The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

January 30, 2017 at 8:57 pm | Posted in God's Love | Leave a comment

I read this short little gem in just one night as I was teaching through Jesus’ famous parable often called The Prodigal Son.  This book is a commentary on the story.  I’m not a fast reader, so many of you could read it in one night as well.  It is well worth the time.

Keller focuses much of his book on the role of the older brother, the less famous and often overlooked part of the story.  Keller’s contention is that both brothers are lost, not just the younger one.

In fact Keller tells us these two sons “portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery.”  Each is a way of “addressing the ills of the world and determining right from wrong.”  “The elder brother in the parable illustrates the way of moral conformity.  .  .  .  The younger brother in the parable illustrates the way of self-discovery.” (pp 29-30)  It’s Keller’s contention that Western society is divided between these two ways, so much so that most of us cannot conceive any other way to live.

The moral conformists say, “The immoral people — the people who ‘do their own thing’ — are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.”  The advocates of self discovery say: “The bigoted people — the people who say ‘we have the Truth’ — are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.”  (32)

The message of Jesus’ parable is that both of these approaches are wrong.

Keller spends a big chunk of the book comparing the older brother to many religious people today.  We often play the role of the big brother.  For instance we seek to control God through our obedience.  Older brother types “obey God to get things.  They don’t obey God to get God.” (42)  “Though  the older son stayed home, he was actually more distant and alienated from his father than his brother, because he was blind to his true condition.” (47)  And there are many more examples.

In spite of the fact that both sons’ ways were wrong, the father accepted and loved both, and God accepts and loves us no matter which son we act like, even when we sometimes act like both!  In a twist I’ve never heard before, Keller contends that children of God have a true older brother who accepts them and celebrates their return to the Father.  That true older brother is Jesus.

As Keller’s book title indicates, the often used title “The Prodigal Son” is misleading.  Prodigal means extravagant, even wasteful, and certainly the younger son in the story was extravagant and wasteful when he left with his father’s money, but that didn’t last long.  The real extravagance is the father’s treatment of the younger son when he comes home and his treatment of the older brother who doesn’t want to welcome the younger.  Just so our heavenly Father treats us with extravagant grace!  Amen.

Great little book.  Pick it up for a quick and encouraging read.

Valentine’s Day Monologue

February 16, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Posted in God's Love | Leave a comment

Here is the text to my sermon introduction on February 14, 2016.  Valentine’s Day was originally a church holiday to celebrate the love of God.  By the way, I really did have a tooth problem this week, but it didn’t keep me away.

Due to a severe toothache, Pastor Glenn is not able to be with us today.  But we do have a guest speaker that you will be thrilled to know.  His name is Len, and I can’t say much about him, because he will tell us his own story.  But you need to know he is speaking to us from a Roman prison in the year 270AD. Welcome Len.

Good morning.  As the man said, my name is Len.  I would tell you it’s a joy to be with you, but this is a strange day for me.  You see, I am scheduled to be executed later today.  Ironic they would choose the eve of Lupercalia, the pagan Roman holiday for sexual love, since love is one of the reasons I am in prison.  Let me tell you that story.

The Roman Emperor, Claudius the Second, a very cruel emperor that one, has been in numerous military campaigns in recent days, and his people are losing their taste for war.  He was having trouble getting young recruits into the army to serve the empire, so he came up with a crazy idea.  He forbid young men to marry until they had put in their military service.  I guess he figured that if they didn’t have wives and children to come home to, the soldiers would be more dedicated to their military efforts.

Being a priest in a community near Rome, and knowing the importance of love, I decided to continue to marry young couples.  Besides, I’ve preached for years that God is love, that God demonstrated his love for us in Jesus, that we should love one another, and that the best earthly expression of love is the marriage relationship.

Well, as you might guess, word got back to the authorities that I was defying the Emperor’s command.  They came to arrest me, right after a marriage ceremony incidentally, and charge me not only with defiance of the marriage ban, but also of leading an illegal cult.  They tried to get me to deny Jesus as my only lord, and promise not to perform anymore marriage ceremonies.  Those were two things that I couldn’t do.  So here I am in prison waiting for my death sentence to be carried out.

I have a strange calm today.  I have read the stories of earlier martyrs like Polycarp.  You know his story of course, next to the apostles one of the most famous martyr stories there is.  When Polycarp was a young man, he was discipled by an old man named John, yeah the John, John the Apostle of Jesus.  Polycarp was our last connection to the first disciples.  And he seemed so brave to face the Proconsul and say, in a strong voice despite his age, “I’ve served my Lord for 84 years, and he has never denied me; how can I deny him now.”

I have also read the account of Perpetua, her story has been circulating around the Christian churches recently too.  She was a young noble woman in Africa, who refused to deny Jesus, in spite of her wealthy father’s pleas.  She and her friends were fed to the beasts in Carthage just a generation ago.  Her peace and courage were a huge source of encouragement to all around her.  Even the jailer came to know Jesus because of her testimony.

As I’ve read those stories, I always been impressed by the bravery of the martyrs.   Now I’m thinking they weren’t so brave as they were empowered by God’s spirit for the occasion.  I am strangely calm now.  I just pray that, by the Spirit, I can be as calm and brave as those two saints were.

There is one blessing to my being in prison that I have to tell you about.  The jailer’s daughter here was a blind girl who often came to me with encouraging words from my friends.  I prayed for her, and,  God be praised, he gave that young girl her sight!  It was an amazing miracle!  As you might expect, her entire family is asking to know more about Jesus.

She’s a sweet girl, that Theodora.  I have just written her a letter.  She will know it’s from me because I have often sent messages to my friends on parchment cut into heart shapes, but I signed this one anyway.  Of course I signed it not with just my nick name Len, but with my full, better-known name; I signed it “from your Valentine.”  May she and her family grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There’s not a lot we really know about St. Valentine, except that someone by that name was martyred on February 14, 269 or 270 and was later sainted by the Roman church.  However some of the legends go way back in time, including the story of the jailer’s daughter.  Other parts, like the letter on heart-shaped paper, the girl’s name, and the ban on marriage are probably added embellishments.  Happy Valentine’s Day.  Celebrate the love of God today.

The entire message can be heard here.

In Your Time, But Hurry!

October 19, 2013 at 7:41 am | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love, Prayer | Leave a comment

Today I read two Psalms, both prayers written by David, that have a fascinating contrast.

In Psalm 69, David feels like he is buried in his troubles.  “The waters have come up to my neck;” he complains, “I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold.” (v1 ESV)  But, as is so often the case in Psalms, he turns to God in the midst of his troubles.  “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.  At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.” (v13)  I love the way he recalls God’s steadfast love and saving faithfulness.  Like David, we often need to remind ourselves of those two attributes of God.  In Psalm 70, once again David prays to God about his troubles.   His enemies seek his life and delight in his hurt.  But, he prays, “You are my help and my deliverer.  O LORD, do no delay!” (v5)

The similarities between these two prayers are instructive, but what caught my attention today is the contrast between them.  In the first, he prays that God would work at an acceptable time, and in the second that God would act now — do not delay!  I can relate.  There are times I say “God, when it seems right to you, will you take care of this situation.”  And there are times when I say, “God, hurry up and deal with this!”  I guess, in that regard, I am not in bad company.  God is sovereign, and he will act in his time.  But it’s alright to pour out our hearts to him, even on those occasions we think his timing is too slow.  However, in doing so, we must never let go of his steadfast love and his saving faithfulness.

Confidence in Him Who Sees the End from the Beginning

June 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love | Leave a comment

It has been a tough few months for me and a particularly tough week.  But God has reminded me over and over of his sovereign control, of his faithfulness, and of his steadfast love for his people.

Two things in particular have ministered to me this past week.  The first is the verse I decided  to have our congregation memorize as I teach a series of messages called “Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness.”  Though I thought it was for the congregation, God has already used it’s truths to encourage me.

May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.   –Romans 15:13 (ESV)

The second thing that has touched me numerous times this week is a quote I came across in preparing my Sunday School lesson.  We are watching a PBS television series called “God in America.”  Though a secular-made film, there is so much to discuss from a biblical perspective; it has been a very interesting class.  This week we looked at Abraham Lincoln’s spiritual journey during the civil war and loss of his son Willie.  The pastor who gave the eulogy for Willie had a huge impact on President Lincoln, especially this section about trusting a sovereign God.  It has had a positive impact on me as well.

What we need in the hour of trial, and what we should seek by earnest prayer, is confidence in Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well.  Only let us bow in His presence with a humble and teachable spirit; only let us be still and know that He is God; only let us acknowledge His hand, and hear His voice, and inquire after His will, and seek His Holy Spirit as our counselor and guide.  And all, in the end will be well.     — Phineas Gurley

We need confidence in him who sees the end from the beginning and does all things well.  That is certainly what we need.  May God grant it!

My Shepherd All My Life Long

January 26, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love | Leave a comment

Genesis 48:15-16.  This passage recently caught my eye in my devotions.  The background for it is interesting.  Joseph’s brothers and his father Jacob had recently moved to Egypt, and Pharaoh was to meet them.  Joseph warned them that when Pharaoh asked their occupation not to say they were shepherds but to say they kept livestock (Gen 46:33-34).  But guess what?  As soon as Pharaoh asked the anticipated question, they answered with the dreaded word (47:3)!  They were shepherds; their father was a shepherd, and they couldn’t remove themselves from being shepherds.  In other words, being shepherds was their entire life experience.

So when Jacob was old and near death, he decided to bless Joseph’s sons.  It is not the blessing that caught my eye as much as the description Jacob used of God.  “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless these boys.” (48:15-16 ESV)   This man who was a shepherd all his life, this man who was over 140 years old, looked back and said God was his shepherd all those years.  What a tender thought!  He knew what a shepherd was; he knew how a shepherd cared for his sheep, and he knew how God had cared for him.  This casts Jacob, who was a deceiver in his earlier life, in a different light than I usually see him.  In spite of his sinful ways, he had a dynamic relationship with God.

I wonder if David had recently read this portion of Genesis when he penned his most famous song, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  And, centuries later, when God walked on this earth, he used the same imagery when he called himself our Good Shepherd (John 10).

God Hears, Remembers, Sees, and Knows

January 23, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love, Security and Assurance | 2 Comments

God’s people thought he’d forgotten and abandoned them.  They were suffering in slavery, and the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were long forgotten in their experience.  But the text says, “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help.  Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.”  Exodus 2:23-25 (ESV)  The very next words begin the famous story of God calling Moses through the burning bush.

I love that string of verbs with God as the subject.  God heard; God remembered; God saw; God knew.  Isn’t that powerful?  Whatever situation his people are in, God hears; God remembers his covenant; God sees their struggles and God knows.  He knows both the situation his people are in and what he is going to do about it.  In the Exodus story, he had already put the pieces in motion by saving Moses’ life, by raising him with both the culture of royal Egypt and the God of the Hebrew people, and by moving him from Egypt to Midian.  When he appeared to Moses, God told him, “I have surely seen . . . and have heard . . . I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (3:7-8).  Later when Moses’ first attempt failed and he again doubted himself, God reminded him, “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel . . . I have remembered my covenant.” (6:5)

Wherever you are in life, God hears his people; he remembers his covenant; he sees what is happening; he knows.  Rest in that comfort.

God’s Wondrous Works

December 28, 2012 at 8:26 am | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love | Leave a comment

Here is what I saw and what I read in my devotions yesterday morning:

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Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.  One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.  On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.  They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness.  They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.  The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.  All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you!  (Psalm 1445:3-10 ESV)

Like a Weaned Child

November 30, 2011 at 11:35 am | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love | 3 Comments

I am passionate about the intellectual aspects of Christianity.  Some of the posts in this blog are indicative of that.  God wants us to worship him with our minds; he wants us to think deep and godly thoughts.  But there is also an emotional, experiential side to the Christian life, which is expressed in things like joy and peace.  Often individuals (and also churches) ignore one aspect or the other.  Those who emphasize the intellectual aspects of Christianity are afraid that emotion will ruin their theology, something I’ve seen happen; while those who emphasize the emotional aspects are afraid that intellectual questions will destroy their joy and excitement, and I’ve seen that happen too.  The biblical truth is that the emotions come from the correct intellectual understanding of who God is and what he has done for us.  A deep understanding of God’s word produces joy and peace.  The Psalms of Ascent are one place where those two aspects of Christianity meet.  The intellectual understanding of these poems bring out emotionally powerful pictures.  That is certainly true in Psalm 131:  “My heart is not proud, O Lord; my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.  But I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (NIV)  While never departing from the truth, there are times when we theological types need to allow the emotional aspects of our faith to rule; we need to simply enjoy our sovereign, loving God, utterly consumed with who he is.  As consumed and contented as a baby in it’s mother’s lap.

This is an especially good exercise when we see our sin and are feeling beat up with guilt.  Then the truths of the Gospel can minster to our emotions; we need to feel the impact of God’s grace and forgiveness.

When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there, who made an end of all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.
— Charitie Bancroft

Philemon and Forgiveness

November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love | Leave a comment

Some say the New Testament book called Philemon is about slavery.  It is about a slave who had escaped his master, but more importantly, Philemon is about relationships and reconciliation among Christians.  Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4 ESV)  Philemon and Onesimus are a great illustration of that point.  Onesimus was the slave of a Christian man named Philemon; he probably stole some money from his owner and escaped from slavery.  In God’s providence, Onesimus came into the company of the apostle Paul and through Paul became a follower of Jesus.  Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon to deliver this letter and the one called Colossians.

This little epistle is full of references to Christian relationships.  Paul calls Philemon “a beloved fellow worker” (v1); he compliments him on his “love for all the saints” (v5); then he adds “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (v7); he refers to Philemon’s goodness in this matter (v14); and he calls Onesimus “my very heart” (v12).  Finally, the kicker is when he asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother!” (v16)  “Receive him,” Paul says, “as you would receive me.” (v17)

What Paul was asking Philemon was not an easy task.  Philemon may have been bitter because his slave stole from him; he may have thought Onesimus didn’t deserve to be a Christian (none of us do); he may have already made plans for punishment if Onesimus returned.  And now Paul has the audacity to ask forgiveness for this horrid run-a-way.  Yet that is the Jesus way.  May I be one who forgives those who sin against me, no matter how horrid it may seem on my economy.  God has forgiven me far more than I could ever be wronged by others.  Philemon must have been faithful to forgive, otherwise this great little book would not have been passed on to us.  May his tribe increase!

Prison, Prayers and Providence

November 3, 2011 at 9:31 am | Posted in Devotional thoughts, God's Love | Leave a comment

I have been reading through Acts and pondered again something I mentioned while preaching through the book.  Paul was held in prison at Caesarea for two years while Governor Felix was hoping to get a bribe from him (24:26-27).  Eventually, that imprisonment would become a total of almost five years, two in Caesarea, two in Rome, and almost one in transit.  When we think of Paul, we may think missionary, church planter, or disciplemaker, but very rarely do we think prisoner.  Yet for five years he sat waiting the outcome of his mockery of a trial.  This took a great understanding of the sovereignty of God.  If I were in his shoes, I would be chomping at the bit for the next preaching opportunity, the next mission trip, the next unreached community, and Paul may have been anxious also, but it never shows.  He understood that God was in control and would bring about his desired results in his time.  God even told Paul that these circumstances would move him to Rome so he might testify there (23:11).

After reading Acts 24 and pondering that thought, I then read Psalm 6.  The following cry, which leads the chapter, sounds like something Paul may have prayed from prison:  “O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.  Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony.  My soul is in anguish.  How long, O LORD, how long? (Psalm 6:1-3 NIV)  I wonder if Paul may have read these words during that five-year period.  But rather than complain, David, who wrote that prayer, goes immediately to the character of God and trusts in him.  The next words are “Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.” (v.4)

It’s easy to complain about circumstances beyond your control, yet God is always in control.  Nothing in your life situation is outside of his eternal plan.  He knows what you are going through, even if it feels like five years of prison or uselessness, and he will bring about his perfect end through those circumstances.  You can trust in his unfailing love.

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