Have you ever made a deal with God?
I just returned from vacation, spending some time with my family in Idaho, then driving down to Southern California. Some of you have travelled through the strange land between California and Idaho. It’s called Nevada. While there are many majestic parts of Nevada and the desert presents its own beauty, they aren’t as easy to appreciate when you have been driving all day in a car that smells like feet and beef jerky. After stopping for a bite to eat something other than jerky, I mumbled to Colleen we were going to take a cutoff that would save us at least an hour.
Now Colleen knew what many of you already know—a “cutoff” is rarely a good idea. I assured her that I had been driving these roads since I was 16, and was quite certain that I knew the way. I did discretely enter the hotel address into my phone GPS, but made a right turn in Ely, Nevada, and set the cruise control. I cruised right past a turn we should have taken that Colleen noticed. I cruised into the desert under the full moon, not noticing that we were in one of those areas AT&T doesn’t exactly brag about on their cell phone coverage map. After about an hour, I started to get that uneasy feeling. I pulled over and got out my backup GPS. Don’t judge. The backup GPS not only told us that our estimated arrival time was 1:30 a.m., instead of 11:00 p.m. as I had boldly predicted, the voice kept telling us to make a left turn into piles of sage brush and rocks that were most certainly not roads.
By this time, it had also started to rain. A light drizzle under the full moon can be beautiful. The drizzle quickly intensified into a full-blown torrential downpour. There was spectacular lightening of biblical proportions everywhere, illuminating the clouds and the cacti and the sagebrush. Even with the windshield wipers running at warp speed, the storm made it nearly impossible to see the road. I had visions of flash floods and of Clark W. Griswald wandering through the desert after crashing his car in the movie Vacation. I started to panic. Then I started to pray and make deals. I prayed that the rain would stop, and promised that if it stopped, I would always ask for directions and get an old paper map and most importantly, always listen to my wife. As we reached the top of a summit of more than 6,000 feet in elevation, something unexpected appeared.
Walking along the side of the highway, at least 50 miles from any town, was a pedestrian. This was not just some hitchhiker. In fact, the man was not trying to get a ride. He was walking against traffic at a brisk pace. The man was dressed in a white robe and carrying a long wooden staff, looking a lot like I imagine Moses when he led his people from Egypt. Lightening continued to strike all around, and time seemed to slow as our car passed him. Though only for a second, it felt like he peered into my soul. Thinking perhaps I had hallucinated from the jerky fumes, I looked to Colleen. She had seen the same figure.
Moments later, the rain stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief. We finally arrived at our hotel closer to 2:00 a.m.
I really don’t know what to make of this encounter, but I have been thinking a great deal about the situations that prompt our bargaining with God.
So, have you ever been in one of life’s deserts and made a deal with God?
Just help me get this job and let my pre-IPO shares soar, and I’ll write a huge check to charity. Just get me through this terrible self-induced headache, gut wrenching, room spinning feeling, and I’ll never overindulge again. Just help me get through this health or financial or relationship crisis, and I’ll go to church. Maybe I’ll even sing in the choir and teach Sunday school.
From the most faithful church attender to the person who isn’t quite sure what he or she believes, I often encounter people who become master negotiators with the divine in times of crisis. In many cases after this crisis passes, what do we do? We redefine the terms—what does “overindulge” really mean. I didn’t say I would go to church every week. I really don’t sing that well and I’m really not that good with kids anyway. The dark clouds pass, and we settle back into our regular routines.
The Bible contains numerous examples of people making deals with God and stories of God doing some divine bargaining too.
Our Scripture lesson today is often referred to as The Prodigal Son, prodigal meaning extravagantly wasteful or loose living. In the first part of the story from Luke 15:11-19, the younger of two sons has made a deal with his father. He claimed his share of the inheritance years early, squandered every penny of it, and found himself so low that even eating pig food seemed like a viable option. In the second part of the story, the son realizes the foolishness of his decision and is ready to make another deal with his father. Please listen for God’s word to us as the story continues in Luke 15:20-32:
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then 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 slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Whether you are here visiting for the first time today and this story is new to you, or you have heard it through the years, I find it to be one of the most meaningful in the Bible. Many experts looking closely at this parable from Jesus believe it would be more appropriate to call it “The “Loving Father,” than “The Prodigal Son.” Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a longtime resident in professor in the Middle East, sheds light on the historical context of this story, why it is so powerful, and why it would have been so offensive to the misguided religious leaders Jesus originally told it to.
When we read this with our modern eyes, it is possible that we just see the younger son as a version of ourselves, looking for an adventure outside of the comfort zone of his family. It is fairly normal for us to go far away from home to pursue some dream. In the time Jesus told this story, however, what the younger son did was the equivalent of telling his dad, “I wish you were dead!” In Middle Eastern culture, Dr. Bailey explains, a father would physically harm his child for acting so disrespectfully. For the father to not only stay calm, but grant his son’s request, would have been considered ridiculous. Furthermore, the younger son’s request wasn’t like just taking an early withdrawal from his inheritance. It would have forced the father to quickly sell land and livestock far below market value.
The son didn’t care. He knew what deal he wanted, and he really didn’t care about the impact it had on his father or his family. He didn’t care until he had been completely humbled and saw that the filthy pigs’ lives were as good as his.
And he was ready to make another deal. He prepared his “I’m so sorry speech” and braced himself to incur the wrath of his father. Though he had learned through his experiences, he still thought he got to set the terms of the contract.
Little did he know that in the eyes of his community, his father would be perceived as the truly prodigal, wasteful one. The father made a fool of himself in the eyes of his friends and family and neighbors. Instead of being the stern father following the cultural contract and cutting his son off, he responded with extravagant love and grace.
Imagine one of the dearest people in your life treating you this way. Disregarding your feelings and your generosity and even your well being for some short-term gain. Some of you have experienced that, and I do not judge you for not doing what the father did for the son. As friends and partners and parents, there are times when we have to exhibit a little tough love and truth for a loved one’s long term good.
As people living our faith and as a community here at Calvary, the story of the Loving Father has big implications for our lives in this building and beyond.
Sometimes the church is like the older brother in the story. We can look at those outside and become very judgmental. We can talk about the ways other people are squandering grace and resources, while we are here doing God’s work. We can scoff and make new people feel unwelcome or disregard their opinions as outsiders, because they don’t understand how church really works.
We decide that they don’t understand the deal.
If you remember only one thing from today, I hope you remember what God’s deal really is—love. Not just some fleeting warm feeling from a cheesy song, but selfless, unending, extravagant love. I don’t know precisely whether God responds to our bargaining in ways that resemble a business transaction, but I am standing here only because I believe that the ultimate deal exhibited by Jesus Christ is love.
He loved before he walked on earth and while he encountered people who were sick, sad, rich, poor, hypocritical, and holy.
Every so often, I encounter someone coming into church who is ready to make a bargain. A person recently called who had never been to Calvary before. He wasn’t even sure if he was allowed in the building, but was willing to reach out and take the chance. The man came into to share about their history of many types of addiction, and the ways that his addiction had harmed himself and others. He seemed to be one of many people who have the idea that you need to get your act together before coming to church. Follow our deal, and then you are welcome.
I told the man what I know to be true. You would not be alone at Calvary. Whether we wear robes or suits or dresses or jeans or muscle shirts, we are all seeking Christ’s grace. Every single one of us is the recipient of God’s love, even if we have disregarded clear guidance wandered off into life’s deserts.
Whether you are new or just haven’t thought about it for a while, Calvary refers to the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. Even in that horrible unloving situation, he was sharing love. Love with the criminal on the cross next to him. Love with those who had put him on that cross. And love that continues to be spread to and through us. As we prepare to come to the communion table today, I pray that each and every one of us remember what God’s deal really is, and reflect that love in the world.