October 13, 2013

Staying Outside

Have you ever looked at a familiar story form a different direction and found something totally new?  This is a screenwriter’s bread and butter.  Coming up with a truly unique idea is tough.  As a result, much of what goes up on both the silver and the small screen these days are reworkings or retellings of familiar stories.  Old stories that have long since been told are retold in a new light or from a new angle.  Sometimes, they take the frame of the old and build an entirely new house on it.  We can see some of this in the modern sequel-craze.  It seems like just about every movie that comes out these days is a sequel or a remake of some kind.  Consider some of the big budget films that have or will yet come out just this year: “Star Trek: Into the Darkness”—sequel; “Man of Steel”—remake; “The Wolverine”—sequel; “Iron Man 3”—sequel; “Despicable Me 2”—sequel; “Pacific Rim”—a reworking of the old Godzilla storyline; “Fast & Furious 6”—sequel; “Monster’s University”—prequel; “Thor: The Dark World”—sequel”; “The Lone Ranger”—remake; “G. I. Joe: Retaliation”—sequel…of a remake; “A Good Day to Die Hard”—sequel; “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”—sequel…of a reworking.  It’s like Hollywood isn’t producing anything new these days…or at least anything new that’s attracting a big audience.  And you know what?  It’s obviously making them enough money that they keep doing it and we keep seeing them.  Case in point: I’ve either seen or want to see everything on that list.  This trend even continues when you look to the small screen.  This particular TV season I am trying to keep up with three network dramas: the second season of “Revolution” (which admittedly was a new idea), “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” which is a reworking for television of the Avengers universe movies, and “Sleepy Hollow” which is a retelling of the old story with a bit more of an apocalyptic flare.  While on the one hand this seems kind of lazy on the part of the writers, there is actually a lot of creativity going on here.  It takes a lot of work to take something old and dated and make it fresh and attractive yet again.

Well, this morning, I want to try my hand at this trend.  I want to tell you a story many of you know very well.  But I want to look at it from a direction that, if not totally new, is not often at the forefront when we examine the story.  The story itself is a powerful one of forgiveness.  It gives us one of the more poignant looks at the incredible extent of the patient forgiveness of our heavenly Father found in all of Scripture.  As we enter the second part of our series, Making Things Right, this would seem to be entirely appropriate.  However, I don’t want to talk about God’s forgiveness of us this morning.  This morning I want to take a look at what happens when we don’t forgive someone who has offended us.  Now, it’s true that we covered this last week.  If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.  But, knowing that sometime in the hopefully distant future we will have to pay the full price for our sins if we refuse to forgive someone who has hurt us badly in the here and now doesn’t really hold our feet to the fire.  We are physical creatures and in order to grasp an abstract concept, we need tangible examples around which we can wrap our minds, into which we can sink our teeth. This is exactly what I want to do for you this morning as we look at the personal price of unforgiveness.  We know why we are to forgive.  What happens when we don’t?

Are you wondering yet what the story is?  You can find it in Luke 15.  Luke, of course, is an ancient manuscript by a Greek doctor who interviewed a number of different people, including Jesus’ own mom, in order to write a historically-accurate biography of Him.  It’s the first of a two-part series, the second of which we call Acts and is focused on what Jesus’ followers did with His mission and message after His resurrection from the dead.  In any event, in Luke 15—and if you haven’t already opened your Bible or Bible app there, go ahead and do so—we find Jesus standing around teaching a rather disparate audience about the nature of God’s love for His people and the kinds of things that love motivates Him to do.  I say that Jesus had a disparate audience because the group of folks listening to Him included both scribes and Pharisees, who were at the top end of the social and moral scale in Israel, but it also included people who were on the bottom: folks like “tax collectors,” who were considered so appallingly immoral and unholy that they received their own category of badness.  You know everybody hates you when they name a category of badness after you.

In any event, with this motley crew gathered before Him, all complaining about each other, what does Jesus do?  Master teacher that He was, He immediately took them to a place they all had in common: “Have you ever lost something?”  All of a sudden this group of people who used to think they had nothing in common were all nodding their heads together in agreement.  Jesus said, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?’  And to a person they all said, “Well yeah, I’d do that.  You look for something you’ve lost.”

From here, Jesus takes them on a common journey by talking about things they had probably all experienced losing at one time or another.  He does this to set them up for our story this morning.  You see, after asking things like, “Have you ever lost a sheep?” or “Have you ever lost a coin?” Jesus asks a different question: “What if you lost a child?”  Actually, He doesn’t ask the question quite like that.  Instead, He turns the tables just a bit on them by asking it like this: “What if your kid left?  And not just left, but left in the most painful, embarrassing way possible?  What you do about that?”  Again, many of you know the story which has become known as the parable of the prodigal son, but listen as I read this for you again because I think there’s something powerful in the hearing of the word of God.  Follow along with me starting at v. 11 of Luke 15.

“And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that is coming to me.”  And he divided his property between them.  Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.  And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.  And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired servants.’”  And he arose and came to his father.  But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.  And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.  For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”  And they began to celebrate.’”

Alright, let’s pause for just a minute to state the obvious yet again: Many of you know this story very, very well.  You’ve read it numerous times.  You’ve studied it in Sunday school classes.  You’ve heard other sermons preached on it.  We are treading familiar territory for you this morning.  And, while we’re pointing out things that are obvious, let’s touch on another: This is an incredible parable.  It’s a parable.  Jesus made this story up to make a point.  But His point is incredible.  When we turn from God it’s like we are wishing Him dead and running away to blow the great inheritance He’s given us by sharing His image with us.  Many of us have been in the place of this younger son in the parable.  Hopefully, we have also all experienced the moment of realization that hits him: it’s better to be a servant of God than to suffer so-called “freedom” in the world.  And our heavenly Father treats us the same way that this father treated his returning son: he runs to us to receive us back into his arms as a cherished child in humiliating fashion.  In case you’ve ever missed this observation: in that culture, dignified patriarchs didn’t run.  The men in Jesus’ audience would have audibly gasped when He described the behavior of this father.  “What an embarrassment,” they would have thought, “running to receive this wicked child in such a fashion!”  Most of them would have dealt with such a son by having him killed on the spot—after all, didn’t the Law of Moses prescribe death to a rebellious son?  And in our amazement at such a reception on the part of God the Father to us His errant children, we usually stop at about v. 24 with the father’s exclamation that his dead and lost son is now alive and found.  Sure, we might give a half-hearted acknowledgement that there’s more to the story, but we’ve covered the important part.

Yet what about the other son?  There’s still more to this story.  What more, given Jesus’ audience make-up, what remains was probably directed at a very specific group of people: the scribes and Pharisees.  But, before you fire up your well-programmed refrain, “Serves them right!  Those scoundrels needed a good warning about not gladly receiving those who were attempting to return to the God they professed to serve,” let me make an observation.  In this particular culture, folks like the scribes and Pharisees were not viewed the same way we have been trained to view them.  They were not considered the villains of their society, but the heroes.  They were the faithful church-folks of their day.  Ouch.  They may have been guilty of a lot of things, but being what they understood to be faithfully dedicated to keeping God’s word was not one of them.  Guilty of misunderstanding what His word meant, yes they were; but their motives were undoubtedly sincere.  So before we ignore the end of the parable, let’s stop a minute and think about it.  Jesus usually put what He wanted people to remember most at the end of His parables.  Let’s see why the old brother was such a big deal.

The older brother wasn’t there when his younger delinquent of a brother came groveling home and received a king’s welcome from his old fool of a father.  He was out where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing.  And when he finally came home after working yet another thankless day for his taskmaster of a father he could hear the commotion going on at the house from a distance.  He was immediately curious, of course, and when he saw a servant hurrying past him, obviously on an errand of some kind, he stopped the man and asked what was happening.  The answer he got?  “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.”

Okay, forget the rest of the story for a minute and put yourself in this man’s shoes.  We started out last week thinking about where our forgiveness limits are.  Can I just say that this would be pushing mine?  How about you?  I mean, here he was, the “good son.”  He’d done everything right his whole life.  His father had really pushed him for most of it.  He felt like he had more rules and expectations than his kid brother ever did.  Then, the lazy jerk openly rebelled against their father.  He asked for his inheritance.  The whole point of an inheritance is that you inherit it…after your parents die.  He might as well have just stated the obvious: “Dad, I’d rather you were dead, because this whole living under your roof thing is really cramping my style.  Why don’t we just pretend you were dead and I’ll get on with my life?  Then you don’t have to stress over my resistance to your way of life and I won’t have to resent you for keeping me from being who I want to be.  Everybody wins.”  And his fool of a father went along with it!  That pathetic excuse for a son convinced dad to liquidate a third of the farm, took the money, and left.  Meanwhile, he had stayed.  He’d worked twice as hard to do what was right in order to recoup the losses inflicted upon the family by that selfish little jerk.  Things had been tough, but he’d made the best of it and actually had a pretty good return to show for all his labor.  Now he comes home after yet another hard day’s work and finds that the slob has burned through generations of labor and has come crawling home in hopes of 1. not being killed, and 2. latching back on to the teat he had long since rejected.  But instead of either of those two things happening, dad throws a party for him as if he had done something praiseworthy.  This was simply too much.  He would not, could not, should not even, forgive this.  And would you?  Come on, be honest now.  Would you forgive this?  Or, would you hold onto it and stew?

And yeah, we know that we have to forgive in order to be forgiven, but that’s long term as far as most of us are concerned.  What about the short term?  Are there any more immediate consequences to taking the route of the older brother here?  Particularly when the situation seems especially well suited to such an approach?  Well, as it turns out, in this parable that you thought was so familiar, Jesus makes the case that there are in fact some consequences that are more immediate than unforgiveness somewhere down the line of eternity.  And, by putting it at the end where He does, Jesus draws our attention to it in such a way as if to say, “Hey, you churchy folks who feel like you’re doing everything right, sometime there is going to be one of the people you set on the outside of your righteous walls who comes knocking trying to get in.  Your first instinct is going to be to self-righteously keep them out, or else make them jump through ridiculous hoops to join the club again.  Don’t do it.  That’s not how the God you profess to serve acts toward them.  Don’t make yourselves out to be more righteous than Him.  In fact, such behavior will leave you separated from your Father while they will be enjoying His presence.”  This is the danger of unforgiveness here and now.  Look at v. 28: “But he was angry and refused to go in.”  His father was on the inside where the party was happening but he refused to go in.  His father even comes out to bring him in, but while the story ends without resolving their argument, the sense given is that he never does go in to be with his father and brother.  This familiar parable then, seen through new light, teaches us a lesson we never thought would be there.  The lesson is this: Unforgiveness leaves us separated from our Father.   Unforgiveness leaves us separated from our Father.  And I think He shows us the truth and tragedy of this in five different, practical ways.  Let’s look at these quickly together and then we’ll be out of here.

First, unforgiveness causes us to miss out on life in the future, yes, but it also causes us to miss out on life now.  Look at what happened here.  The older son came home and there was a celebration going on in the house.  What is a celebration?  A sign of life.  We celebrate because we have experienced the richness of life in some way.  Yet the older son came home, saw the celebration was happening, and wouldn’t go in.  Life was flourishing on the inside and yet because of the unforgiveness that had gripped his heart—a well-justified unforgiveness if there ever seemed to be one—he would not…he could not go in and take part.  In the same way, when we allow unforgiveness to take hold of our hearts we lose the ability to experience the full richness of life when it shows itself around us.  Indeed, unforgiveness leaves us separated from our Father who is Himself the source of life.  We talk sometimes about wanting to live life to the fullest, but as long as we have unforgiveness toward someone else we simply can’t do it.

Second, unforgiveness interrupts key relationships in our life.  For the older son here this came in two parts.  His relationship to his younger brother had long since been interrupted by his obvious unwillingness to forgive him.  But now his unforgiveness was interrupting another, even more key, relationship: his relationship with his father.  Indeed, unforgiveness separates us from our Father.  The application here, though, is physical as well as spiritual.  Because of his unforgiveness his relationship with his brother had become adversarial, at least in his own mind.  As a result, when his father showed this incredible kindness to his returned son he crossed a line in the older son’s mind and joined the enemy side.  In the same way, when we have people in our lives who we are not willing to forgive, we will eventually find ourselves sacrificing other relationships in our lives on this altar.  Ultimately, our most important relationship will be sacrificed as well: our relationship with our heavenly Father who does good to all His children.  Unforgiveness separates us from our Father.

Third, unforgiveness can cause us to look at our lives through a lens that distorts what we have experienced in the past and will experience in the future.  When the older son was complaining to his father he framed himself and his past work much like I did just a minute ago.  He had been slaving away for years while his brother played and what did he ever get for it?  Rather than seeing his years of work as a blessing of being able to build close ties with his father and investing well in the land and produce that would eventually belong fully to him, he sees it only as a punitive sentence.  Similarly he saw only more years of toil and futility ahead of him.  We too, when we harbor unforgiveness, begin to see our past through that lens.  We’ve always been cheated by that person.  Why, we’ve always been cheated by everyone!  Life has always been unfair to us.  We’ve never really gotten our due.  And, there’s no real hope of this changing anytime soon.  This comes in subtle ways, but once this bitter lens slides firmly into place, it is a difficult task to remove it.  In this place, with our hands balled tightly into fists, it becomes difficult to receive anymore.  We can’t receive if our hands are closed.  Most notably, it becomes difficult to receive from our heavenly Father who we now see as having mostly cursed us throughout our life.  Unforgiveness separates us from our Father.

Fourth, unforgiveness causes us to miss out on blessings that could have been ours all along if only we had been able to receive them.  This flows naturally from the last consequence of unforgiveness.  With our hands closed, when blessings come which only require from us open hands to receive them, we can’t.  Consider the father’s rebuttal to his son: “…you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours…”  Think about that.  Once the father gave the younger son his inheritance everything else the father had was going to his older son.  He could have been wisely enjoying the blessings that were his all the while but his unforgiving heart caused him to look right past them.  In much the same way, when we hold unforgiveness in our hearts and see everything through that bitter lens, blessings come and go in our lives and we miss them.  Indeed we can’t receive them.  What more, most of these blessings are of an intangible and thus most valuable kind.  Why we even lose our ability to receive blessings from our heavenly Father who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.  Yet we will see them only as dross.  Unforgiveness separates us from our Father.

Finally, unforgiveness will cause us to fall prey to a number of heart poisons including jealousy, bitterness, anger, and guilt.  You can see this theme running throughout the other four fruits of unforgiveness.  When we are unforgiving toward another person, viewing them in an adversarial light, we bemoan the good things they receive like the older brother did his younger brother’s celebration.  We are jealous of their fortune thinking it should have come to us if only the universe recognized that we were more deserving.  The bitterness is obvious.  Because of the bitterness and jealousy, though, our thoughts toward them are motivated by anger.  Anger leads to murder in our hearts, Jesus said.  And heart murder can play itself out in a number of other unsavory actions which will invariably lead to guilt.  In this way unforgiveness poisons our hearts and leaches this venom throughout our lives.  This is the toxin of sin which will ultimately lead us to be separated from our heavenly Father and the life that resides with Him.  Unforgiveness separates us from our Father.

 

Unforgiveness is important for the long term, but it is also essential in the short term.  Holding on to unforgiveness even a day longer than is absolutely necessary (and the secret here is that it’s never necessary) is not simply bad, it’s foolish in the extreme.  It’s stupid.  And as we saw last week, it does not matter the nature of the offense.  It doesn’t compare to our debt to our heavenly Father and thus unless we wish to wear His shoes, we must forgive.  This doesn’t make it easy, but right things often are not.  Furthermore we have help in this endeavor through the person of the Holy Spirit who is always at work to bring us more in line with the image of Christ; the same Christ who forgave the men violently putting Him to death while they stood mocking Him and admiring their work.  All this so that we can be fully who God created us to be.  If you have unforgiveness in your heart, don’t be separated a moment longer than you already have been.  Unforgiveness separates us from our Father.  Let’s forgive and get reconnected.  It’s time to come inside.