Saturday, 22 January 2011

Rebellion, repentance and the religious reaction.


Tell Me the Old, Old Story

“Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.”

When I was a child, that hymn was one of my favourites.  It still stands as a great instruction to all of us, we need to be told that story again and again don’t we.

“Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at
noon.”

And so I’m going to tell it again, by using an old, old story that Jesus himself told.  A story of rebellion, of repentance and of the religious reaction to them both. A story of a prodigal son and a prodigal God, a story of the gospel, a story of love and rejection.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin.


Rebellion

“And he [Jesus] said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. 13Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.”
Luke 15:11-16

Rebellion, not always a good start.  The ‘younger son’ decides he doesn’t care that much for his Dad, he’d rather just have his stuff.  So he goes up to his Dad and says ‘Dad, I don’t love you at all. I hate the responsibilities of being your son but having said that I’d be happy to have the privileges – so could we just pretend you’d died and give me my share of the money you’d leave behind right now?’

It sounds abhorrent.  It also sounds familiar.  Isn’t that what we do every day? Isn’t that what we do every single time we reject God’s word, his authority?  We keep saying to God that we can do without his rules, but we expect to still get all the rewards that come of being his children.  We take life, breath, success, happiness, friendship, love and all without a word of thank-you.  Instead, we spit in God’s face, wish he was dead, and storm out of his house – taking all we can carry.

Then this ungrateful kid, like us, wastes everything he’s been given.  Suddenly trouble comes and it’s all shown to be worthless – his ‘friends’ abandon him, his money’s gone and he has nothing to eat.  He becomes a lowly worker.  Worse even – this is a Jew, serving unclean pigs. Likewise, we bankrupt ourselves morally and spiritually, serving the unclean and squandering the gifts God gives us.  Truly we, along with the son, are in a terrible state – but the story doesn’t end there!


Repentance

“"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."' 20And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate.”
Luke 15:17-24


Repentance.  The younger son’s life turns around at this point.  Finally, he realises how messed up he is, how futile life is taking his own path.  He decides that actually, his father’s workers are doing better than he is.  Maybe there’s hope? Maybe he can get a job with his Dad and at least have food to eat.  He knows he doesn’t even deserve that – but anything is worth trying.

But the father’s love is so great that he won’t allow it – he throws a party, rejoicing that his son is home!  So it is also with us, when we realise our sin and in humility come to God.  He doesn’t just allow us to work for a place in his presence.  He adopts us as children and treats us as if we’d never left.

“Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin”

If rebellion was a bad place to start, repentance and reconciliation are great places to end!  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He still has one more group to introduce us to: we’ve seen the prodigal son, the wasteful sinner; we’ve seen the prodigal father, the recklessly generous God.  But there’s still that second son.  Jesus’ nice, rosy gospel talk has a sting in its tail.


The Religious reaction

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' 28But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' 31And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
Luke 15:11-32

The older son comes in; see his brother being reconciled with his father and rushes in to hug him too.  Right?  No, he stands outside in a sulk – angry that what he sees as his inheritance is being spent on this idiot.  The elder brother represents the religious people; he’d followed God his father’s law, well, religiously.  And what Jesus says here is that he didn’t love his father either, He’s saying that the cold religious man is just as lost as the wasteful sinner.  If anything he’s more lost because unlike the younger son he can’t even see his own lostness.  He’s wandering, cold and alone, futilely and frantically trying to earn his way into his father’s love.  You know the thing that angers him the most?  The fact that he’s been so holy, so self sacrificing, and yet this foul brother of his is still loved – despite having done nothing to deserve it.

Jesus is slapping the religious leaders in the face with this last section of the parable.  He deliberately leaves the ending ambiguous – the sinner is comprehensively saved, but the religious man stays outside in the cold.  Will he go in to the presence of his father, will you?


3 personalities, 3 lessons

There is so much more to be drawn out of and learned from in this passage, but for now we will just take one lesson from each of the characters in the parable.  One thing to learn from the prodigal son, the proud brother, and the prodigal father.

·        The Prodigal Son.  You can’t have the rights of God’s children without the responsibilities.  Taking our own path will always destroy us; it always leaves us mucking out the pigs.  With God, we can be so much more.
·        The Proud Brother.  Perfect obedience can leave you just as lost as perfect disobedience.  God isn’t interested in your model family, your well-mannered children or your position as church elder.  When it comes to salvation He doesn’t care what you’re doing.  He cares who you’re doing it for.  He wants your love.
·        The Prodigal Father.  No matter what you’ve done that’s wrong, God’s grace is enough.  No matter what you’ve done that’s right, God’s grace is still needed.  Take it! The free gift of salvation is there, paid for by Christ, and offered to us for free.  Whether our problem is blatant sinfulness, or prideful religion, God is willing to take us back to him.  Are you willing to go?

That is the gospel we believe! That is the old, old story that we must be told again and again and again.  There are three paths to take: rebellion, religion or grace.  You can either deny God, earn God, or allow God.

I pray you allow him.

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at
noon.

Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

Amen.



Further reading:
Prodigal God, Tim Keller.

Further listening:
Tell me the old, old story.


<< There is so much more to be said but that’s all there’s time for today. I heartily recommend Tim Keller’s excellent book ‘The Prodigal God’ for a more comprehensive and altogether more coherent treatment of the parable.
And yes, I just sprung a gospel talk off an old hymn while also springing it off a parable.  It confused me too, hopefully it worked.>>

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