February 2, 1992
We are all skillful at offering excuses, aren’t we? “I’m too busy.” “I don’t know how.” “I didn’t understand.” “I couldn’t find the right tools.” Excuses have been present since the creation. Adam excused his eating of the forbidden fruit: “Lord, that woman you gave me got the fruit, and I ate it.”
We can find excuses for not attending Sunday School. We can provide excuses for not being in worship. We have handy excuses for not teaching a study group or a class for children or for youth.
Some of you remember the story of the mother who awakened her son one Sunday morning to tell him it was time to get up for church. The son turned over, covered his head with the pillow, and didn’t respond. She shouted at him, “Son, get up!” The son mumbled, “I don’t want to go to that church. The people are not friendly. They don’t like me. I never feel welcome. Give me a sound reason why I should.”
The mother shook her head, then responded, “Son, you are a Christian. Christians ought to be in worship on Sunday. Besides, you are forty-three years old and I shouldn’t have to treat you like a child. More than that, you are the preacher, and if you don’t get there they won’t have a sermon.”
Jeremiah had an excuse ready when God called him. “Lord, I am just a youth. I am not a speaker. I can’t be your prophet now.” God was prepared for Jeremiah. “Don’t talk to me that way. I am the Lord. I’ll give you a message and the courage to speak. You don’t have to be afraid. I am not just sending you. I am going with you.”
With that kind of support, excuses seem flimsy, don’t they? What a difference there is in being sent, and in someone going with us. What a difference there is in having to walk that lonesome road alone, and in someone being our traveling companion.
There is no excuse for not following God: He has a marvelous plan for our lives.
The plan of God is not chance, not blind fate. Our plan from God is magnificent. The plan for us is more than the frightening fate captured in the folk legend about the man who saw the angel of death in the market place asking about his servant. The servant was important to the master, so he sent his servant on a journey to Samarra, to safety. Later that day the master came face to face with the angel of death. The angel of death seemed astonished. The angel explained his look, “I am surprised to see you here, for I have an appointment with your servant tonight in Samarra.”
God does not overpower our willingness to follow Him. If we cooperate with God, His marvelous plan will unfold in us.
There is no excuse for not following God: He will be with us for support and help at all times.
One person alone is almost helpless. One person with God is a majority and will prevail. In the days of the Roman Empire, the inhumanity at the Coliseum was unimaginable. Gory, bloody, inhuman treatment was common. One lone monk, Tellimachus, shocked by the brutality, climbed to a parapet and shouted, “In the name of God, stop. In the name of God, stop.” Quiet settled over the Coliseum. Persons lowered their heads. Silently the crowds began to walk away from the inhumanity and the gory slaughter.
Persons often turn to their pastor with what seem to be insurmountable problems. They are at the end of their resources. They are tired, upset, unsettled, frustrated. What many need is not an answer but a time of rest and recuperation. They need a few hours of sleep, a good meal, some quiet relaxation. Once they have recuperated, they have a new vision of their circumstances.
Here in worship, as we commune with God, we are fed the holy food that revives us, empowers us, renews us. Leaving refreshed, what excuse could we possibly have for not serving and obeying God. (HCP)
February 9, 1992
I’ve always loved the word “serendipity.” It’s one of those words that rolls off your tongue with a bounce and a smile, a word that’s fun to say.
And I like the meaning of serendipity, because it refers to those unexpected but delightful discoveries that come our way. When you go to buy that new couch you’ve been saving for, and discover that it’s just been marked down 50 percent — that’s serendipity! When you grudgingly agree to go on a blind date, only to discover that your date is the most marvelous specimen of humanity you’ve ever laid eyes on — that’s serendipity! When you receive that dreaded letter from the IRS and find that they’ve discovered an error to your credit, and enclosed is a check — that’s serendipity!
Simon Peter wasn’t expecting much that day. They’d already been out fishing and come home empty-handed; now it was time to clean the nets, go home for a meal, and hope tomorrow would be a better day.
Then along comes some itinerant preacher who wants to use his boat for a revival meeting! Oh, well, his wife wouldn’t be expecting him home this early, and the boat might as well get some productive use today. So his vessel becomes a pulpit for this preacher from Nazareth.
After the sermon, Peter prepared to return to shore when the preacher made a surprising request: go back out into the deepest part of the lake and let your nets down. Those nets they’d just finished cleaning after an unproductive day in that same part of the lake! Peter mumbled about the useless exercise, but agreed to comply with Jesus’ request. And when they did, the nets broke at the weight of all the fish! Serendipity!
Jesus Christ has a way of doing that in our lives. Things are going along pretty much as normal, when all at once He reaches into the humdrum patterns of life and interrupts them with His surprising grace. He presents us with new insights, new opportunities, new directions.
Peter wasn’t expecting to encounter God that day. It had been a pretty lousy day, to put it mildly. Spiritual things weren’t at the top of his “to do” list for the rest of the afternoon. Yet it was when he least expected it that he experienced God’s surprising grace in his life. It was in the midst of the normal patterns of life that Jesus Christ touched his life and changed it forever.
Perhaps that’s when God will be speaking to you this week, if you’re willing to listen. Maybe on the job, or at lunch with some co-workers, or playing with your kids, or talking with your spouse. It may be something you see that you’ve never noticed before; something that’s said that drives straight to your heart; some encounter that you would never have expected. Surprising grace.
Of course, Peter had a choice. And his initial reaction was a natural one: this is too much for me, Lord. I’m not the kind of guy you’re looking for! (v. 8).
Yet when it came time to decide, Simon Peter responded to God’s surprising grace in a way that probably surprised even him; he left behind boats and nets and business to follow Jesus. The rough, rugged fisherman becomes a disciple. The one voted “least likely to become spiritual” suddenly finds himself following an itinerant preacher from town to town — and soon will find himself preaching! Serendipity!
How will God surprise you with His grace in the days ahead? And will you be willing to see His grace when it comes into your life? (JMD)
February 16, 1992
True or False?
(1 Corinthians 15:12-20)
Some questions are not important no matter how often we ask them: “How are you?” Some questions are immaterial no matter when we ask them: “What’s the weather like where you are?” Some questions are not intended to be answered, no matter how long the silence or pause following: “What do you think I should do now?”
Some questions are important. There are some questions that are supreme questions. Some are decisive questions. Some are definitive questions. The question, “Was Jesus raised from the dead?” is such an ultimate question.
The reality of a resurrected Christ is decisive and definitive in the New Testament witness to the power of God. The question about Jesus’ resurrection is decisive and definitive for our faith. Paul faces this ultimate importance when he wrote those words in our text.
John Short writes in The Interpreter’s Bible on this passage, “The first Christians did not live in an unduly credulous age.” He sketches a picture of the first century showing that few persons believed anything they were told. It was the age of incredulity.
To the intellectual of the Roman world, the concept of the dead coming to life again was preposterous. Their reason taught them that it did not occur. They had no experience that such could ever be the situation. Dead persons stayed dead. Death was the end of life. That was the end of the consideration. Nothing more could be said.
Many religious leaders among the Jews pronounced that resurrection from the dead was ridiculous. Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests, were Sadducees. Sadducees did not believe in a new life for the dead. The Pharisees did consider it possible for a man to live again after death but the Pharisees did not dominate the religious scene.
The Corinthians were a small congregation. They were surrounded by Greeks, Romans, and Jews who laughed at the idea of resurrection. They had surrendered themselves to Christ, the Son of God. For them to clutch to a belief in resurrection in such a hostile population was impossible. It is easy to expect the query that Paul admits in verse 12: Some are saying there is no resurrection of the dead.
They did not argue that Jesus had not been raised. He was different. He was the Messiah. He was the Son of God, the Savior of the humankind. God acted for Him and raised Him up. No one else had any cause to expect the same themselves. The dead would not be raised. Only Jesus was raised. His resurrection was the exception. When life has only a past tense, life is disoriented.
Paul’s argument is simple. The resurrection is either true or false. Make a choice. If it is false, then the preaching of Paul is false. His witness is false. All that remains is a crumbling structure. The logical consequence of a denied resurrection is a long list:
– if none, then Jesus was not raised either
– we are rejecting all the apostolic testimony
– there was no confirmation of messiahship
– there is no redemption or salvation for the lost
– there is no certainty of the Kingdom or rule of God
– Christian preaching is empty and useless
– Paul and the others are false witnesses
– the faith of the Corinthians is futile
Without the resurrection, there is no faith. There is no hope. There is no life, no real life.
And the concluding argument: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20, RSV). The logical conclusion of this truth is that all the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Christ, those who have found new life in this world, will also find another new life on the other side of death. It is not an automatic inheritance, but it is the gift of God.
Just as God provided a gift of life for Jesus, so He also provides the gift of life in the world and beyond for all His children. Ansel Adams, the famed photographer, wrote in his memoirs: “The relatively few creators of our time possess a resonance with eternity.” When the resurrection is real, we do resonate with eternity. (HCP)
February 23, 1992
Not You — God!
(Genesis 45:3-11, 15)
The stories of the Old and New Testament are dramatic ones. Fashioned and shaped by centuries of telling and retelling, each story is a masterpiece of literature as well as a vehicle of faith. Consider the story of Joseph and his brothers.
The story is a classic example of the realities teachers of writing use to influence students. The sentences are short. The dialogue conveys more than words. The description is limited but vivid. There is a clear climax in the words, “it was not you who sent me here, it was God” (v. 8).
That truth is what this story is about. One can discuss many things about the events of this story. However, the story of Joseph and his brothers is about how God is involved in the tragic, the senseless, the jealousies, and the anger. This story is about how God uses the worst to create the future. “Not you, but God.”
Examine the contrast between Joseph and his brothers. It is a classic reversal of roles. Back in Canaan, the brothers were powerful. Here in Egypt, Joseph is powerful. Back home, the brothers were able to do as they wished. Here in Egypt, Joseph is in command.
In Egypt the brothers are fearful. They have flaunted the purposes of God. They are afraid that no good will ever come to them now. The fact is the reverse. Joseph delivers a word of grace. He is not after revenge. He wants to assist them. Joseph has been sheltered by God through the tragedies in order to preserve a remnant of God’s chosen people.
Joseph had opportunities to be cynical, defiant, revengeful, discouraged. He is not. One contemporary writer confessed, “I tried everything to fill the uneasy emptiness of my heart: places, people, things … I felt like I was giving blood transfusions to a sieve.” By contrast, Joseph discovered the hand of God in the complications of his life. Joseph, knowing that God was with him, could forgive and forget. What did Joseph do that kept him from discouragement and allowed him to see the purposes of God?
I. Joseph was sensitive to the physical and spiritual values of life.
Joseph was committed to standards which he would not discard, even in the case of Potiphar’s wife. Tempted by a beautiful woman, he remembered the value of a home. He focused on marriage as a sacred institution. Even when he was falsely accused, he did not and would not violate the value of the spiritual realities of his world. He was loyal to the God of his past. He was convicted of the rightness of his ways.
In the presence of the Pharaoh, he stressed the spiritual reality of the dream, the physical reality of a famine, yet still provided a way for the Pharaoh to prevail. It would have been easy for Joseph to think that Pharaoh was the ground of his troubles. “Let the old king take his punishment. Let the masses starve. Perhaps, in the confusion, I can escape and go home.”
No. Joseph looked for the opportunity to support the values of his life for the sake of others.
II. Joseph was interested in the welfare of other persons.
The willingness to set aside some of the grain from the bountiful harvest to care for the needs of the years when the harvest would not be enough was unselfish. It was done for the greater good of the greater number.
Joseph was genuinely interested in the welfare of his brothers. The question, “Tell me about your father, is he well?”, is more than the question of a son who misses his father. It is the question of a person who is genuinely interested in other persons. The pain of the past has been healed.
Joseph discovered in his time the truth expressed by Albert Schweitzer in our time, “The people in this world who are truly happy are those who have learned to serve.”
The will and purpose of God grows through the dark nights of difficulty even as the flowers grow in the dark of night. There will come the day in which the will and purpose of God is more clearly understood. There will be a time when the faithful servant, like Joseph, can say, “You did not do this to me. God did this.” Seeing the hand of God caressingly out-stretched over us prepares us for living in the unseen future. (HCP)
March 1, 1992
Positive Words for Life
(2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2)
Words verbalize our feelings, attitudes, thoughts, and concepts. They can help us in our communication with others, or they can be a hindrance.
Harry and George hadn’t been around one another for many years and happened to meet in a hardware store. George asked how Harry’s wife was doing. Harry replied, “She’s in heaven.” George said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” But that didn’t sound quite right to him, so he added, “I mean, I’m glad!” It still didn’t sound right. Reaching for just the right word to say, he then said, “I mean, I’m surprised.”
Do your words help or hinder people in their living? Paul tells his readers that hearts and lives are changed by Jesus. He used words to express that positive transformation of life. In a negative world we need positive words of encouragement that enhance our changed lives. Paul gives us some positive Christlike words.
I. Jesus’ words contain a bold promise (v. 12).
Christ brings to life a bold promise for the past, present and future.
The bold promise of Jesus is deliverance from my sinful past. When I sincerely asked Jesus into my life, no matter what I had done was forgiven! I can depend on it — there is no worry.
The bold promise of Jesus is coping with life now. Even in the midst of crisis, tears, and failure, I can still hold steady in the storm. God gives the opportunity for my faith to be shaken, to teach me obedience and dependence upon Him. I’m glad to know that God lives in the present tense of life with me.
The bold promise of Jesus is heaven eternally. Christ will bring those who know Him as Savior “home” to live with Him. Home is that comfortable place where the family dwells. Heaven is precisely where I will be when this life is over!
II. Jesus’ words contain freedom for life (v. 17).
Paul told the Jews that they were in bondage. The veil over the face of Moses was the symbol of the “blindness that darkened the hearts of the unbelieving Jews …” Christ came to give light and sight to the blind. The result is freedom.
What holds you in blind bondage? Is it prestige? power? people? programs? Let Christ free you today!
The slaves of Jamaica were able to throw off their chains of slavery in 1838. The abolition was to take effect on August 1. The last day of July a large group of former slaves gathered on the beach for a solemn occasion. The solemnness was broken by the shouts of joy.
They constructed a large mahogany coffin and throughout the evening the soon-to-be-emancipated slaves dropped their chains, leg-irons, whips, padlocks, and other symbols of slavery into that coffin. A few moments before midnight they lowered the coffin into a hole they had dug in the sand. At the stroke of midnight they covered the hole and sang the doxology of praise. They were free!
Christians enjoy freedom from the slavery of sin. Rejoice, freedom lovers, shout and sing praises to God.
III. Jesus’ words contain transforming glory (3:18-4:1).
The definition of glory is “great honor and admiration won by doing something important or valuable” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). God makes new hearts and lives from soiled and tattered old hearts. Impurity changes to purity; foul language becomes clean; lust becomes love; lying transforms to honesty; immorality changes to morality.
We are incapable of such change, for only God can transform our goals and lives. Is it any wonder that we give Him our honor and admiration for such a valuable service? Millions have been transformed by the resurrected, living Christ. Take time to give Him glory for His blood changes sinner to saint!
IV. Jesus’ words contain compassionate truth (4:1-2)
When Christ comes, He brings honesty in a compassionate style. As a youngster I played games that required “crossing the heart,” “crossed fingers,” “double dares,” and “no take backs.” The problem was that I wasn’t trusted to keep my word. When God enters life, He brings a desire to be honest. No crossed fingers or hearts are necessary any longer!
Someone once said, “When a man gets in the straight way, he finds there is no room for crooked dealings.” Is that true in your life? We tell the truth because we now care about people and God. (DGK)
March 8, 1992
Wonderful Words of Life
Frank Capra produced a movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the movie, Jimmy desired to end his life because he felt he was an utter failure. God sent an angel to stop him from plunging into the cold Decembers of the river. After Stewart told the angel he wished he had never been born, the angel granted his wish.
The remainder of the film explored the dire consequences of the wish and demonstrated that every person really does make a significant contribution to life. After he saw the results of his decision, Stewart told the angel he didn’t want to die because life is wonderful!
Think what life would be like if Jesus would not have entered our world? Salvation, religious experience and life itself would not be the same. But Jesus has come and offers us life. Paul tells us some wonderful words of life.
I. Faith is a wonderful word of life.
Faith deals with the heart. When Jesus Christ entered our world, He gave the God-to-man concept a personal relationship. He was God’s signature of love to all the world, and it is God’s expectation that we open-heartedly accept His son of love.
For us to experience the message of Agape love, we must reach out to Christ and acknowledge Him as Lord. We sense the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ as divine. As Christians, we begin to comprehend that uniqueness through our own faith.
A lecturer was berating religious faith of any kind and Christianity in particular. At the close of the talk the speaker asked if there were any questions. In the audience was the town drunk, who had been converted to Christ. The man walked up front, took out an orange he was saving, peeled and ate it without a word.
The agitated speaker asked if he had a question. After eating the last segment of orange the convert turned to the unbeliever and asked, “Was the orange I just consumed sweet or sour?” In a fit of anger the speaker replied, “You idiot, how can I know whether it was sour or sweet when I never tasted it?” The converted alcoholic retorted, “And how can you know anything about Christ if you have not tried Him?” Have you tasted the good things of Jesus?
II. Confession is a wonderful word of life.
Confession of sin becomes our article of beginning faith. Francis Quarles said, “If thou would be justified, acknowledge thine injustice. He that confesses his sin, begins his journey toward salvation. He that is sorry for it, mends his pace. He that forsakes it, is at his journey’s end.”
Have you met the challenge of honest confession before an Almighty loving God? Christ must be confessed to the world in our lives. William Barclay wrote, “Not only God, but also our fellowman, must know that we are Christians. A man must declare on which side he is on.”
Dwight L. Moody was conducting a prayer meeting in Boston. In that service a little Norwegian boy, who spoke only a little English, got up from his seat and said: “If I tell the world about Christ, He will tell the Father about me.” Moody said that mulled itself upon his heart, and he never forgot the impact of the child’s testimony. He said telling the world is exactly what it means to confess Christ.
III. Salvation is a wonderful word of life.
Faith, confession, and acceptance lead us to salvation now and forever! William Greathouse commented that salvation is “through Christ alone which includes initial, full and final salvation.” It solely derives from Christ, with whom each person in the world in order to be saved must die and be raised and whom we trust absolutely for righteousness, holiness, and acceptance in the day of final judgment.
Spurgeon told of a man who had been condemned in a Spanish court to be executed. Because he was an American citizen and an Englishman by birth, the counsels of the two countries interceded and declared that the Spanish authorities had no power to put him to death. In order to save him from the firing squad they covered him with the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack and defied the executioners to fire. The man stood before the soldiers; even though a single shot could have ended his life, it was as if he were encased in triple steel. Spurgeon said: “Even so Jesus Christ has taken my poor guilty soul ever since I believed in Him, and has wrapped around me the blood-red flag of His atoning sacrifice.”
The wonderful words of life boldly state that we are saved by faith and confession. Jesus: no other name, no other person, no other sacrifice. (DGK)
March 15, 1992
Follow the Pattern
A surface reading of the text seems to show Paul as a braggart, when he states: “Brethren, join in following my example …” (3:17, NKJV). One feels like Paul is saying, “If you need to look at Mr. Perfect, look at me!”
A closer reading of the text reveals that Paul is not saying anything in a self-centered way. Paul also includes others in this modeling (process — people like Timothy and Epaphroditus — so that the Philippians could copy their conduct, too. Verse 17 uses the Greek Peripatein — which literally means “walking about” — and indicates the ordinary circumstances of daily life.
John Knight wrote in the Beacon Bible Exposition that Paul’s (and his associates’) goal and aim was the “practical conduct of the believers in the church.” Paul encourages these Christians to follow this pattern in three areas:
I. Follow the pattern of purity.
Paul envisions a transformation from the materialistic pagan philosophy to a religious experience of purity accomplished in and through Christ Jesus. Purity is an identical twin to holiness. The writer of Hebrews contends that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
Holiness or purity characterizes our relationship with every person. As Christians we must pursue a heart cleansed of sin (Hebrews 10:22) which includes our sanctification. This is God’s provision that equips us to live in His presence and was provided by Christ’s death (Hebrews 13:12).
Oswald Chambers said: “God has one destined end for mankind — holiness! His one aim is the production of saints. God is not an eternal blessing-machine for man. He did not come to save man out of pity. He came to save men because He had created them to be holy.”
Jerry Bridges says: “Holiness is not a series of do’s and don’ts but a conformity to God’s character in the very depths of our being. This conformity is possible only as we are united with Christ.”
Today we must make a choice to follow the pattern Paul sets to follow purity of heart as a daily lifestyle.
II. Follow the pattern of unity.
Timothy, Epaphroditus, and others are part of the pattern of unity with which Paul identifies. Unity differs vastly from uniformity. Unity denotes spirit while uniformity stresses mechanics.
A demonstration of unity within the church is spelled out by such ideas as:
– openness to the leadership of the Spirit
– people being won and discipled to Christ
– teaching the great truths and doctrines of God
– loving with an open heart
– incorporating others into the fellowship of believers
– praying for one another
Uniformity demands that the fulfillment of this list will be done in an exact manner without any variance. God doesn’t operate like that. Each person can perform his task as God directs, but each must respect the other.
III. Follow the pattern of valor.
Paul employs an old military expression in 4:1, “stand fast.” Soldiers are commanded to hold the line at any and all costs! Christians are commanded to do the same against the onslaught of Satan’s forces. Instead of retreating, they must advance forward. Faith and fidelity must stand, immovable. Christians must stay true to their ideals and profession!
At the battle of Alma one of the regiments was being beaten back by the Russians. The ensign in front stood his ground as his fellow soldiers retreated. The captain shouted to him to retreat and to bring back the regimental flag. The ensign stood his ground and replied, “Bring the men up to the colors.”
The dignity of Christ’s soldiers can never be lowered to meet one’s littleness of character. Stand firm and then move forward! (DGK)
March 22, 1992
A Word About Temptation
(1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
In 1982, ABC Evening News reported on an unusual work of modern art — a chair affixed to a shotgun. It was to be viewed by sitting in the chair and looking directly into the gun’s barrel. The gun was loaded and set on a timer to fire at an undetermined moment within the next one hundred years.
The amazing thing was that people waited in long lines to sit and stare into the shell’s path! They all knew the gun could go off at point-blank range at any moment, but they were gambling that the fatal blast would not happen during their minute in the chair.
Yes, it was foolhardy; yet many people, who would not dream of sitting in that chair, live a lifetime gambling that they can get away with sin. Foolishly they ignore the risk until the inevitable self-destruction blasts them.
Temptation can pull the trigger of sin in three specific ways:
I. Temptation comes by the loss of feeling.
Satan slyly whispers to Christians that their “feelings” aren’t just right so they can’t really be Christian. Emotions are not reliable!
Faith, not feelings, is the evidence of salvation. Someone asked Martin Luther, “Do you feel sure that you have been forgiven?” He answered, “No, but I’m as sure as there’s a God in heaven.”
Eleanor Dorn quotes a short poem that deals with feelings vs. believing.
For feelings come, and feelings go,
and feelings are deceiving,
My warrant is the word of God
Naught else is worth believing.
Today, if you are relying on your feelings, stop and put your trust in a faithful God!
II. Temptation comes by spiritual pride.
There is nothing more repulsive — to sinner and Christian alike — than a person exhibiting “self-righteousness.” Throughout His ministry, Christ rebuked every evidence of self-exaltation. When the Pharisee and the Publican entered the temple to pray, the Pharisee with his haughty spirit began: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11-12).
God would not hear the prayer of this self-righteous Pharisee. God did hear and answer the prayer of the tax collector by justifying him when he humbly prayed seven words: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
God is not always pleased with what we have done; rather, He is most concerned with the attitude in which we have done it.
Leslie Parrot, the former president of Olivet Nazarene University, told in a sermon of a certain student at the university who fasted on a particular day of each week in a room on one of the top floors of the administration building. From there he could look down on the other students marching into the dining room as he fasted. The student said to himself, “If they were as religious as I am, they would be fasting, too.”
As that student talked later with Parrot he related how his haughty attitude ruined his Christian usefulness. He had to ask God to forgive him for his unholy spiritual pride.
The Christian has little of which to be proud. Our salvation and sanctification is by the mercy and grace of God. Our unworthiness, our mistakes, and our blunders should be warning to avoid carnal spiritual pride forever!
III. Temptation comes by resting on past religious experience.
Salvation is a start to the rest of our lives. Unfortunately this prayer is prayed too often: “Thank you, God, for completing all Your work in my heart. I’ll spend the rest of my life basking in your love.”
God is lifting us for spiritual warfare against Satan now. When a general reported a victory to Napoleon, he immediately asked, “What did you do the next day?” Our Christian life is progressive. Each past victory is a mere stepping-stone to greater achievements for Christ. Don’t allow Satan to tempt you to rely on your past religious experiences!
Avoid temptation at all possible cost. C. R. Ross tells of a young western farmer who often visited the bar in the village near him. After he was converted and had signed a temperance pledge he continued to tie his horse to the old hitching post. A good old deacon noticed this and said, “George, I am much older than you, and will be pardoned, I know, if I make a suggestion out of my wider Christian experience. No matter how strong you think you are, take my advice and at once change your hitching post.”
To what old habits are you hitched? (DGK)
March 29, 1992
The Prodigal God
(Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)
Visualize a lighthouse on a rocky stretch of the Massachusetts coastline. It’s no ordinary lighthouse. Unlike other lighthouses, it flashes a message in nautical code. The message is “I love you.” Years ago the Coast Guard sought to install new equipment in the lighthouse that would not flash out any kind of message. But there was such a protest that the Coast Guard backed off. The old equipment is still there, still flashing out its message to weary seamen: “I love you.”1
In this world of darkness and danger God has placed many lighthouses that flash out the message “I love you.” No lighthouse says it better than the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It has been called the “Lost and Found” section of the New Testament, and it takes us to the heart of Luke’s theology.
The religious authorities found that Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners, whom they considered the scum of the earth, and they criticized Jesus for keeping bad company. In response to the criticism, Jesus told three parables. He talked about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. We can be sure that these teachings dumbfounded the hearers. They were both radical and offensive. Even though you and I are familiar with these stories, I’m not sure we have ever grasped their meanings.
The first problem we encounter with today’s Scripture is the title that’s traditionally given to it: The Prodigal Son. The story is usually seen from the viewpoint of the son. “Prodigal” means “extravagant, lavish, unrestrained.” The term is applied to the son because of the way he wasted his father’s wealth in lavish living.
Yet this is really a story about God. God is the real prodigal in this story. The father is the one who is extravagant, lavish, and unrestrained — in his love. The father loved and respected his son too much to restrain him. He knew that love only possesses what it releases. We only have what we give away. So the boy went on his way.
This brings up a subject that’s very difficult: the pain that’s involved in growing up and how we parents participate in the pain of our children. Sometimes the hardest thing we can do is to see our children suffer.
William Saroyan wrote a story about the pain of growing up, and it’s one of my favorite stories. It’s in his book Little Children, which is a collection of semi-autobiographical stories about the immigrant community in which he grew up in southern California.
This story, “The Coldest Winter Since 1854,” tells about a young boy named Dewey, who injures his leg while playing football. “But, even worse, he falls in love with Emma Haines. It’s a classical case of unrequited love. As Mr. Bowler, the school principal, explains: “She’s a rich man’s daughter. You’re a poor man’s son. It won’t work.”
Dewey’s life becomes even more complicated when he takes a job at the telegraph office. His working hours are from 4 p.m. to midnight. Not unexpectedly, he keeps falling asleep in school. But he doesn’t miss a day of school because he knows that’s where he’ll see Emma. Finally, Dewey feels compelled to declare his affections. He puts a little love letter on Emma’s desk. It reads, “Emma, I love you, Dewey.” Emma hands the note to the teacher, and from that point on Dewey’s fortunes take a downward turn.
His leg responds very slowly to Sloan’s Liniment, but there is no such balm for an aching heart. Yet the story ends on a triumphant note, as stated in his own words: “One day in the spring when the sun was shining and everything was warm in the world, I found out I was healed … My leg healed all right. The coldest winter since 1854 ended. And I got over Emma Haines. I did some mighty ornamental bicycle riding, celebrating the great victories.”
Dewey discovered one of the deep secrets of life that applies even to us who are much older. Some problems are not meant to be solved. They are meant to be outgrown.
It’s still tough on us to see our children struggle and suffer. So every night, there the father is — sitting on his rooftop and looking down that road — waiting, hoping, longing. Then one evening he looks out and sees a familiar form. His eyes widen, his heart starts to pound, he stands up from his chair. And then — are you ready for this? — he runs. In that culture it was considered very undignified for a senior man to run. Aristotle had said, “Great men never run in public.” But look at prodigal love give wings to the father’s feet. He can’t run fast enough!
The boy had rehearsed a speech he would deliver to his father but the father didn’t wait for him to get it out. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
Jesus was saying that God offers forgiveness before we even ask for it. We don’t have to measure up before God will accept us; we just have to reach out.
If we think the father has been prodigal up to this point, just get a load of what happens next. (1) The father puts not just any robe on the son but the best robe. The robe stands for honor. (2) The father puts a ring on his hand. The ring represents authority. If a man gave another his signet ring, it was the same as giving him the power of attorney. (3) The father put shoes on his feet. Children of the family were shod while slaves were not. Shoes were the sign of freedom. (4) The father threw a party and served the best food he had. No celebration was complete without a feast. Table fellowship signaled the closest of relationships.
Abraham Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners when the war was over. He answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” Jesus was saying that that’s the way God treats us — it’s just God’s nature to be that way!
God doesn’t forgive the way you and I forgive. We say that we’ll forgive and bury the hatchet, but then we remember where we buried the hatchet!
Then there is the elder son in this parable. He is not at all happy to see the boy return. Notice that he doesn’t refer to him as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.”
Here is a perfect opportunity for the father to chastise his elder son but he doesn’t do it. He says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Have you ever heard more gracious words?
God, you see, is in the business of restoring relationships and building community. It hurts the father when his elder son won’t join the family circle. The elder son is invited, but he won’t come.
A woman from the Shenandoah Valley was painting at her easel in the woods one day when she was struck by rifle shots. When she came to, she was in a hospital room, her body suspended above the bed in a sling.
She had lost so much blood and was in such a state of shock that the doctors were afraid to operate immediately to remove the bullets; they waited nearly a week to see if her condition would stabilize. Most of the time she lay hovering between life and death, in a state of semi-consciousness.
There was one important thing she remembered. People from the church she belonged to — though she did not attend regularly — cared for her. They came in shifts and sat in the room with her, praying for her.
She could not speak, and they did not know she was aware of their presence. Later she said, “I lay there in my sling blissfully aware of their coming and going. I felt as if I were gathered up in a cocoon of love. It did not matter if I lived or died. I was part of the beloved community.”2
Our lives really begin when we realize that all of us are part of the beloved community. Our prodigal parent has prepared a banquet, and things aren’t going to be right until everybody is there. (SW)
1. Positive Pastoral Preaching, 10-6-85, p. 1.
2. A John Killinger story as related by Martin Marty in Context, 2-15-85.
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Harold C. Perdue, Development Officer, Texas Methodist Foundation; Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; Sandy Wylie, Senior Pastor, University United Methodist Church; and Michael Duduit, Editor of Preaching.
February 2, 1992