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Monday, August 25, 2008

Earth is Not Our Home (Hebrews 11:1-16)

August 24, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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[Note: Sometimes the audio follows closely to the manuscript; sometimes not. In this case, the spoken sermon varied significantly from the script below. If you pick one, listen to the audio.]

We’ve been talking this summer about exile and redemption. In mercy, God did not destroy us or allow the immediate consequences of humanity’s original sin, but exiled us that He might come to us, speak to us, offer reconciliation, and provide a way back home. That God would come after us is His grace. We are not left to find our way home or earn a place back in God’s good favor. God does not hide out in Heaven waiting for us, but has plunged into the depth of human existence to seek and save us through Jesus Christ.

Last Sunday we looked at a passage from Isaiah 51 and talked about hope for the exiles… hope for us. The key idea out of that passage was that we not only must call on God for help, but trust in God to show the way. The question is not “how bad is it?” but “What are we going to do?” And even that question can lead us astray, because we risk missing God’s action – we must ask, “What is GOD going to do?” Exile is the result of human disobedience toward God and affects us on a personal and community level and beyond. In each of these settings of exile, we must be asking, “What is God going to do? What is God already doing now?”

Today we turn to Hebrews 11, known for its description of human faithfulness. It might seem like the heroes of faith are the furthest thing from exiles, until we look closer at their stories. In fact, this chapter ties in faithfulness to exile in a significant way. Today we’ll look at real exiles who trusted in God’s promises. And their attitude of trust in what they could not yet see is the very definition of godly faith.

Definition of Faith (vv. 1-3)

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This may be the origin of the term “blind faith” – but that term has taken on negative connotations. The man or woman of faith would tell you, “Yes, I am blind,” but would also tell you that the basis of faith is far more trustworthy than sight or sound! Verse two sets up the illustrations that will follow in this chapter: “For by [faith] the men [and women, we’ll see] of old gained approval.”

Verse three points to the basis of this “blind faith” – and tempts me into a discursus on “intelligent design.” It reads, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” In other words, what you see ain’t all we got. There is more to life and this world than mortar and wood and nails, more than DNA and atoms and particles, there is supernatural intention, design, and purpose. And that supernatural intention, design, and purpose belong to God!

The solidness and reality of God, standing behind, under, and around all the stuff we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, is how verse one can describe having assurance based on hope and conviction without seeing.

For now, if it’s hard to latch on to this definition of faith, don’t worry – what follows this definition of faith in verses 4-12 are a number of illustrations. It’s just what I’ll often do in a sermon – here’s an idea that may be fairly abstract, but here’s a real life example of that idea so we can latch on to it. Likewise, the next nine verses give examples of blind faith convicted and rooted in assuring hope in God. Maybe along the way you and I can think of some modern-day examples.

Faith Produces Action (Faithfulness) (vv. 4-12)

Let’s look at each of these briefly. Before we do, I want to point out something that is runs through all these examples. Faith, which Hebrews characterizes as hopeful and blind, and will later describe as heavenly-minded, is very practical and action-oriented.

The references to Abel and Enoch are rather obscure, with only brief mention given to each in the Old Testament. But both are described as acting in ways that were pleasing to the Lord. Abel pleased the Lord with his offering (Genesis 4:4) and Enoch by “walking with God” (Genesis 5:22). Hebrews links these actions with faith, as examples of assurance and conviction based on trust in God’s will and purpose.

The other examples provide more detail. Noah built an ark on the basis of God’s instruction, though rain and flood were nowhere in view. He endured the mocking of neighbors to follow God’s Word to Him. Those concrete actions were rooted, says Hebrews, in his faith.

Abraham and Sarah, to whom Isaiah similarly appealed in last week’s text, trusted in God despite seeing no “proof” in the short-term. Abraham left his home to go to the place God would show him. Sarah gave birth, despite old age and a few moments of laughing disbelief. Nonetheless, both are demonstrations in hoping in what is yet unseen.

In each of these, faith produced action. Blind faith didn’t result in standing stock-still, fearful of a step in any direction. Rather, it resulted in steps and even leaps of faith, trusting that God was doing something and asking men and women to be a part of that.

Sometimes we set up a distinction between faith and works. One way I’ve found to keep the intended link between them is to talk about works as “faithfulness.” Faith produces faithfulness and faithfulness demonstrates faith. They go together!

Often you might find yourself stuck and hear someone suggest, “You just gotta have faith!” While there is truth to that, this passage really is much more proactive and turns faith around: whether you are stuck, unstuck, hard-pressed, free-and-clear, or anywhere in between, the key question here is the same as last week in Isaiah 51. It’s not, “How bad is it?” or even “What am I going to do?” The key question is: “What is God doing?”

For all we know Abraham was wrestling with what career to pursue in Mesopotamia when he heard God’s instruction to “Go to a place I will show you.” While we don’t exactly know for sure, it seems likely that one reason Abel’s offering was pleasing to the Lord and Cain’s wasn’t is that Abel was asking the question, “What does the Lord want” while Cain gave God what Cain wanted to give him. While Sarah may well have struggled with her barrenness, she was far past the point of thinking she’d have a child. Yet God broke through and in accomplishing what He wanted to do, His name was honored and He was shown to be gracious.

The key question in our messes, brokenness, discouragement, and exile, and in our successes, blessings, celebrations, and joys needs to be, “What is God doing and how can I be a part of that?” That is faithfulness. And that comes out of the hearts and hands of people who realize that earth is not our home.

Faith for the Exile (vv. 13-16)

In the last few verses of this passage this is the perspective of these great figures of faith. Not only did they trust in God and try to be a part of what God was doing, they did so because they realized there was a God with a plan. They realized that there was more to life than living, dying, bricks, and mortar. They realized that earth is not our home… that this is only exile and God has more in store for us than this.

Listen to these verses again:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth… they desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (vv. 13, 16)

Well some of them did see the promise fulfilled on earth – Sarah saw the birth of her son, Isaac. Abraham was brought to the Land God would show him. But the promises were incomplete.

And Abel never saw the Lord’s pleasure on earth – he was murdered by his brother. Enoch lived in a time of increasing wickedness – only by being taken up into Heaven did he see God’s righteousness fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah didn’t live to see the multiplication of their descendants into the millions.

That’s just the point being made here in Hebrews – these figures of faith were looking beyond the stuff of earth. They were trusting in God’s eternal faithfulness and rejoiced in the earthly and temporary foreshadowing of God’s lasting goodness. Hebrews is being written to the diaspora – Jewish people scattered throughout the known world at the time. For them, one earthly hope would have been to return to their own country – but that is, again, only a temporary foreshadowing of the lasting home with God. Hebrews is challenging us to not only pray for and have earthly hopes, but look beyond them to the lasting goodness of God’s plans and purpose.

There is a saying, “So heavenly-minded you’re no earthly good.” That is not the faith being depicted here. The first part is right – we are to recognize that earth is not our home. We are to set our minds and hearts on Heaven and God’s lasting goodness. But Hebrews defines that as faith and says that out of that will come a faithfulness that impacts the temporary world around us in profound ways. Sure, it may still not make sense to onlookers – Noah was ridiculed for building a giant boat during a drought in the middle of desert country. But as we look back with the perspective of history, he certainly could not be accused of having no earthly impact.

We find out in the New Testament that God’s lasting goodness is Jesus Christ. That is God’s ultimate rescue from exile and the final answer to “What is God doing?” We’ve been talking about God being on the move around us – in our lives, in our church, in our neighborhood, and beyond. What is God doing?

What About Me?

I’d like to end with two stories. The first is one of mine, the second will be one of yours. Before I came to Good Shepherd, I was an Associate Pastor a couple of hours from here. Among other things, I directed the youth ministry for the six years I was there. There was one young girl I met when I arrived. Her father had walked out on her, her mom, and her three siblings a year or so before I came. I poured myself into her whole family’s life for the six years I was there, which covered her 7th grade through high school graduation and a little beyond. During those years I prayed with and for the family, counseled with them, and lived with them through some real highs and lows. I trusted in God to provide, but moved here during a period when the one daughter had really turned away from church and friends. My faith that God would keep after her fueled my involvement with her and her family, but I never got to see those prayers wrapped up in a shiny, tidy package. The marriage was not restored, each child continued to have issues and struggles in their own way, and I moved away six years ago. I remember praying for many specific things I wanted for the family, but I also remember entrusting them and her into God’s hands when I left – praying for what God would do in her life.

I had lunch with Mary this week. She’s 25 now, married with a beautiful baby boy, and strong of faith. In fact, every other sentence out of her mouth is about faith and God and her prayers and hopes. She told me about a woman she met several years ago who has encouraged and disciple and walked with her as she came back to God. So that’s what God was doing! J I didn’t have to see God’s eternal plan for her to be involved in her life all those years ago. Faith in God’s plan led to active faithfulness. It was a gift from God to get to tune in years later and hear first-hand of His faithfulness.

That’s a bit of what is going on here in Hebrews. Earth is not our home. But rather than that turning us into lazy dreamers, our trust is in a God who is on the move – over, under, behind, and around the stuff of this earth – with a purpose and a plan to enter into our mess and offer us a way home.

The second story is yours and you will have to tell it or remember it. What does exile look like for you? Maybe you are literally exiled – estranged from a family member or friend. Maybe illness has cut you off from friends and the life you once enjoyed. What things do you pray about? Do you have a son or daughter or parent who doesn’t know God, for whom you pray fervently? Is body or mind failing you or someone close to you? God invites prayers for all of that and more. Make known your needs and wants – bring them to the Father. But last week and this week’s passages invite us to temper into our prayers a focus beyond the stuff of this earth – with all its circumstances, failures, shortcomings, illnesses, and weaknesses. How bad is it? It’s bad, and we are to ask God for help and peace and strength in the midst of it all. But we are to remember this key question – it’s the question of faith and the question of one who is faithful: “God, what are you doing? God, what would you have me do?” God is on the move, not hidden away in Heaven, but right here all around us. We need to be asking what He is doing.

That’s what Jesus was getting at when he taught us to pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father.” What is God doing right now – your life, in our church, in our neighborhood and beyond? Let’s make that our #1 question! Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hope for the Exile (Isaiah 51)

August 17, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Though we have had a two week break from our summer series, we continue today studying the theme of exile in Scripture. We have heard the stories of a God who, seeing our sin, does not withdraw into Heaven, but who plunges into the muck and mire of human brokenness to reveal Himself, call us to Himself, make us whole, and bring us Home. We have also followed this parallel theme: if that’s the kind of God we worship and Jesus calls us to come follow after Him, then we have a calling and a commission to be salt and light in the world for the sake of naming, lifting up, and holding forth the One who is the Light of the world and hope for all who are exiled.

Today we are looking at the story of exile, hope, and promised redemption from the prophet Isaiah, who preached to God’s people when they were at an all-time low in terms of brokenness and perceived darkness and distance from God. I say “perceived” because to them it was darkness and distance, but God was right there! We will see that the implications of Isaiah’s words are far-reaching.

Exiles Long Ago

First, the history… throughout the Old Testament, the story of God’s people is one of cyclical promise, sin/unfaithfulness, consequences/exile/judgment, revelation, repentance, restoration, calling, and renewal of promise and faith. The inevitability and repetition of that story would be laughable if it were not so tragic. And for those who are honest, it is easy to see our own lives and faith mirrored in the corporate life of ancient Israel.

What is remarkably consistent – no, more than that – supernaturally and inspiringly consistent, is God’s character and faithfulness. God’s promise to Abraham to name and preserve a people shines tenaciously through periods of great darkness.

Isaiah is writing to a people long-exiled. Generations have lived in darkness, far from home, without their Temple, and with Abrahamic promises a distant memory. Yet, in this chapter of hope for exiles, Isaiah begins in the early verses by recalling the ancient promises to Abraham and Sarah – that God would be their God without condition and they His people. Their children would have a home and be a multitude through which the nations would come to know the Lord. Isaiah writes to remind these discouraged and shadow-dwelling people of God’s bright promise. Listen to Isaiah 51:1-3(a)…

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, who seek the Lord; look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; when he was but one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him. Indeed, the Lord will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness He will make like Eden and her desert like the garden of the Lord.

In the verses we are looking at today, let me walk you through a brief outline of Isaiah 51. We began the service with a call to worship from verses 9-11. It is there that the people call out to God for help. Three times they call on the Lord to exert His mighty arm. They remind God of His mighty deeds in history – recalling the Exodus from Egypt (Rahab) – and asking God to once again make a way for them to return to Zion – the holy hill of worship in Jerusalem. “Do it again, Lord, like you did it before!”

In the first reading, also sung by John Kaneklides, God responds through the prophet, peeling away the darkness around his people. It reminds me of Jesus encountering the lame man by the pool. This was the man who claimed he wanted healing, but who was limited by the circumstances around him – he couldn’t get in the supposed magical waters fast enough. Likewise, God questions the fearfulness of His people and the supposed power of what holds them in darkness. God asks, “Have you forgotten who I am and what I have done?” (vv. 12-13) In the light of God’s power, He asks, “Where is the fury of the oppressor?” (v. 13) And God promises, “The exile will soon be set free, and will not die in the dungeon, nor will his bread be lacking.” (v. 14)

In the second reading, which you participated in, God describes what He will do: “I have put my words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of my hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” (v. 15) God’s reminder is that he has not and will not forsake His people – and He reminds them of exactly who they are – His sheep and His children.

Then God goes on to call on His people three times, even as they did in their prayer to Him. This is the part you read, as if you were the witnesses of Heaven: “Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem!” (v. 17) God continues, saying that the time for languishing by the pool, lame from weakness and sin is past. Do you want to be well? Then rise, take up your pallet, and walk! Or, as I have said more and more frequently in the past months – you who have been rescued and claimed by Jesus Christ, get up and get out into the life and ministry to which God has equipped and called you!

In the rest of the second reading, God describes the apathy and darkness that characterizes His people at the time of this Word. Many have forgotten the Lord. New generations have not produced spiritual leaders – “your sons have fainted and lie helpless.” (v. 20) But God, in so many words, says, “Stop making excuses; pick up your mat; YOU get up; I am on the move.” That has been our call: get up; get out; God is on the move!

Me, My Neighbor, My People

What is the application for this passage? I believe there are several – all of which are important. But I want to take them in a particular order, for particular reasons. First, this passage has personal application. There are many forms of exile from God, many forms of shadowed darkness that chain us like foreign captivity chained Israel in Isaiah’s day. Whether it be obvious and public sins, secretive and “hidden” acts, or the subtle and broad sins of putting our own priorities above God’s priorities – it will take us all down. Addiction and depression are almost tangible chains. Arrogance, self-reliance, and greed sometimes masquerade as useful character traits. Going my own way instead of God’s can look very holy on the surface. But it’s all darkness; it’s all life as an exile and life on my mat by the pool.

I may even call out to God, “Save me! Save me! Save me!” wanting answers on my own terms. Isaiah reminds us that God is faithful and true and capable of far more than we can ask or imagine – but, God acts on His own terms. God says when and where and how, and sometimes, God replies, “Wake up! Get up! Get up and about doing my work!”

Second, this passage has local ministry implications. As we have noted, God does not withdraw to Heaven, but plunges into the muck and mire of our lives in order to call us out and bring us Home. As His followers, we are challenged to follow after Him – to be salt and light in the world, even while not becoming of the world. It is far too easy for Christians in the church – in any church – to find a safe place of refuge and a comfortable Christian sub-culture with safe music and safe friends, and miss what God really intends for us. Church is not one hour of pre-fab worship each week, or even 7 day a week Christian music, Christian friend, Christian education, Christian entertainment, and Christian food. We’ve taken a good thing – being set apart and worshiping God – and turned it into a distortion of the real thing.

God’s intent for the community of His people is that we come together to encounter and yield to God, be reminded who and whose we are, and be unleashed on the world in Jesus’ name. Far too often we are like a happy version of the man by the pool… we may not be lame on the mat, but all we ever do is play in the pool. And we can start to look a lot like the exiles in Isaiah – weakened, no real leadership, no real memory of God’s great promise and calling, and no real awareness of God’s presence right here among us, leading us. And to us God says, “Wake up! Get up! Get up and about doing my work!” I believe we are in the process of waking up here at Good Shepherd – and that is exciting!

Third, I believe this passage has implications for us as we relate to our denomination and our nation. The PCUSA is neither the local congregation nor the full extent of God’s Church (which includes all believers). But, it bears some semblance to ancient Israel. Our church is part of a larger community of believers who have, like Israel, strayed far from faithfulness in a number of areas. I have shared some of the actions of our recent General Assembly with you. There were some expressions of faithful intentions and a number of actions I believe were unfaithful. I have shared some about that in the newsletter and my sermon after the Assembly. I am willing to answer questions or talk as long and hard about it as you want to.

But you know what, the situation is really much darker than any one Assembly, including this one. The PCUSA, like Israel, is made up of weak and sinful human beings, which includes me. I believe the denomination, like Israel, is in a time of darkness and exile. And we do not stand apart from that, but within it.

And this is a good a time as any to also mention our nation. I love our country, but I do not understand us to be a Christian nation, to be identified as a Church-state or as the “new Israel.” I do believe our country was founded on Christian principles and is experiencing a similar time of exile and darkness as more and more we turn away from godly truth and standards of morality. Both for the PCUSA and for the United States, verses 18 and 20 are a frightening description of the world we live in: “There is none to guide her among all the sons she has borne, nor is there one to take her by the hand among all the sons she has reared… Your sons have fainted, they lie helpless at the head of every street… full of the wrath of the Lord, the rebuke of your God.”

I don’t believe the question for us is “How bad is it?” It’s bad! It’s dark. And that is true whether you are talking about our nation, our denomination, our community, or our own lives. The question we must wrestle with is not “How bad is it?” but “What are we going to do?” That’s exactly the question our Session is in the middle of wrestling with, and it’s a question we each must ask, first about self, then about neighbor, then about the larger context we are in. Those are the questions of Isaiah 51.

If there is anything Isaiah says clearly in all this, it is to make sure we first ask, not “What are WE going to do?” but “What is GOD going to do?” He reminds us of the promise to Abraham. He reminds us of God’s faithfulness to deliver His people when the entire lot of them had been enslaved in Egypt as a result of not listening to God. He claims that God will be faithful to deliver his people in his day, though they have been exiled as a result of complete national spiritual and moral unfaithfulness and though no spiritual leaders are in sight. He reminds us that God is a God who does not forsake the exile, but pursues them – pursues US, pursues YOU – through thick and thin and into the fearful cover of darkness.

What God has done and what He promises to do

Why did I order these applications in the order I did? I did it because I believe that experience of God’s redemption must begin with you and with me. God speaks through Isaiah to each of us, “Wake up! Get up! Get up and about doing my work!”

How will our local neighborhood and community be blessed to be a blessing? It will be through God’s witness through us as we wake up, get up and get about doing God’s work.

How will the denomination and the nation be reminded of God’s truth and hope, particularly if there is a deficit of new leaders to guide and lead? It will be through God’s witness as we wake up, get up and get about doing God’s work.

I put them in that order because I don’t believe we can be faithful with large things until we have been faithful with little things. But hear that not as me saying, “Don’t be involved with big things.” Hear it as a challenge to respond to God’s invitation to find a personal ministry and mission, to respond personally, having a local witness, and if God wills, to have a larger impact.

Get up and get out! God is on the move – and He calls us to be a part of what He’s doing here at Good Shepherd and in our neighborhoods, and beyond. If you are ready to explore what that looks like in your life, share that with me. The Session and I want to encourage, equip, and support you in every way we can.

Finally, I will save the benediction for the benediction – but note what good news this is! Our God reigns! When we get up and get out, following after Jesus, we bear the light of the world out into the darkness. Amen.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why Am I Here? (Hosea 6, Ephesians 1)

August 10, 2008
Sermon by: Royallen Wiley
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Monday, August 4, 2008

The Other Brother (Luke 15)

August 3, 2008
Sermon by: Carter Robinson
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“The Other Brother”

It is good to be home… Glad to be here…

Sometime after college I remember Luke 15 being called the “lost chapter of Luke.” After studying all types and forms of biblical criticism in College I thought they were referring to the fact that maybe this chapter of Luke was lost for a while in history and only found on later biblical sources. That it might have been an addition later to the book of Luke. Because I remember in college that my professors taught that some books, even gospels were added to later. I deeply pondered what happened to Luke 15 and what brought it into the Bible.

I felt pretty dumb when I realized that Luke 15 was called the “lost chapter of Luke” because Luke 15 has three stories in it, the parable of the Lost Sheep, the parable of the Lost coin, and the parable of the Lost son. Henceforth Luke 15 is the Lost chapter of Luke!

In seminary I took a Friedrich Nietzsche class. I can’t say it was a pleasure to take the class, in retrospect I wonder why on earth I took, it. But I did learn a lot in the class, and I guess since I am talking about it in this sermon it was worth it.

If you don’t know much about Nietzsche please don’t waste your time learning about him. He was a German Philosopher in the late 1800’s. He is famous for making the statement that “God is Dead.” Needless to say he was not a Christian.

You see in this story the younger son basically kills his father. The son does not want to wait until his father lives out his life to its fullness and then with sadness because of his father’s death inherits his part of the family’s wealth and fortune. No this son wants what is coming to him right now; he wants his father to be dead so that he can enjoy life NOW.

How often are we like this young son, we want everything that is coming to us, and we want it NOW! We are not willing to wait for normal procession of time, but we ask for everything now. We want our cake and eat it too, some might say.

Now once this son gets what is coming to him he doesn’t stick around, he doesn’t follow what his father had planned for him. He heads out for a good time. The NIV says the son spent all of his money in “wild living,” the Message Translation by Eugene Peterson says that “undisciplined and dissipated, the son wasted everything he had.” You see the son for all intensive purposes had killed his father, so he no longer needed to follow the teachings his father had taught him.

This is where I think Friedrich Nietzsche was trying to talk about, even though he had no clue, God is dead, because we kill God. Every time we want something before it is out time, every time we go off on our own and stray from God, every time we sin, we kill God. Ok, we try to kill God, we never do, God is bigger than that. But here comes the good news… The truth that no matter how hard we try, we can never kill God!

As we continue with this young son’s adventure we are told that after all of his money was spent there was a famine where the son was living. And since he had spent all of his money he had nothing. We can only assume he made no real friends while he was in the area. I am sure he had many friends when he had money, but once his money was gone so were his “friends.” -- I am sure we all know some fair weather friends -- The son had no other choice but to find work to make money to survive.

As this son was feeding pigs, pigs, remember we are talking about Jews here. What do Jews think of pigs… They are unclean. Obviously this son was not working for a Jew, it was forbidden for all Jews to have pigs because they was unclean. In Jewish literature it was said “Cursed is the man who rears swine.” Feeding swine would have been the lowest possible thing a Jew could do. We are told though this son goes even lower. The son is so hungry that he longed to eat the pods he was feeding the filthy unclean pigs. This would have been such a degrading thought, it was beyond degrading for the son. No doubt this was as low as the son could have gotten. When he was at the lowest possible point in his life he came to his senses.

The son realizes that his life is horrible. The son realized that he has wasted his life that he for all intensive purposes was dead. He realized he was going to die, without someone’s help, he was going to starve to death, he realized that even if he was a servant in his father’s house, he would at least get three meals a day and not be starving to death wanting to eat “pig slop.”

The son decided that it was time to head home, and the son probably spent the whole journey home preparing his speech for his father. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”

Isn’t it ironic, just 6 verses earlier the son more or less killed his father wanting him dead so that he could go have fun with his inheritance. Now the son is putting his hope in his father to save him, save him from starvation, save him from the death that he earned by his wild living and wasting everything that he had.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? When our lives are going the way we want them to, we are good on our own, we don’t rely on our Father in heaven. Many times we even try to kill our Father in heaven by going our own way, and doing whatever we want. We want to be the god of our own lives.
How quickly do we change our tune once everything starts going wrong in our lives! Because once everything goes badly we want our Father in heaven to be God of our lives, we want to turn to Him, we want to trust Him.

The beauty I believe of the story of the Younger Son comes in verse 20: that while the Son was far off his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him, and the father RAN out to his son, threw his arms around his son and kissed him.

AFTER this, the Son recited to his father his speech that he spent the whole journey preparing: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

We get no verbal response from the father to the son. We just get actions. And we are taught that actions speak louder than words.

I have no doubt that the younger son was shocked completely by the response of his father. The Father responds asking his servants to: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” And we are told that they began to celebrate.

The inspiration for this sermon today came to me from Henri Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Nouwen, who was a catholic priest who was a professor at Yale, but left Yale to serve as Chaplain of a home for mentally handicapped people, wrote this book about his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

The painting shows the younger son kneeling in front of his father and his father embracing him lovingly. The son who has a shaven head who has no robe on has one foot that is bare and the other sandal is so warn that his heel is revealed.

You see, the son’s appearance shows that he is no longer a part of the family, and that he has nothing left in life, not even a good pair of sandals, which are important because people at the time walked everywhere.

What the father sends to servants to get his younger son are not random items, they all had very special meaning. In my research I found the special meanings they would have had for a Jew in this time period.

The robe is the garnet that the son would have been wearing before he left home, his new robe, the best in the house shows his re-instatement as son.

The ring, the second item given to the son it is a symbol of authority, especially royal authority.
The final item that the son was given was a new pair of sandals. They show that a person was a free person, and not a slave. And even more than that only the master wore their sandals in the house, all the guests took their sandals off at the door of someone’s house.

The son who came home was willing to be satisfied by just being a servant of his father, but instead the son was completely restored to his position as son and heir. What an amazing feat by the father, who had no obligation to his wayward son at all.

Lastly, if not enough that the Father had not already done enough for the young wayward son, the father throws a huge party. Maybe the biggest party the father had ever thrown in his life, for this son who strayed and came back home. What a great story of God’s love and compassion for the lost. It makes us all really food good inside right?

We can now say Amen, end of story right?

Maybe not, even though it is easy to end there and be happy for the younger son and just think of how loving and great God is because He accepts us back even when we sin and turn against him. Even when we kill God in our minds, He will come running out towards us and reinstate us as Sons and Daughters of the kingdom.

But, what about the Other Brother?

The older brother, missed the wonderful scene of the homecoming of his younger wayward brother. The older brother did not get the chance to run out with his father and greet his younger brother and welcome him back into the family! The brother was dutifully out working while all of this was going on. Actually the older brother was out working the whole time his younger brother was out spending all of his inheritance wildly.

The older brother as he came near the house he heard the amazing party going on inside, he was probably concerned and he asked one of the servants what on earth was going on. He didn’t understand because his father has never thrown a party like this before! The servant replied to the older brother: “Your brother has come, he replied, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound!”

Now I can honestly say I have no clue how that would feel. Being an only child I have never had to experience sibling rivalry. I have never had to compete for my parents attention, it was always only mine. But I can say I think I can understand that this older bother would have been jealous and upset with his younger brother, who has squandered part of the family fortune and gone out and had lots of fun while the older brother was left home working. The older brother’s response to learning what the party was about was anger and because the older brother was angry he refused to go in and enjoy the biggest party that his father had ever thrown!

How many times have we missed great opportunities, missed out on great things because we were upset, because we were jealous, because we were bitter!

We continuously see more and more of the father’s goodness and love in this story. When the Father hears that his elder son was refusing to go in to the party. Once again the Father goes out, reaches out, but it was to the elder brother this time.

The Father goes out and pleaded with his son to come in and enjoy the party with everyone else. I can easily see myself in this story outside the house “pouting” not enjoying what is offered to me because I am upset.

The older son responds to his father’s kind request with harsh words. He says to his father: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” You can just hear the bitterness in the son’s voice towards his father, the older brother won’t even recognize that his younger brother is even his brother; he calls his younger brother, “This son of yours” to his father. How degrading not even to acknowledge your own family as family. Obviously this older, elder brother was full of bitterness towards his younger brother.

The father refusing to let this son slip away into complete bitterness the father replies with love and kindness. “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

The interesting thing about this story is that we know that the younger son was reconciled to the Father, but what about the elder son. This story leaves us asking, did the older brother go into the party and accept his younger brother back like the father did, or did the older brother continue with his bitterness.

We have two story lines to look at this morning. I personally can relate to both story lines. I myself am the younger brother, and the older brother all in one!

First we will talk about the younger brother. He is easier to talk about I believe. He is the one who went off, was disobedient, who didn’t follow his father’s words, and squandered his life on his own. He was disobedient and sinful.

I can relate to this. I can admit that I have strayed from what God wanted me to do in my life. I have left the right path for my own path at times. I am not going to bore you with the details of my straying this morning. Even though I am sure my parents would love to hear about it.

I think that each of us though, if we are completely honest with ourselves, will admit we have strayed. We all have been like this young brother at one point in our lives or the other. We all have gone astray and wished that God was not there. We all have our little secrets that we want to keep from God. This is what it means to be the younger son. To stray and to sin. Fortunately God does not leave us there.

The second part of being the younger son is the beautiful picture of reconciliation. In all my waywardness I have come to the realization that I am wrong and needed to turn around and go back to The Heavenly Father.

The good news is that each time God is there running towards me with open arms. Jesus Christ gives me his robe, puts a ring on my finger and gives me sandals to wear. I am restored as an air to the kingdom of God. That is the good news!

If there is anyone who is still living their own life, still living for yourself, still living a wild lifestyle. I tell you this, God loves you, Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, is running towards you with open arms, ready to accept you into the family, into the inheritance of the kingdom of God! And God is ready to throw one kicking party to welcome you in too!

That is the easy part of the story this morning, the story with the happy ending. Let us now turn our attention to the other brother.

The comedian Buddy Hackett once said: "I've had a few arguments with people," "but I never carry a grudge. You know why? …… While you're carrying a grudge, they're out dancing."

That is what was literally happening in the story that Jesus tells today. But why was this older brother included in the happy story of the lost son. This is the third Lost story in Luke and the others neither the other sheep or the other coins complained about the lost sheep or the lost coin, but the brother is up in arms about his lost brother!

You see it is easy to be the one reconciled to, it is easy to be the one that is the center of attention, trust me I know like I said I am an only child! It is harder to be the other one, the hard working one, the one behind the scenes who never get noticed for what they have been doing all along. That is probably how the elder brother was in this story. This brings in the sad part of the story. We don’t know if the elder brother ever joined the party, we don’t know if the elder brother carried this heavy burden of bitterness for the rest of his life, maybe even dying a bitter old man.

I read a story this week about two monks. One day, two monks were walking through the countryside. They were on their way to another village to help bring in the crops. As they walked, they spied an old woman sitting at the edge of a river. She was upset because there was no bridge, and she could not get across on her own. The first monk kindly offered, "We will carry you across if you would like." "Thank you," she said gratefully, accepting their help. So the two men joined hands, lifted her between them and carried her across the river. When they got to the other side, they set her down, and she went on her way.

After they had walked another mile or so, the second monk began to complain. "Look at my clothes," he said. "They are filthy from carrying that woman across the river. And my back still hurts from lifting her. I can feel it getting stiff." The first monk just smiled and nodded his head.
A few more miles up the road, the second monk griped again, "My back is hurting me so badly, and it is all because we had to carry that silly woman across the river! I cannot go any farther because of the pain." The first monk looked down at his partner, now lying on the ground, moaning. "Have you wondered why I am not complaining?" he asked. "Your back hurts because you are still carrying the woman. But I set her down five miles ago."

This is the truth of bitterness. Bitterness is the second monk who cannot let go. We hold the pain of the past over people’s head like a club, or we remind them every once in a while, when we want to get the upper hand, of the burden we still carry because of something they did years ago. But by doing so we are bound by our bitterness, by our hatred, and eventually we can not go on because of it. Only by giving up our bitterness can we truly be free.

Now why did Jesus include the older brother in the parable, in order to see that we must go back to the beginning of the Lost Chapter of Luke. It starts: “ now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

You see these Pharisees and teachers were the elder brother in the story. They are Jews, they are the chosen people of God, and they are jealous and bitter that Jesus has come to the sinners and lost ones. The Pharisees are so bitter that they eventually have Jesus Christ crucified.

I said earlier that I am both brothers all rolled into one. As a sinful human I am automatically the younger brother, but you see I am also the older brother because of where I came from, where I was born and raised, I am just like the Pharisees.

I don’t remember this, but I am told, and of course it is true, that Dr. Katibah baptized me. Now this was before there was a Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. But once there was a good shepherd this was and is my church home. I have grown up here, I remember the white house, and especially the cool slide that was outside the white house. Now if you are confused or if you think I am talking about where the president lives. The white house is where GSPC started, a little white house that was over there. It was where worship was held and everything. There are pictures around somewhere and I would suggest looking at them, they are very entertaining!
But I have always been in this church. I have spent most of my life when I wasn’t straying, working hard. I have been working towards the kingdom of God. This summer actually represents ten years since I served on Summer Staff for Son Servants, which started my life of Ministry. Ever since then I have known that God was calling me to ministry, and ever since then I have been working as a youth director, DCE, studying in seminary, preaching, doing everything I can working for God and his Kingdom.

I can honestly admit that I sometimes get upset, bitter, even angry when I look around and see others who have not spent their time serving. Who have spent their lives squandering their lives receiving blessings from God. When I see all of their dreams come true while I seem to struggle, to always have something going wrong. While they seem to have an easy life, while they seem to be getting all the parties in life while I am out in the field working.

Yes I too am the older brother in this story. I am sure I am not the only older brother here today either. It is hard to see change come, to see new leadership in the church. Hard to accept that God is using others who might not look like or act like we do. We have been here all the time, but now there are new people coming in being welcomed in and we are no longer the center of attention.

I am sure that most, if not all of us are carrying some type of bitterness this morning. It is also a human tendency. I encourage all of us to give it up, give it to Christ.

You see the good news once again is Father God, Jesus Christ comes running out to us and invites us in. We are invited to give up our bitterness and join in the party.

The question is can we come into the party and enjoy it with everyone else, or do we harbor such bitterness that we stay outside and miss out on the joy that God wants for us to have?
Jesus Christ comes running to all of us, each and everyone. How do we respond?

Let us Pray:

Lord God, that you for sending us Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, thank you for showing us how to live our lives for your good will. Help us to turn to you when we do stray, help us not to carry our bitterness towards others, but give it all to you. Lord help us in our dark hours even though we ignore you so very often. Help us to see with our own eyes you running towards us with open arms. Amen