Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Parables of Jesus: The Awesome Power of Love

Today we conclude our series on the Parables of Jesus and how those stories from so long ago still have relevance to us today. The first week we looked at the parable of the Four Soils as we talked about being fertile soil for Christ and some of the aspects of our lives that we can focus on to help ensure that we make ourselves as available and as ready as possible. The following week we looked at the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds and the idea of making our lives fruitful for Christ and how Christ has committed to help us in that endeavor. Last week we looked at the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor and saw how and why the grace of forgiveness is paramount to our relationship with God. And today we are going to look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son to see how the redeeming power of God's love is still relevant today.

This past January Debbie and I were blessed with the opportunity to be able to take a two week trip to the Holy Land. We began our trip in Cairo, Egypt and followed the trek of the Israelites from Egypt, through the Sinai Peninsula, through Jordan, and on up to Jerusalem. We saw many of the places mentioned in Scripture, we saw the historical artifacts and monuments in Egypt, and the high places in the city of Jerusalem itself. Those places and things were absolutely amazing and in fact life altering for me. But there was one single event, one single moment, that amazingly tied all of what I felt and witnessed together. You need to understand that as part of this tour group we had chartered buses that provided our transportation on this trip. Each bus had a driver and a tour guide and while one would describe what were seeing or about to see, the other would....well drive. Well one day, we were in Jerusalem and we were getting back from a day of sight seeing and were in the middle of unloading from the bus at our hotel. As everyone is piling off and going in to get ready for dinner, I lingered a bit in the parking lot. It was a nice day out and I just wanted to soak a bit more of Jerusalem in before going inside. As I was standing there I noticed our driver had gotten off the bus and was heading for a car parked in the corner of the lot. Just as he got about half way to the car, one of the doors burst open and this little girl got out and started running toward our driver screaming, “Abba! Abba!” He started running towards her and when they met she jumped up into his arms and they hugged and spun and kissed. You could see the pure, absolute joy that both of them had at seeing one another. You could witness the awesome power of love that they both felt for one another. Watching those two I wept.

Our parable today gives us a similar story. At this point in Scripture Jesus is sitting with public sinners, and tax collectors, much to the dismay of the Pharisees. And he begins to tell this story. A father has two sons and one day the younger son comes to his father and demands his inheritance now. The father obliges and the young man is off. Well it is not long before all of the money is gone, having been wasted on frivolous living and a self indulgent life style. The young son, broke and starving, and the country he was in experiencing a famine, he begins to look for work to help support himself. He hires himself out to feed the pigs of another man. Looking at how these pigs ate he becomes grievous and envious all in the same breath. He is sorry for how he has wronged his father and realizing the the pigs are eating better then he is, he makes plans for reconciliation with his dad. He decides that he will go home and tell his father that he has sinned against heaven and against him, is no longer worthy to be called his son, and will ask for a job as one of his father's hired hands. Well his father, seeing him approach from the distance, takes off after his son and the son says what he came to say. “ Father I have sinned against heaven and you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, and will you take me back and treat me as one of your hired hands.” Well the father will have none of that and immediately instructs that the best robe be placed on his son and that someone bring him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. He also instructs that the prized calf be killed and prepared, because we are going to celebrate the return of my son! What a great image of love and celebration!

Now here comes the other part of the story. The part that we usually do not discuss with any great length. Now here comes the older son from working a long, hard day in the father's field. And what does he see? He sees a party for his younger, irresponsible, disrespectful brother. He is understandably very angry. He confronts his father and asks him how in the world can you justify this? Your son demands his inheritance early, squanders it, returns home and you celebrate in a way you have never celebrated for me! The father tries to explain why he is doing this with the statement, “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Unfortunately, the parable ends there and we are not privy to the response of the older brother.

Now most of the times that I have heard this parable preached, it has been from the perspective of the younger brother. How no matter how far we stray God is always looking for us and eagerly anticipating our return to God. But today I want us to take a look at this parable to see what we can learn from the actions and attitudes of the older brother.

You see this older brother had lived a life mostly comprised of honor, integrity, and duty. He is still human and so he was not perfect, but he never left his father, did all the he thought was required of the older son, and probably did it without much complaining. In fact how much more work was probably required of him once his younger brother selfishly left? But by any rate, he was probably a model, eldest son.

Now living the life he had, you can only imagine the anger, resentment, and frustration that he felt when he comes in from a long, hot day in the fields and sees the massive celebration that is taking place for his good-for-nothing younger brother. That got me thinking. How many of us have acted like this older brother and at what loss? How are we to deal with those feelings? Well this parable gives us a few tips.

One thing we need to remember is that God loves us all of equally. Just because we try and do everything right does not mean that God loves us more than someone who comes to faith in God later in life. And sometimes that is a hard reality for us. This world is built around competition. Competition for our spending money, competition for jobs, competition for status. Have you ever heard the phrase or seen the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins!”? Those mindsets and attitudes can make it difficult for us to keep perspective on the fact that God loves us all equally. We are all part of God's creation, Jesus died for each and everyone of us, and the Triune God is eager for a relationship with all of humanity. There is no competition for God's love, it is freely given to all and we should employ that model and do the same. Those that we know that have drifted from God, never known God, or find themselves anywhere in between, we need to show them the awesome power of God's love. We need to fight the urge to be like the older brother and harbor that self destructive resentment. We need to practice expressing the freely given, non-judgmental, all encompassing love of God. That agape love that knows no bounds. Just as God loves equally, we need to love equally as well.

Another lesson we can learn is that even though we may not have strayed as publicly as the younger brother in this parable, we have all strayed. Anytime we allow something to replace God as the the number one priority in our lives, we are straying. When we allow money, popularity, power, anything to be more important to us than a loving and eternal relationship with God, we are straying. We may only stray for time, but we stray. And we need to understand that fact. Because when we understand that, then the reaction of the father in this parable means something to us. When we see how the father reacts to his younger son returning home, the love, the excitement, the celebration, the grace, the awesome display of love, it reminds us of how God has done the same for us. The older brother is not happy at all with his brother's return. He will not celebrate and he will not rejoice. He does not understand what his father is doing. Maybe, he thinks that his father is showing favoritism to his younger brother. He does not understand the deep love his father has for his son. That love, that awesome power of love, is helping the father rejoice at his son's return rather than focus on the negatives. It is helping the father be happy rather than angry. It is the same reaction that we have received from God time and time again. When we have strayed, when we have acted disrespectfully towards God, God has lovingly and willingly accepted us back time and time again. When we understand the love God has given us, then we can avoid the reaction of the older brother and extend that love to others.

One more lesson we can learn is the upside to being a faithful follower of God. Many people wonder why should we be a faithful follower of Christ when we can convert at the last minute and still get everything those that have been life long believers have. Why follow all the rules, go through all of the demands, and in the eyes of some have no fun, when converting later in life will still yield an eternity in Heaven. The answer is this, because the relationship we can form with God will be all that much deeper and meaningful. The amount of love we can give and receive will be that much more plentiful and widespread. The amount of influence we can have for the Kingdom of Heaven will be that much more impactful and life changing by being a faithful follower. And we do not have to be lost and stray to have God rejoice over us. Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that God rejoices over us in singing and takes great delight in us. And if we are a faithful follower for as long as we can be, then there is that much more celebrating over us that we get to experience and be a part of.

The older brother in this parable is often over looked but I think easily associated with. The feelings of anger and resentment that he felt are feelings that we have all felt at some time. But the awesome power of love that the Triune God shares with us can over come all of that. It can remind us that God loves all of us equally, that we have all strayed and should show the love that God shows us upon our return to others, as well as the upside to being a faithful follower of God.

Now when I told you the story of our bus driver and how he and his daughter greeted each other, I told you I wept. But I did not tell you why. I wept not because I terribly missed my two boys, which I did. I wept because at that instant I was reminded that is how God loves me. That is how God loves you. God is eagerly waiting for us to scream Abba, Abba! and to run towards God and jump into God's arms. God is waiting for us to be that excited about being in God's presence. That is the awesome power of love! That is the life changing, soul altering, forever kind of love that cannot be felt anywhere else. That is love that prompted Jesus to sacrifice himself on our behalf. That is the love that was first shown to us that we need to show to others.


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