For Advent this year, we continued our family tradition of lighting candles at dinner. We talked about the names for Jesus, including the Light of the World. We read different versions of the Christmas Story and talked about what it must have been like for people waiting in the darkness.
Now, at my kids’ young ages, they can’t sit still for too long, and we ran the risk of an argument over whose turn it was to snuff the candles (a coveted task). But we got through it most nights, and the ritual was just as much for me as it was for them. The nightly candlelight helped me focus my own thoughts on waiting for Jesus to come. I also noticed the pull on my heart as I recalled the names of those I love who don’t yet know Jesus. I thought of people who yearn for a light they don't yet know...as well as people who feel like they have no need for the light Jesus offers.
At this point, several interconnected thoughts led me to pick up a copy of Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, a short book in which he expounds on the meaning of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son.
A couple of years ago, my church recommended this book for skeptics and seekers. I thought of it again last year, at a women’s retreat at Camp Berea in New Hampshire, when my eyes were opened to an interpretation of this parable that I hadn’t heard of before. Sure, I was familiar with the story of the prodigal son -- the son who demands his birthright, turns his back on his father, squanders his wealth, repents and is welcomed by his father with unconditional love. But I had always glossed over the story of the elder brother, whose pride keeps him from enjoying the party the father throws when the younger son returns. I wrote about the lesson I learned from that perspective -- to “be grateful that we are already home and to cultivate a heart of service.”
The younger son, for sure, spends everything he has, but the man, standing in for God in this story, acts similarly when he discards his reputation by accepting his wayward son and throws a lavish party in celebration of the son’s return.
And why does he do that?
Because the elder brother won't pay for the sins of the younger brother, even though that is his duty. Beyond that, his “pride in his moral record...his righteousness…[keep] him from sharing the feast of the father” to which he is invited, leaving him outside, alienated from God. (35)
Both sons are spiritually lost, one because he turned away from the law, and the other because he mistakenly saw the law as the whole point.
Consider this: “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have “rights.” God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior.” (37-8)
In telling this parable, “[Jesus] is on the side of neither the irreligious nor the religious, but he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition.” (130)
Fortunately, God, giving everything, provided a true elder brother in Jesus who stepped in for all of us when he came to earth and died on the cross. When we “acknowledge our need [for God’s love], rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ,” we can finally enter the feast. (89)
Keller explains that Jesus mentions a feast because he is a God who invites us to taste and see.
“He loves and cares for the material world. The fact of Jesus’s resurrection and the promise of a new heavens and new earth show clearly that he still cares for it. This world is not simply a theater for individual conversion narratives, to be discarded at the end when we all go to heaven. No, the ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering, and death. The climax of history is not a higher form of disembodied consciousness but a feast.” (110-111)
The gospel message wakes us up and lights a path through the darkness. During Advent, we remember how God gave it all to come to earth to reconcile us to him, whether we knew we needed him or not. Once we understand this prodigal God, it changes how we live.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knowing the gospel message allows us “to focus on how seriously God takes sin and on how he could only save us from it at infinite cost to himself. Understanding this must and will profoundly reshape our lives. We will not be able to live in a selfish, cowardly way. We will stand up for justice and sacrifice for our neighbor. And we won’t mind the cost of following after Christ when we compare it to the price he paid to rescue us.” (122)
This Advent, I reflected on the times I acted like a wayward son and on the times I acted like the moralistic elder brother. I have been both and am grateful that Jesus’s message “is a completely different spirituality...not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism...it is something else altogether…[where] everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change.” (45)
The news the angels brought was life-changing. God came to earth, spending everything to be with us. Knowing this, we celebrate big on Christmas. And I hope, someday, that those skeptics and seekers on my mind will join us at the feast.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.