“If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament upon the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity. The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it.”
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
“And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
Luke 15:11-24, ESV
Three hundred and twenty-nine words– these describe the life of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. These 329 words reveal to us a God who forgives much, and loves easily; the Father loves far too much, way too easy— and far too extravagantly for human beings to understand. Perhaps we sort of expect that he will ‘appropriately’ punish his son— at least put him on probation at least. It only makes sense.
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Many of us have lived in prodigality, some of us for a very long time. We have spent our inheritance like ‘drunken sailors’ and have nothing at all to show for it. The prodigal, completely destitute, takes the only work he can find. (Imagine a good Jewish boy feeding hogs.) He is so far gone that he starts inspecting the slop pails for something to eat.
Many of us will understand his despair. But there comes this crystalline moment of amazing clarity. The prodigal—filthy and impoverished, has a memory of the Father’s house. The servants there had far more than him. Sometimes in our captivity we instinctively want to go home, if only to be a slave.
The Father has dreamed of this moment. The parable says, “He saw him–felt compassion–ran out to him–embraced him–and kissed him.” In moments we see a swirl of servants who completely overwhelm an already overwhelmed son. I’ve read the Parable of the Prodigal Son a hundred times or more . It never loses its punch. I simply want to bring you for just a few moments back into its light. I expect that the Holy Spirit may have business with you.
We see that his father receives him with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture. His head is downy, almost like a newborn’s. Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, who crosses his hands in stoic judgment; we read in the parable that he objects to the father’s compassion for the sinful son.
Rembrandt had painted the Prodigal once before, when he was considerable younger. And it is a very good painting. The prodigal is happy and gay; there is absolutely no indication of the consequences of sin. He is charming young man at a happy party. But Rembrandt chooses at the end of his life to re-paint it to reflect reality. This is one of the last paintings he will do, and it is the Prodigal Son–destitute and repenting. I can only imagine; the years have taken a toll and he doesn’t really feel his first painting is enough. He wants to paint what is true. He is painting us.
Bruises seem to be part of life’s package to us. Some will be serious, most minor. But each are noted, and some will just have to be endured.
Dancers are some of the most wonderful people I know. Their gracefulness can be seen both on and off the stage. A dancer’s training is far from easy. By choosing to become dancers they have made a decision to absorb pain. Their toes and feet are blistered and bruised; they take constant abuse. Some must live with chronic tendinitis. Their feet bleed sometimes, and pain is their constant companion. Two things to consider.
They choose to dance. Dancers have an iron-will and a elegant grace. I suppose that is why they can dance.
The scars and bruises often become “badges of honor.” And they wouldn’t have it any other way. They would rather dance in pain, than not to dance at all.
Someone once compared depression as a “mental bruise.” I understand this. As depressed people, we must choose to walk out our lives from this pain. I know what it is like to bury myself in my bed for several weeks. My own mental bruise was simply more than I could take. There was a sensation of sinking into blackness, a sense of total and complete despair. I felt completely lost, and completely alone.
I prayed. I groaned, and I prayed. My sense of being totally lost was beyond comprehension. Dear reader, this was something quite real, and you must become aware of these things. Some of your friends are suffering. And it is a hellish and desperate depression.
To my Christian friends. Yes, I believe Jesus died for all my sins. He has forgiven me of much evil, I know that will live for eternity (with you). But mental illness is real, and like other illnesses it seldom is caused by evil or Satan. We would never say that diabetics are that way because of the enemy. Now the dark one will surely exploit it, but I think you give him far too much credit if you suggest he was able to initiate it. Satan just doesn’t have the spiritual “voltage.”
So, inspired by my dancing friends, and the Holy Spirit– I will make the choice to dance again. I’m pretty bruised, but I will try to ignore the pain. I would exult in my God, walk in His love, “leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture” (Malachi 4:2.)
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.”
“Loyalty and truth preserve the king, And he upholds his throne by righteousness.”
“Through these fields of destruction, baptism of fire
I’ve watched all your suffering, as the battles raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad, in the fear and alarm
You did not desert me, my brothers in arms”
Dire Straits, ’84
Loyalty, and our deep committment to our “brothers” and our “sisters” should be growing in your life right now. It should be “escorting” you to a deeper sense of intimacy with each other. About 20 years ago, I visited a Lutheran church on a Sunday service. There was a point in the liturgy when you were to greet the people around you. I remember grabbing a guy in the pew in front of me. I gave him a massive bear hug, squeezing the air from him. He was my brother, even though he was a stranger! I hung on tight to him. He was my brother.
In Bible times David and Jonathan had a friendship that defied political reasoning. Jonathan was supposed to be the next king of Judah, everything had been arranged by his father, Saul. But when David came into Jonathan’s life, everything was changed. An instant friendship changed everything. They would remain loyal to each other for the rest of their lives. I believe they are a model of what we are to each other, in the church.
I will confess to you, I have neglected so much in my spiritual walk. There is a lot I am ashamed of. I have sinned more as a Christian, than I ever did before I came to Christ. As a Christian, I have sinned quite vigorously. But one thing, I have held to beyond all else. I loved my brothers. They all know who they are! I can list them if you want. But in the final analysis, I have been faithful to them. I’m pretty stupid, in so many ways. But it seems that at this particular level, things are simplified. “Do you love, Allen? Of course I do, Father: even if he is in a strange and difficult place, I love my brother; always, and forever.”
Loyalty to those who have been brought into our lives, should not ever be diminished or explained away for what we call “logical reasons.” There should be a connection that should never, ever be terminated. Some of the brothers who I connected to in the ’80s, are no longer serving the Lord. But as I think of them, there is a relationship that can’t be broken, even by their disobedience. I still love them deeply.
Being loyal to someone, does not mean you honor their choices, or their sin. It seems that the issues they grapple with, can’t ever really erode or diminish your love for them. When I was a boy, on occasion we declared a “blood” oath with each other. It was almost “ceremonial,” we would cut our thumbs and meld with each other, mixing blood with blood. If only commitment and loyalty were that easy. But this is the definition of an “agape love.”
I believe the Holy Spirit sees, and honors loyalty. But I admit, I’m not doing this things for His blessing. Rather it is a compulsion, something I know is right; something I will do until they bury me. And I honestly can’t explain it. But they will always be my “brothers in arms.”
For those on the mat and wrestling, things can move very fast. Our adversary is strong, and he knows us too well. He is counterintuitive and quite aware of the sequence of moves needed to pin us to the floor. He is dangerous. And he also despises us.
I get bewildered and rattled by his attacks. He knows how to pressure me at just the right time, and he refuses to follow the rules. He is no gentleman, you might say that he is both a cheater and a bully.
Of course I am talking about Satan and his team of demons. I will not dispute their reality with you. There is almost as much scriptural support for his existence as there is for Jesus’. His hostility is toward God and His people, and his viciousness cannot be camouflaged. Evil is real, and believe this– Satan has a terrible, and ugly plan for your life.
As a mentally ill Christian, my depression quickly morphs into despondency. When I sink to that level I start to abandon hope. It’s like I’m in a lifeboat and decide that I should abandon it and tread water on my own. Despondency is not rational and just a little bit is deadly.
David knew all about desperation and disheartenment. He had been chased by his enemies, and maneuvered into the most difficult of situations. To observe him at a distance we would say that “there is no hope for him in God.” Even God can’t save him, he is reprobate. We would be convinced that there is nothing for him in God’s thinking. Nothing.
It would be so easy to make this judgement. For David was a moral failure; he was an adulterer and a brazen killer. David had sinned deeper and more intensely than Saul ever had. Join with the crowd, “There is no hope for him in God!” No hope, none, nada, zero.
“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
David defied the theology of his day. He embraced the Lord God with a desperate passion. It was not orthodox or logical. You could say it was disturbing. But David would not let go of God! He hung on, and continued to sing in faith.
I encourage you besieged brother, and embattled sister. Hold on to Him, even if it defies logic or theology. Seek His promises with a fervency, open your heart to Him with a passion. Remember that sin can and will destroy you. It is part of Satan’s stratagem. Sing in the cave, and never lose hope. Never.
9 “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”
7 For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will.8 That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.”
The reality is that we are in a real fix. The grim news isn’t changed simply because we graduated from a ‘charm school’ or become Eagle Scouts. We are fundamentally flawed, our hearts throughly contaminated. Any good we try to do is a ‘freak of nature,’ and astronomically beyond our ability. The race of men has failed. (Maybe that’s why history keeps repeating itself.) Without the presence of God, we would destroy ourselves. And each other.
The word “hostile” is used. That sort of sums it all up, doesn’t it?
God’s Constant Love for You
8 “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”
Although we’re in active rebellion, “God so loved the world…” His love for us is called ‘agape,’ it is a word used in the New Testament, and it’s a love marked by consistency and selflessness. God loves without any conditions or merit on our part. Agape is love undeserved. The word is full of mercy, a concept very hard for us to grasp.
God’s love for us the way the universe is run. Love is what empowers Him to save us from our sins. It is the Lord’s love that draws us to Himself. Love is like a magnet that pulls us out of darkness into the light. His love for you is infinite.
“In math, if you divide an infinite number by any number, no matter how large, you still have an infinite quotient. So Jesus’ love, being infinite, even though it is divided up for every person on earth, is still infinitely poured out on each one of us!”
You can trust the Lord to be fully loving you right this minute. It is a full and constant love— there is scarcely a human parallel. The ‘prophets’ exhaust language seeking a metaphor to explain God’s love to a doubting and disobedient people. I imagine they are frustrated; they can’t explain what they’ve seen. They try, and end up explaining God’s love by type: marriage, and motherhood.
Over and over, these two metaphors are used extensively. And over and over you can see the love of God for people (flesh and blood, like you and I) for us. He loves us like a husband loves his straying wife. He loves us like a father loves his struggling child. We stray and struggle, and we will find no peace apart from His love. After all we are His, and we really can’t ‘work right” apart from His guiding presence.
Look at His heart. See His hands.
They both bear us witness of a supreme love. He loves you right now— wrecked and ravaged by your sin. I don’t know where you are at this very moment, but I do know He loves you intensely. Sin may have destroyed you, but His love never, ever vacillates. God is passionate about you— He won’t let you go. But you must risk being loved.
“See how very much our Father loves us,for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him.”
My favorite of all the apostles is John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I love his Gospel, and the three epistles that he wrote, and of course, Revelation.
There are a couple of things I love about John’s writings:
He reminds his readers that he was an eye witness to Jesus life, death, and resurrection.
He clearly sets out the evidence for Jesus’ divinity.
He focuses, particularly in the epistles, on the love of God.
He reveals the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
He provides believers with an assurance of salvation.
It is this last point that I want to write about today. Early in the history of the Christian faith, deceivers had come into the church who taught that one had to achieve sinless perfection to be saved. John wrote his first epistle to combat this heresy. The same type of heresy has crept into many legalistic denominations even today. By outwardly following the rules, such people claim to be without sin. But as John writes:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
1 John 1:8-10 (NIV).
John here provides assurance that the fact that the believer sometimes sins does not negate their salvation, because Jesus is faithful and forgives our sin. One of the definitions of assurance on Dictionary.com is “full confidence; freedom from doubt; certainty.”Throughout this epistle, John provides further assurance that those who trust in Jesus can be assured of their salvation even though they are not sinless and perfect.
The word “know” appears 42 times in this short epistle because John wants to make sure believers know that God loves them and that they can rely on His promise of salvation. In each of the chapters of the epistle, John includes his assurance:
I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.
1 John 2:12-13 (NIV).
“Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
1 John 3:21-24 (NIV).
“If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.”
1 John 4:15-16 (NIV).
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”
1 John 5:13-14 (NIV).
None of us is perfect and completely sinless. If we were, we would not need a Savior. But we do need Him, and we thrive best knowing that He is faithful in His promise of salvation for those who believe.
John does not advocate living a life in which we sin ‘willy-nilly’ simply because we know we can be forgiven.
Now don’t get me wrong. Those who truly believe in Jesus, and trust in Him for salvation, will desire to keep God’s commands. His Spirit living in our hearts will help us to overcome the temptations of the world and to love as He has commanded.
You may be struggling today with worries that you are not good enough, or that God will give up on you and you will lose your salvation. But remember – God is faithful in His promises and He has promised eternal life to all who believe in Jesus and allow His love to live in them. He has not hidden the truth from us, but has made Himself known through His Son and the witness of the apostles so that we can be assured of our place in His Kingdom. Your salvation is sure.