“WHAT ABOUT ME?”

This past weekend I preached about what is arguably Jesus’ best known parable. It’s usually called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but it isn’t just about that character. Jesus’ story is about three main characters: a younger son, an older brother, and their father. (If you are unfamiliar with the account or would like to review the story it is in Luke 15:11- 32).

Most of the time when we study this parable the focus is on the younger son and the elder brother is minimally mentioned. As important as “The Prodigal Son” is, I think for Christians the older brother may be even more important.

In a nutshell, Jesus’ story is about the younger son leaving home, spending all his money, and deciding to return home. Upon his return his father runs out to meet and welcome him, and throws a party to celebrate his homecoming. Meanwhile, the older brother is working outside, hears the noise of the party, finds out his dad is celebrating the younger son’s return, and refuses to join the celebration. Dad goes out to talk to him and explains why he is doing what he is doing and affirms the older boy; but Jesus ends the story with the older brother outside (see verses 25-32).

The title for this post is my summary paraphrase of what the elder son said to his father in light of the welcome and celebration given to his younger brother. It’s as though he said to his dad, “he left and spent your money, came back home, and you throw him a party. I didn’t leave, but stayed here and worked for you. What about me?”

Some 40 years ago I went to a Bible study on this parable led by one of my favorite preachers, Bob Shannon. What follows about this elder brother is for the most part borrowed from him.

In reading Jesus’ description of the elder brother we can see some things that as Christians cannot be a part of our attitude and outlook.

The elder brother seems indifferent to his brother’s fate and his father’s grief before the younger son returned and his joy when he returned.

The elder brother seems to be blind to his privileges in the family and on the farm.

The elder brother seems self-righteous claiming to have never disobeyed his father’s orders (verse 29).

The elder brother is jealous that his erring brother has been welcomed home so joyfully and he will not go in and participate.

In verse 30 he seems to disown his younger brother when he says to his dad “this son of yours” and not “my brother.”

The elder brother is judgmental as he accuses his younger brother of spending his money on prostitutes (verse 30).

The first two verses of Luke 15 give the context of this parable. It seems obvious that the younger son represents “the tax collectors and sinners who were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” The older brother represents “the Pharisees and teachers of the law” who criticized Jesus for welcoming and eating with those kind of people. The father in the story represents God, our heavenly father.

Do you see any reflection of yourself in the elder brother, and are you honest enough to admit it? I confess, at times I do see myself in him.

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A PRAYER REVERSAL

Last week while I was praying I had what I’m calling an “epiphany.” There are a variety of ways the word is used, but the definition I’m using is “a moment of sudden or great revelation that usually changes you in some way.”

Since I preached about surrender last weekend, and am preaching again this weekend on the same subject, I’ve been thinking a lot about surrendering to God. Even though I’m preparing sermons to challenge people in church to surrender, what I’m studying is having an impact on me. My “epiphany” last week confirmed that.

After class one day last week I went home and into my office to prepare a test. When I finished the test I moved to my easy chair to sit and pray. I brought several concerns to the Lord telling him what I wanted. I then prayed that God would want what I wanted. It was as I made that request that I had my “epiphany.”

I’m probably not the only person to pray what I prayed last week, but as I thought about what I had asked for I was embarrassed. Who am I to ask God to want what I want? It didn’t take long for me to realize the presumption of my request.

I’m pretty sure I was convicted by the Holy Spirit and acknowledged the inappropriateness of what I had just asked. I told the Lord I wanted to take back what I had asked for and reverse my prayer. Rather than asking Him to want what I want, I asked Him to help me want what He wants.

I’m confident a lot of what I want is what God wants, and a lot of what God wants is what I want. But in keeping with the idea of surrender I want to stay with my reversed prayer rather than my original one last week. Lord, help me want what you want.

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ME, SURRENDER?

During these weeks leading up to Easter the senior pastor of our church is preaching a message series about surrender. For many of us our first thought when we hear the word is that it is not an attractive idea. We think of surrender as something negative in which we lose or have to give up. For the most part we don’t want or like to surrender.

Since I have the opportunity to continue the series the next two weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about surrender.

To surrender is not always something bad; it is not always about losing or being defeated. Sometimes to surrender is a good thing. And while we may associate surrendering with weakness and losing, that is not always the case. There are times when to surrender calls for great strength; and in those times of surrender we don’t lose – we win.

If you’ve read this far I’m sure you know in this series we are talking about surrendering to the Lord. As I listened to the preaching a couple of weeks ago it occurred to me that while God wants us to surrender to  him, he does not want to beat us or defeat us; he wants what is best for us.

For example, God wants us to acknowledge him and worship him. God doesn’t need our worship – he is not insecure. But he does want us to worship him; and he wants us to worship him because he knows that when we worship him it does us good.

Perhaps the clearest teaching from Jesus about this matter is in Luke 9:23 and 24 where he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever want to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” Although I don’t completely understand it, to me that sounds like a pretty clear call to surrender.

To stimulate my thinking about surrender I looked up some definitions of the word. The first and primary definition was “to yield to power, control, or possession of another upon compulsion or demand.” When it comes to surrendering to the Lord that definition is only party correct. It is about yielding one’s life to him, but it is not upon compulsion. We may wish he would force us, but he doesn’t. He lets us decide whether or not we will surrender and how much we will surrender.

In my experience, when it comes to surrendering to God, it is not just a one-time thing. We surrender to him at the beginning of our Christian life, but living the Christian life is usually a series of surrenders. After over 55 years I am still making progress.

This weekend I’m preaching about “Some Roadblocks to Surrender.” I think the biggest one, and probably the most common one, is pride or ego. Sometimes we think we know more than we do. Sometimes we are prideful and our ego gets in the way of yielding. Sometimes our ego makes us just too stubborn to surrender.

Whether you agree or not with what I’ve suggested in this post, I do hope I have given you something to think about. Feel free to leave a comment below and/or share this article on Facebook or other social media.

 

NOT SURPRISING

I read an article this week from Christianity Today about “The Struggle to Say ‘I’m Sorry’ in Public.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not surprised at all by the suggestion made in the article that it can be a struggle.

For many it is not just a struggle to say “I’m Sorry” in public, it is a struggle to say “I’m Sorry” in private. Earlier this week I had forgotten something my wife told me and I was curt with her on the phone. After almost 45 years of marriage I have made some progress; I called her to apologize and she graciously accepted it.

Why is it hard for some to say “I’m Sorry” in public or in private? It seems obvious to me – to say “I’m Sorry” is to acknowledge that we said or did something we should not have done or said. In other words it is to admit you were wrong about something. And that is hard for a lot of people.

Often we are embarrassed when we admit we were wrong about something. And depending upon exactly what we are sorry about, it may be extremely embarrassing. I see no reason to apologize publicly for something unless the misdeed is widely known. Otherwise, our apology should simply be offered to the person or persons directly involved.

I have a sense that for some people it isn’t hard to say “I’m sorry.” As a matter of fact it seems easy for them to apologize – too easy. And that raises a yellow flag for me. Years ago a lady came to me frustrated because her husband would apologize to her, but then in no time do the same thing again. I asked her what she thought that was all about and she indicated he probably didn’t really mean he was sorry. I think she was right; and that’s why when it seems too easy for someone to apologize it raises a yellow flag for me.

It may seem strange to some, but I find myself at times saying “I’m Sorry” to God in my prayers when I am acknowledging (confessing) my shortcomings. And my shortcomings include not only things that I’ve done or said I should not have done or said, but also leaving out things I should have done or said. For me, saying “I’m Sorry” to God is part of my expression of repentance.

I’m not surprised it is a struggle for any of us at times to say we are sorry – in public or in private, to loved ones or our wider circle, or to God himself. Hopefully it never becomes too easy to the point that saying “I’m Sorry” doesn’t mean much. I’m convinced that saying “I’m Sorry” is not just good for those to whom we say it, but it is also good for us to say it – if we mean it!

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LOSS, GRIEF, AND LAMENT

Following a span of four days in which we had three funerals at our church I saw an article that got my attention. Written by Ed Stetzer and entitled Recovering the Good in Seasons of Lament, I thought this is a piece I need to read. I read it and I’m glad I did.

The reality is that everyone experiences losses in life and grieves those losses. The losses we face, however, are not limited to the passing of loved ones. I have moved three times in the past 40 plus years and as excited as I was about where we were moving to, leaving each place was a significant loss.

Grief and lament are not limited to our losses, but they are part of life. Perhaps another way to say it is that we all do and will go through times of discouragement, confusion, uncertainty, pain, disappointment, and failure.

Even though they challenge us, such seasons should not surprise us. A verse I often emphasize in my teaching is Jesus’ words in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” That suggests to me that our decision to trust and follow Jesus does not mean we will be exempt from things that hurt us – things that cause us to grieve and lament.

As much as we wish it were not so, and as much as it grieves us, neither should death surprise us. Hebrews 9:27 reminds us “each person is destined to die” (NLT). We can prepare for it and expect it, but neither takes away the loss death deals us.

Stetzer notes that when those close to us experience loss “it’s natural to want to step in and provide encouragement,” but we don’t know “what to say or how to go about saying it.” And giving me as a pastor some comfort, Stetzer rightly notes, “The truth is that we don’t have all the answers.”

Offering a challenge that makes sense to me, Stetzer surmises, “Perhaps the church needs to allow space for people to lament – to wonder why, to ask questions, and to work through their grief. Maybe we needn’t be a people of quick answers but instead of soft hearts and listening ears.”

To grieve and lament in life is appropriate. In Ecclesiastes 3:4 the teacher notes, there is “A time to cry and a time to laugh.  A time to grieve and a time to dance.” The shortest verse in the Bible tells us that at the grave of Lazarus “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). That’s an example I have often followed in my own grief and one I will continue to follow in the future.

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WHAT TO CALL MYSELF

As we finish our study of the gospels in my dual credit Amarillo High School/Amarillo College class I’m wondering what the best designation is for those of us who believe what the record says about Jesus. Not everyone, of course, believes the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; but many do.

In the first two sentences I’ve already suggested one popular designation of what to call myself: believer. Believers believe the accounts of the gospel writers, but more than that, they believe in Jesus in terms of who he was and is and what he said and did.

As good as believer is as a designation, there is another one in the gospels I like better: disciple. In the gospels those who gathered around Jesus as believers were called disciples. But what is a disciple? In my reading the definition of a disciple is usually one of two terms: a follower or a learner. Well, which is it? Both, and that is why disciple is such a good designation.

Those with some familiarity with the gospels may wonder about the term apostle. When talking about those closest to Jesus in the gospels a lot of us use the terms apostle and disciple interchangeably. But Luke 6:12 and 13 reports, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” It looks like all the apostles were disciples, but not all the disciples were apostles.

So far I haven’t mentioned the best known and most used designation: Christian. Where did that come from? Not from the name Jesus, but from his role as Christ (the Greek title for the Hebrew Messiah). It may be surprising to some readers that the word Christian is used only three times in the New Testament.

The first usage of the word Christian is the most instructive. In the book of Acts, the book that tells us about the birth and growth of the early church, tells us in Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” They were called Christians because of their actions, behavior, and speech. I’ve always heard people say that Christian means “of or belonging to Christ.”

The other two usages of the word Christian in the New Testament are also instructive. Acts 26:28 gives the second usage, “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’” The third and final usage in the New Testament is in I Peter 4:16 where the writer encourages readers, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

So what should I call myself? With the exception of apostle, I like all of them for myself. I think they all are descriptive and informative. I still have a long way to go in becoming what I want to be, but I am a believer in Jesus, a disciple of Jesus, a follower of Jesus, a learner of Jesus, and a Christian.

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PRIVILEGED, LUCKY, OR BLESSED?

Prompted by some recent news stories, I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of privilege and how it relates to me. When I looked up the definition of the word I realized I have been misusing it.

According to the first definition that came up in my search, privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Most of my adult life I have been calling a variety of opportunities, relationships, and good things that I have experience privileges.

I have considered things like being married to my wife, being the father of a daughter and a son, being the grandpa of two grandsons, serving as a pastor in multiple ways for over 46 years, having the friends I have had and have, and much more as privileges. Most recently I officiated my son’s wedding and called that a privilege.

However, given the meaning of privilege in the definition above, none of the things I have been considering privileges have been such. I do not question or dispute that there are persons who indeed have benefitted from privilege in its primary definition and others have not.

If the good things in my life I have been calling privileges are not really that, what are they?

I’m uncomfortable to think or say that all these good things are nothing more than luck. The first internet definition for luck is “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.” I wouldn’t disagree that some of the things that happen to us can be thought of in terms of good luck or bad luck, but it is more than that. Instead of luck many Christians use the word providence that is defined as the “protective care of God.” I believe in God’s providence in terms of the good things in life, but don’t have a satisfying answer for those who may ask about “bad luck.”

If I have to give up the idea of privilege, and don’t want to call it luck, I think the best choice is to say “I am blessed.” My favorite definition of a blessing received is “a favor or gift bestowed by God.” In all honesty I think Christians sometimes overuse the idea of blessed and blessing, but that’s really what I’m talking about in terms of many of the good things in my life.

I’m writing this reflection late on Saturday evening following the wedding of my son. I guess it was a privilege to officiate as a pastor in terms of the dictionary definition, but it was much more than that. Some may consider me lucky to have done this, and maybe I am; but the bottom line for me is that it was a wonderful blessing to do so and I was blessed by doing it.

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