11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.
13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.
17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.[a]’
22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’
28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’
31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”
For the last several weeks we have been talking about the importance of stories. Each person here has a story that began even before you were born and which is still being written. These personal stories are important to us, particularly when we have a chance to tell them to other people. Our stories convey more that information about our lives; they also provide a picture of our character, our dreams, our relationships, and how we view ourselves. But no story is formed or told in isolation. Our individual stories intertwine in places, and where they intersect new stories develop. It is important for us to recall our individual and communal stories, so that we can remember where we come from and dream about our future. But sometimes, we get so wrapped up in our own small stories, that we forget there is a much greater narrative that has been unfolding all around us that includes us all – the story of God and his kingdom.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he gave the people around him glimpses of this bigger story, through the miracles that he worked and the challenging words that he spoke to them. And every now and then, he used parables to illustrate and explain these pieces of God’s story that he was showing to them.
So far, we have heard Jesus speak about praying with perseverance to receive an answer from God. We have learned about the difference between paying lip service to God’s commands and true faithfulness to them. And then we heard a series of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God; how to identify it around us, how it is spreading throughout the world, how valuable the kingdom really is, and how we can enter into the kingdom. Through these parables, Jesus has painted a picture of who God is, what his kingdom looks like, and how we can become citizens.
Today, we are going to finish this series by looking at the final piece of the puzzle. We know that we have our own stories as individuals and as a group, and we know the story of God and his kingdom. But where do our stories fit within His? What part do we play in God’s bigger narrative? What character represents us in the tale?
II. Lost Things
At the beginning of Luke 15, we find that Jesus has been doing the unthinkable. He has been visiting, teaching, and even eating with sinners. And he has been doing so publicly. This is something no self-respecting Rabbi would do, and the Pharisees were worried it was making them all look bad. They considered this just one more reason that Jesus was a threat. You see, they had somehow forgotten that faithfulness to God required more of them than avoidance of sin. They were called to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” so that they might enjoy God’s blessings and become a light to the nations. But somewhere along the way the religious leaders had traded justice, mercy, and humility had been traded for power, self-centeredness, and pride. In doing so, they also forgot the call of God to seek out those who were far apart from God, and point them toward him. Known sinners were considered second-class citizens. They were unclean, which made them untouchable.
Jesus had already told them that he hadn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:32). But they still didn’t seem to get it. Those people who were broken and far away from God were the very ones these religious leaders were supposed to love. But they had forgotten the heart of the Law in their pursuit of outward adherence to it. So, Jesus once again sat down to tell a series of parables describing the worth of one who is lost.
He spoke first of a shepherd who, upon learning that one of his sheep was lost, left the entire flock to go searching for it in the wilderness. And when he found it, he carried it home and then called together all his friends to celebrate that he had found his lost sheep. And then he talked about a woman who had ten coins, then lost one of them. When she discovered its absence, she searched high and low, not stopping in her pursuit until she found the lost coin. Then she called her neighbors to tell them the good news, so that they could celebrate with her.
If the people listening to Jesus could imagine the urgent desperation of a lost sheep or coin, and if they could envision the join of finding what was lost, why couldn’t they picture what it must be like for God, when one of his lost children is found and brought home to him? But they couldn’t see it. They couldn’t get past their prejudice, and they couldn’t remember what it was like to be alone in the wilderness. They couldn’t picture themselves as last things, and they couldn’t picture those who were lost as valuable and worthy of pursuit. So, Jesus told them a third parable; this one about a father and his sons.
[Read Luke 15:11-16]
- The second (younger) son.
The first character we learn about in this story is the younger son. He is impetuous and impatient, ready to leave his father’s house and experience all the excitement he believes life on the outside can offer. So, he approaches his father and demands his inheritance. His father consents, and he takes what is given, leaves home, and then squanders it all seeking worldly pleasures, without responsibility.
Before long his money runs out, and so do his options. He is in a foreign land and a famine has hit, making it even harder to find food. Though he is able to find work with a farmer, his desperation is made clear when we read that he was taking care of pigs, which were unclean animals, and dreaming of eating the food he was giving to them, because nobody was offering him anything to eat. He was totally neglected, destitute, and without hope. He has run away from the protection of his father’s home, has turned away from everything he has been taught to do, and has gotten himself into a terrible situation that he doesn’t have the ability to overcome on his own.
Have you ever felt completely stuck? Have your circumstances ever gotten so bad that you couldn’t see a way out? Have you ever been exhausted with how things are and hungry for something to change, but didn’t know how to make that happen? How did it make you feel? Were you scared? Were you heartsick? Have you ever just looked around you and declared that you are done, that you just can’t take it anymore? If you have ever experienced a season of hopelessness, you are not alone.
The Bible tells us that we have all been stuck like this at some point. And that feeling of being stuck began with our first parents. So, it should come as no surprise to us that the second son represents each one of us here this morning, at some point in our lives. Even those of us who were born and raised in the church have been guilty of taking liberties with God’s promises and have squandered them through disobedient living. The Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standards of holiness; we have all been disobedient at one time or another. Through our disobedience we damaged our relationship with God to the extent that we became slaves to sin and were unable to please God on our own. In other words, because we are sinners, we have all gotten ourselves into a situation that we have no power to overcome on our own. We need help. We need a Savior. But sometimes we don’t see our need until our situation is so dire that we have exhausted every other option; until we are starving and alone, like the second son, some of can’t admit the seriousness of our situation.
Fortunately, God offers each of us an opportunity to see our reality for what it is. He enables us to catch glimpses of our dilemma through his prevenient grace, and he prompts us to look toward him for our help. In the parable, Jesus said that the second son “came to his senses”.
[Read Luke 15:17-19]
In other words, the second son became aware of how bad his situation was and recognized that he couldn’t fix it. Even more profoundly, he realized that he had a father at home who loved him and who even took good care of his hired servants, so that they didn’t have any needs. But it is one thing to have an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and another thing entirely to act on it. His remembrance of his father’s kindness and his recognition of his own disobedience would have meant nothing, if he had simply allowed them to pass without acting. But the story says that he did act, by deciding to seek out his father and repent of his sins.
Just like the second son, we each have an opportunity to not only recognize our perilous situation, but to do something about it. The Bible says that when we confess our sins to God, he is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all wickedness (1 John 1:9), and if we openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved (Romans 10:9). Repentance is confession and belief. These are action words. And while it’s true that we can’t do anything to earn our salvation, and like the second son are incapable of fixing the mess we are in, we are invited to respond to God’s offer of free grace, through acceptance, confession, and belief.
Now, the second son had made up his mind to do something about his situation. He had a plan, and had decided to act on it. Up to this point, we might assume that this lost or prodigal son is the main character in the story. Don’t we often think of ourselves that way, too? How often do we view the things around us as though we are the central character? How often do we form opinions, make judgments, or take actions with self-interest as our primary motivation? But we quickly learn in the next section that this story, like the entire Bible, is really less about humanity than it is about God, who in this case is represented by the father.
[Read Luke 15:20-24]
- The Father (the main character).
We learn three things about the father from this passage. First, Jesus said that while the son was still far away, his father saw him coming. If you have ever felt like you have walked too far away from God to ever find your way back to him, then verse 20 is for you. The reason the father in this story was able to see his son coming from far off is because he was still there waiting and looking for his return. The father had never lost hope that his son would return to him, and he was actively scanning the horizon in hopes that he would catch a glimpse of his beloved. In the same way, the whole Bible tells the story of our Heavenly Father, who has laid out the welcome mat for his children and who continually scans the horizon, waiting for our return to his household. He will never grow weary of searching for us, and he will never lose hope that we will return to him. Every moment that you have spent wandering in the wilderness apart from God, he has spent preparing a welcome for your return.
The second thing we learn from this passage is that the Father forgives completely. When he saw his son in the distance, the father didn’t start grumbling to himself about all ways he had been a disappointment. He didn’t start making a list of wrongs to toss in his son’s face. He didn’t start planning retribution. What did he do? Jesus said that he threw off all his inhibitions and ran – he didn’t walk, he ran – to embrace his son and kiss his face. It didn’t matter to him what had happened before, it didn’t matter that his son had squandered his inheritance, it didn’t matter that he had lived a reckless life. All that mattered was that his son was home again, safe and sound, and the father couldn’t wait to hold him in his arms.
The son came prepared to repent of his sins and ask for a place as a servant in his father’s house. But after confessing what he had done and proclaiming his unworthiness to be called a son, the father interrupted him by telling his servants to cloth him like a prince and to call together the entire family to celebrate his return. The son was hoping to find a place as a servant in his father’s house, but the father’s response was to welcome him as his child.
Friends, this is exactly how our Heavenly Father responds to us, when we turn to him in faith, through Jesus blood. It doesn’t matter what we have done, what inheritance we have squandered, what life we have led; when we turn to him in confession and faith, he welcomes us into his household as a child of the King. He clothes us in righteousness, and gives us a new share in his inheritance, along with a place in his kingdom today and every day. This is the great God we serve. And this is why we give him all glory and honor and praise. Once we were lost, but now we are found, through faith in his son Jesus. All our sins are forgotten. They have been left on the cross, and we have been given new life in the Spirit. Amen!
The third thing we learn about the Father, is that he loves to party. Now, there are plenty of people in the world who find this hard to believe. In fact, I’d say we have largely forgotten this inside the church, too. Because when I look around at most Christians, the last thing I think is “there goes a person that loves to party”. Nevertheless, the Bible uses a lot of party analogies to talk about God’s response to one of his children coming home. And this parable is no different. The father immediately tells his servants to prepare a feast, so the family can celebrate his son’s safe return.
Have you ever thought about salvation that way before? Have you ever looked at your own life and thought you were worth celebrating? The Bible says that all the angels in heaven rejoice, when even one sinner comes to repentance. That means each one of us is worth so much to God that he wants to celebrate when we return to him.
You may be going through a tough time in your life right now, and you may not be in the party mood. But when your Father in Heaven looks down on you, he sees someone who is valuable and loveable and wonderfully made in his own image. You may be smudged, you may be wounded, and you might be lost. But in the midst off all our brokenness, he has reached down from heaven through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to pull us back from the brink and bring us home again. When you come to him through faith in Jesus, he clothes you with robes of righteousness, he forgets your sins, and he celebrates you as his beloved child. God is throwing parties in heaven, with all the angels, every time one of his little ones crosses over from death to life, through repentance and faith in his Son.
Which brings us to the final character in this parable of the lost son.
[Read Luke 15:25-32]
- The first (oldest) son.
This passage tells the story of the first son. His is the oldest, the most responsible, the one who has lived by his father’s rules and been a productive member of the household. And when he finds out that his father has thrown a big party for his troublemaking brother, it makes him angry. He doesn’t understand how his father can be so quick to forgive. I mean, he doesn’t even see the second son as his brother; his father has to remind him that they are from the same family. He can’t find it in his heart to forget what his brother has done, and so he doesn’t want to join the party. His brother’s return isn’t good news to him, and he isn’t willing to celebrate his return.
The first son represented Pharisees in Jesus’ telling of the story, and now he also represents the church. He was the first child to receive his father’s promised inheritance, just as Israel was the first to receive God’s promises in the Old Testament, and now the church is recipient of all God’s promises through Jesus and the Spirit. The first son has been loyal to his father’s commands, but he has become filled with spiritual pride, because of his position in the family, and he is lacking in grace and forgiveness.
The Pharisees refused to have anything to do with those who were obvious sinners. They put on a show of having it all together and obeying the letter of the Law, while on the inside they were wasting away from spiritual pride and neglect. They had forgotten God’s call to be a people of the light, who reach into dark places to point people toward God. They were quick to hand out judgment and slow to forgive. We, in the church, are often guilty of being like the Pharisees. We so easily forget our own sins and bury them deep beneath a veneer of obedient living in public, while they secretly eat away at us from the inside in private. We forget that we are called to live as witness in the world, not as strangers apart from it. And when lost children finally make their way home to become our brothers and sisters, through Christ’s blood, we treat them with contempt. We refuse to celebrate, and because we refuse to celebrate, we refuse to participate in the work of reconciliation that God is working in the world to bring lost sinners back to himself.
When we act like the first son, we accept our own place in the Father’s house with pride, but secretly begrudge the adoption of our sisters and brothers.
I asked earlier, which character in this parable most represents who we are in God’s story? We have all been like the second son, at some point. But who do you identify with today?
Maybe you still identify more with the younger son. Even if you have repented of your sins and asked Jesus become Lord in your life, and even if you have been welcomed into the family of God and clothed in white robes of new birth, you might still, at times, feel like a wandering child, stuck in circumstances that are out of your control.
Terrible situations aren’t just reserved for those who are living apart from God. Christians, experience all kinds of difficulty in life. We deal with all of the same pressures and difficult decisions and life disasters as everyone else. And sometimes, our situations can lead us to despair, even when we know we have a Father in Heaven who loves us, just as the second son in Jesus’ parable knew he had a father at home, who loved him.
Maybe you find yourself struggling to understand your current circumstances, or maybe you don’t see a clear way forward. Maybe you are struggling to live into your role as a child of the King. Maybe you just feel stuck. If this is you, then there is only one way to get unstuck, and that’s to turn to your Father who loves you, repent of your disobedience, and ask him to send his Spirit of adoption on you in fresh and powerful ways, through Jesus Christ. Only he can lead you up out of your despair and give you reason to celebrate.
Maybe you identify more with the oldest son. Maybe you have gotten so comfortable in your position as a child of God that you have forgotten what it is like to be on the outside. Maybe your own joy at being saved has turned into spiritual pride and you have lost compassion for those who are hurting.
The best way to find out if this is you is to search your own heart. Do you look for ways to partner with God to reach the lost, or are you too busy pointing a finger at our culture to offer a helping hand? Do you get excited when someone new comes to faith in Jesus, or do you find yourself whispering about the sins they are still learning to throw aside as they grow? Are you friends with anyone who isn’t a professing Christian? It’s hard to have compassion for people we never see. Do you truly want to see the Church of Jesus Christ grow, or would you rather keep things the way they are?
If you identify more with the first son, maybe it’s time to ask God to give you a heart that is broken for the lost. Maybe its time to stop enjoying your privilege as a member of God’s household, and start living as a loving child of the King. Maybe you need to join in the celebration for those who go from lost to found.
Whichever character you identify with this morning, and whatever burdens you carried with you into this place, our Heavenly Father is inviting you to turn it over to him today. He is scanning the horizon, looking for you to return to him and confess your attempts to do everything on your own. He is waiting to greet you with open arms, to cloth you with his own peace and righteousness, and to welcome you home.
God welcomes all sinners into his presence, through faith in Jesus. What would it look like if more of us resembled the Father in our response to those who have strayed from him? What would it look like if we trusted him enough to turn over every aspect of our lives to his control, and then take our place in his household, not as prideful heirs, but as grateful daughters and sons?
V. Closing Prayer
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that, even when we strayed from you, you never stopped searching for us. Rather, you sent your Son Jesus into the world to provide a way for us to return back to you. We thank you for welcoming us as your own children, through faith in Jesus, his death and resurrection. And we ask you to cloth us with your righteousness, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Would you show us how to become children who don’t take your grace for granted and develop spiritual pride, but who remember your great mercy, and extend it to others as forgiveness? We love you Father! And we ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.