It's big to be humble - Luke 15:11-32
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
They were five sailors in one tiny inflatable raft huddled together during eight days of mountainous seas with no possibility of getting help in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It sounds like a Hollywood movie doesn't it, but unfortunately it was nothing of the sort. This was reality, as on September 4th 2004 the crew of the fishing vessel the Inis Mil, struggled to survive in atrocious conditions, after their ship had sunk in a terrifying storm. The ship was en route from Ireland to France when the storm hit and after two hours of frantic bailing out, they were forced to abandon ship. Their mayday signal had not been picked up and their flares had failed to attract a passing ship. The captain even set fire to his own ship as it sunk, in order to attract attention but even that didn't help. And even though they were able to get into their life raft, by the eighth day they had run out of food and water and were close to giving up hope. They were only saved by the fact that they drifted near enough the Cornish coast to call the coastguard on their mobile. For in just another day at most, they would have died. These five sailors were in a life threatening situation. And it was only when they swallowed their pride and called for help that they were rescued. And when you have been rescued, then there is no greater feeling than coming home.
Now in these evening services together we're looking at the first twelve verses of Jesus' most famous Sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. And in these opening verses, Jesus outlines for us what he expects his disciples to be like. These are the beautiful attitudes that the people of God are to adopt. And if you live this way, then Jesus says you will find great blessing. For being in relationship with the God who made you is the only way to lasting blessing and the right way to live. And already we have seen that every attitude so far has been radically counter cultural. Each attitude has gone against the grain of our culture. So Jesus said that we are to be poor in spirit. We are humbly to admit our spiritual poverty before God. That is how we come into God's kingdom. Admitting our need and flinging ourselves on his mercy, for we cannot earn our way into God's good books, unlike what many think. Then we saw last week that we are to mourn for our sin for then we will be comforted. We are to have a right recognition of our status before God, unlike what many want to believe about themselves today. And that in turn leads us on to the third beatitude which we are looking at tonight. "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth."
So what does meekness mean? Well the dictionary definition didn't fill me with great confidence. For a start "meek" was sandwiched between "meed", an old English word for reward, and "meercat" a small South African mongoose. And the dictionary defines meekness as being "humble and submissive, suffering injury tamely, and being piously gentle in nature". But actually that has very little to do with the meekness that the Bible understands. It's got nothing to do with being piously gentle, nor with our personal human natures. It's nothing to do with just weakly submitting to everything that happens to us. Nothing to do with being so spineless that, as the writer Don Carson says, you could be knocked over with "a hard slap from a wet noodle". That is not meekness. Rather meekness follows on from being poor in spirit and mournful over our sin. Whilst poverty in spirit is the ability to see ourselves as God sees us, meekness is the way we conduct ourselves with God and other people. We know who and what we are in God's eyes and we act accordingly. The preacher Martin Lloyd Jones defines meekness like this: "The man who is truly meek is the one who is so amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they doI would put it like this. We are to leave everything- ourselves, our rights, our cause, our whole future- in the hands of God, and especially so if we feel we are suffering unjustly." So meekness is not pushy, it is not self seeking, it is not proud and boastful. Meekness is the desire to see the other's interests above your own. It is gentle, humble and submissive but at the same time courageously strong in putting God first in everything. So it's no surprise to see that the person who is the model of meekness is the Lord Jesus Christ. He says of himself that he is meek and humble in heart, and in him we can find rest for our souls.
And if we want to know what it means to be meek in practice, then we could do no better than to turn to Luke 15 and this story of the prodigal son. Because here we find Jesus teaching us in story form the heart of meekness, which is seeing yourself as God sees you and then acting on that diagnosis. And he tells the story to make the point to the crowds that God is interested in those whom others, and particularly religious people, might reject. Have a look at verses 1-2 and see what Luke says: "Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." These tax collectors and sinners, probably prostitutes and others regarded as disreputable, were rejects of society. People called them sinners to mark out that they were the rejects. But it is for them that Jesus has come. He is willing to eat with them to show that he associates with them. And the religious officials can't stand it. It's not right that Jesus associates with them, they think. It's just not dignified. But it's exactly right. Because Jesus will go on to make the point that social standing and status have no bearing on our spiritual status before God. It's a matter of the heart. It's whether you have a humble spirit and a meek heart that counts before God. For whether you are a prostitute or a prince, a beggar or a brain surgeon, it matters not to God. For God's offer of rescue is held out to all. And that's the reason why Jesus tells us this story. He wants the sinners to see that they can come into the kingdom of God. And he wants the self righteous officials to see that they too need to come into the kingdom of God. For they are not there by rights. Because contrary to what many believe it's not a story about a prodigal son. It's a story about two prodigal sons and a prodigal father, as we will see. And it's teaching us that what really matters is how we respond to the prodigal love of the father. We will be meek or will we will be proud? Will we humbly accept the father's love as the so called sinners had done? Or will we proudly refuse like the so called righteous religious officials who thought they were OK. Because like those sailors off the coast of Cornwall, we all need to recognise our need for rescue before we can rejoice in the joy being brought home. Humility of spirit leads to mourning which leads to meekness. And only then can we inherit the earth. So let's turn to this story and we'll look at each of the characters in turn, as we discover three characteristics which we would do well either to adopt or avoid.
1) A Meekness which is Humble enough to Return
2) A Love which is Deep enough to Forgive
3) A Pride which is Stubborn enough to Resist
1) A Meekness which is Humble enough to Return
So first of all we see a meekness which is humble enough to return. And Jesus illustrates this in the story of the first son. Now this story is so well known that it is easy to miss the shock factor of various parts of this story. For instance, the very first act by the younger son is deeply offensive to the father and would have been deeply shocking to the audience. Verse 12: "The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them." Now it's not that the younger son was not entitled to his inheritance. It's just the timing that's all wrong. He'd normally get his inheritance when the father died. So, in effect, the son was saying: "Look, pops, let's cut to the chase. I want the cash now. Drop dead, Dad, and just give me what I'm owed." It's a terrible attitude which is so disrespectful to his father. It's like a teenager saying to his father who's in his forties: "Look, Dad, isn't it about time we got that place in the old folks' home sorted for you. I want to use your bedroom for my new drum kit." And in a shame culture as the first century Jewish culture was, it was deeply offensive. But the father simply allows his son to do it. He allows his son to go his own way, which is no doubt a mark of the father's deep love as we will see. It's just a little reminder that God does not treat us robots. No he gives us the responsibility to make decisions for ourselves, even if they are very bad ones.
And if it's not shocking enough that the son should ask for the money, just look what he does with it in verse 13: "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living." He goes on a binge to end all binges. He gets as far away as he can from Dad, and then blows everything. The designer cloaks, the fast camels, the gambling, the girls. You name it, he got it. Literally Jesus says he scattered his inheritance. He quite literally sowed his wild oats. And everyone would have loved him and wanted to be his friend, so long as he had money. All that inheritance, built up over years of careful grafting by the father. All blown away in a few weeks of wild living by one ungrateful selfish son. Can you imagine anything more heartbreaking to a father. Not just to lose a fortune, but far more painfully to lose a son? And look where he ends up. And again this is deeply shocking to Jesus' audience. Verse 14: "After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything." Famine strikes, and suddenly all those new friends disappear like mist in the midday sun. He has nothing, so what does he do? He feeds pigs. It's the lowest of the low. This young man could not get any lower. He's doing the equivalent of scrabbling around in people's dustbins after dark, looking for some plate scrapings to eat up, or a discarded pizza crust to nibble on. Something that rats would consider a starter, well this young man would consider a feast. That is how low he has sunk.
And Jesus means us to see in this young man something of ourselves spiritually speaking. Because the Bible makes it clear that we have sunk to desperate depths in our sin. The fact is each of us, no matter how respectful, have turned away from God and gone on our own journey to a distant land, seeking to live life for ourselves and not giving our heavenly father a second thought. In fact we might even say that our natural human instinct is to want God dead. Because with God out of the way, we can do what we want. And so we gorge ourselves on the moral pigswill of a life without God, and yet deep down we know it is not right. We live for material gain, we feed our mind and souls with ungodly entertainment, and we give no thought to the loving creator who gave us many good things to enjoy. We're the spiritual equivalent of the younger prodigal son.
But then comes a turning point in the story. Verse 17: "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back 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.' So he got up and went to his father." It's the first step on the road home. The boy realises how stupid he's been. Here he is stuck in a pigsty when all along even his dad's slaves have a better life. He'd prefer to live as a slave than be slumming it with no food, no money and no hope! And the road home begins with a recognition of his true condition. Because in his prepared speech he confesses that he has sinned against his father and God and is no longer worthy to be called a son. Now we don't know whether he was serious, but it was a start. It gets him off his feet and he starts the long walk home. And it would have taken a whole load of pride swallowing to do that. Imagine what he's thinking all the way home. What will Dad think? What will my brother think? What will other people think? Will I just be turned away? But the very first thing he needed to do was admit the problem and turn around.
And that is precisely what you and I need to do too. Because Jesus says that the way into the kingdom of heaven is to first recognise you are poor in spirit. You have nothing to bring to God except your sin. What would the son give to the father? Nothing. Not one penny of the inheritance. All he had were the stinking clothes on his back. And all we can do is come to God with empty hands, admit our sin and confess we are not worthy to be called sons. We have nothing to bring except the filthy rags of our sin. We must swallow our pride that we can give nothing to God. We must be mournful over our sin, and be meek. That is acknowledging our desperate position before God and then meekly coming to him in total dependence on his grace and mercy. And when you do that, then there is not one ounce of pride in you. But rather humility and meekness. And it's worth asking if that is how you come to God this evening. Do you come, as the old hymn puts it, with nothing in your hands to bring, simply to the cross I cling? Will you admit your need and be meekly dependant on God for his grace and forgiveness? Or will you proudly refuse thinking that the spiritual pigsty is so much more comfortable than the father's house?
But you know it's not just at the start of the Christian life that such humility and meekness is required. For meekness is one of the marks that Jesus requires of his followers throughout their lives. And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that such a quality is in short supply even amongst professing Christians such as ourselves. Because the message we are constantly hearing in our world is "put self first", humility and meekness is weakness. And so such a self centred attitude can have a very destructive attitude in a church. It shows itself in an unwillingness to be flexible in areas where different opinions are perfectly valid. It shows itself in an attitude which says: "Unless I get something out of church today, it's been a waste of time." It shows itself in a attitude which says: "My feelings are more important than others." It shows itself in a spirit which says: "I'm not doing that job in the church family. It's beneath me. I'm better than others." Now of course, I doubt many of us would be so crass to express it in those ways, but each of us will know that spirit of pride and self centeredness at work within us. And it goes right against the teaching of Jesus to be meek, to consider others better than yourself.
And what does it look like in practice? Well consider a man like Hudson Taylor. He was a man of immense abilities and courage and he took the gospel to China in the days when it was extremely dangerous and unfashionable to do so. But he laid aside his own selfish ambition and gave himself humbly to the Lord's work. Well one time, Hudson Taylor was scheduled to speak at a Large Presbyterian church in Melbourne, Australia. The leader of the service introduced the missionary in eloquent and glowing terms. He told the large congregation all that Taylor had accomplished in China, and then presented him as "our illustrious guest." Taylor stood quietly for a moment, and then opened his message by saying, "Dear friends, I am the little servant of an illustrious Master." Now that is meekness. For when you see yourself as God sees you, when you know you are poor in spirit, then you give yourself in meekness to the service of God and his church. And Jesus says that when you are meek, then you are greatly blessed and you will inherit the earth. You will be part of God's eternal kingdom, his renewed creation reigning with him here on earth. It's a meekness that is humble enough to return.
2) A Love which is Deep enough to Forgive
But believe it or not, the son's change of heart is not actually the key to the story. It's the reaction of the father that is all important. Because Jesus is teaching us here some amazing truths about God. So let's see secondly a love which is deep enough to forgive. Now what would you have done if this was your boy? Now surely there's a part of us which would want to give the boy the beating of his life! He has behaved disgustingly. He's wished his father dead and then jumped on his grave by wasting the whole inheritance. He's brought shame on the family name and his father's household. Or at the very least you'd expect the father to give his son a very long list of jobs to do for the next thirty years, beginning with cleaning out the cow shed. In fact that's how a Buddhist version of this story finishes. The boy comes home and then has the awesome task of working off his bad deeds. But that is not the God of the Bible. Because as Jesus explains, the God of the Bible loves us with a love than is almost shocking in its intensity and depth.
So look what happens in 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." It's an incredible picture of the intensity and depth of the love of God for hideous sinners like you and me. The father has been scanning the horizon since the moment the son left, it seems. Every day he'd longed to see that familiar figure coming along the farm road. And at last it happens! Today is the day! While he was still a long way off the father sees him, just a speck on the horizon at first, but he knows it's him! He sees that hunched figure traipsing along the road rather slowly and fearfully, wondering what will greet him. And the father is filled with compassion. It's a word that speak of the very deepest feeling of emotion and love. It's a word used a number of times of Jesus in the gospels. And here the father is filled with compassion for his long lost son. Tears of joy stream down his face and then he does something totally outrageous. He runs to his son. Have you ever seen the Queen run? Did you see her jogging down Windsor High Street to Charles and Camilla's wedding? Of course, because it is totally undignified! But you know what the father does? He says "stuff the protocol, my son is home"! After all this time! And he flings his arms around him, literally he hangs off his neck and kisses him again and again and again. And the son tries to get his well rehearsed speech out, not doubt practised a thousand times as he trudged along the road. But he can't finish it! Because the father is so overjoyed to have him back! So verse 22: "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate." The father has no time for speeches. No, he brings out the best robe, a sign of honour; he brings out a ring for his finger a sign of authority- he's a son again! And he brings out shoes for his feet. He's a freeman not a slave. The slave is a son again. And he's come home. And it's all because of the love of the father. And that is why I said at the start that this parable is not just about two prodigal sons, but a prodigal father. Because prodigal doesn't just mean wasteful but lavish too! This father is prodigal in his love for the son.
Now I want to ask you a very simple question this evening, but it's perhaps the most important question you can ever be asked. And it's this: Do you know how much God loves you? Do you really know how much God loves you? Because this story shows us that God is prodigal in his love for sinners like you and me. He lavishes his love upon us if only we knew it. But it may be you might say, "Yes, but if only you know what I'd done, what I'm like, then you'd know God could never love me!" You might say: "Yes, I can see the love of God here, but surely he wants me to do a little to show I love him." But do you see any conditions to God's love here? Do you see the father sitting his son down and setting out the terms and conditions, reading the fine print? Of course not! No, the father sees his son coming from a long way away and runs to meet him. He flings his arms around him. He doesn't even wait for an explanation. God knows what you've done, even more than you do! And yet he still loves you. He is willing and able to forgive even those things you are most deeply ashamed of, the things you can barely admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. And any conditions that need to be met have been fully paid for by Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus knew full well when he told this story that he would give his life to pay the price of our rebellion, so that the love of God is free and unconditional. There are no "yes, buts" to God's love. He simply longs for you to come home. So let me ask you again. Do you know how much God loves you? Have you come home to the father? Have you admitted your rebellion, realised you are poor in spirit and meekly bowed the knee to him? Because those same fatherly arms are open wide tonight. Even tonight you can come home. For God loves you more than you could possibly know.
But as with meekness, this understanding of the love of God is something that must stay with us and grow throughout our Christian lives. Because there are plenty of Christians who whilst they know God loves them, yet they still live their Christian lives believing they need to keep earning God's love by good deeds and merit. And I want to urge you this evening simply to rest assured in the love of God. And not just to rest, but to keep growing in the knowledge of that love. Because one of the keys to growth in the Christian life is a greater understanding and experience of the love of God.
Some time ago I read a story about a couple who spent years of their lives rearing children as foster parents. One time they were asked to foster two twin baby boys aged eighteen months. Well the first night the babies were with them they were put to bed and not a peep came out of room. The husband was curious and went up to the bedroom, only to find both boys wide awake, their pillows wet with tears, though not making a sound. It turned out that they had been beaten for crying in several of the homes they had stayed in before, and this house was their ninth. Testing showed that they were irreparably damaged emotionally and intellectually. But after two years with this loving couple the babies were said to be normal in terms of their emotional and intellectual status. All because they knew the love of kind foster parents.
So do you know that God loves you? And have you acted on that love? Because the meek are convinced of their status before God and they are amazed that God loves them so much. For God's love is a love that deep enough to forgive.
3) A Pride which is Stubborn enough to Resist
But Jesus' hasn't yet finished his story. Because there's a final characteristic which is seen in the elder brother, and it's a characteristic you and I would do well to avoid. A pride which is stubborn enough to resist. Now this brother looks at home with his father and on the surface seems to be fine, yet he is just as lost as the first. He too is a prodigal son though in a very different way. Let's see what Jesus says about this son in verse 25: "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'"
Now with this picture of the elder brother, Jesus has his sights firmly set on the religious officials who thought they were good enough for God. They looked down their noses at those sinners who obviously disobeyed God. But they were upstanding members of the community, ardent church goers with a passion for truth. But the fact is, says Jesus, that they are as lost as the first brother. And it's all revealed in the elder brother's attitude. So when he hears of the return of the younger brother, he flies off the handle in a fit of rage. No welcome home signs, no warm brotherly hug, no game of pool in the local bar for old time's sake. No, he plunges into a sulk to end all sulks. And then in verse 29, it all comes out. What's really going on in the elder brother's heart? Well if truth be told, there is no more genuine relationship with his father than the younger brother had in the pigsty far away. "Look, I've been slaving away for you, he says and never disobeyed your orders." Do you see how he sees his relationship? He feels like a slave rather than a son. And he doesn't talk about "my brother", but "this son of yours". He's just coldly followed orders as opposed to lovingly walking in his father's footsteps. His sonship is mere legal obedience. No love, no joy, no passion. Just law. This son is as lost as the younger one. He is just as distant from the father, just as prodigal with his father's generous gifts, because there is no love. He's just lived his life as a slave. And so when he sees his young brother being forgiven, then he cannot handle it. Because forgiveness and love aren't in his vocabulary. Instead he proudly asserts his own achievements instead of rejoicing in what is available to him if only he could see it!
And what is available? The same love from the father as he has shown to his younger son. Verse 31: "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" Did you notice in verse 28 that the father went to look for his elder son? Here is love in action. If only this boy could see that he is as loved as the other! If only he accepted the fact that he was a son and didn't try to live his life as a slave trying to earn his father's approval. It was all there for him, if only he swallowed his pride and came home with his father.
And that is where Jesus leaves the story. We don't find out if this brother accepted his father's invitation. We don't know whether he too came home from his position of exile like his younger brother. But we are left to ponder what our response will be. Because the opposite of meekness is pride. And pride is a killer in the Christian life. For pride keeps us from coming to our father with open hands knowing we need his love and rescue each day of our lives. And it's often those who have been in church for many years who have never grasped that God is offering sonship rather than slavery. It was John Wesley who said of his life before he became a Christian: "I had then the religion of a slave and not that of a son." So will you swallow your pride and come to the father? Or will you go on stubbornly resist the father's loving call, determined to do it yourself, to get to heaven on your own merits. Jesus says, "You'll never do it." Instead adopt that meek attitude which is humble enough to return to the father. And accept that amazing love of the father which is deep enough to forgive. For when you accept that rescue, then there is nothing better than coming home.
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