Category Archives: Redemption

Time To Celebrate: The Parable of the Prodigal Son

I grew up hearing the story Jesus tells in Luke 15:11-32 spoken of as The Parable of the Prodigal Son.* It’s a wonderful story that has everything to do with the grace of God. It reemphasizes the mercy and compassion of God, who is patient and full of steadfast love. 

Whenever I read this story, I recall the late Neal Pryor. He was a preacher and Bible professor at my alma mater Harding University. I think of him because I can remember listening to him preach this parable to an auditorium full of college students. About twenty-five minutes later I saw numerous college students  lining up to confess their faith in Christ and give their lives to him in baptism. 

That’s the way the grace of God surprises us sometimes. People, in this case, students, who seem to have their lives all together but know that underneath the masks and veneer they put on, their lost in sin. But when they hear about the mercy and love of God, they come to life as they put their faith in Christ. 

Yet when reading a story like this parable of the prodigal son, it seems that the story Jesus is telling is quite provocative regarding the grace and mercy of God. To hear the provocation, we have to hear the story within the larger story the Gospel of Luke is telling. 

At the beginning of chapter fifteen, we read how “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:1-2).

Apparently, the gatekeepers of the faith missed some Sunday school lessons on the prophet Isaiah as well as Elijah and Elisha. That’s because in Luke 4, Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah. In doing so, he declares himself as the fulfillment of this good news for the poor that is freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed because now is the time of God’s favor (cf. Lk 4:18-21). In proclaiming this good news, Jesus also associated himself with the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were sent not to Israel but to a widow and Gentile. 

Failing to understand this, the Pharisees and lawyers are displeased to see Jesus  hamming it up with the sinners and tax collectors. Responding to his critics, Jesus begins a little tale about a lost sheep and lost coin. Things anyone can relate to. At least, I can. I mean if the TV remote goes missing at my house, there’s a mini crisis on hand and heaven forbid if we misplace our iPhone’s.

Somehow though when it comes to people, especially “the tax collectors and sinners,” whoever they may be, the concern is usually a measure of judgment and condemnation. Especially the people who can’t cover up the shame of their sin the way most can do with their sins. 

Now these stories Jesus is telling about the lost sheep and lost coin are beginning to make some sense but he doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues on telling a story about a father and his two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and runs away with it until he squanders it through his “extravagant living” or “dissolute living” (NRSV). After squandering his inheritance, the younger son finds himself at the bottom of the barrel with no place to go except back home to his father. 

Then there’s the older brother, who I like to think of as the pouting brother. He’s not too happy to hear about his younger brother’s return. In fact, he’s miffed that his father would welcome back this rebellious brother so easily with nothing but a big homecoming party. Exasperated, the older brother says to his father “…I never disobeyed your instructions.” His attitude (self-righteous?) has blinded him from seeing that what was a terrible loss has now become a great reunion. 

“The grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ.”

That’s the story Jesus is telling to a bunch of Jewish Pharisees and lawyers who are bothered by Jesus spending his time with the sinners and tax-collectors. That’s the larger story which is really about Israel and the Gentiles. In our day, we might say the church folk, perhaps self-righteous church folk, and any number of unbelievers who never ever think about coming to a church service.

The cool thing about the story Jesus is telling is that the younger son thinks he’ll go back to his father except… As Jesus tells the story, the father was already looking for his lost son and when he saw him off in the distance, the father “was moved with compassion.”

Borrowing the langue of the apostle Paul, we Christians sometimes speak of people being dead in sin (cf. Eph 2:1, 5). However, the story Jesus tells should keep us from pressing the metaphor too far because though that is true in a sense, it can’t mean that we literally dead to God. Even when feeling as though we’re drowning in the deepest and most shameful pits of sin, God still knows us. Not only does God still know us but moved by compassion, God is looking for us so that he can lead us home.

A few years back in Chicago, I was sitting with a few pastor friends in the outside patio of a bar. As our waitress, Brittany, was taking orders, it was obvious that she was very pregnant. So to make small talk, I asked her if she was having a boy or girl. The baby was a boy and she planned to name him Brian, named after her brother who died from leukemia a few years prior. 

Well as it turned out, this was Brittany’s last day of work before she went on maternity leave and in the small talk conversation, she learned that everyone at our table was a bunch of pastors sitting at a bar. That kind of took her back for a second and then she looked at the all black outfit she had on as she said, “Don’t think because I’m dressed in all black that I’m some kind of satanist or something. My boyfriend and I have actually thought about finding a church so that we can raise our son right.”

Now being that this was a Thursday evening and we were all planning to fly back to our homes on Friday, the most we could do was get her contact information and pass it along to a local pastor we knew. But don’t miss the fact that here was a young woman looking for God and I like to believe that God was using us pastors siting in that bar to begin showing Brittany that God is looking for her too.

So back to the story Jesus is telling. The father explains to his angry older son how, “we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.” No scolding, shaming, or making the younger son beg for mercy, just a big welcome and party to celebrate the younger son coming home.

The grace of God is that great. No matter the sin and no matter how far down in the pits of sin we climb, the door is open for us to come home. When it comes to salvation, what God has predetermined is the extension of his grace to us in Christ. It’s a standing invitation for all, just as it was for the Gentiles. To say it another way, the grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ. 

That’s why Jesus tells us a story like this parable of the prodigal son. It’s because the grace of God is for everyone and when God finds his lost children, it’s not a time for judgment or heaping on a bunch of shame; it’s time for a celebration.

May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of our God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all!


* This is a modified manuscript of the message I preached last Sunday to the Newark Church, whom I serve with as the Lead Pastor. You can also watch a video recording of the actual message on the Newark Church Youtube Channel, just click here.

Diversity and the Wisdom of God

I believe in the church. By saying that, I don’t mean that I believe the church is the source of salvation. As believers, our salvation is from Jesus Christ and none other. What I mean  is that I believe the church, particularly in her localized expressions, is the means by which God is now making the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God known. That is, the local church is the vehicle or instrument through which the mission of God advances. This happens as the believers, led by the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus together as a local church.

Most likely we understand that the church participates in the mission of God by the doing of good works and that is indeed so. However, the witness of the church is also seen in who the church is.

Ephesians 3:10 says, “God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church.” The word that gets translated as “many different varieties” in the Common English Bible is an adjective describing the wisdom of God. It speaks of diversity and multiple dimensions or many sides. In fact, Joseph Thayer defined the word in his lexicon as “marked with a great variety of colors” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1889). So God’s wisdom is shown in the fact that the local church is a diverse fellowship and read within the context of Ephesians, the church is a diverse fellowship of reconciled believers living as one unified local body of Christ.

Here is why this matters. Christian unity is not uniformity. As believers, our inclusion in Christ, which is our reconciliation to God and each other, does not eliminate our differences and make us all the same or imply homogeneity is the goal. Yes, we share the same common confession of faith in Jesus Christ but there is much diversity that still exists. The genius of the gospel is that it brings Jews and Gentiles, males and females, as well as slaves and masters all together in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28) who will no longer be defined by their differences, which foster division, but instead love and serve one another  as brothers and sisters belonging to God and each other—the family of God in Christ.

The beauty of the church is seen in her multi-colored expression of God’s accomplishment in Christ. As Christians then, we don’t become color blind as though our racial and ethnic identities have been erased. Our witness as a local church is that we are Blacks and Whites, Latinos and Middle Easterners, etc… who belong to each other and God in Christ.

Now let me ruffle the feathers and talk about the different political leanings found among Christian in America today. The reality is that Christians have different views when it comes to politics and voting. Some will lean left and others right, voting accordingly if they choose to vote. I’m not saying that every political view is right and morally/ethically justified and righteous. So there is a time for discussing the righteousness of our politics (and here I’ll recommend Lee Camp’s latest book Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians, 2020) but we must, it seems, acknowledge the political diversity that exists among Christians today.

What then does this political diversity have to do with Christian witness and the wisdom of God? Well, to begin, we live in a culture that is increasingly divided along political lines. In such a cultural climate, the genius of God’s wisdom might just be shown in the fact that though we may vote differently, we will still love and serve one another as brothers and sisters belonging to God and each other because we have received the grace of God in Christ. Consequently, wherever this increasing political divide leads among America, we will not draw sides based on how we may have voted and become a part of the “us vs. them” cultural divide. Even more importantly, should the cultural divide lead to some sort of active civil war, as Christians we will commit to not taking up arms because our reconciliation in Christ transcends whatever political differences we might have. Instead, as diverse people brought together in Christ, who now share a common confession of Christ with a commitment to following Christ, we will continue accepting one another with love and so maintain the unity of the Spirit as we speak the truth of Christ in love.

This is how we participate in the mission of God. As such participants, God displays his wisdom through our existence and good works to a society that desperately needs to know this wisdom.

Poetry In Motion: A Vision for Being Church

Two weeks ago I began a new message series with the Newark Church called Poetry In Motion. The series is about being the church based on what I regard as a visionary passage in terms of ecclesiology. According to Ephesians 2:10 “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for those good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

Poetry In Motion

There are a couple of points to note about this passage that have to do with the way we embody this visionary purpose here.

  1. The says that “we are God’s accomplishment…” That’s how the Common English Bible renders the text. Other translations render the text saying we are “God’s handiwork” (NIV), “God’s workmanship” (ESV, KJV), or “God’s masterpiece” (NLT). The word in the original language is poiēma which is where we derive our English words “poem” and “poetry” from. It’s a word that describes a piece of art, like a sculpture, a painting, or even a poem. That’s why the New Jerusalem Bible renders the text saying that we are “God’s work of art…” The claim here, I believe, is that God’s intention for us is that we will be a living portrait of the new creation he is bringing about in Christ.
  2. The good works we are created to do as our way of life is best understood in relation to the context which has to do with God making both Jews and Gentiles into one new community. So rather than just having an abstract idea of doing good, such as being a nice person, our good works nurture our fellowship with God and each other. Nurturing this fellowship does not mean agreement with each other on every issue, as unity is never about uniformity (which is virtually impossible). Instead, knowing the grace God has extended to us, we also extend that grace to others. That’s how we live as God’s accomplishment on display so that others will see there is hope beyond all the suffering, racism, and violence that exists around us.

This ecclesiological vision is what it means for local churches to live as God’s poetry in motion. Understood within the narrative of scripture, it’s historical arch and destination (telos), our ecclesiological vision is Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented. In other words, the church, both locally and universally, is a community in which the fulfillment of God’s redemptive mission in Christ is manifest.

I need to say more about the church as a manifestation of God’s redemptive mission in light of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. This movement has focused on restoring the past of first-century ecclesiology. However, if the ecclesiological vision is about portraying God’s redemptive mission, then churches are to be a people in whom the future is discernible. This means that the embodiment of the gospel is proleptic reflection. It also means the purpose is not about restoring the past, first century or any other historical period. Instead, the church as God’s accomplishment of everything he has brought together—the things of heaven and of earth. In this regards, the church embodies the gospel as a living portrait so that others might begin to see what new creation is and will be.

This is what I mean then by describing the church as poetry in motion. The question is how do we go from the ideal to actually putting this vision into concrete practice. To answer that question, the series focuses on truth, healing, justice, and reconciliation and I will address these matters in subsequent blog posts. In short, when we can learn to be honest with the truth, then space opens for becoming communities in which healing, justice, and reconciliation can be practiced which then concretely becomes God’s poetry in motion.

Advent: Meth, The Messiness of Lie, and the Incarnation of God

Years ago I was sitting in the living room of a couple that I was reading the Bible with. I met them because I had seen the man hitchhiking in the rain and stopped to give him a ride. As I go to know them, I heard that both he and his wife had been released from jail for crimes related to a methamphetamine habit. Nevertheless, they were nice and I was hoping to teach them about Jesus

On this particular day, the wife had made some brownies and she offered me one. I knew it would be impolite to refuse, so I politely received the plate with this very appetizing warm and fresh out of the oven chocolate brownie. The problem was that is was so gooey that I needed a fork and so when I asked for a fork, I was told to look in a particular drawer in the kitchen. So I did and when I opened the drawer, there on top of the utensils was a used hypodermic needle which presumably was used to shoot up meth.

As you might imagine, every worst case scenario of possible health issues suddenly came to mind. I also had a decision to make. Do I eat the brownie or do I not? Be polite or possibly risk offending this wife? Do I put my own health first or the relationship I am building with this couple first? What does faith look like in this moment and do I have that faith?

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus

I mention all that just to illustrate how messy life can really be. The good news is that God doesn’t avoid the mess, our mess, that life often is. Instead God embraces the mess by becoming one of us, becoming flesh, in the person of Jesus. We call this the Incarnation and a significant portion of our incarnational theology flows from reading the Gospel of John but the Gospel of Matthew has something to say about our understanding of the Incarnation too.

In short, Matthew draws attention in the genealogy to the names of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” which we know is Bathsheba. There is scandal attached to each of their stories which sets us up for the scandal attached to the story of Joseph and Mary, namely the fact that Mary is unmarried and pregnant. You see, prior to the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph, all he knows is that Mary is pregnant and he’s not the father. In his eyes, Mary has committed adultery and this is why the angel must first tell Joseph “don’t be afraid” (Mt 1:20). Then in the eyes of their neighbors, who are unaware of what the Angel says about Mary conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit, Mary simply appears as unmarried and pregnant.

Those two words, unmarried and pregnant, are word that no pious and God-fearing person wants to hear in the same sentence. It’s scandalous! And yet this is the story in which this baby child, who will be named Jesus because he save his people from sin, is born (Mt 1:21). It also is the fulfillment of prophesy in which child will be called Emmanuel because this child is “God with us” (Mt 1:23).

This is the scandalous story that Matthew tells of the Incarnation and it tells us something about who God really is. God doesn’t run from our sin, with all of its scandal and shame. Rather, in Jesus, God risks becoming associated as a sinner so that he might embrace us as sinners and save us from our sin. In fact, God took this risk knowing that  the cost of salvation would lead Jesus into Jerusalem to suffer death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. Though we feel the shame of our own sin and often our hesitant at involving ourselves in the lives of others, whose sin we seem to deem as more shameful than our own, God risks his own self to embrace us and the other so that he might save us from sin.

And if you’re wondering, I ate the brownie and it tasted good. I never became sick or experienced any illnesses that I irrationally feared might happen. I don’t know what ever happened to the couple because it wasn’t long before they both were back in jail facing new criminal charges. But on that day, as the ambassador of Christ that I am, I hope they somehow saw that God loves them and isn’t afraid or ashamed to be around them because of their sin.

That’s good news to us as well. For we know very well that we are sinners too and yet God still loves us and embraces us with the grace extended in his Incarnation. And this is another reason why Advent matters. It’s the messiness of life, marred by our sins, that is met in the coming of God Incarnate, born among us as the Savior.

Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”

Advent: Waiting With Hope

One of my favorite lines in the Psalter says “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4, NIV). It’s a line that has resonated with me for seventeen years, ever since that doctor in the emergency room pronounced Kenny dead. For I still know not the words that adequately describe losing my son.

In my lament, I ask how can it be that my son is dead? Why did God allow this child to be conceived and born only to die three days later? Where was God throughout those nine months as my wife and I prayed so fervently for the well-being of our son? Why did God not heal Kenny when the doctors were attempting to resuscitate him? Has God even heard my cries begging aloud for him to help my son? Yet God did not answer… Why?

Seventeen years later, I’ve certainly processed through these questions of lament. I seem to think I can answers them, at least in part, as abstract theological inquiries, though that offers little, if any, comfort. Perhaps I can even answer some of those questions in a pastoral manner that gets at the heart level.

Maybe.

But even then, these answers don’t assuage the grief and pain of such a loss like this. As a believer committed to following Jesus, all I am left with is the hope that one day God is making all things new. So I hope for the day of salvation when death will be no more, when the grief and pain is consumed in the fulfillment of redemption, when the tears and disappointment are gone, when the blessing of joy and peace are forever lived in the presence of the Lord, when the sting of death gives way to the victory that we will forever share in with the Lord.

christmasstar

This promise of hope is one of waiting. It is to look upon a distant bright star showing forth among clouds of darkness, with an anticipation veiled by tears. This is advent hope.

For four-hundred years after being exiled into Babylonian captivity ended, Israel waited for the day of the Lord. That’s four hundred years of waiting. At the time, they weren’t sure when that period of waiting would end and that is what makes waiting with hope so difficult.

The season of Advent is upon us again. We celebrate Advent knowing that the Lord has come. God came into our world in the person of Jesus, born as a baby destined to suffer a humiliating death on the cross so that he could take his life up again in resurrection and thereby save us all from the sting of death, our sins. While we have this assurance of hope, by faith we still wait for it as the day when salvation will be fully realized. Until then, what we have is hope. So we wait with hope.

Waiting with hope isn’t so easy. It’s never so easy and the hope we have doesn’t negate the darkness of silence that we live with as we wait. So what can we do? Wait! And don’t look pass the darkness by For as the great hymn Be Still, My Soul reminds us, the mystery of our hope is known as we wait in the darkness.

Be still, my soul when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears
Then shalt thou better know His love His heart
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears
Be still my soul the waves and winds shall know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below

Remembering Kenny: God Spoke and Hope Emerged

After Kenny died, a dark cloud came over me that eventually appeared to snuff out any light.  Hope seemed dead and my faith in God was crumbling into ruins day by day.  There was two factors that added to this darkness.  One was another baby who had become critically ill but then became well again.  That is a good thing but for me, hearing people praise God for answering the prayers made on behalf of this baby only made me wonder all the more why God didn’t answer the prayers for Kenny.  The other factor was that a little over a year after Kenny’s death, my younger brother John also died.  He left behind a wife and two children.  It was just too much and yet, little did I know but an encounter with God was just around the corner.

This is the third part of the story: of how I discovered God again in a new way that brought a renewed faith and hope.  It is part of what makes me so passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope it offers to a broken and hurting world.

I wish the process of healing was as linear as I am going to make it appear to be.   But that is just not how healing and renewed faith are discovered.  It tends to be a messy process that take different routes for every person.

For me, the road to healing begins with a wonderful community.  From the outset  Laura and I were surrounded by a very supportive family as well as friends from Harding University, Covenant Fellowship Church, and our Wednesday Evening Bible Study group.  I don’t know how many of those people had ever ministered to a people who had lost a child, but they were very caring and supportive in the way they treated us, listened to us, ministered to us, and so on.

I also had begun seminary at Harding School of Theology (HST).  In hind-site, I would not recommend beginning seminary right after losing a child but the community at HST also was helpful.  Over the year, as my faith continued to crumble, a couple of great things happened that kept steering me towards an encounter with God.

First, my wife and I did go through some grief counseling that was provided to us free of charge which did help my wife and I to practically help each other to grieve in more healthy ways.  Second, a friend of mine gave me a pocket knife that he had sharpened along with a story about the knife.  The story basically explained that he had bought the knife to pray for someone as he sharpened it and then God revealed to him that he was to be praying for me.  In some way, this all kept God in the picture even though God was becoming very fuzzy and frustrating.

One day I was sitting in chapel at HST and was just near the breaking point.  My brother had recently died and I was just tired.  On that particular day I heard the hymn Be Still, My Soul (see below) for the first time.  The song, which now is a favorite, eloquently expressed both the grief and pain I was reeling in as well as the hope I wanted so badly.

But hope seemed so illusive…perhaps impossible at that point.  I was tired.  I felt like a man lost in a dark cave with nothing but blackness.  I was just tired of walking in what seemed to be an endless journey of nothing but more darkness.

All I wanted to know was “Why?”  Why did my son die?  Why did God seemingly not answer the prayers?  Was he unable to or did he just not care too?  Did God even hear those prayers?  While Be Still, My Soul spoke of the hope I wanted to have, I was not even sure if there was a reason to hope in God.

As I said, I was tired and was ready to give up.  I had planned to quit seminary and even had been offered a job selling Honda cars.  But then I met John Mark Hicks, who would become both a friend and a Professor of mine.  He was speaking at HST on his own spiritual journey which included the death of his first wife and his son, Joshua, later on in life.  Despite his suffering, he spoke of a deep faith in God.  So I went up to him and asked him something about how he was able to trust in God.

What John Mark Hicks pointed me to was Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  At first, I was sort of disappointed because far too many people had used this verse just to dismiss my grief and struggle without even taking the time to understand.  But I gave him the benefit of the doubt since he understood what I was going through.  John Mark Hicks told me to go home and read, to learn what that “good” is about.  So that night after Laura went to bed, I pulled out my Bible and began reading through Romans, reading again through Romans, and reading, and…

At some point God spoke.  Not in audible words but nevertheless I heard God speak and he said, “Rex, my good is your redemption and if you’ll trust me, I will see that good to the end even if you don’t understand how I work that all out.”  And just like that the light began to break through the darkness, hope began to emerge.  It was like a thousand pounds being lifted from my shoulders.  I no longer needed to understand or have an answer to the question of “why?” to all my questions and yet, I found myself able to trust God again.

Ten years later I am a person full of hope.  I believe God is redeeming the world in Jesus Christ, making all things new (cf. Rev 21:5) and that includes us…you…me.  I don’t understand everything about how that is happening and there are things about God which are remain mystery.  I’m ok with that.  I wish Kenny was still alive and would give almost anything to hold him just one more time.  I cannot contemplate the thought of embracing Kenny in the new heaven and new earth without some tears of joy.  Further more, as terrible as it has been to lose a son, God has used this journey to give me a faith and hope that I did not have before.  For that, I am thankful.

Thank you for reading this story, a story about Kenny and I.  But most importantly, a story about God.

*****

The following video is of the choral group Libera singing the hymn Be Still, My Soul set to a video with images of the Holocaust.

*****

See also part 1 and 2 of this “Remembering Kenny” trilogy: