My first job after college was for one of those large mall anchor stores. I worked in one of the clothing departments, eventually making my way to one of the specialty shops that focus on a certain brand. Part of working that section of the department involved being able to fold the shirts a particular way, every time. I learned.
A few years later I was working for a different retailer in another state. This retailer offered their customers gift wrapping. It turns out that in addition to folding shirts the right way, I can wrap a gift well, from small boxes to awkward large framed prints. Using minimal tape, I could make sharp and even lines with the paper. I came to be the go to wrapper when I was on shift.
Ten years later, I was still folding my shirts the way I did for those two months in that specialty shop. And I am the gift wrapper in my house. My wife can’t figure out how I can start with a new roll of tape and not have to ask for a new roll halfway through the first gift.
The thing is, we like to have our stuff neat and presentable. Well-wrapped gifts give the aura of luxury. We like that. And it doesn’t just go for gifts. We want our books, magazine articles, television shows, and life events to all wrap up nicely. I have never watched Lost or The Sopranos, but I know plenty of people who were less than satisfied by their finales. They didn’t wrap neatly.
Tonight, I attended a cantata/passion play/musical/Easter extravaganza at a large church in our vicinity. It was well done. The singers were great. The set was phenomenal. The tremendously large cast told the story well. It was everything it was supposed to be, I guess. But I left dissatisfied.
You see, it all wrapped up so nicely and neatly. The boy retelling us the prodigal son story had everything put back together in a satisfying way by the end. It was all pleasant and full of hope and loaded with both redemption and forgiveness. Which is exactly what we think we have to tell people to get them to accept the Good News.
Only that is completely wrong. (We are supposed to “TELL” the Good News not “get people to accept it.”)
Well, that’s not completely wrong. The Gospel IS full of forgiveness and redemption. But that doesn’t mean that life wraps up all nicely and neatly. Just because Job got back double what he lost doesn’t mean God is going to do that for us. Besides, does having fourteen more children really somehow replace the first seven? I could have ten more kids and love them very deeply, but nothing would ever “fix” life if something happened to the ones I have now.
You see, the Passion Play forgot that the prodigal’s older brother does not accept him back. The father pleads with him to, but we don’t get the older son’s response when Jesus tells the parable in Luke 15. The play forgets that our call is not to our version of a perfectly redeemed and restored happy life on our terms. It is to taking our cross, so vividly portrayed in this evening’s presentation, and following Him. Crosses lead to Golgothas, in case you forgot that.
The play forgets that following Jesus does not get us all the relationships with family that we want. No, we are to reject our father and mother, sister and brother. In fact, we are to expect them to turn their backs on us and hand us over to unforgiving governments.
The play forgot that Job, for all of his questions and anger, realized his place and would have gone on worshipping God even if nothing Satan had taken away ad ever been restored. God was good and worthy of worship no matter his condition.
The play forgot that life isn’t always neat and tidy. Healing, restoration, and full redemption are reserved for the next life, not this one.
The measure of deep faith isn’t what gets us the life everyone else groans for and weeps over when the testimony is given. Faith is measured when, like the psalmist in Psalm 42, we are faced with a terrible life away from the beauty of the temple, and yet we choose God anyway.
Life isn’t always neat and tidy. In fact, usually it isn’t. Cancer wins. Divorces are finalized. Money runs out. War happens. Earthquakes and fire devastate. Children die.
Faith demands that even when life is ugly, we choose God anyway.
That’s the Good News. He is there. And He is worth it. Even in the mess.