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Sunday, July 17, 2016

God’s Character (Luke 15:11-32)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

            In last week’s sermon, we focused on the Biblical commands  “weep with those who weep” and “do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” These brilliant words come from the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 12.  It’s a message we Christ followers needed the Sunday after a week of tragic shootings in the United States.
            Of course there is no relief to the violence.  Evil keeps finding new ways to break the human spirit as the tragedy in Nice, France on Thursday showed.  In the wake of such horror, some preachers are given to sermons of doom and gloom and judgment and wrath.  And somehow, these are the preachers CNN always tracks down as examples of what Christians think. 
            We do not offer doom and gloom this morning.  However, we cannot ignore that the Bible does speak of God’s wrath.  In fact this comes up in the passage from last week, Romans 12:19. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  That verse certainly portrays a God with serious wrath in Him. 
Is that the God we worship and love and proclaim?  Is wrath a defining characteristic of God?  I think Jesus told parables to show us God’s character.  In the swirl of hate, anger, rhetoric, and reaction happening in the world now, in the face of the violence of this summer, I believe that because of God’s character, we can take refuge in the Holy Spirit.  So, we will look at one of Jesus’ parables – the Prodigal Son – to see God’s character, the quality of God that makes God so inviting to people in pain.

11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

On the cross, God puts Jesus forward as a sacrifice of atonement.  The cross is a brutal instrument of a torturous death designed to show Rome’s absolute power.  Based on the passage from Romans and many other passages, we believe God subverts that Roman torture device by willingly sending his son to die on it in our place.  In this act, our sin is removed and God is satisfied.  This is salvation. 
However, as Jesus bleeds out on the cross, has justice been served?  Why was it necessary to happen that way?  I know Romans mentions God’s wrath, but why?  Is God violent by nature, and is that why a cruel, bloody death like crucifixion was necessary for atonement?  Is there any justice on that cross where Jesus suffers and dies for sins he did not commit?
            Someone who did commit sins was the younger son in Jesus’ story of a man with two sons.  In requesting his inheritance, he declared his father dead to him.  It was a lot of money for his father was wealthy enough to have a lot of land and many servants.  This son who turned his back on his dad and his family, took the money his father had earned through hard work and then generously given him in spite of the outrageous audacity of the request, and he squandered that money through gambling and drinking and wild parties. 
            Than a famine came.  No more gambling.  No more parties.  Friends made when we buy the drinks disappear when we run out of money.  During a famine, neighbors might help each other, but he had no neighbors and no friends and no money.  So he hired himself out to a pig farmer, an unthinkable job for a good Jewish man.  But was it really a job?  He did not make enough money to feed himself.  He would have, it says, gladly filled himself with the pods the pigs ate.  It sounds like he had become a slave. 
That’s where sin leads.  It’s nasty.  It’s desperate.  It’s lonely.  It’s pathetic.  And it is deadly.  He was where he was because of his own choices. Could he call God a bloodthirsty sadist who delights in the way his wrath obliterates sinners?  Is there something in God that demanded the awfulness of the cross and was thus satisfied to see Jesus hang on it? 
In this parable, the father represents God.  Was it the Father’s fault that the younger son was starving as he lived as a slave in a pig pen and literally dreamt of eating pig slop?  Did the father condemn him to that fate?  Not at all.  The Father gave the son what he requested – his share of the inheritance.  He let the son go.  And then, every day, he watched the horizon, hoping the son would return. 
That’s God!  He watches for us.  We’ve wandered off, chasing our epicurean appetites. He allows us to choose that.  God allows us to live with the destruction that comes with our sins.  But, just because God allows our sin to come to its natural conclusion doesn’t mean God has abandoned us.  He is watching, waiting, ready to welcome us with arms of love when we turn back to Him.  God sounds merciful. 
Earlier in this same chapter, Luke 15, Jesus describes God as a shepherd who leaves the flock in safety and ventures into the dangers of the wilderness in order to find one lost sheep.  In the Prodigal Son story, God allows the sinner to suffer the fate of his own bad choices but constantly watches for the sinner to return.  In the lost sheep story, God diligently searches for the lost. 
When Jesus thought of God he thought of love, mercy, and grace.  He didn’t think of wrath.  Jesus knew the cross was coming.  He knew his task was to die.  He knew how horrible it would be.  That’s why in the Garden of Gethsemane he desperately begged God to find another way.  God did not grant that request.  But Jesus never imagined that God put him on the cross.  He never presented the drama as God’s active punishment.  As it says in the Old Testament, God gave humanity over to sin. 
When Jesus is hanging on the cross, it is the ultimate and final judgment on sin.  Sin leads to a cross where God allows us to live with the results of our sinful choices: pain, abandonment, and death.  Except, on the cross, we aren’t living with where our sin leads, God is. 
On the cross, God the Father does not punish God the Son in place of sinners who should be the ones hanging there.  Rather, God the Son affirms that sin leads to death.  But, even though justice is to let us suffer for our sins, God the Son takes our place.  In His love, God the Son determines to spare us by the taking the cross himself.  God the Father honors God the Son’s choice. 
What about that Gethsemane prayer where Jesus begs for another way?  Jesus was fully God and fully human.  As a human being, knowing what was coming, Jesus was scared.  Even though he knew the necessity of it, in his fear, he sought an alternative.  Luke write that his prayer was so intense he sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44).  Mark writes that as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34)?  In these moments of doubt and despair, Jesus, a human being, carries the Hell of being separated from God and lost in sin that belongs to all people in history.  It all rests on Jesus and even as God the Son goes through it all willingly as an act of love, Jesus the man expresses the utter desolation humans face when headed to eternity separated from God. 
If we go by our sense of what’s right and what’s fair, this is unjust.  Jesus should not suffer for me or for you.  The younger brother who has gambled away the grace his father gave should not be lovingly welcomed home.  That’s not fair and the older brother expresses this quite forcefully as he confronts his father.
“Listen,” the older brother barks at the father, “for all these years, I have been working like a slave for you.”  Working like a slave.  The father tells him “All that is mine is yours.”  From the Father’s perspective, God’s perspective, this older son shares the life of the Father.  Their hearts are linked.  The Older Son cannot see this because his ultimate standard is the rule book.  In his mind, the rules determine his life.  The ultimate standard should be the relationship he has with his father.  But he’s gotten it confused.
In the Prodigal Son story, the Older Brother represents those Pharisees and legalists who constantly clashed with Jesus.  The Law of the Old Testament was a gift God gave to help people live in relationship with God.  The relationship is what is ultimate and God is the arbiter.  If God decides to override the law, God has the right do that.  When Jesus violated the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath, he was claiming the right to do so, a right only God has.  When Jesus forgave sins, he was claiming the authority to do so, an authority only God has.  In these actions, Jesus announced, I can do what only God can do.[i] 
The legalists who challenged him felt that God, like human beings, is subject to the law.  They lost sight the fact that because God is the giver of the law, God can supersede the law.  They thought the law was ultimate.  God is ultimate and God’s heart of love leads God to one purpose – relationship with his creation.  We – humans – are the height of God’s creation and the ones most suited to a lasting relationship with God.  The law is to serve God’s purpose.  The law is to help us live in relationship with God.  When it fails to do that, God will do what’s necessary to open the way for us to be in relationship with Him.
The Older Brother, locked in legalism, couldn’t receive the love.  The Older Brother couldn’t see the Father’s ultimate purpose either for himself or for his younger, prodigal brother.  The Older Brother was as far from the Father’s heart as the younger one.  His estrangement came in a different form but the union with the Father was just as broken. 
In the end, we can look at the cross and say, “Justice is served,” because God chose it to be this way and God is the source of justice.  Jesus is on it in order to unite with us in our suffering.  Jesus embraces it so He can be where we are.  By our standards, the cross of Jesus is not just, is not fair.  But we don’t go by our standards, not when we have chosen to repent of sin and follow Jesus. 
Look once more at the parable.  The younger son tries to set his own identity.  “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But we don’t set our identity.  God sets our identity.  God runs to the younger son, tackles him in an embrace, puts a ring on his finger, a robe on his shoulders, and throws a party. 
The older son tries to set his own identity.  “All these years, I have been working like a slave for you.”  A slave?  No, we don’t set our own identity, not when we give ourselves to Jesus.  He sets our identity.  A slave?  The Father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
God is welcoming and loving and grace-giving by nature.  What comes between you and God? What lies are you believing about yourself this morning?  Do you see yourself as unworthy?  The Father God is running to you with arms open wide.  Do you see yourself as a slave to rules?  The Father God invites you to His heart.  Are you crushed under the weight of sin?  God the Son joins you right where you are.  In fact, he has taken your burden to the cross.  He has lifted it off your shoulders.  Receive his gift of grace, his forgiveness, his love, his welcome.  Is it too hard to imagine this could be true?  God the Holy Spirit is here now to help each us understand this story of Him reaching to us.  The Holy Spirit is here to guide us into the arms of God.
However you see yourself, right now, come to God.  Let God determine who you are.  He starts by calling you beloved.  Come to Him.

[i] Fiddes (1989), Past Event and Present Salvation, p.91-91.

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