Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Transformation

Preached on Sunday, February 7, 2016

Scripture readings: Ephesians 2:11-22; Luke 15:11-32

Walking near Lower Crab Creek, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
January 2016
Some women were talking about different experiences they had as mothers. One of them confessed that she had taken some classes in child development in college and when she had gotten married she had three favorite models of child-raising that she wanted to try. In the end, she said that she had three children and no more theories.
The Pharisees were a strict sort of teachers and they found fault with the kind of teacher Jesus was. They thought Jesus was rewarding the wrong sort of behavior. It was as if they had a different theory of child-raising than Jesus had. So Jesus told a story about a father who raised two sons.
The story is called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”. “Prodigal” means wasteful and reckless. The younger son treated his inheritance that way, but the bigger point is that he treated his father the same way. If we thought about it, we would see that the story is really about both sons and, even more, the story is about the father.
The story should be called “The Prodigal Father”. In Jesus’ mind the story is about his own prodigal father and about himself as the most famous prodigal son of them all.
In the story as Jesus told it. The neighbors in the village would have considered the father the original prodigal. The father was the one responsible for all the trouble.
When the younger son asked for his share of the inheritance it was an insult within that ancient Middle Eastern culture. It would be the same as if he said, “Father I wish you were dead.”
Any father with any sense of decency would have disowned that son on the spot. A decent father would have driven that son away. He would have kicked that son out of the family.
The Father had no sense of decency. He had no sense of honor. He had no sense of the importance of the family’s dignity. Clearly that crazy old man was waiting, every day, for his prodigal son to return. The father must have sat outside his front door for years. That’s why he was ready for him. He spotted his son coming up the valley from a long way off.
The villagers just laughed at the father sitting there day after day. If they had spotted the son, or seen him in their village, they would have mobbed him, and dragged him out, and pelted him with rocks and donkey dung. They didn’t want riff-raff like him living in their town.
The father ran, in part, to protect his younger boy from that mob-scene. He risked getting a pelting himself. Once they got home, he dressed his son up in some of his own best clothes and had the fattened calf killed to make a feast.
The fattened calf was a special item for a rich family living in that time and place. A calf was raised and fed and sheltered to stay tender into adulthood.
It would be like the famous Japanese Kobe cattle. No matter how big it was, it was always called the fattened calf. It was saved for a visit by some governor or other dignitary. A full-grown fattened calf could have been at the top of the menu for a feast of a hundred guests.
The father must have invited that whole hateful village, in order to obligate them to accept the prodigal. That would be just one more piece of evidence for how prodigal, and wasteful, and reckless the old man was.
A feast of barbequed roast beef was just too good to pass up. Most of those people hardly ever had a chance to eat beef. If they had meat it was chicken, or goat, or lamb. Beef was food for rich people. The villagers would go to the feast, and laugh behind the father’s back (behind the whole family’s backs) even though accepting the invitation solemnly obligated them to treat the son politely and not drive him away.
The prodigal father was so reckless and wasteful that he became a dishonor to his own family. The ancient world in the Middle East was honor-bound, as that part of the world still is (as dishonorable as that part of the world sometimes seems to us). People were honor bound to kill members of their own family who dishonored the family.
My old friend Dick Cochran and his wife Eloise (who has since passed away) served as missionaries in Iraq and Lebanon in the 1950’s. Dick would say that the oldest son would be honor-bound to kill his prodigal father for dishonoring the family by forgiving and honoring the prodigal son.
The father’s problem was his love. His love was wasteful and reckless. The Pharisees, who were so critical of Jesus, were forgetting that this was the same as the love of God.
There is a special Hebrew word that describes God’s love. The word is often translated in the King James Version as “loving-kindness”. In the Revised Standard Version it is often translated as “steadfast love”. There is a musical version of one of the places where this love appears in the Psalms. Psalm sixty-three verse three says, “Thy loving kindness is better than life.”
The people who think that they know God and the scriptures best often forget this special word. It describes the love that binds God to his people.
They forget that the key to this love is that it is, in fact, never deserved. It describes the love that binds a faithful God to a faithless people. It describes the love that binds a holy God to a sinful people. God’s love is wasteful and reckless and it is given to people who don’t deserve it. Maybe the people who think they know God best haven’t forgotten the true meaning of this love, but they have forgotten who they truly are in the sight of God.
They are God’s beloved children. This specifically means that they are beneficiaries of God’s love because God’s love is prodigal, wasteful, and reckless. They need to know that, if God’s love was not prodigal, and wasteful, and reckless they would not be loved at all.
We don’t know why the younger son was so desperate to get away from home. He might not have been so desperate to get away from his father. He might have been more desperate to get away from that older brother.
You know, this suddenly made me think that churches sometimes work the same way as that family worked. People may not leave the church because of God, but because of the brothers and sisters who act like the older brother of the story. I think that is one way to describe why my family stopped going to church.
If the church is like a family, the reason why the younger son came back to the family was because he was transformed by the memory of his father’s wasteful, reckless love. The memory of that love made him feel like the sinner he was. The prodigal’s sin was not against his brother’s awful goodness. The younger brother felt that his sin was against his father’s wasteful, reckless love.
The older translations tell us that, because of this memory, and because of the crisis that he was going through, the prodigal “came to himself”. He didn’t “come to his senses” as some more modern translations put it.
The prodigal came to himself. He finally met himself for the first time in his life. He remembered that there was this love and there was his failure to enter into that love. He finally saw himself. He was wasteful and reckless in his escape from a great love.
He came to himself and he saw what he was made for and where he belonged. He was his father’s son and so he came to himself. He found himself in the father’s love.
He was transformed. Transformation is the wonder and the miracle of being a Christian. How has the wastefulness and recklessness of God’s love transformed you?
We don’t know how the older brother’s part of the story ended. Did he kill his father to preserve the honor of the family? Or was the older son transformed at last?
The father had this older, serious, careful, son whom he was told was sulking outside the house and outside the feast. The father did with the older son the same thing he did with the younger.
He followed his heart. He went out to that son who was holding back and refusing to join the feast of reckless love. The father went out to him instead of waiting for him to come to his senses. The father knew that the oldest son was much too sensible to see the sense of the feast. The father wasted his own joy by going out in search of the sulking boy.
Do you know that if you are a serious, sensible, careful Christian you might be the older brother? Do you know how reckless and wasteful God really is and how much your life depends on this?
The Bible tells us that God was so wasteful and reckless with his love that he left his own fun. He left the feast of heaven. God went outside of all that for you and me. God went out of heaven to enter a very deadly, serious world.
That world had such a serious view of what God was supposed to be, that it couldn’t make anything out of him when he showed himself. The only thing this world could do was to kill God in defense of this world’s honor and independence. God came in Jesus and refused to take the world’s values seriously. God in the flesh (in Jesus) flaunted his loving kindness on all the wrong people.
The prodigal God, knowing what would happen, died for the sins of the world.
Look at this world! He died for the world that so much frightens us and angers us. He died for the world that makes us indignant. He died for the world that is indifferent to him. He died for the world that destroys the innocent.
More than we know, this is the same world we look at when we see our own reflection in the mirror. It’s a wonder to know that the prodigal God loves such a world as our world.
It’s the same world we see when we look out our windows every day. Every day we share our lives with people who live in such a world and they have no idea of what kind of love overhangs them and reaches out to them all the time. When we see such a love and allow it to come into us, we are transformed by it, and we have something to share with others.
God is so reckless with his infinite love that it has the momentum to transform everyone who has been struck by it. His prodigal love has the power to give to those who embrace it the transformation of dying to themselves and living a new and everlasting life.
If the older brother could have his blind eyes opened, and have his lost heart found, and find that his shriveled up love was bursting to life, then he would have been transformed. He would have hugged the prodigal father and the prodigal son. And he would have laughed a wonderful laugh. He would have forgotten his old self and he would have come to his true self. He needed his own story of transformation.
I am the oldest child and (believe me) I am much too serious for my own good. Someday I hope to laugh with all my heart at the sight of how silly all my seriousness has been.
I have never rebelled in my life. My only rebellion was to go to church, and stick with the love of Jesus as the Bible tells me so, and go into the ministry. That’s my rebellion. In my own way, this was the most wasteful and reckless thing I could do for the love of Jesus and our Father.
Somehow this was my transformation. And I see everything differently because of it. But I am still much too serious for my own good.
God is wasteful and reckless with his love. If we don’t treat others with the same scandalous love, then we are not living out the transforming power of God. If we don’t love the people outside these walls wastefully and recklessly we cannot offer transformation to anyone.
There is nothing more exciting than to be transformed by being recklessly and wastefully loved. Most of the people we know have never found such a love as this. That is the simple truth.
We represent what our neighbors and the world around us can never imagine. Everyone hungers for this love without knowing it. But we might have forgotten what we have. Or we might not have found God’s transformation and received it for our own.
The older brother in the story may never have become the prodigal son that he was born to be. We don’t know, but we can see that he needed this more than anything else that he valued in his peculiar brand of awful goodness.

How can anyone around here find the prodigal God, unless we become prodigals too?

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