In the parable of the prodigal son, the son’s miserable state was more than matched by the father’s love and kindness. Alistair Begg explains that while each of us has turned our back to God, our ruined relationship can be reestablished with honest repentance. Jesus has come seeking to save the lost and restore us to the Father. If we come humbly to God, we will find Him throwing His loving arms around us.
We’re gonna read together from Luke 15, a story of fatherhood. Luke 15:11:
“Jesus continued: ‘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. 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 men 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 men.” So he got up and went to his father.
“‘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.
“‘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.’”
Let’s ask God’s help as we study the Bible together:
Father, we’re totally dependent upon your help now to study the Bible. We can neither speak, nor hear, or understand, or respond, apart from the wonderful, convicting, convincing moving of your Spirit. So this causes us to take our eyes away from everyone else except you and from everything else except your Bible. Meet us, Lord, we pray, just where we need to be met. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Well, if you’ve kept your Bible open there at Luke 15, you will notice from the opening verses that Jesus is addressing a crowd that comprises two distinct groups of people. One group is listening to him, the other is really there to criticize him. The group that’s listening is made up of tax collectors and those who are referred to as “sinners.” They’re intrigued by the words of this Galilean carpenter. He seems to be speaking in a way that scratches where they itch. He is talking in language that they can understand. He doesn’t sound like the average synagogue sermon. And so, they’re following along, because they sense that the things that Jesus is saying are things that they need to hear. You may be here today, and that’s exactly how you feel as we anticipate studying the Bible.
The rest of the group is made up of the religious orthodoxy of the time: Pharisees and religious leaders. They were not actually there to listen as much as they were there to complain. The verb that is used by Luke is that they were there “mutter[ing],” and the reason for their muttering is because they were opposed to what Jesus was doing: Jesus was actually “welcom[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them.” And from their perspective, if he really was a rabbi of God, if he really was the holy man that he determined himself to be, then he clearly wouldn’t be doing that. They actually had the wrong end of the stick, and some of you may be here today, and you actually have the wrong end of the stick as well. You think that Jesus came in order to get together a religious club—people who were outwardly very interested in religious things, who were good, moral, upright people, doing their best, paying their taxes, and attending at least once on a Sunday. Therefore, you should prepare to be completely overwhelmed by what actually unfolds in this passage.
Jesus, in recognizing the group that has surrounded him, determines that he will tell them three stories, all of them about lostness: first the story of a lost sheep, then the story of a lost coin, and then the story of two lost boys. The pressure, if you like, is building from story to story. He is making one point and emphasizing it effectively. There is joy when the shepherd comes back with his sheep, there is joy when the lady discovers her coin; therefore, he says, you would imagine that there is joy in heaven when the lost sinner repents and is brought back to the fold of God.
This third story, which we’ve been discovering and studying for a couple of weeks now, we haven’t come to this—although it is very appropriate for Father’s Day—we haven’t come here because it is Father’s Day. We’re here, and it’s Father’s Day. But this story that we’ve been looking at has introduced us to these two sons. We haven’t got as far as the second one; that will be this evening, God willing. But the first boy has done a bunk. His departure from his father’s house was apparently a planned exit. There is no indication that he woke up one morning and in a fit of passion determined that he was just going to take off; rather, that he had premeditated the event, he had waited for the right moment in order to say to his father, “I’d like to have what I would normally have when you die, but I wish you were dead now, and I wish you’d give me what I ought to have when you die, because frankly, I want to leave you behind, I want to turn my back on you, I want to live without you, I want to do my own thing.”
Every indication as well is that his departure was not only planned, but he was going to view is as being permanent. That’s why Luke is careful to tell us that “he got together”—in verse 13—“[everything that] he had.” In other words, he didn’t leave anything behind so that he’d be able to slip back for the weekend. He didn’t leave part of his bedroom intact so that he was able to come back on the few occasions—maybe come back, as it were, on Father’s Day and spend some time there. No, he got together everything that he had, and he got it as far away as he possibly could—gathered up all of his possessions and “set off for [a far and] a distant country.” And he went out with a spring in his step, apparently, and we’re going to discover this morning that he came back dragging his tail behind him.
In fact, the story of how his plan ends in disaster is recorded for us there in verses 14–17. In 14, after he has squandered his wealth in a kind of riotous excess, he finds out that he’s absolutely helpless; there’s “a severe famine” which falls right at the time that his money has run out, and “he began to be in need.” He was in need of help, he was help-less. In verse 15, his helplessness led to humiliation, the humiliation of a Jewish boy feeding pigs. Anybody with a job feeding pigs, it’s not necessarily a bad job, but it wasn’t a good one given where he’d come from. As a result of this, he was also hungry, because he, in verse 16, actually longed to eat the pig food. But nobody, in his hunger, came to give him anything at all.
And then in verse 17, we discover that he became homesick. In fact, the whole story could be summarized as the young man who was sick of home, who became homesick, and who was home. In fact, you may like just to keep that in your mind as a framework under which to make this study. The young fellow was sick of home, and now we find him homesick. He’s lost his wealth, he’s lost his freedom, he’s lost his self-respect. And the fact that he recognizes his circumstances to be significantly worse than that of a day laborer serves as a barometer of the depths to which the young man has sunk. Sitting in his predicament in the pigsty, he figures out that the people that his father hires on his estate on a day-by-day basis—not people who were on the salaried positions, not the folks who were there as hourly workers, but people who just came by and stood outside the estate on a daily basis in the hope that the foreman would come out and say, “I’ll take you, you, you, and you”—“These individuals,” he said, “are far better off than I am today in this dreadful and sorry circumstance.”
In his soliloquy, which is there in verse 17 and following, he repeats the word “father” three times. You realize that this is a description of him sitting there talking to himself. He speaks to himself and he says, “This is ridiculous. How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare? I starve to death. I’m going to set out and go back to my father, and then I’m going to say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.’” And the prodigal determines to go back to his father not primarily because he is tormented by a guilty conscience, but because he is driven by the prospect of mercy. He could’ve lived with a guilty conscience. He could’ve sought to absolve it in a number of ways. It would have been possible for him to admit the fact that he’d made a hash of things. It would be possible for him then to live out the rest of his life, saying, you know, “I once lived in a wonderful place. I once lived in a lovely relationship with my father. But I turned my back on my father, I went off on my own way, and that’s why you can see I am where I am today. That’s why I’m in this sorry predicament.”
It makes one think, doesn’t it? What if there had not been a father to whom he could return? Or what if the father to whom he could return was a father who would simply treat his boy as his sins deserved? After all, there was no one to blame but the boy himself. Nobody can come to the story of these two sons and explain it, as is often explained, in terms of the poor background, and the difficulties that he faced, and the circumstances that he had to endure, and as a result of all of this, this is why the fellow down here in the pigsty is a victim. No! What we have in the pigsty is a boy who made bad choices, who decided to set out on his own, who made friendships with the kind of people that really weren’t friends at all, and had found himself eventually flat on his tail, in a circumstance that was so different from that which he had known in his father’s house.
What a tragedy it would be if that were the end of the story—that he lived helpless and hopeless and humiliated, and then he just died. What if the consequences of sin were irremovable? What if sin was sin forever? What if there were no solution to sin? What if there were no heavenly Father to whom the prodigal boy, the prodigal girl, may return? What possible comfort could there be for this boy unless he has a waiting, watching, seeking, loving father? Is there any comfort in the story of sinners if the sinner is unable to come home, if he finds no reception, if he is unhealed, unrestored, and unforgiven?
You wonder why it is that men and women in contemporary society find themselves with such an experience of angst—worried, perplexed, overwhelmed, unable to fill the God-shaped void within their lives. It is, in the simplicity of the words of the little song where the sparrow sings to the robin, and the robin says to the sparrow, “Why do you think human beings are like this? Why do you think they’re so crazy? Why do you think they run around and worry about everything?” And the sparrow replies to the robin, he says, “Well, presumably because they don’t have a heavenly Father, such as cares for you and me.” The robin and the sparrow realize that God provides for their needs. But they look on humanity and they say, “Look at these frantic and frenetic individuals!” And their assessment is, “Well, presumably they have no heavenly Father.”
You see, the real breakdown in this story—and we need to be careful so that we don’t miss this—is not the breakdown in this young man’s circumstances. It’s not even the potential breakdown in the young man’s health. It’s not that the young man’s hopes and dreams have been shattered. It is not that the relationships that he has established have actually been fractured and are now almost forgotten. The real breakdown in the story is the fact that his relationship with his father has been severed as a result of him turning his back upon his dad. And here this morning, as we worship on the edge of the twenty-first century, one of the customary errors of our day is to listen to men and women—sociologists, and psychologists, and those who apparently know—explain the predicament of life on a peculiarly horizontal plane: “Well, the reason that I am the way I am is because of something that happened to me in relationship to him or to her.” “The reason that I am the way I am is because I have unfulfilled hopes and dreams that are yet to be realized in my existence.” “The reason that I am not yet what I might be is because of all of these horizontal factors.”
What the Bible says is no—that while these horizontal issues are real issues, the foundation of all our dilemma on this plane is on account of a broken relationship on the vertical plane; that we have lost the stabilizing influence of our lives as a result of sin. And so that tail, that piece that goes like this, or that little whirligig at the back of the helicopter that appears to be, you know, just a—some people think that little wheel at the back of the helicopter is there because the designer said, “It’d be nice to have a little wheel at the back, you know! Maybe we’ll just put a little wheel so that it can go around, you know, while the rotor is going, and we’ll have the wheel.” Lose the wheel and get ready to kiss the ground! And what has happened in our lives, says the Bible, is that our relationship with the God who has made us, our Father in heaven, has been severed. And so, the man’s experience now: everything is fractured as a result.
Try and picture him in your mind’s eye. Jesus is telling a story, he’s describing the circumstances: here is a young man, and he’s in a pigsty, and he longs to eat pig food. You can imagine the people going, “Eat pig food? Who would eat pig food?” Well, presumably it is possible to get so hungry that we might consider it. His physical loneliness, with his money gone and his friends gone and his brutal circumstances, merely serves to confront him with his existential aloneness. Because his real aloneness is not the aloneness of the pigsty. It’s not the aloneness of the absence of friends. It’s not the aloneness as a result of circumstances turning sour. His aloneness is an aloneness that is posited on the fact that he told his father that he could keep it—could keep his house, could keep his love, could keep his care, could keep his advice, could keep his interest—and he would go it on his own.
If we’d had the chance to interview him seven or ten days prior to this—if we had caught him in the corner of one of his parties as he played the host to all of these friends that he’d managed to put together—if he had been honest, he would have told us then, “You know, actually, it’s a strange thing, but I feel alone here tonight. I’m surrounded by all of this, and by all of this gaiety, but I feel alone. But maybe it’s just this party. It’s not a very good party. Tomorrow’s party will be a better party.” And as he walks home in the early hours of the morning, he’s saying to himself, “I don’t know why I feel the way I feel. Why do I feel as though a blanket is down over my head? After all, we did everything we wanted to do with everyone we wanted to do it with, and we did it as many times as we want, and nobody interfered, and certainly not my father. This was supposed to be fantastic!”
See, maybe marijuana’s not good enough now; maybe we’re gonna have to go to ecstasy. Maybe ecstasy won’t fill him; maybe we’re gonna have to go to cocaine. Because you see, the devil’s story is always “There is always one better fix. There is always one better party. There is always one more buck to be made. There is always one more rung on the ladder”; he says to you, “The reason you feel as you feel, miss—the reason you feel as you feel, sir—is because you have not made it there. If you will go there now, you will discover that it is over here that the answer to that sense of lostness is to be found.” And that is contemporary wisdom.
Well, some of you are here this morning, and frankly, your circumstances are just a thin disguise for the fact that you’re living in a cul-de-sac, you’re living on a dead-end street. You’re surrounded by your family and your friends, and you’re alone in the world. Nobody knows the sense of ruination, the sense of waste that you feel. And sometimes you are amazed at yourself at the kind of things that you even contemplate—driving your car so fast through these country roads, because somewhere in the back of your mind you said, “Maybe I’ll just drive it right off the road.”
“Oh, it’s such a lovely car!”
“I don’t care. It means nothing to me.”
“Such a lovely relationship!”
“It is irrelevant to me.”
“Such a super opportunity!”
“It means zero to me.”
Why? Because like the boy in the story, we closed the door on our Father’s house, we walked out, and we said, “Stick it. You can keep it.”
Well, he’s in a predicament, isn’t he? I mean, this story is quite a story. You can imagine that the Pharisees are going, “I don’t know where this one is going to end,” that the sinners are hanging on his every word. “Boy, this is a beauty,” one prostitute says to the other. “I don’t know what happens to this kid, but there’s maybe gonna be something in this for us, you know? There may be an end to this one that we’re really gonna like. Don’t let’s stop listening now.” Meanwhile, the Pharisee’s pulling his cloak over: “Pathetic story. I hate this story.”
And Jesus said, “Don’t worry about that. Let me just get on here.” Because the disaster of his futile plan is more than met by the discovery of his father’s love. And we saw last time that “when he came to his senses”—“when he came to himself…” And we talked about how we meet men and women who are apparently looking for themselves, and looking for themselves in all the wrong places, and “lookin[g] for love in all the wrong places.” And when he came to his senses, he realized that he’d been away from his father’s house, but he hadn’t been away from his father’s heart.
And so, verse 20, and I love the phrase, “He got up and went to his father.” So, “He got up and went.” This is the second time we’re told that he’d got up and gone. Initially he got up and went away from his father’s house, and his request on that occasion was “Give me…” Now he’s getting up again, and he’s going back to his father’s house, and his request on this occasion is “Make me…” There’s all the difference in the world in the request. “Give me. Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme. You exist to give me. Give me.” There’re plenty of people who are going around saying “give me” to God: “God is a cosmic principle. God, who’s a figment of my imagination. God is a provider of health, wealth, and happiness. God is whatever I conceive him to be. And I go to God regularly, and I say, ‘Hey, give me!’” But have you ever come to God and said, “Make me…”?
Now, you can imagine that as he rehearses his speech going back up the road, he has only a mind that is full of questions. You can imagine him going up the road, practicing again how “I’m going to say… now, let me just go through this again. I’m going to say, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight, and make me like one of your hired men.’ No, I won’t say that. I’ll say, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Yeah, that’s much better. ‘I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ And then I’ll say, ‘Make me as one of your hired men.’ Okay, let me just try that one more time.” And so, he’s making his way up the road: “I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” Probably his eyes down rather than his eyes up.
And then look at this: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him.” We might anticipate that the father would seize the opportunity to give him the “I told you so” speech—to make his son stand in his tattered, smelly outfit while he let him know that this is the kind of thing that happens to a boy who does this: “Boy, do you look bad! Boy, do you smell! Boy, are you an embarrassment! Couldn’t you have come home at darkness? Couldn’t you have come around the back way? Do you have to come up the street?” Those kind of human reactions we would understand. If we’re honest as fathers, we can see that in ourselves. We might have expected, on a human plane, him to say, “Well listen, now that you’ve showed up, let’s just ease back into things. Because who’s to say you’re not gonna go away again? Who’s to say you won’t run away again? You just came back because you’re messed. But once you get de-messed a little, you’ll be gone again. So why don’t we do this—why don’t we just put you in the servants’ quarters, down there on the corner of the estate? And we’ll take it on a kind of day-by-day, week-by-week, trial-and-error basis, and we’ll see how you do. And if you do well, we’ll gradually move you up and along, and perhaps you can earn your way back to your own bedroom. But I wouldn’t really hold out a great deal of hope, you smelly, wretched boy. What an embarrassment to your mother! What an embarrassment to our family! What a horrible embarrassment!”
All of that is true, but none of that is there. Right? Look at the story: “While he was still a long way off…” What we have presented here by Jesus is the father’s wonderful readiness to forgive. The son could never have dreamt what a surprising reception was waiting for him. Indeed, the verbs help us, don’t they? There in verse 20: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him”—“saw him.” How did he see him? Because he was looking for him. Why was he looking for him? Because he wanted to find him. It’s elementary, my dear Watson! It is a wonderful picture.
As a child in Sunday school, I loved this story. I remember the Sunday school teacher, the lady, explaining that every morning the father got up, and he went on his porch, and she told me that he would put his hands over his eyes like this to shield them against the morning sun, and he would look down the road, and he would look for the dust on the road, and the dust would be representative of a person, and then the person would be simply dust in the distance, and then he would become a real person, and then he would be watching and watching, and then eventually that person would not be his son. And then again, as dust is kicked up, he looks again: “Perhaps this is him. Perhaps today.” And then, once again, as yesterday and the prior day, taking his seat back down on the porch. He was watching for his boy. Even though his boy had turned his back on him, even though his boy had shamed the family, still he watched.
Let us beware, fathers, of determining a kind of love for our children which they earn: “If you do this, then I’ll love you like this.” “If you love me like this, then I’ll love you like that. If you kiss me like this, then I’ll kiss you like that.” Celine Dion. And our kids learn that. Now they’re going to have to earn our favor. Now they’re going to earn their keep. Now they’re going to have to earn their position within our home. Now they’re going to have to stay up to snuff if they’re going to be loved. The boy turns his back, the boy shames the son, the father watches for him every day. He saw him.
Then notice: “He ran to him.” “He ran to him.” Off down the road he goes, a wealthy landowner, running down the main street of his village. Extraordinary! Just not done! Quite undignified! People seeing him pass as he gathers his robes, his long robes, up to his waist and sets off down the road, and someone said, “Was that Samuel just went flying past?” “Yes,” he said, “that was Samuel.” “Where is Samuel going?” “I don’t know, but he’s going in a hurry. I’ve never seen him run through the streets like that!” Some of them may have tagged along to see what it was. Could they have imagined such a scene?
He throws his arms around him. That’s the next verb: he “saw,” he “ran,” he “threw.” There’s all the difference between a hug and a hug, you know. There’s the kind of hug that is polite, that you give to your Great Aunt Mabel from Minneapolis because you think she may be bringing you a present, but you don’t really want to get too close to her. There’s the hug that you give to the headmaster’s wife on the day of graduation; you don’t really want to see her, but you’re supposed to do it. There are all kinds of hugs. But this is the apex of hugging. This is the throwing, embracing, grabbing, swallowing, enveloping, “I love you” hug that he gives his boy. He “threw his arms around him.” He didn’t say, “Oh, hey, hey, hey, look at you! Oh, it is you. I thought it was you. Well, hey, I suppose you had to come back sometime, huh? Yeah. Yeah, okay, well just follow me up the street. Come on.”
No, if anybody followed after, they said, “Not only was Samuel running, but Samuel has started hugging, and whoever the kid is or the person is—we didn’t recognize him, he looks like a piece of trash—whoever he is, he is covering him with kisses.” That is literally in the Greek: it says that he “threw his arms around him and kissed him all over.” He’s smooching him! He’s like a puppy that does that to you, you know—getting you everywhere, all over you. It’s like, “Get off, get the… get off!” you know. Not a polite … “Oh, the love that sought me, and oh, the blood that bought me, and oh, the grace that brought me to his fold.” The seeing, running, throwing, kissing, welcoming love of the Father.
Have you met God? Every single person that is here today has this in common: that irrespective of to what degree or to what level of understanding, all of us have turned our backs on God as Father, we have walked out of the door, and we have told him to get lost. Many of us actually think we’re doing him a favor by showing up at his house every so often. We have a kind of arm’s-length relationship with him. He doesn’t interfere with us, and we don’t interfere with him. We don’t want him to call; we will call him as necessary. But we never found that he threw his arms around us and squeezed us half to death in an expression of his welcoming embrace. That’s why you remain unsaved. That’s why you remain unchristian. That’s why you remain unchanged—not because the Father in heaven is unwilling to see, run, throw, kiss, and welcome, but because man and woman in their pride are unprepared to say, “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Well, you say, “Well, you missed a verb.” Yes, I did, deliberately. I missed a little phrase. He “saw,” he “ran,” he “threw,” he “kissed,” and what was the explanation? The explanation was compassion: he “was filled with compassion for him.” In other words, when you squeezed him, compassion came out. If something is filled with something—if the thing is filled with shampoo, and you give it one of that, what do you get out of it? Shampoo. If it’s filled with olive oil, olive oil. If it’s filled with bitterness, bitterness, resentment. If it’s filled with compassion, compassion.
Now, you’ll notice that he doesn’t finish his prepared speech. He says to his father, “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” But he doesn’t go on to say, “Make me like one of your hired men.” He doesn’t have to. He knows he’s not gonna need to. He’s already been swallowed up in the immensity of the father’s love. Most of the commentators I read said, “Well, he was about to get to the final piece, but because his father started organizing the party, he couldn’t get it all out.” Well, that may be so. But I think it’s at the least possible that the reason that he never finished it is because he didn’t have to finish it. Goodness gracious, his father was rolling all around in the street with him! He was hugging him, he was kissing him, he was shouting out about clothes, and showers, and parties, and everything. Wouldn’t it be a silly thing to say, “By the way, could you make me as one of your hired servants?” There’s not a chance!
Oh, I wonder, do you know this God, a God who swallows you up in grace? There’s nothing that makes our sinfulness so obvious, there’s nothing that makes the wonder of God’s manifest goodness so unbelievable to us, than when we bring our utter unworthiness into the context of the expression of the Father’s love. If the boy’s heart wasn’t broken before this, it’d be broken this afternoon, wouldn’t it? He could have had a guilty conscience and stayed there. He could have had a desire to turn over a new leaf and do a better job for his dad, and still preserve for himself some measure of self-respect. But when his dad comes and overwhelms him in this way, then would it be possible for him to show contempt for the kindness and tolerance and patience of God, not realizing that his kindness was to lead him towards repentance?
Now, you’ve all heard sermons on the robe and the ring and the sandals, and some of it is very good material. I’m not sure how much justification there really is in it. But there is another whole sermon and a half that starts, “Well, let me explain the robe, let me explain the ring, let me explain the sandals,” and we could do that, but let me just say this to you: that the embrace, the kiss, the robe, the ring, the sandals are all expressions of the father’s love. They are all emblems of the son’s restoration to the family that he had snubbed and abandoned. If his friends were to have followed him back from the pigsty arena and seen him within a matter of twelve hours, they would have said, “What in the wide world happened to you?” In the evening hour, when they came as the party was ending, and the boy comes out from the party, and they look, and they see glistening in the night this amazing ring—and the last time they’d seen him, boy did he smell! And on the last occasion he looked like nothing—but now, “Look at those sandals! Look at that robe! Look at that ring! What’s that cologne? Whose party is this?”
“Come on! No, no. What do you mean? You came back like a bum, and your dad gave you a party? What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“He did? How does that work? What do you have to do to get one of these parties? What do you have to do to get your feet shod with the gospel of peace? What do you have to do to get a robe of righteousness? What do you have to do to get the ring that is an insignia of honor in the family gathering? Just tell me what to do, I’ll have a try at it.”
“Nothing? Oh, come on, come on! Nothing?”
“Aw, this is… you have lost your mind in the pigsty. You are crazier than a hoot owl. Now, go through it again, tell me what you did.”
“I came back up the road, determined to ask my father to make me a hired servant. Before I could get it all out of my mouth, he’s kissing me, hugging me, loving me, and we’ve got a celebration going that’ll knock your socks off. And all that I did was acknowledge that I was a mess and that I couldn’t fix myself.”
Just a few weeks ago, as I had the privilege of being present at the event in Washington, first in the caucus building next to the Capitol Building and then in the Pentagon building, I listened as Chuck Colson gave his testimony to this esteemed gathering of people. And he said to them, “I got in my car outside my friend’s house, and I admitted that my life was a total mess, and I asked God to come and save me. And he did.” Don’t you think that this boy, if you’d seen him in worship, would have been able to sing, “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure”? Don’t you think that if you’d been present with him, and he was in your row, when he got to the line that said “In royal robes I don’t deserve, I live to serve your majesty,” don’t you think he’s going like, “Oh, in royal robes! There’s no question about this.” He who is forgiven much understands.
Now, let me wrap this. What is Jesus teaching here? He’s teaching the fact that all of us, like this young man, have turned our backs on God in a hundred ways and we’ve told him to get lost. It’s not very nice to admit that, but it is true. Although our relationship with him is apparently ruined, the good news is that it can be set right when we come to our senses. He uses things to bring us to our senses—the birth of a loved one, the loss of prestige—whatever it may be, he shows us our need of him. And if we will turn from our rebellion and our foolishness, then he’ll throw his arms around us.
In fact, you would see that the boy’s desire to go back was more than met by the seeking of the father because Jesus has come seeking to save those that are lost. And when we make our way back, the prospect is not to live in shame, but rather that we will be welcomed, not to live as slaves, as day laborers, but to live as sons and daughters in the family house.
I think I have time just to read a poem that was given to me some years ago now. I’ve kept it for a while; I’m going to read this, and then we’re through. It takes us to tonight. Since many of you will not be here tonight, sadly, at least it allows me to bring closure to where this whole story goes. You can sort of sit back and see if you can follow this poem. It’s not ABAB, you know—it’s not da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah—so you’re going to have to listen. Somebody gave this to me, a guy called Mark. I don’t know who he is.
The story begins with a boy gone bad.
Faces in the audience light up.
The boy takes full advantage of his father,
an ancient, kindly man;
he wants the inheritance—everything.
“An upstart!” someone says. “Horsewhip him!
Teach him some manners!”
Some young men smile.
But they all wait, eyes fixed on the face of Jesus.
The father lets him go after giving everything,
the whole inheritance: the gold, the silver,
the favorite horse, the treasured cloak, the ring.
Faces show surprise.
“This father’s a fool,” someone whispers.
“The son’s a cheat.”
But they bend forward to hear.
He spends it all on prostitutes,
wine, gambling, the best hotels, loose living.
An old man looks down at his friend and winks.
“He should have invested it,” he says. “That’s the wise way.”
“But this one’s a fool!” the other says.
Heads nod in agreement.
Soon the boy hits bottom, nothing left;
he ends up slopping pigs.
Faces flinch, stunned.
But some smile.
“He got what he deserved,” an old man says.
“This is a good story.”
But then the boy remembers home—
the feasts, the plenty, the laughter.
He sits and weeps, his head in his hands.
He decides to return, to ask for a bed in the barn.
“A twist!” he says.
Faces show intrigue.
The boy comes home, hands gritty, legs scarred;
he is penniless, ragged, wasted, a scarecrow.
Listeners are laughing now.
“Revenge!” they think.
The old man sees him on the road from his chair on the porch, where he has sat waiting each day;
he recognizes the walk, the long hair, the shoulders.
He jumps up and stumbles out to him,
his heat thumping, his eyes wet.
He runs to the boy while the boy stands, his head down.
The old man gathers him into his arms and
holds him long,
and he weeps!
Faces are stern now, their eyes slit.
“This father’s a fool,” they murmur.
But still they wait.
The boy begins his speech, but the old man has suddenly gone deaf.
He throws a cloak over the boy’s rags,
pulls off his last and best ring,
slides it onto the boy’s finger,
and then begins calling for servants:
“Kill the fatted calf!” he shouts. “We’ll have a feast!”
Faces are hard now. Many shake their heads.
A bitter elder son refuses even to speak to his lost brother.
He stomps off angry, cursing.
Some faces nod, but most are gray,
their lips pressed white, their eyes aflame,
and some stand up to go.
Nothing has gone right in this story!
They stalk off.
“A bad story,” one says.
“Stupid,” says another.
“Not one of his best.”
But some from the crowd linger:
a tax collector,
They glance at Jesus furtively and wait,
then they approach shyly, slowly,
and one by one they fall at his feet
See, what will keep you from this discovery? Your pride. Your pride. Mine too.
How is a person to come? Exactly as we are. When is a person to come? Immediately! Have you ever come? Have you ever been gathered up in the embrace of God the Father? Do you know God? Do you know how much he loves you? Have you ever come to him and said, “I am more messed up than I was ever prepared to admit, and yet I’ve discovered that I’m more loved in Jesus than I could ever have imagined. I want to ask you to forgive me for all my slamming of the doors, for all of my wandering, and for all of my rebellion, for all of my self-assertiveness, and I want to simply acknowledge that I need your hug, I need your embrace, I need the warmth of your welcome.”
 Luke 15:1 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 15:2 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 15:7 (paraphrased).
 Attributed to Donald Macleod. Source unknown. Paraphrased.
 Elizabeth Cheney, “Overheard in an Orchard” (1859).
 Luke 15:17 (KJV).
 Wanda Mallette, Bob Morrison, and Patti Ryan, “Lookin’ for Love” (1980).
 Celine Dion, “It's All Coming Back to Me Now” (1996). Paraphrased.
 William Spencer Walton, “In Tenderness He Sought Me” (1894). Paraphrased.
 Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love” (1995).
 Jarrod Cooper, “King of Kings, Majesty” (1996).
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. Paraphrased.