Sunday, September 27, 2015

So You Want a Revolution? Here is One that Actually Changes Things.

We didn’t learn about it all at once.  I understand why.   We needed time to get to know each other, to develop trust.  The church I served on Long Island worked in El Salvador with a group called, UCCES, which stood for the Union of Christian Communities of El Salvador.  We had found them through a Presbyterian missionary.   Their dedication to the poor inspired us.   The Bible studies we did together helped us see the Gospel in new ways.   And how they were successfully bringing hope, along with water, electricity and education to very poor communities impressed us. 

But as we worked together, we learned how they all had come together.   They had fought together.   During the civil war that had just ended, they had been soldiers, but not with the government.  They had been rebels, revolutionaries, camping out at the legendary rebel mountain, Guazapa.   It felt strange to realize that these gentle people with whom we worked had been warriors, guerrillas in a brutal civil war.   But while the war was where they had begun, it was not where they had ended up.   Together they put down their weapons.  They left the war behind.   And with the support of the Lutheran Church, they formed their mission to the poor. 

Now they still had the same passions that had led them to the rebel mountain.  They remained revolutionaries.   They had just joined a different revolution, one that could do what the revolution at Guazapa could not.   They went with Jesus’ revolution.   What was that revolution?  Here in this very familiar story, Jesus shows us the way.  Let’s listen to what Jesus has to say.

I have heard this story, I can’t tell you how many times, but I never saw it.   I never saw what was really happening.    On the surface, it looks like such a nice miracle, Jesus hosts a picnic.   But so much more is going on here.    In this story, Jesus is literally meeting with the revolutionaries, with the guerrillas of his day.    But in response to the revolution they want, Jesus gives a very different answer.

To understand what really is going on here, we need to understand what just happened.  King Herod has executed John the Baptist.    The violent revolutionaries, who want to overthrow the Romans are looking for a new leader to rally around.    And now they are looking at Jesus.

Then they hear the news.   Jesus is coming.   You see, when Jesus and his disciples to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee for some R & R, he is not just going to a remote region.   He is going to the Guazapa of Israel, the rural areas where the rebels had their strongholds.    So when Jesus pulls up to the shore, he finds thousands waiting for him.  But why are they there? 

As the gospel of John puts it, they intended to come and make him king by force.  And Jesus gets it.   It’s why he calls them sheep without a shepherd.   Normally the shepherd image means something more pastoral, as in the Lord is my Shepherd, but not here.   Jesus is quoting the words Moses prayed before anointing Joshua his successor, “so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”    These people are looking for a new Joshua, who will conquer the land for Israel like the old Joshua did.   They want a revolution. 

But what does Jesus do?   In response to thousands ready for a revolution, Jesus teaches and feeds.    They want weapons.  He gives them word and bread.   Jesus is saying.   “I’m bringing a revolution, yes, but not the one you expect.  You want me to deal out death.  But I bring life, life in all its abundance.”   

It’s why Jesus called himself the bread of life.   Today, bread just means bread, or maybe gluten, if you have that issue.  But in Jesus’ day, bread meant life.    And when Jesus speaks the word and breaks the bread, he is declaring.  I have come to bring life through the words I speak, and the deeds I do. 

In teaching them, Jesus is telling them.  What you truly hunger for can’t be found in any change of circumstance, even the overthrow of Rome.   You need a change of heart, a transformation of mind.    And if I don’t address that hunger, no matter what happens outside of you, inside you will be starving to death.   So forget the weapons, listen to my words.   Only that will fill you at the core.   Even the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre knew this.   Famously he said, “That God does not exist, I cannot deny.  That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” 

But Jesus doesn’t stop there, he backs up his words with deeds, in this case with a miraculous deed.   But does Jesus feed these thousands just to impress them, just to wow the crowd?    No, Jesus never did miracles as part of a show.   If he intended hat, he could have done way better than this.   He could have flown loop the loops over the Sea of Galilee.  He could have thrown balls of fire from his hands.   That would have really wowed the crowd.

But Jesus didn’t do miracles to put on a show, but to show that he had come to restore the world that God had originally intended.   William Stringfellow put it this way about Jesus’ healings.  “A miracle in healing is not the conjuring of some magic, nor a disruption in the created order or something supernatural.  Rather healing exemplifies the redemption of fallen creation, the restoration of the created order, the return to the usual, the normative, the natural.” “Jesus’ miracles aren’t suspensions of the natural order.  They’re restorations of the natural order.” (Tim KellerThe Good Shepherd)   In this feeding miracle, Jesus is saying.  “This is the world God created, where everyone has enough.  And this is the world I have come to restore to you.”   

But how is Jesus going to bring this revolution?    That’s when Jesus’ revolution gets even more shocking.   Look at how Jesus works here.   Does Jesus create a feast out of thin air?   No, Jesus tells his disciples.  “You feed them, yes you feed them with the paltry bit of loaves and fish you brought,”    And how do they respond?  They’re appalled.  They say.  “That’s impossible.”  And they’re right.   It is impossible.   What they’ve brought is woefully inadequate for the job.  But Jesus uses it.   In fact, the miracle only happens after he gives the disciples the bread and the fish.  What is Jesus saying?   He is saying.   “I have come to do the impossible with the inadequate through the woefully unequipped.  That’s my revolution.” 

When the church I served on Long Island began to work on El Salvador, it was ridiculous.  We had almost no money.   We spoke almost no Spanish.  And we were going into a country just out of a brutal civil war, and working with a bunch of former guerrillas.   Sheesh.  But God worked, and we saw lives transformed.  And that work, twenty five years later, is still going strong.   And here when we began working in Haiti, it was ridiculous.  We had no money.   We spoke no Creole.   And we were working with a guy who was virtually homeless to help orphaned kids who had an incurable disease.  And on top of that, we were pairing up with a synagogue.   How was that going to work?   But ten years and one devastating earthquake later, that mission is going stronger than ever.    Now we are joining up with twenty churches in our county to change a region of millions of people, to reform a government with billions at its disposal?   How is that going to work?   It’s going to work because that’s how Jesus’ revolution always works.   In Jesus’ revolution, only the inadequate are adequate.  

How did a few hundred Jesus followers grow over two centuries to where they overturned the Roman Empire?   How did Christianity become the world’s largest faith community?   It happened because Jesus uses woefully unequipped and inadequate people to do the impossible.   That’s how Jesus’ revolution works.    And if we look around us at the needs of our community, and at our resources, and go, “We don’t have what it takes.”   Guess what.  We’re in Jesus’ sweet spot.  We are right where he wants us.   Yes, we’re inadequate, of course we are.   But that just means, we’re ready for Jesus to do the impossible among us.  For the work of God is always impossible.  That’s what makes it the work of God and not us. 

But still how did Jesus bring about his revolution.  Every revolution has one crucial moment.   Our nation’s was at Lexington and Concord, with the shot heard round the world.  What was Jesus’ shot?   What set fire to Jesus’ revolution, the revolution of all revolutions?   Mark points to it in two simple words.   Before Jesus gave the bread to his disciples, he did two things.   He blessed and broke.    In those two words, Mark is telling us everything.

For in Chapter 14, Mark tells us.  Jesus sits down with his disciples for another meal, his very last.   And there he takes the bread again, but this time he says, this bread is my body.   Then what does Mark tell us happened next.   Jesus blessed and he broke, same two words.   Those are the words to which Mark points here.  Those are the words that mark Jesus’ shot heard round the world. 

What was that shot?   These people wanted a new Joshua, who would conquer their enemies, and give them the peace for which they yearned.  But Jesus is telling them?  You want a new Joshua?  I am the ultimate Joshua.   But I haven’t come to conquer some enemy that will be here for a while and then gone.  I have come to conquer the ultimate enemy, the enemy behind all enemies, the enemies of sin and death.    And when I do, I will give you the ultimate peace, peace with God, a peace that passes all understanding.   So how did Jesus do that?  How did Jesus bring about his revolution?  

On the cross, his enemies, the ones who had brutalized and then crucified him, were standing around and mocking him.  And what Jesus do.   He says.   “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they do.”    Then he bows his head, and gives up his life.  He blesses and he breaks.  He blessed the people who were killing him and then he broke.  And as you see Jesus blessing and breaking on that cross for you, first as your substitute and then as your example, it will bring about a revolution in you.    How so?

If you are to eat bread, what do you have to do?   You have to break it right?   If you don’t break it, then you can’t have it.    And without the bread, you’ll starve.   You’ll waste away.   You’ll break.   You’ll fall to pieces.  It’s either you or the bread.   Either the bread breaks or you do.  And what did Jesus call himself?  He called himself the bread of life.  And Jesus meant it.   He broke himself for you.  Why, so that as he was broken, you could be made whole.  So you could have the bread that endures for eternal life.    On that cross, Jesus took all our brokenness, all our injustice, all our evil, and he absorbed it into himself.  Why?  So that in his brokenness, we would be made whole.    When you see that, when you see how profoundly God loves you, how infinitely God values you that will fill the deepest hunger of your heart; that will feed you until you want no more.       

But don’t stop there.  See how in doing this, Jesus sets the ultimate revolutionary example.   What do revolutions do?   They overturn the way things are.   And on that cross, Jesus did that.  We live in a me-first world a world that says, if I’m going to be whole, then you have to get broken for me.  Your life broken for me.  I step on you to get to the top.  That’s how you do it in the world.   But Jesus turns the tables.    Jesus says.   No, it’s my life broken for you.   That is how God ordered the universe.  That is the way of true fulfillment.  That is ultimate reality. And if you live in that reality, the reality of the God who dies for his enemies, that will revolutionize you, it will revolutionize our world.   This week, our nation has been focused on Francis, a 78 year old man from Argentina.  Why?   He lives out of this reality.   He washes the prisoners’ feet.    He reaches out in love to his enemies.   He shows the sacrificial love of Jesus.   And just by doing that, he is revolutionizing the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.        

That’s what the gospel does.   It transforms you on the inside as you see what Jesus did for you.   And then it turns you out, to do the same for others.    And when you do that, it brings about a revolution in the world.    That is the revolution that will touch our neighbors’ hearts; that will heal our communities; that will restore our broken world.   And if you look at that revolution and find it overwhelming.   You’re right where you need to be.  Remember.  It’s only the inadequate that are adequate.  For the work of God is impossible.  That’s what makes it the work of God.      

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Having Peace in the Midst of Life's Worst Storms? Here's How It Happens

No doubt about it, we in South Florida have been lucky, really lucky.     I gotta admit.   I thought our luck had run out a few weeks ago with Tropical Storm Erika, but once again we dodged the bullet.  We’ve had ten years since Hurricane Wilma.    And I’ll be happy if we have ten years more. 

I didn’t always think so.   When I was younger, I thought such a storm would be exciting.    That began to change when I talked to my buddy, Ted.   His family decided to stick Hurricane Hugo out when it hit South Carolina.  They figured they were far enough inland that it wouldn’t be too bad.   They had no idea.   His family spent hours literally cowering in the closet, praying that the storm winds wouldn’t sweep their house away.  He said.  “Kennedy, it felt like the biggest freight train you could imagine passing right by you for hours.   We were terrified.”

A few years later, I was studying Spanish in New Mexico.   One of my fellow students, Rick, served with his wife in a little church in a place I’d never heard of before, Homestead.    As the week began, we heard about this hurricane in the Caribbean called Andrew, but it really wasn’t that bad.   Then that changed, terrifyingly rapidly.  It became a storm of monstrous intensity.   I still remember the haunted look on Rick’s face as he tried to reach his wife after the storm hit, when he saw the pictures of the damage, when he tried desperately to find any way home to help his family and his church.   I decided.  This excitement I can do without. 

Hurricanes are nothing to joke about, though we do.  It helps us to deflate the tension a bit as we wait to see if it will hit us.   But while we may not have had a hurricane hit us doesn’t mean we haven’t had storms.   In our life, storms, so to speak, hit all too often.   A routine visit to a doctor leads to a conversation that includes the word cancer.    Our marriage hits a crisis, as conflict overwhelms everything else.  Our child gets in real trouble, the kind that requires a lawyer.  Our job gets eliminated.   I could go on.   Life brings us all sorts of storms, including ones that threaten to sink us.   How do we make it through them?  How do we stay calm in the midst of the wind and the waves?    Instead of broken and weakened, how do we come out better and stronger than before?   In this story, Jesus shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what he has to say.

Storms will hit us.   That is not the question.   The question is, how do we survive them? How in the worst moments, do we hold onto peace rather than get swept into panic?  How do we find ways not simply to make it through the storms, but to come out more than we were before rather than less?   In this story, Jesus gives us the key.   The key lies in seeing that Jesus and the storms of our life have a lot in common but with one crucial distinction, one that makes all the difference. 

But before we see that distinction, let’s look more closely at this story.   Some people like to think of these stories as legends.   It seems so unbelievable.  Could this really have happened?   Surely not, or if it did, it was exaggerated.  

But the story doesn’t let us go there.   It makes it clear. We’re not talking a legend here.  We talking about something that actually happened, that people remembered with startling clarity.  How startling?   In this brief little story, the writer Mark includes all sorts of little details.  He tells us that Jesus went into the boat just as he was.  What does that mean?   To figure that out, we need to go back to the beginning of the chapter, where Jesus rowed out from the shore to speak to the crowd.   Mark is telling us that after he finished speaking, Jesus didn’t go back to shore.  He just hopped from his speaking boat directly to another boat to take him across. He just went as he was.   Then Mark tells us that as the journey began night was falling, and some other boats accompanied them out.   Then he tells us that Jesus took a cushion and laid down in the back of the boat.   Why does Mark include all these details?  Because, the one who told him the story, probably Peter, remembered them.   Nowhere in ancient literature do we find a legend that reads like this.   No, the only thing that reads like this is history.  This actually happened.  And that’s important.   Jesus did real acts of power in a real world, our world.   And have no doubt, Jesus does an extraordinary act of power here.

The Sea of Galilee lies about 700 feet below sea level, and about 30 miles away, Mount Carmel, reaches a height of 2000 feet.   When the cool air of the mountains hits the warm moist air of the Sea, huge storms erupt literally within minutes.   And because the Sea of Galilee is relatively small, and shallow, these storms can whip up incredibly high waves.  Now Jesus’ disciples know that.  They’ve fished this water their entire lives.  But whatever storm happened that day was way beyond the norm.   They honestly thought they were going to die.   

A few years ago, I went night fishing with a friend in the Keys.   This man had fished for over 50 years, and he knew the water around him like the back of his hand.  We caught a lot of fish, a lot.  But then he saw a storm heading our direction, and we began to go in.  But the storm moved more quickly than any of us thought.   The rain began to hit us.   The wind began to whip up.  But I honestly didn’t think much of it. I’m not much of a sailor.  So I thought. Heck, what’s a little storm?   I noticed that my friend, Martin seemed unusually intent on keeping the boat headed in, and that our other companion, another fishing veteran was doing all he could to help him.  Only after we came close to shore did I realize what was going on.   The waves around us had grown very high.  And Martin knew that if he let those waves and wind turn the boat off the vertical, a wave would hit and capsize us.  One mistake and we would all die.  And we weren’t even really in the storm.  We were just trying to outrun it.  It still sobers me a bit when I think about it.

This storm that hit these disciples was far larger than the one we were trying to outrun.   And this boat didn’t have any engine.   It had nothing really.   And it had already taken on so much water that it would be a miracle if it didn’t sink.   And in that moment, the disciples, clearly panicking, wake Jesus up, who incredibly is sleeping through all of this. 

What Jesus does next blows them away, and it should blow you away too.   Jesus gets up, and yells.   “Be quiet and stay quiet.”  It’s like he’s talking to a kid whose noise is driving him nuts.  And the storm stops like that.   The winds cease.  The waves disappear.  The sea becomes like glass in a moment.   Do you see it?   Jesus doesn’t do any sort of magic incantation.   He doesn’t pull out a wand.   Jesus doesn’t even call on some higher power.   He is the higher power.   In just a few words, he stops the storm, like that.

In the ancient world, water symbolized the power of uncontrollable chaos, and for good reason.   No one can control a storm on the sea.   Such storms are pretty much the most uncontrollable thing in all of creation, even today.   Yet Jesus controls it with a snap of his finger.   As scared as they were in the middle of the storm, the disciples are even more scared after.  They’re thinking.  Who is this guy?  It is pretty cool, and all. 

But here’s the question.  Why did Jesus wait so long?   Why did he let his friends almost die before doing anything?    Here’s the deal.    Jesus is a lot like the storm.   You can’t control him either.   And the story makes clear.   Jesus lets his friends go through storms.  In fact, he can even be sleeping in the middle of them.   Why?   Who knows?   If Jesus had this sort of infinite power, then even if Jesus explained his reasons, we probably wouldn’t get it.   Here’s the painful reality.  Jesus will let you go through some pretty hard stuff, and this side of heaven, you will likely never know why.    Like the storm, you cannot control Jesus. 

But here’s the difference.   The storm doesn’t care about you.   Jesus does.   Jesus loves you.   That’s why after the storm, Jesus doesn’t say.  “Sorry, guys, I’m really a deep sleeper.  Sheesh that was a close one.  Thanks for waking me up.”   No, he says.  “What is wrong with you?  Why were you so afraid?   Don’t you get it?”   But they don’t get it.  They don’t get it at all.  And you can understand.   How can they know, really know that, that they can trust Jesus no matter what? 

Still, what alternative do you and I have?   If the storm has the last word, then when the wind and waves rise, we’re pretty much alone.   Our existence is some weird quirk of nature.   And no matter how we fight, eventually a storm will get us, even if it’s the slow moving storm called old age. 
But if Jesus loves us, if Jesus ultimately controls every storm, then no matter how high the waves get, we can have peace.   When the wind roars around us, we can be calm.  Because we know that no matter the storm, ultimately we will be ok. We can live these words of Emily Bronté’s.  

But how does that happen?   How can we live, really live with this assurance?   We can look back at the story that Mark echoes here.    Mark echoes here a very similar story of another storm, even uses some of the same words to give us a clue.  What is that storm?  It’s the one in the book of Jonah.   That storm too threatened the lives of those in the midst of it.   And in that story also, Jonah is asleep.   And they wake him up to plead that he do something.   And after the storm ceases miraculously, they are also more terrified than they were in the middle of it.   But in that storm, there is one crucial difference.   To stop that storm, Jonah tells the sailors, you need to throw me into it.   For you to live, I must die.  For you to survive, I must perish.

And Mark remembers this story.  He remembers too Jesus’ story.  He remembers how Jesus compared himself to Jonah, saying that “one greater than Jonah is here.”   And he lifts up the profound parallel.  How can you know that Jesus loves you, really loves you.   Because Jesus became Jonah for you.   Jesus willingly threw himself into the ultimate storm to save you.  He died so you might live.  He perished so you might survive.   He jumped into the only storm that can really destroy you, the one that separates you from the God who created you.    He took on that storm, and unlike, Jonah he did die.   But in his death, he destroyed that storm.   He began a revolution that destroys every storm; that destroys death itself.       

When you are in the middle of the storm, don’t mistake the circumstances of your situation for the truth of your situation.   And the truth of your situation is Jesus sleeping calmly in the back of the boat   The truth of the situation is Jesus who with a few words controls the uncontrollable.  The truth of the situation is that Jesus loves you so much that he threw himself into the ultimate storm of evil and death to save you.    And if you know that truth, if you let its reality grasp you, then no matter the storm, Jesus will fill you with a peace that passes understanding.   You will know that no matter what happens, you will always be ok.  No storm will ever, ever have the last word.   Jesus has that.   And Jesus loves you.  Jesus loves you more passionately, more completely than you could ever comprehend.

Are you facing a storm?   Do you see one on the horizon?   Then know the truth of your situation.  Let that truth know you, hold you; assure you, that no matter what happens you will be ok.   How can you trust that?  Because Jesus guaranteed that assurance with his very life.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How Religion can Devastate You

Did you ever hear a saying that just stuck in your mind?     In the 80s, it could have beenwhen Nancy Reagan said, “Just say no.”  Does anyone remember that?   Or maybe it was the old lady at Wendy’s asking “Where’s the Beef?”  Today, it could even be that duck, you know the one.  AFLAC!

Those sayings may inspire us or amuse us.  They may irritate us.  But we can’t forget them.  And every now and then, we hear a saying, and it does more than that.  In its words, we see things in a new way.  Years ago, a quote from the book, The Hiding Place did that for me.   This book tells the story of the Ten Boom family who hid Jews in Holland during the Holocaust.   The Ten Booms did it because of their Christian faith, but not all the church folks in Holland saw it the same way.   While the Ten Booms hid the Jews, other church folks helped the Nazis find them.   When one of the daughters, Corrie, asks her father, “How can this be?” Her father simply replies. “Corrie, just because a mouse is in the cookie jar, doesn’t make it a cookie.”   I heard that, and I never forgot it.
But the church folks who worked with the Nazis, at least some of them, must have thought they were doing the right thing.  How could they miss the boat so completely?  Here they were mice in the cookie jar, but they didn’t know that.  They honestly thought they were cookies. 

Strangely enough, this happens, and not just in Nazi Germany.  It has happened ever since the beginning of the church, and it is happening now.  People regularly attend worship, give generously, go to Bible studies, even lead them, heck, even become elders or pastors, and still don’t get it.  They believe all the right things, obey all the rules, and yet never experience the gospel at all.   They think they’re cookies.  They’re doing all the cookie things.  But they’re not.  They’re not at all.  

How can this be?  More importantly, what are the signs that show if you’ve truly become a cookie or not?   How can you know?  In this incredibly famous story, Jesus shows us the way.  Let’s listen and here what Jesus has to say.

As we take up the story, the younger son, who not only demanded his inheritance from his father, but then blew it all recklessly, has decided to come home and seek to make restitution for his mistakes.  Listen and hear how the story ends.

Luke 15:17-32      

When people heard the first part of the story, of how this Father welcomed this younger son back after his disrespect, his squandering of his father’s wealth, it stunned them.  But this second part stunned them more!   Why?  Because Jesus was making clear that the older son was lost too.   And Jesus ends the story with him still being lost.   The bad boy gets welcomed home to the feast of salvation.   But the older son, the dutiful one, the faithful one, the good one finds himself outside the door.

In this story, Jesus makes a stunning assertion.   Jesus says that you can be far from God, not simply by being very bad.   You can be far from God by being very good.   How can this be?  Well, let’s look at the story. 

Can you imagine how happy this father must have been to have this son he thought was dead home safe and sound?  He must have been devastated at his absence. But now he has him back in his arms.  This homecoming means everything to him. The older son had to know this.  But instead of joining in his father’s joy, he angrily stays outside.  And why is he angry?   He is angry about all that the father is spending, especially that fatted calf.   All he can see is the costly meal, a meal he never got.        
Now we might have some sympathy for this older son, but in his reaction Jesus is making a profound point.   These two brothers are painfully alike.   They both want to get the father’s things.   They just go about it in two different ways.   One does it by being very bad.   And the other does it by being very good.    

And ironically Jesus ends the story with the bad boy being welcomed into the feast of salvation.  But Jesus leaves the older one outside, alienated from the father, absent from the feast.   Why does Jesus do that?

Well, first, let’s understand how this older brother is lost.   What is so wrong about his being so good?  Is it bad to be good?   Of course not.   But Jesus is saying, when it comes to your relationship with God, it’s deadly to be good for the wrong reasons.   If you come to God with the understanding that if I am a reasonably good person, if I do the right things, then God will be pleased with me, and will welcome me into heaven, that understanding will devastate you.   Why?   If that’s what you believe, then God may be your leader, your guide, your example, but he can’t be your savior.   You’re your own savior.   You think.  Your own goodness will save you.  And it won’t.  It can’t.   And that’s what this son is doing.  He is trying to earn his son-ship, as if it’s a transaction between him and his dad.   But you don’t earn your place in God’s family.   God’s graciously gives it to you.   

So that’s how the older brother is lost.  But still why does Jesus leave him outside?  Because it’s a lot easier for younger brothers to get saved than older ones.  Why?  Well, think about it.   If you go the route of the younger brother, you know you’ve screwed up, right?  If you’re lost like that, it’s clear that you’re lost.  But when you’re lost like the older brother, you don’t think you’re lost.   How can you be lost?  You’re doing all the right things.  And that makes you so, so, so lost.   After all, where do you find older brothers?   You find them at church.

Many years ago, I was teaching an evangelism course at the church I served on Long Island.  It turned out to be just two people, a woman who was our church’s biggest giver, and a man who led our mission work in El Salvador.   One night, I began talking about how we bring people into a relationship with Christ, how it is God’s goodness and grace that has to save us not our own.   And both of them had this puzzled look on their faces.   I asked them?  Am I not being clear?   And each of them said, “No, you’re being very clear.  It’s just I don’t think I’ve done that.”    To be honest, I couldn’t believe it.   I asked.  “Well, why are you so involved? Why do you give so much?”   Well, they said.  “That’s what God expects of us.  We want to do what God wants.”   But I replied, “You’ve never realized that none of that will save you.”    And they both said, “Yes”    So that night, both of these dedicated leaders of that church became Christians for the first time.    Now if you had asked me before that night, if these folks were Christians, I would have said.  “Are you kidding me?  Of course they are!”   Heck, they would have said the same thing.    But here’s the stunning truth.   Until that night, they weren’t. They weren’t at all.

So if this sort of lost-ness can be so hard to see, how can you see it?  In the story, Jesus gives us three signs.

First, Jesus tells us that this older brother is angry, and that’s key.   When you’re lost like this, that’s what you are.  You’re angry.   And the anger goes in generally two directions.  You’re angry at yourself or you’re angry at God.    Older brothers believe that if they follow what God wants and do what God says, then their life will go as it should.  But life never goes as it should does it?  Bad stuff happens, bad stuff that has nothing to do with what you’ve done right or wrong.  It just happens.   And when it does, older brothers get angry.   They either get angry at themselves, thinking, “Wow I dropped the ball with God somewhere.  Otherwise this wouldn’t be happening.”   Or they’re angry at God.  “God, how can this be happening?  I’ve done everything right!”   Now, older brothers may not always understand it that clearly.  They may even hide the anger, knowing it’s not good to be angry.  But that undercurrent of anger sits there nonetheless.

Second, do you notice what the son says to his dad in the story?  “I have worked like a slave for you.”   That’s says everything.   For this kid, it’s not about the beauty.  It’s about the duty.   What do I mean?    When I was in college, I took an art appreciation course.   I spent all this time looking at these pieces of art.  Why?  So I could make an A.  Why did I want to make an A?  To boost my GPA, so I could get a good job that would pay me decent money.  I looked at art to get money.  But now I spend money to look at art.  I go to an art museum and spend hours there.   I don’t do it to impress others or get ahead in my career. I simply love looking at the stuff.   It’s not about the duty.  It’s about the beauty.     But when you’re lost like an older brother, your relationship with God is all duty and no beauty.  So yes, you work hard, even sacrificially.      But there’s little joy in it.   It’s your duty.   When you’re lost like the older brother, you spend a lot more time in prayer asking God for things, then you do praising God or just talking to him as you would a friend.   You find God useful, but you don’t find God beautiful.   And that’s a profound difference.

Finally, do you notice how the older brother talks about his sibling?  He doesn’t even acknowledge they’re related.  He says; “this son of yours.”    And he talks about how the brother squandered the money with prostitutes.   And who knows maybe he did.  But the older brother doesn’t know that.   When you’re an older brother, you look down on those you think don’t cut the mustard, who haven’t worked as hard or faithfully as you have.    Now you may cover it up because you know such a sense of superiority isn’t right.   But in your heart of hearts you feel it.   You see folks who have blown up their lives or find themselves on the streets or who are doing things you find offensive or wrong, and it disgusts you.   At its worst, you carry this attitude into how you related to folks of different religions or political perspectives or lifestyles.  In a way, you have to have someone to look down on, who you know isn’t as good as you.   Why?   You’re insecure.  How can you not be?   After all, you’re trying to be good enough, to live the life God wants you to live.  But how do you know, really know?   So, you look over at someone else, and you go.  “Well at least I’m not that guy.” 

Now some of you may be thinking.   “Yep, I know someone like that.  That person is definitely an elder brother.”   But here’s the truth.   You don’t know.   Faith is like marriage.  The only two folks who know what’s really going on are the two folks in the relationship.   

And even if you’re not older brothers, and every church has some in its pews, you may have elder brotherish tendencies.   Your issues with God tend to be older brother one.   But wherever we find ourselves, how do we find our way out?   How do we free ourselves from these elder brother ways? 
We realize.   None of us were on the inside.   All of us were outside, good and bad alike.  So how did God bring us inside?  How did God draw us into the feast of salvation?   In Jesus, God became the outsider so that we might be brought in.   God, who was rich, for our sakes became poor, so that we might be rich in love, in grace, in acceptance, in the only stuff that ultimately matters.   God, who is love, endured hate, persecution, even death at the hands of his enemies so that his enemies might become his beloved friends.     And all of us, the good and the bad, were outside, were poor; were his enemies.   We were so lost that God had to die to bring us home.   But we are so loved that God was glad to die so he could.   And now, Jesus invites us to come, to join him at his feast of salvation, where the lost are found, those dead return to life.  And what we’ve done or not done, doesn’t matter.   The only thing that matters, that matters ever, is what Jesus has done for us.