Resisting Temptation

 

(Brook Hill UMC – Oct. 25, 2015)

(from the series “God’s Messages – They Ain’t Spam”)

Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV) 1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ” (Psalm 91:11-12)

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:13)

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

 

Every day most of us are bombarded by messages. Billboards urge us to eat All-Day Breakfast at McDonald’s. Yard signs urge us (I saw this sign yesterday) to vote for Bernie Sanders. Television commercials urge us to drink Bud Lite in the new Redskins or Ravens beer cans. My email invites me to buy a Creo Food-Stacking tool from The Daily Grommet. Last night Facebook was trying to sell me a T-shirt that says “Made in Canada – a Long Time Ago.”

In the midst of all these messages God also speaks to us. He speaks to our hearts by His Spirit. He speaks to our minds and hearts by His Word.

God says to us (through the prophet Isaiah): “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” (Is. 45:22)

He says to us (through His Son Jesus): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24)

In the midst of a thousand voices, we must hear – we must obey – the Word of the Lord.

This morning we look at the topic of temptation, and how to resist it. The scripture we use is Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus being tempted by the devil.

And we’ll look at this subject under three headings:

  1. The Bible teaches that Satan is real.
  2. Satan tempted Jesus directly, but usually tempts us indirectly, through our own self-centeredness.
  3. Knowing scripture can help us resist temptation.

So, here we go!

  1. THE BIBLE TEACHES THAT SATAN IS REAL.

In this passage, and in more than 50 other scriptures, Satan is identified as a real being.

A 2011 Gallup poll showed that nine in 10 Americans believe in God.

But a Barna Group survey that same year found that only 43% of Americans believe the devil to be a “living entity,” as opposed to a symbol of evil.

But C.S. Lewis believed in Satan. Lewis was an intellectual, a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He is the author of 74 books, including the Chronicles of Narnia and “The Screwtape Letters.”

In his original preface to “The Screwtape Letters”, Lewis warned of:

“…two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils.” One error “is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

Lewis concluded that the devils “are equally pleased by both errors…”

And in his 2nd preface to that same book, 20 years later, he wrote:

The commonest question [I am asked] is whether I really “be­lieve in the Devil.” Now, if by “the Devil” you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly “No”. There is no uncreated be­ing except God. God has no opposite. No being could attain a “perfect badness” opposite to the perfect goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, will, memory, energy, and existence itself) there would be none of him left.

The proper question is whether I believe in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us. These we may call devils. They do not differ in nature from good angels, but their nature is depraved. Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man. Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of [the archangel] Michael.

And (for what it’s worth) Pope Francis believes in the devil. A recent article by a Catholic priest on the CNN website says:

“His tweets and homilies about the devil, Satan, the Accuser, the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the Ancient Serpent, the Tempter, the Seducer, the Great Dragon, the Enemy and just plain “demon” are now legion.

…Francis refers to the devil continually. He does not believe him to be a myth, but a real person…

The Pope has stressed that we must not be naïve… Francis has been warning that whoever wants to follow Jesus must be aware of the reality of the devil. The life of every Christian is a constant battle against evil, just as Jesus during his life had to struggle against the devil and his many temptations.

…Francis wishes to call everyone back to reality. The devil is so frequently active in our lives…, drawing us into negativity, cynicism, despair, meanness of spirit, sadness and nostalgia.

[The Pope says] We must react to the devil… as did Jesus, who replied with the Word of God… one cannot dialogue [with the Dark Prince]; one can only respond with the Word of God that defends us.

(Rev. Thomas Rosica, July 20, 2015)

In reporting on the life of Jesus (in the four letters of Matthew, Mark and Luke and John), the Bible gives us about a dozen places where Satan is identified by name and spoken of as a real being.

So the Bible teaches that Satan is real.

  1. SATAN TEMPTED JESUS DIRECTLY, BUT USUALLY TEMPTS US INDIRECTLY, THROUGH OUR OWN SELF-CENTEREDNESS.

The Bible says that “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” (James 1:13-14)

So often when we’re tempted, it’s through our own inner desires, our own inner yearnings.

Why do 70% of Christian men and 30% of Christian women say they struggle with Internet pornography?

Why can’t you resist going back to the buffet and getting three or four helpings of those candied yams? That’s not the enemy directly at work – it’s our own desires.

In the scripture we read, Satan directly tempted Jesus.

He said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” It looks like the enemy was trying to get Jesus to even doubt His identity as the Son of God.

If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from the top of this temple.” The enemy was appealing to Jesus’ vanity and pride, for surely such a miraculous sign would have caused many people to begin following Jesus.

But Satan had never dealt with a man like Jesus. In John 14:30, Jesus told his disciples: “…the prince of this world is coming, and [he has] nothing in me.

But the enemy has something in us! Our lives have been broken by sin, and our self-centeredness and pride often consume us.

Since the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, humans have been largely self-focused and self-centered.

Every time I preach at Brook Hill, I want to preach the best sermon ever preached. And I want that sermon to be used by God to help and encourage and teach God’s people.

But if I’m honest, hidden somewhere in the middle of those motives, is the motive of pride. I want people to think well of me. I want to polish my own apple. I want to be seen as a capable preacher, someone worth listening to.

That is pride. At its worst, that is vanity. God, forgive me! Cleanse my heart again! Make me pure in Your eyes.

So Satan tempted Jesus directly, but he usually tempts us indirectly, through our own self-centeredness.

  1. KNOWING SCRIPTURE CAN HELP US RESIST TEMPTATION.

The Word of God is our sword in the spiritual fight! We should be reading it every day.

We should look for opportunities to study it, to memorize it, to get it our hearts and minds. It is the best weapon in resisting temptation.

(1) For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15) It’s a comfort to know that Jesus has been there. He faced every temptation that you or I will face.

(2) Because [Jesus] himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18) So Christ is able and willing to help us. When we ask Him, He gives us strength to resist and overcome.

(3) I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16 – NKJV) As we actively focus on loving the Lord and walking in obedience, we will be able to resist temptation more easily.

(4) For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age (Titus 2:11–12) God wants to help us and give us victory in our struggles with sin.

(5) Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5–6) Lord, help us to live in synch with Your Spirit! Help us daily to offer our minds to You, to submit to You as our Governor.

(6) “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2) As we allow God to remake us, to renew our minds, He will transform us more and more into His likeness.

(7) “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Romans 13:13–14 NKJV)  Father, help us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ! Give us spiritual power to live holy lives, lives that please You!

(8) Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31) Lord, help us to remain often in Your Word, to live there, to abide there!

(9) “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) We will not be tempted beyond our ability to withstand. The Father gives us the power to overcome the wiles of the enemy.

PRAYER: “Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the power of the evil one…”

We Boldly Declare the Word of the Lord

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Click here for hymn sheet —

hymn sheet – We Boldly Declare

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We boldly declare the Word of the LORD

For He is our strength, His scripture our sword

We stand on His promise, we speak to obey

Affirming the truth of His wonder-filled way.

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The battle is fierce, the enemy strong

Take courage to fight, and lift up a song:

“Give praise to the LORD, for His mercy endures!”

The foe will retreat and the land will be ours.

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So thanks be to God, who leads us with pow’r

We triumph in Him, His victory is ours

The kingdom of darkness before us must fall

It cannot prevail – Jesus rules over all.

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text: Gary Hicks, based on 2 Chronicles 20:21-24

music: LYONS (O Worship the King) 10.10.11.11.

attributed to Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806),

in Wm. Gardiner’s “Sacred Melodies”, 1815

How Can I Discern God’s Will?

Acts 16:6-10 (NIV) – Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

 

Congratulations to Pastor Dana on her ordination yesterday as an elder in the United Methodist Church. It’s a major milestone after decades of making herself available to God. At the end of today’s message, I’ll share a bit more of Pastor Dana’s story in her own words.

This morning’s message seeks to answer a question: “How can I discern God’s will for the big decisions in my life?”

Earlier this month I posted an informal poll on Facebook: “In deciding to marry your spouse, did you ask God if this was the right decision for you? Or was your decision based on other factors?

I receive 26 responses. Of these, sixteen (62%) were “Yes.” One person said that after two failed marriages, she had definitely prayed and received the Lord’s direction in marrying her third husband.

One person said, “I struggled with God trying to discern yes or no.” Rusty Kight (from the 9:30 service) said “How else do you think I got the wife I have? She’s a saint.”

I received ten “No” responses (38%). Several said “No, but God provided what I needed.” One friend from eastern Canada said, “My parents did the praying; I did the chasing!” Someone else said “Totally hormone-based decision.”

Most of us have made (or will make) important life decisions: Which career path to follow, which job offer to take, which college to attend, which community to live in, which house to buy. In each of those situations it’s wise to ask God which decision is right. It’s wise to listen carefully for His answer.

And in choosing a spouse, a life partner, a person whose DNA may combine with yours to produce another human life – the life of your child – I urge you, I warn you, I implore you – ask the Master of the Universe for His help and direction and wisdom and blessing!

So today we wrestle with the topic of Discerning God’s Will. Please join with me in the wrestling!

Let’s frame our thoughts under four headings:

  1. Get all the Wisdom and Knowledge You Can.
  2. Make Prayer Your Daily Friend.
  3. Marinate your Heart and Mind in God’s Word, the Bible.
  4. Make Yourself Fully Available to God.

Here we go!

  1. First, GET ALL THE WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE YOU CAN.

This is so basic that I hardly need to elaborate on it. The Bible says, in the book of Proverbs (4:5-8):

Get wisdom, get understanding… Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you… 7 Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Cherish her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you.

Gather as much wisdom and knowledge as you can. Don’t be lazy when it comes to learning. Make truth your lifelong pursuit! Ask wise people for advice. Ask God for common sense.

  1. Then, Second, MAKE PRAYER YOUR DAILY FRIEND. It’s important to build a PRAYER LIFE because your daily conversation with God is life’s most important dialogue. Your PRAYER LIFE is infinitely more important than your FACEBOOK life or TWITTER life.

If there is a God of infinite power and wisdom, and if this God is interested in the personal affairs of your life, then nothing is more important than that relationship.

In your prayers, ask God for wisdom and direction.

James 1:5 (Living Bible) – If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it.

Do you want to know if a decision you’re about to make is a good one? Ask Him: “God, is this the right decision? Is this the right way to go?” Then listen. Is He saying YES or NO?

Tim Leber sent me an article on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes website, titled Quick Word of Prayer — “…Most church meetings begin with these words: Let’s have a quick word of prayer. I believe these seven words grieve God’s heart, because He desires a lasting conversation—not lip service. The underlying message is, Before we get to the important stuff, let’s rush through the God stuff.” Prayer isn’t something to rush through to get to the work. Prayer is the work!

  1. Then third, MARINATE YOUR HEART AND MIND IN GOD’S WORD, THE BIBLE. Develop the spiritual discipline of BIBLE STUDY. The Bible is a special book (actually a library of 66 books).

In the Bible God’s will is revealed – His plans and purposes. In the Bible that we learn right from wrong. In the Bible that we learn about Jesus, the Master of the universe who came to earth 2000 years ago as a humble man from Galilee.

In the Bible we learn God’s will. We learn what God wants.

We learn that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4 – NIV)

We learn that God “is not willing that any[one] should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9 – NKJV)

In light of this, your Brook Hill pastors are calling you, reminding you, imploring you to put your trust in Jesus Christ. Believe on Him. Believe that by His sacrifice He has done everything necessary for your salvation. He wants to change you, to turn your life upside down for the good of the world. Become a follower of this God who calls out to you, who comes seeking after you.

  1. And Fourth, MAKE YOURSELF FULLY AVAILABLE TO GOD. Do Something! Offer to help in in Sunday School, or with the Special Friends ministry, or with Youth ministry, or go on a Work Team or a Mission Trip. Visit a Nursing Home. Visit a shut-in person. Volunteer at Frederick Rescue Mission.

Do SOMETHING! God cannot steer your car while it’s parked by the side of the road. You’ll probably need to try several ways of serving before you find the ministry that’s right for you.

And look for closed and open doors in the circumstances of your life. In the scripture we read, the Apostle Paul and his co-workers were evangelizing in what is modern-day Turkey. They wanted to go into a province called Asia, but the author of this book (Luke the physician) says that in some way the Holy Spirit prevented them from doing this.

So they said, “Well then, let’s go into the region of Bithynia.” But Luke says that the Spirit of Jesus (which is another name for the Holy Spirit) would not allow them to. So they went in another direction, to the seaport of Troas. God was closing certain doors for Paul and his team, and getting ready to open an important door for them to walk through.

Sometimes we can discern God’s will by the opening and closing of “doors”.

And sometimes God calls us directly.

After the doors to Asia and Bithynia were closed to Paul’s team, God gave Paul a dream, a vision in the night of a Macedonian man saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

God gave this team a pretty clear direction, so they went to Macedonia in northern Greece. This was the beginning of their ministry in Europe.

Sometimes we can discern God’s will because He speaks to us directly and plainly.

Right now, I’m trying to discern God’s will regarding a possible fourth Brook Hill weekend gathering in downtown Frederick. This would be a Saturday morning gathering bringing together street people (displaced persons, homeless people) and those who have homes. We would invite people (including ourselves) to commit to a 4-step “Discipleship Process”, and the goal would be for every person to be growing in Christ and regularly serving Him somewhere.

Is it God’s will to begin this downtown weekly gathering? I’ve asked Him repeatedly whether this is a door I should walk through. And I cannot sense God telling me to put the brakes on this idea.

So I said, “God, I can’t do this by myself. I will need a team of committed people.”

I specifically “put out a fleece” before God. I said, “God, if you want me to do this, give me five people who will commit to help me for the first year.  And without really recruiting, I now have four people committed to help and another three who are interested or highly interested.

I’ve shared the broad outline for this ministry with the Brook Hill Church Council. I’ll be sharing with them again.

Is this God’s will for Brook Hill and for me? Maybe. I think probably.

The point is, there is a process for discerning such things, and I am pursuing that process.

Here’s part of Pastor Dana’s story, mostly in her own words:

“… I was baptized at age 12, committing my life to Jesus as my Lord.

Later, during a college retreat, I made a commitment to go wherever God led me and to be whoever God created me to be.

“At that time, ‘pastor’ wasn’t a word in my vocabulary because leadership options for women were limited in my denomination. But I knew that when I taught the Bible, when I organized people for ministry, when I helped people connect more deeply with God, I was being my authentic self.

“I attended a Walk to Emmaus weekend in 2005. One of the speakers was Teri Sweeney, a woman pastor. Teri said that God wanted her to share something different than what she’d prepared. She told of how God called her to pastoral ministry after many years as a teacher. Teri said, “There’s someone here whom God is calling. You’ve put this on the back burner of your life, and today, God wants you to respond.”

When she heard that, Pastor Dana burst into tears and left the room. Later Dana spoke with Pastor Teri, who asked her what she sensed so strongly. Dana said she knew that God had called her to be a pastor. But she didn’t know how to do that.

Pastor Teri said, “Dana, I sense God is asking you if you are WILLING to be a pastor. If you’re WILLING, God will take care of the “hows.”’ And Pastor Dana answered, “I am willing.”

What is God saying to YOU this morning? Are you willing? Are you available to become all that God wants?

PRAYER

S.O.A.P. – Triumphal Procession

S.O.A.P. — Scripture, Observation. Application. Prayer.

(written at this morning’s “Waterboyz for Jesus” table)

SCRIPTURE — 2 Corinthians 2:14But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. 15 Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. 16 To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?” (New Living Translation)

OBSERVATION — God leads us in triumphal procession. He leads us in triumph, not in defeat. In Him and through Him we have victory — we can live a victorious life. Victory over sin, victory over the evil one and his wiles, victory over discouragements and difficult circumstances. God’s purpose is to spread the knowledge of Jesus Christ, through us, to all the world.

APPLICATION / PRAYER — “Father, use me in any way You wish, to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Jesus to everyone in my world, and around Your world. Amen!”   

Roots and Wings – Indelible Grace Hymns

(pictured above at microphone: Rev. Kevin Twit)

It’s been ten years since I discovered the hymns of Indelible Grace.

Indelible Grace is a “mini-movement” started in 1995 by pastor and musician Kevin Twit.

Twit began working with students at Belmont University in Nashville through the Reformed University Fellowship (RUF).

He discovered several powerful old hymn texts and started writing contemporary tunes for them, rescuing them to be discovered by new generations.

Soon other collegians were taking up the task, including singer-songwriters Sandra McCracken and Matthew Smith. CCM band Jars of Clay was strongly influenced by the Indelible Grace movement, releasing their “Redemption Songs” album in 2005.

This is great stuff!

Watch the documentary, basically a concert in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, with commentary by various leaders of the movement.

Listen to the great music and powerful words.

Enjoy!

Two Lost Boys

Luke 15:25-32 (NIV) 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’”

 

Three months ago I told the Prodigal Son story to a 64-year-old man with stage 4 lung cancer. He was facing imminent death. It was no time for me to be talking Redskins or Ravens. I asked him to tell me about his spiritual journey, and within minutes I had the opportunity to share the story of the wayward son returning home.

This man had never heard the Prodigal Son story. But he seemed captivated. At the end I asked if he identified with the lost son coming home.

He said, “I would like to.” A door had been opened for another lost son to come home. He put his trust in Christ, and several weeks later I preached his funeral.

“Prodigal” means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant.”

Charles Dickens called “The Prodigal Son” the greatest short story ever told. This month at Brook Hill we’ve been preaching about it. Two weeks ago Pastor Dana focused on the younger son’s “Aha!” moment. Last Sunday Pastor Wade focused on the wandering son’s return to a father who offered grace and forgiveness.

Today I hope to focus on the other son, the homebody, the other lost boy.

Because, when you think about it, both of these sons were lost.

The younger son was lost in a far country. He was the partier, the wild man, the rowdy risk-taker, the one who thought he could make it on his own.

But the older son was also lost. He was relationally separated from his father. He could not understand his father’s heart. He was faithfully doing the farm-work, but his heart was not faithful. He was lost, emotionally trapped in self-centeredness and bitterness and insecurity.

This morning my point is that, at some time in our lives, most of us can identify with both the wanderer and the homebody.

After listening to Pastor Wade’s message last Sunday, my wife said, “I realize that I began my spiritual life as the younger son, and then later I became the older son.” Exactly.

Whether we are outright (no holds barred) sinners, or even believers in Jesus, we can find ourselves in the far country of alcohol abuse, pornography, a hundred other sins. We can wander away into the pleasures and distractions of life, until one day we wake up in a pigpen, dazed and confused, and knowing that it’s time to come back home to the Father. Can I get a witness?

And even when we’re believers in Jesus, doing many of the right things, we can take our eyes off of the Savior, so distracted by the do’s and don’ts of religion that we lose the heart of the gospel. We become rigid and judgmental, envious and bitter. Can I get a witness?

CAN YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE OLDER BROTHER?

THE CHURCH HAS OFTEN BEEN A PLACE OF UNGRACE. We have vilified the woman who has aborted her unborn child. We have rejected the person caught in a homosexual lifestyle. We have turned away from the alcoholic and the drug addict. We have inwardly shunned the lazy welfare case.

We have been people full of ungrace.

“My younger brother has been a jerk, a drunkard, an ungrateful little creep, sexually immoral.  Why should I forgive him?”

But the heart of the gospel is love. God is love.

Anyone who claims to live in God’s light [but] hates a brother or sister is still in the dark… stumbling around in the dark, not knowing which end is up, blinded by the darkness. (1 John 2:9-11 – The Message)

On the night before Christmas Eve I was reading to my wife when we received a phone call. We are close to a family that is going through a difficult divorce. The call was from the husband. Could we be available on Christmas Eve to supervise a visit of his wife with their 12-year old daughter? I felt imposed upon and ungracious and grumpy in the extreme. Connie was gracious and loving and welcomed mother and daughter into our home for a Christmas Eve visit. I was playing the part of the older son, the homebody. Have you ever been there?

My attitude was the attitude of the Pharisees, an attitude Jesus condemned.

This morning I’m recommending two books:

1) The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Henri Nouwen)

This Dutchman was a Catholic priest and a professor at Harvard University before he moved to Toronto to work among people with mental and physical disabilities.

2) What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Phillip Yancey) Fifteen years ago God used his book to turn my life upside down. Except for the Bible, Yancey’s book is the most important I’ve ever read. I can’t encourage you enough to read it.

In this story, a father is overjoyed when his lost son returns home. He throws a lavish party to celebrate. Jesus says that, in the same way, our Father God is overjoyed when one of HIS lost children comes home. God throws a wild party! In fact, the Kingdom of God is a party.

Jesus is saying, “This is what it feels like to be God. When any one person turns to me, I feel like I’ve just reclaimed my most valuable possession.”

In his book, Phillip Yancey gives us his contemporary rewriting of the Prodigal Son:

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, drugs, and violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: Her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him “Boss”–teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring that she can hardly believe she grew up there. She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline, “Have you seen this child?” But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year, the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. “These days, we can’t mess around,” he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her drug habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” is the wrong word—a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.

One night, as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

God, why did I leave? she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? Even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault, it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the road, and the asphalt steams. She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God.

When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life.

She checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect, and not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of 40 family members—brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They are all wearing ridiculous-looking party hats and blowing noisemakers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She looks through tears and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know … “

He interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

Our Heavenly Father loves to celebrate return. He celebrates the Wanderer when he comes back home.

And He celebrates the Homebody when the sulking is over, when the older son comes into the house to hug his brother and enjoy the party.

The Creator of the universe has made the first move toward us. He has come from eternity to speak with us today. He came to the stable in Bethlehem. He came to the cross of Calvary. He came through the empty tomb in Gethsemane.

Welcome Him! Welcome Him! Delight yourself in Him! Welcome Him to teach you the Way of Life. Welcome Him to change you.

(Preached at Brook Hill United Methodist Church) (Sunday, January 18, 2015)