By Joel A. Hess –
You’re preaching to the choir! We say this when someone says something we’ve already heard and know, when we think it’s a waste of time. Sadly, I have thought this many times, maybe even said it. This phrase enters my dumb head when I’m writing a sermon every week or when I listen to another preacher leave me with the basics: repent and believe the Good News.
We say this as if at some point we sinners actually get that Jesus died and rose for us. As if even the most seasoned and Bible-read believer doesn’t have a sin he’s afraid of, a fear she’s struggling with, a demonic voice whispering every day in his ear, “You’re going to pay for that.” Or worse, “You’re beyond that. You’re above that. You’re a good person.”
Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, or better titled the Reckless Father, teaches against any thought in a Christian’s head that he’s got the Gospel down. Often we are so focused on the youngest son’s sins and forgiveness that we see the conversation with the oldest son as a lesson on not being jealous.
Yet it is the oldest son’s absolute misunderstanding of his relationship with his dad that lies at the heart of the text. That older son is me. That boy was raised in the church. He sang in the choir. He volunteered on boards and gave 10% of his income. He technically never left his father. Yet he did leave his father way before the youngest.
He angrily tells his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”
For his whole life that poor kid thought his dad took care of him because he worked for it. What a sad father, son relationship! He didn’t see himself as a son, but as a slave.
The dad sets him straight. “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The oldest never left, but he had been lost for years! How dare I assume there are not oldest sons sitting in the pews, singing in the choir, showing up at every meeting, who are living like slaves instead of sons living in God’s grace.
The choir needs preaching too. The longtime member who has heard the Good News of God’s complete forgiveness and gift of sonship a million times needs to hear it again! Because no matter how long you have traveled from that baptismal font, you are still little daughter, helpless and poor, needing your father to hold you, clean you up, and tell you He loves you. Why does He love you? Because He does. It has nothing to do with your worth, your attendance, your labor, your growth in righteousness, or your beautiful voice singing in the choir. Relax, little child.
Many a church can talk about the Gospel well with strangers and lost sons, yet once they are in they are treated like slaves, preached to like slaves, talked to like hired hands, valued like Wall Street brokers.
As the youngest learned feeding pigs for barely nothing, nobody gives you anything in the world. Even though the youngest son thought he could work for his father’s love, he had something right. The father would take care of him. That’s how it works in his home.
That’s how it should work in the church, a place where people hear every time that gather, “Come to me all you who are wearied and heavy laden and I will give you rest!”
Damn that phrase. The choir needs preaching just like everyone else!