I would like us to look at ‘pictures’ in the Bible, to be exact, Luke chapter 15.
A favourite chapter.
Some of you will know that I’m a ‘Yes - But’ person, and I am with this chapter.
These parables are often described as being about the ‘lost’ sheep, coin, son, – or – about the ‘found’ sheep, coin, son. There is the alternative of ‘the forgiving father’ which is good.
‘Yes, But’ I say, ‘I see these parables’ punchline as JOY!’
The point of these parables, see verses 1 & 2, is that the religious leaders were rejecting these ‘sinners’:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Luke 15:1-2
SO Jesus was finding! Restoring them; a cause for JOY! Like finding hidden treasure; or that perfect indescribable pearl, the joyful knowledge of the Kingdom when we do find it. Search for it, or find it given us by heritage.
Another ‘But” is that the word ‘prodigal’ was ruined for me by its use here for a title. It’s a heading, an addition, as is the ‘importunate’ widow. (To restore the meaning of prodigal; generous, overflowing, burgeoning, see ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver.)
The picture of the lost sheep is familiar. It is a relief to restore one to the flock, joyfully carried home. It says ‘Rejoice with me’. And see here, 99% of the ecclesia is still safe. See verse 7: those 99% ‘do not need to repent’.
See “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners .” Matthew 9:13
I suggest, that when we have been baptised, accepted Christ, had sins forgiven, ‘we are no longer sinners’. Potential stumblers maybe.
The scene of the anxious woman seeking one coin, although she still has 9.
A pause in the tale, in the gloom, – then exultation, joy, calls her friends and neighbours; “Rejoice with me!” Yes it was lost, it was found, but I see the jolt of joy being the message.
Lydia, my wife, lost all trace of a lovely watch recently. It just vanished. Phone calls, retracing journeys, steps, activities; where have we been? Till one day, out of the blue – there it was! What relief! What joy!
Now, the scene of the younger, reckless, wasteful son and brother.
The estate was secure. Father, older son and their workers were there. No word of mother. The absent son was missed. Father hadn’t gone to fetch him, then - we love that line “When he came to his senses”. So often we have imagined it. When his father saw the distant figure moving wearily closer, I see him dusty, he ran, hugged and kissed him! (That pleasure denied us at present.)
The message? Less ‘he was lost’; less ‘he was found’, but, running, spilling over, that surge of absolute joy. That ‘prodigal’ joy! Before that confessing son could blurt his rehearsed line “make me as one of your hired servants” his father restored him: he had come home!
In these scenes we have the descriptions ‘joyfully’, ‘rejoice’, ‘rejoicing’, ‘safe and sound’, ‘celebrate’ ‘celebrate’, ‘be glad’, and the only mention in the gospels of ‘music’!
The religious leaders are the older brother; but let’s imagine, as it’s a parable and not fact, that the elder brother came round; after all, his father had said “All that I have is yours!” He had lost nothing, like the labourers in the vineyard, ‘I give as we agreed”.
The younger son ‘your brother’ was dead, now alive; lost, now found; because of his restoration there was celebration and music and gladness. That is – Joy.
We can bring that joy here. Jesus was dead and is alive again; was lost to the disciples and found resurrected! He was led from temptation and testing; delivered from evil.
We know of the execution of Jesus which he endured, and the joy of his resurrection. That was the joy set before him.
When we take bread and wine as they did, we take of that joy.
PS Recently we read from Proverbs 29:3 NIV
“ A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth”. I wondered what relevance it has.
It does fit remarkably well with the retort of the older brother.
“But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
Luke 15:30 NIV
But, as we know, ‘he came to himself’.
“Amen” is related to the Hebrew for “truth”. When we say “amen” after someone offers a prayer, it means we concur with what has been said; we echo the requests and sentiments expressed on our behalf.
It’s likely that brothers and sisters in the early church also did this. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:16 about speaking in tongues, and how important it is to speak or pray in a language that others understand:
"If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified."
We might not speak or pray in tongues (other languages), but if we’re asked to offer prayer on behalf of others, it’s important that they understand and agree with what we pray. Prayers ought to be addressed to God, offering praise, or thanksgiving, or asking him for something. Paul’s comment above implies that what we say should also edify (build up) those on whose behalf the prayer is offered. I’m sure we all appreciate it when someone offers a prayer on our behalf that expresses our feelings and requests more effectively than we could in our own words, so that we can sincerely and thankfully say “amen” to the prayer.
When we say “amen”, we’re using a Hebrew word that has been incorporated into the English language (the correct Hebrew pronunciation is actually awmane). The Greek text of the New Testament also borrows the word “amen” from the Hebrew. One writer tells us:
... “amen” is a most remarkable word. It was transliterated directly from the Hebrew into the Greek of the New Testament, then into Latin and into English and many other languages, so that it is practically a universal word. It has been called the best known word in human speech. The word is directly related – in fact, almost identical – to the Hebrew word for believe, or faithful. Thus, it came to mean “sure” or “truly”, an expression of absolute trust and confidence.
The very last word in the Bible is “Amen”; many New Testament letters close with “amen”. Sometimes an important saying or prayer in the body of a letter finishes with “amen”.
The gospels record more than seventy times that Jesus used the word “amen” to introduce key teachings. This isn’t always obvious in English translations, which use expressions such as “I tell you the truth” or “Verily I say unto you” to represent the phrase “Amen I tell you” in the original text. “Amen I tell you” emphasises that what Jesus is about to say is true and reliable.
In John’s gospel, Jesus always repeats the word “amen” for emphasis: “Amen amen I tell you”. The King James Version indicates this by repeating the word “verily”, as when Jesus says
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
Other Bible versions render these double amens of Jesus in other ways, such as “truly, truly, I say to you”, or “most assuredly, I say to you”. Although “amen” is a Hebrew word, it’s actually used more often in the Greek New Testament than in the Hebrew Old Testament.
Of the 24 times “amen” appears in the Old Testament, half are in the same chapter: Deuteronomy 27, describing how a series of curses was recited loudly by the Levites to all the people of Israel, who were commanded to say “amen” in response each curse. In fact, in the Old Testament the word “amen” is used most often in exactly this way: as a response, or a confirmation, following a statement, or a command to do something. In 1 Kings 1:36, for example, when King David gave instructions to Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet and Benaiah son of Jehoiada to anoint his son Solomon king of Israel,
"Benaiah son of Jehoiada answered the king, 'Amen! May the LORD, the God of my lord the king, so declare it.'”
Even today, we might hear a similar expression, when someone says “amen to that”.
But as we’ve seen from its use by the Lord Jesus, “amen” means more than just “I agree” or “roger, understood”. In Isaiah 65:16, the prophet writes
"Whoever invokes a blessing in the land will do so by the God of truth; he who takes an oath in the land will swear by the God of truth. For the past troubles will be forgotten and hidden from my eyes.”
The Hebrew word translated “truth” here is in both cases amen. Isaiah literally refers to “the God of Amen”.
The essential idea behind the word amen is of someone standing steady and upright, with his feet firmly planted on the ground – by contrast with someone whose stance is unstable, his feet slipping or stumbling. This notion of a man standing steady and upright developed into the metaphor of one who is faithful, trustworthy, loyal and dependable.
So the Hebrew word amen that we commonly – and perhaps unthinkingly – use to close a prayer can mean truth, faith or trust. Other closely related Hebrew words mean steady, stable, loyal, dependable.
We saw that amen is also used to describe the character of our heavenly Father: the God of truth, the God of Amen. It’s even used to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ. In Revelation 3:14, the apostle John is commanded to write to the angel of the church in Laodicea:
"These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation."
This title “the Amen” applied to our Lord sums up so many facets of his character: faithful and true, steady, unwaveringly loyal and dependable before God, his Father, and to his bride, the church.
We saw that Jesus, the Amen, the faithful and true witness, frequently emphasised the truth of his teachings using the formula “verily I say unto you”, or “I tell you the truth”: literally, “amen I say to you”.
The Greek word for “truth” occurs twenty times in John’s gospel, and seventeen times in his letters – showing the importance that he attaches to the truth of the gospel and the teachings of Jesus. John particularly contrasts truth with lies and falsehood. One example is in John 8:44, where Jesus told those who were questioning his authority and teaching,
"You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!”
Similarly, in 1 John 2:3
"We know that we have come to know him [that is, Jesus] if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him”, but does not do what he commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
Indeed, if we claim that we know and follow Jesus, but don’t do what he commands, he may well deny knowing us at the judgement.
But, brothers and sisters, we have all responded amen to the call of Jesus, and his teaching, when we were baptised into his saving name; we undertook to follow “the way, the truth and the life”. Whenever we say amen at the end of a prayer, we should try to remember its wider meaning: acknowledging truth, showing faithfulness, and standing firm as witnesses to Jesus and to the word of God.
I’d like to conclude our thoughts by quoting from John chapter 6. As we find so consistently in John’s gospel record – four times in this chapter alone – Jesus emphasises the truth and importance of what he’s about to say by stating
ajmh;n ajmh;n [“amen amen”]: “verily, verily”, “I tell you the truth”.
Jesus says in John chapter 6, at verse 47,
"I tell you the truth [amen amen I say to you], he who believes has everlasting life.
"I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
At school during World War 2 our teacher told us about the first rainbow from the Bible (Genesis chapter 9) and in the art class we painted one and put the words of Genesis underneath (chapter 8 verse 22):
‘While the earth remaineth, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’
We read the story of the first rainbow:
‘And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I have made between me and you and every living creature that is with you for perpetual generations. I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.’
We don’t use the King James version of the Bible much nowadays but we children understood those words very well and they were a comfort to us. Somehow we remembered them in bed when the sirens sounded to tell us that bombers were on the way.
Coronavirus is the new enemy, one which we can’t see or hear. In wartime we were told to take many precautions, using gas masks and blackout curtains. Signposts had been removed – even the sign over shops that mentioned the name of the village.
The day came at last when war was over. Slowly, over several years, life got back to normal.
I have always liked Easter time, warmer days and lighter evenings. But if we stop to reflect on what happened to Jesus after what we call the “Last Supper” it’s really too horrible to dwell on. So, contrary to our other thoughts of springtime, the brightness of the flowers, lambs in the fields and birds singing in the blossom-filled trees and all bathed in warm sunshine, we see only horrific suffering and callous behaviour from which we shield our thoughts and imagination.
If we can put ourselves in the sandals of the Disciples, and witness the last few days of Jesus’ life and how it ended we can only see and feel total shock, disaster, catastrophe. And we would be totally distraught. How could this be? Jesus had only just been seen riding triumphantly into Jerusalem and all that it symbolised (Matt 2:1-11).
The disciples had found being with Jesus exhilarating, sometimes puzzling, but certainly exciting. They’d given up everything. They couldn’t quite grasp the enigma of this teacher and friend. Above all he was strong yet caring, and performed signs confirming his close relationship with God. He was popular with the ordinary people. The disciples had realised that here was the Messiah (Matt 16:20). He was not the kind of messiah they had expected, but they had vowed their allegiance to him.
Even though he had warned them of hard times ahead, now they felt badly let down. Surely this had been God’s best chance to re-establish his position with his people, and yet Jesus’ mission had collapsed – a public and ignominious failure. God, the almighty creator had let the worst happen. Why? And what was the point any more?
No wonder they had failed in their promises to Jesus. They were crushed and afraid.
After Jesus’ death the disciples kept together for mutual support but in fear and behind a locked door (John 20v19). Events didn’t stop. The disciples heard a report that Jesus was alive and had been seen and they found it to be true – amazing.
My shortcut kind of reading might come in at this point and I’d be thinking Jesus had a brilliant start, and look how it turned out so well, which of course it did. But this misses so much. The point of it all and the lesson and potency for us are the demonstration of the love of God and of Jesus. Here we see a direct appeal to all mankind. It is to get a grip on reality, to see the bigger picture of our nature compared with God’s, and to choose to be on God’s side overcoming – destructive pride like that of the pharisees – conceit and vicious envy as displayed by the leaders of the people – harshness of uncaring overlords, in this case the Romans. And more than this, to see evil overcome by good – the healing of the downcast and broken, the giving of new sight to the blind, and the releasing of the captives from their hopelessness and fear. This after all is God’s way as Jesus emphatically demonstrated and confirmed when he emerged triumphant having conquered even the very worst. That’s why we want to remember him as he asked.
What is he doing talking about joy at this time? What have we got to be happy about just now?
You may well ask! Well let's see.
My thoughts came initially from James 1 v 2-4
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,
3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
and Psalm 30 v 5
5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
I have to admit that I didn't actually do anything else until I read last Sundays exhortation. I then listened to some music, putting it on a random shuffle setting. The first song was "Smile" and the second was "Joy", yes really!
For me they were a great reminder to hold on to God's promises through thick and thin and it's got to be good to be able to express happiness in the middle of a struggle.
A key line from one of the songs is " there's always a reason to always choose joy" Joy can be found in the midst of everything we go through and now more than ever we must put our trust in the Lord.
Psalm 28 v 7
7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.
At this time when we may well be in isolation or lockdown, we may be off work worrying about when we will get another wage or on the opposite side we may be working on the front line so to speak with a constant fear of contracting the virus. How we respond in these difficult circumstances is actually our choice, we can wither away in fear and doubt or we can go confidently into this unprecedented challenge knowing that when we hold on to the Lord Jesus and his promises, there is always a reason to smile. We still have so many blessings to count and when we smile we show that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
We may well feel we are in prison just now, remember Paul and Silas and remember one of our greatest witnesses is for us to live our lives with a positive attitude and a joyful heart. Something that shows those around us that they too can have the hope and joy of God's love.
God doesn't promise to spare us from pain, but we do need to trust in Him and the Lord Jesus and recognise that nothing compares to the greatness of knowing our Father and our Saviour.
So then in these difficult times we need to remember the joy we have in the Lord and smile, whether it's to ourselves, to someone 2 metres away from us or to someone at the other end of a video call, just smile.
When you think you can't
Get up and dance
There's a bigger plan
The storm only lasts for a while