Monday, January 26, 2015

January 25, 2015 Waiting On God

I love the ironic moments that happen in life.  I was in a bookstore recently and had the opportunity to witness one of those wonderfully ironic moments.  A woman who was obviously agitated walked up to an employee of the store and said, quite loudly, I’ve been looking all over this store!  Where is the self-help section?  I found that comment so funny and I really wanted to interject myself into the conversation and say if she tells you how to find the self-help section, wouldn’t that defeat the point?

But I have some sympathy for her – wouldn’t we like for some things to be easier?  Wouldn’t we like a bit more help every now and then?

I’ll tell you where I’ve often wanted some help over the years – trying to figure out the manner in which God works.  I often want to ask Lord, could I get a little help here?  I don’t understand how you work, I don’t understand your timing, I don’t understand a lot of things about you and sometimes I get impatient trying to get answers!  Could I get a little help?

This message went through about four titles, five versions, and a bunch of different directions from where I began.  I had a different topic in mind but each day it seemed to be going in a different direction until it landed on the title of Waiting On God and I didn’t really want to use that title because it sounds too presumptuous, as though God needs to answer to us about how he works.  But then I realized, maybe a lot of people have some of those same questions and would like some help dealing with them.

I told you last week that for a time in my life I was reading some of the psalms every day.  Every week or so I would pick different psalms and read them for about a week and then pick some others.  I’ve read the psalms all my life, but until I adopted that pattern I didn’t realize just how much raw emotion some of them contained.  Listen to some of these passages, one of which is our text for this morning, but I want to add a couple of others –

Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”  Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper.  Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
—Psalm 27:7-9

1 Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning; indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption.
And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
Psalm 130:1-2, 5-8

And the psalm that contains perhaps the most raw emotion, and the one that Jesus quoted on the cross, is one that is hard to read, and is our primary text for today –

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.  Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
—Psalm 22:1-5, 11

That’s hard to read, isn’t it?  That’s hard to hear, isn’t it?  But isn’t that where we find ourselves sometimes?  We wonder how God is working and we are patiently waiting, but after a while we start to feel that patience eroding away.

How does God work?  How do we understand God’s timing?  How do we come to understand God’s will?  Those are tough questions, and questions that often gnaw away at our souls.

If you have asked those questions – if you are in the midst of some of those questions right now – allow me to offer a few words of advice this morning –

1.  Don’t be afraid of the desert.
My first time spent around the desert was back in the mid 80’s when I went to Las Vegas for the Southern Baptist Convention.  You really haven't lived until you've spent a week in Vegas with thousands of Baptists.  That was really quite a moment. 

I was walking along the edge of town one afternoon and it was so hot – I think it was about 115 degrees that day.  But it was a dry heat.  Have you ever said that – but it’s a dry heat.  Yeah, that didn’t bring me much comfort.  It’s a dry heat in my oven but I’m not going to stick my head in there.  When the temperature gets above 110 degrees it’s just really hot, dry heat or not.  On that afternoon the wind was blowing and sand was getting in my eyes and it was a painful experience.  I wanted to be somewhere cool and calm and restful, but at the same time I found that moment to be strangely exhilarating.  It was a moment to fight back against the elements and prove that you can withstand that moment!

Everyone has their desert moments, where life is tough and gritty and you feel dry spiritually.  If you’ve not been in the desert spiritually, I have great admiration for you, because I’ve been there.  Or if you haven’t, maybe you’re just not willing to admit it to yourself.

Being in the desert doesn’t mean you are weak spiritually.  Being in the desert, actually, often becomes a time of great growth.  When the Hebrew people fled captivity in Egypt they wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  When I hear the word wilderness, being from West Virginia, I think of forests, with a tree canopy that shields one from the elements, and cool running streams, but the wilderness facing the Hebrew people was much more of a desert.  It was barren and inhospitable.  It was a place with little shelter and very little water.  It was a very inhospitable place.  But it was also the place where they became a people.  It was the place where God forged them into a nation, a place where their faith was tested and tried and through every trial became strong.

As we wander through our times in the wilderness, our time in the desert, that is where we become a person of greater faith, it is where we understand that God – is his timing and in his way – is shaping each of us into the person he created us to be.

2.  The older I get, the less certain I am about how God works, but the more convinced I become that he does.
I was never one of those kids that took everything apart to try and figure out how it works.  I guess that’s why I’m not an engineer.  I never cared about how things worked; I just wanted them to work.  So it’s kind of odd that I spent a lot of years trying to figure out the manner in which God works.  I spent a lot of time wondering about God’s timing and what he was doing in the world and what he was doing in my life and those questions used to really keep my mind reeling and caused me a lot of worry and anxiety.

But not any more, because I don’t worry about it very often.  I am even less certain now about the way in which God works but I am more certain than ever that he does.  I’ve come to the realization that I don’t need to know how God works, I just need to know and trust that he does.  That’s a wonderfully freeing point at which to arrive.

Living in such a scientific and technological age puts within us the idea that we must have an answer to every question and that we must understand the inner workings of everything, from the largest to the smallest questions of the universe and life.

But must we really understand everything?  Can we not live with some element of mystery?  Of course we can!  Anyone married learns very quickly the reality of living with mystery.  Tanya and I will celebrate our 31st anniversary in May and I can guarantee you that she is still a mystery to me in some ways – and I am to her as well.

To not understand God and to not know the manner in which he works does not in any way lessen the reality of God or of his way.  Last week I read a portion of Isaiah chapter 55, and in verse 8 we read “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord.  That doesn’t mean we have to stop asking questions or wondering about God’s ways, but it does remind us there are some mysteries that will never become clear to us until we enter eternity.  And I’ve learned to be okay with that.

3.  Let your head and your heart work together.
It’s never a good idea to let either your head or your heart run your life.  We live between two extremes in life – there’s the very logical, scientific dimension and there’s the romanticized follow your heart attitude.  Sometimes we need to be a bit more logical and thoughtful about a decision or an action, so we need to use our head more than our heart.  But there are times we need to allow our hearts to overrule our head so we don’t become an emotionless zombie who doesn’t feel anything.

Please know this – God’s presence is not tied to our emotional feelings, nor is it tied to what we can see and understand.  The skeptics of the world, who want us to weigh everything on a scale of what can be seen versus what cannot be seen, everything that can be measured in a lab versus what can be measured by the heart, miss so much of this truth – that we cannot see or comprehend a lot of spiritual truths with our minds.  Sometimes, thankfully, the heart will take control and will sense something that the mind cannot comprehend.

The human heart, Robert Valett says, feels things the eyes cannot see, and know what the mind cannot understand.

You might not recognize the name of St. John of the Cross, who was a Spanish Catholic mystic who lived in the 16th century, but you probably know the title of one of his works, a poem, and then later the title of a lengthy treatise he wrote on that poem – The Dark Night of the Soul.  The poem and book were written when he was imprisoned because of his desire to bring reform to the monastic order of which he was a part.  Three times a week he was allowed out of his windowless cell where he was imprisoned in order to receive a meal of bread and water, and afterwards he was whipped because of his refusal to recant his beliefs.  He wrote that in those dark confines he was able to have a certain realization and foretaste of God.

Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and wanting, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose

All in the dark went right,
Down secret steps, disguised in other clothes,
(O coming of delight!)
In dark when no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose.

And in the luck of night
In secret places where no other spied
I went without my sight
Without a light to guide
Except the heart that lit me from inside.

It guided me and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me,
And lead me to the one
Whom only I could see
Deep in a place where only we could be.

O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
Lover and loved one moved in unison.

And on my flowering breast
Which I had kept for him and him alone
He slept as I caressed
And loved him for my own,
Breathing an air from redolent cedars blown.

And from the castle wall
The wind came down to winnow through his hair
Bidding his fingers fall,
Searing my throat with air
And all my senses were suspended there.

I stayed there to forget.
There on my lover, face to face, I lay.
All ended, and I let
My cares all fall away
Forgotten in the lilies on that day.

Remember that even when you feel as though you are waiting on God, when you feel like shouting I could use a little help here Lord, that he is with you, and he is never going to leave you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

FCC Shelbyville | January 18, 2015 Sermon

January 18, 2015 - A Well-Ordered Life

January 18, 2015
Acts 6:1-4

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.
So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.
Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.
But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

One of the dilemmas that face ministers is the amount to which they should be confessional about their lives.  I’ll tell you about some of the goofy things I’ve done and some of my life experiences, but I generally have a limit on matters that are deeply personal.

But I will tell you this morning about a moment of epiphany for me.  Earlier in my life I was going through a period of great anxiety.  It continued through a period of several months and came to the point where I felt as though I had locked myself in a prison of anxiety.  There were many nights of sleeplessness and much soul-searching, and I wondered what was wrong with me and asked God what was wrong with me.  I tried several ways of dealing with the anxiety.

First, I decided I needed to work harder.  I don’t know why that’s a solution that often comes to mind for so many of us.  As if we don’t already work hard enough – and while there is nothing wrong with hard work, it can lead to an obsession that can damage our lives – we usually find that working more does not help us to work our way out of anxiety.  Second, I thought it would help if I became better organized.  If you know me well at all, you know I am not very organized, although I do try very hard to keep organized.  I have alerts and reminders programmed into the calendar on my phone.  But I also keep a paper calendar with me as well, and it is full of notes and reminders.  Each week I print a long to-do list, and you can see from this copy – about six pages long – that I add a good bit to it during the week.  I also have a couple of pages of notes with me at any given time, notes about matters I need to keep in mind and notes about upcoming sermons, programs, etc.  But I’ve found it is impossible to organize yourself out of anxiety.  Third, I found myself attempting to be a fixer.  Some of you are also fixers, working to fix everybody and everything.  But what I realized – and you may have realized as well – is that I can’t fix anybody, and I certainly can’t fix the world.  I can barely fix myself.  The danger of becoming a fixer is exhaustion and frustration at trying to fix everyone and everything, and how the desire to fix can lead us to become controllers.  When we become fixers we place ourselves in the role of God, who can fix things.  I can’t fix anybody else and you can’t either.  We can, though, point the way to God who can do the fixing.  But we need to stop trying to take the place of God, because when we can’t fix people we want to start controlling them to make them the way we want them to be, and that isn’t what we’re called to do. Fourth, I turned to the reading of Scripture in a way that had a profound effect upon me.  Each day, I would read a few of the psalms.  I would read the same psalms each day, and after a period of time I would turn to other psalms.  Each day I would read a portion of the prophets, such as the passage from Isaiah that I read for the Call to Worship.  I would also read a portion of the Sermon On the Mount and various sections of New Testament.  One day, while reading from the book of Acts, I came to the passage that is our text for today.  It’s a text that I have used many times before, but as I read that day an important truth became clearer to me – there are many levels to Scripture, and we can turn to the same passage time and time again and find deeper and more varied meanings.  As I read this story about the selection of the first deacons it occurred to me that what I had been trying to do was to live a well-organized life, while God is calling us to live a well-ordered life.

This is a passage about the events leading to the selection of the first deacons, but it is also a passage about leading a well-ordered life.  A well-ordered life is a life that has a healthy arrangement of priorities, it is a life that is well-balanced, it is a life that recognizes there are matters more important than just keeping up with what is on our daily to-do list.  It is a passage about doing what God has called us to do and centering our lives in God.  It is about stepping away from the idolatry that makes up much of life in our modern world.

This is a passage about living a well-ordered life, not a well-organized life. I used to have the illusion of being well-organized, but I have come to realize that was only an illusion.  We spend a lot of time trying to be well-organized, but what about being well-ordered?  A well-organized life is not the same as a well-ordered life.  You can live a tremendously well-organized life, but it may not be a well-ordered life.  A lot of people think that if they just live a more organized life then life will be better, but a well-ordered life is what is really needed, not a more organized life.

A well-organized life is a life where one organizes their schedule and responsibilities, but a well-ordered life goes beyond these things.  A well-ordered life asks questions of us, such as, is my schedule reflective of who I am in Jesus?  Am I giving my time to the right things?  Am I giving too much of my time to peripheral matters?  Are there important matters of life that I am missing?  Where is God in my life?  How am I serving God in my life?  Is God the love of my life?  Do I love God with my all my heart, mind, and soul?  (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37)  Well-organized and well-ordered are not the same thing.

Here is the heart of what I want to say this morning – I don’t think we are always living well-ordered lives.  If you disagree with me then you can just tune me out and think about something else, but that is what I believe.  And I believe that living lives that are not well-ordered is at the root of much of our anxieties and struggles.  The question becomes – do we really believe the words of the Scriptures in relation to how we are asked to live our lives?

This is not a message meant to make you feel guilty.  Just mentioning the word priority sets off guilt in a lot of people.  Guilt is an emotion that is generally destructive; I prefer the word conviction to guilt.  Conviction is much healthier and is more likely to bring about long-term change in our lives.  Conviction leads us to ask hard questions about our lives and to look closely and carefully at the fundamentals and the foundation of our lives.

As we turn to our Scripture passage this morning we find it is a time when the church is bursting at the seams with growth.  The growth was putting tremendous pressures upon the people within the church.  It would have been easy to just ride along with the growth trying to keep their heads above water and to allow the activity to set the agenda, but the apostles make sure they are well-ordered in their approach.  Very quickly the apostles recognize the need to keep the church in a healthy order.

The first matter was to make sure they did not get swept away from their responsibilities as the leaders of the church.  Listen to verse 2 says so the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.  The matter at hand was how to keep up with the ministry of feeding people, and the apostles – the twelve – understood that their priority was in teaching the church from the Scriptures.  It’s not that they believed they were above the task of serving food, but that was a task to give to others so they could concentrate on their primary calling.

Here is an important truth to remember – if we do not set the agenda for our lives, life will set the agenda for us.  This is why it is so important to be well-ordered, because living a well-ordered life will prevent us from setting our life agenda.

I like to find metaphors about life, so I will present two of them to you this morning.  One is the metaphor of a treadmill.  How many of you have been on a treadmill?  How many of you like a treadmill?  I’ve told you before that I have a philosophical problem with treadmills.  I know they can keep us healthy, but I have a problem with a machine that is so much like life – no matter how hard you go, you never really get anywhere and if you slow down for just a moment you are in real trouble.  That’s no way to live, is it?

I prefer the metaphor of white-water rafting for life.  How many of you have been white-water rafting?  It is so much fun, although you have to wonder about some things about such an adventure.  First, it’s always a bad sign when you are given a helmet before engaging in an activity – especially one you have paid to participate in.  But I put the helmet on and get in the boat and start down the river.  Each boat has a guide, thankfully, but there are some things they don’t tell you until you are already in the boat.  They tell you that when you fall out of the boat – not if you fall out of the boat, but when – that the current may pull you under.  I thought I was already in danger of being pulled under the water by the heavy helmet on my head, but the guide gives me another reason to worry.  The guide says one of the things that can hold you under the water is getting pinned under a rock.  What do they mean by one of the things?  What else is under that water that can hold me under?  The instructions are to curl up in a ball – not so easy to do underwater with a swift current – and a heavy helmet on your head – and you will eventually pop out from under the rock and float to the top, where one of the other boats will pick you up.  How long is eventually?  I can only hold my breath for about thirty seconds.  And what if, after following all the instructions and floating back to the surface, you suddenly remember you were in the last boat?  Who picks you up in that case?  But the craziest part of this entire adventure is that we pay money to do this!  But it does beat a treadmill, and even though you hang on with all your strength to make sure your head stays above water, and you scream, and sometimes you fall out, but you get back in and then things calm down and you laugh about the wild ride. I prefer that white-water way of living – you have a guide to steer you through the times when things are rough and they will see you safely through to the destination and you have a sense of fun and adventure while you’re at it.  I don’t want to live the treadmill kind of existence that’s all pain and no progress and never gets you anywhere.  The difference between those two approaches to life is that one is a life where the agenda is set for you and the other is a life where you set the agenda.

Do you ever feel as if life is taking you on a treadmill ride over which you have no control?  Does it feel as though all you can do is try your best to deal with the immediate problems and needs that jump up at you every day? The apostles saw danger on the horizon; they recognized that if they did not allow God to pull the church into a well-ordered existence they would be driven by everything that came their way.

The apostles were skilled at setting their priorities.  There are so many opportunities available to us today.  Many of those opportunities are great opportunities – they are great for individuals and the church. But the sheer number of opportunities can overwhelm us as well.  We have to have a good filter at sorting through what is available to us – a filter that comes from worship, prayer, and study of the Scriptures. 

The apostles realized they could not be swept along by everything that came their way; it became very obvious they need to have a well-ordered approach to life and ministry.  It wasn’t just well-organized, but well-ordered.  As you read this passage you will note that there is not one hint of the details of how, for instance, the ministry of feeding the poor was carried out.  It doesn’t tell us how many were served, what they were served, and what time they were served; it just says they were served food.  Well-organized tells us the details of how it is done; well-ordered tells us that it needs to be done.  Well-ordered reminds us that we are not to live life with thought given only to our own interests but to the interests of others, as Paul says in Philippians 2:4 – Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Is your life well-ordered, or are you trying to work, organize, and fix your way through life.  I can tell you that will not work, but being well-ordered will!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January 11, 2015 Prodigal Sons and the Love of A Father, Part Two

Last week the text for my message came from the parable of the prodigal son, and I realized that it needed to be broken into two parts, so this morning will finish this message.

First, let’s read the parable once again –

11 And He said, “A man had two sons.
12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them.
13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 
17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!
18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight;
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’
20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 
22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet;
23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 
24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.
27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’
28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.
29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends;
30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story titled The Capital of the World.  At the beginning of the story Hemingway recounts a popular Spanish tale about a father who had and a son named Paco, a very common names in Spain. According to the story, Paco rebels against his father, using hate-filled words as he tells his father he doesn’t need him, that he wants nothing to do with him, and that he wished his father was dead.  He packs up his belongings, walks out the door, and declares he is gone forever.

Paco is always on his father’s mind, wondering if he is well or if he has fallen onto difficult times.  He fears he may want to come home but believes he can’t because of what he said to his father.

The worry became too much for the father, and he travels to Madrid, where Paco declared he would go.  Once in Madrid he walked into the offices of the city’s newspaper and places an ad that read – Paco, meet me at Hotel Montana, noon Tuesday.  All is forgiven.  Signed, Papa.

It was just before noon on that Tuesday morning when Paco’s father approached the Hotel Montana, where the police were trying to manage a large crowd at the hotel entrance.  The father sees a familiar head in the crowd and yells Paco!  When he yells out the name the heads of hundreds of young men, all named Paco, turn towards him.

There are so many people for whom the parable of the prodigal son becomes the metaphor in their lives.  They are people who want their broken relationships to be healed.

Last week we covered the first point in the message, so this week I’ll cover the second and third points.

2. The younger son wanted to find “the good life”, when he already had a good life.
Doesn’t this parable read like a teaser for a reality show?  Last week, we left dad mourning his younger son, who had wandered off to the big city in search of excitement and the good life. This son, along with his older brother, had formed an alliance to get their father’s money. That alliance is starting to crack as the younger son, now broke and destitute, has returned home. Will the younger son get immunity and get to stay? And will the older son hear his father say “you’re still hired” or “you’re fired”? Stay tuned as we continue our next episode of The Unreal Life. 

This sad, broken, dysfunctional family is, unfortunately, reality for too many people.

One of the sad parts of this story is everyone hearing the story can see what was coming for the younger son, except for the younger son. He knows everything, of course (anybody ever been that way?), and is blinded by his belief that he is soon to grasp hold of what he thinks is a good life.

The younger son fell for an illusion of what constitutes a good life. The illusion of what constitutes a good life is just as deceptive today as it was when Jesus told this parable. We are so inundated with images of the so-called “good life” that beckon to us. It is the siren call of a promise that far too often holds a very different reality.

It was a harsh reality for this young man when his money ran out. Gone were all the friends that were there for him when he had money and could afford to be the life of the party, gone was the high living, and he was reduced to being envious of the food he was feeding to some pigs. This was really hitting the bottom for this young man, to come to the point of being envious of a pig’s life.  Coming from a life of some measure of privilege – not to mention that as a Jewish man he shouldn’t be around pigs – Have you ever seen pigs eat? We raised pigs on our farm when I was young and I can remember carrying the buckets of slop to them. It’s not a pretty sight to watch pigs eat. Just how hungry and desperate do you have to be to reach this point – he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating (verse 16).  You have to be very, very hungry and very, very desperate to desire the food of pigs.

This young man certainly learned some lessons, and one of those lessons was that when all of his new friends left him and he was all alone he had a father who still loved him. Whatever he thought he wanted out of life, he already had what he really needed, although it took him a lot of pain to learn that truth.

3. The older son wanted his father’s love and approval, but he already had his love and approval.
Did anyone ever complain about a sibling getting more?  Who has ever said he got this, why didn’t I get one?  There is a lot of petty jealousy in the older brother.  But in one way, can’t you see his point?  The younger brother goes off, squanders his father’s money, returns home to a great welcome, while the older brother stays home and faithfully works with his father, never giving him any problems.

The older brother feels overlooked and underappreciated, but here’s the truth – he was a prodigal as well, he just stayed home.  And it’s not like he was doing without – he had the other half of his father’s money!

It’s not necessary to wander off in order to be a prodigal. The older brother stayed home, worked hard, did his duty, but there was still a distance between him and his father. This brother seemed to nurture a spirit of bitterness, and he was bitter to the point that he could not share his father’s joy when his brother returned.

What a tragedy, then, as the father gets one son back and then loses the other to anger and bitterness. The older brother wanted justice and punishment to be meted out to his brother and was angry that no one ever made a fuss over him. This brother never learned the lesson of which Jesus speaks in verse 10, when he says I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

And his father’s love was right there the entire time.  Listen to the words of the father in verse 31 – “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

As I mentioned last week, this parable is the last of three that Jesus tells in Luke chapter 15.  Luke prefaces the parables in this manner – Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Then Jesus told them this parable.”  It is in the context of judgmentalism and rejection that Jesus offers the parable of the prodigal son (and the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin).  It is Jesus’ way of criticizing the Pharisees – and others – for rejecting those whom they did not deem worthy of God’s love.  Jesus taught a radical, inclusive view of God’s love, where no one was beyond his love or care.  This was in stark contrast to what many of the religious leaders of the day taught, which was a very exclusive view of faith.  Simply put, they believed they were favored and loved by God and others were not.  But before we are too hard on these people, let us remember that the older son becomes a metaphor for the church.  Too many times over the centuries, and still today, the church has sought to be the gatekeeper of the kingdom of God, deciding who is in and who is out, who is righteous and who is unrighteous, and who is worthy of God’s love and who is unworthy.  The teachings, actions, and ministry of Jesus were a very direct refutation of what was taught and practiced by the religious leaders – as well as the attitudes of some churches today – and this is a lesson we cannot overlook. 

The older son has about him a rigid, joyless sense of obligation, which is the manner in which some people express their faith. The older brother represents those whom Jesus accused of rejecting other people, who are also children of God, because their beliefs told them that those others were not worthy of God’s love and should not receive it.  Jesus says, at the end of the parable of the lost sheep, that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7).

I want to close by making a few comments about the tragedy that took place in Paris on Wednesday, which saddens all of us, but this parable speaks to such situations.  I would say, first of all, that when people commit such terrible violence in the name of God it must be condemned, wherever it happens and whoever perpetuates such acts.

It didn’t take long for some of the expected voices to pounce on this event as an example of the failure of religion.  Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, leading the usual cast of characters, were quick to proclaim that there are no great religions and that religion and religious people should be mocked and ridiculed.

I find it very disturbing when people paint an entire group of people based upon the actions of only a few, and I’ll tell you what is so disturbing about such comments and attitudes.  When you marginalize and demonize any group of people it is only one short step to finding justification in treating them in terrible ways.  We have seen this time and again in history, and we have certainly seen it in Europe.  But we’ve seen it in our own country as well.

Jesus knew the dangers of such attitudes, even when we justify them in response to evil and terrible actions.  That’s why it is so hard to comprehend the depth of the radical love that Jesus demonstrated to all people.  Jesus, who taught us that we should love our enemies and to even pray for those who persecute us, was willing to stand up to the hard-heartedness of the religious establishment and challenge them as misrepresenting God and abusing people.  That’s an amazing message, and one the world still needs to hear.