Prodigals

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.

Ransomed & Renewed

Isaiah 35:4
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”

We are about to begin a worship series on the book of Isaiah (Fall 2019), which is exciting and overwhelming. The book of Isaiah is split into “Before – During – After.” It starts with the Lord telling a rebellious Israel that He is going to send them into “Exile” at the hands of their greatest enemies, and that their worldly efforts of power and money will only make things worse. BUT…God will not (actually…CAN NOT) forget them, and will passionately, lovingly, powerfully and surely ransom them from Exile, and re-plant them, restore them, renew them, into the Promised Land.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to be at the bullseye of this prophesy? Can you imagine the stress, fear, questions and accusations that would result from being taken into desolate exile?

Though from our comfortable couches we can’t truly understand the heart of an exiled Israel, in our own ways we absolutely struggle with this anxiety.

  • When my sin causes me dark sorrow.
  • When it feels down to my bones that God has abandoned me.
  • When the hopes of my life lay shattered on the hospital floor.
  • When I can’t seem to “catch my breath” in life.
  • When the weights of expectations and disappointments crush me.

Into this oppression the Lord (in Isaiah 35) whispers deep winds of hope and even joy. This hope, this Gospel, doesn’t minimize the darkness in the least. Actually, quite the opposite. The deeper the darkness, the brighter the light; the deader the dead, the more alive we are made. Whereas God brought Israel out of slavery to their greatest enemy, God has brought us out of our slavery to our greatest enemy: ourselves, our sin. In the person of Jesus God literally meets us in our exile, in the middle of our deepest pain, disappointment, fear, anxiety, doubt, failures, hopelessness. He doesn’t just call us out of it…he CARRIES us out and gives us new life. Look at the next verses:

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

  • In our brokenness, we are blind; but God renews our sight.
  • In our sin, we are deaf; but God restores our hearing.
  • In our weakness, we are lame; but God re-creates our legs.
  • In our death, our voices are suppressed; but God reopens our mouths.

And not just us! God HAS and WILL renew creation! Isaiah goes on to promise that waters will overtake the desert and result in forests of peace where there is no death, no fear, no brokenness. And the means for this rescue and renewal; the way God will do this unimaginable healing — the Highway of Holiness, which is the person of Jesus, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He has personally come into our Exile, and was exiled from the Father on the cross so that, through his payment God will have shower us with “recompense” (reward).

Yes, it is really hard to see when you are in the dark; to believe this kind of beauty can spring from the ground of our deserts; to hold onto his glorious hope when our failing senses tell us that all is lost. But it’s true. This life has been secured on our behalf and God is not only going to rescue us FROM the Exile of sin and death, he is renewing us FOR true life. The end of Isaiah 35 paints this picture:

10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Blind-Turn

Luke 12:16-21
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.

I am preaching through a short series on parables and realize how many amazing ones are going to be missed…like this shockingly relevant and practical one from Luke 12 on the plans we make in life.

Back in the early 2000’s the Land Family Five took a glorious road trip from Houston to Colorado in our bright red Nissan Quest minivan. We wound our way up into the Rockies and were able to stay at Camp Redcloud outside Lake City from which we were able to have amazing outdoor adventures, like 4×4-ing up ridiculous mountain roads. After a week of encircling the Colorado Rockies we began our long journey back to Houston, leaving Grand Junction and heading East on I-70 toward Denver…and then it happened. The Quest went into a coma on top of a mountain pass. Just simply stopped with no sign of life. Like any “real man” (whatever that means) I got out, opened the hood and looked ignorantly at the engine (truly having no idea what I would be looking for). After sitting and wondering what to do for a while, I decided to just turn the key…and with utter shock, it started! Well that was good enough for me. I started to drive toward Denver, assuming Jesus raised my van from the dead. Until he didn’t. 10 minutes later the van, while heading downhill on the other side of a mountain pass, lost all power and life. I was going 70 mph with no power brakes or steering, with three kids in the back. I man-handled the van around some turns and down an exit ramp (I think it was Glenwood Springs). In the end, we found a really cool hotel where my wife and I had our own room (only time on the whole vacation) and our son Trevor stayed in the living room, which had a fireplace that turned on and off through a light switch, which I think was his favorite part of the whole vacation.

This place wasn’t even on our radar, and nobody could have predicted our van’s narcolepsy (it turns out it was an O2 thing since oxygen at 15,000 ft is a little different than oxygen levels in Houston). This was a “blind turn” — totally unexpected change of course. And it was great. As you can tell, Some 17 years later, it’s one of the most memorable parts of our entire trip. And I am certain that you all have so many of these stories. Some of them are great, while many of them are deeply sad, painful and faith-jarring.

  • When your climb up the career ladder turns into a tumble.
  • When your romantic journey turns into a bloody war.
  • When your white-picket-fence life turns into Chernobyl.
  • When your strong body begins to rebel.

So what do you do when your life gives you roller-coaster whiplash?

How do you respond when the steering wheel turns suddenly and you are headed into the unknown, unplanned, uncomfortable?

In the Luke 12 parable we find ourselves in this man that is living for himself and everything is going even better than planned….only to have the ultimate BlindTurn hit him square in the jaw. Even when we are doing our very best and trying to seek the mind of Christ, Our plans are not the same as His plans (Prov 16:9)…we get knocked around and try to find our bearings, wondering why “this” happened and where God is on this journey.

The disciples thought this very same thing:

Matthew 16
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Can you imagine the shock of these disciples?! Can you imagine the BlindTurn Jesus was warning them about? This was absolute madness…so Peter understandably rebukes Jesus, telling him that this was ridiculous.

But on this side of the Cross, this was the most glorious blind turn imaginable. It’s going around a mountain curve only to come upon the greatest view with the greatest sunrise even known. It was scary as the car careens around the turn; and infinitely glorious on the other side.

And this is the life the Lord has promised, and offered. It’s frustrating and scary; oftentimes sad and disconcerting; oftentimes deeply dark; oftentimes full of tears of joy, or tears of sadness. And because the darkness of the Cross-turn turned into the even more shocking blind turn of the empty tomb, we can trust the TurnMaker. Even if it hurts and leaves me out of control, I can trust the One who has promised to keep me, hold me, go before and behind me, knit me, fulfill me and, when it is time, bring me home. This by no means makes the hard blind turns easy, but it certainly makes them hopeful…that they are turns to glory. Because that is what Jesus secured for me on the Cross, and out of the Tomb.

We Are Pando

The world’s largest organism (though a tad disputed) isn’t a whale or some mythical monsters swimming around a Loch…it’s actually much much larger…spanning 106 acres and having over 40,000 arms. It’s a monstrous grove of Aspen trees in Utah called Pando. To the untrained eye, it looks likes like innumerable individual trees all hanging out together like middle-aged men in the Lowe’s tool aisle. But in reality these aspens have an interconnected root system and all stem from the same individual ancestor. I think there are some really amazing parallels that can help us better understand and appreciate The Church

Interconnected

Shockingly, all the roots of Pando somehow connected every tree to every tree. They stem to and from one another so that they can help feed and be fed as ONE.

For us, every believer is connected to every believer. We need each other, feed each other and are fed by each other. Every believer from around the globe all connect to one another by the person and power of the Holy Spirit. I can meet a believer from a different country and not share language, appearance, culture, gender, age etc, but have infinitely more in common with her than a person that lives next door to me that isn’t a believer. I would shard the ultimate DNA with her rather than all the sub-dna’s that stem from this world.

Ephesians 2:22
In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Better Together

Each individual aspen tree is remarkably beautiful. Their intricate white and fragile bark; their leaves that, when the Fall comes, seem to be fully electrified. But what is better than an aspen tree is a grove of aspen trees. My goodness. Compare one dolphin to a “superpod of dolphins“; compare one brick to The Great Wall of China. Now compare one aspen to 40,000+!

The Church is the same. Each individual child of God is beautiful, valuable and a stunning representative of the Image of God. But all together we are remarkable. This is one of the reasons why Jesus says that us being ONE is a shockingly valuable and instrumental tool for others to believe in the One True God (because it is so counter-cultural):

John 13:34-35
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Fruitful

Ok, so Aspens aren’t fruit trees. However, they are incredibly useful. We can’t even begin to understand how much nourishment and protection Pando gives to the wildlife around them, from shade to richer soil to branches for bird nests.

Likewise, We The Church are designed not just for ourselves but to serve those around us. Our very existence is primarily to glorify God, and one of the essentials ways we do that is to sacrificially love others around us, both inside and outside the church without exception.

Matthew 13:31-32
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Resilient

We don’t know how old Pando is, but we are sure that it is many thousands of years old. And the reason is that it is extremely resilient. When forest fires sweep through the Rockies, the conifers (that are not interconnected) get burned up and die. Aspen groves burn above the ground, but their roots stay alive and intact, regrowing after the fire is over, sending up aspen shoots in an act of defiance.

The Church is the same. We have the power of the Holy Spirit that is alive and active inside us, holding us through the storm, fire and drought. He holds us up when we are thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3); sawed in two (Hebrews 11); exiled to a foreign land (1 Chron 9:1); and murdered on a cross. The church cannot be killed. We will only grow stronger, wider and more fruitful. We individuals will all die and go to our Creator, but The Church cannot be overcome.

Romans 8:37-39
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Multiplication

Sadly some experts think that Pando is either dying or at least stagnant. Normally it perpetually produces new aspen shoots constantly, relentlessly expanding it’s Aspen Kingdom.

The Church is even more. Though many lament how the U.S. is now “Post-Christian”, the reality is that The Church is always expanding. We believers are called and empowered to produce “shoots” through evangelism our whole lives. Though countries and cultures will waver in spiritual allegiances, the Lord came to make and save a people that are his very own; and these people are a contagious virus, offering the sap that brings everlasting love and life as we leave gospel footprints with every step we take.

Matthew 28:18-20
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in
[ the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

One Seed

Finally and most importantly, Pando can trace it’s very existence back to ONE ASPEN. Every aspen in Pando is part of macro “Clonal Colony” that all share identical genetic markers.

The Church is the exact same.

Romans 5:17
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

We are all made beautiful and valuable as image-bearers of God Himself. We all carry the same genetic markers. These genetic markers were shattered in Adam, making us children of sin and death. But God wasn’t done with us. The fire of evil would not burn us all down. Instead, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1).

Jesus himself has become our One Seed, sending up shoots all over the planet to bring him glory and fruit. He was destroyed on the cross by the fire-of-evil that we produced so that, through the immortal roots of the Holy Spirit, we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)

John 12:24
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Stink Eye

Matthew 20:15b Or do you begrudge (“stink eye”) my generosity?

If we keep our eyes open, we can see a lot of Gospel Truth being played out in the world around us. I am fully aware but wholly unapologetic that I most commonly “see the Gospel” in sports, Seinfeld and Johnny Cash music. But where I probably see the Gospel the most is in the animal world, most specifically met 2 dogs (Chili and Quila) and 2 cats (Glozell and RaFreaka….no snarky comments please).

In our dog-world, our lab (Quila) is ridiculously jealous. When I go up to our mixed brown dog (Chili) and simply say his name, Quila will run over and literally push Chili out of the way, getting in between me and Chili so that I will pet and give her affection. It’s not that I’m not giving Quila enough affection, she wants to make sure that she gets ALL of my affection. And this also goes for me and God…

Matthew 20:8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.

This parable is really frustrating. Jesus lays out a situation that is so obviously unfair and annoying, and so relevant to how we see and treat God and others. It’s the story where men who worked 1 hour get paid the exact same as those that worked 12 hours, causing the “all day” workers to grumble and “begrudge” the Master (this word “begrudge” means to literally give the “evil eye” to the Master). Wouldn’t you? It simply isn’t fair. So what is Jesus trying to communicate? It’s not about how much we pay our workers, or get paid. He is revealing a dangerous and repulsive virus that is epidemic in our churches: Spiritual Pride.

The all day workers, the Jews in this particular case, have been the original part of God’s family for thousands of years. Jesus is coming in and saying that the Gospel is for all, without restriction and without preference. The religious mainline could possibly tolerate these “spiritual mutts” (Gentiles) into salvation, as long as they were still considered the insiders, the spiritually elite.

And we can very easily do this same thing. Those who have been around church for a long time may feel like we’ve paid our dues and deserve a higher consideration from God, at least higher than those who came in at the last minute and seemingly found the salvation loophole but living their lives centered on themselves, but coming to Jesus at the 11th hour. It doesn’t seem fair! “I gave my life to you, and they’ve given you nothing…but get the same eternal inheritance?” And as I do this, I wholly misunderstand my own righteousness and the gift of Jesus. I arrogantly think that my supposedly righteous actions somehow add to the righteousness Jesus has given me. I think that, by not doing those naughty things and doing those service projects have accumulated a better, richer inheritance. But the glorious and gracious reality is that all believers have been gifted the most excessive inheritance imaginable: the righteousness of Christ and being adopted into his family.

The Master in the parable told most of the workers what they would get paid “what is right.” What he actually said is that he would pay them “what is righteous.” That is exactly what we get from the sacrifice of Jesus: His Righteousness. He gets our rejection while we are given his acceptance…and there is more than enough love to go around. How arrogant and ridiculous it is when I look begrudgingly at God for his generosity when he has been shockingly generous with me. Instead, we are invited to see the vastness of His love for me, and then celebrate that same Love and the giver of the Love when it is poured out on others who, like me, don’t deserve it at all…and then they can celebrate the same, culminating in a full-blown festival of Thanksgiving as we celebrate the Master and his outrageous generosity…and we can participate in this festival forever…and we can call it Heaven.

Foundation

Isaiah 7:9b
“If you are not firm in faith,
you will not be firm at all.”

Have you ever walked on an icy path, trying with all your might, with arms flailing about, to simply keep upright? Each of your steps running the risk of landing your flat on your back (or worse). We all know what it’s like to have unsteady footing…on a sandy beach, mountain trail, crossing a stream. We all also know, but are usually unaware, of the unsteady footing we have in everyday life. We have an incalculable number of stepping stones on our life’s path that we use to get us from A to B.

  • I place my weight on the how happy, safe and satisfied my kids are
  • I place my weight on the happiness of my marriage
  • I place my weight on how well I do in my job
  • I place my weight on my financial safety net
  • I place my weight on my health report

This list is infinite. And shaky. And sinking. Inevitably sinking.

My kids (like me) are going to make bad decisions, have hard times, be unsatisfied, cry, yell and be in despair. If their satisfaction is carrying my weight, then I will fall.

My marriage will have great highs and terrible lows. My wife, though she is seriously strong, cannot hold my weight on her shoulders.

I may not be able to control my family, but at least I can control my job and how well I do. Right? Again, nope. I have some control, but one day I will work my last day; on many days my career will be overwhelming and life-depriving instead of life-giving.

Isaiah in the passage above tells us an eternal truth that we see all through scripture. If we put our weight on horses and men, kings and banks, health and approval, we will absolutely fall. They simply cannot bear the weight of our souls. And so Isaiah with great hope pleads with us to put our faith in the Lord as our sure foundation. But what does that mean and how can that hold the weight of my heart? Psalm 130 gives us a clue:

Psalm 130:7
“O Israel, hope in the LORD,
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.

God himself, the one who has given us our weight, is the only one who is able to carry it. We cannot even carry it ourselves. The Psalmist gives us hope by telling us Who God is and What God Does:

  1. Steadfast Love — This is the word “Hesed” (my favorite Hebrew word). He alone is and does Love. His love is sacrificial, eternal, unending and strong. His love is what we stand on; what carries our weight; what holds us up.
  2. Plentiful Redemption — It’s not just that God redeems. He has “plentiful” redemption (the same words used in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply). His redemption, his secure saving power is enough to carry all of me, all of us. “Redemption” means that God (alone) has purchased us from our other stepping stone. His redemption means that he 1) picked us up and out from the miry clay and 2) set our feet on The Rock. (Psalm 40:2).

In Isaiah and the Psalmist’s time, they were looking forward in faith to The Rock, The Redeemer. We now have the honor and blessing to look backwards in time to the coming and completion of the Messiah, The Rock. They looked forward to Jesus who was Plentiful Redemption; we look backwards to the same. Jesus himself is The Rock on which we have faith, on which we stand. He is the only unmovable, unchanging, strong and steadfast stepping stone.

Take a minute to listen to this promise through a remake of this classic hymn — remember the hope: “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

The Swing

Luke 17:10
“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

We have a scandalous religious pendulum swinging in the church.

Cheap Grace

Over the past 100 years, standing on the shoulders of incredible 20th century evangelists like Billy Graham and Billy Sunday, the Gospel went out to great masses, resulting in an enormous surge of people claiming Christ as Lord. One of the destructive misunderstandings of this Gospel Movement is called “Cheap Grace”, which essentially minimizes what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, down to simply subscribing to “four spiritual laws” (or the “Road through Romans”) and saying a specific prayer, resulting in your eternal heaven-card being punched.

In real life, this is where being a Christian is a part of our lives, but not the whole foundation on which our lives are built; where we believe that we’ve been saved and are now free to live however we want (I can do whatever, Jesus will forgive me) ; seeing ourselves as the captains of our lives and Jesus as our first-mate; desiring what Jesus gives me more than desiring Jesus himself.

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Earned Grace

The other side of this evangelistic movement has resulted in an elite spiritual class of church-goers that have taken the call to follow Jesus seriously (which is great) but have taken themselves too seriously. Those on this side of The Swing (which I see in myself more often than the other side) live under the impression that our behavior impacts our value and God’s view of (and love for) us. We see and are in awe of God’s pure holiness, and then try to live up to this level of holiness ourselves, and expect others to do the same, condemning them when they fall short of how well I pretend that I am doing. Yes, Jesus has saved me, but I need to live up to this calling…or else.

“We cannot be satisfied with our goodness after beholding the holiness of God” – Billy Graham

Thankful Grace

Jesus’ parable of “Unworthy Servants” in Luke 17 brings us away from Cheap Grace and Earned Grace

He is telling us that part of being a follower of Jesus is to see and treat Him as the Master, following and serving him with every shred of our lives as long as we live.

He is also telling us that the “afterwards” (Luke 17:8) is already planned; the Lord has perfectly prepared a banquet for us where we together will sit with the Lord and celebrate for all eternity. The banquet invitation has been given and our places secured by Him on the Cross, not based upon the goodness of our behavior.

So this incredible free grace of Jesus doesn’t motivate us to sit and do nothing but to run with great perseverance out of thanksgiving, not heavy obligation. Since my debt has been perfectly paid and His gift fully given, I am set free from the heaviness of spiritual performance as well as from the emptiness of spiritual laziness…and set free to love Him and Others out of uncontainable thankfulness for his Ridiculous Grace.

Abide

John 15:4
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

There is a war raging inside me.

I aggressively demand my independence, proclaiming my self-sufficiency.
I also secretly feel fearfully vulnerable and powerless, in need of protection.

We are designed in God’s image to be powerful and fruitful, making an eternal impact in the world. But we behave like little kids that have an over-inflated view of our abilities. Think about that little kid that is learning to dress himself. The day finally comes where he demands “I CAN DO IT MYSELF” as he sorts through his dresser, picks out an eclectic assortment that closely resembles an exploded circus clown, and puts on his clothes…backwards. As parents, we would just smile, laugh, and (sometimes) help him correct his mistake.

We treat our fruitfulness in much the same way. I believe (and therefore behave) like I am able to live and love by my own strength. I claim to be dependent on Jesus, but when it comes to street-level behavior I am actually living like “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!”

But Jesus never designed us to “do it ourselves.” Yes, we are given the fruit (Galatians 5) of self-control, but it’s fruit “of the Spirit,” which means that it is only activated when it is connected to the fuel-line of The Spirit. It means that our sufficiency is predicated upon our dependency; our ability is animated by his power.

So in real-life terms, what does that mean? What does it mean to “abide” in Jesus?

The good news is that scripture over and over reveals a two-sided abiding:
we in him; him him in us.

To abide in Him means to find our hope, love, life, power, fulfillment, satisfaction, peace and truth in Him. It means to declare our deep vulnerability and inability, followed by our personal dependency on nothing and no one but Him alone. And the only way we can even get to this place is because His Spirit first abides within us, giving us the heart to simultaneously admit our insufficiency while claiming and resting in his sufficiency. And this is the great irony. When we finally admit our inability, we are organically and powerfully propelled outward in miraculous fruitfulness…his fruitfulness. We become unstoppable agents of change, but begin to realize that it is all from Him, and He gets all the glory.

Today, in what are you abiding?

And what is abiding in you?

Where do you find your strength, your ability, your sufficiency?

What if the absolute vulnerability of God himself in the person of Jesus on the cross, the greatest irony of all time, could be transformed into the greatest strength as the resurrected King sends His Spirit to be inside of us so that, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead could be active and alive IN us and even THROUGH us. What if we are more powerful than we ever imagined, but that this power can only be activated when we admit our self-powerlessness? What would happen if we believed that, by His Abiding Spirit, we are men and women that are being used to bring about His Kingdom through loving him in worship and others in missions?

Carry Me

Matthew 7:13-14
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

As a kid going to Six Flags over Texas was absolute paradise. We would get there early and, when the gates finally opened, it was like the running of the bulls in Spain. We would all squeeze through the turnstiles and sprint in every direction, aiming to be first in line on whatever our favorite ride was (looping roller coasters was my thing). Coincidentally, this is all of life. We all have our favorite things towards which we run like bulls; beliefs, people, accomplishments, experiences, emotions…those things that will bring us happiness (like a looping coaster, but hopefully with less nausea).

This is the “wide way” that Jesus talks about. It is a crowded, easy way because we put ourselves and our desires first; over others and over God. We run headlong with our own customized spiritual beliefs that suit our preferences. Sometimes these spiritual preferences come in the form of a combo-pack of religions (for instance, I’ve known many “Buddhist-Christians”). Jesus is in the mix, but I don’t really “need” him, he’s just a great side-dish. Sometimes these preferences come in a tweaked form of Christianity which is based on a strict moral code in an effort to please God, but which actually deceives us into thinking that, because I (seemingly) adhere to this code, I don’t really “need” Jesus (at least as much as those other folks).

You see, each of us bull-runners are doing things in our own way, by our own means with ourselves in mind (even if we say it’s “for God”, it’s really for what we will get from God, and focused around ourselves and our behavior rather than around the finished work of Jesus, which brings joy and freedom).

Jesus doesn’t leave us on this wide path that only leads to a deeper and deeper prideful isolation. He invites us to the narrow gate (which is him) and the narrow path (which is also him). He invites us away from the tyranny of self obsession and into the freedom of being adopted children of God. The only catch is that we have to declare our desperation. We have to realize that it isn’t “all about me” and that I am need to be picked up and carried on the path, which is only wide enough for one set of footprints…His.

There is a band called Secret Sisters that wrote a song about daddies and how they carry us. Here’s one of the lines:

If I keep on hiding, how will I be known?
I keep telling myself that I’m better alone
When my father will carry me

We all march down the wide path, thinking we are “better alone.” But we need our Heavenly Daddy to pick us up off the wide path and put us on his back, the way he put The Cross on his back, and carry us home.

SnowCover

We got a pretty crazy amount of snow over the last 24 hours! So we are sitting here without power —  safe, warm and enjoying how ridiculously beautiful it is outside.

Snow has some mystical, and often deceptive, power. It magically smooths everything out and gives the world a gloriously clean facade. It dampens the noise of the world while slowing everything down to a crawl. But…underneath the surface…

After I graduated college I worked at a youth camp (Sonlight) in Pagosa Springs, Colorado for a ski season. We’d have to get up early to get the kids fed and lunches packed, but then I’d usually be able to ski Wolf Creek for a few hours. On one beautiful powder day I was skiing the back country, away from the slopes, just going downhill between trees. As I went down a dip in terrain I painfully realized that there was a fallen tree under the surface of the snow. My skis and feet when under the tree while the rest of me went over it, bringing me to an immediate stop. What looked incredibly beautiful ended up cracking my leg (but not so bad that I couldn’t take some advil and keep skiing).

This is often how we view what God has done to our sins. He “covered” them for sure, but they still lurk underneath. We often don’t feel clean, just covered. But this is our old religious self rearing it’s accusing head, telling us that we are dirty, worthless and really testing God’s patience. Yet instead of latching onto the cleansing hope of Jesus, we just keep trying to cover our heart’s fallen trees with religious, behavior-management snow so that nobody (often including ourselves) can see the danger underneath. Jesus confronted this with the religious elite:

Matthew 23:27-28
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

He was telling them, and telling us, that our hearts are dead and rotting, in need of re-creation, not just cleaning. We need new hearts, not repaired old hearts. King David, the great great (etc) grandad of Jesus, had some heart road-kill deep down and realized that he needed an outside surgeon…leading him to Psalm 51, his poem of repentance:

Psalm 51:7
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

This is why Jesus had to come. He had to have a heart like ours so that he could equally swap with us, giving us his pure heart along with all it’s benefits while taking ours, along with all it’s penalties. So our hearts are not snow-covered, they are snow-colored. They are pure because we’ve been given His.

So enjoy the snow, and let it remind you of your true identity in Jesus.