Sermon for 06-20-10: “Relatively Speaking, Part 7: The Loving Father”

June 21, 2010

Sermon Text: Luke 15:11-32

[This week I’m including a video of the sermon taken with my Flip camcorder. The quality is pretty good, with one glaring exception: the aspect ratio of the Flip doesn’t quite conform to the aspect ratio of the finished mp4 movie. This means that my head gets chopped off at times! I apologize! If we do it again, we’ll fix that problem. Also, we’ll use a tripod! Still I think it’s a nice first effort.]

The following is my original manuscript.

I’ve read that when you’re learning a language, the hardest thing to master is humor and jokes. This is surely true—I think about my own children and how long it took them to figure out jokes and how they worked. The first jokes they learned were knock-knock jokes. “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Boo.” “Boo-hoo.” “Why are you crying?” And then they’d burst into laughter. But then they would make up their own: “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Cat.” “Cat who?” “Dog.” And they’d burst into laughter. Wait! That doesn’t make any sense.

Just last week, my son Townshend asked me, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “To get to the other side,” I said. Duh. “No,” he said, “Why did the chicken really cross the road?” I didn’t know the answer to that question! I can’t explain that joke, and the easiest joke of all time! Jokes are tough. Even as we get older, the last thing we want to do is have to explain a joke. If you have to explain it, the joke loses its humor; its power; its effectiveness.

I feel that way a little bit when it comes to today’s scripture, what is traditionally called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s Jesus’ most beloved and beautiful story—surely one of the most powerful statements of God’s love and the good news of Jesus Christ in all of scripture. I’m tempted to just read it, and let it speak for itself. Like a good joke, if I explain it, I worry that it will lose some of its immense power. But I need to explain it at least a little in order clear away some of the obstacles that prevent us from hearing it as well as we should.

For example, even the traditional title, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is all wrong. In verse 11, Jesus begins the story, “There was a man who had two sons.” This parable is first of all about a father and both his sons, not just the younger son. And it’s a story primarily about the father. A better title would be, The Parable of the Loving Father.

It’s a love that’s hard to understand. And I think many of us have grown so comfortable with this story—and this risky, costly, seemingly reckless love that it portrays—that we’ve lost sight of just how shocking it is! Jesus intended for it to be shocking. Make no mistake. Let’s take a few moments to try to hear it that way.

The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. He wasn’t entitled to it until the father died—at which point he, as the younger son, would have received one-third of his father’s estate. His other brother would have received the other two-thirds. By asking for it early, the younger son was essentially telling his father, “You’re dead to me. I don’t want anything to do with you or this family any longer.” Give me what I have coming to me, and I’ll be out of your life forever. The very request was shocking and offensive. In the eyes of that ancient culture, what the younger son had coming to him was a beating!

And how do you suppose this made the father feel? To be rejected by his own son in this way? We may say, “Why did he do it? Why did he grant his son’s request? Where’s the ‘tough love’ that we hear so much about?” Well, the son was a grown man. I think of Paul’s description of Christ-like love in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love does not insist on its own way.” His father could have refused the request and made him stay at home, but that wouldn’t make his son love him; that wouldn’t change his son’s heart.

The son’s request was also putting his father’s welfare at risk. For the rest of his father’s life, his father would be living on less—less money, less land, less wealth, less security. It’s as if the value of his 401(k)’s, IRAs, and Social Security were slashed by a third. And you’re thinking, “Welcome to my world,” right? But in his case there was no hope of ever recouping his losses. The economy didn’t grow back then.

When we go out to eat with Lisa’s parents, her father, a proud man, usually insists on paying, and I will insist on letting him. No, but when we protest, he’ll say, “Don’t worry. I’ll take it out of your inheritance.” He’s joking, of course, but we’re like, “Hey, don’t worry about us! Enjoy your retirement—live a good, long time and may the last check bounce!” I hate to think that our parents in retirement are afraid to spend money out of fear of not leaving an inheritance for us! You know? I think our parents do worry a little about what they’re going to leave us. By taking his share of the inheritance early, the younger son was giving his father reason to worry about his financial security in his retirement. It’s a terrible position to put his father in.

[Hee-Haw example.]

The point is, in that day and age, a family’s reputation—their sense of honor—was more valuable than land and property and wealth. And the father’s great love toward his wayward son—giving him what he asked for in the first place and then receiving him back the way he did— had cost the family their honor, too. People all over the village would be gossiping about the foolish father and his greedy son. The father’s reputation would be permanently harmed.

In other words, what the father did out of love for his wayward child was unimaginable. Costly! Scandalous! And… most importantly: completely worth it in order to save his child.

Have you seen this movie with Liam Neeson called Taken? It’s thrilling action movie. Neeson plays a former U.S. spy whose daughter has been kidnapped in France by some Albanian bad guys. Neeson tells the kidnappers over the phone: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” And I’m like, “Yeah! Go get him!” And he does—at unimaginable risk to his life!

The movie was cartoonish, of course, but it captured a deep emotional truth that all of us fathers understand… Is there anything we wouldn’t do, anything we wouldn’t give, anything we wouldn’t endure—out of love—for the sake of our children? Wouldn’t we lay down our lives for our children? Of course we would! Gladly!

Jesus challenges us to imagine the ways in which God’s love is like this. God is not less of a loving father than we are; he’s only more loving; perfectly loving. When we consider this unimaginable, costly, scandalous love expressed by the father for his child who was lost, it’s impossible not to think of God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”1

And Christ did this in order that we, like the prodigal son in verse 17, might “come to ourselves.” The younger son “came to himself.” That’s often translated “came to his senses,” which is what it means, but I prefer the more literal “came to himself.” Think about it: We can describe the younger son’s motives as being nothing but selfish—he was looking out for number one, thinking only of himself. But ironically, this behavior, which was all about trying to act in his own self-interest, had the effect of moving him away from himself.

That’s the way sin is! Sin is against our truest and best selves—even though it masquerades as something that is really for us. There’s a lot of wisdom in an old Elvis song that goes,

You fooled me with your kisses

You cheated and you schemed

Heaven knows how you lied to me

You’re not the way you seemed

You look like an angel

Walk like an angel

Talk like an angel

But I got wise

You’re the devil in disguise

Of course, the song was written about a former lover, but I would argue that the devil always comes in disguise. Sin always disguises itself to look like something good. But it ends up hurting us and hurting the ones we love. So maybe some of us are like the prodigal son. We’ve gone far away from God. We’re in trouble. We’re desperate. We may feel as if we’re hopelessly lost. God may have loved us at one time, we think, but we burned that bridge a long time ago. The good news is that God never gave up on us. He’s waiting for us to return. We, like the prodigal son, can come to ourselves again—we can turn around and find our loving Father running to us, embracing us, making us a part of his family again. God wants you to experience this unimaginable, costly, and scandalous love for yourself.

Have you experienced it? You can! God’s gift of eternal life is freely available to everyone. The only qualification is that you have to be a sinner.

Jesus is also inviting us through this parable to be joyful; to come into the party that is life in God’s kingdom; to experience every moment of life as a gracious gift from the One who loves us more than we can imagine; and to look with hope toward an eternal future made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All of this is ours! How could we not be happy and joyful?

Well… There is one good way—and I think the older son in the parable falls victim to this. And that is failing to appreciate the many good gifts that God gives us. Instead of living lives of gratitude for all of God’s good gifts, we take them for granted. Our tendency to take good gifts for granted is the surest way to kill our joy. I asked earlier for you to text me some things about your father for which you are thankful this morning. Here are some things you said. [Read them.]

Each of these fathers and the good things they do for us are gifts from our loving Father!

My father died 15 years ago. He’s certainly in my thoughts this day. He died of cancer at 64. We had about a year during which we knew that it was terminal. God graciously used this year to wake me up to the precious gift that was my father’s life—so I would learn not to take him for granted.. I saw him nearly every day that last year—in the hospital while he getting chemo, at home. We went on vacation together. I was with him when he died at my parents’ home, under hospice care. But this experience of facing the end of his life changed me, and it certainly changed my dad, too. For the first time in his life, the words, “I love you” and, “I’m proud of you,” flowed freely and easily from his lips. Every time he saw me—or Lisa, or anyone else in the family for that matter—he would make a point of telling us how much he loved us. He explained one time: “I love you. You may get tired of hearing it, but I’m not going to get tired of telling you. And I’m going to keep on telling you because it’s true.”

Jesus loves you. You may get tired of hearing it, but he’s not going to get tired of showing you—and we the Church are going to keep telling you. Because it’s true.

Amen.

Philippians 2:6-8

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