This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
Sermon prepared by Rev. Steven deBoer, Beamsville, ON
Grace—the gift God holds out to his children—is so good, so gracious, it can be hard for us to grasp it and delight in its riches. Living in a law-based, grace-less society, perhaps God’s offer of grace doesn’t fully register in our human minds. It’s so good, so out-of-this-world, so scandalous, that many have a hard time believing it, receiving it, and reveling in its splendor.
God speaks of this scandalous gift of grace on every page of his Word, but he seems to shout it in certain passages. One of those passages is when Jesus is hanging on the cross with two thieves beside him. With a lifetime of dirty tricks behind him, and death looming before him, the one thief shows a glimmer of faith, enough to see Jesus’ innocence and to be remembered in His kingdom. And Jesus looks at him squarely, and promises, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” That is grace. Pure, amazing, unheard of, undeserved grace.
Another passage that shouts God’s scandalous offer of grace is the one we read this morning: The parable of the prodigal son, or perhaps it would be better called, “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.” Now, some of you here have probably heard close to a dozen messages on this parable. Its words are familiar to us, we’ve heard it explained in a multitude of ways—but they all point to the same gospel truth—the good, amazing grace of God.
Parables, of course, aren’t real life events, they are stories meant to help us better understand God and the things of God, our relationship to him, and his to us, with images from the world we know. Today, we’re going to dig into the minds and culture of the first hearers. Understanding its original context only deepens and widens our understanding of what God wants to speak to us today. Bible teachers often say that the best way to interpret and unpack and understand parables is to look at the surprises in them, the details that carried with them some shock factor. And this parable is no exception. It certainly contains some shock factors.
The first one is the son’s request. This son saunters up to dear old dad, and he says, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ Now with our ears his request strikes us as crude, rude, and tactless. Like, ‘what is he thinking?!’ But his behavior is more common in our day. Sometimes you see that in families; you know mom and dad get older and they start divvying up their goodies among their family. Or sometimes the family does that for them; you know, the siblings, usually in jest but still somewhat seriously, say, “my name is on that painting…. Sally’s name is on dad’s old rocking chair.” And to a certain degree, when mom and dad are in the loop anyway, there is something very typical—right or wrong—about that behavior in our culture.
But now imagine if the children and grand children started helping themselves before mom and dad passed away. They come in, and they strip the walls of the paintings and pictures, they take the table and chairs, and the floral sofa, the footboard and head board, leaving mom and dad with little more than a mattress lying on the ground, and a few stools beside the kitchen counter. That thought rubs us a bit—that’s just not right. And that gets us an inch closer to the shock of the son’s request.
What, after all, are inheritances? Inheritances are gifts given, or passed onto you, when someone dies. To ask for your inheritance early was the ultimate of insults, the height of rejection. It was to wish someone’s death and to treat someone as if they were dead. Kenneth Bailey, who has studied the culture surrounding this parable, says that he has asked people from all walks of life from Morocco to India, from Turkey to the Sudan how a request like this might be received while a parent is still living. And across the board, they responded, “in a culture like ours that simply doesn’t happen!”
Well, even more so in the Middle East in Jesus’ day, where respect for elders was the cornerstone of social order, and disrespect for parents could mean capital offense. It’s plain unthinkable. Shocking.
Even more shocking than the son’s insulting, unthinkable, unheard of request is the father’s response. He quietly divides his property among them. We’d expect the father to refuse the son’s outrageous request, and punish him for it. “No, I won’t give you your inheritance, now go to your room. And don’t come down until I say so.” That’s what we’d expect. But instead, what does the father do? He gives his son exactly what he asks for, and allows the child to walk away. He lets his son act in a way that says to the world that he, dad, is dead.
And we read in verse 13 that the son wastes no time in cutting ties, not long after that, he “got together all that he had, he set off for a distant country.” Now inheritances are usually real estate. You can’t pack real estate in a suitcase, so that means, that the son sold his portion (along with his father’s well-being!) as soon as he could, and he turned it into a currency that could be packed away. The gull! That was a public event—the whole village saw the ‘for sale’ sign on the front lawn, and that would be plenty to get them talking: Looks like the old man has lost control of his kids! This whole ordeal costs dad a lot—his reputation, his financial security, his pension—but still the father, because he loves him, lets him go.
That’s how it is with the love of God. God gives his children the freedom to walk away for a while, to reject his love for a spell of time, to live and act as if he is dead. To wander from the path that leads to peace. God lets out the rope just enough for his children to experience the seedy side of town, the sordid side of life, where strip clubs line the streets, and the desires of the heart become the quests of each night. Maybe you’ve been there before. God, in his patient love and grace, has allowed you to walk a long trail spotted with bad decisions and the consequences of them, a trail with dead endings, late nights and moments of deep despair.
That’s how it was for the son who packed his bags for life under the neon lights. He piddled away his riches to the point that he had nothing left. When you’re counting your last dimes, what is the last thing you’ll spend your money on? Food, because without it you’ll die. This runaway was hungry and homeless, his mouth watered over a pigs trough. That’s no incidental detail. To Jewish ears, that was the height of despair. Pigs were unclean animals, there was no pork on their fork. To work with pigs was to be aligned with them, and to be what they are: unclean, dirty, defiled by them. More than that, this man came to be seen as even lesser than the pigs he fed. What they were privy to eat, he wasn’t offered. And so, at the end of his rope, there’s only one thing left he can do…go back.
People of God, in his love, God grants you these experiences, not so that you can spend the rest of your life cumbered by its baggage, but so you can taste and see just how good God is. He lets you go so that you run back into his arms—the One who lovingly let you wander—with a deeper, wider, richer love for the One who never stopped loving you. What’s more: He takes those experiences from your wandering—the pain, and the loss, and the defeat, and the guilt—and he mines your heart with them, and then he uses them as investments in his kingdom, giving you enough wisdom that comes from having ‘been there, done that’ that you are now able to walk beside someone else as they limp back to the open arms of their Maker. He turns your sin and misery into healing and ministry.
Indeed God’s grace is so good, it’s hard for us to fully understand it, believe it, and perhaps even know how to receive it. That brings us to the third surprise of this parable. When the son realizes he’s hit rock bottom, he devises a plan: “I will set out and go 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.’” The son has a plan. “I’ll work for my board, and maybe even start to pay back dad some of what I owe him. Slowly, I’ll dig my way out of this debt, and maybe even rebuild his retirement fund again.” In short, this son wanted to save himself. And he thought he could. He didn’t need grace.
But grace is what he got. Before he sees his father, his father sees him, and verse 20 says, “he was filled with compassion for him and ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Between the lines, this is what we see: The father never stopped waiting for him, never stopped looking for his return. His head was always cranked toward the horizon waiting for his son to come home. And that’s where the most surprising, downright scandalous part comes.
Aristotle once wrote that, “Great men never run in public.” That was a significant Eastern sentiment. It would be undignified for a man, an elderly father especially, to run in public. But this father humbled himself in the sight of his neighbors, running publicly, blatantly, unashamedly, down the road toward the son that wished him dead. He took on his son’s red face, his shame, his humiliation, his sins and brokenness, his guilt. He took all of it onto himself. Whereas the others in the community would have shunned this runaway pug for his sins, the father accepted him whole hog.
You know how religious communities can be; we have a hard time letting go of the former sins of others…we tend to define people by their pasts. Not so with the Father. The best robe, the ring on the finger, the sandals—those were all signs that the past is the past…not to be remembered anymore. The community had to accept the boy because dad did. Now, he stood among them, wearing dad’s finest robe, and the family ring and the sandals of a son—all signs that spoke of his value and worth in his Father’s eyes.
And, people of God, that picture gets us a little closer to tasting the grace God holds out to his children. Even when the son begins his prepared speech of how unworthy he is, the father cuts him off before he even reaches the part about working off the debt. The son doesn’t even need to grovel and beg for forgiveness, God doles it out and restores him to the highest honor. That’s grace. It’s arms wide open with an embrace that never lets go. It doesn’t first ask where you were. That doesn’t matter. It simply delights in your return. Grace—it turns unclean wanderers, sick and tired, into forgiven children with hope for tomorrow. Grace—it’s what led the Father to spread the arms of his Son, Jesus Christ, for people who have been through the mill and back. Grace—it welcomes and accepts, it heals and forgives. So we sing of it today, not as hirelings with debts, but as children with a delightful inheritance. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saves a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Amen.
Order of Worship
GATHERING TO WORSHIP
Gathering Songs: “Be Unto Your Name”
“Lord, You Have My Heart”
Call to Worship
Leader: We will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; we will tell of your wonders.
Congr: We will be glad and rejoice in you; we will sing praise to your name, O Most High.
Leader: Our help is in the name of the Lord,
Congr: who made heaven and earth.
* Hymn/Song of Praise: PsH 486 “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
OR “God of Wonders”
* God’s Greeting:
“God greets us with his love: Grace, mercy, and peace to us from the Father and the Son, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
* We Greet One Another
* Hymn of Praise: PsH 169 “I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord”
OR SNC 14 “God, You Call Us to this Place”
Pastor: What is our prayer for these children?
Congr: The Lord be with you.
Children: And also with you.
(Children ages 3-8 leave for Sunday School)
CONFESSION AND RENEWAL
Prayer of Confession (concluded w/ PsH 255:1,3 “God, Be Merciful to Me”)
“Lord God, you have searched our hearts, and you know us. You know when we sit and when we rise. You discern our going out and our lying down. You are familiar with all of our ways. before a word is on our tongues, you know it completely, O Lord. And, Father, you see what others do not see, and even what we do not see in ourselves: When we speak loudly of justice, yet live quietly for ourselves; when we talk of love, yet abhor our neighbor; when we bless others with our tongues, yet curse in our hearts. Indeed you know our hearts, and in those all too rare moments of our lives, the Spirit helps us to see what you see lurking within us. And so, we pray: Father, forgive. God, be merciful and show us again the grace that flows in abundance from your throne. This we pray…”
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 103:8-18
God’s Will For Our Lives: 1 John 3:16-20
* Hymn/Song of Commitment: PsH 497 “How Vast the Benefits Divine” OR “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us”
Congregational Prayer & Prayer for Illumination
PROCLAMATION OF GOD’S WORD
Scripture Reading: Luke 15:11-32
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Message: “Grace that Restores”
Prayer of Application:
Lord God, Giver of grace, give us the grace to receive your grace, and to live graciously. Thank you for opening your arms wide, accepting us as we are, and welcoming us with your ever-loving embrace. Thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ, who embraced death that we might live. May we sing of your amazing grace until the day you open your arms to us for the final time, welcoming us to our eternal home. In Christ, we pray. Amen.
* Hymn of Response: PsH 462:1-4 “Amazing Grace—How Sweet the Sound”
RESPONSE OF GRATITUDE
DEPARTING TO SERVE
* Parting Hymn/Song: PsH 630:1 “Now Blessed Be the Lord Our God” OR SNC 288 “My Friends, May You Grow in Grace”
* God’s Blessing:
“God sends us from here with his grace, to show grace, and he blesses us on our way, with these words from Numbers 6: ‘The Lord bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face shine upon us, and be gracious to us. The Lord turn his face toward us and give us his smile of peace. Amen”
* Doxology: PsH 630:2 “And blessed be his glorious name…” OR SNC 288 “My Friends, May You Grow in Grace