Sermon 03-27-2022: “When Our Father Says, ‘From Now On'”

April 1, 2022

Scripture: Luke 15: 1-2, 11-32

Almighty, gracious Father, since our whole salvation depends on our true understanding of your holy Word, grant that our hearts—freed from worldly affairs—may hear and understand your holy Word with all diligence and faith, so that we may rightly discern your gracious will, cherish it, and live by it with all earnestness, to your praise and honor, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We are nearing the end of March, and I have one question for you: Is your bracket busted?

Of course it is!

I’m referring to “March Madness,” and the annual tradition of “filling out your bracket”—of trying to pick the winners of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. You start with sixty-four teams and whittle your way down to one champion.

According to ESPN, of the more than 17 million brackets that people filled out on their website, all of them were busted by the second round. Not a single bracket survived. Of course, most brackets were busted in the very first round when 15-seed St. Peter’s defeated number-one-seed Kentucky. Almost no one predicted that.

And St. Peter’s continues to defy the odds. Aren’t we all rooting for the Peacocks today against the mighty North Carolina Tar Heels?

What’s funny to me is that every year around this time, you can count on seeing tweets and posts on social media, and reading blog posts and articles online, expressing great surprise that people’s brackets are so badly busted: “Oh no! This year is crazy with all the upsets!”

At some point you’d think we’d stop being surprised at how badly busted our brackets are! It happens every year! We fail every year!

Now, suppose you’re one of those Methodists who is “giving up something” for Lent… how’s that going? Are you having any more success with that than you are with your bracket? Have you cheated on your commitment to give up dessert, or alcohol, or “complaining”—one of you told me that you were giving up complaining for Lent. That would be a hard one for me!Or maybe you were going to fast—from food—or maybe you were going to start a new habit like waking up early and having a daily quiet time—and maybe these things have also proven far too difficult. 

Or… maybe you’re doing great with your so-called “Lenten discipline”… Maybe you have been successful in giving up something or taking on something new. Maybe you’re thinking, “I am really something special! I am so good! God has got to be proud of me!”

But the moment you start feeling that kind of spiritual pride, well… then you become like the older son in today’s parable… and that’s a terrible sin, too.

There’s no winning!

Let’s face it: As today’s scripture reminds us, all of us come before God with “busted brackets”—spiritually speaking: We always come to God as sinners in need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. And as with March Madness, this spiritual failure also shouldn’t surprise us.

Speaking of surprises, is there anything new or surprising to learn from this very familiar parable—“The Parable of the Prodigal Son”? I hope so! In fact, I believe that even if you are very familiar with this parable, there are still elements of Jesus’ story that can surprise us. And that’s what this sermon is about, three surprising things in this parable: One, the surprising costliness of the father’s action. Two, the surprising crisis that the younger son faces. And three, the surprising consequences of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

Surprising costliness, surprising crisis, and surprising consequences.

But let’s begin with the surprising costlinessof the father’s actions…

We get a sense of this costliness in the first two verses of the parable, verses 11 and 12: “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them.”

Jesus’ original audience for this parable would be surprised—shocked even—by these words.

In this ancient Jewish culture, the younger son’s request is completely out of line—it’s disrespectful in the extreme; it’s callous in its disregard for his father, not to mention his older brother. For one thing, you don’t ask for your share of the inheritance before your father is dead; it’s as if the younger son were saying, “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive. So go ahead and give me what I have coming to me. I wish you were dead.”


But not only that: The father was likely middle-aged, with potentially many years of life ahead of him. But now, because he was dividing his estate before his death, the father would have a lot less wealth to live off of for the rest of his life. One-third less. Because according to Jewish law, the older son was entitled to two-thirds of the estate, and the younger son was entitled to one-third.

So think about the harm the younger son has caused his father: Instead of having 100 percent of his wealth, his livestock, and his land to live off of for the rest of his life, the father will only have about 67 percent to live off of. And not to mention he’s completely dependent on the generosity of his older son to take care of him—since he’s already divided up his estate! What if the father and older son become victims of famine or recession or bad investments or theft? It’s not hard to imagine that that missing 33 percent of wealth could mean the difference between life and death, health and sickness, prosperity and destitution.

And then there’s the shame, the dishonor, the disgrace that the father will have to endure because of the younger son.

Everyone in the community will know what the younger son did! This would be shameful for the father! Think of the gossip! Will the family ever live it down?

And when he receives his younger son back, even the father’s unwillingness to let his son “work off” his great debt proves costly.

The point is, the father’s love is costly!The point is, forgiveness is costly!

Listen: I don’t know if you’re aware of this debate, but many skeptics and critics of Christianity—not to mention even many modern Christians, unfortunately—wonder aloud why Jesus had to die on the cross in order to forgive us of our sins. “All this talk about Jesus ‘suffering the penalty’ for our sins on the cross, paying the debt we owe to God, dying for our sins… it all seems unnecessary. After all, God is full of grace and mercy… Why does he require the sacrifice of his Son on the cross? Or, to put it another way, why does God himself, in the Person of his Son Jesus,choose to go to the cross in order to save us? Why can’t God just forgive us… for free?”

But this overlooks an important fact about forgiveness… Forgiveness is never free. Forgiveness is always costly. If you disagree, consider this thought experiment:

Suppose somebody steals your car. It’s missing for several days. Then one day the police call: The man who stole your car crashed it. But the good news is that the police arrived on the scene and arrested the man. But instead of taking the man to jail right away, they say to you, the owner of the car: “You get to choose. This man can either go to jail and face punishment… Or… you can just forgive him, and he can get off scot-free. He won’t have to serve jail time. He won’t have a black mark on his record. He’ll walk away from the crime and never see you again. Because you forgave him.

Now let me ask you: Would your forgiveness of this man be “free”? Does your forgiveness cost nothing? Of course not! 

First of all, the car has to be repaired—which could be very expensive. And even if your insurance covers part of it, you still pay the deductible, not to mention you’re the one who’s been paying the premiums every month. Also, you’ve been without your car for a few days already, and it will be several more days before your car is back from the shop. So maybe you’ve had to pay for a rental car to get you back and forth from work or other places. Not to mention the emotional turmoil or the time away from work or whatever else it’s cost you just to deal with the hassle of having your car stolen.

Who’s going to pay for all that if you forgive the perpetrator and he goes free? You are

And maybe that’s fine. I only want you to see that forgiveness even in this trivial case isn’t free. It’s costly. Somebody must pay for the damaged car… Either the person who committed the crime. Or his family. Or the insurance. Or you. Regardless, the price must be paid.1

And the costliness of this father’s love for his son and forgiveness of his son in this parable is a symbol of our heavenly Father’s love for and forgiveness of us sinners: Our sins are deadly serious. The Bible says that they deserve the death penalty—both at the end of our natural life… and in hell. A just God can’t ignore the costliness of sin. That would be unjust on God’s part: so either we pay the cost… in death and hell… or God pays the cost, out of love, and then offers us forgiveness completely free of cost… and that’s exactly what God does!

Forgiveness is expensive… And God pays the cost… out of love!

Romans 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

So that’s Point Number One: the surprising costliness of the father’s love and forgiveness.

Point Number Two: the the surprising crisis that the younger son faces.

But you might say, “What’s so surprising?” The fact that this foolish, immature young punk—maybe still a teenager but at least a very young adult—the fact that he takes his father’s fortune, goes to the first-century equivalent of Las Vegas, and fritters it all away on wine, women, and song… well, what’s so surprising about that? 

We’ve all seen those statistics—I assume there’s some truth in it—that the large majority of people who win these lotteries end up squandering their fortunes. And we also hear frequently—way too frequently!—about child actors, for example, who are rich and famous when they’re young, and they mismanage their money—or other people take advantage of them—and by the time they reach middle age, they have nothing.

We all know the story… It happens all the time… So what’s so surprising about the younger son’s crisis?

But not so fast… 

Sure, this son faced a crisis of losing all that money and nearly starving… Notice verses 15 and 16: After he’s lost everything, a famine hits the land and the only job he can find in that “far country” is feeding pigs. As if that weren’t degrading enough for this young Jewish man—since pigs were considered unclean animals—he can’t even live off that meager income and is tempted to eat the “carob pods” that he’s feeding the pigs.

So that’s a crisis… I’m not denying it… And that crisis is not surprising. 

But let me describe an infinitely worse crisis: 

This same young man takes his father’s fortune, moves away from home, settles in this “far country,” except… instead of squandering all this money, he invests it. He becomes a successful entrepreneur—successful beyond his wildest dreams! He hires a large staff of servants and employees to manage his properties and holdings. He builds large houses and vacation homes. He marries a beautiful wife who truly loves him and gives him many children, who also love him and grow up and become successful, independent adults—each of whom in turn gives him grandchildren and great-grandchildren… He’s got it made! And not only that, the younger son is able to retire young, enjoy a long life free of any major health problems. And although he never reconciles with his father, he dies at a ripe old age at the end of what any reasonable person would consider a good, long life.

That would be a far bigger crisis! 

That would be a far bigger crisis than merely losing all of his money, and going hungry until he returns home to reconcile with his father!

Depending on who you ask, Elon Musk is either the richest man in the world, or at least the second richest man in the world. He’s not doing badly, by any measure. And I have great admiration for the man, and I think his company Space X is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Recently, Musk sat down for an interview with editors of The Babylon Bee, which is a media company run by Christians. Toward the end of the interview they asked him about his faith—or lack thereof. 

He said, “There’s great wisdom in the teachings of Jesus, and I agree with those teachings. Things like turn the other cheek are very important, as opposed to an eye for an eye. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind… Forgiveness, you know, is important and treating people as you would wish to be treated. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Very important.”2

Musk is not—by his own admission—a professing Christian, as his answers in this interview bear witness. Sounds like he might be open to the possibility of becoming one, and I hope he does.

But you tell me… Is it better to be literally the richest man in the world without Jesus or to be who you are right now and to have Jesus? 

And I get it… “What’s wrong with being both?” But let’s assume that’s not an option right now… Which is better?

Remember, Jesus himself said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”3

A relationship with Jesus Christ is worth more than literally the greatest treasure that anyone on earth possesses!

So the biggest crisis any of us can face is living our lives and dying without ever having received the treasure that is available—freely available—through Christ alone!

And listen… we make a mistake if we read this part of the parable about the prodigal son as only applying to people who are lost and who haven’t yet received Christ. No, even we Christians are prodigal sons and daughters! 

Speaking for myself, while I may not have a permanent residence in that “far country” the younger son runs off to, I at least keep a “time share” there… unfortunately. And every day, many times a day, I’m tempted to treasure other things, or other people, more than I treasure Christ. And when I do, my heart has once again run away to that “far country.”

And since that’s the case, since we often rebel against God, it is actually good for us—as much as it hurts in the short run—it’s actually an act of mercy for God to send us a crisis every now and then in order for us, like the prodigal son in verse 17, to “come to our senses.” The Bible says that God does this because he’s our Father, and like any loving Father, he loves us enough to discipline us.4

No one has written more extensively or helpfully about the ways in which God disciplines his beloved children than 20th-century writer C.S. Lewis. But the following is just one short excerpt from a letter. I find it helpful. Lewis uses the word “punishment” instead of “discipline,” but he means the exact same thing by it. In a letter he wrote to someone once, he said,

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments” [or discipline]. But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.5

In the case of the prodigal son, even this “famine” that God made him endure was surprisingly “not so bad,” since it was precisely what the young man needed to bring him home! This crisis was a painful blessing for the younger son.

In my quiet time last week, I read Deuteronomy 9, verses 18 and 19. Moses is reminding the Israelites of the time when Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, and they encouraged his brother Aaron to make an idol of a golden calf. God tells Moses that God is going to wipe out the Israelites for their sin. This is a crisis that Moses faced! Then Moses does something remarkable… He says,

Then, as before, I threw myself down before the Lord for forty days and nights. I ate no bread and drank no water because of the great sin you had committed by doing what the Lord hated, provoking him to anger. I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again he listened to me

Moses was a very gifted leader in many ways, but it could be that the main reason God chose him to lead God’s people is because Moses prayed like this. Forty days of fasting, forty days of lying on the ground before God… praying. Imploring God not to destroy his “stiff-necked” people.

And God listened to him! Moses’ prayers literally changed the course of history.

By contrast, what could “my people”—whether it’s my flock, my congregation, or my family—what could “my people” do that would motivate me to pray the way Moses prays? When I consider how paltry my own prayers often are… how feeble they often are… how reluctant I often am to pray them… how I so often feel like I’m going through the motions, just checking a box… And I’m a pastor! What are my responsibilities? Preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, ordering the life of the church, performing pastoral care… No one in “License to Preach” school, no one in seminary, no one in the three-year process of ordination ever mentioned this… But suppose the most important part of my job is praying for y’all—interceding to God on your behalf. 

And moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, maybe the most important part of your life is praying for your children and grandchildren.

So this convicts me. And I apologize to y’all… Because the Lord is calling me to do better!

But my point is, we do our best praying in the midst of a crisis. We learn to depend more deeply on God during times of crisis. We learn to trust in God best during times of crisis. So without a doubt, God uses them to teach us and change us!

And this brings us to Point Number Three: the surprising consequences of Christ’s atoning death on the cross!

To see this, please notice the well-rehearsed speech that the younger son has prepared for his father in verses 18 and 19: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” Now notice in verses 21 and 22, after his father ran to him and embraced him and kissed him, the younger son doesn’t even get to say that last part about being a servant—he doesn’t even finish his speech—before his father cuts him off and says, “Bring my best robe and put it on him. Bring me my ring and put it on him. Put sandals on his feet.” 

Jesus is telling us something surprising: the forgiveness of our sins, our acceptance by God, our adoption into God’s family forever, our gift of eternal life, depends on nothing other than repentance and faith!

And friends, when it comes to salvation, repentance and faith are very, very small in comparison to what God does for us!

You say, “Well, the younger son had to ‘come to his senses’ and turn around to head home”! Yes, and that’s repentance… Repentance is confessing our sin, turning around, and heading home to God. It’s not nothing.

But notice the younger son doesn’t even go very far before his father runs out to meet him! And he doesn’t even confess very much before his father cuts him off. And not only that… 

What ultimately makes the younger son decide to return home? Is he just so guilty and broken up about the great harm that he’s caused his father and brother and he wants to make amends? No… Not even… 

According to the parable, the primary reason he returns home is… he’s starving… and he’s run out of options… and he can’t think of anywhere else to go, of anyone else to turn to, who can save him other than his father. Of course he’s also sorry for his sins—but that’s not the main reason he returns home. He’s motivated by the same thing that motivated him to take his father’s money and go to the “far country” to begin with: he’s motivated by self-interest!

And yet… surprise, surprise… in spite of his impure motives, somehow that’s enough for God!

It reminds me of the criminal on the cross next to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus tells him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”6 This same man who had been mocking Jesus moments earlier must have thought, “What do I have to lose at this point? I may as well ask Jesus to save me.” The criminal does so little to be saved!

And also notice what the father in this parable doesn’t do… He doesn’t tell his son what surely all of us other parents would tell our children in similar circumstances. He doesn’t have “the talk” with his son: “From now on, things are going to have to be different… From now on, you’re going to have to carry your weight around here… From now on, you’re going to have to stay home with me, and work for me, and no more grumbling or complaining… or else! Do you understand me, mister?”

The father doesn’t say that! It’s unbelievable! There is no “from now on” speech! 

Isn’t that surprising?

In fact, the only “from now on” the father offers his son he offers not with words but with actions: “From now on, you will be my beloved child… From now on, you will be a part of my family… From now on, nothing you do, nothing that happens to you, nothing that anyone does to you, will ever separate you from me and my love for you!”7

As I said earlier, the younger son hasn’t changed very much! He hasn’t done much to demonstrate that he’s not going to mess up again in the future. I’m sure he will! 

What’s changed is not mostly the younger son himself… What’s changed is the cross of God’s Son Jesus… 

It’s not what the younger son or the rest of us sinners do to prove that we’ve changed, it’s what God’s Son has done by suffering and dying for all of our sins on the cross!

  1.  Brent White, “Defending Substitutionary Atonement Again,”, 10 January 2019. Accessed 24 March 2022.
  2.  Terry Mattingly, “Babylon Bee Catches Up with Elon Musk,”, 22 January 2022. Accessed 27 March 2022.
  3. Matthew 13:44-46 ESV
  4. See Hebrews 12:5-11 for one example.
  5. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.
  6. Luke 23:42-43
  7. See Romans 8:38-39

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