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Sunday March 10 – Prodigal sons

READING: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

SERMON REFLECTION

So what do you feel when you hear this story?  Who do you relate to? Which character? I was thinking – I’m a man who has two sons. Hmm.

Take a moment to become one of the characters. What you would say if you were them? How would you tell the story from their point of view?

So what did you think?

The father – many could relate to him. How challenging parenting is and how different our children turn out to be.

The younger son – I guess many could relate to him too. We have many in our churches who have come home to the Father (God) – some after years of being away. Many who wasted their resources and opportunities. Remember that the word “prodigal” which we use to describe this parable means one who wastes and squandours their wealth and resources!

The older brother – there are plenty older brothers who can easily be resentful.

And there are other points of view in the story – think of the mother (perhaps saying to her husband: “I told you it wasn’t a good idea!”).

Or the servants in the household wondering how this could be.

Think of the neighbours – the local rabbi if there was one – family friends and of course the lawyers of the day who were guardians of the way estates were handled and retirement planned!

MY REACTION TODAY

As a father – I understand completely. As a counsellor and as a pastor – I see so many fascinating dynamics in families. There are so many interesting possibilities. This story resonates with many of our experiences does it not?

There are two issues I want to consider however – to stretch your thinking:

1.    Repentance

I would suggest that the younger brother didn’t repent when he was in the pig pen. Yes he was in a serious mess. People sometimes say that he did repent – but I think it’s more basic than that. Listen again:

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!

They all come home when they’re hungry. I’m speaking of children of all ages.

And as an aside people come to church for all kinds of reasons too – they walk in here and discover while looking for a meal – a practical solution – support in their new language – songs for their children to learn at mainly music – skills for their boys to develop at ICONZ – while looking for these things they find the extravagant grace and love of God!

And by the way that begins in us – our being extravagantly gracious and generous!

This prodigal was driven by a famine! By circumstances! By his stomach! And he had some bridges to mend! The road to repentance begins here – but its not the whole explanation for what was happening.

What follows is a rehearsed speech – kids do this all the time – when they’ve crashed the car or messed up in some way. Here’s verse 18 again:

 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: And then there’s the speech. He would have had lots of time to practice it on the road: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’

Yes the speech includes “I have sinned against heaven and against you”. So people do argue that he repented. And following what I said last week – there is a change of direction and a change in mind here!

In the context of the other parables – remember the lost sheep and the lost coin before this parable in Luke 15? The shepherd found the lost sheep. Someone has noted that the lost sheep did not repent either!

In Romans 5:8 Paul reminds us: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

And God – way back in Genesis – went LOOKING for Adam who had become the first prodigal!

Luther said that repentance follows forgiveness. In fact the first of his 95 theses that he nailed to the wall so to speak and got the Reformation going reads like this:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

The story of the prodigal son is a story if anything about forgiveness.

I mean the father didn’t even let the younger son finish his speech. And he didn’t do what dad’s do today: bread and water and to your bedroom! We’ll talk about this tomorrow!

He threw an amazing party! They celebrated with the very best! That’s an act of forgiveness. Welcoming him home is an act of forgiveness.

When you realise how generous God is, you repent! When you understand grace and the power of His love – you repent. The woman Jesus stopped from being stoned in John 8:11 would have repented when Jesus said – neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.

Christians who have walked the path a long time are more aware of their sins further down the track. And they repent. Pascal wrote this on the subject: “God is none other than the Saviour of our wretchedness. So we can only know God well by knowing our iniquities… Those who have known God without knowing their wretchedness have not glorified him, but have glorified themselves.” Blaise Pascal

And the fruit of repentance – the evidence of that repentance – for the prodigal son –  would have been seen in the sequel or next story– “The kindness of the prodigal son to his grumpy bitter brother” and then perhaps in the next movie or newspaper article:  “prodigal son puts in amazing hours on dad’s farm” followed by ” Prodigal’s lamb production puts large pig farm out of business”.

Forgiveness and grace – unmerited favour shown in love and kindness – lead us to full repentance as we realise how unworthy we are and that comes from the celebration of our return to God as well! Remember that in the previous parable where the shepherd find the lost sheep and brings them back, Jesus has this to say:  I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.(Luke 15:7)

2.  The other voice in the story.

There is another voice in the story. A second silent narrator if you like – perhaps outside of the story but commenting anyway.

It’s the voice of the accountant/retirement advisor.

It’s the voice of the one who looks at the Father’s high risk behaviour – foolishness – in giving the brother his inheritance in the face of the insult that he presents in the original request. After all, to ask for you money from dad before he dies is as good as saying he is dead. The dad takes the insult on the chin. And he gives the wealth away to his son who ends up squandering it – wasting it – spending it.

How similar that is to the very first story in the Bible that involves two brothers – yes the story of the parents of Cain and Abel. God in His grace gives their parents the right to name the animals and the responsibility to rule and care for the world on His behalf. They too are prodigal – wasting opportunity and resources as they turn to their own devices!

The voice of the account-cum- retirement advisor screams out – I told you so! You should not have done that! It was a bad idea.

But this Father is not into keeping up with the social standards of the day. His love is too extravagant.

He’s the dad that runs down the road! Bad bad bad! No self respecting dad would have done that in those days!

He’s the dad that kills the fatted calf! There’s no discussion about how the prodigal was to pay anything back. No restorative justice here.

One commentator, David Lose writes: Jesus paints a picture of this world in his story of a foolish son and even more foolish father. It is a world of unmerited grace. Counters won’t understand. Pulled down by the weight of their own claims, they can only sputter, “All these years….” “You never….” “This son of yours…”.

Yes the older brother is the spokesperson for the ones who want it to balance on paper – who want it to be fair.

David Lose also writes about this “other country” that the story describes like this: What I’m thinking of really is another country, another land, one that feels, smells, even tastes different. You know right when you’ve stumbled into it, even if you didn’t notice the boundary lines.

What makes this country different is that nobody counts things here. Do you know what I mean?  No tracking billable hours, no counting the days until school lets out, no ringing up debits on the balance sheet, no cries from the backseat of “are we there yet?”

Best yet, no counting old grievances and grudges, no dredging up past wrongs or unsettled scores. For some reason, people in this country have lost track of all that; in fact, they can’t remember why you’d keep count in the first place.

This is the Kingdom of God! The country of God, if you like.

This is Grace land – literally.

This is our place – God took a risk with the human race by putting us in charge here. And we too waste and squander. And he celebrates when we come home too!

So we too can fill in the blanks when we come back to our heavenly father: you can write your name in the spaces below:

______ was dead and is alive again;  _______  was lost and is found.

It’s never too late! He too waits for us to come home!

Amen! May it be so for you today.

Sunday Evening 2 December – Hope

Readings:  Psalm 25:1-6; Romans 5: 1-5; Matthew 12:9-21

Message

Over the years I have often spent time with people who have been nearing the end of their lives. Thankfully there have not been too many children. It’s hard to explain to little children what we believe about time and eternity. I remember when teaching year 2s how one little boy asked me one day during the lesson: “Is David dead?” speaking of King David in the Bible.  “O yes” I replied, “a long time ago!” Then the questions came: “When was he alive?” “Did he die as long ago as when I was small? How long is a thousand years?”

With adults – when you’ve lived a long life – dying seems easier to face, although it can still be a fearful thing. And HOPE is always factored in – the HOPE of life after death. For Christians, it’s the certainty.

Hope isn’t just a concept when we’re dying. It’s something we have when the stuff we are facing each day feels like death! Like a long lesson for young people at school – or a boring sermon in church (I recall seeing a whole book about things you can do during a boring sermon) – or a difficult task at work, or the prospect of the day being long and uninspiring, or lonely. The HOPE of Friday and the weekend seem to keep many people going. And also those who are hopeful as they look forward to Christmas and the holidays!

In the readings tonight – we read David’s words in Psalm 25: No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse. Hope here is closer to trust. His enemies were real and his war a real war. His faith in God’s presence with him extends to the hope that God would give him success.

For St Paul, there are troubles too. The Christian life is not a simple life – listen to the progression of ideas which include hope:

And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

Rom 5:3  Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;

Rom 5:4  perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Rom 5:5  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

It sounds like a challenging ride. Sufferings – Perseverance – Character are aspects of a life of faith and adventure. They produce HOPE – not just because we hope for things to get better (i.e. no more trials and tribulations) but, for Paul, this HOPE does not disappoint us! It’s not a vain hope. Why? Because we are not alone – because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us! God’s love keeps us through these trials!

Love is a powerful thing! Think of your grandchildren today – who seem to plod along. When teenagers fall in love – especially the boys – it’s amazing what can change in their lives!

God’s love is a different kind of love – not romantic, although the prophets complained that when people turned their backs on God that they were being unfaithful and adulterous– not physical, although the relationship between Jesus and the Church is described as that of a Bridegroom and a bride!

God’s love is POWERFUL and strengthening. His presence gives us confidence and courage – whether we are facing challenges in life or death at the end of life – we are full of hope which does not disappoint.

I love hopeful people!

* They are optimistic!

* They look for solutions.

* They are open minded and good listeners – because they see the best in people, even when they may have made mistakes.

And you can’t get a more hopeful person than Jesus. He chooses people for his leadership team who you would not have on your short list.

* He takes the rough and risky ones like Peter – knowing that the impulsiveness was not always a weakness, but a sign of strength in the long term. He knew that Peter – even though he would fail – would be strengthened in character to the extent that he could face anything.

* He models hope in his life and death as well. At Christmas, Easter is never far from our thoughts as this was God’s whole plan – and we are consistently reminded again – that the worst possible scenario – DEATH – was overcome by resurrection. That gives us hope.

And so as you face your week ahead, remember

–  That Sunrise follows the darkness of the night

–  That Spring brings new growth after the desperation of a bad winter

– That a new beginning follows every failure or disappointment.

As we close tonight there is a challenge for us to pray as we are reminded of a verse from the readings in Matthew 12:21: “In his name the nations will put their hope.”

It’s a great prophecy quoted by Matthew from Isaiah 42. While we don’t see countries putting their hope in Him, nations here is not necessarily governments. It more than likely refers to the variety of people on the earth. Ethnoi is the word, from which we get the word ethnic. Our city is very cosmopolitan – and the great news is that many nations are coming to find Jesus as their hope.

May you be encouraged in your prayers to continue to pray for all without hope, and especially for those who are desperate in this city – that they may be drawn to a Christian fellowship where they can meet this hope of nations, Jesus.

Amen.

Sunday 18 November @9 – Yes, God cares about your relationships

Yes, God Cares About Your Relationships

Preacher: Lester Simpson

John 13:1, 12-17, 34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:1-7, Philippians 2:1-5,

According to one story about Adam & Eve, after the honeymoon was over a bit of friction crept into their marriage, and Adam went to God and said:

“Lord, this woman you gave me, she’s very beautiful and all that, but she has some irritating habits that are driving me crazy.  Could you take her back, please?”

God agreed, and Adam reverted to the single life.   But within two or three weeks the loneliness got to him, and he asked God to bring Eve back.

God complied, and Adam & Eve settled down to married life again.

But after a few weeks Adam returned to God complaining, ‘Lord, this woman is so frustrating.  She talks all the time, and wants me to do this and do that.  I’d rather be without her.”

And God fulfilled his wish.

But after a week or two of silence, Adam missed Eve so much he asked God to restore her.

This happened several times until finally God said to Adam, “The trouble with you, Adam, is that you can’t live with Eve, and you can’t live without her!”

And that’s the way it’s been ever since!

Relationships – something we can’t avoid unless we go and live on a desert island all alone.

All too often human relationships are brittle and broken, e.g.:

– one in every 3 or 4 marriages ends in divorce, leaving behind a trail of scars, hurts, confusion and broken dreams.

– even within the family, relationships can be difficult.  Try living with teenagers!

– what about adult brothers and sisters who haven’t spoken in years?

– to say nothing about those awkward neighbours and the people at work who are hard to get on with.

Henri Nouwen said this: “The main source of suffering in North America has to do with relationships.’

When life is full of anger, hurts, differences and blow-outs, it becomes wearying, negative and depressing – causing us to ask:

Does God care about my situation,

my mediocre existence,

my struggle to hold things together?

Yes!  God does care about our relationships.  He made us to live in relationship – with Himself and with others.

He made us to love and be loved.

How important are relationships?  They are:

  • Creation’s goal – we’re made in the image of the Triune God, to relate to Him
  • God’s priority – first four commandments are about our relationship to God, and the next six about our relationship to others
  • Christ’s passion- “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you”.
  • The Apostles’ concern – 30% of the NT letters deal with relationships

This importance is underlined by the frequency in the NT of words like “together” and “one another”.

God shows relationships matter by the fact that the Bible contains so much teaching in this area – from Cain’s rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” through to John’s letters:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”

The Bible is not the only place you can find teaching on relationships.  There is a plethora of teaching available in books, workshops, counselling sessions and online sources.

Much is sound and good,

but the basic principles are there in the Scriptures, in the Word of God.

We are wise to test all techniques, approaches and methods by the Word of God.

Let me suggest three Basic Principles for Building and Maintaining Stable and Healthy Relationships:

i.e. how to love other people, whether the love is in marriage or in friendship or neighbourly relations:

1. Recognise that to Love is to be Vulnerable:

CS Lewis: “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and agitation of love is Hell.”

Life involves us in hurting and being hurt.

Once we accept this as true/realistic, we can use our energies learning how to deal with it, rather than trying to avoid it or deny it.

Brian Hathaway wrote this: “The true mark of a Christian community is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of reconciliation.”

No one likes being hurt, and one of the greatest fears in any relationship is the fear of being rejected.

Think of the way a couple at a certain point in their relationship start to hide feelings and information from each other, because they’re afraid it might sabotage their relationship.

But without risking knowing and being known, we cannot build close relationships.

Keith Miller describes in his writings how he struggled with this, and how as he grew in his trust in God and God’s continuing love for him, it helped him to open up and build close relationships.

The other side of the hurting process is forgiveness, forgiving the other person who has hurt us.

To refuse to forgive is to imprison ourselves behind a wall of resentment.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean brushing off the hurt as if it didn’t matter (which is a form of denial) or pretending we can just forget it,

but going to the other person,

speaking the truth in love,

expressing how we feel,

seeking reconciliation,

and showing forgiveness.

We read in Proverbs 27:5-6  “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.  Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

To love is to be vulnerable – just as God, in loving the world through Jesus became vulnerable to the world’s rejection and hatred.

2.  Love with Self-Giving Love, Not Acquisitive Love:

i.e. love that seeks to give, rather than to get.

When Paul appealed to the Philippian church to adopt the same attitude as Christ, it was in the context of dealing with (note this) strained relationships:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition…Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Have the same attitude as Christ, who although He was God, did not cling to his prerogatives, or claim His rights, but gave up His heavenly glory, and became a servant… going even to the cross” (Phil. 2:3-5)

Self-giving love is servant love, e.g. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

Cf. the Servant Song: “Brother, sister let me serve you,  let me be as Christ to you.”

In 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 we read: “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, or rude, or self-seeking

(Or in JB Phillips’ translation: “Love does not insist on having its own way”)

The love that builds relationships is not expressed in claiming rights or insisting on its own way, but in mutual submission.  (See Ephes. 5:21)

Jonathan & David provide a model of self-giving love in their friendship.

Jonathan honoured David above self, he risked his reputation for David, and was faithful to him, no matter the cost.

That cost was considerable – because supporting David meant that David would become king, not Jonathan.

3. Don’t Retaliate:

Peter, in counselling his 1st century readers how to cope with persecution and suffering, reminds them of the example left by Jesus:

“When they hurled their insults at Him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.”  (1 Peter 2:23)

As in the Golden Rule – Jesus practised what he preached, He exemplified what he taught.

The source of this kind of love is God.

1 John 4:7 “Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God”

If you’ve read “The Shack” (W. Paul Young), you’ll recall there are some wonderful passages about the love of Father, Son and Spirit who dwell in a circle of love and mutual submission in the Godhead.  At one point Papa tells Mack they want him to join their circle of love.

God’s love is giving, not manipulative (“God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”),

constant , not fickle (i.e. covenant love)

In an age when commitment is at a low premium, we need to focus on covenant love, love which is the expression of commitment and loyalty.

That’s the only foundation for the right kind of love, for enduring relationships.

The greatest chapter on love in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13.

Someone doing a study on this said afterwards they felt like giving up, because the study asked lots of questions that only served to drive home how much the person had failed.

Pity, because the purpose of God’s Word is not to put us down, but to lead us to Him, to experience His forgiving, affirming, liberating love, and to enable us in turn to love others.

Yes, God’s Word does convict us of our failures, for we can’t follow Christ in our own strength.  But as we yield our lives more and more to Him, His Spirit will change us into His likeness and we will manifest his love in our relationships.