This morning we are looking forward to Lent, and especially the way in which many of the folk of St Andrew’s different congregations are going to be exploring Lent with the help of this book,“Learning to dream again”. In the introduction the author suggests three themes that can help us to develop a Christian wisdom: earthy humility, shameful suffering, and effervescent joy. Whether or not you are planning to read this book, it seems to me that thinking about those three themes can give us some really helpful insights into our own lives, and our relationship with God. To give us an opportunity to see how this might work, we’re looking particularly at the story of the father and his two sons that we have just seen presented so wonderfully.
There’s plenty of examples of earthy humility, shameful suffering and effervescent joy in this story, and if you’ve been here all morning then you might have spotted some of those yourselves. I’d like to pick out one example of each for us to ponder on a bit more now.
Firstly, an example of earthy humility. For me this is shown by the father on the story with such grace. You see, the son’s request is about more than the money. By asking for his inheritance early he is effectively expressing a wish that his father was dead. And despite this, his father gives him what he asks for. The whole community would have known. There would have been whispering behind hands, pitying glances, perhaps even judgement – how could he let his boy get away with such disrespect? And yet the father accepts the slap in the face with humility. And that humility continues as a theme through the story. No self respecting middle eastern patriarch would be seen running, especially not towards a reprobate son. But that is what the father does, he has no time for false dignity and pride, his humility is second nature, he runs to his son. This is foolishness in the eyes of the world, it’s letting people take advantage of you, it’s being too ready to forgive, it’s foolishness in the eyes of his older son, but in this foolish humility is God’s wisdom.
Secondly, an example of shameful suffering. The son was suffering. He was poor, hungry, a foreigner in a strange land. He was reduced to working with pigs. Now, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with pigs, I know that many of you here either keep pigs yourselves, or have weaners being fed up on a local farm, and you will spend a happy day together making sausages at some point. But for this lad it was different. Pork was forbidden to God’s people, it was ritually unclean, and Jews were to have nothing to do with it. He had started off by taking his inheritance, basically telling his Dad he wished he was dead, breaking family ties, had moved country, breaking nationality ties, had broken the commandments, had lost all his money, and had now ended up doing something that denied his identity as one of God’s people. He was suffering and it was shameful. It was at that point, of being so deep in the mire that he had no resources of his own that he found a glimmer of wisdom – perhaps I could go home. He remembered the generosity of his father and chose to trust it.
Thirdly an example of effervescent joy. In the celebration of the son’s return there is deep, bubbling joy. The joy of the younger son knowing himself to be forgiven and restored to the family he thought he’d lost. The joy of the Father, whose son was dead and is now alive. The joy of the household, celebrating the restoration of the way things should be. The wisdom of this joy is the wisdom that recognises that something marvellous has happened and celebrates it, that relinquishes reserve and control and that dances to the music of love.
As we go through Lent, engaging with these themes we will, of course, be looking forward to and preparing for Easter. It seems to me that these themes are evident in the events of that week as well.
The whole of Jesus’ life on earth was an expression of his earthy humility. It doesn’t feel that long since Christmas. That coming to earth as a human baby, in a normal household in a backwater of the Roman empire, with no riches or might, just himself, that is God in earthy humanity. As we look forward to Easter we see that baby, grown to a man, riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, not on a great white charger as a conquering king, but on a colt, the foal of donkey, in humility.
Throughout the week, that humility is maintained, in the face of betrayal, of fear, of questioning, of torture, that humility remains. All the way to the shameful suffering of the cross.
When we come to communion later we will be offered the body of Christ, broken for us. That breaking isn’t the snap of a wafer, it is the shredding and battering of a human body. Beaten half to death, with bone showing through the gouges on his back Jesus staggered through Jerusalem. He was suspended by nails through his wrists and ankles. Every breath a torment. He suffered one of the most physically painful deaths it is possible to experience.
That death was the death of a traitor, of one cursed by God. He was naked in front of his mother and crowds of people, many of whom were taunting him. He felt the weight of every sin and all the guilt and shame that each one of us, and every person who has ever lived, has felt.
Why would he do that? Why would he submit to that? Because the road to resurrection always goes by way of the cross.
The effervescent joy of Easter Sunday is only possible because of the sacrifice of Good Friday. The defeat of death, the glory of renewed life, the reality of forgiveness, restoration, and healing – all the things that fill us with that joy and celebration are only possible because of the shameful suffering of the cross. And Jesus knows that it was worth it. He calls us to experience that Easter joy. That joy continues to overflow on into Pentecost through the gift of the Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts, filling us with joy, as we allow ourselves to be filled with the realisation of all that Jesus has and is doing for and in us.
So as we see these three themes in the story of the father and his two sons, and as we see them in the events of Easter, how are going to engage with them through Lent as we seek God’s wisdom for our lives?
How willing are we to embrace humility and to accept humiliation? One of the most dangerous aspects of being a Christian is the temptation to spiritual pride. History is full of examples of Christians who have come to believe that they were better than other people. We are not. We are forgiven sinners, redeemed slaves, resurrected corpses. As such, we can be secure in our identity as God’s beloved children, and in humility reach out to others with the good news that they can also experience that love.
What do we do with shameful suffering? Earlier this week I was reading an article written by a church leader (anonymously) about his addiction to lust, to pornography and to strip shows. It was only when he overcame his shame, which was locking him into a destructive cycle of suffering, that he was able to find freedom. It was only when the son overcame his shame at what he’d done and where he’d ended up that he could go back to the Father and receive forgiveness. If we are ashamed of what we’ve done or who we are then the good news is that there is wholeness for us. Some of us feel shame because we have done things that we know were wrong, and there is forgiveness for us. Some of us feel shame because of things done to us, and there is healing for us. Whatever ever the cause of our feelings of shame, we can be freed from them because Jesus has borne that shame for us.
And lastly, will we join the party? I’ve not talked much about the older son this morning, but his presence is there, overshadowing the whole thing. The one who is bitter, who has not taken advantage of the good things available to him, who hadn’t realised that everything around him was his for the asking. Who gets angry with his father for celebrating the return of his brother, because he’s jealous and he thinks it’s not fair. I know that Lent is a time of penitence and reflection, self-denial and confession, but that doesn’t need to dampen the joy. In fact it should fuel it, as we realise again and again how much God has done for us, and how much love God has for us, and the world. How much God wants to give us. With the younger son, we need to trust the generosity of the Father and join the party.
To conclude, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.