Archive for March, 2013

If you’re even the slightest bit interested in sports, you know that this weekend marked the start of one of the year’s biggest sports events – typically called “March Madness” for its exciting games, surprise finishes, and buzzer beaters; the NCAA College Basketball Tournament is underway.

And so, on Monday, April 8, a National Champion will be crowned, the iconic theme song “One Shining Moment” will be played and one team will celebrate their spot at the top of the college basketball world.

And then they’ll return home as champions.  Their home town will throw a victory parade.  Fans will line up on the sides of streets that serve as the parade route, shouting for the team’s attention, hoping to get a glimpse of the championship trophy, maybe even an acknowledging glance in their direction.  The cheers of adoring fans will be so loud that they’ll be heard from miles away.

If you’re a fan like me, then maybe you even tuned in last Sunday evening when the brackets were announced on CBS.  Perhaps you watched with eager excitement to see where the Michigan Wolverines would play or who would be Michigan State’s first opponent.

No doubt there were certain amounts of cheering when the pairings were announced, especially for those teams whose tournament futures were less-certain than others.  However, I’m not sure that there were any ticker-tape victory parades thrown last Sunday.  I’m not sure that fans lined the streets to cheer their teams for making it into the tournament. To use an over-used cliché, throwing a victory parade before any tournament games were even played would be “putting the cart before the horse.”  Even in this world of star athletes making guarantees of victory, you just don’t throw a parade until that victory actually happens, because nothing is certain.

That’s what makes the scene of today’s Gospel reading so surprising.  This wasn’t just your everyday, ordinary trip into Israel’s capital city for Jesus.  This was his trip towards his final battle in the spiritual war for mankind’s soul; yet before the final battle was even fought, here was Jesus riding in to Jerusalem on his victory parade!  And what a parade it was: in fact, it was a victory parade unlike any other.

You know the scene and the back-story.  Jesus and his disciples were heading to Jerusalem, like so many other Jews, to celebrate the most important of Jewish religious festivals – the Passover.  As Jesus and his disciples gathered outside Jerusalem, on that famous mountain known as the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave a few instructions to two of them.  Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden.  Untie it and bring it here.

That might seem a bit of a strange request from our Savior.  It might seem that he’s almost encouraging “borrowing” something that didn’t belong to him.  Yet, knowing that Jesus never committed any sin, we can understand that a few possibilities might be more realistic.  Perhaps, Jesus was good friends with the colt’s owners; they might have even some of his disciples.  Maybe, Jesus had even set up a little arrangement with them, and had asked them ahead of time if he could borrow their colt for just this purpose.  Finally, however, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Jesus even prepared his disciples for the answer they were to give.  If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?, tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’

And so the disciples did just as they were told.  And imagine that – despite any skeptical thoughts they may have had, everything was just as Jesus promised.  There was the colt, tied up as Jesus said.  And sure enough, as they were untying it, its owners asked them what they were doing.  And what a surprise, they even allowed them to borrowed it as they responded the way Jesus told them to!

Fast forward to the top of the Mount of Olives where these disciples had brought the young donkey to Jesus.  Watch as Jesus’ disciples remove their outer cloaks – likely their finest pieces of clothing – and lay a few of them across the donkey’s back to create a make-shift saddle.  Watch as the others lay their outer cloaks on the dusty, dirty, rocky road ahead of Jesus.  Others cut palm branches and laid them down, too.

And as Jesus’ began making his way down the mountain, the word began to spread that Jesus was making his way into Jerusalem.  People from all over began to gather along the roadside.  Some had seen Jesus’ miracles: maybe they had been there for the feeding of the five thousand or the wedding at Cana; maybe they had heard of his miraculous healing, or his driving demons out of the possessed.  Some had probably even come from the nearby village of Bethany, where not too long ago they had been grieving outside the tomb of Lazarus when Jesus miraculously raised that young man from the dead.

Now, they gathered, hoping to catch another glimpse of their favorite teacher.  One by one, voices joined together until the shouts became one: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!

As faithful Jews, they had likely memorized the Old Testament promises regarding the promised King of kings, and they knew this scene looked familiar.  The whispers in the crowd may have aided their memory: remember what the prophet Zecheriah said?  See your king comes to you…riding on a donkey, on a colt – the foal of a donkey.  Do you see what this is?  Here’s the one we’ve been waiting for! 

But I don’t think that they really understood the significance of this victory parade for Jesus.  You see, he wasn’t riding into Jerusalem as a king; he was riding into Jerusalem as the Savior-King.  He wasn’t riding into Jerusalem to fulfill their wildest dreams – be it freedom from Rome, a daily supply of their basic desires and wishes, or the restoration of glory days long-gone.

No, Jesus – as the Savior-King – was riding into Jerusalem to fulfill their deepest need.  And so, he was riding into Jerusalem to die.  Jesus knew it; in the verses following today’s lesson, Jesus mourns the Jewish rejection that would happen four days later.  Yet he rode in anyway.

Why? Because he knew that this was a war that we could not win.  Try as we might, the stage was too big and the task was too much to handle.  We were overmatched and dead in the water.  So Jesus mounted that donkey, rode into Jerusalem through cheering crowds – all to make his way toward’s Calvary and his death.  As the Apostle Paul once wrote in Romans: at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Yes, Christ rode in to Jerusalem this Palm Sunday so many years ago that he might lay down his life – the ultimate sacrifice – in order to win the spiritual war for your soul and mine.

But this isn’t the way that you would imagine for a Savior-King riding on his way to war!  In times of war, Kings rode war-horses, not donkeys!  But Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey was a symbol of peace. You see, donkeys used for the everyday tasks of transporting grain or plowing fields, tasks more often during times of peace than times of war.  So what’s the Savior-King doing riding a donkey on his way to war?

You know that answer too.  It’s because the battle was as good as done already!  Yes, from the very moment that God promised our salvation in the Garden…even now as Jesus’ rides into Jerusalem…the end result was never in question, but always as good as done!  Why the Palm Sunday victory parade?  Because from God’s perspective, victory was already won and in hand!

It was that victory which was announced at Jesus’ birth, where the angels sang words similar to those shouted by the crowds lining the streets for the Savior-King.  Thirty-three years earlier, the angels sang, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests above the hills outside BethlehemVictory was just as certain then as it was here on the path down the Mount of Olives; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!, the people shouted as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. 

Had the Savior-King’s enemies remembered this, then perhaps they might have been cowering in fear instead of bold in defiance.  Yet, the devil even then was at work, using the religious leaders of Israel to come up with bloated charges false charges of religious blasphemy.  Even now, the Savior-King’s enemies plotted his death while dreaming of their own victory.

But any victory that they imagined would be short-lived.  For on this day, from the back of a donkey, surrounded by waving palm branches, the Savior-King announced victory over his enemies – a victory for you and for me! A victory that meant peace in heaven; peace between God and man.

This Thursday night, as the altar is stripped and words sung which remind us of our Savior’s abandonment in the Garden of Gethsemane – remember that he had already held his victory parade!  As we remember our Savior crucified on Golgatha, the blood, the agony, the suffering of hell which he endured – let us remember our Savior’s victorious ride into Jerusalem!

Yes, he rides into Jerusalem this morning to declare the war won for you and for me! It’s in the bag!  It’s a victory parade like none other: The Savior-King is victorious before its even begun!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Amen!


I warned you – when I first started this blog, I included the disclaimer: I’m no good at this “diary” thing.  And here’s why: it starts out with good intentions, but you have to keep yourself on task.  Blame it on whatever you will: the demands of fatherhood and marriage, the Lenten season, or my own slip of the mind; each and every excuse probably has its own share of the blame.  For whatever reason, I neglected to post the promised weekly review of the Bible mini-series on the History Channel.

But here’s part of what I think the reason may have been – I just didn’t know what to write.  As I watched the last two episodes (four hours worth; I still haven’t watched the March 4th episode), I enjoyed watching the portrayal of the Bible stories.  True, I disagreed with some of the portrayal (since when was Samson of African descent instead of Jewish?!) and there were stories I wish would have been included (I remember commenting to my wife that I wish they would have shown the story of Gideon), but overall I was interested to see how the producers would Old Testament stories.

But when I finished watching each of the episodes, I walked away with an empty feeling.  It wasn’t that the portrayals were entirely inaccurate, as there were definitely inaccuracy; it was, as I saw one clip describe, that the stories were almost portrayed as individual events loosely connected by the fact that they were all Old Testament stories that depicted men and women who gave devotion to God.  What was missing was the context of the whole Old Testament Scriptures: the drumbeat (thanks, dad!) of the Old Testament, “The Savior is coming! The Savior is coming!  THE SAVIOR IS COMING!”

Where was the promise of God about his promised one?  Two and a half episodes, and never once was there a mention about God’s promised Savior.  Never once was there a mention of God’s grace through the Promised Messiah.  Never once was that glorious truth even alluded to.

It wasn’t for lack of opportunity; the Tenth Plague and the first Passover celebration (which pointed ahead to Jesus’ sacrifice as the true Passover Lamb) and the reason for which David could be forgiven his indiscretions (which, by the way, was one of my biggest beefs – where was the call to repentance by the prophet Nathan?  Where was the repentance by David, and thus the promise of forgiveness by God through the mouth of his servant?) are just two of the many opportunities through which that promise could have been mentioned.

I said this in my first review, and nothing has really changed.  If Jesus is taken out of the Old Testament, then what’s the point?  The Old Testament simply becomes a bunch of stories that are included to set examples for people to live by.  Is that the point of the Old Testament?  Absolutely not!

Scripture – all of Scripture! – is to reveal God’s plan of salvation through the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ.  Take Jesus out of the Old Testament, intentially or otherwise, is to rob it of its meaning.  Let the stories show God’s grace in the lives of sinners (yes, believe it or not, men like David and Samson and Abraham and others were just as sinful as you and I are!), and the beauty of forgiveness is stunning!

We’ll see what the March 24th episode (I’m about to watch it) and the Easter Sunday episode will say about God’s grace.  I pray that it shows the beauty of salvation through Christ alone; but even if this series doesn’t clearly show this – rest assured that God’s Word does.  And what better way to see forgiveness than from the Word of God itself?!

To quote a completely unrelated commercial, “Stay thirsty my friends.”  Stay thirsty for the Gospel, for it is the Gospel message of salvation through Christ – from beginning to end of time – that saves!

Tom Sawyer white washing the fence is one of those iconic scenes from American literature.  Even if you’ve never read Mark Twain’s famous novel, you can probably imagine the scene.  Tom has a problem.  He has to complete a task that is unpleasant.  His solution?  “Misery loves company.”  He tricks his friend into believing that whitewashing a fence is an enviable experience that he wants to share.

Isn’t that exactly what Satan’s been doing since the Garden of Eden?  It was there when he attempted and succeeded in making knowledge of sin and death something that Adam and Eve envied enough to partake of.  Day after day, he does no different with us – getting us to envy sinful actions and thoughts enough to join in the “fun.”

In our lesson today, the apostle Paul does the exact opposite.  With no deception, he holds out the beauty of forgiveness and life to a guilty and dying world in hopes of making them envious of these gifts of God to man.

You remember last week’s sermon, don’t you?  Ok – maybe not every detail, but you remember the general gist.  Son leaves home with his early inheritance, spends it foolishly hits, hits rock bottom, comes home repentant, and is thrown a party.

Had you been part of the crowd listening to Jesus telling this parable, you might have picked up the reason that Jesus told this parable.  He had just heard the religious leaders mutter under their breath, This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

You might have walked away, knowing that this parable was told to wake up these religious leaders from some delusions of spiritual grandeur.  In this parable, the Jews were the disgruntled older brother,  the one who needed to be called to repentence, while the lost-and-found brother were the social outcasts of Israel and the “heathen” nations that surrounded them.  In the end, Jesus’ point was that you didn’t have to be a “good Jew” to be welcomed into heaven; God’s grace was just as much for the heathen Gentile who repents as it was for those who were part of God’s specially chosen people.

Now, if you put the parable of the Prodigal Son immediately next to the verses before us this morning, you might notice that Paul has done a little loop-de-loop.  You see, when Paul looks at the parable of the Prodigal Son, it’s the Jews who are the Prodigal Sons – not the Gentiles.

You see, it was the Jews that needed to be won back to the fold, not the Gentiles.  Why?  Because they had fallen!  You know the tragic tale.  It was Abraham and his descendents whom God had hand-picked to bring about the salvation of the world.  It was Abraham and his descendents – the Jews! – who were supposed to be the prime recipients of God’s gospel blessings.

But they shoved it away.  They turned their back on it.  When God sent his Son, who would bring about the fulfillment of thousands of years of promises made to the Jews, the Jews rejected him; they bound him, mistreated him, condemned him to death, and made sure that death sentence was carried out.

It’s the kind of rejection that seems like it would be the last straw.  Paul even anticipates those questions: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?  It seems logical; after all, they should’ve known better!  They should have seen what was right in front of them.  They should have believed him when he revealed who he was, when he told them why he came.  If anyone should have been on the Savior’s side – it should have been the Jews!

But like the prodigal son who ran away from the open arms of grace, so the Jews crucified the King of kings and Creator of all that is.  They nailed to a tree the one who had come to be their Savior.  What hope could there be for them, right?

Paul uses the Jews as an example of pointing out just how God can take sinful actions and work good through them.  Their transgression – the crucifixion of the Lamb of God – means riches for the world.  What a wonderful reminder: that as we begin next week to walk with our Savior to Calvary’s cross during Holy Week, God was always in control.  The Jews might have felt like they had the upper hand, the devil might have seen victory on Good Friday – but God was using the sinful actions of everyone involved to bring about the blessing first promised after Satan’s first deception; God used the Jewish rejection, Pilate’s cowardice, Judas’ betrayal, every bit of it to bring about the salvation of the world!

That might seem shocking, but here’s the kicker: Salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.  Paul wasn’t speaking hypothetically; he was sharing what he was told and what he was seen.  You know the story of Paul’s conversion, how Jesus called him on the road to Damascus to be the missionary to the Gentiles.  Perhaps you might even recall one of his first stops as a missionary: desiring to share the Gospel with all, he proclaimed Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins to the local synagogue.  But when they rejected that message, Paul responded sharply: We had to speak the word of God to you first.  Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13:45,46).

That was always Paul’s hope – not just that God would use him to bring Gentiles to faith, but that through him reaching out to Gentiles, God might call more Jews back to himself.  I make much of my ministry, he says, in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. 

Because, the truth is – outwardly Jews and Gentiles might be different.  They may have different skin tones, different languages, different facial features, different hair color, you name it.  But deep down – I mean, really deep down, at the “heart” of it all – Jews and Gentiles of all nations are the same.  Dead in sin and unbelief; doomed to hell because of their status as God’s enemies.

But that’s why God sent Jesus, isn’t it?  As we heard last week, God sent Jesus so that Jesus could be our Brother and Substitute, so that through his perfection and his death our everlasting forgiveness might be won for us!

So what a wonderful thing, that God might lead us to see Jesus as that Savior we need!  Because that’s how God brought us in, isn’t it?  Through faith, which lays hold of Jesus’ sacrifice, God has kneaded us into the batch of dough, he has grafted us to the root.

Through faith, which lays hold of Jesus’ sacrifice and perfection – what he is what we have been made!  If part of the dough is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.  Because Jesus never once sinned, we who trust him as our Savior, are declared perfect in God’s eyes.  Because Jesus is holy, God gives us the verdict, Not Guilty, too!

Isn’t that something that people should be envious of?  Is that the way you feel about the gift of salvation you’ve been given – that it’s the most prized treasure of all, and that others should be jealous that you have it and they don’t?

Or has the gift of forgiveness become something that you tend to take for granted?  Paul warns us to not make that same mistake: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.  You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.”  Granted.  But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith.  Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 

If you find yourself taking for granted the gift given to you through Jesus – saying something like It doesn’t matter what I do, Jesus has forgiven me already, anyway! – then be afraid.  If you find yourself thinking that God somehow owes you something because you believe in him, remember that is the mistake that the Jews made.  They felt that God owed them a special place in his kingdom because they were “Abraham’s children.”  Whether Jew or Gentile, the result is always the same: the unbeliever is snipped off the root, separated from the batch of dough. God will not spare anyone who rejects him.

If destruction is the other option, isn’t salvation – escaping the eternal destruction of hell – something that people should be envious of?!  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  If we have the greatest gift that humanity has ever been offered – everlasting life with our God, our Savior, our Creator – why aren’t people more envious of it?

If you talk to the “cool” pastors – you know, the ones who wear skinny jeans and cool button down shirts, who give sermons while drinking lattes and have a rock band behind them – they might tell you the reason is because we don’t make this gift “appealing” enough.  That you need to make the Christian faith appealing by modernizing it.  That if Christianity becomes more 21st century, then we’ll need to add pews to our churches because they’ll be so so full each and every week!

I don’t think they’re right, in many cases, anyway.  Yet, I do think that part of their message might be alright – because they say the same thing that Paul does.  In essence, maybe the world isn’t envious of our gift, because they don’t always know what that gift is!  Maybe they aren’t jealous of us, because they don’t see what makes us different from them.

See, that’s Paul’s encouragement: make the unbeliever envious of what you have (forgiveness through the blood of Jesus) by making your blessings known!  It’s something we teach our children from early on: this little gospel light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.  Hide it under a bushel – NO! – I’m gonna let it shine, we teach them to sing, don’t we?

And the end goal is this: that their envy leads them to learn more about Christ; that as they learn more about Christ, they come to know what he has done for them; that when they realize the gracious gift Jesus has for them, they too are brought in to the lump of dough and grafted on to the root!

And what a cool thing that would be, right?  That as we hold out the Gospel as something we value beyond all else, more are added to our number?  That as we present our Savior Jesus as the gift of gifts, the treasure beyond all treasures, that lump of dough grows.

What’s your hope, my friends?  That you’re born, live, come to faith and die in that faith?  Or that as you live out your faith, others become so jealous of what you have that they seek it out, too – so that through you, God grows the family of believers and welcomes home more and more prodigal sons?

I’m confident that you want more than to just be a good Christian; I’m confident that you want God to use you to grow his kingdom.  So, let’s start today.  Let’s start holding out our faith for others to see – praying that they grow envious of its blessings so that they might be grafted onto the root, just as we were! Amen.

It’s a simple truth of life: parents love their children.  Talk to any new parent, and they’ll show their love as they gush about their child.  They’ll tell you that there’s no greater blessing in life than the little one they’ve been blessed with.  Any working parent will tell you that there’s nothing greater than the warm embrace of their child after a long day at work, accompanied by the voice, “Hi daddy, I missed you!

It’s that kind of love which a parent has for their child which leads their heart to break when their child is in trouble, which tears them in two when they see their child putting themselves in harm’s way.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, to see Jesus use the relationship between a father and his two sons to describe the relationship between the heavenly Father and the humanity he created.  For as much as any earthly parent may love their child, the Father’s love for the people of this world is that much greater.  And in this parable of the Prodigal – or lost – Son, Jesus urges each of us to See the Father’s love!

There are times when earthly parents might give their children an early inheritance, especially when the financial benefits outweigh the penalties.  But it’s not that often when you might see a child approach a parent and beg for that inheritance early.

And yet, that’s exactly what one of these two boys did.  The younger son went to his father, gave his best puppy-dog impression, and pled with his father – give me my share of the estate. 

You can imagine the heartache this request must have caused the father.  After all, there’s really no reason to request an early inheritance other than to leave the homestead and go out on your own.  The father knew why the son wanted his inheritance early, and you can bet the father was hesitant to give it to the son.  You can imagine that the father had all sorts of fears run through his mind regarding how his young son would manage these finances, and yet the father granted the request.  He divided the property between them.

And it didn’t take long for the son to pack his bags.  Putting his clothes into suitcases, some food into a cooler, and his finances into a money-bag, the son set off.  It was time to be his own man, to make his life away from his father’s house, to make his own choices and live his own life.

And what happened, except that the son found himself making one bad choice after another, squandering his wealth in wild living.  Late night party after late night party.  Superfluous purchase after superfluous purchase.  A new hot date every night.

No doubt, the son found himself enjoying life.  No doubt, he found himself as the life of the party.  No doubt, he was living the kind of life that many only dreamed they could live.  That is, until he woke up one morning and realized that there were only a few pennies left in his money bag.  That is, until he found himself pawning his possessions and clothes just to feed his belly.

And then things went from bad to worse.  When there was nothing left, this son found himself far away from home in country suddenly struck by famine.  Not only did he have nothing left, but the cost of food and living sky-rocketed as food shortages rose.

You might imagine the kind of panic that he went through.  The questions as to where his money went, as to how he had fallen so far, as to how he was going to last another day.

The young man who had once lived the life of luxury and who had never had to work a day in his life, found himself scrounging around for a job.  Any job.  Something that could pay the bills.

But the only thing he could find was a pig farmer who hired him to keep the pigs fat and healthy.  Day by day, he carried bags of slop that he poured into feeding troughs for smelly pigs – and all for a measly paycheck that barely paid the rent for his shack of a home and a daily meal of bread and water.

How many nights do you think he dreamt of the party lifestyle he lived, of the sharp clothes he wore – all while sleeping alone in the same clothes he worked in?

It got so bad that one day he found himself licking his lips as we poured the slop into the troughs.  Here he was, eating nothing but bread and drinking nothing but water – and look how well the pigs were eating!  He had become so skinny that he could count each one of his ribs, but these pigs?   They looked more like large bowling balls they were so fat!  Why were they so well fed but he was starving to death?  Oh, if only he could get down on all fours and throw his mouth into the trough right there with the pigs!  But no one gave him anything. 

That night, the young man realized how bad things had gotten.  What once had been so unappealing to him – pig’s slop for crying out loud! – he now craved just to stay alive.  Where was the luxurious life he once enjoyed: the feasts, the fine clothes, the laughter?  It all seemed like a distant memory, one that he could only remember having in his father’s house.

Ah, that was the life, he thought.  Life was so good, even the servants of my father were considered rich. 

Right then…right there, he made up his mind.  When the morning sun broke on the horizon, he would get up and make his way home.  But he knew that he could never go home and ask for his place back in his father’s family.  But maybe, just maybe, he thought, he could go back and ask to work in his father’s household.  He even practiced his speech along the way: Father, he planned to say, 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.  Over and over, he rehearsed the speech as he hitch-hiked his way home.

Finally the day came when he could see the smoke of his father’s warming fire on the horizon.  His soon-to-be coworkers littered the fields, laboring for his future boss.  In nervous fear, his steps became slower and smaller.  How would his father react?  Would he take him back – even as a servant?  In shame, he hung his head as he made his way to the place he once called home.

When he was finally brave enough to lift his eyes towards the homestead, he saw a wondrous sight.  There was his father running – not walking, not stomping…RUNNING! – towards him.  As the young man’s father grew closer, the boy slumped to his knees in shame.  He opened his mouth to speak, but before any words could come out of his lips, he felt his father’s arms squeeze his thinning chest.  He felt the warm drops of his father’s tears run down his own cheeks.  His father’s familiar hands loving embrace his face, and the loving lips kiss his forehead over and over and over.

A bit taken aback, the young man mustered up the courage to speak.  Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But it was as if his dad never even heard him.  Franticly waving a servant over, the father said, Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let’s celebrate!  My son has returned home!

You know the story, don’t you?  Probably just as well as the back of your hand.  But how often do you put yourself in that young man’s tattered, dirty clothes?  How often do you feel his malnourishment and suffering?

Because that’s the point, isn’t it?  That young man is each one of us.  That son is us, for each one of us is part of our Father’s family through the waters of baptism and promise of grace through faith.  That young man is us – for each time we sin we are doing nothing but asking to leave our heavenly Father’s homestead and make it on our own.

Have you felt the way that sin drains you?  The way it takes the joy out of life, the way it robs you of the luxurious life that is meant to be your inheritance?  For that’s the other side of the coin: at first, sin may look appealing at first.  Yet, before too long you begin to realize that you’ve given up the peace between you and God; that you’ve exchanged the future of everlasting life for a certain, excruciating, death; that once repulsed you now seems better than the way things are.  Sin lures you in with the promises of freedom, only to let you down in the end.  And before too long, you’re at rock bottom, realizing just how far you’ve fallen – deserving every bit of the misery you experience and have coming to you.

But did you see your Father’s love?  Do you see the promise he makes – that when lost, dead, and fallen sinners come to him in repentance – pleading for his mercy, recognizing just how much they need his grace – he welcomes them back with open arms!  No questions asked.  Not even after promises of faithfulness.

When sinners repent, God offers unconditional forgiveness.  When sinners plead for his mercy, he restores them to their places as his sons and daughters.  Freely.  Unconditionally, with over-whelming abundance!

But let’s not also forget about those times that we’re more like the second son.  When our sin isn’t so much open rebellion and disobedience…but grumbling and ungrateful hearts.  You heard the second son’s complaint, right?  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 this brother of mine?  When he comes back after years of open disregard for you, then you reward him?!

How often haven’t we been just like that son: ignorant of the many blessings that our Father bestows upon us, all while wanting him to withhold his mercy until these other “sinners” prove they are worthy of it!

Even then, see your Father’s love!  My son, he tells you, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  I give you blessing after blessing, grace after grace; mercy after mercy.  Even this sin of an ungrateful heart I freely forgive.

It bears mentioning, but it’s not that God doesn’t care about the sinner’s sin.  God never turns a blind eye towards that sin.  He very much cares about it; sin angers him more than maybe we’d like to know.

It’s just that when sinners repent, he no longer holds those sins against them.  That’s because there’s an unmentioned third son in this parable.

He’s the Son who bore the punishment deserved for the rebellion of the first son.  He’s the Son who suffered for the ingratitude of the older son.  He’s their brother, who was like them in every way except one, for he was always obedient and always grateful.  Truly, he never once disobeyed his Father’s orders and always submitted to the work his Father had for him.

He’s my Brother and yours.  He’s the one who took on human flesh to take your place and mine.  As we’ll read in just over two weeks: Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.  And the result of what he endured?  The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5).

So, do you see your Father’s love?  It’s a love he graciously extends to you, a grace and mercy he freely offers you – all for the sake of his other Son – our Brother – Jesus Christ.

Let us rejoice in that love!  Let us be grateful for that love extended to us, and to others!  And let’s reflect that love in our everyday lives.  Amen.

That statement is made quite often any time a major movie is made based upon a book.  From Harry Potter to Twilight to the Bourne Trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, and the list goes on and on.  Movies never seem to live up to the images created by the human imagination as words on a page come to life.

It’s not that I think the Bible mini-series on History Channel (Sunday evenings, 8PM) is not worth watching.  In fact, in many ways, it may be a very worthwhile watch for you, especially if you’ve found yourself wishing for something to get back into the Word.  But whatever you do, remember that these ten hours are Hollywood and not the divinely inspired Word itself.

Maybe that’s the problem with putting the Bible into a movie: with Hollywood, ratings tend to be king and adjustments need to be made in order to “appeal to the masses.”  Assuming the best construction on things (after all, the couple behind this 10-hour mini-series are professed Christians), the reason behind any variances seen is nothing more than poetic license and time constraint rather than an intentional demeaning of our God’s precious Word given to us for our salvation.

That being said, as you watch these ten-hours of religious television, it might be handy to have your Bibles sitting on your laps open to the respective portions of God’s Word; there are bound to be errors, or chapters skimmed over or skipped entirely.  For instance, this past Sunday evening, as the first two hours aired, there were a few things that stuck out to me.

Number one was the portrayal of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  It’s a minor thing, but I think kudos should go to the producers for not taking the stereotypical route and making the fruit an apple.  (cf. Genesis 3 for the Fall into Sin)

Next was the portrayal of Noah and his family.  While its entirely possible that people aged differently in Noah’s day, but let’s remember that Noah was 601 years old by the time he exited the ark, not sixty-something.  Likewise his children would have been older than their early twenties.  And the rainbow appeared after the waters had receded and Moses had exited and offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving, not when the waters stopped rising.  (cf. Genesis 6-9 for the story of The Flood)

There are other smaller details that are not scripturally accurate – Abraham’s age when first called to leave his homeland (75 – not 45ish), his name (it wasn’t changed from Abram to Abraham till much later – same with Sarai), the age of Isaac when he was sacrificed (most likely about sixteen), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (their sin was sexual – cf. Genesis 19 – and not mainly violence), nor do I think that God’s angels were sword-wielding warriors so much as messengers of God’s coming judgment.  But that’s not as interesting to watch as two swords cutting through Sodomites who would stop Lot and his family from escaping, would it?

Perhaps the most disappointing to me was the fact that Abraham’s story centered around his faithfulness to God instead of God’s promises of grace and blessing to Abraham.  More than once, the narrator could be heard making a statement similar to “God asked Abraham to prove his faith.”  Yet, never was there anything regarding the promise of future blessing through Abraham’s son, Isaac.  The story of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac would have been the perfect time to bring in God’s promise that he would bless all the people’s of the earth by sacrificing his own Son, Jesus.  Or perhaps, even before that, the promise that Abraham would have a son was much more: I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

This promise is significant because it pointed to the great blessing brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  To me, its disappointing that these Gospel promises are not included early on in the mini-series, especially knowing that the series will end with Jesus’ death and resurrection on Easter Sunday evening.  Why not bookend the series with the truth that God blesses all people on earth through his Son’s blood and resurrection?  I think they missed a golden opportunity there.

It bears repeating  that despite some of these shortcomings, it is fairly obvious that the creators of this mini-series hold to the Bible and hold it completely as truth – and that’s more than I can say for other reactions I’ve heard.  I just finished watching “The O’Reilly Factor” after Lenten worship, and had to check my blood pressure after watching Bill interact with a Baptist minister.  It’s disappointing to hear any on TV, especially those who are more economist than theologian, spout off personal beliefs about scriptural events being merely allegorical instead of truth – and all under the guise of stating such belief is a perfectly acceptable Christian viewpoint.  If stories like Creation, the Flood, the Ten Plagues and Exodus from Egypt are allegorical, then where does the slippery slope of Scripture as fiction end?  With the virgin birth, or the promise of forgiveness through Jesus’ blood, or the resurrection, or the certain hope of heaven?

Praise God that he has revealed to us the truth which Jesus spoke the night before he died – Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth (John 17:17).

It’s never an easy question to answer: Why did God allow this to happen?  Maybe you heard the question this past December after the Connecticut elementary school shooting.  Maybe you heard it after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast.  Maybe you heard it after those horrific September 11th attacks.  Who knows – maybe you were even the one who asked the question yourself!

It was pretty obvious that the Jews of Jesus day were asking it.  After all, the current events were horrific – their sacred place of worship, the temple, defiled by murder!  Pontius Pilate himself, murdering Gentiles who had gone up to the temple to offer sacrifices.  How could God allow this to happen at all – let alone the temple grounds as they came to worship him?! 

The question was being asked after another tragic event happened, too.  When a tower built near the Pool of Siloam came crashing down, leaving eighteen dead, the cry went up: How could God allow this to happen?!

Eventually, there’s one of two answers that sinful minds give: either God is to blame for not protecting people, or the people who were most closely affected by such a tragedy were to blame – as if God were punishing them for some wicked sin.  After all, he did it to Sodom and Gomorrah, to Egypt, to Israel, Babylon, Assyria – so that must be the case with the temple, Siloam, New Orleans, New York, Connecticut … right?  God must have been punishing them because they were more wicked than others … right?

Jesus heard the questions – even if they weren’t asked out loud.  He knew the assumptions being made.  Those Galileans – they must have done something to deserve this…those eighteen must have committed some sin that led God to punish them in this way… And what was Jesus’ answer?  I tell you, no! 

Jesus reminded those who were listening that there wasn’t anything different about those eighteen killed in Siloam or those Gentiles in the temple… and the same goes for New York, N’Orleans, Connecticut, etc.  They weren’t being punished because their sin was greater than others…no, these tragedies happened because of sin’s presence.

Let’s face it – tragedies are going to happen in life.  People get sick; friends desert; families disappoint; others commit horrific acts, and all because humanity (ever since that first fall) has been born steeped in sin and God’s once perfect creation has been tainted by sin’s filth.  But as Jesus’ reminds us, the horrific tragedies that happen help remind us that unless [we] repent, [we] too will all perish.  And to drive that point home, Jesus shared a parable with the central message that God looks for fruit from his trees – 1) He has a right to expect it, 2) He warns seriously concerning this fruit, and 3) He does all he can to encourage this fruit.

It’s one of those timeless parables, isn’t it?  One which we can all relate to, even with all the luxuries of life in the 21st century?  A man, his garden, and a gardener.  Now maybe many of us don’t have the means (or desire) to hire gardeners – but growing things…hey, there’s something we can relate to!

How many of us don’t have gardens in our back yards, or grow flowers in our front yards?  How many of us don’t appreciate the work that goes into cultivating acres upon acres of farmland so that we can go to the grocery store and pick it off shelves?

It’s foolish to think that any green-thumb would plant anything without expecting results from their work – whether it be the sweet-smelling spring bloom of tulips or the reddening summer tomatoes.

Certainly, the man in Jesus’ parable had that expectation.  He had a fig tree, and guess what – he wanted figs from that tree.  I know, it’s a crazy expectation…figs from a fig tree (rolls eyes).  The man went out each day, patiently looking for figs…then maybe just a blossom here or there …then just any sign that he was going to get figs from his tree!  But day after day, he was disappointed.  That tree which he had planted so that he would get figs – well, it never produced any figs at all.

You can imagine his frustration, can’t you?  The investment he made in the tree; the blood, sweat, and tears that he poured into it during its early years; the patience he displayed towards this tree as he waited for its harvest?

But now, his patience had run out.  The commitment he had put into the tree was no longer enough to keep his anger at bay.  Cut it down!, he commanded his gardener.  I’ve had it with this tree; for three years I’ve been coming to look for fruit…and haven’t found any.  Why should it use up the soil?  Get rid of it so I can plant something new here, something that will actually do me some good!

But the gardener wasn’t ready to give up on his master’s tree just yet.  Like any green-thumb, there was just one or two other tricks that he wanted to try, hoping that his efforts might bring results.  Let me take care of it for just one more year, sirI’ll dig around it and fertilize itI’ll make it my special project, and if it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.

And that’s where Jesus ends his parable – with the gardener’s promise.  But for the sake of the “story” you might be hard to find a reason why the gardener’s request wouldn’t be granted, right?  What’s one more year in the grand scheme of things…one more year – especially if the hard work pays off?

There are some parables of our Savior that might be a little harder than others to understand; those are usually the parables that have Jesus’ explanations a few verses later such as the parable of the sower and the seed.  But then there are others where no insight as to what the spiritual comparison being made might be…. just like the one before us.

I think every one of us understands that the man who planted the fig tree is God the Father.  You likely aren’t surprised to hear that the gardener is Jesus Christ himself. So that just leaves the fig tree around which this entire parable centers.  Are you shocked to hear that the fig tree is me?…is you?  Probably not.

So what are we to take away from this parable?  What’s the point is Jesus trying to make with these four verses?  Maybe it’s just enough to simply say what’s already been said.  Just as the owner of the tree was looking for figs from his fig tree, so also God looks for fruits of repentance from each one of us!

I mean, he has a right to expect that…doesn’t he?  We wouldn’t be sitting here this morning if he didn’t give us life, after all!  Add to that all the things he blesses us with daily – a family who loves us, food to fill our bellies, clothes to keep us warm, activities to bring us joy, and the list goes on.  What is God, if not exactly like the man who plants a tree and then cares for it day after day after month after year by giving it water and sun and nutrients and nurture?  Why shouldn’t God look at each one of us and expect to see fruits of repentance?

Now, maybe it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves what exactly repentance is.  Yet again, we just got done covering this in our Bible Class just two weeks ago.  Rather than put anyone on the spot, I’ll just give you the definition for repentance that we came up with: Repentance is sorrow over sin connected to the trust in Jesus for sin’s forgiveness.  And having been reminded of that forgiveness, the forgiven sinner then desires to amend their life, to do as Paul himself was led to write: Christ died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.  Quite simply put: the fruit of repentance is leaving sin behind and living a life which reflects Christ’s.

I don’t think that there’s any one here this morning who would claim that God has no right to expect such a thing from us.  But that doesn’t mean we always follow through.  How many of us haven’t asked for God’s forgiveness for this or that sin, and then slipped back into the very same sins we just repented of?

Oh, that we would all heed our Father’s serious warnings here!  Repentance isn’t just saying, “I’m sorry, God.”  Judas Iscariot did just that – he was so sorry he tossed back his betrayal profits!  Repentance isn’t even saying, “I’m going to try to do better next time, God,” as if we’re leaving the back door cracked open for potential failure.  The repentant heart is the heart that says, “God, what I have done is wrong.  What I have done has earned me an eternity in hell.  Yet, I know that your Son born that punishment for me.  Have mercy on me for his sake, and grant me the strength to stop this sinful way of life.

But where that fruit of repentance is absent, God’s Word is clear.  The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

My friends, I don’t know about you, but those aren’t easy words to hear.  This parable isn’t an easy one to read.  Because if you’re anything like me, then you already remember all those times when you “repented” over sin but never really wanted to let that sin go.  You can list those times when your repentance wasn’t really followed by fruits of that repentance.  Yes, for those times, God is ready to cut us down! 

But thanks be to God!  Jesus Christ himself intervened and pled for God’s grace and patience with us.  And there’s only one reason that he could do that – because God used the ax of his justice on Jesus himself.  Because where we should have been the ones cut down, God took his ax to Jesus.  Yes, Jesus took our lack of fruit upon himself, all so that God’s grace might be shown to you and you might avoid the sharp blade of the law and the fire of hell!

And it’s not a club; it’s not a “Jesus did this for you, now what are you gonna do for him?” tradeoff.  But doesn’t hearing that our eternal lives have been spared because Jesus laid down his life for us lead us to want to toss our respective sinful desires aside and live as Christ would have us?

So don’t just let God’s Word go in one ear without also taking to heart what it says about your life, because God is serious about what he says in his Word.  He means it when he says that those who hold on to their sin will be punished for eternity.

And he means it when he says that he forgives the repentant sinner for the sake of Jesus Christ, the crucified Savior.  In the spirit of that forgiveness – and out of joyful gratitude – let us then produce the fruits that God looks for, leaving behind those sin that afflict us, even the ones that don’t want to let us go!  Amen.