Reflection: "Homeward Bound"
In Chapter 15, Luke gives us three stories about people losing & finding things (a sheep, a coin and a son).
We’re going to focus on the third of these in a story often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” (the word prodigal meaning “wasteful”), but it could also be called “The Parable of the Loving Father”, because it emphasizes the graciousness of the father, more than it does the sinfulness of the son (or even the anger of the older brother).
I’m sure that those of you who have heard sermons on this story before, will know that Jesus is referring to God when he talks about “the father”.
It’s not too hard for us to imagine a teenage son, or daughter wanting to leave home and go out into the world to live the good life, but we probably wouldn’t be too happy about giving them a large percentage of our current wealth, whilst we’re still alive. As a farewell gift!
Neither Jewish, nor Roman, law permitted the father to have total control over the disposal of his estate.
The property was always given to the sons at the father’s death, with the firstborn receiving a double-share.
In our story, this younger son didn’t sound like he really gave too much thought about his family, but instead was totally focussed on himself – a trait that we wouldn’t have trouble recognising today in some of the “it’s all about me” people we might know.
Off he went on his great journey, living life to the fullest and making plenty of friends.
Due to a mixture of high living, drought and famine, his money (and his friends) soon disappeared and he was left looking for work and something to eat, until one of the farmers, a non-Jew, gave him a job feeding pigs.
These animals were considered unclean under Jewish law and therefore such work was all-the-more humiliating.
Eventually the young man became so hungry that even the pods that the pigs ate looked tasty!
You can see how our sin degrades and mocks us!
It might seem attractive to satisfy lust, or to live without concern for any morality, but look at the price-tag!
This young man found that his sin had cost him both his self-respect and his happiness.
He knew, in the back of his mind, that he still had a caring father and that even their servants, back home, used to eat nourishing food. So, he decided to go back - not as a son, but as a servant.
Therefore, he rehearsed his lines about not being worthy, etc. and set off on his homeward journey.
I think we’re always heading for trouble whenever we value “things” more than people, pleasure more than duty, and far off places, more than the blessings we have right here at home.
If the sheep that Luke had mentioned earlier, was lost through foolishness - and the coin, through carelessness - then the son was lost because of wilfulness.
He wanted to have his own way, so he rebelled against his father and, as a consequence, he broke his father’s heart.
This drama is our Lord’s way of emphasizing what sin really does in the lives of those who reject the father’s will.
Sin promises freedom, but it only brings slavery; it promises success, but brings failure; it promises life, but we’ve probably all heard the saying that “the wages of sin is death”.
The boy thought that he would “find himself” on his grand adventure, but instead, he lost himself!
Even though the father thought he’d lost his son, he never gave up and was always waiting for him to return.
Luke says “But while he was still far off, his father saw him”, so the father must have been keeping a weather eye out for him all that time and the father, full of compassion for his son, ran to him (not something elderly Jewish men did very often), and hugged and kissed him, not even listening to the young son’s rehearsed speech.
Instead, he had the servants prepare a banquet to celebrate the son’s return.
Jesus intentionally used the banquet story again, as he had previously spoken of a banquet to symbolize the coming Kingdom of God.
Those who were listening to Jesus tell this story would have easily realized the significance of this feast.
Sinners (whom the young son symbolized) were entering into the Kingdom because they were coming home to God. They believed that they needed to return to God and be forgiven by him, before receiving their glory.
The parable’s final scene describes the attitude of the older brother, who symbolized the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, who had the same attitude toward the sinners, as the elder son had toward his prodigal brother.
Coming home from working in the field, the elder brother heard what was happening and he got angry.
Similarly, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were angry with the message that Jesus was proclaiming.
They didn’t like the idea that people from outside their nation, as well as outcasts and sinners from within the nation, were also to be a part of the Kingdom of God.
Like the elder son, who refused to go to the feast, the Pharisees refused to enter the kingdom that Jesus offered.
Interestingly, the father went out and pleaded with the elder brother to go to the feast.
Likewise, Jesus ate with Pharisees as well as sinners, but didn’t exclude the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.
The message was that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.
As important as the older brother’s traits, such as obedience and diligence are, they’re not the only tests of our character.
Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love others, but the older brother broke both of these.
He didn’t love God (represented in the story by the father), and he didn’t love his brother.
The older brother would not forgive the brother who’d wasted part of the family inheritance and disgraced the family name, but neither would he forgive his father who had so graciously welcomed his brother back home.
God, like the father in this story, is constantly watching out for us.
When we turn back to him, he comes to greet us, quietening our confessions, with assurances of his love.
How exciting it is, when we’ve experienced our father’s love and we’re invited to be with him in his Kingdom.
How many of us have met people who have preferred to nurse their anger, rather than enjoy the fellowship of God and God’s people?
Because they won’t forgive, they’ve alienated themselves from the church and even from their families.
They’re sure that everyone else is to blame and they alone are right.
They can talk loudly about the sins of others, but they’re blind to their own sins.
Everything the younger son had hoped to find in the far country, he discovered back home: clothes, jewellery, friends, joyful celebration, love, and assurance for the future.
The difference? Instead of saying, “Father, give me!” he now said, “Father, forgive me!”
He was willing to be made a servant!
The father didn’t ask him to “earn” his forgiveness, because no amount of good works can save us from our sins.
In that far country, the prodigal learned the meaning of misery; but back home, he discovered the joy of mercy.
Can you put yourself in the position of any of the characters in this story?
Do you see yourself as a prodigal child, trying hard to recover from your mistakes and homeward bound, or someone angry at God for some reason, maybe because you don’t think you’ve received what you deserve?
There’s only one way to come home to the Father, and that is through a faith in the risen Christ.
You might be wondering how this story fits in with our period of Lent.
Consider this: instead of giving up things like meat, chocolate, etc., maybe we should try giving up on anger, resentment, pride, hate, mistrust, etc.
So, instead of standing outside grumping to anyone who’ll listen, we should go in and enjoy the feast!
Reflection: "Bearing Fruit"
It’s likely that as we go on the journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem, we’re going to be confronted by his terrible human suffering and be invited into the mystery of how the divine one suffered for us.
In our daily news, we’re confronted by the suffering of our brothers and sisters here and abroad.
At this time, we especially remember the citizens of Ukraine as they either flee from oppression, or stand and defend their homeland.
It seems that the season of Lent invites us to listen to the wisdom and compassion hidden in suffering as part of the process of making room for the new resurrection life that we trust is to come.
We need to allow ourselves to be emptied out - so that we’re ready to celebrate joyously on Easter Sunday.
Now, I don’t presume to fully understand the nature of suffering, nor do I have a foolproof theology about why it exists in our lives, but our readings this week do suggest some things that may be useful for us to reflect on.
Suffering is an inevitable part of our existence here on earth.
That is, we’re born into an embodied life in a physical world where hunger and thirst, illness and injury, death and destruction are all part of the way the world operates.
The amount of suffering doesn’t seem to be evenly distributed, and even though some parts of the bible seem to suggest that this is a consequence of poor or wrong decisions by parents, or by the sufferers themselves (such as in the book of Proverbs) there are other threads that are clear that it is not the fault of the individual (see Job and Ecclesiastes).
In this week’s reading from Luke, Jesus cautions us against assuming that we are any better than those who suffer more terribly than we do (eg. the Galileans slaughtered by Pilate, or the Jerusalemites crushed under the tower).
Indeed, the suffering of others should remind us of our own mortality, and we should accept that fact that we need to be led to repentance - i.e. have our minds changed and renewed.
The fig tree in scripture is often used as a symbol or reminder of Israel and the quality and fruitfulness, or otherwise, of the Jewish peoples’ relationship with God.
In Matthew’s gospel there’s a story of a fig tree being cursed for lack of fruit and there’s a strong sense of judgement and punishment, but here in Luke, the lack of fruit is responded to patiently and mercifully.
Although the fig tree is still expected to bear fruit, it’s just given a little tender care to help it to get there!
It seems that even suffering and failure needn’t prevent us from being fruitful.
We are offered, and should accept, God’s mercy and support.
I’ll let you into a secret about fig trees - Lynne loves figs and we have had a small tree in a pot for many years.
At our old house, it produced a few figs each year, but at our new house (in the same pot), it’s going gang-busters.
Sometime just a change of location, or some extra attention, can produce the desired results.
In fact, with all our recent rain, we’re having to pick the fruit earlier than normal, as the fruit are splitting open!
So why is it important to consider the part suffering plays in our Lenten journey, rather than just hurry as quickly as possible to the good news of Easter Day?
Well, it does seem that our suffering can open our hearts and minds to our kinship with Jesus.
We know that he was fully human and his suffering was very real – he was betrayed, brutalised and abandoned.
When we allow suffering to humble us and empty us out, then we’re more able to be the companion of Jesus on his journey of suffering love - and learn from him the path of love.
This path is to love the one who first loved us, and also to remember that we are loved completely and passionately by God.
Out of this certainty we grow in our capacity to love others, and ourselves, in all the uncertainties that life delivers.
Suffering takes away our ability to control life and therefore reduces our illusion that we are in charge.
By being vulnerable, we are lead into the way of God’s love.
So this stripping bare can become a holy experience and make us purer, as is precious metal that has been refined in fire.
And in needing to become more dependent on God and those whom God gives to care for us, we can become more humble, grateful and desirous of the things of God. When we realise how fleeting everything and everyone is
Then we can be truly grateful for all the good and precious moments we are given.
And when the banquets of life come, we are, indeed, ready to celebrate!
Jesus did say that if we were to follow him, we needed to take up our cross also.
This doesn’t however mean that we need to go looking for difficult and painful experiences.
Life usually gives us suffering enough, but if we’re in true and humble connected relationship with our God and our own self, then we can dare to step into the breach with those who suffer and be tender and attentive companions. Suffering can strip away the illusion of not only our own sense of control but the sense of separateness.
Great beauty and joy can help us feel connected with the whole, but it’s in the place of suffering and struggle that our belonging to the whole becomes real.
Some people will shy away from the suffering of others - not because they don’t care - but because they don’t know HOW to care.
Sometimes there is something we can do to fix another’s suffering – e.g. help them get the best medical care or legal representation, petition those is authority to have a law changed – but often we are not called to fix anything, but to simply be a companion - do some shopping, or the gardening, bake a casserole, or take them out to coffee.
Often, what a sufferer needs is someone to hold hands with, in prayer and quiet company, someone to listen to an old story, or a secret never told before.
Sometimes what is desired is news from the outside world, or the simple wisdom of your experience.
And sometimes, what suffering needs is a witness.
When Jesus was on the cross, he didn’t expect anyone to take him down or rescue him, but he did cry out in thirst, in fear that he was forsaken, and to organise the care of his mother with his beloved disciple.
Our Lord needed companions in his time of suffering.
So, whilst it’s confronting and disturbing, spending time in the presence of the suffering of Jesus as part of our Lent experience, we can be better prepared for those times of suffering affecting our lives – our own, that of others, and the suffering in our world.
And those of us who’ve been hollowed out by such suffering, are all-the-more ready and longing for the feasting and rejoicing that is our promise - as Isaiah reminded us.
Easter is our foretaste of the banquet that life is also meant to be.
Paul, when writing to the fledgling Christian community at Corinth, reminded them that “God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
…………AND BEAR FRUIT IN GOD’S KINGDOM.
Blessings on you all this Lenten season.
“We have been nourished and nurtured in this community of faith, so now we go into our ordinary lives, confident in the power of God’s goodness to work its way in the world.
Go in the love and with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit.”
Reflection: "Stubborn, or Focussed on God"
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke 13, we find Jesus resolutely walking, day after day, in the direction of Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, he still makes time for others, because to Jesus, single mindedness is not the same as tunnel vision.
On this final journey he’s still teaching the common people, telling parables, healing the physically and mentally ill and making time for dining out with disreputable characters.
But his course is set for Jerusalem with its promise of inevitable suffering and his death.
Some of the Pharisees warn him to get away because Herod wants to kill him.
But Jesus rebuked them, asking them to “tell that fox that I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work.”
Jesus refuses to be diverted from his destiny and he wasn’t going to be deflected from going to confront his critics in the Holy City, even though he knew that such confrontation would certainly result in his death.
It leaves us in no doubt about the outcome.
We have to ask ourselves: is that being stubborn, or dedicated?
Maybe there were some among his followers who thought Jesus was just stubborn.
From their viewpoint, it was both unwise, and unnecessary, for him to go to Jerusalem - where the religious leaders were waiting for him, rubbing their hands in anticipation.
Why couldn’t he stay in Galilee, where there were thousands of people who needed him.
In the cities of that region were wonderful opportunities for his continued teaching, and almost endless sufferers who wanted to receive his healing touch.
It would have seemed to his followers that Jesus was being quite pig-headed by insisting on heading to Jerusalem.
In hindsight, we know that he wasn’t just being stubborn, in fact, Jesus was being loyal to the cause of his father, God, understanding that no matter how much the prospect of crucifixion appalled him, it was the right thing to do.
He believed that doing the will of God mattered more than popularity, or even of life itself.
He realised that by his being willing to lose his life, something far larger would be accomplished.
Don’t misunderstand and think that his decision to confront his foes in Jerusalem was easy.
You and I can never fully understand the prayer and self-discipline that braced his will and kept him moving.
With that as an example, many followers since that time have put their faith in Jesus and his way.
For example, the single-mindedness of Stephen saw him stoned to death outside Jerusalem.
James was beheaded, Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome and Thomas was killed in far-away India.
And it didn’t just end with the apostles, because there are many notable examples throughout Christian history.
The witness of those who stuck to their belief, at the cost of their well-being, health, freedom and often, their life.
In sermons from our previous generation, you would probably have heard some of these names often mentioned. Regrettably, these days, we rarely seem to mention these remarkable, historical figures.
Like the aged Pastor Polycarp in the 2nd Century AD, a much loved minister who, when asked to curse Christ and worship Caesar as Lord, or face death by burning at the stake, replied: “Eighty and six years I have served Christ, and he has done me no wrong. How can I then curse my Lord and my Saviour?”
Or St Francis of Assisi and his disciple Claire.
For much of their lives they were misunderstood and hassled by church authorities.
Yet they persisted in their way of Christ’s love, welcoming poverty and hardship for the cause of Christ.
And there are many more examples, like:
John Wycliffe - Oxford scholar and English Bible translator, and
Martin Luther - the harried but determined German reformer.
These people didn’t find comfort and prosperity for their single-minded devotion to God, but they refused to compromise and ignore the task they had been given.
The list goes on in a more modern context:
John Bunyan of The Pilgrims Progress fame,
the Hugenots in France,
Elizabeth Fry and her social work in Newgate Prison,
George Whitfield - refusing to keep the Gospel confined to a church setting,
William Booth - creating the Salvation Army,
Caroline Chisholm and Mary McKillop of Australia,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany
Martin Luther King Jr in the USA, and
Oscar Romero in San Salvador.
All of them at some time rebuked and abused, and some paid the ultimate sacrifice.
They weren’t stubborn fools, simply people committed to Christ and self-disciplined to the glory of God.
But back in our story from Luke: Herod had already killed John the Baptist and the Pharisees feared that Jesus would be next.
Instead of heeding their warning, Jesus tells them that he has a mission to accomplish.
Threats and the likelihood of death wouldn’t turn him from his path.
Regardless of the cost, his intention was to do what God has called him to do.
How many of us are willing to do what God calls us to do?
Isn't it true that we often try to reinterpret the will of God, so that it fits more comfortably with our own spiritual timidity?
We squirm under the very thought of facing opposition, rejection, or ridicule, so we define for ourselves a notion of faithfulness that will not seriously put us at odds with the mainstream of our cultures.
How disappointing - our Lord expects better of us.
Even old Abram, the father of the Jewish nation (later to be called Abraham), initially doubted that the Lord could make him the father of many peoples, but his faith in the power of God allowed him to make a covenant with the Lord, which was the first of the great covenants between God and his people.
We’re not likely to become martyrs and be put to death here in Lane Cove, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be willing to stand up for our faith when we’re challenged.
I encourage you to take this thought to heart and prayerfully consider it in the weeks and months ahead.
What will you be prepared to do, when the time comes for you to stand up for your Lord God?
“Within the embrace of God’s care, we regain our strength and courage
and find the will to emerge from where we have been hiding.
Striding out into the world to keep living a faithful life.”
Year after year, when the first Sunday of Lent arrives, we read about Jesus wandering off into the wilderness again. And while the Bible is full of spiritual retreats, this one doesn't follow the typical pattern.
One day, on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus shows up, seemingly out of nowhere.
He's come to be baptised by his cousin John, the Spirit descends on him like a dove and God speaks from on high.
It’s good stuff, the kind of event that almost makes up for four centuries of unfulfilled Messianic expectation.
It's the sort of positive you’d want to build on to let the people know that their long-awaited hope has finally arrived.
That is, unless you're Jesus. If you're Jesus, you do none of those things.
If you're Jesus, you show up out of nowhere and then immediately move on - to nowhere - a desert wilderness.
Conventional wisdom suggests that he goes to the wilderness after his baptism to prepare for what’s to come.
Like Moses, Elijah and other spiritual leaders before him, Jesus must spend some time alone with God before he can carry out his mission.
But, unlike all those other folk who had previously spent time in the wilderness, Jesus doesn’t go out into the desert to listen to God - he had already heard God loud and clear at his baptism.
And when Jesus goes out into the desert, he encounters “Divine Enemy Number One” – the Devil.
The gospels all agree that this spiritual detour wasn't Jesus’ idea at all – they say that Jesus is led into the middle of nowhere - by none other than the Holy Spirit, or in Mark’s Gospel, it says that Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.
That’s the very same Spirit that descended on him like a dove at his baptism.
The good news for us is that Lent didn’t come easily to Jesus, either - it took the Spirit to get him there.
So why does the Spirit drive him into the desert, if not for a deeper connection with God?
It’s because the newly crowned Messiah has a date with the devil, to face temptation.
It’s understandable, then, why he doesn't build on the expectations that had been raised by his dramatic baptism.
Maybe that event was technically his first temptation - to live up to the crowd's appetite for Messianic ambition.
It’s a bit uncomfortable for us to believe the idea of Jesus being temptable at all, but the gospels are unwavering in their witness that he was, in fact, tempted.
From this we can see that temptations actually work, because they certainly grabbed the attention of Jesus.
When he responds to Satan, he's not reciting trite responses, but the words from the old Jewish scriptures.
There’s no protective force-field reserved for the Son of God, so he uses the Word of God.
It gives us a good idea why Jesus would tell his disciples to always pray the words "Lead us not into temptation."
One of the most powerful messages that the life of Jesus leaves us with, is that no one is exempt from the power of the tempter, not even the best of us - maybe especially not the best of us.
We’re all vulnerable to temptation - though what tempts us may change.
The devil's taunts are prettied up in the noblest of intentions - these are truly temptations worthy of the Son of God. They prey on his goodness and they tell us something about Jesus' own heart.
The devil doesn't announce himself - temptation doesn't wear a nametag, red lycra suit, or carry a pitchfork.
For Jesus, and for all of us, the voice of evil sounds an awful lot like the voice of good.
"Take care of yourself," "Save the world" and "Prove your faith."
None of those sound particularly self-destructive on the surface; but this is what temptation looks like for Jesus.
When psychologists talk about temptation, they’re usually describing the irresistible urge to do something that we already know will destroy us.
The kind of temptation that looks like temptation right from the start.
eg. an alcoholic raiding the hotel mini bar, or a husband spending too much time with an attractive co-worker.
Stuff we know is wrong - but we’re drawn to it all the same.
Christians who celebrate Lent certainly wrestle with those obvious forms of self-destruction, but the goal of the season is to help us recognize the more potent tools of the tempter - the temptations that don't look like temptation - until we see them in the rear-view mirror.
The ones that are the most dangerous sound the most like good - sound the most like God talking to us.
Jesus had every good attribute we can imagine.
Character, integrity, faith, a moral compass that’s unmatched and yet, even he is tempted.
The antidote, then, to temptation is not strength, it's not moral fortitude, or depth of character.
You know, especially when we imagine ourselves religious enough, mature enough, moral enough to be exempt from temptation, it’s just a matter of time before we end up giving in to it.
But our temptations probably won't be the hotel mini bar.
Instead, they’ll be played out on the road paved with good intentions.
When we’re led by our own wisdom, when we’re led by our own desire to see the good done, when we’re tempted to take shortcuts to get there, we’ll always find ourselves vulnerable.
And the greater our moral character, the more tailor-made we’ll find that our temptation is.
The only vaccine to temptation, that I know of, is obedience.
Jesus' escape from the tempter is not a matter of weighing pros and cons and making the best decision; it’s his wilful decision to obey God’s word - over and over again.
Maybe his temptations are necessary, so that he’ll be better prepared for the trial that will come to him later.
This is a dress rehearsal, a preview of what awaits Jesus deeper into his ministry.
When Peter, the chief of the apostles and the rock of the church, tries to coax him into a kinder, gentler, way of saving the world that doesn't involve his own execution, Jesus recognizes the voice of Satan.
When he hangs dying on the cross and the crowd tries to bait him to save himself, he knows better.
Then, as now, it’s obedience that will deliver him.
The one who teaches with authority, will live under the authority of the one who sent him.
Which brings me back to our own time in the wilderness - this mysterious season of self-denial and other things that don't come naturally.
Lent isn't strength-training for the soul, or about exercising our spiritual muscles.
It’s about obedience, reliance, dependence and the awareness that every good door that opens is not necessarily the will of God.
It's about learning to be led, or if necessary, driven out to the desolate place within ourselves where our hungers and our dreams and fears all take turns trying to shut out the voice of God.
In just a few weeks, we’ll follow Jesus to a garden where, just for a moment, his own desires will conflict with the path he's called upon to take.
"If you can take this cup from me, please take it away," Jesus will pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But his prayer is not finished. "Yet, it’s not what I want, but what you want.”
Lent doesn't come naturally, even to the best, but that's exactly why Lent is our only hope.
If we can learn to recognize the voice of the tempter here in these forty days of self-denial, perhaps we’ll be wise enough to know him when he speaks with our own voice.
There are some places God intends to take us, that we’ll never reach if we’re left to our own devices.
We’d never go there if we’re following our own compass.
But somewhere in the desert, alone but not alone, Jesus chooses obedience.
"May God grant us the grace to do the same - to choose who we will be and whose we will be.
In the wilderness of this holy season, and wherever the road takes us on the other side."