Sermon 17 June 2018

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET, LONDON

11 AM SUNDAY 17.6.18

Revd Andrew Anderson

TITLE: “THE LOST SON” LUKE 15.11-32

Listen Here:  https://soundcloud.com/user-942286720/sermon-17-june-2018

 

Today is Father’s Day, and maybe it is appropriate for us to consider this morning one of the parables of Jesus in which he tells us a story about a wonderful father.

It has been called “the greatest short story in the world,” and “probably the best story ever told.”  It is of course, the parable which we probably know of as the Prodigal Son, but which in some modern translations is headed the Lost Son. It is a simple story, briefly told, but one which introduces us to the mighty spiritual truths of our faith, which confronts us with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is very familiar to us, but I make no apologies for looking at it again, because it has so much to teach us.

The story centres on three characters: the younger son, the father, and the older brother. Now, though the story is known as the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Son, the real point of focus, and the central character, is the father. It seems to me that when we look at this character of the father in the story, Jesus clearly means us to see God, his heavenly Father, and our heavenly Father. The story shows us what our God is like, and what we see, friends, is good news. We could call it the parable of the Loving Father.

Let’s take each of the three characters in turn.

First, there is the younger son. He comes of age, and, as he is entitled to do in Jewish law, he asks his father for his share of his inheritance. He wants, as most young people do, to have a good time, and to explore the pleasures of the world. For a time, he does just that, and life is good. But then two misfortunes overcome him: he runs out of money, and there is a famine in which such food as there is becomes expensive. He is forced to hire himself out to a farmer to feed pigs, highly offensive to a Jew, and he is so hungry he would gladly eat the rough food that he is giving to the pigs.

There are two lessons here. First, we are all like the younger son, he shows us our likeness, in that we are all proud and self-willed, we love to please and indulge ourselves. That reflects our natural, unconverted heart, our heart without God, when we go far from him. We may do it in different ways: one person’s passion and greed and desire are not the same as another’s. But they all take us far from God, and the things of God. That temptation faces us all.

Secondly, the younger son finds out how painful and miserable the sinful and self-indulgent life can be. For a time, and it may be for a long time, things go well, but when the hard times come, without God, without Christ, we don’t have the resources to cope. We encounter stress, anxiety, depression, or worse. That’s our experience. Someone said we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts which only he can fill. Or as Saint Augustine put it, memorably, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in thee.”

But the younger son comes to his senses. He sees his predicament for what it is, the result of his sinful and self-indulgent excesses, and he resolves to go home, he says, “I will go back to my father.” In Jesus’ story, the younger son really wants to repent, he seems genuinely aware of his need and sorry. As he turns to go home, he rehearses his confession, the confession he will give to his father of his sin and unworthiness. Possibly his father will have him back, even as a servant in his house. That would be good!

“When he came to his senses.” What a lovely expression! It’s as if good sense at last prevails. He saw his foolishness, and his impossible predicament, and he makes the right decision, the right choice, to go home, to go home to his father. It’s a decision that we are all free to make, at some time or another, or perhaps repeatedly. Is there someone among us here this morning who needs to make that decision, make that choice, again, or for the first time? Friend, don’t hesitate, choose to go to the Father!

As I said, I think the father is the central character in this story. Jesus wants to teach us to see the father as a picture of God our Heavenly Father. It is an exquisitely beautiful picture.

Let us take up the story from verse 20. 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.

We see the father waiting patiently, and even expectantly, for his son to return. He was looking out for him, and when he saw him a long way off he ran towards him, not a particularly dignified thing for an elderly, eastern man to do in those days, but such was his excitement at his son’s return, and his compassion. He hugs him and kisses him. He does much more, the robe stands for honour, the ring stands for authority, and the sandals on his feet assure him that he is a son, and not a slave. And as for the killing of the fatted calf, that was the mark of a true celebration. What a party they had! What did the father say? This son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.

He was lost and is found! This is grace, amazing grace! Undeserved, unearned, unexpected, a free pardon, lavish, extravagant!

There’s a delightful detail in the story. When the boy, coming home, rehearses his confession, it includes a plea to his father to be made a hired servant. When he confesses to his father he doesn’t get this far before his father cuts him off. He’s heard enough. Nothing will stop his joy and delight and celebration that his son has come home.

And this is the good news, the gospel that we Christian men and women hold so precious and so dear, and that we long to share with others. God forgives, because he loves us, God reconciles us to himself, and all through Jesus Christ, through his suffering, his passion, his cross and resurrection. That’s what makes it possible. We deserve to be condemned and punished for our sin. But, in a “wondrous exchange”, as John Calvin put it, Jesus takes this upon himself, and we go free. As Paul so wonderfully says in Romans, God demonstrate his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And again, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. Amazing grace indeed!

And joy touches everything. You know, I’m sure God is far more willing to forgive than we are. And when we forgive, and if we forgive, we often do so grudgingly, unwillingly, and it brings us little pleasure. Whereas God is ready to forgive and rejoices in our repentance. Jesus’ three parables of lost things demonstrate this so well. The shepherd is filled with joy   when he finds his lost sheep and rejoices with his neighbours when he has brought it home. The woman is overjoyed to find her coin and celebrates with her neighbours. And what does the father say when his son comes home. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.

Now, Jesus’ story could end there, and we would have gained much. The story of the younger son and his sin and wrongdoing, returning home repentant to his father, to find the free forgiveness and pardon that is the mark of his father’s love towards him. And all of grace, quite undeserved. That’s us! There is the younger son in all of us, but praise God we have such a Father in heaven!

But the story does not end there. Enter the older brother.

I well remember in the early years of my ministry preaching on this parable, and at the door afterwards, as I shook hands with the departing congregation, one man gripped my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You know, I’ve always had great sympathy for the elder brother.” Well, should we?  Is he a sympathetic figure?

I suppose there is a case to be made for the older brother? He didn’t leave home and go far away to satisfy his pleasures and indulge himself. He didn’t waste his father’s money, and become impoverished. He stayed at home, and he worked loyally and diligently.

But I find the picture Jesus paints of the older brother ugly and unattractive. The older brother is self-righteous, thinks only of himself, and shows no care or compassion towards his younger brother. He totally fails to see the father’s love and delight in his brother’s safe return, and he in no way wants to welcome him home. Rather he seeks only to justify himself. That’s truly what Jesus wants us to see, and as a warning, for spiritual pride and conceit and self-justification are something that we can all exhibit. Just as there is the younger brother in all of us, there is, and it’s perhaps more worrying, something of the older brother in all of us also. In him we see our own likeness, and it’s ugly and unattractive.

This chapter in Luke’s gospel begins with the tax collectors and sinners all gathering round Jesus, and we’re told, But the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcome sinners, and eats with them.” The Pharisees and the religious leaders didn’t like the way that Jesus associated with, and kept company with, tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes. In their view such people have no place in the kingdom of God. Jesus is so different! In response Jesus tells the three stories of the lost things, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. And there is such joy in heaven when a sinner repents and comes home.

Be warned, says Jesus. Don’t let’s ever find ourselves saying we don’t want to associate with these kinds of people, we don’t want them in the kingdom of Jesus Christ, we don’t want them in the Church.

I’m sure many of you watched the recent royal wedding, and, if you did, you’ll surely not forget the remarkable sermon preached by Bishop Michael Curry. He spoke of love, the power of love, the power of redeeming love that we see in Christ upon the cross, and he said we need that love in our world today. One or two people I’ve spoken to didn’t like the sermon, but most people did, very much so. It spoke to nearly all of us.

We need that love in our world, and in our lives today. We see that love, that amazing grace, in the parable of the Loving Father. Let’s go out and show that love in our lives today.

 

Andrew Anderson.