by J. Christian Andrews
March 29, 2016
"And he said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found." Luke 15:31-32
I don't know that I could count the number of times I have preached the parable most often called "the Prodigal Son." Maybe if we consider that it comes up once every three years in our pericope and I divide the number of years I have been in ministry by three, I would come up with somewhere in the range of ten. Ten times wrestling with a very familiar story. Ten times looking for some way to make it real and alive again.
This year (2016) was really the first of all those wrestling matches where I have been so strongly pinned by the generosity of the father. I have often heard we could more realistically call this the parable of the loving father, but I have never before been so overwhelmed by all the hyperbole exaggerating just how generous the father in the story really is. At every turn in the narrative, Jesus explodes our concept of inheritance and mercy to exaggerate just how generous this father is.
The father never balks at the notion that the younger son wishes him dead (isn't that the idea in an inheritance...that your father dies so you can have it?). Contrary to the standard one third of the father's possessions given to the younger son or sons, this younger son gets half the inheritance even before the father dies. The father places no conditions on how the son is to use his inheritance. The father waits expectantly for the son's return and looks for him; and when the father sees him, he runs to him, hugs him, kisses him, and returns him fully to his place of authority in the household even though the son presents himself filthy and destitute having wasted his fortune on wild living. Though the story does not explicitly say so, it would seem the generosity of the father might even extend to giving the younger brother his inheritance again (isn’t that what it means to be fully restored to the family?).
Likewise, with the older son, the father shows himself generous. "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours," he assures him. Yes, all that is mine is yours. Can the father really have enough for the younger son to be fully restored and still be able to say to the older son, "all that is mine is yours"? Maybe I should ask, so I love my youngest any less than I love my oldest because they have had to share my love? Do I share half of my love with each of them, or do they each have all my love? Talk about generosity.
We do so need to be the younger son, rescued from the depravity of our sin and brokenness. But after we have enjoyed God's grace and mercy, it becomes so easy to be the older son and be jealous or angry at that same generosity. It is so easy to say, with the older son, "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."
It is so easy to say, "I never did like that parable. It all seems so unfair, especially to the older and faithful son." That is the whole point of the parable. God in His mercy and grace is not fair, but He is generous. His generosity is outrageous. His generosity is scandalous. His generosity is big enough to both provide for the faithful and restore the prodigal.
"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” and “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found."
February 22, 2016
One of the grand challenges I have found in preaching is putting a fresh twist on a well-known text. Christmas and Easter present unique challenges but so do events like the Transfiguration and the Triumphal Entry. In an attempt to approach the Transfiguration narrative as we closed the season of Epiphany and looked ahead to our Lenten "journey," I was led to consider the Epistle lesson, Hebrews 3:1-6. There I was reminded to "look to Jesus."
Looking to Jesus has thus become my theme for Lent, but it was brought to mind just how hard this can be when on the Sunday following Transfiguration I had to wrestle with the temptation story. Traditionally, I have heard and have treated this text as an example text: examples of those larger categories in which temptations come, examples of using God's Word to stand against temptation. As I began my preparation process, I remembered a line I had used just the week prior in my sermon: there is a fine line between being sure and being arrogant. And as I considered what the temptation account might mean to us, I had to deal with a disturbing revelation about myself. I have discovered an unseemly tendency to turn conversations to "me." I have done this under the guise of sharing my life and my experiences when others have shared a difficulty in their lives with me; but I found that more often than not, instead of empathizing with them, I turn the tale to my experience.
What I had to do with the temptation text is admit that too often we make the text about ourselves instead of looking to Jesus. I had to ask and find an answer to the question, "How does the temptation account point us to Jesus?" I should not be amazed that the Holy Spirit continues to reveal new insights to God's Word, but I am; and maybe I need to allow myself that continued awe.
What came to light in the telling of the 40 wilderness days and the encounter between Jesus and the adversary focused on three temptations and Jesus' reply to them is a microcosm of the whole purpose for the Incarnation. I discovered that the encounter in the desert was deliberate, that the encounter was part of the cosmic battle, and that the encounter was a foreshadowing of the cross and final victory proven in resurrection.
Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. It was no accident that He went, and it was no accident that He encountered the devil while there. The devil did not sneak up on Him and say, "Boo! Scared ya, didn't I?" The whole event from before the foundations of the world, from the curse when Adam and Eve were sent from the Garden, from every event and sacrifice recorded in the first 37 books of the Bible, the whole event, the Word become flesh, was planned. What God has done for us is no accident. In some little way that Jesus went deliberately into the wilderness where He was tempted by the devil illustrates God's plan in our redemption.
Then we read of those three specific temptations though there is nothing that says there weren't others. We are allowed to stand as witnesses as this little bit of the cosmic battle is played out. It would seem that the devil believed he had a real chance of causing Jesus to sin. Why else would he even bother tempting Him? I don't know: is it the ultimate foolishness or the ultimate arrogance? And isn't arrogance, in the end, just foolish? Yet there is a fine line between being sure and being arrogant, between being sure and being self-assured. That is where the battle really finds its center. We sin when we are tempted to be like God, to live life self-righteously. The specific temptations probably don't really matter. They are all about pride: a proud devil tempting Jesus to take pride in Himself, a proud devil tempting us to take pride in ourselves. Jesus was tempted to circumvent the Plan, and so are we. The wilderness temptations are a little act of the big drama.
By relying on the Father's authority as spoken through the Word, Jesus was able to thwart the plans of the devil. I am not going to pretend to understand here that whole relationship between the two persons of Christ: the divine and the human. I am not going to pretend here to understand the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity, three in One. But somehow that all works out, and by bringing to bear the words of Scripture which carry the authority of their Author, Jesus is able to resist. Jesus does not succumb to the plan of the devil. Instead He stands resolutely in the plan of the Father, the plan of redemption. The story closes with the revelation that this was not the end but that the devil left Jesus to wait for another opportune time. The victory is real for the moment, but the victory also points us forward to the cross.
There were certainly other times in Jesus ministry when the tempter showed his wiliness, but perhaps there is no more poignant time than when Jesus pleaded with His father for the cup to pass, and then when He resolutely, determined purposefully to accomplish our salvation, entered into that final battle. His trip to the cross was not an accident. On the cross from which He cried out, "It is finished," He won the victory. With the resurrection, His Story is completed; and we are redeemed. (How did that suddenly come back to us?)
January 25, 2016
The text for my sermon on Sunday, January 24, was Luke 4:16-30. This is the appointed text for the Third Sunday after Epiphany from the Revised Common Lectionary published by Sola Publishing with permission from Concordia Publishing House.
In the course of my sermon, I mentioned that back when I was teaching six grade English Language Arts, I was puzzled by the state standard that required I teach parallelism. I sort of kind of tried to explain it in the sermon but apparently not well enough. One of the couples in the congregation got me to sit next to them during our after service coffee time so I could explain better. I'm not sure I did.
I am not sure why, but maybe because I feel I didn't do a very good job of explaining I seem to think this will make an interesting blog post now; and I am hoping that by the end I will come to a meaningful conclusion.
The reason I thought it odd that the California State Standards for ELA should ask me to teach parallelism is that all I knew about parallelism at the time–not having studied grammar in any of my schooling levels and having learned to teach grammar as I went along–was from a Biblical studies and Hebrew poetry perspective. I'll get back to this in a bit. First, though, here is what I was supposed to be teaching.
It was quite a few years into teaching first six grade and then eighth grade ELA and while looking at some sample standardized test questions that I discovered what was meant by parallelism in English grammar and composition. The idea is that when a series of items is presented in a sentence, or I suppose when a list is made in a series of short sentences, each of the segments should have the same grammatical construction. For example, there is a list of three actions in this sentence: Our afternoon activities included going to the mall, to shop for new clothes, and going out to eat. The first activity is introduced with the present participle "going," the second activity is presented with the infinitive "to shop," and the third activity is introduced with the present participle "going." While oversimplified, this example shows a lack of parallel structure. All three activities in the series should have the same grammatical structure; either all three participial phrases or all three infinitive phrases but not a combination of both. A corrected sentence might be: Our afternoon activities included going to the mall, shopping for new clothes, and going out to eat.
And all this to get back to the Luke 4 text where there is a perfect example of parallelism, but not so much the English grammatical parallelism, though it is present also. The parallelism in Luke 4 is actually the Hebrew poetic structure that is common in the Psalms and in much of the prophetic writings and in this case the writings in Isaiah 61. Hebrew poetry is short on the English poetic sound element (rhyme and rhythm). In place of sound, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism: the repetition of ideas expressed in different words. Hebrew poetic parallelism is a powerful piece of Hebrew poetry as it draws the reader's attention to an idea and repeats that idea to drive the point home.
So it is we find in the Luke text the same idea repeated five times, each time with different words:
to preach the gospel to the poor
to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the Favorable Year of the Lord (NASB).
And here, to be rather blatant, is my point. When Jesus sat down to discuss this reading, He announced that this Messianic prophecy had been on that day fulfilled. This act of grace, here repeated five times in different words so that we could have a fuller understanding of it, was what Jesus came to do. And we who hear this proclamation are the beneficiaries of this grace: the good news is preached to our impoverished souls; release is proclaimed to our moral captivity; recovery is proclaimed to our spiritual blindness; freedom is given from our deadly oppression; and God's favor, God's grace, is proclaimed to our enslavement by sin.
(See what I did there? I used English language grammatical parallelism to highlight God's grace spoken to us through the form of Hebrew poetic parallel structure.)