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The Missing Jesus

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing … Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them …” Luke 15.4-12.

Today’s reading is not a random one as my daily readings usually are, but has been triggered by my further reflections on yesterday’s post about Jesus as the “perfect penitent” and my posts on the three days before that which were about the prodigal son.

There is a problem with the story of the prodigal son. It is (as my reading this morning shows) the third of a series of parables that Jesus’ told about lostness. First there is the lost sheep and a shepherd who goes to find it; then there is a lost coin and a woman who goes to find it; and finally there is a lost son and a father who goes to … But no, he doesn’t, does he? In the third parable, the father stays where he is and waits for the prodigal to make his own way home. That’s hardly the gospel, is it? Where is Jesus? He’s the shepherd in the first parable and the woman in the second … but he seems to be missing in the third.

Surely the point about lostness is that you can’t make your own way home. A sheep that’s fallen down a cliff and is stuck on a ledge cannot get itself up again and find its own way back to the fold. A coin that has rolled under the table cannot set itself back on its side and roll out again and fly through the air and then sew itself back onto the head-dress where it belongs. And a human being who has distanced himself or herself from God, rejected him, and is in the far country of selfishness and sin cannot return to God unaided however wretched and in need he or she might be. I don’t know the road home. I don’t even know where it begins or how to get onto it. If I’m lost I need Jesus to find me.

So has the parable of the prodigal son been misreported by Luke? Or did Jesus get carried away with his storytelling and forget about the point he had started out to make? I don’t think so. I think that Jesus knew something very well that we can only understand from this side of his death and resurrection and ascension … that Jesus is in the story because he himself became the prodigal son who carries every other prodigal back to the Father.

Think of it: there is Jesus in eternity sharing in all the riches and glory of the Father, but he leaves his Father’s house and comes to this world — this “far country” we call the Earth. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1.14). He lets go of the wealth he had from his Father. “Emptied himself,” says Paul, “taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2.7). Born, in fact, in a stable, laid in a bed of straw.

He “joins himself to the citizens of this country” (Luke 15.15) … this world. He is brought up in a peasant’s house in Nazareth, becomes an itinerant preacher, and sleeps under the stars because he has no other place to lay his head. Soon he is despised and rejected by the rich and the righteous, the pious and the proper. He mixes with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners … with the poor, the sick, the outcasts. To everyone he meets, he gives and gives and gives. And at the last, when he has “spent everything”, he spends the only thing he has left … his body and blood.

He becomes obedient even unto death. He hangs on the cross … as far from God as it is possible for any human being to go, and dies a death of utter separation from his Father. He voluntarily enters total, utter lostness. And then he dies in complete forsaken-ness, descending into hell and taking there my sins and your sins, the sins of the world. But on the third day, something wonderful happens. He rises from the dead. He “comes to himself” (Luke 15.17). He says, “I will arise and go to my Father” (Luke 15.18) … words which take on a very literal meaning when, after “arising” from the grave, Jesus tells the disciples: “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20.17).

The Ascension is the return of the Prodigal with a capital P, and the return of every other prodigal is part of that return. As Henri Nouwen has said: “There is no journey to God outside the journey that Jesus made”; and it is true. In ascending to the Father Jesus carries with him all who have ever resolved to arise and go to the Father but have not known how … all who ever will make that resolve. It is Jesus and Jesus alone who, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, by dying for us “brings many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2.10).

When we see in our minds eye that old man, throwing aside his dignity, hiking his robe up between his legs and running down the lane, we have, primarily, a picture of God as he welcomes Jesus back into heaven. What does the Father say: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15.24). But it is not Jesus alone around whom the Father throws his arms. His embrace is for the Great Prodigal along with every other prodigal that there ever was or ever will be. “We are,” says Paul, “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1.6 KJV). It is his sonship that we share. It is Jesus on whom the Father puts the best robe, but as we abide in Christ, the robe is upon us too. The ring is on Jesus’ finger. But in Christ we wear it too. The sandals are on Jesus’ feet, but as we walk in Christ we wear the sandals too.

Where is the missing Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son? He is the prodigal son … or to put it another way, the prodigal son is the whole of repentant humanity returning to God in Christ. It is me returning to God in Christ, treading a path that I simply cannot tread without him.

PS. A long post this morning but it will have to do for the next two days as well. Early tomorrow, we travel to London to join my sister in law’s fiftieth birthday celebrations! Back on Monday.

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7 comments on “The Missing Jesus

  1. yuppieaddict says:

    Neil… quoted…

    “And a human being who has distanced himself or herself from God, rejected him, and is in the far country of selfishness and sin cannot return to God unaided however wretched and in need he or she might be. I don’t know the road home. I don’t even know where it begins or how to get onto it. If I’m lost I need Jesus to find me.”

    You have just described me. Although I do not believe that Jesus has to find me. I just dont know.

    I am back from a long journey through hell on earth. I believe the Bible. It has proven itself to me. Yet I feel like an outsider.

    I cannot see Jesus as anyone other than who he says he is. I believe he is the Sone of God…. God Incarnate who came to save us. I accept him… yet I still feel guilt, shame and separation.

    I have been Christian many years. I went through a divorce and turned to booze and drugs. Commited many sins. Hurt many people.

    I am clean and sober for years now. But I cant relate to most Christians. I experience them as naive. They havent been to the edge. I dont feel I belong.

    Surely this cannot be too far off what the prodigal felt. He had been in-fellowship…. went away…. and returned and was welcome in. I feel I have done the first two but do not feel welcome in.

    I still us language that I do not feel God prefers and am concerned it is separating me from him. Yet I cannot seem to change. I even use his name in vain. I have commited other sins for which I feel guilty.

    How do I get back? I welcome your perspective.

    Ciao.

    Chaz

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  2. micey says:

    Have a safe trip and be blessed my friend! This is a beautiful post! 🙂

    Like

  3. Neil says:

    Hi Chaz,

    I do feel for you over the attitude towards you of other Christians who haven’t been where you’ve been. It can’t have been much fun for the prodigal having to rub shoulders with the elder brother every day after his return, and I think the same can well be true for people like you who have first-hand experience of the “far country”. The father’s welcome for the prodigal was unmistakeable, but there was little welcome from the elder brother. I was recently telling a friend of something that had happened to me in my fellowship and he commented: “Isn’t it amazing just how much Christians can hurt one another?” Yes, it is … and we do … and we will have to live with that until we are all made perfect in the kingdom that is only here in part and is mainly yet to come.

    On the subject of guilt, I do believe that if those feelings continue in us after we have come to Christ it can only be because we are not fully understanding or grasping the full extent of the Father’s love for us and the totality of the forgiveness and cleansing that we have in Christ. God’s promise of old was that he would make a new covenant with mankind under which “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31.34). Those words are quoted in Hebrews where the writer says that this has now happened under the covenant that Jesus inaugurated at the last supper and sealed with his blood on the cross (Hebrews 8.6-12).

    The blood of Christ completely bleaches out sin. I sometimes illustrate this with the cut-out figure of a man. One side is completely black, the other is completely white. The first side is how God sees us (all of us) before we come to Christ “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.22-23). Lepers are lepers. If lepers are not allowed in, it matters not whether I am more leprous than you!

    The other side of the cut-out is how God sees us once we have put our trust in what Jesus did for us and did with our sins on the cross — holy and blameless. “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1.4-5). That includes you, Chaz. He says to you: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1.21-23).

    Being “holy and blameless” leaves no room for guilt. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1). Of course the enemy comes along all the time and tries to get us to condemn ourselves by reminding us of the past … but it is a past that God has long-since forgotten about. God says that he has cast our sins into the “depths of the sea” (Micah 7.19) and a lovely Dutch Christian writer called Corrie Ten Boon has added, “And he puts up a sign, saying, ‘No fishing’”. Only we have the power to dredge up past sins. God won’t and can’t because he has forgiven and forgotten those sins.

    But what about on-going sins and failures? On the white side of my cut-out I scribble here and there with a pencil and then I turn the pencil round and erase them with the eraser. That’s what happens as I walk with Jesus every day. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1.7). Walking in the light is what you are doing when you recognise what is wrong in your life — using bad language, taking God’s name in vain etc. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 8-9).

    I think it is important to understand that what the Father sees us as already being is what the Spirit is at work within us to turn us into. Sanctification is a process. Paul tells the Philippians, “Not that I … am already perfect, but I press on …” (Philippians 3.12). Of the Philippians themselves, he say: ” And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1.6). You mustn’t fall into despair over the slowness of the change in you. Just keep giving yourself “warts and all” to the Lord each day and asking him to work in you by his Spirit. Remember, he takes responsibility for doing in you and in me what neither of us can ever do for ourselves.

    Try using this lovely old Charlotte Elliot hymn as a prayer …

    Just as I am, without one plea,
    but that Thy blood was shed for me,
    and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
    O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

    Just as I am, and waiting not
    to rid my soul of one dark blot,
    to Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot
    O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

    Just as I am, though tossed about
    with many a conflict, many a doubt,
    fightings within, and fears without,
    O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

    Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
    sight, riches, healing of the mind,
    yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
    O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

    Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
    wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve:
    because Thy promise I believe,
    O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

    Just as I am, Thy love unknown
    hath broken every barrier down;
    now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
    O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

    Hope something in all that helps. I’ll be praying for you.

    Neil

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  4. yuppieaddict says:

    Neil…. thanks… your reply speaks to me.

    Funny… I posted to you because I felt your original post was a flavour that I related to. Your reply is that way too. I had read a few posts in WordPress and yours stood out tome. Funny how and where meaningful input can show up. I know a ton of Christians yet I find meaningful replies from people I dont know at all. Over the www.

    I am going to ponder your reply and perhaps reflect some things back.

    Ciao.

    Chazz

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  5. yuppieaddict says:

    Yo Neil…. have had a chance to digest your reply over the past couple days.

    I really appreciate it. Frankly, the fact that we dont know each other is probably quite helpful in that I seem to have a problem receiving from people I know based on whatever issues I have in my own heart at present. Kinda like an unwanted filter that creates resistance to hearing or even wanting to hear.

    There is a continual accusation in my head that does not line up with the scriptures you mention. Meaning that if the scriptures are true, the accusations must be lies. I agree that the Bible is quite specific that we are works in process. And we are being perftected over time. Not all at once. And even the apostles denied Jesus and even Paul struggled with imperfections. So ya, I guess if nothing else, I am in pretty good company.

    I have come to believe and rely on the bible more now than any time in my life. I feel my interaction with God right now is the working and living of the 12 Steps of AA. Which in itself is one of the most amazing gifts of God of the past 100 years. The 12-steps by no means are the be-all end-all of how God should or can work. It is simply how I believe he has reached me at this stage of my life… and millions of others.

    The 12-steps are all Bible. No matter what anyone has made of them, they derive from the Bible and are a practical application of purely Biblical principles. They were orignally developed by a group of christians as a practical way to live… and in the 1930’s, some alcoholics discovered that they were effective in finding a way to get sober and remain that way. But they did start directly from the Bible… nobody disputes this.

    The 12-Steps are such a self-less gift of God, that he created them to be used by anyone for pretty much any recovery purpose and does not even require recognition for it. They simply work with no strings attached. Which is my understanding of what a gift really is. God does not work by the bait and switch process. As I understand him, he is pure love.

    So with the understanding that God is love, and that the Bible is true, then it must remain that my thinking is not correct in that I have felt like an outsider.

    I guess my hangup is in the severity of what I feel the sin I have commited is. Particularly, using God’s name in vain. I grew up in an environment where this was prevalent. I first accepted Jesus as a young adult so the old habits were well-established.

    Can I get your take on this one specifically? It is in fact one of the commandments. And specifically statest that God will not hold anyone blameless who takes his name in vain.

    Is this just another sin in God’s eyes? Is it in a special category? Is this the unforgivable sin? I am kinda thinking ‘no’, but would welcome some input.

    Thanks.

    Chaz

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  6. Neil says:

    Hi Chaz

    You specifically ask for my take on “taking God’s name in vain” which, as you point out, is one of the Ten Commandments. My take is very straightforward. That commandment (like every other commandment that is to be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) is not, and never has been, binding on anyone who isn’t a Jew, and it is no longer binding even upon Jews if they put their faith in Jesus and thus bring themselves under the New Covenant which he sealed with his blood on Calvary. Let’s be very clear about this: the Ten Commandments are, we might say, part of a legal contract which was entered into on Mount Sinai between God and Moses. God signed on his own behalf and Moses signed on behalf of all the Jews whom he had led out of slavery in Egypt. Thereupon that contract became binding on the Jews throughout all generations until Jesus came and offered a new and better contract. It was, as you seem to be very much aware, a tough and scary contract. There were lots of penalty clauses for those Jews who breached the contract (you mention one of them), but those penalty clauses should be of not the slightest interest to someone who is not a party to that contract; and no Christian is or ever can be! A Christian may, if he wishes, misguidedly attempt to live according to the small print in the God/Moses contract … but even if he were to succeed (which he won’t) it wouldn’t do him the slightest bit of good because he never had any obligations under that contract and he has no rights under it either. It is very sad that some churches are misguided enough to put the Ten Commandments on their walls. It reveals a complete and very, very dangerous misunderstanding of the law and the gospel and the difference between them.

    None of this is to say that the stuff that the law obliged the Jews to do is bad stuff. It’s not. It’s good stuff, and if the Jews had managed to do it all they would have been good people; but they couldn’t and neither can we … except in the power of the Holy Spirit. Over time, he will teach us how to do outside the law the stuff that the Jews were commanded to do under the law.

    I sense a lot of the Simon Peter in you, Chaz. He had a huge sense of his own unworthiness and sin. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5.8). But Jesus just kind-of brushes that aside. It’s as if he’s saying, “The past is the past … forget it. Let’s look to the future … Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5.10). Jesus has a “from now on” approach to all sin and failure. We have a God of new starts and fresh beginnings and endless possibilities. Peter messed up over and over again, but Jesus never gave up on him. Nor will he ever give up on you.

    Blessings

    Neil

    PS. I agree that the Twelve Steps have a sound Biblical basis and are great. I’m glad you are finding that approach so helpful.

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  7. yuppieaddict says:

    Neil…. I have taken some time to research the scriptures you provided in your reply.

    The one that has the most impact to me is Luke 5:8 where Peter says directly to Jesus that he is not worthy to be in Jesus presence because of his own sinfulness.

    As you point out, Jesus tells him that on the contray, you will bring people to me. (paraphrased ofcourse. The “New Chaz Edition” of the Bible. Available wherever fine books are sold).

    When I look for anwers… I find most meaning and comfort in Jesus own words.

    It was also Peter who in Luke 22:60 later denied knowing Jesus as Jesus had predicted. Hmmm…. ok, so Peter “blew it” in his perceptions of worthiness when he first met Jesus… and then immediately after Jesus was first crucified, he “blew it” again by denying him.

    Hmmm… ya. So if Peter stands a chance when he felt and acted unworthy, do we all not?

    Neil…. internalizing this I guess is the challenge I face. I see it plain as day in the scriptures. I get a deeper sense of the lie I am believing.

    Perhaps my task is to keep seeking along these lines. I do feel better in my understanding. Like a step forward.

    I really appreciate the input and dialogue.

    Will keep it going and would appreciate anything further you feel like adding.

    Ciao.

    Chaz

    Like

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