“Grasping the Gospel” (In an Age of Discount Discipleship)

October 28,2018

Part Two: “Boasting About Knowing God”

Jeremiah 9:23-24 (NIV) “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD.”

Part Two: “A Story About Rembrandt”

In our previous study, we looked at the words of our Lord when he said: Matthew 16:24-25 (NIV) “‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’” One might ask what the thoughts of Jeremiah the Prophet have to do with our topic…and how can any of this be connected to Rembrandt? Does this statement touch on the matter of discount discipleship? I think so. Ok … let me see if we can piece this together. Consider that God said through Jeremiah that the greatest blessing in life is to KNOW and UNDERSTAND HIM … for us to know God as far as possible.

“That he understands and knows me!” What a marvelous thought! Theologians through the ages have tried to capture in words the nature of God. From Augustine and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin and right up until today, their words have sought to reveal God’s ways and expectations. In doing that, they necessarily touch on the matter of discipleship. They suggest that we want to be whole-hearted disciples … not those who came in on a discounted faith…as if genuine faith can be acquired with a twenty per cent off coupon! An easy faith. A cheap faith. What Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” But how would God lead us to truly die to self? Let’s consider a few thoughts about God … and then us.

In about 1669, the Dutch painter Rembrandt created a theological masterpiece without words. In oil paint. “The Return of the Prodigal Son” was based on Luke Chapter Fifteen. Here we read how the son demanded that his father give him his anticipated share of the estate. Parables are not allegories; not every detail is analogous to something specific but obviously the father represents God and his son represents the sinner who does not want to know God. He wants the benefits God can give him, but he would be pleased if God was dead! I say that because, in effect, the prodigal son was saying to his father “I wish you were dead, so I could have that money!” Rembrandt captured the return of the son beautifully and, in doing so, taught much about the nature of God.

Remember that Jeremiah said the greatest possible blessing in life is to know God. Remember also that the prodigal son rejected his father the way we reject God in our natural state. So, surely, we could expect God to be offended and hurt and even angry. But the parable does not teach that. It teaches that while God is just and strong to punish, He is filled with grace for the penitent sinner. How would Rembrandt have taught that great truth about God’s strength and God’s grace? Ok. Look at the father’s hands in the painting. Look closely.

The left one is strong and muscular as it holds the broken son. The right hand is more tender and gentler. He wants his son back but he, the son, must understand God’s nature before he can truly be his son. God is both just and firm and all-powerful … and tender and compassionate and all loving. God is nothing except Holy and good.

His son had come to the “end of himself” and returned to his father weeping and broken and sorry. Please note: the text says this literally: “he came to himself” giving us a word picture of someone who got clobbered and suddenly came to his senses! Now? He is truly penitent. In that state, what kind of father (God) did he return to? One who leaned down and embraced him! One who saw him coming and ran to him! That alone is an amazing statement from Jesus because in the ancient world fathers did not run to their children!

God is tender and compassionate towards everyone, but He will allow us to suffer until we die to self, as the prodigal son did. But even so, why did God even let his combative and headstrong son wander off, waste the money and suffer so much? Why did God not stand in the way and stop his son from such folly? Because the son had to learn for himself that being a true son (or a true disciple) requires a very real dying to self! Again, the text tells us:

“‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’” How do we do that? How do we deny ourselves? By just not coveting or gossiping or lusting when the temptation arises? By being miserable doing without things we’d really like? No. That would just be a change in behavior. What is needed is a change in the inner person. Almost always, we must go our own headstrong way before we “come to the end of ourselves.” Rembrandt captured it perfectly. The penitent son is on his knees before his father. One shoe is missing. He is dressed in rags. Those standing around do not embrace him, including his older brother. The penitent son does not care. He has tried to live his life HIS way. Now he has left that life behind.

 Have we left an old life behind?
 What can we retain from our old lives that is good?
 And are we holding on to anything that is not?

Psalm 139:23-24 (ESV) “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Next: A story about Van Gogh

Blessings! Pastor Alberta

 

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