Monday, 11 May 2009

A prodigal culture?

Our church magazine article this month...

Bethan and I recently discussed our messy garden: “We’ll keep the front garden tidy, because that is the one people see. We don’t need to worry too much about the back!”

These last months, we have been made particularly aware that this is how many of us order our lives. We keep our exterior respectable, whilst inwardly displaying all sorts of moral mess. So we find that businessmen who have been knighted, yet have made dubious decisions to the detriment of others. And we now find that even our leading politicians have stretched their expenses claims in a way that may be legal, but is certainly dishonest.

Of course it is too easy to see the problem as only in others. We should remember that these people are people just like us, and we would be naïve to assume that in the same position we would be squeaky clean. Indeed, the more I visit people, the more I find that all of us have our demons: respectable couples who treat each other atrociously behind the scenes, respectable people pulled into a dark world on the internet, or who speak of others in private as they never would in public. Sin has never been a popular Christian belief, but its existence is indisputable.

In our sermons last month, we’ve been looking at Jesus’ famous story of the Prodigal Son in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. The son asks his father for his share of his inheritance, leaves the family, travels to a distant country, and then blows his inheritance on wild living. He ends up with nothing, far from home, with no-one to help, tending pigs and starving to death.

Jesus intended the story to illustrate those who have turned from God. And the more I talk to people, the more fitting it seems. So many want God’s gifts – a pleasant world, a long life, abilities, intelligence, success and money – yet they don’t want him. So they distance themselves from him. They refuse to believe in him or simply ignore him. Yet without him, more often than not, they end up in a desperate mess. Living as they please rather than as God pleases, living with no thought for his Fatherly wisdom, we so often hurt ourselves or others and end up broken, struggling and lonely.

Numerous people are asking what has happened to our culture. But at the end of a century in which it has largely turned from Christ and Christianity, could it be that Jesus’ parable holds the answer? Can I suggest that our culture, and those within it are experiencing the fall-out of life without the God who is there?

Fortunately the parable does not end with the son at rock-bottom. The next phrase from Jesus is worth much reflection: “When he came to his senses…” The wayward son realised his predicament, remembered the kindness of his father, and returned to him with deep sorrow for all he had done. Now Jesus’ hearers would have expected the story to end with the father then rejecting the son for his behaviour and the shame he brought on the family. But instead, the Father runs to him, embraces him and restores him to a place of honour within his family.

So there is hope. Jesus calls all people everywhere to return to God in the way that he taught. And to those who do, he promised God’s forgiveness, an everlasting life and help in putting our lives back together now. We have found a number start coming to our churches who are wonderfully experiencing just this.