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Last week we looked at a classic redemption story. I often say we don’t hear the word redemption much outside of Sports Centre and the sign that you see in casinos. Redemption comes from a Latin root which means to buy back or to regain something. We can think of being redeemed in terms of being brought (or bought) back. You don’t hear it though much outside of church and I always say that it’s important that we define (or re-define) the terms that we use.
So last week we looked at a classic redemption story. The prodigal son is brought back. The young man who went off and spent his father’s money in riotous living and really hit bottom returns! He’s welcomed with open, loving arms by his father and the calf they’ve been preparing for just such an occasion as this is… prepared. Wonderful! We heard last week how this is how God has welcomed us home in the person of his Son.
And we love a good redemption story, don’t we? Hometown boy comes back and makes good. I can’t help but think of Lebron James here. Born in Akron Ohio and drafted out of high school by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The greatest player of his generation and possibly of all time. The GOAT. After 7 years in Cleveland without winning a championship, he decides to take his talents to South Beach and announces this in a most public and grandiose way, incurring the wrath of Cleveland fans and many neutrals (myself included, it took me years to get over it). After two championships with Miami, Lebron returns to Cleveland, eventually winning the 2016 NBA title - the first major championship for the city in 52 years. He’s given the robe and the ring and crowned King James. He could do anything after that, even go sign with the Lakers and all anyone would do is wish him well. Everyone loves such a story.
Just like the story of the prodigal son.
Of course, the first line in the story is “There was a man who had two sons.” The elder son gets short shrift even in the titling of the parable! The father had two sons. Helmut Thielecke titled his sermons on the sons “The Waiting Father” which is better I think. For this second half of the story, I like “The Seeking Father”. This story comes in a chapter, after all, that is all about seeking. A shepherd seeks one lost sheep. A woman seeks one lost coin. A father goes out into the dark to seek his oldest son.
Who is out in the dark. He’s in the dark. He’s at home and he never left home but he’s out in the dark, away from the party. Away from the joy.
This is the really tough thing about this part of the story. That and the fact that it is with this elder son that many of us who are long-time Christians can more easily identify. That and also the fact that the sin of the elder son is much less obvious than the sin of his younger brother. The younger brother left the house. The younger brother as much as said to his father “I wish you were dead” and acted as if his father were dead and forgot where his gifts came from and squandered them. The younger brother forgot his identity. Threw it away if you like.
The elder brother has also forgotten his identity. It’s harder to see. He’s never left his father’s house. He’s been in this thing all his life. He’s worked hard at it. He’s been out in the fields. He’s been doing all the things he’s supposed to be doing. He’s coming from the field when he asks “What’s going on?” The answer comes “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in.
It's not difficult to understand this anger, this resentment. Why is this other person getting all this recognition? Even the name that this parable’s been called by leaves out the older son! What is going on here exactly?
The older son is seeing his father not as someone who loves him unconditionally but as a slave driver. As a task-master. The older son is not seeing himself as a beloved son but as a slave. The older son is seeing his younger brother not as a brother but as “the other”. Look at what he tells 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
This is a little bit tragic. The older son has never left home but he’s lost nonetheless. He’s in the equivalent of a far country. He’s in the dark; outside of the celebration; outside of the joy. We get it though, don’t we? One commentator writes of leading small groups in the study of this parable and how many long-term followers of Christ can identify with this older son. The older son is lost too, it’s just not so obvious. He’s lost in judgement and bitterness and jealousy and resentment. It’s a dangerous thing for us. You can be sure that those who are coming home from the far country will pick up on these things, no matter how we might try to hide them. It’s not good for us either. Helmut Thielecke has this to say in his take on this parable – “What a wretched thing it is to call oneself a Christian and yet be a stranger and grumbling servant in the father’s house.”
For the older son, obedience to God and duty to God have become burdens, and service to God has become slavery.
The older son has forgotten his identity. He sees himself as one who is slaving away for his father. Their relationship and the father’s love is contractual. Turning toward his father, listening to his father’s voice, has become a burden. The relationship that they have is one in which you get what you deserve. Surely I deserve much more than what’s been given to your wayward son! That’s the way the world works, after all. It’s an attitude about God that says we get what we deserve. It’s an attitude about God that says God loves us as much as we deserve to be loved.
What does this look like for us? What has this looked like for us? It’s like being envious of someone’s conversion story, feeling badly that ours is not really so dramatic. Have you ever done that? I have. Feeling like our life story is somehow worth less in God’s eyes and/or in people’s eyes. It’s like feeling that reading God’s word or coming to God on our knees is a burden. It’s like the feeling we have when we wonder (and not merely wonder but complain and resent) that other people don’t seem to be doing as much as we are, working out in the field day after day.
The day after day aspect of our being at home has led it to seem like an every-day drudgery and if someone asked us how it’s going with us and God we might say something like “Same stuff, different day.” We take God’s love for granted. It becomes old hat. We take the miracle of forgiveness for granted. We forget that we are living every day in the face of a miracle. The miracle of God’s love and mercy toward us. We have forgotten our first love. We have forgotten the joy of our salvation, the joy that’s going on right now at the party while we’re standing out in the dark full of anger and resentment.
We’ve forgotten who we are. We’ve forgotten who our Father is. We’ve forgotten who our brothers and sisters are.
We are not forgotten though. The 15th chapter of Luke is all about seeking. The father is standing at the door to our hearts and knocking all the time. The father is going out to seek this son just like he ran out on the road to greet his returning son. There’s no recrimination. There’s no “Who do you think you are to be acting like this?” There’s no judgement. There is only a reminder and a welcome in. “Son”. The word here for “son” denotes “child”. “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.” God’s love for us is without condition, without alteration. It’s the kind of love that Shakespeare wrote about – “love does not alter where it alteration finds… it is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken…” It’s a love that encompasses every circumstance of life, from the wild-living younger brother to the angry and resentful dutiful brother. One writer has put it like this – “There you have the infinite goodness of the Father. When to men (and women) the conversion of the lost appears to be only a cheap capitulation, he sees in it the blessed homecoming of an unhappy soul. And when to men (and women) the faithfulness of the elder brother seems nothing more than dull…respectability, he sees in it the dependability of a heart surrendered to him. How broad is the love of the Father! It spans the whole scale of human possibilities. And the wonder of it is, that even you and I, with all our peculiarities, have a place in that heart and are safe there!”
We have a home in that heart and are safe there in Christ. Think of the wonder of this. Let us not lose the wonder of this wonderful truth that we have a home in that heart and are safe there. We had our two weeks of summer camp starting July 16th. On the first day, the children’s craft said on it “Jesus cares for me.” Let this never be something that we take for granted friends.
How do we mitigate that? What part do we have to play in not taking it for granted? Rest in that truth first of all. Hear those words addressed to you this morning. Hear those words addressed to you every day – “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Let us be reminded of our identity in Christ and know that our worth is found not in being compared to others (favourably or unfavourably) but in the truth that God loves us with a love that does not alter.
And let us be thankful. It’s hard for resentment to co-exist with thankfulness. Let us be thankful to God every day that we can even come before God with our prayers. Let us be thankful that we have an opportunity to hear God in God’s word. Let us be thankful for all the gifts that God gives us, starting with the gift of a new day every day.
Let us be thankful to God for love and mercy. Let the wonder of forgiveness never seem ordinary. Let us ask God to create in us hearts that are in tune with his, so that we may share in joys and celebrations and parties when that which was lost is found. Let us never stop giving thanks for being found.
There is a homecoming because we have a home to come to. There is a coming in from the dark to join in a joyous celebration because God comes out to seek us. We’re going to sing about being part of a family now – not being a slave to our fear or doubts about not being enough but being a child celebrating and being thankful for the love that is extended to us. May we be thankful children of God, in tune with our father’s heart.