What a Reception!

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 15:20-25

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And 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 servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to make merry.

Luke 15:20-25 RSV

We call it the parable of the prodigal son, but it’s more profoundly a story about his father. It’s not so much about a boy’s living it up as about a dad loving him anyway. The best word is not about a great repentance but about a grand reception. Listen. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 15, verse 20:

And he arose [that is, the prodigal son] and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And 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 servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

DECIDING TO RETURN

We were thinking last time about what happened to the young man (we’ve called him Asher) in the far country. He wasted everything. He made a fool of himself and a mess of his life. When the fling was over, he was desolate, impoverished, about to die. His money was spent. His friends were gone. His self-respect was zero. There he was in a pig sty. No one within a hundred miles cared whether he lived or died. Our young friend had hit bottom hard.

It’s then that he begins to think of home. These are not wistful memories of what it was like to be a much-loved son in the father’s house. That’s forever beyond his reach now. His thinking is more realistic. It’s about the hired hands on his father’s farm. Asher remembers how well they were treated. They always had enough. His father saw to that. If their families had trouble, they had someone to turn to. They had job security, enough to live on, and even something left over. And what did he have – the son in the far country? Nothing and no one. Back there, the least and the lowest had a good life, but here, Asher was about to starve to death.

At that, a plan formed itself in his mind. He’ll leave this God-forsaken place, this exile which had once looked so attractive, and he’ll go straight back to his father. He went over in his mind a hundred times the speech he would make. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” The confession was genuine; the sentiments accurate. He had sinned against God, flouting all authority, going his own way. He had grieved his father too. He had repudiated his home, thrown over the family values, covered himself and them with shame. And on this matter of being unworthy to be his father’s son, he was right about that, too. He had acted as if he had no father. For months, he hadn’t given him a thought. He never seemed to feel even a twinge of gratitude for all he had received. If there’s ever any such thing as “worthiness” to be a father’s son, Asher had forfeited all of it. He had no claim on the father he had disowned.

But he knew also that his father was a good man, that he treated people fairly. More than that, he knew that Dad was kind and sometimes gave people more than they deserved. So, in spite of everything, he decided to cast himself on his father’s mercy. Though he couldn’t be a son, maybe he could be a servant. Maybe he would be allowed to work in the fields for his room and board. It was worth a try. He stood a better chance with his father than with anyone else.

WHO IS THIS?

Now remember, friends, who this story is really about. Have you ever seen a little child watch herself in the mirror for the first time? First, she’s fascinated by this little figure that she sees smiling back at her, mimicking her every move. Then, suddenly the whole atmosphere changes. She looks at you surprised, then back at the mirror. She knows now that she has been watching herself.

The Word of the Lord is like that mirror. Things in it take on new meaning when we see ourselves in those biblical characters, when we recognize our own features on their faces. This story is about you, and it’s about me, children who have wandered away from our heavenly Father’s house. We’ve disobeyed God, we’ve hurt the people who love us. The parable is about those painful but healing moments when the awareness comes that that’s what we’ve done and when we want to go back.

What the prodigal planned to say represents about the highest that our human hopes can reach. Maybe God, in spite of everything, will take us back. We can’t expect that things will be the same as they were. We know we’ve lost something we can never get back. We’ll never be first-class citizens in His kingdom. But maybe God cares enough so that if we really humble ourselves before Him, and confess our wrongs, we won’t be utterly rejected. He won’t let us starve and maybe He’ll have work for us to do out on the back forty somewhere.

Isn’t that the sum of what most religious systems offer? If you’re sorry enough, if you confess your sins enough, if you plead and try hard enough, God may let you off. Maybe you’re seeing things that way today, a little bit of hope stirring in your heart.

WHAT A WELCOME!

Well, Jesus wants to tell you in this unforgettable tale that things are even better than you think, immeasurably better. What happens back at the farm seems almost too wonderful to take in.

There you are, trudging back. You’re feeling ashamed and anxious. Your heart’s pounding. How are you going to face your father after where you’ve been and what you’ve done? When you’re still hundreds of yards away from the house, you see someone running out toward you, robe flapping in the wind. You know who it is. It’s your Dad. He’s been waiting. He’s been watching. Here he comes. You’ve never seen him move so fast. Before you know it, he has you in his arms, almost squeezing the breath out of you. He doesn’t say anything, just holds you, kisses you.

Now your prepared speech comes back to you and you start to blurt it out: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before you can finish, your father is calling back to the servants who’ve come out behind him. “Bring quickly the best robe [that is, the one reserved for an especially honored guest]. Put it on him and put a ring on his hand.” The ring was a symbol of authority, someone in charge. “Put sandals on his feet.” They identified a free man as over against a slave. More, they were worn by masters of the house and not by guests. All of this, along with the kiss, was a sign of forgiveness and restoration.

Remember when David summoned his rebel son Absalom? When he came to the king and bowed himself on his face to the ground, David kissed him, as though to say, “It’s all forgiven, Absalom. It’s as though those past evils never happened.” This was an action initiated by the father. It meant that a broken relationship had been healed. And all of that is happening to you when you meet the father.

But that’s not all. “Bring the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and make merry.” It’s time to celebrate, the father says, to have the biggest feast, the best food we’ve ever had. We’re going to pull out all the stops here. This is the biggest thing, the happiest thing that’s ever happened. Now he’s looking back at you, beaming through his tears, shaking his head in wonder. “This, my son, was dead and is now alive again. He was lost – I was afraid I’d never get him back – And now he is found.”

Can you take it in that God, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Maker of everything, feels that way about you, that He’s been longing over you? Wanting you back? That when you take your first stumbling steps toward Him and start to pray, He’s there to welcome you? And this is not to get a place in the servant’s quarters. It’s to be treated like one of His beloved children. You’re washed, forgiven, loved, restored, caught up in the most amazing welcome. Can you take it in? Can you imagine that when you finally come to your senses and begin to move in His direction, all heaven celebrates? That this means more to God and His angels than anything else in the universe?

HOW CAN WE BE SURE?

Now why should you believe that? Surely, anyone in his right mind would want to believe it, would long to be sure that the heart of the Eternal is indeed “most wonderfully kind.” But what real basis is there for thinking that?

Obviously, it’s not because I or any other speaker tries to convince you about this. What do we know about the ways of heaven? What insight do we have about the heart of God?

I don’t ask you to believe it just because there’s a story called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” There are lots of stories in this world that have very little to do with reality. We’d like to believe the ones about people living happily ever after, but we’ve had enough experience to know that life isn’t usually like that.

Do you know why I believe that this is more than just a tender story? Why I believe that it’s your story and mine, and more than that, that it tells us something about God? One reason. It’s because the person who told it was Jesus. You see, someone once lived in this world who acted like this father. He had compassion on broken, sinning, lost people. He forgave the most abandoned of them and set them free. They called Him the friend of tax collectors and sinners – that is, the friend of the most despised people in His society. Those whom no one else cared about at all, He loved intensely. That was Jesus. He welcomed everybody. “Come to me,” He said, “all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28). “Come, you hungry ones;” He seemed to say, “I’ve got bread for you. Come, you thirsty and drink. All of you who’ve been away too long, come home, there’s a banquet spread for you. Welcome to the feast!”

But it wasn’t only that He lived that way and loved that way. Jesus also claimed that what He taught, God taught. What He did, God did. “He who has seen me,” He dared to say, “has seen the Father” (John 14:9). So, when you see how Jesus treated people, you’re getting a glimpse of how God deals with them. Jesus could even say, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). He was the embodiment here on earth of all that God is. He was the radiance of His glory, the Almighty enfleshed. He’s the one who told the story about the waiting Father, who let us know about the incredible reception waiting for everyone who comes home.

But there’s more to say. You’ve heard the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” What came to light in the actual career of Jesus underlined the theme of the prodigal son and the waiting father, but it went far beyond it. It brought a message even more astonishing. The Father in heaven who waits for His children to return, who goes running to meet them when they come, has done something marvelous to provide this welcome. He has given His Son. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. It was not only Jesus’ compassionate life revealing the heart of God. His self-giving for our sakes did that more than anything else. Jesus dying for our sins is the supreme disclosure of God’s heart. That’s how much He loves us; that’s how deeply He wants us back.

So remember when you turn your steps homeward that the welcome waiting for you is a costly one. God gave His dearest and best to take away all the barriers and restore you as one of His beloved children. Jesus died to open the way. Listen as the apostle Peter tells the good news. “Christ too suffered for our sins once for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (see 1 Peter 3:18). Yes, that there might be room for us in the Father’s house.

Prayer: Father, let everyone know it, let everyone believe it, that in Jesus there’s a great reception waiting. Amen.