Two Lost Boys

Luke 15:25-32 (NIV) 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

 

Three months ago I told the Prodigal Son story to a 64-year-old man with stage 4 lung cancer. He was facing imminent death. It was no time for me to be talking Redskins or Ravens. I asked him to tell me about his spiritual journey, and within minutes I had the opportunity to share the story of the wayward son returning home.

This man had never heard the Prodigal Son story. But he seemed captivated. At the end I asked if he identified with the lost son coming home.

He said, “I would like to.” A door had been opened for another lost son to come home. He put his trust in Christ, and several weeks later I preached his funeral.

“Prodigal” means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant.”

Charles Dickens called “The Prodigal Son” the greatest short story ever told. This month at Brook Hill we’ve been preaching about it. Two weeks ago Pastor Dana focused on the younger son’s “Aha!” moment. Last Sunday Pastor Wade focused on the wandering son’s return to a father who offered grace and forgiveness.

Today I hope to focus on the other son, the homebody, the other lost boy.

Because, when you think about it, both of these sons were lost.

The younger son was lost in a far country. He was the partier, the wild man, the rowdy risk-taker, the one who thought he could make it on his own.

But the older son was also lost. He was relationally separated from his father. He could not understand his father’s heart. He was faithfully doing the farm-work, but his heart was not faithful. He was lost, emotionally trapped in self-centeredness and bitterness and insecurity.

This morning my point is that, at some time in our lives, most of us can identify with both the wanderer and the homebody.

After listening to Pastor Wade’s message last Sunday, my wife said, “I realize that I began my spiritual life as the younger son, and then later I became the older son.” Exactly.

Whether we are outright (no holds barred) sinners, or even believers in Jesus, we can find ourselves in the far country of alcohol abuse, pornography, a hundred other sins. We can wander away into the pleasures and distractions of life, until one day we wake up in a pigpen, dazed and confused, and knowing that it’s time to come back home to the Father. Can I get a witness?

And even when we’re believers in Jesus, doing many of the right things, we can take our eyes off of the Savior, so distracted by the do’s and don’ts of religion that we lose the heart of the gospel. We become rigid and judgmental, envious and bitter. Can I get a witness?

CAN YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE OLDER BROTHER?

THE CHURCH HAS OFTEN BEEN A PLACE OF UNGRACE. We have vilified the woman who has aborted her unborn child. We have rejected the person caught in a homosexual lifestyle. We have turned away from the alcoholic and the drug addict. We have inwardly shunned the lazy welfare case.

We have been people full of ungrace.

“My younger brother has been a jerk, a drunkard, an ungrateful little creep, sexually immoral.  Why should I forgive him?”

But the heart of the gospel is love. God is love.

Anyone who claims to live in God’s light [but] hates a brother or sister is still in the dark… stumbling around in the dark, not knowing which end is up, blinded by the darkness. (1 John 2:9-11 – The Message)

On the night before Christmas Eve I was reading to my wife when we received a phone call. We are close to a family that is going through a difficult divorce. The call was from the husband. Could we be available on Christmas Eve to supervise a visit of his wife with their 12-year old daughter? I felt imposed upon and ungracious and grumpy in the extreme. Connie was gracious and loving and welcomed mother and daughter into our home for a Christmas Eve visit. I was playing the part of the older son, the homebody. Have you ever been there?

My attitude was the attitude of the Pharisees, an attitude Jesus condemned.

This morning I’m recommending two books:

1) The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Henri Nouwen)

This Dutchman was a Catholic priest and a professor at Harvard University before he moved to Toronto to work among people with mental and physical disabilities.

2) What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Phillip Yancey) Fifteen years ago God used his book to turn my life upside down. Except for the Bible, Yancey’s book is the most important I’ve ever read. I can’t encourage you enough to read it.

In this story, a father is overjoyed when his lost son returns home. He throws a lavish party to celebrate. Jesus says that, in the same way, our Father God is overjoyed when one of HIS lost children comes home. God throws a wild party! In fact, the Kingdom of God is a party.

Jesus is saying, “This is what it feels like to be God. When any one person turns to me, I feel like I’ve just reclaimed my most valuable possession.”

In his book, Phillip Yancey gives us his contemporary rewriting of the Prodigal Son:

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, drugs, and violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: Her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him “Boss”–teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring that she can hardly believe she grew up there. She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline, “Have you seen this child?” But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year, the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. “These days, we can’t mess around,” he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her drug habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” is the wrong word—a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.

One night, as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

God, why did I leave? she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? Even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault, it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the road, and the asphalt steams. She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God.

When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life.

She checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect, and not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of 40 family members—brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They are all wearing ridiculous-looking party hats and blowing noisemakers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She looks through tears and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know … “

He interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

Our Heavenly Father loves to celebrate return. He celebrates the Wanderer when he comes back home.

And He celebrates the Homebody when the sulking is over, when the older son comes into the house to hug his brother and enjoy the party.

The Creator of the universe has made the first move toward us. He has come from eternity to speak with us today. He came to the stable in Bethlehem. He came to the cross of Calvary. He came through the empty tomb in Gethsemane.

Welcome Him! Welcome Him! Delight yourself in Him! Welcome Him to teach you the Way of Life. Welcome Him to change you.

(Preached at Brook Hill United Methodist Church) (Sunday, January 18, 2015)

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