The celebrating God - Luke 15:31-32
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The Long Search- Luke 15
The Celebrating Father
Not that long ago in this country the picture of God which was uppermost in most people’s imagination was that of a gentle old man in the sky, a kind of celestial grandfather they could turn to for a little comfort now and again. That seems to have largely been replaced with a bad tempered, grumpy old man. For example, here is Professor Richard Dawkins: ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’ And I don’t think he is that keen on the so-called God of the NT, not that he believes either exists.
But what about this for an idea: that God, the God that really exists- the God of the Bible- far from being a grumpy God is, in fact, a happy God, a joyful God? That was the conviction of one of the most influential preachers of his time- the time of Shakespeare, Richard Sibbes, Master of Catherine Hall, Cambridge. He spoke of God as a life-giving, warming sun who, ‘delights to spread his beams and influence in inferior things to make all things fruitful.’ He actually argues that this joyful, life-giving nature, intrinsic to God, helps explain why he brought creation into being in the first place. Just listen to this: ‘If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was. Apart from the fact that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there would never have been a creation or redemption.’ Isn’t that something? God was ‘happy’ before the universe was created, that within, as it were, the ‘divine family’, the Father enjoyed the presence of the Son and the Son delighted in the Father and the Spirit? At the heart of all this joy and happiness bubbling up are, of course, relationships- this is where true happiness is to be found.
And so we should not be surprised to discover, as we have been over the last few weeks in Luke 15, that God expresses joy when relationships have been restored, when what is lost is found, when what was dead is made alive. And that joy is expressed in celebration.
Just think for a moment of what causes human beings to celebrate.
There is the birth of a child. This is usually a great cause for rejoicing, especially the first child. I remember when our first son, Christopher was born, going out of the hospital while it was still dark and the sky was lit with stars, and looking up with shear gratitude and unspeakable joy to God for such a wonderful gift. I felt as if I were the only father in the entire world. Later, of course, after a baptism or thanksgiving service, the family get together for- a celebration.
Then there is a wedding. That really is the time for feasting, when the wine flows and the dancing begins. It is a wonderful time for the married couple- it is ‘their big day’ after all, but it is also delight for the guests to be part of this special event, celebrating the God-given gift of a man and a woman becoming one in the covenant of marriage.
Think too of a restoration. Those of us who are old enough to remember were quite moved to see pictures like these of former Prisoners of War, returning from Vietnam, some having been imprisoned in the most appalling conditions for years, being greeted on the tarmac by their wives and children. Some had not seen their children since they were tiny babies; some hadn’t seen them at all as they were born while they were in prison. Don’t you think that parties by the hundreds if not thousands were being held throughout America, some maybe going on for days, when these young men returned home to their families? You have these families who thought their sons, husbands and fathers had been lost, maybe for ever, but here they are- found- and of course they celebrate.
Now the interesting thing is this: the Bible uses each one of these occasions to try and convey to us at the heart level, just what it is like for God when men and women, boys and girls are brought back into a relationship with himself. The rejoicing at the birth of a baby and the celebration at a wedding supper in different ways point us to both the preparation and result of God transforming sinners into saints. So let’s look at each scene in turn to discover the celebrating God.
Scene 1- the birth of a baby, Luke 2:8-14, ‘And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
The shepherds were by all accounts having an uneventful night which was soon to prove to be anything but uneventful. The appearance of one angel would have been enough to cause them to reach for the Valium- they were terrified, but when a whole army of heavenly beings appear, (that is what the text says) bursting into rapturous song like the Welsh Male voice choir after Wales has won the Rugby final- then something very special in the world must have happened. This doesn’t take place every Tuesday. And something very special had happened.
The first of the higher order of angels prepares the way for the heavenly choir with a special announcement, v10: ‘I announce the gospel (good news) of great joy to you.’ What is that? Well, a baby has just been born. So? I am sure there were plenty of other babies being born that night with a lot of celebrating going on. But why a celebration which begins in heaven? The angel tells us, because this baby, who has been placed in a feeding trough in a room in Bethlehem, is a Royal baby, a descendent of King David no less, who is a King in his own right- which is what Messiah means. And this baby has come to carry out his kingly mission to rescue his people- he is Saviour, and the fact that he is ‘Lord’ means he will succeed.
Then the party really begins with hundreds, possibly thousands of angels lifting the roof of heaven by their singing. It’s as if they can’t contain themselves, this is such an astonishing, epoch making event- which it was, marking off AD from BC. Because we are talking about God becoming man with ceasing to be God, divinity as humanity lying in a manger. Song is the only appropriate response. When you have something to sing about you sing and boy did they have something to sing about! But it is what was sung that would have taken the shepherd’s breaths away, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” Now, what do they mean when they speak of ‘those on whom his favour rests’ or those ‘in whom he delights’? Well, they are talking about people like the shepherds—God is overjoyed to bring them this good news. You see, these were the despised people, the nobodies. They were known as the distrusted ones, according to later Jewish sources- and they were the ones that God chose to reveal the identity and mission of the newly arrived baby. The baby who when grown into a man to die on a cross will bring ‘peace’- reconciliation. That night, heaven came down to earth in the form of a tiny baby, so that fallen sinners could be raised up to heaven. No wonder heaven celebrated!
Scene 2- a wedding celebration
For this we move from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel to the end of the Bible and the book of Revelation and chapter 21, ‘Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!’
In Luke’s Gospel, God and heaven celebrate a new birth; in John’s Revelation they celebrate a new relationship in a new world. In verse 2 we are told that something very special has been prepared for Jesus, namely, a bride. This bride is unlike any other, breathtakingly beautiful, captivatingly pure, suitably prepared for her husband who is the Son of God, the very one born in Bethlehem as King. So this means this is a royal bride who is to inherit all that belongs to the King which is a whole new universe. That is some wedding dowry!
Now, remember how Richard Sibbes saw the creation as being something which is brought into being because of God’s nature- that he is a warm, life generating God? Here we have another hint as to why God created. God brought into being a cosmos in which his Son would be glorified, not so much by being enthroned in regal splendour, but by showing that God at heart is a God of overwhelming grace and love who would die for his bride- the Church- so that she might reign with her groom by her side. The American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, expresses this deep truth in like this, ‘The creation of the world seems to have been especially for this end, that the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse, towards whom he might fully exercise the infinite benevolence [kindness] of his nature, and to whom he might, as it were, open and pour forth all that immense fountain of condescension, love and grace that was in his heart, and that in this way God might be glorified.’ Similarly the medieval writer, Hugo St Victor wrote, ‘God is preparing your soul to be a bridal chamber for Christ to dwell in.’ Isn’t that something? If you are a Christian, God is preparing your soul to be Christ’s bridal chamber- his love for you is that close, that intimate, like that of a husband for a wife but infinitely more precious. No wonder there is celebrating going on in heaven right now, Revelation 5, ‘Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!”
This is what you and I were made for- to be known and loved by the Lord Jesus and to know and love him into all eternity, to be his inheritance, to be his bride and to be his passion. You see, if there had been no creation, God couldn’t do that. If there were no undeserving, sinful people, God couldn’t show grace. And so a universe is made, a universe falls and through Jesus a universe is redeemed.
Now let me ask: do any of these passages strike you as introducing us to a God who is miserable, resentful and somehow frustrated? Not at all! They speak of celebration and song because God is achieving his heart’s delight, having creatures and a world upon whom he can pour out his never ending kindness and love, the very same love which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have enjoyed in complete perfection from all eternity. That is what the Triune God wants to share with us!
All of which brings us to the third scene, the scene of Luke 15- the restoration.
The beginning of the restoration starts with a baby being born, the consummation of the restoration is the marriage made in heaven, the means of the restoration is the Son of God going into the far country to rescue prodigals like you and me, sheep who have gone hopelessly astray, precious coins dropped in the dark crevices of a world gone terribly wrong.
The elder son thinks that the father should not be celebrating. And there are plenty of people today who think the same of God. On the one hand, the self-righteous religious person thinks that God should be not celebrating but congratulating, that is, congratulating people like them who in their own eyes are so wonderfully good, the achievers.
On the other hand, the self-righteous non- religious person think that God should be commiserating. When faced with all the challenges of climate change, war, political unrest- what has God got to celebrate about, shouldn’t he be commiserating with us at the problems we have to sort out? That is the elder brother.
But notice what the father says, we had to celebrate. The shepherd gets his friends together and says, ‘rejoice with me’, so does the woman who has found her precious coin. Look, when something so dear to you has gone missing, something so deeply precious that you would give anything to have it back, and when miracle of miracles, hoping against hope that happens- your heart must give release to the joy it feels- you have to celebrate.
One of my favourite all-time films is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. In the final scene after Pinocchio had rescued his ‘father’ the craftsman, Geppetto, from the Whale, Monstro, at the cost of his own life, he lays on the bed lifeless and still. With Geppetto on his knees by his bedside, heartbroken and sobbing at the loss of his son; the fairy then turns the puppet into a real boy. That is when the whole mood suddenly changes. Tears of sadness give way to tears of joy, and guess what? They start dancing- Geppetto with his son who was dead and is now alive, Jiminy Cricket dancing with the toys, even the cat dances with the goldfish! Of course, that is what you do!
And you know that according to Jesus that is what happens in heaven, every time someone becomes a Christian. The Father’s heart bursts with joy when a lost one becomes found, when he sees that the agony borne on the cross by his one and only Son whom he loves with such a bright, burning intensity, bears fruit in sinners returning to where they should be- home, home with God as their Father and Jesus as their brother.
If you are a Christian here tonight and want to share in the happiness of the heart of God our Father, then commit yourself to praying and seeking after the lost- seriously. You know, people often think that when it comes to the ministry it must be preaching or leading worship which I enjoy the most. I do love these of course. But let me tell you, I am at my happiest, my most fulfilled, when I am in someone’s home sharing the gospel and when I see the light dawning and heart’s surrendering- nothing quite ever beats that. I always come back rejoicing- and I say to Heather, ‘this is why I went into the ministry’.
And if you are here tonight and not yet a Christian, let me say that there is a God who through Jesus is calling you to come home. Don’t delay, don’t hesitate, just take him at his word and experience for yourself the joy of heaven.
 Reeves, The Good God, p. 30
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.