Prodigal Son 3 – Beyond Belief

In 1859 Charles Blondin became famous for walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  After his first successful attempt he began to do it many times with different gimmicks.  But, the time he is most famous for is the day he walked across niagara falls blindfolded pushing a wheelbarrow.

The crowd ooh’d and aah’d with each step, the tension mounting over each movement.  And when he completed his 1/4 mile walk the crowd erupted with cheers.  The story goes that Blondin played to their emotions asking if they believed he could do it again.  The crowds cheered that yes they believed he could do it again, that he was the greatest tightrope walker ever, that he could do anything.  Then Blondin responded by inviting someone from the crowd to get into the wheelbarrow.

The crowd that had just been cheering, dead silent. . .  No one volunteered.

There is a difference between believing something and having faith in something.  The crowds believed Blondin could do it, but no one was willing to get into the wheelbarrow.

For the las couple weeks we have been looking at the parable of the prodigal son, and we’ve learned a great deal.  But, none of these were actually the point of the story.  This story was told in a real place, at a real time, for a reason, and this time I want to get at the reason Jesus told this story.  In order to do that we have to back up to the beginning of the chapter.  At the beginning of chapter 15 of Luke we find that “tax collectors and sinners” were all gathering around Jesus, and instead of sending them away, Jesus welcomes them.  And there’s some pharisees and religious leaders who begin to mutter about Jesus hanging out and eating with sinners.  They seem to have this idea that if Jesus was really of God he would be too good to hang out with the likes of these folks.  But, Jesus doesn’t seem to care about appearances.  He doesn’t seem concerned at all about what people think of him.  He knows what he’s there to do, and if it makes him look bad in the process of it, it doesn’t really seem to bother him.  Actually, in some places he’s accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.  He hangs out with the wrong crowd, and people, especially religious people, don’t think highly of it.  So, he tells a series of stories.

The first story is about a good shepherd who saves a wandering sheep.

The second is about a woman who finds a lost coin.

And the third is about a father who has two sons.

Most every sermon I’ve heard on this story has made the focus the son who rebels.  They tend to talk about God’s love, and how nothing you can do is beyond the reach of God’s love, how God is always welcoming us back.  These are good messages, it’s even a part of the first of this series.  But, it’s not the point of the story; it’s not the reason Jesus tells the story.

The story is actually about the older brother who refuses to go in to the party.

The story ends with the older brother refusing to go in, and the father telling him that everything he has belongs to the older son, but that they must celebrate because the other son was lost and is found, was dead but is alive.  If this story were a movie, we wouldn’t be too pleased with the ending.  We are left asking what happened.  Did the older brother go in and join the party?  Did he decide to stay outside while everyone else had a great time?

And that’s the point.  Jesus is asking this question of the pharisees and religious leaders.  These other people are growing closer to God and they are upset that Jesus isn’t acting the way they think he should.  The question is whether they will join the party, or whether they’ll continue to sit there and criticize.  It reminds me of another event in Jesus’ life, the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19.

One day Jesus was passing through Jerico.  By this point people knew who he was and crowds began to gather to see him.  And there’s this tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.  Since he was short he couldn’t see over the crowd, so he climbed up a tree in order to see Jesus.  Jesus spots him in the tree, tells him to come down, that he has to stay at Zacchaeus’ house today.  And everyone begins to scoff because once again he’s hanging out with “sinners.”  As a result of this encounter Zacchaeus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and give back four times the amount of anything he had cheated from anyone.

But this is the question, why did Zacchaeus have to climb the tree?  Yes, because he was short, and yes, because he had no friends.  But there’s one big reason Zacchaeus had climb the tree.

The Crowds.

There are all these people trying to get close to Jesus, and their attempts to get close to him is keeping Zacchaeus from being able to get close to him.  A large group of good, well meaning people are simply trying to to get close to God, and in the process they are keeping others from getting close to God.

The crowd in this story is a lot like the Pharisees that caused Jesus to tell the prodigal son story.

There are places where Jesus even says to do what the Pharisees say, for the most part they’ve got pretty good doctrine.  But faith is something beyond belief.  In the book of James he says that even the demons believe the right things and shutter.  Faith is beyond belief, it’s an actual trust.  And what we’ve really been doing for the last couple weeks is talking about faith development, growing a mature faith.

In the first stage of faith we most all want something from God.  Maybe it was some big evangelism crusade, and you wanted God to save you from Hell. Maybe you had gone your own way for a while and everything came crashing down around you, so you wanted God to fix your life.  But, whatever the reason, for the most part most of us get on a path towards God because like the two sons we want something.  But hopefully, if we hang around long enough we’ll get to a second phase.

In the second stage we move from wanting something from God to wanting God.  Hopefully, we’ll hang around enough and experience God enough to discover that a deep experience of God is more valuable than the stuff we can want from God.  And it’s not that we no longer want things from God.  We will still want safety for family, for the cop to not pull us over when we spot them on the side of the road, etc.  It’s just that wanting something from God is no longer the focus, we sort of transcend that, but it’s still included.  But, if we get close enough something changes in us and we move toward the third phase.

In the third stage of faith we move from wanting God to having been around God enough that we become somewhat like God.  Our focus goes from getting God to wanting what God wants.  Our thoughts and heartbeat become increasingly like God’s.  In this stage of faith we are actually willing to sacrifice our relationship with God in order to see happen what God wants to happen.

Imagine being in Jerico that day, seeing the crowds, seeing Zacchaeus.  And imagine for just a minute that you wanted to see Jesus, but once you see Zacchaeus it becomes more important to you that he see Jesus than that you see Jesus.  Imagine, you go to Zach, you take him by the arm, and you begin to drag him through the crowds, and you bring him to Jesus.

Of course, the irony is in the fact that in giving up wanting to see Jesus so that Zacchaeus can encounter him, you actually get closer than you would have otherwise.

It is possible to believe all the right things and want a deep relationship with God more than anything else, and to actually stand in the way of what God is wanting to do right there in your midst.

Last week we talked about the story of the demoniac, but we didn’t actually finish the story.  After the swine have died, and the people have asked Jesus to leave the man from whom Jesus had cast the demons asks Jesus to let him go with him.  He wants to become a follower of Jesus.

Now in the gospels we have a lot of people Jesus invites to follow him.  Some leave everything they have, drop what they’re doing and immediately follow him.  Others just can’t do it.  They have too much wealth, they have something going on, or some other excuse.  But this time someone asks to follow Jesus, and it is one of the extremely rare occasions where Jesus says no.  Jesus tells the man to go back to the town and tell of what God has done for him.

This is a picture of the ruins of a byzantine monastery at Kursi.  Kursi actually became one of the major epicenters of the early church, and it all traces back to an encounter one man had with Jesus, and the fact that he was willing to listen to Jesus enough to go about doing what Jesus wanted rather than following Jesus himself.

First stage, we want something from God.

Second stage, we want God.

Third stage, we want what God wants.

Because it’s completely possible to be so focused on getting your personal relationship with God deeper that you can actually stand in the way of others getting closer to God.  It’s possible to be so occupied with getting closer to God that you actually stand in the way of what God is wanting to do.

The point of our faith is not to simply have a list of correct doctrines to check off.  It’s a bit like a trampoline.  We can know everything about it, what the frame is made of, how many springs it has, what it’s weight capacity is, etc.  We can believe that it will support our weight and that we could jump on it.  But, the point of a trampoline is not belief, it’s to jump.  And unless we actually jump on it, we don’t actually have any faith in it.  Similarly our faith is something that is to be lived out.  We are not to simply believe a bunch of things about God, we are to trust God.  We are to live out our faith, not in order to try and earn God’s love, but as a response because we have been so captivated by God’s divine love that we already have regardless of what we have or haven’t done.  We respond with this lived out faith because we are compelled to by the vision of what God wants this world to be like and we want to be agents of helping bring heaven to earth.

Blondin walks a quarter mile across a tightrope blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow.  The crowds cheer until he invites a volunteer to hop in the wheelbarrow for him to do it again.  The crowd goes quiet, no one accepts the invitation.  However, in August of 1859 his manager, Harry Concord, climbed on Blondin’s back and rode across the falls.

It’s one thing to believe, it’s another to to trust, to have faith.

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