When I was a child, I had a big wheel.
You remember big wheels? Those were the best. They were like a low-rider tricycle, made of plastic. I went everywhere on my big wheel.
Well, not quite everywhere. I had limits.
Growing up on the campus of Berry College, my limits were set by buildings. I could go as far as Green Hall, but not cross the road to Evans. I could go to the road in front of the gym, but not cross the road to the gym itself. I could go to the college chapel but not cross the road beyond it.
I used to ride my big wheel up to the road between Green and Evans halls and look down the sidewalk longingly. There, just down the sidewalk, was the student center. There was my Dad’s office. There was the post office. How great would it be if I could ride my big wheel to check the mail and to visit my Dad? I longed for my boundaries to be expanded.
Boundaries feel restrictive. How true is that for us?
Hear the scripture for today: Isaiah 5:1-7
All my life, I have pushed against boundaries.
Sometimes, that’s a good thing. This pandemic has created many new boundaries. With each one, I have sought to push past it, to find new and innovative ways to do ministry and to keep this church functioning. By and large, those efforts have succeeded and we’re better off for them. That’s a testament to this church’s willingness to serve when called to serve and to keep an open mind about what ministry can look like.
So, sometimes this boundary-pushing I do is a good thing.
But sometimes it’s a bad thing.
I have little doubt that Berry College will ever hire me for any job. I look back at the kind of student employee I was in college and wonder how anyone put up with me. I was constantly pushing against barriers, occasionally with defiance. I felt hemmed in by boundaries set for me and saw the world through my own self-centered lens. I wasn’t considering anyone else, nor the greater good; all I could see was how I was being restricted by the boundaries set up for me.
Boundaries feel restrictive. How true is that for us?
For the people of Israel, God had set boundaries.
Those boundaries were geographical: the nations of Judah and Israel, the two resulting nations after a civil war had split the kingdom upon Solomon’s death; they had physical boundaries. These boundaries annoyed the rival superpowers who surrounded them. To the south and east, there was Egypt, the classic enemy of the people of God, whose power was unrivaled in the Ancient Near East. Well, unrivaled until a new kingdom took shape to the north and west. The empire of Assyria formed, just as powerful as Egypt.
Israel was caught in the middle. God had said to not worry about foreign relations, to let God himself take care of those. That was one of those boundaries set by God. But Israel didn’t listen. They wanted to make money off their physical location. So, they charged tariffs to both nations, levying taxes on trade so that they could grow wealthy. In time, Assyria and Egypt, major powers, came to resent these tariffs and began to ask themselves why they should pay this upstart, weak, nation, when they could easily run over Israel with their armies and eliminate those tariffs.
This had the people of Israel fearful. But for their greed, they could not stop charging the tariffs. And for their national debt, they could not stop charging the tariffs. Both the nation’s wealthy people and the nation itself had gotten too rich and used that wealth to leverage massive debts. They simply could not afford to lose this revenue stream.
They had pushed beyond their boundaries. And now, they were trapped.
But these weren’t the only boundaries God had set.
God had set boundaries regulating their life together. If external affairs were God’s job, regulating the relationships between Israel and other nations, internal affairs was the job of the kings, priest, and ruling class. And those internal affairs were to be marked by following the law. Specifically, they were to live lives marked by justice and righteousness, the two things mentioned at the end of the scripture.
And how was that to happen? Just like we looked at in our sermon series on neighborliness: the people were to love God and love neighbor. At a basic level, it was that simple for them. Their kings, their priests, and their ruling class were to set that example of loving God and loving neighbor while also ensuring compliance among all the people. God had given them responsibility to make sure the people across the kingdom were doing their part.
But the law is like a boundary. It tells us what we can and cannot do.
Boundaries feel restrictive. How true is that for us?
So the ruling class pushed back against these boundaries God had set. In greed, they not only levied taxes on trade, they also levied punishing taxes on the people themselves. The rich of their day paid little in taxes while the poorest paid a heavy tax burden, failing to love their neighbor as themselves. This created an impoverished class in their ranks, a reality the law specifically forbade. The law made provisions so that no Israelite would go hungry or without basic essentials. Think of gleaning, just like we do on fourth Sundays. Gleaning was one of those laws to make sure that everyone had enough to eat. The poor could simply walk by a field, grab some wheat or grapes or olives and go home to create the food they needed with the ingredients they had gleaned.
All of this demonstrating that they not only failed to love their neighbor, and failed to set the example the law required of them, but they also failed to love God, for they failed to abide by God’s ways.
This led to stress in their international relationships and risk for their stability as a nation.
Because they had pushed past these boundaries, they had trapped themselves in a cycle of making money to pay off borrowed money that left them vulnerable internationally. The big powers, the ones they couldn’t hope to defeat, Assyria and Egypt, were questioning why they should keep paying this upstart, tiny, insignificant, nation. Without that money, Israel would fail. But even with the money, they increasingly risked invasion by a foreign army. For if Israel disappeared, Assyria and Egypt could trade with each other without paying tariffs, a better condition for the both of them.
But God had told them that foreign affairs were taken care of. God would take care of those personally. They just needed to stay within the boundaries set by the law. Leave foreign affairs to God. Leave creating wealth to God. Care for the poor and the alien, the law says. Do justice. Cultivate righteousness. Love God and love your neighbor. Those are the boundaries set. God had set these boundaries for their protection and provision.
But boundaries feel restrictive. It was definitely true for them. How true is that for us?
They pushed beyond their boundaries. And now, they were trapped by that choice.
How true is that for us?
All this grieves the heart of God deeply.
God sings them a love song. Not just any song, the song of a jilted lover. This is God’s version of a Taylor Swift break-up song. It’s God’s version of a Frank Sinatra ballad longing for a lost love. It’s God’s version of Elvis singing, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
God misses the people. God is sad for how the people are faring. Had the Israelites not pushed past their boundaries, they would not be in this precarious position. Had they simply loved God and loved neighbor, they would not be in this position. Had they realized the goodness that lay within their boundaries, they would not be in this position.
God tells them in his jilted lover song that he gave them everything they needed. In this metaphor, Israel is the vine and God gave that vine the choicest land, cultivated the land with great care by removing stones and weeds, tilling it and making it as fertile as possible. Not only that, but God built up a watchtower to protect the land from any invaders. And God built a wine vat, anticipating that the land would produce so many good grapes that an excellent harvest could be expected.
But this was not to be. For all God’s efforts, for all God’s provision, the people wanted to push past the barriers God had erected to protect them. They felt restricted by having to play inside the lines God had set. They decided that they knew best. And so they pushed, they pushed hard, and God let them go. They went wild. And they paid the price.
Their boundaries felt restrictive. So they pushed. And that grieved the heart of God deeply.
Sitting on my big wheel, I looked out across the road from Green to Evans Halls. The land across the road looked enticing. The sidewalk leading directly to the student center called my name. So, I decided to push past the boundary. Freedom lay there. Mom was hemming me in, restricting my freedom by not allowing me to cross the road. I longed for freedom! So I left, I pushed past the boundary.
And for a moment, it was exhilarating. I was free! Free of restrictions! Able to do what I wanted to do!
For that is the temptation of playing beyond our boundaries; the temptation of thinking freedom lies beyond the boundaries in our lives.
We can be free of restrictions, we think! Restrictions like a marriage that’s gone sour. Restrictions like a family life that no longer yields joy. Restrictions like a job that feels like a dead-end and has bored us. Restrictions like commitments that bring more anguish than happiness. Restrictions like a debt load that feels unmanageable, forcing us to keep a high paying job that we’d give up in a heartbeat, if we could only afford to.
Or restrictions like those set by our moral standards. We want to cheat and make more money. We want to cheat and have an affair. We know we’re mistreating our employees but it’s better for the bottom line. We know we’re mishandling the wealth handed down to us by previous generations but we love what we can purchase with it. We know that we should be doing better, but we like how we’re living our lives now.
So we push boundaries all the time. We might feel restricted by the life we’re forced to live, a life made by our choices and choices made for us, like being told I couldn’t cross that road. Or we might feel restricted by the morality of our religion, by the expectations God has placed upon how we live our lives. We hear the calls of sermons and worship and our relationship with Christ telling us to act better, to stay within the boundaries set by God, but freedom calls from the other side of those boundaries.
Freedom to be and act and do as we want, when we want, however we want.
That was the temptation of the Israelites. If we’re brave and bold, that’s the temptation we all face.
For boundaries feel restrictive. How true is that for us?
When I crossed the road, my heart throbbed. I was free! It was exhilarating. Then I wondered, what if I get caught? No matter. I went to the post office in the student center to check the mail. I was expecting some Legos in the mail and eagerly anticipated their arrival. I parked by big wheel by the post office doors and walked in. I didn’t have the key to our box but I knew the people behind the counter and thought I could just ask for the mail.
But of course, as I entered the building, I ran right into my dad. Needless to say, I was in trouble!
The boundaries had felt restrictive. I had pushed past them. And now I found myself trapped.
How true is that of us?
We feel restricted by the life we’re living: the job, the marriage, the money, some or all of it just feels dead and old and lifeless and we’re just ready to move beyond it. And so we push past barriers that are set for us by God to cheat at our jobs or marriage, to engage in illicit behavior, or to just grow grumpy and bitter, hurting the relationships in our lives.
We feel restricted by rules and regulations in our industries, so we play fast and loose with them so that we can do what we want and make the money we want.
We feel restricted by the tax code and so we play fast and loose with it so we can keep more of our money.
We feel restricted by the moral code of our faith and so we play fast and loose with it so that we can do what we want and make ourselves feel good.
Because beyond those restrictions, freedom beckons.
But when we push beyond them, we usually find ourselves like when I was a child, staring at my dad in the student center, realizing I was in big trouble.
We’re in big trouble not so much because God punishes us but because we’ve chosen to go beyond the boundaries God has set for us, which is always an extremely risky endeavor. Throughout the New Testament, we hear that we’re free in Christ. But that doesn’t mean we have a license to do whatever we want. It doesn’t mean that we are suddenly free to do anything that feels good or seems right to us or anything that would make us feel less restricted, less deadened, by the lives we’re living.
No, free in Christ means that we’re free from guilt, we’re free from the condemnation of sin, we’re free to be our best selves and to live lives for the kingdom, just as we discussed in the last sermon series: to live lives of compassion, serving the least of these, bringing the powerful message of the gospel that resurrection is coming.
In fact, freedom seems to beckon beyond the boundaries when freedom actually requires boundaries.
If that seems like a head scratcher, that freedom requires boundaries, consider our country. We value freedom. We love freedom. But imagine our country without the Constitution and without the rule of law. If there was no system of government, there wouldn’t be freedom; there would be anarchy and lawlessness instead.
The Constitution and the rule of law create boundaries. Norms set by our two hundred plus years create boundaries. Sometimes we push past them as a nation and find ourselves in trouble. But quite often, we play within the lines, the boundaries, set by the Constitution, because doing so is true freedom.
We need boundaries, we need rules, to know what the limits are. And then, within those limits, there is freedom.
Anarchy is the opposite of freedom. And that’s what we get when we have no boundaries, or when we push past the boundaries set for us, whether by the law or by God. Freedom requires boundaries.
That’s what God had done for the people. God had set limits, boundaries, and within those limits, God had abundantly provided for all their needs. They had everything they needed. They could grow and prosper in ways beyond their imaginations. If they’d just stay within the boundaries. And the boundaries were pretty simple. Live lives marked by justice and righteousness. You do that by loving God and loving neighbor. Leave all the other stuff to God. That’s God’s message to the people.
But that’s not what they did. They pushed past the boundaries and went rogue into anarchy. They grew wild.
They decided that freedom beckoned beyond the boundaries. When, in fact, freedom was found right where they were. Because freedom requires boundaries.
When we decide that we know best, that we can make things happen for ourselves better than God can, we’re playing outside the boundaries set by God. And that inevitably leads us to be trapped: trapped by bad decisions relating to our marriages, money, finances, relationships, jobs, living situations, and a whole host of other things.
Or maybe we feel trapped today already by those bad decisions. Or maybe we feel trapped by the decisions someone else made that have left us in a bad position.
Whenever we feel trapped, whenever we gaze past the boundaries and think that freedom lies there, we will always make poor decisions that lead to being trapped. And we will grieve the heart of God in the process. God will sing this song, here in Isaiah, about us.
But, whenever we feel trapped, whenever we gaze past the boundaries and think that freedom lies there, we can make a different decision. We can do what the people of Israel failed to do: we can examine our lives and see where God has provided prosperity.
We can look around us, within the boundaries set by God, and see where God is actively working and providing. It just takes vision.
The temptation in this life is to look beyond the boundaries we have with a longing, thinking that happiness and freedom lie beyond those boundaries. The solution to that temptation is to take stock of the goodness in our lives today.
On my big wheel, within the limits my parents had set, I had the space of two city blocks in which to play. Within those two city blocks were some really amazing things. Tennis courts, where I hit balls around or played in puddles that formed. Volleyball courts that I used like massive sandboxes for my toys. Tons of sidewalks to ride my big wheel on and sites to see in monuments, memorial stones, and grand buildings. I could go in the chapel anytime I wanted to and explore. There was so much to see and do within the boundaries set for me. There was prosperity provided for me within those boundaries.
And so it is in our lives. No matter the restrictions we feel, there’s goodness happening about us. There’s provision from God because that’s God’s grace at work in our lives.
It just takes vision to see it.
And we gain that vision through two means: prayer and repentance.
So today, if you’re feeling restricted by life, if the decisions of others have placed restrictions upon you or you just are bored and done and life feels dull and dead, it’s time to pray. Ask God to show you where grace is at work in your life. There’s provision and prosperity being offered. It just takes vision to see it.
And today, if you’ve been playing outside the boundaries, making decisions that are morally or ethically wrong, repent. There can be no vision of how God is offering blessing in your life until there’s confession of your sins. Repentance often involves making apologies and amends to those hurt by bad decisions. That’s very hard work. But when we have made that decision, we move ourselves back within the boundaries God has set for us and then are able to see, with new eyes, the grace of God at work in our lives.
And if today you’re just tempted, just feeling that urge to move beyond the boundaries God has set, pray and ask God to reveal where there’s grace at work in your life. Pray, tell God about the temptation, and ask for the strength to stand up under it. There will be provision for that. And then, you’ll have renewed vision to see where provision lies within your boundaries.
For God has set the boundaries in pleasant places for us. God has provided for us abundantly. We just have to be wiling to cede our lives to God, to look for that grace and choose to live within it. That’s a hard choice sometimes. Freedom seems to beckon from beyond the boundaries.
But we know that true freedom is found living within the boundaries God set.
Knowing that, believing that, hear the words of David from Psalm 16 as we close out this moment of preaching. David knew what it was to play beyond the boundaries. But he discovered that richness and joy in this life come from staying within those boundaries as set by God. David says in Psalm 16:
The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.
The same is true for us today. Go, pray, repent, and discover that the boundary lines have fallen for you in pleasant places.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen.