Sermon for March 31, 2019

Readings: Joshua 5:9-12 • Psalm 32:1-11 • 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 • Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

This week’s theme is God’s forgiveness leads to new beginnings. God tells Joshua that the disgrace of Egypt is in the past; Israel has a new beginning in Canaan. Psalm 32 tells us how blessed we are for having our sins covered. 2 Corinthians reminds us that we are a new creation because Christ became our sin and reconciled us to the Father. This week’s sermon takes a deeper look at story of the prodigal son, the elder brother and the father. Do we see ourselves in the story? Do we see the Father’s heart?

The Father’s Heart

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Introduction: Talk about a moment in your life that stands out where you felt nothing but the deep emotion of love—such as watching your spouse walk down the aisle, holding your newborn baby, walking your daughter down the aisle at her wedding, welcoming your soldier son home from the war.

There are moments in our lives that stand out in our memory because they are moments filled with deep emotion—moments when the love and affection God has placed in our hearts for our dear ones overflows in abundance. That is just a taste of the love between Father, Son and Spirit—and the love between our Triune God and you.

We were created in the image of God to be his image-bearers—to show his heart of love. However, we more often than not stubbornly resist our calling to bear witness to who God really is.

When humanity turned away from God, we turned away from the source of our life and being. We became a law unto ourselves, taking all God has given us for life and godliness and wasted it in self-indulgent and frivolous living. We as human beings, even in our efforts to be good people, often find ourselves in places we never meant to be.

Today we will look at a story in Luke 15 most of us are familiar with. Most of us see ourselves in the story of the prodigal son and his elder brother. My prayer is that we start to live more like the Father and share his heart.

Let’s begin in Luke 15:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).

Jesus was in the company of two groups of people. First were the tax collectors and sinners—a group considered the outcasts of society, unworthy of Jesus’ time by the second group of people, the scribes and the Pharisees.

Some of us have been more like the first group throughout our lives—we know we are sinners who need forgiveness. We gather around Jesus to learn how to change and how to live.

Others may be more like the second group, believing they live pretty good lives. “I’ve followed God all my life. I would never do anything unholy or inappropriate. I would never be unfaithful to my spouse. I make sure I put something in the offering every Sunday, and I’m good to my family. I help out in the community, and I faithfully attend Bible study.” They gather around Jesus to find a way to trick him, or to look down on others. “Lord, there are so many people who don’t even do half the things I do for the church and for other people.”

To both groups, Jesus tells the parable.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living (Luke 15:11-13).

In essence, the younger son said the equivalent of, “Dad, I wish you were dead. I’m tired of waiting for my inheritance.” The father didn’t seem to take offense (as no doubt the scribes and the Pharisees would have) and yielded to his younger son’s demand.

The son immediately went out and wasted his inheritance on things that were a scandal to the people of that day. A rich man’s son who wasted his father’s inheritance was despised by society, and considered worthy of beating, rejection, or worse—maybe even death.

If we are honest with ourselves, we ought to admit that as humanity we are very much like this prodigal son. Each of us qualifies as a sinner—as the one who in seeking life has squandered our heavenly Father’s inheritance on loose and decadent living. Rather than finding our real life, we have brought upon ourselves death. Starving for the real life, we are often satisfied with pig slop.

I would guess this story hit the hearts of the sinners and tax collectors—they no doubt identified with the younger son in his struggles. Then Jesus gave the story a twist:

After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father (Luke 15:14-19).

The son came to one of his lowest points—and this can happen to us as well. We get to the point we start to question what our existence is all about. This is the best place for any of us to come to—not that we want to end up as a slave slopping pigs, but that we come to our senses. God wants each of us to come to the realization of who we really are. We are not lost, forsaken, starving slaves. We are so much more!

So, this son, realizing he could at least get a job and some food from his father, heads home. Was he done with his wasteful ways? Probably not. We’d like to think so, but Jesus doesn’t say that the son has changed. Jesus merely says that the son has headed home because at least there he’d have a decent meal, even if he’d have to work for it.

What is clear is the prodigal son doesn’t really know or understand his father. Even though he “came to himself,” he still didn’t know who he was—the beloved son of his father. He expected his father’s judgment and condemnation, so he prepared himself to be placed in the role of a hired servant who would need to work to earn whatever he received from his father.

Jesus next begins to describe the father’s heart.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).

This is the truth about how Abba feels about us: the father stands on his front porch, peering down the road, scanning the horizon for any glimpse of his son. In this story, the father isn’t in the field working, nor is he in the barn working the cattle. No, that is what the older son is doing. The father is on his porch waiting in anticipation of his younger son’s return.

When his son appeared in the distance, the father knew that shape, that walk so well, he swept up his robes and began to run in the most undignified way to meet him. He did not expect anything from his son—it was enough that he had come home again.

Jesus is painting a picture for us to see our Father as the Abba who is waiting in anticipation for the day when we will come back to our senses and return to him. He is not holding a long list of our faults and shortcomings, nor does he have an agenda we must follow in order to get right with him. All he asks is that we show up—and he will do all the rest.

The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate (Luke 15:21-24).

Just as the father in Jesus’ story takes his son in his arms, Abba welcomes us into his embrace when we turn to him in repentance and faith. He knows the only reason we are there is because we have come to ourselves, we have come to see the truth about how far we have fallen from who we were created to be. And we have come to this place only because of his Son—the Son of God who went into a far country and brought us home to the Father.

Jesus, the Son of God, sat among the sinners, describing for them this amazing relationship that he, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, was including them in. The Father, who longed for each sinner’s return, would in Jesus provide for them a place of dignity and honor: a new robe of righteousness in place of the tattered garments of sin and death; instead of the bare feet of a slave, brand new sandals of peace; and above all, the signet ring of our own inclusion in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relationship. As God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ left the glories of heaven, went to the far country of our humanity, shared in our broken humanity, so we could share in all that was his—this was what God intended from the beginning for you and me and everyone else who has ever lived.

I’m sure the tax collectors and sinners saw themselves in this story. But what about the Pharisees? I believe it was for them—and many of us today who believe we don’t have anything to repent of—that Jesus continued:

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered 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!” 

“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” (Luke 15:28-32).

The older son saw himself as a faithful worker. No doubt he was rehearsing in his mind every fault, and everything this brother had ever done wrong. He probably recalled every injury that had been inflicted on him in the past and was thinking about how unfair and unjust his father was. How often do Christians spend more time judging someone’s past than celebrating their forgiveness? Do I do that? Do you?

The truth is, the older brother was just as far away from home as the younger brother. He too had a mistaken concept of who his father was, and who he was as his father’s son. He also needed to “come to himself,” to “come to his senses.”

Can you see how Jesus was dealing with both extremes of misunderstanding our Father’s motives and heart? Jesus was pointedly showing the scribes and Pharisees their own evil hearts and motives because this was the way in which they were responding to the tax collectors and sinners coming to Jesus. They were just as guilty as those whom they rejected as the lost and the least, the unclean and unforgiven.

Their law-keeping and endless religious traditions did not give them special privileges in their relationship with God. They were not God’s special people because of anything they did—that was not the standard God used. The Jews were God’s people simply because he chose them and had claimed them as his own, giving them the right as firstborn to all that was his. The older brother was beloved by his father, not because of his performance, but simply because of who he was—the son of the father.

It is critical to see that Jesus not only goes into the far country to bring home lost sinners, but he also is the one who stands in our place as our older brother, the Anointed One to whom Abba has given all that is his. Abba has placed all things under Jesus’ feet because he went into the far country and brought us home to the Father. In so many words, Jesus was saying to the scribes and Pharisees, you are the ones to whom all has been given. But can’t you see—these were dead, but now in me they have new life? These were lost and forsaken, but in me, they have been brought home. Jesus knew this was why he had come—to include every human being in the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

No one would be excluded—so the scribes and Pharisees needed to understand 1) no one was left out of God’s grace, and 2) they were just as much in need of grace as the tax collectors and sinners they despised and condemned.

Just as Jesus stands in the place of the prodigal, Jesus also stands in the place of the older son. He hears the Father’s words as Abba says all I have is yours, so let’s welcome home all who were lost but now are found and all who were dead but now who in you are alive.

Jesus leaves this story with the audience hanging—will the older son repent and change? Will he accept his prodigal brother and welcome him back home? Would the scribes and the Pharisees repent of their refusal to forgive and accept the sinners and tax collectors? Would they, as recipients of God’s grace freely offer that grace to others?

And that brings us to ask: Will we, as those for whom Christ lived, died, and rose again, share what we have been given with others? Will we be as gracious to others as God has been to us? These are questions worth wrestling with.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  1. Share a moment in your life when you felt a deep emotion of love.
  2. What do you think it means that we are to be image-bearers of God?
  3. As we began the sermon, did you relate more to the tax-collectors and sinners, or to the Pharisees and scribes?
  4. As you read, or heard, the story of the prodigal son, where did you see yourself? Why?
  5. Share what it means to hear the Father is willing to run to you.
  6. What would you say to the older brother if you’d been in the story?
  7. Read 2 Cor. 5:16-21. What does “New creation” mean to you? Explain being reconciled to the Father.
  8. Read Psalm 37 and discuss what verses stand out to you and why.

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