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God’s Thanksgiving

A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on November 27, 201

Luke 15:11-32

This parable is often called the parable of the prodigal son.  I think it’s better entitled in a way that reflects the importance of the father.  Or, others might argue, the importance of the father and the older son.

There are some general principles in reading a parable.  One is the rule of end stress.  In a parable, as in most stories, the climax comes at the end.  What comes at the end of this parable involves the older son and his relationship to the father – not the younger son.

There is also a rule called the rule of direct discourse.  This rule says that you can find the real meaning of a parable in the conversations between the characters.  The lengthy conversation at the climax of the story is not between the younger son and his father, but between the older son and his father.  Perhaps over the years we have focused too much on the younger son, as important as he is.

The parable is also stunning in the fact that Jesus uses an economy of words, and there are no more than two players on the stage at any one time. 

As important as the many facets of the parable might be, there is one facet that seems often overlooked.  God is the father, and He has a broken heart over His son.  God has the heart of a parent who longs for his child to come home.

I was once at a conference for pastors of large churches.  Many of the pastors in the room had Ph.D.s in New Testament, Old Testament, biblical studies and related areas.  One of the pastors posed a question:  “Can any of you think of one healthy family in the Bible?”  He claimed there wasn’t a single family in scripture that God used that was totally healthy.

Well, let us think.  Let’s start with Adam.  Adam did have a son who was a murderer, so Adam won’t work.  Your mind races forward to find a good character in the Bible.  What about Noah?  Noah had a healthy family.  Noah was a righteous man.  Oh no, Noah won’t work.  Chapter 9.  He has that scene where Ham sees the nakedness of Noah when Noah is drunk.  Noah awakes from his drunken stupor, knows what his young son has done, and he places a curse upon his descendants.  Something is not healthy when you’re placing a curse on your son and his descendants.

Skip over to Genesis 12.  Let’s think about Abraham.  Now Abraham surely had a healthy family.  Well, there is that problem with Hagar and Ishmael – a very big problem, especially between Sarah and Hagar.  And having sons with different women and all the tension that emerged was worse than having two cooks in the kitchen.  No, don’t use Abraham.  Besides, don’t you remember Abraham lied and said that his wife was his sister in order to save his own neck.  Something is not healthy there.

Isaac, his son, told the same lie, but also did worse.  He and his wife, Rebekah, played favorites with their sons Jacob and Esau.  Isaac loved Esau.  Rebekah loved Jacob.  And I don’t have to mention the stealing of the birthright and the blessing to describe that this group really, really has its familial failures.

We move on to Jacob.  You know he has his problems with his uncle, Laban.  His wife Rachel steals from her father.  And his other wife Leah feels unloved.  Jacob always plays favorites with Rachel.

Joseph?  You don’t want to do that story, do you?  Joseph has a family full of jealousy.  His father, Jacob, plays favorites, as he had seen preference given in his own family.  The brothers cast Joseph into the well and sell him into slavery.  Joseph pays them back, holding them in prison.  Oh, let’s not go into the Joseph story.  It would take a team of family therapists to help this clan.

Skip forward to Moses.  You have to turn to Exodus 4 sometime and read verses 24 and 25 and tell me what is going on there.  It’s not healthy. 

Suffice it to say, by the time I had marched from Adam down to Moses, I gave up and said perhaps my colleague was right.  Perhaps there are no really, truly, completely healthy families in the Bible that God uses.  Perhaps what we really have to admit is that all of our families have issues.

Eli’s sons were bad, despite the fact that Eli was a wonderful priest.  So God made Samuel the priest.  Then Samuel’s sons were bad.  They disappointed their dear old dad.  Eli’s sons disappoint, and Samuel’s sons disappoint.  And our children disappoint, too.

 In fact, you can go all the way forward to Jesus’ family, and if you study Jesus’ relationship with his brothers, you know that there was quite a bit of tension between our Lord and His siblings.  So much so that in John’s gospel, His brothers (chapter 7) try to entice Jesus to go to the feast and display His wondrous works in order to expose their brother to danger, for John says His brothers didn’t believe in Him.  In fact, Mark says Jesus’ family thought he was a madman (Mark 3:21).

Whether it’s right in the absolute sense, it is certainly true as we look through scripture.  God uses families that are broken, families with jealousy, families with hang ups, families with disappointing children, families with failures and skeletons in the closet.  God uses families just like yours and just like mine to do His will.

That’s one of the things that makes scripture so real to me.  It’s not whitewashed.  The characters perform across the stage of the text in raw reality, with all their faults and failures exposed for us.  But we, too, hurt as they hurt, fail as they fail, and yet are remarkably used by God as they were.

At this same conference there is a time to share, where each minister can reveal the hardships that are taking place in his personal life.  As we went around the table, pastor by pastor, I was shocked – even moved to tears – over the waywardness of the children of these premier pulpiteers.  Two of them confessed that their heart was broken over the fact that they had children with substance abuse problems, addiction problems. 

One pastor had a son who had written a three-page, single spaced letter, handed it to his parents on a Sunday night after church.  The letter can be summarized this way:  “Dear Mom and Dad, You are great parents, but I must be honest with you.  I don’t buy this Christianity thing anymore.  I will come to church when I am home from college so you can save face, but when I am away at school I am finished with the gospel.”  The dad said to his son, “I have failed you as a pastor if you feel this way.”  The son said, “Oh, no, Dad.  You didn’t fail me.  It’s not that.”  Another had a daughter with the same story.

I watched as, after the personal time of sharing, these two ministers who each had wayward children – one a wayward son and one a wayward daughter – embraced each other, because they each understood the other’s pain.  A child leaving his father’s own fold.

One of the pastors said to his son, “If you want to go on a journey reading philosophers” – his son was an avid reader of different philosophies and had become confused about his core values – “I’ll go with you on that journey.  But I’ll not get stuck with you.  Some folks get stuck on a journey and never come home again.”

I remember writing on my tablet at that minister’s conference, only to myself – no one else could see it, “Oh God, they have won the world and lost their very sons and daughters.”

There are a lot of you here this morning with sons and daughters who have gone a long way from home.  God identifies with you this morning.  In fact, in this, the most well-known parable of our Lord, it is God who was the father who has a wayward son who has run away from home.  He has forsaken his father and his faith and bought into the ways of the world.

Thanksgiving is a time when we look toward heaven and show our gratitude for all the good gifts that come from a good God.  I thought to myself this week, “What makes God give thanks?  What causes God’s heart to leap with joy?”  I found it.  In fact, twice in this chapter 15 from Luke we learn about what causes heaven to rejoice. 

At the beginning of chapter 15, we learn that, just like the shepherd who leaves the 99 and searches for the one lost sheep, so heaven rejoices when one lost lamb is found.  Look at verse 7.  “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

What makes the father give thanks in our story?  What brings joy to God?  When sinners repent.  When they come home (v. 32).

Let’s look at the story together.

There is a certain man (verse 11) who obviously represents God.  He has two sons.  The younger son comes to his father and says, “Hey, I can’t wait for you to die, Dad.  Give me what I have coming to me.”  According to Jewish customs, the younger son would receive one-third of the inheritance.  He had no concern about his father’s old age.  He just wanted what was his, and he wanted it now.

He wastes the money (verse 13) with loose living.  His older brother (verse 30) says his brother  wasted the money with harlots.  By verse 14, he has already blown the whole bundle.  He finds himself a keeper of swine which, of course, was detestable to any Jew because swine are unclean.  In fact, to eat swine was to become a Gentile and to find yourself outside the covenant (Leviticus 11:7; Isaiah 65:4; 66:17). 

Finding himself thigh high in pig pods, he comes to his senses and decides it would be better to be a slave at his father’s house than it would to be starving to death, surrounded by swine.  He picks himself up out of the pig pods and goes to his father.  But even while he is going to his father, look at verse 20.  “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him, felt compassion on him, embraced him and kissed him.”

I love this verse.  “While he was still a long way off….”  How many times had the father looked over the horizon to see if, just perhaps, today might be the day that his son would come home?  How many of you in this congregation look over the horizon.  You wait for a letter.  You long for a phone call.  You yearn in your soul for a visit, hoping that your wayward son, your long gone daughter, will finally, finally come to his senses, come to her senses, and come home.  Come home to you.  Come home to the faith of their family.  Come home to the gospel in which they were raised, the story of truth.

His father sees him while he is still a long way off.  To “run” to his son, he had to throw aside Oriental behavioral conventions.  An Oriental father wouldn’t run to a son.  But a father full of God’s love, a father full of joy and eagerness to receive his own outcast, is a father who will run.

Before the son could say, “I’m no longer worthy to be your son.  Just let me be your slave,” the father shouts to the servants, “Bring the best robe.  Put it on him.  Put a ring on his hand.  Put sandals on my boy’s feet.  Kill the fatted calf.  Let us eat and be merry, for this son of mine was dead and is come to live again.  He was lost and has been found.”  He began to be merry.

This parable says twice, in verse 24 and verse 32, that this younger son was dead but is alive again.  It also says two times that he was lost but is now found.  You might suppose there is no condition worse than being dead, no greater solution to being alive.  But there is something worse.  The climax, the end stress comes not on being dead and now alive, but, rather, being lost but now being found.

How many of you long for someone in your family, someone you love, to come home to the faith of his father?  How do you relate to this story?  Are you the father, are you the God-like figure in the parable, longing for your son or your daughter to come home?  Or are you this morning that son or daughter, listening by way of television or radio or here in this sanctuary, and your heavenly Father longs for you to come home?  Perhaps you are the older brother that doesn’t understand how the father can rejoice at a son who has done him so wrong.

One pastor said he preached in Blue Ridge, a little town near where he lives and where he gets his mail.  The lectionary text for that Sunday, as some denominations follow the lectionary, was the prodigal son.  He preached on the prodigal son, and a man after the service said, “I really didn’t care much for that, frankly.”

“Why?” asked the preacher.

“I guess it’s not your sermon.  I just don’t like that story.”

“What do you not like about it?” the preacher asked.

He said, “Well, it’s not morally responsible.”

“What do you mean by that?” the preacher responded.

“Forgiving that boy.”

“Well, what would you have done?”

The man replied, “I think when he came home he should have been arrested.”

The fellow was serious.  He was an attorney.  The preacher thought he was going to tell a joke, but he was really serious.  You see, he belonged to this unofficial organization nationwide that never has any meetings and doesn’t have a name, but it’s a very strong network.  It’s sometimes called the “quality control people.”  They’re the moral police.  They want to make sure that everybody gets a mandatory sentence for their sin with no parole.  Actually, they prefer executions.

“Well,” said the preacher, “what would you have given the prodigal?”

He replied, “Six years.”  (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 51)

See him now.  The first born.  The one who is going to get two-thirds of the inheritance.  He is part of the quality control network, to be sure.  As he comes in from the field, he hears music and dancing.  “I don’t remember a party tonight,” he mumbles to himself under his breath.  “What’s all that noise about?” he asks the servants.

“Haven’t you heard?” they reply.  “Your brother has come home.  Your father has killed the fattened calf, because he received him back safe and sound.”

The father comes out to the angered boy and entreats him to come into the dance.  “I’ve served you for all these years, and you’ve never, ever given a party like this for me and my friends.  But this son of yours” – notice, he won’t call his brother by name – “who squandered your wealth with women comes home and you throw him a party.”

“My child,” says the father, “you’ve always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  That’s true, the younger son had already received his.  “But now we can be merry and rejoice, for your brother was dead and now is alive.  He was lost, and now he is found.”  The boy has come home.

A preacher recalled a plane trip when he was going to Oklahoma City.  Three seats across from him were a  man and his wife, a young couple.  He struck up a conversation.  He could tell they’d been on  a vacation, because they were wearing – as some people always do – their vacation home with them.  You could not only tell they’d been on vacation, you could tell where they’d been.  He said, “You’ve been on vacation?”  They said, “Yeah.”  He said, “You’ve been to Europe, haven’t you?”  She said, “Yes.”  “What countries did you visit?”  The husband said, “All the little countries crouched up together, where you can’t tell when you’re in one and out of the other.”

“I knew then,” said the preacher, “that it was her trip and not his,” so he asked her, “What was your favorite place?”  She replied, “Oh, my favorite place was the Alps.  Oh, it just took my breath away.  I could’ve spent forever there.  We took pictures, but I’m sure they…it’s just unbelievable beauty.”

The plane lowered.  The no smoking and fasten seat belt signs were illuminated.  As the plane dipped down toward Oklahoma City airport, she rummaged through her bag, pulled out a camera, pressed it against the window and started clicking.  The preacher said, “Pardon me, you’ve been in the Alps and you’re taking pictures of Oklahoma?”  She looked at the preacher with a level gaze and said, “But this is my home.” (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 84-85)

Those of us who live in Amarillo can certainly relate to that story.  There are certainly places that, to the untrained eye, are more beautiful than this city.  But for those of us who have Amarillo in our heart, when that plane begins to descend over all those treeless squares and circles of farmland, our hearts leap because we’re home. It’s not the Alps, it is Amarillo, but it is home.

Sir Walter Scott said

Breathes there the man with soul so dead

who never to himself hath said,

“This is my own, my native land.”

Whose heart hath n’er within him burned,

as home, his footsteps he has turned

from wandering on a foreign strand.

Come home.  The boy was lost, but now he is found.  He has come home to his father at last.  I love the way the New American Standard Bible has translated it:  He is now (did you catch that in verse 27) back home “safe and sound.”

Some of you this morning have the heart of God, you have the heart of the father.  You have a broken heart because your son or your daughter, or some other family member, has run away from home to a foreign land.  Our prayer for them this morning is that God will give them the awakening of the prodigal son to come home to the very foundations of their faith, to the gospel of Christ Jesus.

Some of you here this morning can identify with the older brother.  You’ve lived right.  You’ve flown straight.  You have very little tolerance, sympathy or forgiveness for those who struggle with sin, those who wandered from the way.  You’re like the older son.  You’re part of that secret society, the quality control people.

Or perhaps you’re here this morning and you do identify with the runaway boy.  You have sinned, wandered from the cross, from home, and you need to confess.

The Father is waiting.  And even when we are a long way off, He will run to us, embrace us, kill the fattened calf, and say, “Welcome home.  Oh my, I’ve been looking for you to come home.”

The small house was simple but adequate. It consisted of one large room on a dusty street. Its red-tiled roof was one of many in this poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the Brazilian village. It was a comfortable home. Maria and her daughter, Christina, had done what they could to add color to the gray walls and warmth to the hard dirt floor: an old calendar, a faded photograph of a relative, a wooden crucifix. The furnishings were modest: a pallet on either side of the room, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove.

Maria’s husband had died when Christina was an infant. The young mother, stubbornly refusing opportunities to remarry, got a job and set out to raise her young daughter. And now, fifteen years later, the worst years were over. Though Maria’s salary as a maid afforded few luxuries, it was reliable and it did provide food and clothes. And now Christina was old enough to get a job and help out.

Some said Christina got her independence from her mother. She recoiled at the traditional idea of marrying young and raising a family. Not that she couldn’t have had her pick of husbands. Her olive skin and brown eyes kept a steady stream of prospects at her door. She had an infectious way of throwing her head back and filling the room with laughter. She also had that rare magic some women have that makes every man feel like a king just by being near them. But it was her spirited curiosity that made her keep all the men at arm’s length.

She spoke often of going to the city. She dreamed of trading her dusty neighborhood for exciting avenues and city life. Just the thought of this horrified her mother. Maria was always quick to remind Christina of the harshness of the streets. “People don’t know you there. Jobs are scarce and the life is cruel. And besides, if you went there, what would you do for a living?”

Maria knew exactly what Christina would do, or would have to do for a living. That’s why her heart broke when she awoke one morning to find her daughter’s bed empty. Maria knew immediately where her daughter had gone. She also knew immediately what she must do to find her. She quickly threw some clothes in a bag, gathered up all her money, and ran out of the house.

On her way to the bus stop she entered a drugstore to get one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures. With her purse full of small black and white photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janeiro.

Maria knew that Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. When pride meets hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture — taped to a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, fastened to a corner phone booth. And on the back of each photo she wrote a note.

It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.

It was a few weeks later that young Christina descended the hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet. Yet the little village was, in too many ways, too far away.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.”

She did. (Max Lucado, “Come Home,” Stories For the Heart, ed. Alice Gray, p. 149-151)