Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Punishment never has the power that forgiveness has.

Steve Brown tells a story that provokes thought on the subject of losing and finding:

The woman was washing dishes in the kitchen sink one day after the children had left for school. She looked at a particular plate. She stared at it a long time and asked herself over and over again, “How many times have I washed this plate? How many times have I dried it? How many times will I wash it and dry it again?” She then set down the plate, took off her apron, packed a few of her belongings and left.

That night she called home to tell her husband that she was all right, but that she just could not come home again. From time to time, over the next several weeks, she would call just to see how her husband and children were doing. But she would never tell them where she was, nor accede to the pleas from her family to return.

The husband hired a detective to search for her, and after picking up a few leads, the detective tracked her down. She was in another state, living in a small apartment over a coffee shop where she had a job as a waitress. Her husband set out immediately to bring her home. When he found the place she was staying, he knocked on the door of her upstairs apartment. She opened the door, saw him, and did not say a word.

She went into the bedroom, packed her belongings, and silently followed him out to the car. Then, in silence, he drove her home.

Several hours later when the two of them were alone in their bedroom he finally spoke, and he asked her, “Why didn’t you come home before? Over the phone I begged you to return. Why didn’t you come?”

The wife answered, “I heard your words, but it wasn’t until you came for me that I realized how much you cared and how important I was to you.”

Kent Hansen adds a nice commentary on the story:

This story is kind of upsetting, isn’t it? “What was she thinking to walk off like that?” We think that way, don’t we? The woman was selfish and irresponsible. She caused a lot of trouble and heartbreak to her husband and children. It’s tempting to want the husband to hold out on her and not just take her back until she has proven that she is really, really sorry.

What if the husband hadn’t gone to the woman, but instead divorced her and sued for sole custody of the children on the ground of abandonment. That would be his right, but that story line only goes so far before it dead ends. Punishment never has the power that forgiveness has. Have you ever wept for joy over witnessing a well-deserved punishment? Have you ever felt the thrill of getting in the last lick or last word in a conflict? Did that thrill last long? On the other hand, have you ever been amazed and moved by witnessing or receiving the mercy of forgiveness and restoration?

The power of the story is in the husband going to the trouble of finding the woman, going to her, and bringing her home. It is undeserved grace. We would pronounce judgment, but thanks be to God, “Mercy trumps judgment (Js 2:13). We are moved by the example of a love that doesn’t quit and restores to wholeness rather than destroys one who is alienated and lost and causing great hurt.

Oh, yes, the joy of the Lord is in the finding of what was lost and restoring it in love. That’s what Jesus came to do and the power of the Gospel is in forgiveness, not in the threat of punishment.

One day Jesus was standing in a group of tax collectors and sinners who came near to him to hear his words of grace. On the outside of the group were eavesdropping Pharisees and religious scholars who were outraged by Jesus’ indiscriminate kindness.  They grumbled, “This fellow welcomes sinners and sits down to eat in fellowship with them.” It was not a compliment and was far from the will of God (Acts 15:19; Rom 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). Any group that depends for its identity on who it excludes rather than who it includes does not reflect the heart of God.

Jesus told the grumbling critics three stories in response to their judgmental complaint. He told them about a shepherd with a hundred sheep, who loses one of them. He leaves the flock in the wilderness and searches for the lost sheep. When he finds it, he picks it up and carries it home. He calls his friends and neighbors and says, “We have to have a party because I found my sheep that was lost.” Jesus told the critics, “One sinner returned home is more of a reason for God to be happy and throw a party than the fact that ninety-nine righteous persons stayed right where they are supposed to be.”

Jesus also told them about a son, who couldn’t wait for his father to die, claimed his inheritance and went out and wasted it. He came to his senses when he realized that he was hungry for the corn cobs he was feeding pigs, but he was really starving for his father’s love and graciousness. The lost boy stumbled his way home with a prepared speech to ask his father to give him a job. His father was waiting for him, ran to him, embraced him, clothed him, brought him inside and threw a big party. The father pleaded with the angry, judgmental elder son to come inside and enjoy the party too because his lost brother had been found and Jesus said it is the character and the compulsion of God to celebrate whenever that kind of thing happens.

Each of these stories has the same structure: Lostness, searching, finding and restoration.

This pattern is the DNA of the true Gospel of Christ. This God of ours, manifested in his Son, Jesus Christ, is a finder and a keeper. In his eyes there are no losers, only lost sheep and lost children who need to be restored to their rightful place at his side.

The stories of the lost sheep and the lost boy are the bookends. Right in the middle Jesus told them another story:

Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Lk 15:8-10).

The relief and joy when the coin was found led the woman to throw a party for her friends and neighbors. In this earthly scene, echoes of heaven’s excitement sounded and Jesus gained another way of explaining his mission. One lost sheep out of a hundred found again; a lost coin found; a lost son returning home to a heart-broken father–all of these were cause for celebration, Jesus said. In heaven they put on the music, fill the balloons, and break out the cake and ice-cream whenever a child of God, who has wandered off to loss and to shame, comes home again.
The sheep and the boy wandered off on their own stubborn and futile ways, but how did the coin become lost? We aren’t told.
 The story here is about finding what was lost and the God, who like the searching shepherd, like the woman diligent in seeking the return of what is precious to her, and like the heart-broken dad waiting for the return of his child, considers no loss acceptable. He sets aside every other consideration to make his search.

His sweep is comprehensive, his light is penetrating, and his search is careful, but this story isn’t about good housekeeping or loss control. You can search Luke 15 in vain for any indication that God wants to scrutinize and analyze how the loss occurred and how to prevent it from happening again before extending salvation.

No, the God revealed to us by Jesus is no conservative, stern nit-picker shouting, “I told you so” to the broken, defeated and shamed. God as the father described by Jesus in the parable of the two sons doesn’t even wait for his errant son to finish his groveling confession before hugging him to his chest and calling for the celebration to begin.

Jesus showed us that God forgives and forgets because he wants the largest possible guest list for his party. He risks all for love. The story of the lost coin is about the outbreak of joy in the heart of God when the lost is found. What gives God joy in his heart gives the Pharisees heartburn and therein lies the judgment. Think about it.

You cannot understand this story unless you put yourself in the role of the lost coin. God thinks of you with love and faithfulness for eternity. He doesn’t quit loving you. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:19). If God ever stopped thinking about you with love, he would cease to exist and that is not going to happen.

The Creator’s identity is revealed in his creatures. A parent’s identity is carried in the child. You bear the image of God and he delights in you (Gen 1:27). He says, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; and my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hos 11:8).

Jesus speaks of us, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:28-30). “Greater than all else”– you and I are that important to our heavenly Father.

God is dismayed and heartbroken to lose you from that relationship and overjoyed to find you again. You matter to God. He cares what happens to you. He wants you back. He finds you and puts you back where you belong.

People are fond of saying, “There are two sides to every coin,” to caution us not to expect much. That’s not what God thinks about you. He’s no spoilsport, harsh taskmaster or implacable critic. He loves you. He is proud and happy to have you with him.

You can expect everything of your God because he won’t disappoint you for eternity. You have his word on this: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26). So enjoy the party! It’s meant for you!

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who find refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).

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