Gospel Choir Service

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A friend of mine went to a gospel music service like this – only it was at an African church, where, as you can imagine, they raised the roof considerably more than we have, tonight. And when the speaker got up, people started chipping in – saying things like, 'Preach it, brother', 'That's right,' 'Amen' and so on. And at one point he lost his train of thought, and there was this long pause, finally broken by someone shouting, 'He's in trouble Lord – help him, help him!' So can I just say: if at any point I appear to have lost my way, it would probably help me more if you thought that, but didn't actually say it, out loud! Sorry to be so British.

But anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this gospel music night. I guess you know that 'gospel' means 'good news'. And the reason Christians sing stuff like this is that, to us, knowing God is good news – in fact, it's the best thing in our lives. But when I say that to people they often look at me in disbelief, because they have such negative ideas of God that the thought of God, and having God in their lives, seems like the very opposite of good news.

It's a bit like my children's first trip to the dentist. As I remember, all we said was, 'We're going to the dentist's tomorrow so she can have a quick look at your teeth.' And fear seemed to fall on the household. As I was putting them to bed, one of them, looking really worried, said, 'What will she do to us?' And another said, 'Will she pull our teeth out?' We just seem to have this innate, negative idea of dentists.

And the same goes for our idea of God. So I want us to look at that story Jesus told about the father and his two sons, which we read earlier. Because it's Jesus' way of saying, 'Your negative ideas of God my Father need to go – and if you get what he's really like, you'll see that knowing him is in fact very good news indeed.' So let's look at Luke 15.11. And let me read you the start of Jesus' story again:

"And he said, "There was a man who had two sons.""

And the man stands for God. And the two sons stand for us with our various negative ideas of God. Read on (v.12):

"And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.'"

In other words, 'I don't want to live under your roof any more, having to do what you want me to. So give me my share of the family money, so I can leave and live my own life.' And that's what happens. Verses 12-13:

"… And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living."

So if the father stands for God, the younger son stands for someone who doesn't want God in his life – because he thinks God will spoil his freedom and fun. And that's one of the biggest, negative ideas of God in our culture, isn't it? God the Cosmic Killjoy.

So for example, I was talking with my brother a while back. He's not a Christian. But I asked him, 'Do you believe there is a God?' And he said, 'Yes. I definitely believe he's there.' And I said, 'So if it's possible that he's really made himself known by becoming human in the person of Jesus, don't you think that's worth looking into?' And he said, 'No.' And I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'I just don't want to.' And I said, 'But why not? And he said, 'I suppose I just don't want him interfering in my life.'

And you may relate to that, and see yourself in the younger son here. Because you may have some idea of what God would want to change in certain areas of your life – but, like my brother said, you don't want him interfering. Well let's read on, verses 14-16:

"And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything."

Now younger son types don't always end up in a mess like that. Some do – and God uses that to prod them to think again about him (which may be what he's doing with you, right now). But lots of people say to me, 'I have no faith but life's fine – I see no need for God.' But if you're saying that right now, the irony is that it's precisely because God has been good to you that life is fine and that you feel no need of him. After all, who ultimately gave you your abilities and successes and the things you've got and the people you love and who love you? But we don't see that. So it is often the hard times, like this younger son got himself into, that prod us to think again about God, whereas the good times just make us more confident that we've done it so far without him – and can do without him in the future. So onto verses 17-20:

"But when he came to himself [in other words, came to see sense], he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father."

So his first mistake was thinking of his father as the Great Killjoy – which stands for that first big, negative idea of God that we have. But then his second mistake was thinking it was impossible that his father could ever accept him back, as before. That's why he says (v.19),

"I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."

In other words, 'I realise what I've done is unforgivable, and that our relationship can never be what it was. But at least would you have me back just as one of your workmen?' And that stands for our other big, negative idea of God – the idea that (at least at some point) we're unforgivable, and that there's no hope of coming back into relationship with him – which may be how you're feeling right now. In which case, let's read on to hear what Jesus has to say to you. Verse 20:

"And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him."

So how come his father saw him, while he was still miles away? It must have been because every day he'd sat on the verandah watching and hoping for his son to come back. Every day he'd looked for his younger son's handwriting in the post, and listened for his voice on the answer machine – because he'd never stopped loving him and wanting him back. And Jesus is saying, 'That's what God, my Father, is really like.'

And then Jesus says in the story, "His father… was filled with compassion for him." In other words, he didn't lay into him for how he'd behaved – he was more concerned to love him back into shape than beat him up for the past. And Jesus is saying, 'That's what God, my Father, is really like.'

And then Jesus says in the story, "His father… ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." But in that culture, older men never ran: it was thought to be beneath them and humiliating. For us, it would be like the Queen running in public – I mean, can you imagine her legging it along the platform, when the royal train's pulled out too soon, shouting, 'Wait for one!'? It's beneath her dignity. (Quite apart from the fact that she's probably a bit old for the platform sprint, now.) But this father, in front of everyone who knew just how badly the son had treated him, swallowed all pride, and ran out to accept him back. Which was totally humiliating, and the most costly thing he'd ever done.

But forgiveness does cost, doesn't it? And it cost God. If you read to the end of Luke's Gospel, you find that it cost God his Son Jesus, when he died on the cross, to take the judgement we deserve for pushing God out of our lives, so that we could be forgiven. And this bit of the parable – where the father runs out to meet the younger son – is where Jesus paints himself into the picture. Because it's this bit that stands for the way God came out to meet us, by sending his Son into the world to pay for our forgiveness on the cross.

So the younger son thinks it's impossible that his father could ever accept him back as before. And yet that's exactly what happens – through one, almighty act of forgiveness. And Jesus is saying, 'That's what God, my Father, is really like.' So read on, verses 21-24:

"And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet [which were all signs that he was being fully accepted back as a son in the family]. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate."

So if you see yourself in the younger son, you may have two wrong ideas of God. One is thinking God is the Great Killjoy. Whereas you don't get that impression from the party the father throws, do you? I mean, if that stands for coming back into relationship with God, then you get the impression that God wants us to enjoy life – and that far from him being a threat to that, coming back into relationship with him is the key to that.

But your other wrong idea may be thinking God couldn't possibly accept you after what you've done, after the way you've pushed him out of the picture, maybe for many, many years. But the answer to that is that Jesus died on the cross to forgive everything you've ever done wrong – and ever will. And he then rose from the dead and returned to heaven. And from there, he's now calling on you to ask his forgiveness and come back into relationship with him and his Father – whoever you are, whatever you've done. And that's why the Christian message is good news. Because if you're saying, 'I've been wrong not to want God in my life, and I now want to come back to him,' the Christian messages is saying, 'You can.'

Now there are only two characters in Jesus' story who were not pleased to see the younger son back. One, for obvious reasons, was the fattened calf. And the other was his older brother. So let's look at him to end with – because maybe, as you look into the 'mirror' of this story, you'll see yourself in him. Verses 25-30:

"Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you [literally, 'slaved for you'], and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!'"

And that gives the game away about what the older son really thought of his father. Because he's full of resentment, isn't he? "All these years I've been slaving for you," he says, which shows that, although on the outside, he was the dutiful son who never left home, on the inside he was as much out of relationship with his father as the younger son.

And he stands for the last big, negative idea of God in this story, which is the idea that God's acceptance has to be earned, has to be deserved. And the older son obviously thought he deserved a lot from his father, for everything he'd done, and that his brother deserved nothing at all. And he stands for the mistake of thinking that God's acceptance has to be earned – and that it depends on us making ourselves good enough for God, rather than on God forgiving us for all the ways we've not been good.

So maybe you see yourself in the older son. Maybe you've grown up with a Christian background – but you've somehow got this wrong idea that it's all about us trying to be good enough for God to accept us. But that's an awful treadmill to be on – because we're not good enough, and never can be – we don't have it in us as the fallen human beings we are. And sooner or later that treadmill will put you off God completely – if it hasn't already.

Or maybe you've been put off by some older son types. Because the older son stands for a lot of people and churches that do, sadly, give the message that it's all about trying to be good enough for God – and that only the good can join. But that's the very opposite of the Christian message.

So for example, I was talking to a woman who joined our church a while back. Sadly, it was after having an abortion. And she told me that in the very first service she came to, she sat here thinking, 'This isn't for me. No-one here has done anything like I have. They'd be horrified if they knew. And as soon as this is over, I'm out of here for good.' But as the service ended, the lady sitting next to her introduced herself and said, 'So what brought you along today?' And this woman just blurted out, 'I've had an abortion.' And when I was getting to know her later she said to me, 'I would never have come back to church again but for what that woman who welcomed me said next.' Which was: 'So have I.'

So she thought we'd be a bunch of older son types, who'd make her feel she wasn't good enough for us or for God. But instead, she met someone who could say from first hand experience that it's not about us making ourselves good enough for God – but about God forgiving us back into relationship with him.

So I wonder: where do you see yourself in Jesus' story – where do you stand with God right now? Imagine I were to draw a line. And at one end would be those of us who can say, 'I know I've been forgiven, and that I'm spiritually back home – back in relationship with God, thanks to Jesus.' But then at the other end would be those of us who can't yet say anything like that – maybe because you don't want to come back: life seems good right now without God (because you've not made the connection that life being good means God has been good to you).

But you may be right in the middle of my line tonight – and wanting to come back, and ask his forgiveness, and start life over again with God in his rightful place. So I'm going to end with a prayer which you could use if you know you want to do that. Let me just run it past you first, so you can think whether it would be appropriate for you. I'll pray:

Father God,
I'm sorry for going my own way, as if my life was my own. Thank you for giving your Son to die for me, to bring me back to you. Please now forgive me, and help me to live for you from now on.

Now you may be further back than that, or further on. But if you want to make that response to God for the first time, you could echo that prayer in your mind as I lead us now. Let's pray:

Father God,
I'm sorry for going my own way, as if my life was my own. Thank you for giving your Son to die for me, to bring me back to you. Please now forgive me, and help me to live for you from now on.

Well if you have just prayed that prayer and meant it, can I encourage you to trust that God has heard and answered it? And can I encourage you to do two other things? One is to tell another Christian – because they can then make some suggestions about what would help you, going on from here (especially what there is going on at this church to help you). And the other is to take and read a copy of this booklet 'Why Jesus?' which you'll find on the stands at the doors. Because it talks about that step of responding to God, and would help you be clearer about it. And whether or not you just prayed with me, if you want to be clearer where you stand with God, it would be a great thing to read, anyway.

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