Life FOR God [Luke 15:25-32]
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Life FOR God – 10.09.2022
This is the final sermon in our series called WITH, based on the brilliant book from Skye Jethani of the same name. This series is for those who love Jesus, but have always wondered if there wasn’t something missing from their connection to God. Even admitting that can feel like a failure of sorts. To look around at church, to look at our spiritual journey and wonder if we’ve got some piece of it wrong. Every week we have looked at a different approach to our relationship with God – every week we have seen ourselves, at least in part, we have seen the mistakes of our faith journey. We have substituted an authentic relationship WITH God for these lesser options. And I’ve seen myself a little bit every week so far. But today? This is the chapter that was written for me. Today we are going to dive into the Life FOR God posture and see what we can do to move from that unhealthy position to actually living life WITH God. A Life FOR God posture is built around the idea that you are valuable to God ONLY if you can produce for God. These are the super volunteers – right? God’s love is connected to how much we DO for him. Phil Vischer, best known as the creator of Veggie Tales, and the voice of Bob the tomato – this guy was raised in a life FOR God posture. I mean, he CREATED Veggie tales – which were incredibly successful Christian home videos that taught bible stories with vegetables. Weird – but really fun. He said the heroes in his community were “the Rockefellers of the Christian world” – these are Christians who launched massive ministries or transformed the whole nation. Vischer believed that impact was everything. How many people did you invite to church? How many souls have you won? How big is your church? How many people will be in heaven because of your efforts? Impact was everything. The mission is everything. But then in 2003, Phil lost his company, and he began to question the validity of the Life FOR God posture. He writes, “The more I dove into Scripture, the more I realized I had been deluded. I had grown up drinking a dangerous cocktail – a mix of the gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream…The Savior I was following seemed, in hindsight, equal parts Jesus, Ben Franklin and Henry Ford. My eternal value was rooted in what I could accomplish.” (p90) Going through a professional crisis forced Phil to confront the Life FOR God posture – but he’s not the only one. Pastors fall victim to this mindset constantly! Dave Johnson is a pastor of a church called Open Door near Minneapolis, Minnesota. When he got to his church back in 1980, it was this tiny thing. But after twelve years of hard work for God, the congregation had grown into a megachurch. He did it! He wins the church game! He said in an interview, “I was empty. I was ready to quit if I didn’t collapse first. I remember getting a plaque from some organization for being one of the ten fastest-growing churches in the city. But inside we were a mess. My personal life was a mess.” You see Johnson believed that having a healthy soul and a successful ministry didn’t go together. If you were going to serve God, you needed to sacrifice, and so you had to be miserable. After a while, he and some of the church leaders took the plaque that said, “congrats, top ten fastest growing church in the city” into the woods and put it on a tree, and shot it full of holes with a rifle. They had come to hate what it stood for. I heard another story of a famous pastor who built his church up into this giant success story. Thousands of people at multiple services every Sunday – and in between services he would go into his office and hide in a closet and just weep, where no one could find him.
The mission, the ministry becomes the most important thing. Skye writes, “Leaders may be burning out at a rate of fifteen hundred per month, young people may be riddled with anxiety, and divorce rates in the church may be rising and families falling apart, but no one seems to stop and ask whether this is really what God intended the Christian life to be.” (p92) Life FOR God was the most relatable posture the book talks about. For so many of us, a life of service, of doing things for God – that’s the only way we know how to connect with him. But there might actually be an even better way to live Life WITH God. Let’s take a look.
With each posture, in order to better understand, we’ve used these little pictures that Skye jots down in the book. There’s this picture of an apple, which represents the world we live in, and if we were to peel back the layers of the apple – each posture expects something different. (It comes from the Isaac Newton apple falling from the tree thing). With Life UNDER God, if you peel back the layers of the universe you’ll find God’s will – and so appeasement becomes the best method. With Life OVER God, if we peel back the layers we find natural laws – and so discovering principles is the best method. With Life FROM God, peeling back the layers of the universe shows us ourself. Consumer culture focused on our needs. But with Life FOR God, if you peel back the apple, you will discover the MISSION. A Life FOR God is probably the favorite method for pastors, we spend a lot of time trying to make “Life FOR God” churches. We want to move people from being “spectators into participants.” We want to motivate people to become servant hearted and become an outward focused church. We have this odd thought in the church that stuff you do for church is more important than stuff you do for your family or for your secular workforce. In fact, there are some who literally will applaud when someone moves from the secular workforce to the religious workforce. I’m not really sure where it started, but for most of us in the room people seem to think my job is more honorable than yours. You only get to volunteer and work for God, maybe a couple hours a week – but I get to do it all the time, and that means I’m better than you in God’s eyes. It’s the same line of thought that has people believing that my prayers are more effective than yours. People will tell me, “Pastor will you pray for me, or pray for this thing I’m going through.” And they don’t mean – will you join me in my petition before the lord. And I love that. I love praying for someone when they are in need, to join them on our knees before our loving God – that’s beautiful. But they don’t mean that, they mean, “I gotta get you to pray for me, because if you say it, it’ll work.”
Life FOR God is an attempt at being relational, we’re not being consumers, we’re not trying to manipulate God – it’s a really good effort, but it still misses the target. One thing we’ve talked about in this sermon series is the way a lot of our efforts to connect with God come from our fears and our desires for control. The problem is, if we obsess about the mission – if we fixate on changing the world for Jesus – we still miss having an actual connection with Jesus. Skye writes, “Life for God takes our fear of insignificance and throws gasoline on it. The resulting fire may be presented to the world as a godly ambition, a holy desire to see God’s mission advance…But when these flames are fueled by fear, they reveal none of the peace, joy or love…The relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.” And once again we see how trying to connect with God it’s a good thing – but it can get all twisted up. Every week in this series, there are pieces to every posture, every approach to God that are really good. There’s nothing wrong in serving in the church. There’s nothing wrong with volunteering and being servant hearted. That’s a beautiful thing. But if that work is pursued without God – it becomes soul-sucking instead of life giving. There’s a guy name Gordon MacDonald, he calls it missionalism. The belief that the worth of your life is determined by how useful you are to God’s grand objective. The idea that your value and God’s love in your life is bought with how much you do – missionalism. I actually had a dear friend get in an accident one time, and they were going to have limited mobility. And he said to me, in his hospital bed he said, “I’m so disappointed, I’m just no good to God anymore.” But that’s a broken understanding of how much God loves you for you. Gordon says, “Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader’s attitude. Before long the mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means. The family goes; health is sacrificed, integrity is jeopardized; God-connection is limited.” Life FOR God is an attempt at a relationship, but it’s still driven by the wrong pieces.
We see this in our scripture text for this morning. The prodigal son story which we looked at last week, starts out with a father who has two sons. One son lives life FROM God, valuing the gifts over the giver and we talked about that last week. And most of us stop there as if that’s the main story. But there is a second half of the story. There are two sons of the father. The younger son was a jerk – he wasted his father’s money and then came home humbled. The father welcomes him with open arms and they have a party. [read v.25-29]. Now, again – this story, just like last week this story is one that most Christians have heard over and over and over. And to be honest, does anybody else just a little bit – like, TOTALLY agree with the older brother? What do you mean he squandered all your money and then you forgave him? This is peak older brother mentality. I’m an oldest brother, and oldest siblings are very good at making sure justice is done in the house. Vengeance must be exacted on the younger sibling – they did wrong. The younger brother is more famous, he’s known as the prodigal son – but most Christians actually identify with the older brother. We are offended by the level of forgiveness that the Father would give to his jerk young son. But what I want you to realize today is that the older son is just as lost as his little brother.
But look at the Father’s response, [read v.31-32]. The value of the older brother was not his obedience – it was his presence. The father loved his children – regardless of disobedience or obedience. The father loved his children and wanted them to be with him. The son’s PRESENCE was where the value is found, not his service. That’s what God cares about the most. The service we give to God is awesome, it’s a beautiful thing – but that’s not why God loves you. He loves you for you, as a blessed child. Your presence with him is the true value. The gifts are a blessing and yeah - his work is important – obedience is a big deal. But none of that can replace the ultimate goal – which is just to simply be present WITH God. Skye puts it like this, “Jesus was not diminishing the older son’s obedience, just as he was not endorsing the younger son’s immorality. He was showing that both the Life FROM God and the Life FOR God postures fail to capture what God truly desires for his people.”(p94) “While the sons were fixated on their father’s wealth, the father was fixated on his sons.”(p95)
The good news this morning is that God’s love is un-earnable. And I think that marks four weeks in a row where I have just ended up making up a word to try and capture this. But God’s love is un-earnable. There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love. There is no mission, no project, no volunteer hours that makes you more valuable to God. You are already infinitely valuable, valuable enough that he would send his son to die for you. I honestly think that my secret job description is honestly to just spend week after week trying to convince you that God actually loves you. Because our hearts rebel against it. For everyone else in life – they earn our love, or we earn their love. But God’s love is so unfathomable. So freely available that we can’t stand it – we can hardly believe it. There is no mission that gets God to love you, God’s love, God’s grace, God’s presence is un-earnable, waiting for you to accept it into your heart.
Just this past week, last Monday we had Lois Griffin’s funeral. And her daughter Kathy told a story. She said, in the last few months – she sat down and talked to her mom. Kathy wanted to make sure Lois was prepared for what was coming next. And she asked her mom, “Mom, do you know where you’re going when you die? Are you going to heaven?” And Lois’ response was, “Oh, I hope I’ve been good enough. I tried in my life to do enough, to be enough.” And Kathy told this story on Monday, she looked at her mom and said, “Mom, I can promise you – you have no been good enough. Not even close.” The whole room laughed. She went on to explain that salvation doesn’t depend on our good deeds, but on God’s good grace. She explain the gospel message of Jesus’ love – nothing earned. And if you knew Lois, she was a pretty enthusiastic lady, and so she went around telling everyone she bumped into that day – I have accepted Jesus as my savior and I’m going to heaven, not because I did good stuff but because God is good and I have God in my heart…” And she would just bubble that gospel good news, even over the phone to anyone who would listen.
Serving God is a really great thing – like serving a friend, or serving your spouse, someone you love. We sacrifice and serve, because we love God. But it’s not the source of love. It’s not the reason for love. God’s love is un-earnable, freely given through Jesus Christ – waiting for you to come and take ahold of it. If you give your life to Jesus, and live life WITH God – that love will pour over your life in unending ways.
My challenge for you today, the thing I want you to take with you from here into this week – I want you to EXPERIENCE God. To understand this, we need to back up for a second. Do you remember the apple pictures? If we peaked behind the curtain of the universe – what’s there? And every week we have talked about what is NOT behind the curtain. If we peel back the layers – will we find divine will? Natural law? Personal Desire? Global Mission? No, if you peel back the layers of the universe – what you will find is God existing in relationship with God. If that makes no sense to you – let’s talk about the trinity for a second. Christians understand that God is one God, with three persons – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They have all three always existed, they are all God, but they are distinct persons. So God exists in relationship with himself. All the time, eternally. The Father loves the son, the son loves the Father, the Holy Spirit loves them both. Not to make your head explode, but when we say that God is love – I’m not grabbing an adjective, I’m saying that God is literally love, always loving in a constant relationship contained in the divine trinity. God didn’t make us because he needed us. God was existing in perfect completeness, in this unending cycle of love inside the trinity and that love overflowed from God into the universe as the process we call creation. And so when things went sour in God’s creation, with the fall of humanity, the response makes so much sense. Skye puts it like this, “God’s plan to restore his creation was not to send a list of rules and rituals to follow (Life UNDER God), nor was it the implementation of useful principles (Life OVER God). He did not send a genie to grant us our desires (Life FROM God), nor did he give us a task to accomplish (Life FOR God). Instead God himself came to be WITH us – to walk with us once again as he had done in Eden in the beginning.” (p101) Do you see it? Jesus is the ultimate divine set-up for life WITH God. John Piper put it like this, “The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t’ want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.” (p109) This week I want you to experience God. Come close to Jesus, get to know him and let him know you. Talk to him – pray everyday. Bring him your troubles, bring him your sins – bask in the comfort of his forgiveness. Let Jesus be the greatest thing that has ever happened in your life. Experience God. Be like the older brother who puts down his pile of work, and just hangs out with his dad.
Life for God sounds admirable. And it has chewed up and spit out SO MANY great Christian leaders. Really all the postures sound good – and you can see yourself in every single one. Ask yourself – am I sinner who needs to appease God through strict rituals? Am I a manager who has the divine manual and need to implement God’s principles? Am I a consumer – expecting God to fulfill my needs and expectations? Am I a servant – a worker whose sense of value is connected to what you can accomplish for God? Are you a sinner, a manager, a consumer a servant – or are you a child of God? Beloved because of who you are – not anything you do. Let me leave you with this. In a world where there are so many ways to try and riddle out faith and figure out God – may you just simply live life WITH God. May you put aside the frantic efforts to make yourself valuable to God and just experience God’s un-earned love. In short, what I’ve been trying to say all along – May you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and your strength. It might just be the first and greatest thing you do. Amen.