There is one scene in Bruce Almighty that I think gets to the core of the nature of God, whether the writers intended that or not. You see, Bruce is a bit self-involved, so when he gets divine powers, he abuses them. Eventually, he drives away his girlfriend, whose name is Grace. But even when Grace leaves him, Bruce thinks, hey, divine powers! I can totally fix this. So he goes to the school where Grace works and begs her to take him back. When she refuses, he goes into wizard mode and tries to exert his power on her. “Love me,” he whispers, then louder, “Love me,” and finally he’s yelling, “Love me!” Grace stares at him, dumbfounded, then says simply, “I did,” and walks away.
Bruce learns a hard lesson: you can’t make someone love you, even if you are God. It’s not even about God’s ability or power to do something—it’s just a contradiction in terms. Love that is forced is not love at all.
One of my favorite lines in the Over the Rhine song we just heard is the one where she calls Jesus a loser. Did you catch that? I’m sure we’ve all heard Jesus called lots of things, but you don’t normally hear “loser” ranked among the titles like “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace.” And yet, it is appropriate. Jesus fails. He dies abandoned by even his most trusted friends. Jesus is a loser.
But that’s just the point. God’s love is not a love that takes—it is all about giving away. We’re going to learn a new word tonight. Say this after me: “kenosis.” Congratulations, you just spoke Greek. Kenosis means self-emptying, the giving away that we see in God’s love offered to us in Jesus. Philippians 2 says that Jesus “emptied himself.” Jesus is a loser, and what he loses is himself, for all our sakes.
Now that we have a new vocabulary word, we’re going to relearn one that gets misused a lot. I’m talking about the word “prodigal.” Most of the time, it is used to mean “wayward,” like a troublemaker. We often associate it with this story from the Bible:
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’” (Luke 15:11-24)
This is known as the parable of the prodigal son. But Timothy Keller points out in his book The Prodigal God that the prodigality in this story isn’t really found in the younger son—it is found in the father. You see, “prodigal” actually means “spendthrift,” and although this certainly applies to the younger son’s financial management (or lack thereof), it is demonstrated even more profoundly in the unconditional love of his father. The father welcomes his son home even though he has broken all trust, and what’s more, he throws a party! This is a love that is reckless, spendthrift, and wasteful—it is prodigal love. It is a love that loses itself for the sake of the beloved.
That is how God loves us. God’s love is poured out in kenosis as a prodigal act that is neither effective nor efficient. God does not stop loving when God sees that we do not respond. God’s love is not about getting results. God’s love is simply that: love.
I’m reminded of another parable in the New Testament: the story of the sower.
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:3-9)
I’ve heard it said that this sower is a terrible farmer. If you’re trying to get plants to grow well, skip the path and the rocks and the thorns and just plant the seed in the good soil—that seems pretty basic.
But no, the sower just throws the seed everywhere he goes. Most of it doesn’t have a chance. That sower is a loser. He is a bad farmer. He is wasteful.
John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible—in many versions, it is simply “Jesus wept.” It is one of my favorite moments in the Bible. This is why: the image of God weeping is one of total waste—and that should give us great hope.
Let me set the scene. Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died, and he arrives to find his sisters Mary and Martha and all their family in deep mourning. Jesus already knows that he is going to heal Lazarus; he essentially promises this to Martha when he gets there. But when he sees Mary weeping, he does not comfort or reassure her. Instead, he weeps.
There are many lessons in here for how we should respond in times of grief, but I’m not going to go that far. I want to stop at the utter wastefulness of Jesus’ tears. Why would he cry? He is about to raise Lazarus from the dead, and he knows it—if I were him, I’d be giggling because I am terrible about blowing the punch line of a joke. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He meets his friends in their grief, and he weeps.
Jesus’ tears do not accomplish anything. The teardrops do not have healing power, and the time he spends crying could have been spent making sure Lazarus’ body doesn’t get to stinking any more than it already does. Jesus’ tears are a wasteful act of prodigal love in which he empties himself.
This, I think, might be a greater act of love even than raising Lazarus from the dead. Because, as my supervisor in my chaplain internship constantly reminded me, Lazarus eventually died again. In a way, you might even say that is another failure to mark up against Jesus the loser.
But in the losing, in the emptying, in the giving and the weeping, we meet a Savior who is all kenosis and prodigal love. We meet a God who invites rather than compels, who shuns all the best parenting advice and turns out to be a bad farmer. We meet a God who would never force us to love him, because he knows what love really is, because God is love.
Jesus is still my favorite loser. He fell for us all and offers us his blood and his tears. There is nothing that we must do in response—but if we choose to love him, we find that he has already loved us fully from eternity. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell