Today’s gospel (as well as being the longest gospel I’ve ever had to sing) is one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It has been used time and time again and reinterpreted for different genres of expression, Kipling wrote a poem about it. Scott Joplin turned it into a ballet. Britten and Debussy set it to music. Rembrandt painted it.

It is so well known and loved by us that I’m sure I hardly need to say anything at all…….but I will all the same.

Because when a story becomes well loved, we can stop seeing the details.

One of the things I love about this parable is the dynamic between the characters, how they interact with each other and how we can interact with them.

In all good stories there are different types of characters, we have the hero, a role we’re familiar with in stories, then there is the protagonist around whom the story revolves, (sometimes these are the same person, but not always) and then there is the anti hero, generally my favorite character, because they are the ones who are flawed, who creates disruptions and conflicts, in the story and in your own feelings, they’re often the characters you like but shouldn’t. And of course there are support characters who help the story move along and the extras.

So, who is who in our parable?

Lets get the easy ones out of the way first, we have the servants and the pig farmer who are support and extras.

So then we have the father and his two sons. And now things become a little more tricky because who is placed in each role depends on how you read it.

It could be the younger son coming to his senses, seeing the light, and returning home.

Or, it could be the older son being shown that bitterness against his brother is no way to live, and that everything that the father owns is his anyway so he too should rejoice.

Or it could be the father, after searching for his child, giving the response of complete joy and forgiveness at his younger sons return.

What do you think?

You may change your mind when you consider the parables that have gone before because Jesus tells two other parables to the Pharisees at this time. We’re told that the Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and the scribes and they unhappy at Jesus’ friendships with sinners, they grumble when they come close to hear Jesus. So Jesus tells them a series of stories to get them understanding why he spends time with them.

I give thanks the lectionary compilers didn’t include these other two parables this morning. They are the lost sheep and the lost coin.

All lost things will be found, and in these other parables it is made clear that the shepherd who found his sheep and the woman who found her coin are the heroes of those, so, the father who found his son must be the hero.

So now we have our hero identified, we can put the others in their place. We have the protagonist around whom the story revolves as the younger Son, who goes away, blows everything, and comes crawling back.

And then my favorite, the anti-hero, the older son, who puts the twist into the story at the very end.

Because if this story was just about sinners repenting and coming back to the father, the story could end when the younger son returns home.

But Jesus goes on to tell us about the reaction of the older Son, who is resentful and bitter towards both the Father and his brother.

“Listen, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never gave me anything.

But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after wasting your property gets the fattened calf and a party to go with it”.

The older son feels hard done by, deserving of reward for his years of faithful service but going without. But he is blind with jealousy and misses the fact completely that he already has everything in his possession, everything that the father has is already his. His wealth and property and love are already in his possession, but he just can’t see it.

 

Jesus doesn’t tell stories for our enjoyment, so the question is, where are you in this parable?

Are you a lost child, feeling unworthy, too sinful for the love and forgiveness of the father? Are you painfully making your way back, searching for the right path to lead you back?

Are you a slave to faithful work, but without the joy of the reward? Or are you full of jealousy for those around you who seem to be given better gifts?

Where is your relationship with the Father? Are you on speaking terms? Are you shouting or scared to talk?

This reading is important because it makes us question, our sinful actions and need for repentance, and also about the attitude we practice our faith with.

This is a calling, in the middle of Lent, for some further self assessment, and perseverance for the journey so that we can be the children that return confident, and with joy for each other too.

 

 

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Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Lent 2

 

In these words of Jesus we hear the voice of God’s lamenting, we hear the sound of God’s heart breaking for his children who reject his love.

Throughout the Bible we can trace the story of God’s relationship with us, the only creatures made in his own image, made from his love and for his love.

We see how he entered time & time again into covenant relationship with his people, just as he did with Abraham, promising his protection & his blessing.

Time & time again he sent prophets, his messengers, to warn of the folly of turning away, of thinking we can live without him, yet every time these warnings were rejected.

How could this be?

How could the people of Israel have been so foolish, so un-naturally rebellious, especially when God had protected them & rescued them so many times?

As Jesus turns his face resolutely towards Jerusalem he does so in the full knowledge that he too will suffer rejection, that the religious establishment is already planning how to silence once & for all this uncomfortable prophet with his uncompromising message of God’s love & forgiveness for all people.

We might well wonder why Jesus did not take the warning & return to Galilee, lie low for a while, perhaps even return to the desert until danger passed. Surely the temptation must have been strong.

We know that his human instinct shrank from the mental & physical suffering that lay ahead.

Yet he knew also that God’s love for his rebellious children would only be fully revealed when he absorbed our hatred, our greed, our anger on the cross.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets & stoning those who are sent to you! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, & you were not willing!”

 

But if it’s hard to understand why the Jews, God’s chosen people, rejected his freely offered love, even harder is it to understand why we still reject that love so clearly shown & offered to us from the cross.

For God still longs to gather us to him as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. His covenant with us has not been broken, and through good and bad.

And yet we, like the Jews are still reject him, how often, when we are in need of his protection, do we seek security in the false gods of fame & fortune, of worldly prosperity & success even though we know that these things so quickly fade away & can never satisfy our deepest longings.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets & stoning those who are sent to you! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, & you were not willing!”

God’s lamenting cry still rings in our ears because we too are not willing to trust our worries, our pain, our sinfulness to the forgiveness & protection of God.

So this Lent let us pause & listen to God’s invitation, “Come to me all who are weary & heavy laden, & I will give you rest.” for even now God bids us to come, to trust.

Rather than some empty promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us, God’s promise assures us that whatever does happen to us, whatever pain or problems may plague us, whatever fear we may face, whatever sin may assail us, we will never be defenceless or alone.

For we stand under the protection of God’s wings, strong in his covenant with us, shaded by his forgiveness, and strengthened by His body and blood.

Temptation – Lent 1

I’ve always found it a source of comfort that we have our gospel for this morning, the temptation of Jesus, because if in his humanity he was faced with temptation, then it’s ok for me to struggle with mine.

However it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had the opportunity to see the Judean wilderness for myself, that I came to appreciate how difficult the physical wilderness there is.

This limestone desert is well-named Jeshimon- the Wilderness of Desolation.

And it’s a warped and twisted landscape, shimmering with the heat. The rock is scorching to the touch as if there were some vast furnace beneath it. It’s hard to see how anyone, or anything could possibly survive for even one day. Let alone 40 days.

Yet it’s here that many of the Bible’s prophets, including John the Baptist sought solitude.

In today’s gospel we’ve heard how Jesus, guided by the Spirit, went into this wilderness knowing that in this raw, untamed place, he would be alone with God.

Jesus wasn’t the first, and certainly wasn’t the last, to realise that when we need to come to terms with our inner being, when we want to free ourselves from everything that crowds us in and prevents us from being still, then it’s good to withdraw for a time.

Many have been drawn to a wilderness for that very reason. And in our own day, many people still seek out retreats of solitude.

For in the wilderness we’re stripped of all the things that protect us from ourselves and from our mortality. In the wilderness we find God but we also find our demons.

Jesus went to the wilderness to be rid of all the comforts he’d known.

Standing on the brink of the start of his ministry, for forty days and nights he stayed dedicated to the task ahead, the unflinching life of self-giving, the life of obedience even unto death
When John Milton, in his epic poem, Paradise Regained, wrote about the story of Christ’s temptations in the Wilderness, he let his imagination run free.

And if you have a fancy for 17th century poetry, this is a good one for Lent.

At one stage it’s described that Satan is faced with what for him would be for him a disaster, the prospect of Jesus’s life and ministry being a success, as the beloved Son of God, so he calls together a council of demons to work out how best to stop Jesus in his tracks.

The Council rejects a whole series of possible temptations as far too easy for Jesus to detect. The best way of subverting his mission, they conclude, is to tempt Jesus into quick fixes and short cuts. We should pay heed; we’re prone to the same kind of temptations.

First Satan tempts Jesus to use his powers to turn the little limestone rocks that litter the Wilderness into bread.

That doesn’t seem an unreasonable thing to do. Surely there is no harm in using his God-given power to provide food for the hungry?

Didn’t the Lord’s own mother praise the God who “fills the hungry with good things?” and is this not the same Jesus who will transform a boy’s lunch into a meal for 5,000?

But to have done so in these circumstances, Jesus would have been taking gifts he’d been given for the service of others and using them to serve himself.

Jesus countered this by reminding us that food and possessions are not the only things we need to live our lives. ‘One does not live by bread alone’

Next, Jesus battles with the temptation of power.

Seeing all the power and wealth in the world and the enticement to pursue glory and authority, fame and wealth is still attractive today.

There must have been some temptation for Jesus to respond to the evil oppression of the Roman occupation with a show of supernatural force must have been enormous.

Jesus was very aware of the Jewish expectation that God would send his messiah to vindicate his people, to free them from tyranny & the yoke of oppression.

At his Baptism God had confirmed him as his beloved Son- he knew that he was the longed for Messiah, with all that title meant for his own people.

But he refused to use evil to overcome evil.

Instead he chose to confront both religious & state oppression with the ultimate power of His love, the cross.

Finally having been defeated on this front Satan now tries a different approach.

Let’s try a circus act; give people a bit of excitement. No need for a safety net, after all that word of God you’re so fond of quoting says if you’re the Messiah you won’t even stub your foot on one of these stones.

Jesus responds “You shall not put God to the test.”

To test God is to refuse to trust him, to fail to take the risk of true faith in response to his love.

It’s a temptation that is still around. Many want God to perform “magic” and liberate us. This is why there is a hype around certain churches and tele-evangelists who offer the high energy excitement of spectacular so-called miracles

Attracting people, yes, but what’s bringing them is what they can get out of it.

And it is very different from having true faith in God who calls us to be at service for one another.

We are only a few days into this season of wilderness. And if you haven’t started some form of discipline this Lent, it’s not too late.

Lent is a time for self examination and for re-balancing. It’s our time to enter the wilderness so we can be faced with the things that distract us, and separate us and tempt us.

It won’t be easy, facing our demons never are, but this is the task that is put before us, so that we can be strong in our own ministries, strong in our own discipleship, and strong in our own relationship with God.

How are you going to use this time of wilderness?

 

(Image from http://www.gracevine.com/sermon/the-temptation-of-jesus/)