Uncle Ricos

Uncle Rico – from Napoleon Dynamite

“Back in ’82 – I used to be able to throw a pigskin a quarter mile…if couch would have put me in 4th quarter, we would have been state champions.” – Uncle Rico

Those of us who are “past our prime” (though we would be hard-pressed to realize, much less acknowledge it) struggle with these illusions (or are they delusions?) that we “still have it.” Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite was absolutely convinced that he was still amazing and could make it to the big time. He had these “memory remnants” of days gone by and spent his time trying to recapture it…but as you watch the movie, it is comically sad how blind he was to his reality.

And this is why our flag football team in Asheville, NC was called the Uncle Ricos (I’m #2)

We were all past our prime (though some of the guys were still pretty young and talented.) When we ran, it felt like we were flying down the field…until we watched each other run, and reality set in. We were slow, got winded easily, and had brittle bodies (I had 2 shoulder dislocations while playing in this league). Yet we pushed on in defiance to time and reality. We would also play in tournaments put on by the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte and actually do pretty well in the 35+ division. Until one day we faced off against a squad of ex-Arena-League players. It was utterly embarrassing how slow and inept we were compared to these other men.

This is where we find Isaiah in Isaiah 6. He was part of the extended royal family of King Uzziah (who had just died) and was an incredibly gifted communicator. Like all of us, he was created in God’s image and was a man of infinite value. And like all of us, he was broken. We, like Isaiah, have these memory-remnants of who we used to be. We intrinsically know that we are designed as valuable and powerful, yet we are also broken (like the Uncle Ricos). We are no longer who we were in the garden when we literally would walk in the cool of the day with one another, among creation, face to face with the Almighty God himself. When we rebelled and committed treason against the Lord, creation was shattered. Yet we are constantly unaware or in total denial of this truth…until we come face to face with True and Utter Greatness…much more than ex-arena-league players. I mean UTTER GREATNESS

Isaiah 6:1-5
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Look at Isaiah’s reality break into focus. Through in the world’s eyes (and his own) he was powerful and elite. But when he was put into contrast with The Almighty God in His Perfect Greatness….he was ruined. His actual depravity could no longer hide in the flood of light. To understand this better, let’s look at what the Seraphim (which literally mean “the burning ones”) sang: “holy holy holy” — this tripling of the world “holy” (called a “trisagion”) is extraordinary to say the least. When a Hebrew word is doubled (like we saw in Isaiah 1 with how “estranged-estranged” we are) it is essentially a super-superlative. To triple a word is inconceivable. And not just any word, or any attribute of God…it’s his Holiness. To boil it down, God’s holiness is his absolute “otherness” — it’s all of his other superlative attributes melted into one another. For God to be “holy holy holy” is for him to be superlatively love/love/love; superlatively power/power/power; superlatively just/just/just; superlatively mercy/mercy/mercy.

Now we can have the smallest understanding of how Isaiah felt being in God’s holy/holy/holy presence. He was fully aware of Exodus 33:20 where God said “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” — now Isaiah was looking at God face to face, saw His transcendent beauty and his own despicable filthiness…yet, instead of dying, God brought him the only thing that could save his life: atonement.

For Isaiah it was in the form of a live coal from the fire of purification. For us it’s the living Son of God that became 100% immanent, among us as The Immanuel, that came to be literally be “with us” to bring us atonement and into a face-to-face relationship with the Transcendent God. We know this because, instead of us dying like we should (like Isaiah should have), Jesus himself died in our place. And when he did:

Matthew 27:51
And behold, the curtain of the temple (remember Exodus 25) was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.

This is the very curtain that separated the presence of God in the “holy of holies” from the rest of the world, through which the High Priest, after a blood sacrifice, would go once a year in order to acquire atonement for God’s people….so Jesus became the High Priest, was himself our final blood sacrifice, and brought us atonement, which results in the here and now a perfect face-to-face relationship with the Transcendent God.

Go back to the Uncle Rico. Before Christ, we were stuck in our memory-remnants, only vaguely remembering who we were and living as if we could live on our own power. But now, in Christ, we are a New Creation! We have had a renewal and re-creation as Image-Bearers. We have the Holy Spirit who is literally IN us, and the train of his robe fills his new temple: US! We are no longer relegated to building up our own image and fighting for our value. We are His and glorious beyond measure because of Him in us.

And so we can join Isaiah after his atonement

Isaiah 6:8
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Seeing our infinite need, God’s infinite beauty, and now our infinite rescue, we are sent out into our world (both near and far) with his infinite love and power to bring hope to the hopeless, light to the darkness, love to the lonely…like he did for us.

Estranged Estranged

We are the most connected people that have ever lived. And are shockingly isolated.

  • We are convinced of our rightness.
  • We have enthroned ourselves.
  • We believe that others orbit around us.
  • We treat others as our subjects.

The real issue, the foundational problem, is that this is actually how I treat God. I believe that my way is better; my plans are wiser; my solutions more satisfying.

We have been meticulously designed by God to be knit together with him, under his loving and righteous rule, and to be knit to one another in humble love. Which is exactly how we are NOT living. And so, with a broken heart, the Lord sees our betrayal and calls it like it truly is:

Isaiah 1:4b
“they are utterly estranged”

Estranged. Disconnected. Alienated. Alone. Runaways.

But it’s actually even worse than that. The wording is one of handful of “Word Doubling.” God says that we are “Estranged Estranged” — when a word in Hebrew is repeated back to back, it is going exponential. For instance, 2Kings 25:15 talks about a super refined silver by calling it “silver silver”. We do the same sometime. For teenagers there is an enormous difference between saying “I like him” vs saying “I like like him.” The second involves a much higher degree of passion and heart. And this is exactly what we are being convicted of in Isaiah. We aren’t just estranged from God, we are estranged estranged. In our pursuit of self we have utterly and completely estranged ourselves from our Loving, Providing, Caring, Holy Father (compare this to the younger prodigal son from Luke 15). We want to white-wash it and convince ourselves that we aren’t that bad or that far away. We point to the ways we don’t act like that or reduce the holiness of God in order to not seem so unholy (more on that next week in Isaiah 6).

But God is very painfully clear in Isaiah 1:4. In this one verse He explains in 7 different ways how dislocated we have become from him.

Which makes His Grace and Love all the more!

The more I own the truth of my estrangement, the more amazing I realize that God is because of how far he has come to get me; how much his love must have; how powerful he must be. Jesus himself intentionally distanced himself from The Father to come to Creation, and even more so, he was estranged-estranged on the cross because that’s how far he had to come to get us, and that’s the payment that had to be made on our behalf. Isaiah, 700 years before Jesus, knew this was going to happen and said it like this:

Isaiah 53:4-5
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

May we all truly hear the miraculous and (almost) unbelievable Good News. We have been brought home and the Father through the power and ministry of the Holy Spirit currently, as you read this, has perfectly and utterly “UnEstranged” you. If you are in Christ, he has perfectly paid for and wiped away (see Isaiah 1:16-18) all of our scarlet sins, making them and us pure in him…and this not from ourselves but by faith through Jesus. Your Father, right here and now, has given you “peace” and “healing” (Is 53:5). He sings over you; is satisfied with you; has brought you into him arms and his home. You are no longer estranged…and has set us free so that we can, starting right now, enjoy Him forever.

Holy Spirit, gently open my eyes to how far I have run from you, and then quickly and surely convince my heart that you have come to get me; that I am a new creation that has been brought home with my brothers and sisters to be satisfied in and by you. Convince my heart of your love and forgiveness, and point how how I am an empowered instrument of your Grace right now in the community around me.


Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt (1669)

In Luke 15 we find an incredibly diverse and divided crowd following Jesus, a crowd of insiders and outsiders; spiritual elites and spiritual rejects. Into these lives Jesus told three parables about how we all passionately wander from Home, and how we have a Heavenly Father that is relentless in his pursuit of us. He paints the picture of a Shepherd searching for his 1 lost sheep and, after finding him, carries him home and throws a party. He then tells about the woman who lost her coin but is stubbornly cleans and searches for that which is really valuable to her. Finally…the prodigals. The granddaddy of all parables. This brilliant story introduces us to a passionate family. A young son that passionately seeks fulfillment in sensuality; an older son that passionately seeks fulfillment through his image and approval that comes from his “goodness”; a loving father that passionately pursues each son in an effort to bring them “home.”

Henri Nouwen had a life-altering encounter with this parable when he sat in front of Rembrandt’s painting called “The Return of the Prodigal” (seen above, and here is a link to a larger version online). He sat in front of it for days on end, searching the intricacies and hidden beauties, discovering aspects of the story’s characters that could easily go unnoticed:

The Younger Son

This wayward boy is so desperate, so alone, so ashamed.

He has come home barely dressed, with a shoe dangling from his foot and his head shaven, revealing his societal rejection and desperation. He is emaciated and clothed, unlike his father and brother who are wearing royal robes, in mere rags.

This is the sinful nature. This is the story of all of us. Every person that has ever lived outside of Jesus himself has run to the “far off country” to live our “own truth” and find our own satisfaction. We have all been made in our Father’s image, and have taken His resources (life, breath, skills, abilities and finances) to search for life. And, without fail and without exception, has left us emaciated, desperate, hungry and alone.

The Older Son

To the back right of the painting we see an older son, dressed just like his dad in the family robe, looking down in disgust, scorn and judgement. He has all the fancy clothes, fancy shoes and staff of authority. Very understandably, he would be so upset and feel shunned. He was the good kid! He was the one that followed the rules, stayed at home, helped dad out. And now that the younger son took his part of the Father’s inheritance, every dime that was spent on bringing him home and throwing him a party was actually coming out of HIS part of the estate. IT WASN’T FAIR! And so it is with us elder sons. We see ourselves as better and elite. And it leads to a strengthening of our arrogance where we claim “I would never do that!”…and then shamefully saying “I can’t believe I did….that” because we truly thought we were better. Us elder brothers may appear close to the Father, but in reality we are so far away. We have no more intimacy and no more love for the Father as the Younger. The worst of it is this: we are so horrendous lost, but don’t even realize it, and don’t want to accept the Father’s grace because, honestly, we don’t think we really need it…because we think we’ve earned his favor.

The Prodigal Father

And then there is the Prodigal Father (Tim Keller’s book “Prodigal God” is an absolute essential read!). “Prodigal” means outrageously excessive, and it’s not just about excessive licentiousness. The Father’s grace, love, joy and generosity are infinitely beyond Prodigal. As you look at the painting, really pay attention to the lighting. The whole focus is on Him. It’s on his compassionate face; on his right hand that virtually covers the younger son’s whole back, powerfully holding him dear; on his left hand that is the motherly hand of tenderness and compassion. This Prodigal Father went running down the road to carry his boy back home. Culture would have mocked and shunned a story about a dad like this. Men of any prominence would absolutely never bring a rebellious son back into the family; would never run down the road; would never passionately hug and lavishly kiss his son. But this Father did. He (as the text literally says) flooded his child with kisses and embraced him with outrageous compassion. Through the robe and ring, he renewed him to his original family status. No second class. No probation period. Just outrageous restoration.

Do you see the Father this way. Do you see Our Heavenly Father running down to road to embrace your smelly, filthy self? Our Heavenly Father sent his own son to a “far off country” called Creation to search us out, and then take our place in rejection among pigs, even being nailed to a cross surrounded by criminals, so that the rejection we absolutely deserved would be given to Jesus, fully paid. And now, with Jesus as our True Elder Brother, we are given his rightful inheritance, along with the Ring of Power so that we can successfully, by his power, (as seen in Ephesians 6:12) wrestle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

If you’d like to dig in a little more into this Rembrandt painting, HERE is a link to a lot of quotes from the book…but I would strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. It reveals a facet of the Gospel I’ve seen in few places.