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually (Isaiah 65:1-3).

“I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people,” God spoke through Isaiah.  The entire Old Testament has recurring cycle of Israel suffering and then calling out for help from God, God responding with an act of salvation, Israel becoming complacent and then rebellious toward God until being in need of God’s saving help yet again…on and on it goes.

And it is not too different with us, is it?

And yet, throughout Israel’s history God continued to hold out his hands all day long, and God has done the same thing for you throughout your history.

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s I had my radio on most of the time, and developed a soft spot for sappy, sentimental ballads and soft rock songs from the singer-songwriters of that era.  One of these artists grew up in Illinois, where his dad worked as a band leader at Bradley University in Peoria.  He remembered as a four year old being invited to stand in front of his father and “help lead” the band while his father stood behind him and actually did so.  “It felt both very magical and powerful,” he recalled, “and I was fearless.”

Years later, as a student at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana this young man decided to drop out of school and drive to LA to try to make it in the music business—and his dad supported him in that decision because he believed in him.  That singer-songwriter was the late Dan Fogelberg.  On his 1981 album The Innocent Age he had a hit called “Leader of the Band”, a song he wrote in honor of his father, Lawrence.  In a 2003 concert before singing this song Dan said, “I think if I had been only allowed to write one song in my lifetime, it would have been this one.”  Some of you may remember lyrics:

An only child alone and wild
A cabinet maker’s son
His hands were meant for different work
And his heart was known to none
He left his home and went his lone and solitary way
And he gave to me
A gift I know I never can repay…

I thank you for the music
And your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom
When it came my time to go
I thank you for the kindness
And the times when you got tough
And, Papa, I don’t think
I said, “I love you” near enough

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band

In the moving 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus Richard Dreyfuss stars as Glenn Holland.  Glenn Holland loves music, and dedicates his life to writing music and teaching music at a high school even though he is continually marginalized because the music program is considered non-essential.  Glenn and his wife, Iris, have a son named Cole, and to Glenn’s dismay, Cole is deaf.  Glenn becomes so angry about not being able to share his love of music with his son, but eventually his anger subsides and he learns sign language.  Late in the film Cole is in the audience of a school performance and Glenn stands in front of the audience, “I would like to dedicate this song to my son.”   Then as the high school students play behind him, he sings and signs these words from a song penned by John Lennon:

Close your eyes, have no fear
The monster’s gone, he’s on the run
Your daddy’s here
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy

Over the ocean, sailing away
I can hardly wait to see you come of age
But I guess we both just have to be patient
‘Cause it’s a long way to go, a hard row to hoe
Yes, it’s a long way to go but in the meantime
Before you cross the street, please take my hand
Life is what happens to you
While you’re busy making other plans

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Cole
(Adapted from the song “Beautiful Boy” on John Lennon’s 1980 album Double Fantasy).

Both the real life Lawrence Fogelberg and the fictional Glenn Holland were effusive in their love for their sons.

And God the Father was and is effusive in his love for Jesus, as he proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  Moreover, scripture is clear that if you want to know what God the Father is like, look at Jesus; that Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3), that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossian 1:19).  Jesus himself proclaimed, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

In his 2009 book The Furious Longing of God Brennan Manning recounts the story of a college student named Larry Malaney, who told him how a specific episode of his father’s love changed his life.  On his way back to college after a break Larry’s father rode the bus with him, and here is what happened:

The father and son ride the bus in silence.  They get off the bus, as Larry has to catch a second one to get to the airport.  Directly across the street are six men standing under an awning, all men who work in the same textile factory as Larry’s father.  They begin making loud and degrading remarks like “Oink, oink, look at that fat pig.  I tell you, if that pig was my kid, I’d hide him in the basement, I’d be so embarrassed.”  Another said, “I wouldn’t.  If that slob was my kid, he’d be out the door so fast, he wouldn’t know if he’s on foot or horseback.  Hey, pig!  Give us your best oink!”

These brutal salvos continued…(but Larry’s) father reached out and embraced him, kissed him on the lips, and said, “Larry, if your mother and I live to be two hundred years old, that wouldn’t be long enough to thank God for the gift He gave to us in you.  I am so proud that you’re my son!” (91-92).

Larry Malaney eventually became a missionary in South America, because as Manning concludes:

His father had the guts to get out of the foxhole and choose the high road of blessing in the face of cursing and taunts.  His father looked deeply into his son’s eyes, saw the good in Larry Malaney that Larry couldn’t see for himself, affirmed him with a furious love, and changed the whole direction of his son’s life (93).

The most famous verse of scripture puts it this way, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

In other words, in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, Jesus became for all of us “the living legacy to the leader of the band,” God the Father.  Jesus left his home in heaven and “went his lone and solitary way” all the way to Calvary.

When Jesus held out his hands to a rebellious people, the rebellious people responded by nailing those hands to the cross, “making loud and degrading remarks” as they did so, and yet Jesus still chose “the high road of blessing in the face of cursing and taunts.”  And as his beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy suffered on the cross, God the Father stood behind him, still holding out his hands all day long—“Here I am, here I am.”

It was the historic and definitive expression of the love of God the Father.  It was God the Father’s opus.

And on this Father’s Day, regardless of what your relationship with your earthly father is like, regardless of how rebellious you have been in your life, the loving hands of your Heavenly Father remain held out to you even now.

Amen.