Look after your own, God!
A sermon on Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32 by Nathan Nettleton, 26 March 1995
It is easy to lose appreciation for the benefits of faithfulness until we taste the alternative.
God's love for us is the deepest and most unshakable love we will ever experience. It is a love that reaches out to us wherever we are and no matter how deeply we have spurned it in the past. It is a love that cannot be measured because there is no limit to it and no degrees within it. God's love is not some kind of reward for effort scheme. It is not measured out to us in proportion to how good we have been or how hard we have worked. Nothing you could do could make God love you any more because there is no such thing as more love than God has for you now.
However there are certainly things you can do that will limit or heighten your ability to experience that love. You can turn your back on love, or you can open yourself up to it. You can enjoy it for a while, and then begin to take it for granted and fail to appreciate it. As I think I said at Steve and Sarai's wedding. God's love is a bit like the town of Wagga Wagga. Nothing you or I can do is going to change the fact that it's there, but it is the things we do and decide that determine whether we live in it or not.
So this morning we examine where we stand in relation to God's love, so that we can decide where we want to be and how to get there.
As most of you are no doubt aware by now, themes of sin and confession and reconciliation with God are a prominent focus of the Lent season. They are certainly prominent in the two readings we have just had and in the one we will be hearing shortly.
In the reading from his letter to the Corinthians, Paul spells out in fairly simple terms, or as simple as Paul ever gets anyway, that what God wants to do is achieve a lasting reconciliation with us. We and God have been estranged from one another, because we have been on totally different pathways. God has been operating with one set of agendas, and we have been operating with an opposing set. But now God is keen to put an end to the conflict, and make us his friends.
Paul makes it clear that God's desire to make people his friends far outweighs his consciousness of any sin they might be guilty of. He says that God keeps no record of their sin, but reaches out to them with the offer of friendship with God, an offer made concrete in Jesus Christ. Jesus gets in among us and shares our situation with us. And that's a big chunk of what friendship is about; being willing to be there when the chips are down. Jesus is no fair weather friend, he shares the worst of our sin and brokenness so that we can have the opportunity to share the best of God's goodness and love.
It is that painful part of our experience, the worst of our sin and brokenness, that the psalm spoke of so well. The feeling of a big hand weighing heavily on you. The psalmist says when I did not confess my sin, it wore me out, it drained my strength. It is something we talk about in terms of modern psychology, but these people had a grasp of it three thousand years ago. If you bottle up a problem inside of you, it stuffs you up on the inside. We've all got our own individual pathologies, our hurts and pains and brokenness, our dark sides that want to take revenge on the world for the evil we've suffered, and you can't push them down in a way that will prevent them from affecting you. The further you push them the deeper they fester, and as the psalm said your spirit dries up like moisture in the summer heat.
But as you noticed, the psalm moved quickly from that painful memory to a song of hope and joy. I decided to confess my sins to you, Lord, and you forgave all of them. It's the opposite of pushing them down inside, letting them out, facing up to them. And just like Paul said in the other reading, God is only too willing to forgive and make friends with us. Instead of us feeling we need to hide from God, God becomes our hiding place. Instead of us feeling that we need protection from God, God becomes our protector.
The joy and exhilaration of that release is captured well in the psalm. But in reality, for many of us, after a few years of following Jesus, we get a bit used to God's goodness and the novelty wears off a bit. Our Gospel reading addresses these issues directly.
This parable can be read from several different perspectives and it still has an important message. Last time I preached on it I took the prodigal son angle and very nearly lost my job as a result of how I treated it. So this morning I'm taking a different angle and I hope I don't arouse quite the same hostility.
Let's check the context of the parable before we go any further with it. We'll test your listening or bible knowledge skills here.
Who did Jesus tell this parable to??
What were they doing that provoked him to tell it??
And a bit we didn't hear, Jesus actually responded by telling three parables of which this is the third, can anybody remember what the other two were???
O.K. So we have a group of very serious, diligent, religious people, people who did their utmost to live in ways that were pleasing to God, who are feeling put out because Jesus is behaving as though God's favourites were actually the people who did everything that was irreligious and offensive to God.
And it is in the face of that response that Jesus tells three similar parables about God's desire to find the lost, and then he puts a twist in the tail of the third one. The three parables all make the same point that Paul made in our earlier reading. If you are missing out on the love of God, God is desperate to make contact with you. God is desperate to offer the olive branch, to reach out and make reconciliation possible. God will search frantically till the lost sheep is found. Or if you have chosen to be lost and don't want to be found, God will wait anxiously, gazing longingly down the road, hoping and hoping that you will have a change of heart and respond to God's eager love for you. And if you do, the minute you come into sight God will be tearing down the road like an excited puppy welcoming you home. God's arms will be open wide, and the fatted calf will be on the spit and there will be one almighty party.
It sounds fantastic, but then Jesus puts a sting in the tail of his story. A bit of reality therapy before we get too carried away. Jesus is well aware that it is easy to appreciate the benefits of your father's love when he's throwing a big party in your honour, it's not so easy when he just want's your company at hay baling time. A hard day's work and a square meal looks great when you're starving in a strange land, but it doesn't look quite so appealing when you haven't felt real hunger pangs.
And so Jesus writes another character into the story; the older brother. A character that most of us can probably relate to if we have a look at ourselves. This is the bloke who doesn't have spectacular conversion story. He just grew up in the loving care of his father. There was never really a time when he felt alienated from that love. It had just always been there. And he had always been faithful. He worked hard, and was the apple of his father's eye. He could always be relied on to put in one hundred and ten percent.
There are plenty of people here for whom Christian discipleship has been like that. You grew up in the family of God's people. You never really went astray. Sure, you've had your moments but you never spat the dummy and told God to get knotted and lived the fast and selfish life. You've always been there, responsible and dependable.
And the danger for you is the same as the danger for the older brother here; and Jesus wants to warn you of it. What do you hear Jesus warning here? Forget the younger brother for a moment, what is Jesus saying can happen in the relationship between the faithful son and his father???
(Become so used to the good relationship that you no longer appreciate its value.)
The older brother has become so used to it that he no longer sees how good he has it. In fact he doesn't even see what he can do with it. He complains to his dad, All these years I've worked for you and you never even gave me a young goat to have a party with my friends. And the old man says,
I never gave you a goat. They're your goats. Everything I have is yours. If you want a goat, have as many as you want, they're your goats!
How easily we do that! We get hung up on doing our duty, on being faithful, on putting the work in that we forget to celebrate. We have a right to celebrate. God wants us to be a celebratory people. Most of the images Jesus used to describe the reign of God were images of celebrations and parties. The reign of God is a party.
And what has happened in the relationship between the two brothers?? Put yourself in that position for a moment and describe it. Why is the older brother so resentful of the younger??
There is a part of him that reckons that the prodigal has had it good. There is a part of him that says, Why have I always been so good? Why didn't I get out there and have a good time like everybody else? Why was I Daddy's little boy at home.
It's a bit close to the bone, really. I know I've thought that often enough. But the reality is that it is easy to think like that when you haven't tried it. The grass looks greener from the other side. But the prodigal found out that the grass looked greener because it was mouldy. The prodigal had been to the other side and when the other side had chewed him up and spat him out, like it always does, he knew that the only good thing he could do to himself was to swallow his pride and go home. He'd learnt the hard way why home was a good place to be.
There are plenty of people who are still finding that out the hard way, but who, like the prodigal, probably won't admit it until they hit rock bottom. People who have abandoned the road that would in time have led to genuine love, healthy growth and mature joy, and instead have attempted a short cut, a fast life of cheap success and conspicuous consumption. I haven't met any whose happiness is more than skin deep. Beneath the manic maintenance of appearances there is a nightmare of anxieties and regrets. Where have all the people who cared about me gone? What if the share price falls? What if they find out what I'm really like? Did I embarrass myself last night? What if she finds someone with more money and charisma? Why am I hung over and alone every morning? Why haven't I got time for intimacy?
The prodigal had blown his whole inheritance. What he'd lost he could never recover and what he'd gained was horrific. He knew his older brother was on a good thing. It was only the older brother who couldn't see it.
If you've never been a prodigal, you haven't missed much. Those who have can tell you that it can take a lot of years to repair the damage even after you get home. If you've always been the one faithfully working at home, then the message of this parable is appreciate the love and security you have and lighten up and have more parties.
There is no joy in life that God wants to deny you. Jesus was frequently accused by the religious wowsers of being a glutton and a drunkard because he was so often at parties, and so often laughing and celebrating with friends who were joining with him in the serious business of transforming life on earth into the image of the great party that is the kingdom of God. Until we discover that together and join with Jesus, we are going to stagger through life as either prodigals screwing ourselves up and regretting it, or as stiff lipped resentful goodie-goodies, who tried to do the right thing but forgot why and lost the plot.
And as long as we are either of those, the waiting Father, our eager loving God is waiting with arms open longing to clasp us close and sing and dance and celebrate the joy of our inclusion in his eternal party.