Sunday, November 19, 2006

Celebrate or Sulk (Luke 15:11-32)

November 19, 2006
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Today’s scripture is a familiar story – the story of the prodigal son. Few who hear this story miss the power and gift of the Father’s unconditional forgiveness, even for a son who has taken all the Father had to given him, threw it away, and found himself in the lowest of low places. For those who have been found by God, and even more for those who are in a low place, this story holds out a beautiful picture of a gracious and loving God. I’d like to look with you at what kind of Father Jesus tells us we have in God.

Secondly, Jesus told this story as the third in a row to an interesting group of people. Some in that group knew exactly what it was to be lost. They were tax collectors and other “sinners” – those who were known to lie, cheat, and steal, and who were generally considered the lowest of the low. In that group there were also scribes and Pharisees, known for their “righteousness” and religious devotion. They continued to struggle over why Jesus gave any time or attention to the first group. So, today, most who hear this story identify either with the younger son or the older son. I’d like to look with you at what is necessary for each son – for each of us – to enjoy the love of the Father.

The Heart of the Father: seeking those who are lost

Depending on where you are, you might focus on different parts of this story. But I think the primary focal point is the love of the Father for his children, for it is expressed strongly and poignantly towards each of them. In the first part of the story, we follow the younger son, who asked his father for what would come to him when the old man died. It was his inheritance, but he took it prematurely, while his father was still living. In essence, by asking for the inheritance he was saying his Father was dead to him and he would never see him again. He wasted the money, living the wild life and blowing through the money quickly. He found himself in the lowest of low places, not only tending pigs, but ready to share their food. Realizing that even the slaves of his father lived better than that, he determined to return to his father and beg for a slave’s place in the house. He didn’t expect to be welcomed back; he just hoped his father would hire him as a worker.

What was totally unexpected was to find his father on the lookout for him. His father saw him coming a long way off and ran to him – to his son – embraced him, and kissed him. It was clear that the Father still saw him as a beloved son. That had not changed.

Fast forward to verse 28. The older brother is completely put out with the whole situation. He has never lived wildly; he has never run away; he has served and obeyed his father faithfully all his life. And he will have nothing to do with welcoming his brother home. As with the younger brother, the Father goes to him as well. Look there in v. 28, “…his father came out and began pleading with him.” He goes on to say in v. 31, “Son, you have always been with me and all that is mine is yours.” The Father goes to his older son and claims him as well.

The heart of God the Father is like the father in this story: He seeks those who are lost. Like the shepherd in the first story in Luke 15, like the widow in the second story, God is like this father who searches for his lost son and celebrates when he is found.

The heart of God the Father is not just to seek those who are lost, but also to celebrate those who are found. In all three stories in Luke 15, when what is lost is found, the one seeking calls friends and relatives together and celebrates greatly. So it is with this son who returns.

When he puts the best robe on his son, a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet, the father reclaims his son AS his son. Then he prepares the party – they will kill the fatted calf, the very best for this son. But don’t miss the invitation to the older son. Though that son has refused to join in, the father left the party to go plead with the older son to come in and join the celebration. Even as the father sought the older son, he also desired to include him in the celebration.

This world and we are not just something God does when He’s bored. We are not just a science experiment or God’s house pets. God created us in His image and loves us and desires for us to be FOUND – in right relationship with Him. And so, when that happens in a human life, God celebrates and rejoices. All the angels in Heaven join in. God celebrates when the lost are found.

The Obstacle in Our Way

What gets in the way of us sharing in the celebration – sharing in the heart of God the Father? Each son experienced an obstacle. In the case of the younger son, wanting his own way in his own time at the expense of his father and family drove a seeming wedge between him and his father. His choices in life, to blow through the money in wild living, that created an obstacle between him and his father… or so he and anyone watching would have thought.

The older son – the seemingly obedient son – also experienced a wedge between him and his father. Yes, he was obedient; but he let jealousy and anger keep him from his father’s presence and from sharing in his father’s joy.

Jesus’ point is easy to see in relation to his audience at that time. Jesus was seeking out the tax collectors and sinners because they, too, were children of God. Jesus was looking out for them and inviting them “home” to their Heavenly Father, ready to celebrate their homecoming and restoration to God’s family. Jesus was also speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, who lived the obedient life, but missed the obstacle that was developing from their anger and jealousy, a sin that would eventually do as much damage to them spiritually as the wasteful living had for the younger son.

So often we portray the Pharisees as Jesus’ enemies. But Jesus loved them, too. They just could not bring themselves to be part of the Kingdom-celebration that Jesus was announcing.

Sharing the Heart of the Father

What is the antidote to these obstacles that come between us and God, our Heavenly Father? Perhaps you have been wildly disobedient and need to come home. Perhaps you are dutiful and faithful, in church every single Sunday, but can’t seem to share in celebration of what God is doing in the world. The antidote is thankfulness or gratitude. Yes, at the heart of that is faith and God’s forgiveness, and really the character and purpose of God, but the obstacles most readily dissolve when we are able to experience and express our gratitude to our Heavenly Father for His amazing love.

Jesus came announcing God’s Kingdom. As he began describing that Kingdom and his purpose on earth, it became apparent that he came on a search and rescue mission, to find those who are lost from God. Jesus did and does so as a reflection of the character and heart of God, a Heavenly Father who not only seeks those who are lost, but who celebrates when they are found.

If we are to be people after God’s own heart and a church after God’s heart, then we not only need to be a lighthouse/searchlight church, joining in God’s search and rescue operation, but also a church ready to celebrate. We need to be ready to celebrate, really celebrate, what God is doing in the world. If we slip into the sin of the older brother and sulk, reluctant to break out of the chore of our religious duty, we will miss the best part of being children of God, and we may cut ourselves off from being a part of what God is doing in the world.

I’ve said it before – it might get messy. We may find God calling for our fatted calf to be used – maybe a teenage band using the “holy sound system” or God’s house being filled up with all kinds of people who have come home to God.

It might get easy to long for the “good old days” when every face was a long-familiar face and every song a long-familiar song. That cherishing of our beginnings and our heritage is valuable and precious, but it cannot cost us fellowship with the Father and those the Father would bring home.

If we are serious about being obedient and faithful, about being a lighthouse/searchlight kind of church, let us be intent on knowing the will and heart of the Father and in giving thanks to God for everything He does in and through us. Amen.

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