Come as You Are
Jeff Jones, Senior Pastor
January 8/10, 2009
Luke 15: 1-32
Happy New Year everybody! For those of you who are a committed part of the Chase Oaks family, I can promise you that 2010 will be quite a ride, a very eventful year around here, and I couldn’t be more excited heading into it. I’m also excited today because we are starting a new series, Aspire, built around our most significant aspirations.
All of us aspire to something, multiple things. This time of year many of us would aspire to lose some weight, get in shape—maybe actually start to use that fitness equipment we bought a couple of years ago, or maybe buy some, join the gym, or actually use the membership we already have. Some maybe want to learn a language, improve a golf swing or tennis game, maybe travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. Some, a relative few, aspire to a national championship (comment about this based on results). Most of us around here can agree on the aspiration to a Super Bowl for the boys.
We all have aspirations, for significance, for career, for relationships, but the most significant is the one we want to cover in this series, the aspiration to connect to God, and find significance and meaning in Him…the aspiration to grow closer to our creator, to be more like him, to be used by him to make a difference in this world. Since we are all sitting in a church service, I can probably assume that most of us are here because of that larger aspiration. Sure, some of you were dragged here, or guilted here, but even if that’s true, in the deepest part of us is a longing for something bigger, for a transcendent connection, for God.
The sad truth is though that most of us try to satisfy that in all the wrong ways, which means it will never happen. We have the aspiration but keep it in the aspiration category because our approach is all wrong. It’s like me with one of my lower aspirations, learning a decent and repeatable golf swing. Should be easy, but I can’t get there. Yet, the truth is my approach will never get me there. I just keep practicing my swing flaws, reinforcing my mistakes. I could hit a million balls but that just means I’m getting better and what I do wrong. My approach will never get me there.
The same is true in the bigger search for God, for a deepening connection to him. Most find that aspiration elusive, even if you begin a relationship with him, the idea of a rich and vibrant connection to God seems like a reality for someone else…kind of like a good golf swing for me. I assume it’s only for other people.
So, today we are going to hear from God himself. When Jesus came to this planet, he told a story that is one of the best known in all the Bible but often misunderstood. And in this story we find ourselves, and the reason why our biggest aspiration stays in the aspiration category. In the story we see the two most common approaches to God, and both of them are dead ends. All of us tend to tilt one of these ways or the other, so let’s bring our aspiration and here what Jesus says about it.
Turn with me in the Bible to Luke 15. The story of the two dead end approaches to God is a story of two brothers, both of whom are lost at the beginning of the story. Many of us know this as the story of the prodigal son, but it is actually a story about a father and two sons. To understand the story, we have to set it in context…so let’s read
Slide: ______________ ) Luke 15:1-2
Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
The Pharisees prided themselves as the best of the best when it came to obeying the laws of God. They were the religious leaders and people who were regarded as being very good at being good. Alongside them listening to Jesus were tax collectors and ‘sinners,’ people who were not good at being good. These were swindlers and prostitutes, not the kind of people good people are supposed to hang around. So, Jesus tells this story that illustrates both groups that are approaching Jesus, in the story about these two brothers, the older one and the younger one. The younger one you could call the bad boy and the older one the good boy. As we’ll see, both boys are lost boys—only one realized it. As we tell the story, consider which one you are most like. Jesus begins by emphasizing the younger brother, the one who was not good at being good.
Slide: _________________ ) Luke 15:11-12
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. The younger son does something unthinkable in that culture. He asks for his share of the estate before his dad is dead. He’s basically saying, “I don’t want you, I just want your money.” What he would have gotten would have been 1/3 of the estate, because that’s the way it worked back then. The older son would have gotten 2/3 and the younger 1/3. He decides he wants his portion, the 1/3 now. To that request, most fathers would have thrown the kid out, disowned him. Anyone listening to the story would have expected that to come next—but not with this father. He simply honors the request, and gives the 1/3 to his son. The story continues:
Slide: _________________ ) Luke 15:13
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living (eating twinkies for breakfast and that kind of thing). He spends all his money, and finds himself destitute and homeless. He’s only able to find one job, the worst job a Jewish person could imagine, a job taking care of pigs. Even though he is feeding pigs, he has no food for himself, and he’s starving to death. He’s penniless and homeless and desperate. But then the story says:
Slide: _________________ ) Luke 15:17-20a
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!’ I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, ‘Father, 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.’ So he got up and went to his father.
He comes up with a plan, a way to approach his dad. He knows he’s blown the whole son thing and is disowned. It would be unthinkable for that to change. He’s way unworthy for that, but his dad is a gracious man, and maybe his dad would allow him to be one of the hired field workers. That would be a lot of grace, but it’s worth a shot. So, he walks back to his dad rehearsing his little speech, knowing how unworthy he is of any thing. Probably many times he considered turning around, but he keeps walking.
Slide: _________________ ) Luke 15:20b-c
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. That was not expected! Patriarchs didn’t run. They had this big fancy robes that showed their standing. To run, you’d have to cinch them up in your hands between your legs and look very undignified. But this dad didn’t care. He had been looking for his son to come back, every day hoping against hope. The son starts his little speech about maybe he could be a hired hand, and the father ignores the speech. He commands his servants to bring out the best robe, a signet ring, which was the equivalent of the family credit card, and shoes for his feet. He tells them to kill the fattened calf and call everyone they know for a party. He says,
Slide: _________________ ) Luke 15:23b-24
“Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
What did he call him? Son! The robe, sandals, and ring were all about restoring him to full sonship. That meant that he would get inheritance all over again one day. It meant he was restored as if the whole prodigal thing never happened. It was way too much for that son to even think about, but he goes into the party with his head swimming.
Some of you are younger brothers or sisters. You are not good at being good, and you know it. In fact, you’ve made decisions, done things, gone places, been someone that you wish had never happened. You’d love to hit the restart button. You’ve made a mess of things in your life and with God, and you know it. You feel even uncomfortable even coming to a church, because you feel dirty or messed up. You feel unworthy of God. Guess what? You are! We all are.
You think you are searching for God, but the truth is, like the father in the story, he is looking for you, waiting on you to come to him. His arms are wide open, he accepts you as you are. You feel like you don’t deserve him, that you need to clean up your life first, you need to do enough good to make yourself acceptable, because that makes sense. That’s only fair. But God isn’t fair. He is a God of grace, and his arms are open.
One of my most prized letters I’ve ever received is right here. I can’t read it, because it is too personal, but it is from a friend who came to Chase Oaks as a younger sister. She so wanted to have a relationship with God, for a do-over in her life, but she was so full of shame. She had gone way away from God, and the farther she went, the more she felt like she should run because now there was no going back. One Easter Sunday though she got the surprise of her life—a realization of the unconditional love of her heavenly Father, a realization that the too good to be true in this case is true, a realization of grace. She came to God and entered into his arms. He accepted his grace and forgiveness, which was waiting the whole time. The whole time, her Father was waiting. If you are a younger brother or sister, please understand this most crazy reality. Satan will do anything to make you doubt this, but please believe it. God is waiting for you to come to him, as you are. His grace is available. In fact, he’s searching for you, and his arms are wide open. He’s looking for all younger brothers and sisters.
The story has more than one brother, though. The story also has an older brother, one who is just as lost, though in a very different way. Remember the party that the father throws for the younger brother who is no returned? The older son hears about it, and you’d think he’d be excited. But he wasn’t. He was ticked off. A fattened calf party was extremely rare. This younger son didn’t deserve that, he did. He didn’t squander anything. And now, with the younger son being reinstated, the estate would be divided all over again, which meant the younger son in essence squandered his money. He just lost a small fortune, and had nothing to do with it! So, he boycotts the party. He refuses to go in. That in itself was also a huge affront in that culture. To have this kind of party, and the guests to know that one of the sons refuses to come when the father has invited, was a huge offense to the father, a huge embarrassment. But once again, this unpredictable father does something crazy in that culture. Let’s read:
Slide: _________________ ) Luke 15:28-32
The older brother became angry and refused to come in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! 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 when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
So, the older brother, the one good at being good, is chapped. Afterall, he’s the one who has been so good at being good. He’s the one who deserves a fattened calf party, not the younger brother. His approach to God has everything to do with his being good. Our churches are full of older brothers. The sad truth is the older brother problem is a much deeper sin problem than the younger brother problem. Sure, the younger brother looks like the sinner, but the older brother struggles with a much more subtle and insipid sin. Our churches are full of older brothers, people who believe that their morality and sacrifice and goodness are what makes them worthy of God’s blessings.
Older brotherism is a contract relationship with God. I do good and God rewards me with a good life, with heaven after I die. He answers my prayers and blesses me. My job is to do good. That turns out to be a very fragile basis for a relationship with God though. One of the big problems though is that such people are really thrown for a loop when life turns south, when problems come. They hardly know what to do. How could God allow them to lose their job? They’ve been faithful to him, tithed off their income, prayed faithfully? How could this happen? I’ve seen families fall apart when they’ve seemingly done everything right in raising kids, done all the formulas correctly in how to raise kids, and the kids rebel and go far from God. I’ve seen people who seemed very godly lose their faith when some calamity comes, because it is a violation of the contract. I’ve done my part, but God isn’t doing his.
Older brothers also develop a superiority complex. When we fall into older-brotherism, we look down our nose at those who don’t play by God’s rules. We might even resent the younger brother types, the immoral in American culture, who enjoy the same blessings we do but don’t deserve it. In fact, they are ruining our culture. They can become the enemy. Most churches are dominated by the older brother mentality, which is why most younger brothers stay away from church. Younger brothers expect to find not grace but judgment, so why would you go to a church? You’ll just find a bunch of judgmental hypocrites. Younger brothers aren’t welcome in most churches.
That’s why we work so hard to create and maintain a come as you are culture at Chase Oaks. We are all just messed up people, all in the same boat. But older brothers don’t think that way. Even at Chase Oaks I hear from older brothers from time to time. I get these emails of people asking me, “Why can’t we just do church the way we like it? Why do we have to be relevant to the culture and keep changing? Why do we have to do church for those who aren’t here yet? Can’t we just do church the way we want? We’re the ones who pay the bills, aren’t we?” Such people don’t understand the heart of the father, and they don’t realize it but they are just as lost as the younger brothers who annoy them.
They are just lost in a different way. They are counting on their goodness to earn God’s forgiveness and blessing, but you can’t earn it. Older brothers believe their faithfulness entitles them to God’s blessings, but God doesn’t work that way. He is a God of grace, and the only way to receive what he offers is through humble faith, realizing that whaht the Bible says is true about our good works, that “all of our righteousness are just filthy rags.” We have nothing to offer God. We don’t deserve anything but hell. The older brother refused to join the party, because the father wasn’t fair.
Older brothers also have a very hard time accepting the father’s love. Basically the older brother was saying, “I’ve done everything right, but you’ve never done these things for me. You don’t love me.” For the older brother, love is earned by good behavior, but God doesn’t work that way. He just loves. (story of elder meeting a few years ago?). Please understand. There is nothing you can do to be more loved than you are right now. If you do better, God won’t love you any better. If you do worse, God won’t love you any less. His love isn’t based on our performance. His love is not conditional on our behavior. He loves us if we know him because we are his children. The older brother was loved, just didn’t realize it.
So, a story of two brothers, who seem to be so different. Think about your own family growing up. Did you have siblings? How different or similar were they? If you have kids, how about your own? It’s very normal for two brothers to be quite different from each other. I have two boys of my own. Our house is a story of two brothers, and in many ways they are different—just like these two boys in the story.
In fact, let’s lay out the differences (on board):
Younger Brother Older Brother
Breaks the Rules Keeps the Rules
“I don’t deserve” “I do deserve”
Inferiority Complex Superiority Complex
The two boys seem to be very different, which is maybe why they don’t seem to get along so well in the story. Over the holidays, our two boys were together way more than normal, and mostly that was all good. But one day they were struggling to get along with each other, and Christy and I called an impromptu family meeting. After some conversation, Christy suggested that each of them write out 10 things each of them have in common. If you know our boys, then you know that their personalities are very different from each other; yet, even with that, they are much more alike than they are different, which is what they discovered. The same is true between the younger and older brother. The truth is that their approach to God is exactly the same. Their particular way of going about the approach is different, but the approach is the same, and also happens to be the approach of almost everybody in our culture who wants a relationship with God.
Both of them chose a performance-based approach to their relationship with God. The younger brother wasn’t a high performer, so he feels he needs to clean up his life in order to be acceptable to God, and probably will never be fully accepted anyway. The older brother is a high performer and believes that in the end, the scales will balance to his favor, and God will let him into heaven one day and will largely bless his or her life now. Both could not be more wrong. God’s truth is that that our performance is irrelevant.
The only approach is that of the Father, a grace-based approach, not one of working our way to his favor, but of his favor being given to people freely, people who don’t deserve it. The only way God offers what we crave is as a gift to be received, not a reward to be earned.
The wonderful news is that God holds out acceptance right now to the younger brothers and the older brothers (and sisters). We see that in the story to the younger brother, and he accepts. He falls into the embrace of his father and joins the party. But what about the older brother? What happens to him? Look at the passage? What does he finally do? We don’t know. Jesus doesn’t say. He leaves that part of the story open…because Jesus was talking to the Pharisees, talking to the older brother, those who are good at being good. His leaving the story open was an invitation for them to come to the party. God loves the Pharisee as much as he does the sinner. The door is open to both.
The younger brother comes with shame and guilt. The older brother with pride and self-righteousness. But each can come to God as they are, and find release from their baggage. The invitation is to come, whether you are more of an older brother or a younger one. I’ll close with a little parable of my own. When I was in Ethiopia last time, we visited the site that is now Chase Oaks Academy. While there, we were surrounded by a bunch of orphans who were playing in the playground.
Slide: _________________ ) Show some pics
I became increasingly interactive with them, and while the rest of our group was in a meeting, I hung out with these kids. They didn’t know hardly any English, but one phrase they did know and began to say frequently was “Airplane! Airplane!” They wanted me to take me home with them on the airplane. They wanted a home. Their heart ached for a father. That was tough, but let’s shape that into a parable.
Let’s say a person does come, and in this case, when they say, “Airplane! Airplane” he says, ‘That’s why I am here! I have come with a really big airplane, and there is a seat with your name on it. I want you to be my child. I love you, and I’ve come all this way at great expense, and I’m asking you to come with me. You don’t need anything. You just need to come as you are. I’ll take care of everything else!” That’s what God has done.
The life we were designed for, a life of purpose, significance, connection to God, is there for you. God has done everything necessary to begin such a life. All you have to do is come, come as you are. Quit trying to be good enough. Quit trying to clean up your life. Quit thinking that you are somehow good enough to deserve it in the end any way.
God is ready to for you to come as you are. Are you ready to leave your shame behind? Are you ready to lose your pride? Wherever you are in your journey, let’s come to God in a fresh way right now.
Pray, first for those who do not have relationship with Christ and then for those who do, ask people to talk with God themselves as the song is sung.