Lost and found - Luke 15
There is the story of a little boy who was on the floor one day with a piece of paper drawing a picture with tremendous concentration. "What are you doing?", asked his Mum. "I'm drawing a picture of God" came the reply. His Mum not quite knowing how to respond said, 'But no one knows what God looks like." He glanced up at her with a rather indignant look on his face and said, ' Well, they will after Ive finished.' I guess that of all the pictures of God which people have conceived down the years none have been as evocative as that by Francis Thompson in his poem, The Hound of Heaven. in which God is likened to a hunting hound relentlessly pursuing his runaway prey -the author- not out of anger but out of love. Of course, this was true to Francis Thompsons own experience who, having left his middle class home in Preston to study medicine, rebelled against his religious upbringing until living diseased and destitute on the streets of London he turned to the Saviour and was restored. Others too in their own experience testify to this dogged, almost ruthlessly determined searching out by God. In his autobiography C. S. Lewis writes about his own conversion in these terms: You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen (College Oxford), night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Summer term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps , that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. You cant get around the fact that this is a God who will simply not let go.
But who does God search out and favour? That is the question. The religious leaders at the time of Jesus had a ready made answer- he favours good religious people like themselves. If you wanted to be in with God, the reasoning went, you had to be in with their type of group. To put yourself out of the inner circle which was defined by the keeping of the law and religious traditions, meant that you put yourself out of the reach of Gods grace. And so whether you were in or out was determined by the kind of company you kept. That is why they couldnt quite fathom Jesus. He broke all the rules, he defied all convention, for, in their own begrudging words, he Welcomes sinners and eats with them. Now in this culture to eat with a certain social group- sinners, that is ,the religious outcasts who by virtue of their lifestyle couldnt join in with the normal Jewish ceremonial, was a sign of acceptance. Today if you want to join a political party you pay your membership dues and go to the meeting, in Jesus day if you wanted to join a religious party you went to a meal-well here Jesus seems to be joining the irreligious party, that was the shocking thing. In the Pharisees mind for him to mix with these types would be equivalent to a surgeon shaking hands with a refuse collector before an operation and not washing- he becomes contaminated- so best to avoid them. You see, it is all centres on the question of distance. The religious see the social dregs as being distant from God and themselves close to God. And the way to keep close to God is by keeping away from those who are not. And there are people who act as if that is so today- churches which are so inward looking you wouldnt think that there is a world out there which needs saving. But Jesus tells three stories which turns such an assumption on its head so that those who are distant he brings close and those who think they are close are in fact distant. And if we are going to feel the very heartbeat of God and know God as he really is, as well as experience the joy he feels ,then we too must make sure that our thinking and actions are in line with his.
So first, we see the priority of Gods love in the story of the lost sheep- vv 3-7. Look, Jesus is saying in effect, no on would dream of criticising a shepherd searching out one of his sheep if it had wondered off into the desert, lost. It is part and parcel of what it means to be a shepherd to leave those who are safe (probably with an assistant) and then to go out and look for that one sheep. That will be his priority. And when he has found it, of course he will put it on his shoulders and bring it back and throw a party with his friends because he will be so overjoyed. Well, that is what God is like, the Shepherd -King par excellence and in my ministry you are to see God at work. My priority is my fathers priority. His love is a searching love, not an insular love. When someone is brought back home- a sinner repents- v7- it is an occasion for rejoicing not complaining. Let me put it like this. Evangelism isnt an option for God it is a compulsion. This priority of Gods love is even hinted at right back there in the Book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve rebelled and hid themselves in their shame and self- disgust, what do we read in Genesis 3:9? The Lord God called to the man, "Where are you?". Already he was seeking out the lost. And you know he has been doing the same ever since. And this church is full of people who were once like that-lost.
In fact this brings us to the second point, the intensity of Gods love as seen in the parable of the lost coin: vv 8-10. Here a woman has lost a small silver coin ,one out of a set of ten. She doesnt shrug her shoulders and say, Well, who cares? I still have the other nine. Not a bit of it. She pulls out all the stops. Finding a tiny coin in a dark, peasants house, open to the covering of .dust blown in off the streets would be no easy task. If you want a modern day equivalent think of the trouble that someone has when they lose a contact lens- every square inch has to be painstakingly covered and you cant get out the Dyson! So this woman lights a lamp, carries it around with her as she makes a careful sweep of the house. In comparison the intensive search of this woman would have made the US search for the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction look like a casual stroll through the park! So it is not surprising that when she eventually does find it, with sweat pouring down her face, hot and flustered from all the energy she has just expended, she calls all the other women in from the neighbourhood. Out comes the best crockery, the biscuits and whatever the 1st century Jewish equivalent to a brew up takes place. In the original, v 9 is more or less a command, You must rejoice with me( and as you know when a woman puts her mind, you dont argue) . Again it is all perfectly natural isnt it? This is what poor women do when they lose something valuable and then find it. So it is with God. He will go to whatever lengths are necessary to search out that which is lost, he wont settle. And when it is found, then quite naturally he celebrates. -v 10.
A lost sheep, you will seek it . A lost coin, you will search for it. But what about a lost son? The stakes have now been raised havent they? We are not talking about an animal. We are not thinking about a trinket. We are speaking about a son. Now is there any instance when you might not bother with a son? Well, surprising though it may seem there are circumstances arent there when even a son might be written off in some peoples minds? Particularly if what he has done is bad enough. I am sure that there are people you know of ( and you might be in the situation yourself) where the family breakdown is so severe, the relationship so distraught, that the son or daughter might as well be dead. Two of my Aunts never spoke to my grandfather for 16 years and when he died they didnt even bother turning up to his funeral. Sadly it does happen. And the people gathered around Jesus also knew there were times when a son ( or a daughter) was beyond the pale and not worth the effort. And Jesus and hands to them a prime example on a plate. And in this story Jesus is saying: think of a relationship so ruined, a son so repulsive that you wouldnt want to know him, and I will show you a father who will stop at next to nothing just to know him. And in so doing Jesus spells out the universality of Gods love in the story of the lost sons- vv 11-31- perhaps the best known and yet the least understood of all Jesus parables.
Now to really understand the stomach churning action of the younger son you have to appreciate the nature of living in a shame culture like this one. Unfortunately our society finds it difficult to blush, it is hardly considered right to be ashamed of anything these days because responsibility is usually someone elses fault- so why should I be ashamed? But for many of our overseas friends here from China, Japan, Africa or the Middle East, to bring dishonour upon ones family is almost unbearable to live with. To try and get a feel of the boys action in the story and how the hearers would have responded, think of how you would feel if you saw a man in his twenties verbally abusing and demeaning a gentle old man in the street. You would feel embarrassed to say the least. But then as this verbal tirade goes on, with all the shouting and swearing, you discover that the person publically humiliating the old gentleman is in fact the mans son! Now you feel angry, you think who wants a son like that, the poor fellow would be better off without him. Is that what you would think? Well, that is what the crowd would have been thinking as Jesus told this story. You see, by asking for his share of his inheritance now- in v12 (which amounted to about a third of the value of the property), he was in effect saying to his father, Dad , I wish you were dead. That is how much he rated this relationship. He wanted to shelve all his responsibilities and also in effect his religion, by going away to what we can only assume is a Gentile country, a far country. And by describing it in this way Jesus is conveying the severity of the separation-he couldnt have been further away from his father than here is as symbolised by the distance. And in this culture you did not treat your parents like that. Honour your father and mother says the commandment. But this selfish sorry excuse of a son does the exact opposite -he dishonours his father and you do not want to be associated with a son like that. In fact it would have been less painful for such a family if the son had simply died in an accident. There would be no shame in that. That is what have been going through their minds. And then to add insult to injury, the blessings that God had poured upon this family over generations is squandered -v 13- until not only does the money run out but so does his friends. And when this Jew is not only reduced to feeding pigs but willing to fill his empty aching stomach with the pig swill, this looks like he is simply getting what he deserves- a fate worse than death.
Now here we are given an insight into what the real problem with the human race is and what Jesus came to remedy. If a sheep wanders off, it is just doing what a sheep does, like bleating. If a coin gets lost, you cant blame the coin. But when a human being is lost, he or she is responsible like this man is responsible. For what we see being enacted here between the son and the father is what every human being since Adam has been doing- in our own way we have been thumbing our noses at God and saying God, I wish you were dead. Oh, like the son we dont quite put it in such crude terms, but that is what our actions amount to, for like the son we want to cast off any responsibility we have to our Maker. We want to take his blessings and squander them on ourselves- do not tell me it is not so. We want God effectively absent from our lives. And as a result we invariably go from bad to worse trying to satisfy our empty soul with the pig swill of promiscuity, banal entertainment and vain spiritualities. And we ache- as individuals and as a nation.
But then we reach a transition point in the story in v 17, the son came to his senses. He realises how stupid he was being, how even living as a hired servant back home would be far better than the so called life he now had. And so he rehearses a speech admitting his fault and asking his father to take him back on such terms, and then makes the long journey home- v 20. Now we are not given any clear indication that the son was genuinely repentant, that he meant what he was going to say. You can bet that Jesus hearers would be thinking to themselves Nice little speech that, but of course it wont fool anybody. Does he think his father is a complete fool! Just wait until he does get back, he will have to work off his debt and learn his lesson. And maybe you think that too. But whether it was genuine or not, the focus of the story, as with the other two parables is not on that which is lost, but on the one who does the looking. The outcome of the story does not turn on the character of the son but the character of the father. And likewise our salvation primarily turns not upon what we are like but what God is like. And what is that?
Here is shock number one. The father behaves in a way which is totally unexpected. He sees the son coming at a distance- v 20. Far from washing his hands of him he has been waiting for him day after day in longing expectation. He runs to meet him, something no self -respecting man ever did, it was thoroughly undignified, but he does it nonetheless. Notice that he doesnt even wait for the boy to finish he speech, unconditional forgiveness is immediately offered-he embraces his son and kisses him. Shoes are placed on his feet, worn only by freemen, he was to be no slave. A ring was placed on his finger, a sign of authority over the household. The best robe, that is the robe of honour is placed around his shoulders and a party to end all parties is arranged with killing the fatted calf which would happen only a few occasions in any one lifetime. The father is beside himself with joy. And if you want a glimpse into the heart of God, you could not do any better than this. You know, some people still picture God as the reluctant forgiver. Oh yes, he might have us back, but only after we have paid our dues and squirmed. Not so. He longs to have us back and to have us back immediately. Now let me say this: if you are here this morning and you feel that you have done things which cause you so much shame, such that you could no even tell your best friend. That as far as you are concerned God would not even give you the time of day, he couldnt, then look at this story again because that young son is you. And I dont see any preconditions being laid down by the father do you? It is a relationship he wants with you and he is big enough and generous enough to offer it. The question is are you desperate and humble enough to take it?
But remember I called this the parable of the lost sons- plural. Because there is another son in the story who was just as lost as the other one, but didnt realise it. And here is shock number two -it is the elder son. Did you notice how he describes his relationship with his father? Why it is hardly a relationship at all. He too acts utterly shamefully. He doesnt even address him as father in v29 (at least the younger son did). Instead he is seen as a slave driver All these years I have been slaving for you.. As far as he is concerned his father might as well be dead, as a father. This is a cold, impersonal business relationship he has set up. He has no family, at least in his own mind. In v 30 he speaks of this son of yours- not my brother. And he stays outside the family home when the party is being thrown. And you know, for all the warmth and intimacy of the relationship between himself and his father, he might as well been the other side of the world. Although he stands on the same property he could just as well have been in a far country. He too is lost.
In the other two parables of Jesus you have had someone doing the searching havent you?- the shepherd and the woman. But I have always been puzzled by the fact that the father in this story never went out to look for the lost younger son. And maybe that is because the younger son, at least in his own heart was not that far away from his father. He recognised his need and went to the only one who could meet that need- his Dad. He was close to him in thought. But then I noticed that it is in v 28 that the father does go out looking for the lost son- the lost older son and pleads with him to come in and join the rest of the family. In v 31 he reminds him that he is his son My son he calls him, your brother, he tells him ,was dead and is now alive. We had to celebrate. Of course. It is only natural.
You see, this is the really lost son in the story- lost in his own self-righteousness and pride, who in his own eyes had never put a foot wrong- v29, I have never disobeyed your orders Who felt he deserved special treatment because of his hard service and as a result cut himself off from receiving the warmth of the fathers love and was content with seeing him merely as an employer. And this is the tragedy- the one who was closest to his father in terms of proximity was the furthest away from him in terms of intimacy. And here is the flip side of human perversity. Not only do we express our rebellion in distancing ourselves from God by flagrantly defying his laws, like the younger son, we can also distance ourselves from God by hiding behind his laws-like the elder son. You know religion can be the most effective way of keeping God at arms length and ensuring we are in control, just as we have here with this older brother who is a picture of the Pharisee. The father wants a loving relationship, the older son wants a business partnership. Why? Well, so that he can call his father to account when in his mind he fails to keep his side of the bargain. That is the religion of the Pharisee which still is alive and kicking. Here God is not seen as someone with whom we have a personal relationship based upon mercy, but a dutiful partnership based upon merit. So we come to church- at least occasionally, we pay our dues and when the judgement day comes we expect God to cough up. Not so says Jesus. The older son is to enter the party on the same basis as the younger son- at the free, gracious invitation of the father.
You see whether you are irreligious and a perverse like the younger son, or religious and proud like the older son, Gods forgiving love is wide upon to us all. We know that because the son who is telling this story in just a few days time is going to the cross to die for moral people and immoral people alike, and those arms stretched wide on that cross symbolises the all embracing nature of his death. But as with any relationship it has to be entered into. You can be like the older son ,cutting off your nose to spite your face forever complaining and staying outside - who wants to be associated with that lot at St Johns? Or you can be like the younger son and feel the tender embrace and kiss of the father and enjoy the party. The question is :which is it going to be?
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