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There is a genre of romantic comedy that deals with homecomings. They always seem to star Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon for some reason (or at least the ones they replay on the W network do). They have to do with a woman who has left her hometown and achieved a measure of success in the big city. They return home to their small town and eventually reclaim something of what they had lost along the way.
Stories of something that has been lost. Like a sheep or a coin or a person.
Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel in 1940 entitled “You Can’t Go Home Again Son”. Again it’s about someone who has left their small town, in this case, a writer. The writer writes a novel which paints his hometown in a most unflattering light. He has a hard time trying to go home again.
This morning we’re looking at a story about homecoming. We’re going to be gathered around a table that reminds us of coming home - that enables us to, in a way come home - and that points forward toward a great coming home and rejoicing. Let us look at the story of the younger brother and the waiting father this morning and hear what God has to say to our hearts.
Traditionally this story has been known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”. Prodigal means simply “free spending”. We can see from the first line, however, that the story is about more than one son. “There was a man who had two sons…” This is Jesus’ opening line. We’re going to, therefore, spend two weeks – one week with each son. The title of Helmut Thielecke’s sermons on this parable is “The Waiting Father”. The one character that is in each part of this story. You may say “Well the father’s not in the part when the younger son’s in the far country” but he’s certainly in the background at the very least. The heart of this story is a coming home to this waiting father. Someone who had been lost is now found.
Of course, before we have a homecoming we need to have a home-leaving. I won’t dwell a lot on the circumstances. There are two sons. The youngest son demands his inheritance. This is unheard of. The inheritance for a younger son such as this one would have been one-third of his father’s estate. He leaves home.
And I want us to think about home for a few moments. What are your best memories of home? What are your best thoughts of home – wherever that may be for you? I’ve heard home described as the place where you are loved unconditionally. The place where you are cared for. The place where you are accepted. The place where you are understood. The place in which your identity as a beloved member of the household is affirmed and upheld.
Where we are loved. Where we belong. We belong at home. The thing about God’s love for us is that’s never coercive. There’s no attempt on the part of the father to keep his son back. Is there grief on the father’s part? Undoubtedly. Is there humility? Of course. Someone has said that God is humble enough to allow us to reject him. It hurts to be rejected. For the son to claim his inheritance while his father is alive – it is as if the son had said “Father I wish you were dead.”’
In other words “I don’t need you.” And so he leaves.
On a macro level, we’re talking about the state of humanity. The state of humanity that said to God “We don’t need you.” “We want to go our own way.” The great myth of our own self-sufficiency. The same old story that is as old as the Garden of Eden. We don’t want to feel restricted. We believe that having the freedom to do what we want is freedom. “Imagine the Freedom” is how a certain tagline goes. Imagine the freedom to be able to do whatever you want. Now that would really be living wouldn’t it?
This is the lie. That being able to do what we want is freeing. You may identify with the younger son in the whole dissolute living thing. Riotous living as the KJV has it. I am personally not unfamiliar with riotous living. Prodigal living. Meaning free spending. Spending freely and forgetting from whom your gifts have come.
The father is always in the background of this story at the very least. The gifts that the younger son are squandering have been given by the father. This is what has been forgotten. It’s not just the giver of the gifts that has been forgotten by this younger son, but the son’s very identity.
This is something that applies to each and every one of us. You may not identify with the prodigal-ness of the younger son. You may say “Well I’ve never really gone off the rails and I’ve always kept close to the father’s house.” The thing that we tend to forget though - no matter where we are in terms of following Christ and no matter what we have done or not done or are doing or not doing – is our identity as children of the Father. Our identity as beloved daughters and sons of God.
Because the thing about the far country is, love is conditional. Love is conditional in the far country. If the younger son had friends around him, they were his friends as long as the money lasted. We love you if you’re young, if you’re rich, if you’re accomplished, if you’re good looking, if you’re productive, if you’re fill-in-the-blank-yourselves.
In his book, Henry Nouwen talks about these voices that we hear swirling all around us constantly – “Almost from the moment I had ears to hear, I heard those voices, and they have stayed with me ever since. They have come to me through my parents, my friends, my teachers, and my colleagues, but, most of all, they have come and still come through the mass media that surround me. And they say: ‘Show me that you are a good boy. You had better be better than your friend! How are your grades? Be sure you can make it through school! I sure hope you are going to make it on your own! What are your connections? Are you sure you want to be friends with those people? Those trophies certainly show how good a player you were! Don’t show your weakness, you’ll be used! Have you made all the arrangements for your old age? When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When you are dead, you are dead!”
As the father’s words at his son’s homecoming signify, there is a fate worse than death. Being lost. “So he went and hired himself throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.”
He had no one to help him. He had come to the limit of his own resources. As someone would say to Jesus – “I have no one to help me.”
At this point, the son remembers that he’s a citizen of another country. He comes to himself. He remembers his father. “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare…” He remembers his identity as a child of the father. A beloved child.
I always like to ask the question Bible-trivia style “What is the first thing that God says about Jesus?” At Jesus’s baptism as he’s coming up out of the water a voice is heard saying – “This is my beloved son.” This is my son, the beloved. If I were to take away only one thing this morning, let it be that. You are a beloved child of God.
In his book “The Return of the Prodigal”, Henry Nouwen writes at length about Rembrandt’s late painting of the homecoming in this story. He describes how the traditional marks of identity have been taken from the son. Clothes. The younger son is wearing nothing but an undergarment – contrasted with the robes his father has on. Our hair is often a mark of our identity. His head is shaved. A mark of our identity. One of his sandals has come off.
The thing is though, he’s still wearing his sword. He has carried a spark of that divinely given identity with him the whole time, even when he was in the direst of needs.
There’s still a sense on the part of the younger son that he needs to satisfy a condition to come home. You’ve heard the story. The son prepares a speech. I’ll hope to satisfy your anger with me for rejecting your love, for squandering your gifts. For thinking that I could do this thing on my own. If I say the right words then maybe, just maybe, I’ll be allowed to live some sort of existence on the fringes of my father’s love at the very least.
The very least becomes the most. All summer we’ve been talking about the unexpected. About turnarounds. About mercy. “So 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.”
The son has come home. He was lost and now he’s found. This is cause for rejoicing in the Kingdom of God. A shepherd finds one lost sheep. He invites his friends and they rejoice. For one sheep? Yes. A woman finds a lost coin. She calls together her friends and neighbours saying “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
This man has been found by God. This woman has been found by God. Can you say that with me this morning? Then rejoice. This turning for home, this repentance is not simply a turning away from something (and we like to focus on the something, particularly when it comes to others). It’s a turning toward something. It’s a returning – a return in the truest sense of the word and claiming our identity as beloved and forgiven children of the Father because this is what we were made for and the way has been opened.
Because we always must remember who’s telling this story. The way. The Way. Turn toward him this morning and rejoice. Turn toward him for the first time maybe, confessing your need for him. Pray Lord I Need You for the first time or the 10,001st time and rejoice because you’ve come home – the place where you are accepted and safe and valued and loved without condition and without any “ifs”. The way has been opened you see. It’s been opened by the other person we see in the figure of the younger son in this story. The Son who left his father’s home above, so free so infinite his grace, his compassion. His suffering along with us. The son who, in his dying and death and being raised to life and ascended, returned to his Father’s home amid much rejoicing. We await his return and that day when we will sit around that banquet table. In the meantime, we’re called to return home every time we gather around this family table. You can go home again all right. As someone has said – “There is a homecoming for us all because there is a home.” Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.