Monday, May 07, 2007

“Coming to Our Senses”

2 Cor. 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32[1]

The story of the prodigal is so commonly told and retold that it has become commonplace in our society. But for all our sentimental attachment to it, I don’t think we as a culture have embraced one of its central points: there is only one way to find wholeness and peace and joy in this fallen world. That way is through brokenness. The one segment of our culture that has taken hold of this truth is found in the various twelve-step support groups. They know it as “hitting bottom,” but they know that it’s the only way to find freedom and true happiness.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is portrayed as a young man “coming to his senses.” He has wasted his fortune, he is starving, he has been reduced to feeding pigs—the most unclean of the unclean animals. And he’s so hungry he would eat the slop that he’s feeding them! But unless he “comes to his senses,” he cannot begin the journey back home. For many of us, the prime question we have to ask ourselves is what it will take for us to “hit bottom,” to “come to our senses,” to realize that we are starving.

The problem with this is that it all sounds to hard, so painful, so humiliating. And that it can be. But for most of us, the only way we ever find out that we’re headed in the wrong direction is to run headlong into a brick wall! And yet, as painful and difficult as it can be, most of those who experience this brokenness will say it was the best thing that ever happened to them. As one preacher puts it, “the paradox of conversion is that in the break-down there is a break-through—to a new experience of God and the human family.”[2]

The truth is that great freedom comes from brokenness. There is great freedom in acknowledging something you want to keep most secret about yourself—especially to someone you love and respect—and finding out they accept you unconditionally any way. There is great freedom in having your worst nightmare come true, and learning that you can live through it and come out on the other side stronger and happier.

For Paul, what provoked this life-changing crisis was his experience of God’s love in a way he had never known. In 2 Corinthians, he talks about the way his experience of the love of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ and the gift of wholeness through him re-oriented his whole outlook on life. In a very real sense, that’s what happens when we experience God’s forgiveness—unconditional, complete, unwavering, irrevocable acceptance. It creates in us the desire to change our ways.[3] When we are “grasped by the certainty that we are forgiven,” we learn to accept ourselves, to love others, and to enjoy life—perhaps for the first time!

In the light of that sunrise of a new day, Paul saw that his former point of view on pretty much everything was “flesh.” It was self-oriented, it was plagued by the burden of proving oneself by clawing one’s way to the “top” (wherever that might be), and it was occupied by the constant attempt to outdo somebody else in order to justify one’s own existence.

That was the perspective of the “self-righteous” religious people of Jesus’ day—they were the ones, like Paul, who had devoted their whole lives to doing God’s will. But the whole thing really boiled down to an elaborate attempt to justify themselves in God’s sight and everybody else’s. That kind of self-justifying “righteousness” misses the point of the gospel altogether. That’s why the older brother stays fuming out in the field when the father throws a party for the prodigal.

I must confess that I’ve never really been able to identify with the prodigal. Oh, I had my “prodigal moments” when I was a teenager like everybody else did. But I can honestly say that I have spent my life trying to do the “right thing.” I may not have always succeeded, but I did try!

The problem with that kind of “righteousness” is that it can blind us to our own fallenness—as if saying a few prayers or memorizing some Scriptures or going through the motions of rituals could possibly heal what is wrong with us! All of our efforts to do what is right become another means of hiding the ugly truth that we would rather keep secret. Yes, we all have ugly truth that we would rather keep secret.

So for me—and for those of you like me—the real challenge isn’t overcoming the guilt of some wretched past, but rather it is a matter of getting to the place where we, too, realize that God accepts us unconditionally, regardless of all our (mostly misguided) efforts to do the “right thing.”

Whether we are “prodigals” or “older brothers,” Lent brings us face to face with the reality of our sin so that we can find true freedom and wholeness.[4] It provokes in us an “awakening to the whole gospel”[5] in a way that completely re-shapes our whole life!

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/18/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Fr. Patrick Brennan, “From Conversion to Mission,” a sermon preached 3/7/1992, accessed at

[3] Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven …,” in The New Being, 3-14.

[4] Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:285-89.

[5] Brennan, “From Conversion to Mission.”

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