Sermon starts at the 3:25 mark after the music
Lay Reader = Acts 9:1-19
9Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
This is our second week in our Prodigal God sermon series. And a reminder that starting next week I will be leading a class between the worship services at 9:30 – and given how many people have signed up, I think we need to move to Ficklin Hall downstairs. We’ll be using Tim Keller’s Prodigal God discussion guide.
Last week Pastor Carol showed us that this is a parable about two sons and their father. Jesus doesn’t end the story with the younger brother’s return. And those two sons correspond with the two groups of people listening to Jesus at the time. The tax collectors and sinners were like the younger brother. The Pharisees were like the older brother.
This week we are going to focus on the father. Tim Keller titled his book Prodigal God because the definition of prodigal is “recklessly extravagant.” The younger son certainly is recklessly extravagant in his spending in the foreign land, but the father is also recklessly extravagant with his love.
Luke 15:11-12, 17-32
11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
The Father’s Price
Well being the geek that I am, I regularly read a sci-fi web comic. And one of the characters in the story is a scientist who is brilliant but also a bit reckless. He’s more of a “I wonder if I can…” guy than a “I wonder if I should…” guy. And his girlfriend is upset with him because he invents something that she thinks will be used very, very badly. And he doesn’t care, because it’s really cool. Later on, the massively bad thing his girlfriend was afraid of happened. So she comes to his room and he asks if she’s there to say “I told you so.” She says she’s there to comfort him. And his response? “I’d be a whole lot less miserable if you’d hurry up and say ‘I told you so.’”
This gets at one of my quibbles with our Catholic brothers and sisters when they have confession and penance. We’re on the same team, but I have to quibble on this point. I think penance is missing part of the point of our faith, because we as humans kind of want there to be penance. We want there to be an exchange rate for our mistakes and our sins. We want absolution that we have paid for – as long as we didn’t have to pay too much, of course. So sure I’ll do seven Hail Mary’s and nine Our Father’s as long as I can keep on cheating and scamming. Sounds good!
I read a research article a while back that studied the impact of imposing fees when parents were late to pick up their kids from school. The school started with no fee – just some stern looks from the teachers and administrators who had to stay late because you were late. Then they added a small fee – I think it was like $5 – not too much, but no nothing either. So what do you think happened? The number of parents picking up their kids late SKYROCKETED! Because now instead of insulting the teachers, they felt like they were simply paying a low rate for childcare. Now that there was an agreed-upon cost, they could decide if it was worth it or not. It was no longer a mistake. It was no longer an insult to the teachers. It was no longer a parent being rude. It was merely a financial choice – it was a service the school offered. And when they got rid of the fee at the end of the study, guess what happened? Parents kept arriving late. Now the school was providing a free childcare service! How nice! So that’s how some churches operate – come to church, keep putting money in the plate, and your sins are forgiven. You’ve paid the minimal price. But that’s not what we see in this parable.
Other churches take a more extreme approach. My younger son’s first preschool charged something like $5 per MINUTE you were late picking up. That can get steep in a hurry. So some churches raise the price of forgiveness – turn or burn! Shape up or you’ll be in hell! But that’s also not what we see in this parable.
There is certainly a price paid for the sins in this parable. The father pays most of them. He liquidates his assets to give the younger son his inheritance early. This is no small price. Jewish thought at the time talked about people “belonging to the Land,” not the other way around. It’s not like the father sold off some stocks and bonds. No, he sold the family land. He sold part of the Promised Land. This would be like selling part of this church building to pay a debt. Would you want to sell a third of the pews and a third of the organ pipes and maybe the entire top floor of the building? Would that be easy? I don’t think so! And don’t worry – we’re not going to do that!
The father also paid to bring the younger son back into the fold. People rarely ate meat in those days, because it was so expensive. And the fattened calf was the prized meal. It was for occasions like a wedding. And weddings ain’t cheap, you know? What if I told you that we were going to have a four hundred person wedding reception later this evening, and I wanted you to pay for it with no preparation or advanced notice? Would you joyfully say yes? Would you even have the resources set aside to do that on the spot? That’s what the father does.
But the father also pays a more difficult price. And that price is pride. For the family patriarch to pull up his robe and run like this father does when he spots his younger son – that’s scandalous. Do you think it would make the news if Bill Gates ran out of his mansion in nothing but his boxer shorts to warmly embrace a wayward child? That would make the late night comedy shows, right? That might even make it into a Saturday Night Live skit. It takes a remarkable willingness to swallow your pride to do something like that.
And the father does the same thing for the older son as well. I mean, the father is throwing a community-wide bash to celebrate his family being reunited, and here’s his older son pouting outside and refusing to go in! How embarrassing! But instead of writing him off, instead of ignoring him, the father leaves the party and goes to the son. You have to swallow your pride to do something like that.
This pouting about the younger son’s return and lavish reception reminds me of one of my seminary classmates. We were talking about who will be in heaven, and she shouted forcefully that if some of her free-living, sinful relatives find their way into heaven she’s going to be furious with God. Because she was the good one! She was the one who swore off all those fun but immoral things! She was the one who lived the good life! Not them! They don’t deserve to be in heaven! God owed her, not them!
That’s the older brother mentality. God owes me because I’ve been so good. And if God welcomes in some of those sinful younger brothers, then I’m taking my ball and going home.
Despite this insult, notice that when the father arrives to talk to the pouting older son, the father doesn’t chastise or berate or threaten the older son. The text says he was “pleading” with him to come back inside. Begging your pouting adult son to come to your family reunification party? That requires swallowing your pride.
Once the older son responds, it’s not exactly respectful. He starts off by shouting, “Listen!” And how does the father respond? By gently calling him, “Son.” To shrug off such insolence requires swallowing your pride.
So the father gives up a third of his land, his essence, his identity, when the younger son asks for his inheritance early. The father spends lavishly on a party to celebrate his younger son returning. And the father throws caution to the wind and swallows his pride over and over again – he casts away his pride when he runs to the younger son. He casts away his pride when he goes to his pouting older son. The father pays money. The father pays in reduced status. The father pays in pride. That’s recklessly extravagant. That’s prodigal.
So from this parable, it seems that the father is willing to pay any price to reunify his family. It seems the father is willing to endure pretty much any insult to reunify his family.
So God is willing to pay any price for you. If you’re a younger brother who has taken all of God’s gifts in your life and squandered them – God’s still got a feast ready for your return. And if you’re an older brother who has tried to make God owe you with your good behavior, if you’ve looked down on people who aren’t as good as you – God’s still got a place for you at the feast.
But there’s a price to be paid by both brothers, too. The father is willing to pay any price, to endure any insult, but he asks for the brothers to pay one price, too. Did you catch it?
Both of them have to swallow their pride, too. Neither one can be at the party without swallowing their pride. The younger brother did it. He waited until his life was so bad that he was jealous of the pigs, but he swallowed his pride and came back. He wanted to pay his own way, he wanted to do penance, he wanted to keep some measure of his pride by showing that he was willing to reimburse his father, but the father wouldn’t let him pay anything back. So the younger brother swallowed his pride, accepted the robe and the ring and the party.
But the older brother never did it in this story. The story ends with him still pouting outside the party, because he wasn’t willing to swallow his pride. He wasn’t willing to accept the father’s extravagant love. He still had his pride that he was the good one. He was the righteous one. He didn’t get what the father OWED him! So he’s outside the party, pouting. He thinks the problem is the younger brother. He thinks the problem is his extravagant father. He could never be part of the problem, because he always does what is right.
Swallowing our pride is a steep price to pay. Because everywhere we look, the world is telling us there are only three important people in this world: me, myself, and I. But God tells us it’s not about us. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. If you’re more of a younger brother, the universe doesn’t exist for your pleasure. If you’re more of an older brother type, God doesn’t owe you for your goodness. It’s not about you or me.
And every time one of us lays down our pride, God’s got an extravagant party ready.
We see the great summary of this in Philippians 2:
5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. 6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, 8he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. 9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That’s our model. That’s our goal. And that’s not the younger brother or the older brother.
Sisters and brothers, God is willing to pay any price for you and for me. Jesus swallowed his pride even to the point of death for you and for me. The Holy Spirit will be an advocate and helper in your life no matter what you’ve done.
But God asks for one price. That we swallow our pride. That we get over ourselves. Because only then can we experience and even hope to express the extravagant love of God. Is that a price you’re willing to pay? Or do you think God owes you something else? Amen.