Here is the sermon text from today's message at Washington Union Alliance Church (CMA) in New Castle, Pa. I'll have the audio uploaded soon. There are differences between the text and the audio, as I felt free to leave my notes and extempore or tell a joke here and there. To God be all the glory.
I do want to thank the church for their kind and generous reception of my family and me. May God bless their efforts to live His Kingdom out in New Castle.
Text: Luke 15:11-32 (The Prodigal Son)
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we meet two children who, although they are in the same family, do not know their father. The first hates him enough to wish his death; the second assumes he is miserly and selfish. This is an important lesson for all Christians, since we claim to know the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit.
When we come to Church, we assume that we are worshipping the right God, the “only true God,” as Jesus puts it in John’s Gospel. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But, how do we know that the God we have assembled here to honor and serve is the God, the Creator of the universe, the one worthy of our acclamation and our lives? I raise this question because it seems that within the Christian world there are “many gods and many lords” (as the Apostle Paul speaks about it), but “for us there” should be “one God, the Father…and one Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christian God is often seen as either for all American wars, regardless of their justification, or against any wars, no matter how just they might actually be. We are told that God is vengeful and angry; yet He is Love. Placards, splayed over the evening news, read “God hates…” whatever group is not like the protestors, whether that is homosexuals, or soldiers, or even the Amish. There seems to be great confusion as to who God is and how we are to live in light of that. However, there is only one God and He is not the author of confusion: we must wade through this quagmire, this miry clay as Psalm 40 calls it, to the point where we can say not only that we believe in God (which James tells us even the demons do), but that we know Him and, more importantly, that He knows us.
Why, though, is it important to know God? Wouldn’t it just be easier to offer up some sacrifice, whether an animal or some prayer, to an all-powerful Being that we just don’t understand? Most of human history, it seems, has functioned this way. Luke tells us the story of Paul’s encounter with the “unknown god” in Acts 17: this ‘god’ had delivered them from plague and floods when all the other gods of the Grecian world had failed. Paul, though, will not let them stay in ignorance, for “God now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom He has ordained.” Maybe it would be easier to offer to some “unknown God” that all spiritual paths lead to, but in the reality of the situation, it is certainly not safer. Justice is coming – the Judge is at the doors!
But judgment isn’t the only reason that we should seek to truly know God. One genuinely true law of spirituality is that “we become like what we worship.” That is, whatever god we worship, we take on their traits. If we worship a god who is always wrathful and angry, we ourselves will become wrathful and angry. We see that with the “God hates…” crowd. If we worship a god who is kindly and benevolent, without any sense of justice or truth, we become soft and easily taken advantage of: it is a sad story of our country that many mainline Christian denominations have followed this path. The Apostle Peter, in his second epistle, says that we are to be “partakers of the divine nature.” We must ask who God is because we’re going to be like Him.
The language of “partaking of the divine nature” may sound strange. We talk much more often of salvation or redemption and even sanctification; however this language is very close to what God intended in the very beginning. In Genesis 1:26, the Word says “Let Us make man in our Image, according to Our likeness.” Somehow, in a very mysterious way, we partook of God’s image, His very nature. That image involved being in God’s likeness as well. We were supposed to act like God Himself. The Genesis passage continues, explaining this: “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Adam and Eve were set up as lords of the world; however there was a proviso: they could not eat from one of the trees in the midst of the garden God planted for them. The reason given was that “on the day you eat of it you will be liable to death.” This divine warning is very important: if you disobey, Adam, you will be cut off from what makes you live – right now, you have perfect communion with Me and I have given you every good gift, including the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden, so you will live forever in peace and joy. God knows that this will be a struggle for the newly formed image-bearers, yet He entrusts the task to them.
We may be surprised, then, to learn that when the serpent deceives Eve, he does so through their desire to be like God. This desire to partake of the divine nature is not a bad thing: man and woman were made in the image and likeness of God. However, the serpent tells Eve (and the text tells us that Adam was with her, silent the whole time: she was deceived, Adam went in with full knowledge) that they have yet to become like God, knowing good and evil. The reason that God withheld the tree was not to grow them in obedience, but rather to separate Himself from them, the ones created in His very image and likeness! The serpent’s condemnation is just. Why did Adam and Eve, who should have known better, take the bait and eat from the tree? The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1:21-22: “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.” It started with false worship in which they became unthankful. Then they became futile in their thoughts and started to believe in another god, not the God who had selflessly made them and entrusted them with the Garden, but a petty, miserly god who selfishly kept back secrets all to himself. They became like what they worshipped: Adam selfishly blames Eve and God Himself for the predicament, instead of repenting and seeking God’s mercy. Because of this we are trapped in the “corruption that is in the world through lust,” as Peter puts it, summarizing the effects of Adam’s sin. When we have a wrong knowledge of who God is, we worship wrongly and become corrupted at our cores.
Who God is matters because we are to be like Him, in both the here-and-now, and in eternity when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3:2). So, to the question at hand: who is God?
A few provisos on our quest would be helpful. I am an academic by training, so I apologize that a seemingly simple question as “who is God” takes a million years to arrive at. Things must be made somewhat convoluted, otherwise how would we turn these sorts of questions into articles and books?
The first proviso is that when we are attempting to answer “who” someone is, whether that is God or our spouses or ourselves, we are asking “how” that person thinks and acts. I know my wife because of the way she acts towards me and towards God and towards our community. My wife knows me the same way: my hope is that I portray a consistent image of who I am. Here is where faith comes in: we must trust that the actions are true revelations of the other or ourselves. We project an image of who we are by our actions, so if we know God’s actions, we know what it means to be made “in His image” and can act accordingly.
The second proviso is like the first: we cannot understand God without considering the action that is Jesus Christ. John’s Gospel says “No one has seen God at any time – the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has interpreted Him.” If we want to speak truly of God, and even more importantly to know Him and thus have eternal Life, we must speak of and know Jesus Christ. This means that looking at the actions of and listening to the words of Jesus Christ will show us the “who” and “how” of God. All the stories about God in the Bible make sense in the light of Jesus Christ. So anything we read in the Bible, whether the judgment of Sodom or the Conquest of Canaan must be read with a single question in mind: “how does this story prepare for or teach about the Incarnation, the Suffering, the Death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ?”
We do not have time, alas, to go through the whole Scriptures to uncover this God, although if you wanted to get a start on it this afternoon, might I recommend meditating on 1 Corinthians 10? For our purposes now, though, we must concentrate on Jesus Himself as the revealer, the interpreter for us, of God. Let us briefly speak of Jesus’ teaching, his parables, and the way in which he acted as entrances into the knowledge of God the Father.
At the end of Matthew 5, in the middle of the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says something very striking and challenging: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What does it mean to be perfect as God is perfect? Jesus explains a few verses earlier, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you: that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” What is God’s perfection? It is loving your enemies. While often our reading of the Old Testament is overwhelmed by the scenes of judgment, here Jesus puts a spin on it that we might not have expected: even the wrath of God is meant to bring salvation. God brings judgment, most often it seems on His people, not because He is vindictive or controlled by anger (these are human ways of wrath); but as a loving Father who disciplines in order that Israel might turn from death to Life, from Satan to God. This can be seen clearly, and poignantly, in the book of Ezekiel.
In the midst of the people’s most egregious rebellion, which is detailed in the early chapters of the book, God decides to leave the Temple – to forsake it and allow evil forces to overrun it. The people have started worshipping other gods there, which the only true God cannot abide. So, in chapter 10, the glory of God departs from the Temple. It seems that God has finally forsaken His people. They have become His enemies, so He has left them. Where, though, has He gone? Ezekiel makes it a point to mention that the cherubim, the angels, that carry the glory of God out of the Temple are “the living creatures I saw by the River Chebar.” In Ezekiel 1, he has the vision of these cherubim carrying God’s glory in Babylon, with the exiles who mourn there. God has left the Temple, that is true; God has judged His people with exile, that is true; but God has followed them into exile. “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Although I have cast them off far among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet I shall be a little sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone” (Ez. 11:16). The Apostle Paul puts it in these words, “God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…for…when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son…” (Rom. 5:8, 10). While we were enemies, opposed to God, with the “wrath of God revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness” upon us, God sent His Son to be incarnate, to lead us to truth, to die for us, to rise for us, and to go prepare a place for us. Who is God? The One who loves His enemies. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” We must ask, then, who are our enemies? And how can we treat them with justice, mercy, and love – which always involves calling them into a transforming relationship with the One who is justice, mercy, and Love. Then we shall be like God.
While there is much more to be said about Jesus’ teaching, we should shift our focus shortly to His parables. These stories, at once very simple and complex, continue to speak to us, to disarm us, and to remake us, even though we do our labor in a context that often seems far away from fishermen, slaves, and banquet-inviting kings. The Prodigal Son, a well-known and beloved parable, acts in such a way, especially as it reveals to us God the Father through the Son.
The outline of the parable is well-known. A brash and arrogant son says, in effect, “I wish you were dead, dad; can I have some money?” The father, oddly, agrees and sends his wayward boy off with half of his largesse. The son wastes his living on “riotous living” and prostitutes, ending up in the worst place a young Jewish boy could: a Gentile pig farm, begging the pigs for food, “and no one gave him any” (Lk. 15:16). At this point the boy “came to himself” and decided to be but a mere slave in his father’s household. However, the father sees him coming afar off and runs out to him, welcoming him, waving away his self-deprecation, and restores him to full sonship, complete with a homecoming feast. The older brother, whom we have not heard from so far, protests that the father has treated him – the “good boy” – as a slave; never even supplying him with a goat so that he and his friends might party. The father replies, “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.”
This story, in the midst of a few parables about finding that which was lost, is poignant and tender. This is a father that, even in the midst of utter rebellion, loves his son: he daily watches for his repentance, not so that he can be made to feel guilty or ashamed (the son takes that role on himself), but rather so that he can be fully restored to the household. He is also the father that loves the son who never leaves – but that son never really knew his father! He assumed that he was cold and miserly, rather than open-hearted and generous. “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours” is something no Christian should ever forget.
This story is told in response to the grumbling of the religious leaders over Jesus’ acceptance of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners and outcasts. How could he bring these unclean into God’s fold? Jesus’ response, about his work, is the story of the father. Jesus here is explicitly linking his own work of welcome to the work of the Father God. The sinners were the younger brother; the religious leaders were the older brother. Jesus takes the role of the welcoming, running, embracing Father. The Son truly reveals the Father. Whatever we see Jesus doing is what God is doing. Since Jesus makes us sons of God, both males and females sharing in this status, what the world see us doing should lead them to see what God continues to do. This is a challenging charge, but God promises us that He is “conforming us to the image of His Son” as Paul says in Romans 8.
Many other parables could be multiplied to show who God is: often stories convey truth better than propositional statements. It is one thing to be told, “God is Love,” it is another thing to hear the story of a father running to embrace his son that, at their last meeting, had wished his premature death. Let us go on, then, to the ultimate revelation of God the Father: the life of Jesus Christ.
In John 14, Jesus is speaking very deep truths to his disciples. He is about to depart to the Cross and the tomb: it is time for him to reveal who he truly is. He says, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” His disciple Philip retorts, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.” I find that a strange thing to say. Let us remember Exodus 33, where God tells Moses “no man may see My face and live.” Philip saying, “it is sufficient for us” seems an odd request. Yet listen to Christ’s reply: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father…” To know God, we must know Jesus Christ. If we know Jesus Christ, we have seen and know the Father. If we know the Father, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, we have eternal life. What does the life of Jesus, then, reveal to us about God the Father?
The ultimate event in Jesus’ life, which all the Gospels speak about, is his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. The Gospels differ on many things, some stories are told here and omitted there, some parables are highlighted there, while others are neglected here, and so on. But all of them address the suffering, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Son reveals the Father, then this is the most important piece in the puzzle. God the Father cannot be known without the Cross and Resurrection – these events are the fullest revelation of His character. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself…” “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as the mercy-seat by his blood…” and so on. God is revealed as One who went through death for His creatures, that they might be brought back to Him. This is one step further than the father in the Prodigal Son: whereas that father waited for the son to come to his senses, this Father goes while we were “ungodly, sinners, and enemies” to do what we didn’t even want to do. We preferred darkness to the light of God, as John 1 says, and so crucified our God who wanted only our resurrection. Yet what we intended for evil, God intended for good. By going through death, but not deserving it as He never sinned, He trampled down death and raised us up with Christ on the third day. Now we wait for the fullness of that resurrection, expectantly and joyfully, even in the midst of the continuing pain and suffering we face. We can have full assurance of this because God has already done it. Believing this is faith: this is knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.
Through this faith, which is nurtured and guarded by the Church, which is the Body of Christ Himself, we are being remade into the likeness of God, partaking in the divine nature. Time fails us to go any deeper into this, but one thing must be said. If we know God, we know that we must be like Him – we must do the works of God. But, how can we, who are still so weak and prone to sin, do this? God has already done it: we have spoken of the Father and the Son, let us close with a moment on the Spirit, the Breath of God. Our natural breath is our life: if we cease breathing, we cease living. God’s Spirit is His Life, given to us – we have the very Life of God within us, guiding us, loving us, making us more like Christ. All the ways of God are found in Him – we must submit ourselves daily to this Spirit, ask to be filled to the fullest brim with Him, that we might be who and what God has made us to be: in His image and likeness. Paul, in Ephesians 5, lays this out clearly: he talks of how wives should treat husbands and husbands wives, children and parents, parents and children, slaves and masters, masters and slaves. His description breaks down unjust social patterns that these folks living in the Greco-Roman culture would have found second nature. [Extemporaneous about how Ephesians 5 does this – you’ll have to listen to the audio recording] But how is this possible? Note verses 15-21: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time for the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of God is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.” We can live out a godly life, reflecting and showing forth His image and likeness, if we are filled with the Spirit, which Paul connects to living a life of worship: singing to God, giving thanks, and mutual submission. This is how God Himself lived while on earth and this is how He calls us to live as well: to do so is to partake of His divine nature and to truly be sons and daughters who reveal the Father to a world that must “come to its senses,” just as the Prodigal Son did. The Life, lived and given to us by Christ, reverses what Adam did. Through one man came death, through Christ came Life and he has entrusted us to bring this Life to the world, to the glory of God the Father, who so loved the world. May God do this in and through us to the glory of His Name and the salvation of the world. Amen.