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Photo via Russ Morris

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

So they began to celebrate.”

Luke 15:22-24

Here is lavish grace: unwarranted, unexpected, unparalleled.

Here is sweet forgiveness: reconciling, restoring shalom, putting things back in their proper order.

Here is salvation.

This story reveals how Jesus understands the gospel, and there are two things that stand out from the father’s words and actions.

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“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'”

Luke 15:20-21

The story takes another unexpected turn. Jesus gives us a glimpse of God’s heart.

The father is impatient and undignified in his desire for his son. He has been waiting a long time, who knows how long, refusing to believe his son was not coming back. So when he sees him, he runs to him.

Now we’ve all seen plenty of movies in which two people who have been separated are reunited. And it’s usually the same scene: At first they don’t see each other, then there’s the double-take and recognition, followed by a look of glorious shock, and finally they drop everything and run in slow motion into each other’s arms.

When we read that the father runs to his son, in our minds it’s the natural thing to do. We probably don’t realize how undignified the father is making himself. Running is not something a man of his stature would do. It would showcase his legs, which in that culture was one of the most humiliating things you could do to yourself.

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Photo via Matthew Wynn

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.”

Luke 15:17-20

The prodigal has come to a point of repentance.

The common understanding of repentance in the Christian world is a 180-degree turn from sin to God. This is true, although it has resulted in limiting the word to the realm of moral transgressions.

Repentance is more than feeling really bad about the bad things you’ve done.

The word repentance, as it’s used in Mark 1:4, Acts 11:18, and many other places in the NT, comes from the Greek word metanoia. Breaking this word down literally gives us “after perception” or “beyond understanding.”

So metanoia, a.k.a. repentance, is a shift in someone’s perception and understanding. Therefore as I go through life, I can experience repentance in my relationship with rap music, Sunday afternoon naps, and pistachio nut ice cream, just to name a few random things. I can repent of anything.

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Photo via Nadjib Aktouf

It’s hard to learn from others’ mistakes. We may cognitively understand the path we should take, we may be well aware of the dangers that lie on that other path, the history of human foibles and failures may be embedded deep in our minds, but we still choose to learn life’s lessons the hard way.

“You can’t tell me how to live!” is the cry of the toddler, the teenager, and everyman.

The prodigal son was no different.

We pick up our story here:

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went out and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”

Luke 15:13-16

He thought he knew best. He forsook his upbringing, the way of his father. He embraced every whim and desire he had, and it was fun while the fun lasted. It might have been short-lived, but those temporary pleasures took the edge off his loneliness and emptiness.

Until the party stopped.

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Photo via Emre Danisman

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.”

Luke 15:11-12

When you read a passage like that, how do you hear Jesus’ voice? Is he speaking casually or earnestly? Does he have the big booming voice of a hellfire preacher, or the soft-spoken voice of a father to his infant son?

Do you ever wonder how his listeners are responding? We get no sense from the text here. Verse 13 on just continues the story Jesus is telling. But what he said most likely shocked his audience, even though we don’t necessarily get that from the passage.

You are probably overly familiar with this story. You have probably heard before how the younger son is not simply asking Dad for money to go live on his own. He is saying something much harsher.

Essentially he is saying, “Father, I want nothing more to do with you. I want to completely sever our relationship. You are dead to me.”

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Which Character Are You?

Tim —  March 22, 2012 — 2 Comments

My wife and I recently finished watching Season One of Downton Abbey on Netflix.

Good show.

It doesn’t seem like a show I’d enjoy (it’s like a Jane Austen novel apparently), but it sucks you right in with its depictions of the lives of lords and their ladies and the servant class in the early 1900s.

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Every time I watch a show or read a book, I identify with certain characters. With Downton Abbey, I identified most with the father, Robert Crawley, and his servant, Mr. Bates.

We typically identify with the main characters and the heroes. It’s perfectly normal.

In the Story of Life, I see myself as the main character.

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Return to the Kingdom, Chapter Seven

Tim —  January 24, 2012 — 7 Comments

(This is the conclusion to Return to the Kingdom, an imaginative retelling of the Story of God. Click here for Chapter One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six.)

The condemned exiles were tied together and their hands tied behind their backs.

The journey back to the kingdom, something they had desired for years, was dreadful. More than once, the eldest among them stumbled and fell hard, unable to catch themselves with their arms. The littlest grew weary but could not be picked up and carried. Lucius and his knights were merciless.

“Don’t give up,” encouraged one of the old men. “We may face a terrible death, but we are finally doing right by the King. We will be true to who he was and what he stood for.”

The others found strength in his words. They were scared, but their resolve was steadfast. They would die for their King.

As the sun set behind them, the army stopped and set up camp. The condemned exiles were given no food and no bed. The knights forced them to stand through the night, and they huddled together for warmth.

The eldest took turns telling stories and singing songs about the King and the kingdom. They all knew, from the oldest to the youngest, this was their last night on earth.

The sun did not rise the next morning. It was hidden behind a foreboding wall of dark grey clouds. No warm, golden rays would be breaking through today.

An unusual silence pervaded the land. The condemned exiles realized there was no birdsong this morning. “How fitting,” they whispered to each other.

A bitter wind came in from the southwest, chilling the air and creating unease even among the rebel knights. The grey clouds let down a dreary mist of cold rain. It was as if creation knew what evil this day held and clearly spoke its’ disapproval.

The army advanced, spurred on by cold and wet and darkness, intent on gaining victory. Soon they stood at the threshold of the King’s land.

The kingdom was unchanged. It was as lush and green as it had ever been, just as perfect in every way. The King’s palace towered over the land, almost the embodiment of the King himself, offering protection and provision to all within her walls.

But the King was no longer there to protect his land or his people.

“At last,” Lucius growled lustfully, stepping forth into the kingdom and turning back to his army and shouting, “Our kingdom awaits! Use the miscreants as shields, and take no prisoners!”

The knights picked up the condemned exiles, held them as makeshift shields, and started forward together. And then the earth quaked violently.

The knights stumbled backwards and threw the exiles down. The earth convulsed. A large crack appeared, separating the condemned exiles from Lucius and his army. The gap widened and quickly became impassable.

But no one noticed. They were all looking up, towards the palace.

The sun was rising from the east and appeared to be moving towards them. It chased away the wind, the rain, and the clouds. The light was blinding and all shielded their eyes.

The condemned exiles were the first to realize the blinding light was not the sun but rather the likeness of a man upon a horse. Their eyes adjusted to the light, and they found they couldn’t look away. But they didn’t want to look away. There was something familiar and welcoming about the advancing man of light.

The army was having a more adverse reaction to the oncoming light. To them, the light was unbearable, the emanating heat suffocating, and they were overwhelmed with fear and dread. They buried their heads in their chests, and trembled.

“It’s the King! It’s the King!” a little girl shouted. And it was. The man of light was none other than the King riding to their rescue.

He’s alive! the little girl thought. There is an aliveness about him that wasn’t there before, as if he is now life itself, and life and light and warmth are flowing out of him to us.

The King stopped and dismounted with a hearty laugh. “My children! I knew you would come back. You are no longer exiles. You are redeemed. You are again my people.”

The condemned exiles’ ropes fell off, and they ran to the King. As tears of joy flowed freely, he embraced them one by one, spoke a word to them, and welcomed them home.

Finally, he came to the little girl.

“Sir, why didn’t you stop Lucius before? Why did you let him kill you?” she asked innocently.

“That is a good question. I came to you to help you wake up. To remember me and want to come live with me again. But you would have gotten here only to find out you could not get in. As an exile, the barrier would have kept you out.

“There was only one way to remove the barrier. You see, the kingdom and the barrier and myself are all connected to each other. So I left the kingdom to die. In my death, the barrier was removed, opening the way back for you.

“But death could not contain me. I overcame death and have burst through as a new creation. I am the same King, but now more. This is the same kingdom, but now more. There is no longer need for a barrier, for now all things will be made new. In time, you will find yourself changing. You will be more you than you were before. I will make you new as well.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” the little girl squealed. “But what about them?” she asked pointing to Lucius and his army.

“The barrier was not only to keep my enemies out; it was to protect my enemies from my judgment. It was to give them time to come to their senses, as you did, and come back to me. That time has now ended. With no barrier holding her back, my kingdom is expanding and soon will take over all the earth. My presence and my kingdom, while life-giving to you, are death to my enemies. They can no longer live here.”

Sure enough, as the King spoke, the little girl noticed the crack in the earth that separated them from the defiant ones had encircled the King’s enemies. The ground under their feet continued to shake, and then the earth swallowed them up. Their cries grew faint.

The little girl looked beyond where they had been and discovered her vision had increased. She looked out for miles and miles in all directions. She could see pockets of people, some running towards the kingdom and some away. She watched as those running away were swallowed up by the earth. It hurt her heart to see their destruction.

As the others ran towards the kingdom, it was as if the kingdom was also running to meet them. The ground smoothed before them, and the vibrant greens of the kingdom spread towards them. The kingdom was expanding right before the little girl’s eyes. She realized there were people from all over who belonged to the King.

The King picked her up in a warm embrace. “My child, you are home. You need never fear again. We are now entering a new age, where we will never be separated again, where all my people will live with me in the kingdom.

“Go now, run and play where you will. Explore and discover all this land has to offer. I must go and welcome the others who are finally coming home.”

And she did. And they all lived happily ever after.

Return to the Kingdom, Chapter Six

Tim —  January 3, 2012 — 2 Comments

(Missed a chapter? Here’s One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.)

The ground shook violently.

All eyes looked to the Eastern Mountains where the kingdom lay. A great rumbling and thundering was coming from the mountains. To their horror and amazement, the exiles watched as the mountains began to crumble.

“We will be crushed!” someone cried. The crowd panicked, trampling each other as they ran from the ensuing avalanche of rocks and boulders. Only Lucius and his knights stood in place.

“Wait! Look!” one of the knights yelled, pointing at the mountain range. The mountains were collapsing in on themselves. No boulder would reach the village.

As the dust settled, the exiles saw a radically different terrain around them. The ground was completely level. The path back to the kingdom was straight and true.

Lucius laughed. “Do you know what this means? The King’s death eliminated his barrier as well.  There is now nothing and no one in our way to keep us from conquering the kingdom. The King’s foolishness is our gain.”

Lucius kicked the King’s body, then looked down in shock when his foot hit air. The body was gone. The clothes, stained with blood, and the walking stick were there, but the body was not.

“What madness is this? The King’s barrier disappears, and so does his body?” Lucius grabbed the nearest knight. “Ah, it doesn’t matter. We leave at once. Get everyone prepared. Gather the exiles and arm them. We march on the kingdom now.”

As the knights grabbed weapons, armed the exiles and prepared them for battle, a small group stood off to one side, huddled together and hoping to go unnoticed. But they weren’t. Two knights spotted them and ordered them to join. When they refused, Lucius was called over.

“What’s going on here?”

“Sir,” one of the older men answered, “with all due respect, we don’t believe it was right to kill the King. And we don’t want any part in taking the King’s land. We can’t go with you.”

Lucius‘ face darkened as he scowled. “Are you telling me your allegiance is to a dead man? That makes no sense. Now that the kingdom is finally ours, you want to give it up?”

“Sir, I can only speak for myself. I was a young man when we challenged the King. I have come to see the error of my ways, that I was wrong. I regret having made that choice, and not just because we all ended up here. I see now that the King was the only man worthy of being King of the kingdom. He was a better man than me. And a better man than you. I have no desire to live in the kingdom if the King is not on the throne.”

Lucius screamed with rage, “Do you all feel this way?”

One by one they nodded, from the oldest to the youngest. Men, women, and children.

Lucius smiled a wicked smile. “Fine, I will respect your wishes. None of you will live in the kingdom, but you are going with us. You will be the front line of our attack. We will use you as human shields when we face the King’s knights. And you will die.

“Since your allegiance is to the King, you will share his fate as well.”

(Merry Christmas! If you’ve missed previous chapters, click for Chapter One, Two, Three, or Four.)

The next morning, all the exiles were gathered together at the village square. The knights stood guard around the square, positioned as if they were expecting an enemy attack. Many of the exiles looked around anxiously, holding their children close, wondering what was going to happen.

Lucius walked out, followed by two knights half-dragging a man with a sack over his head. The exiles could not tell who he was, but with one arm he gingerly held his side. His other hand held a familiar looking walking stick he used to support himself as he hobbled forward slowly.

Lucius spoke, “My people, today fortune has smiled on us. Twenty years ago, we rose up against the King but failed and were banished from the kingdom. The King’s mistake was letting us live. So we settled here and bided our time, waiting for the right time to rise up again. That time is now.

“We’ve discovered an enemy living among us. Many of you know him as the bumbling old man who constantly told stories of the kingdom. But he is not who he pretended to be. Behold, the Tyrant King!”

The knights pulled the sack off. The crowd gasped. It was the old man, but now the people clearly saw he was the King. He looked resolute, but strangely sad as if he was resigned to his fate.

No one in the crowd moved. They were unsure how to respond, not wanting to be the first to voice their feelings. Not even sure what their feelings were.

Suddenly from the back of the square a head of cabbage was thrown. Time stopped as all eyes watched the cabbage smash into the King’s chest. The King stumbled a half-step back.

Something snapped. It was as if that one act of condemnation opened the floodgates of pent-up hatred against the King. The exiles roared, screaming their animosity. Food, shoes, stones, whatever they could find was hurled at the King. Lucius and his knights backed away in order to avoid being hit.

Finally, Lucius raised his hands, and the crowd quieted down. “What shall we do with the Tyrant King? Shall we give him the same mercy he gave us years ago? Or shall we take full advantage of this opportunity?”

In unison, the crowd called for his death.

Only a few turned away, unable to watch what was about to happen. They covered their children’s eyes and wept quietly.

The rebel knights and the crowd cheered. The King was dead.

(Click here for Chapter Six.)

Return to the Kingdom, Chapter Four

Tim —  December 18, 2011 — 4 Comments

(Click to read Chapter One, Chapter Two, or Chapter Three)

The old man stood, leaning on his walking stick, facing Lucius. Lucius’ men had grabbed him and brought him here to be interrogated.

“Why have you come, old man? Why are you causing trouble?”

“I have not come to bring trouble. I have come because the King has never stopped loving his people.”

“Aren’t you giving them false hope? They are exiles. I have walked around the kingdom many times. There is no way back in for us.”

“Lucius, there is much you do not know about the King or his kingdom. There is nothing false about the hope I have given the exiles. Your pride always did blind you to your own ignorance.”

At that, anger rose within Lucius. The tension in the room was thick.

“Careful what you say, old man. You’re treading on thin ice.”

The old man stepped forward, pushing back the hooded robe, fully revealing his face and his true identity for the first time.

“Lucius, I came back for you, too.”

Lucius reactively swung out at the King, his fist connecting squarely with the side of his face. The King fell to one knee, catching himself with his right arm.

“Old fool! Do you realize by coming here you have given me your kingdom? I never understood your stubborn love for those people or all those stragglers that wanted in. And now your love has undone you.”

Lucius hit the King again, and the other knights joined in, hitting and kicking the King. Right before he slipped into unconsciousness, the King heard Lucius scoff, “We’ll let the people you love so much decide your fate.”

(Click here to read Chapter Five.)