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A Faith That Sings: The Greatest Storyteller’s Greatest Story

Luke 15:11-24

The 15th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. I shall begin to read at the 11th verse. This is the word of God.

“Jesus continued, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that country and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare and here I am, starving to death. I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired men.’” So he got up and went to his father.

“‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick, bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” And so they began to celebrate.’”

May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy Word.

Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.

Here is the greatest story ever told by the greatest storyteller who ever lived. Once upon a time, a certain man had two sons. The younger of the two sons approached his father and said, “Father, give me the share of the property which will belong to me.” Now, do you understand what the young man was actually saying? He was saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” Understand, please, that the law in those days decreed that an inheritance could be gained only, but only, at the death of the father. And so the young man approached his father and said, “Father, give me that which is going to belong to me anyway after you are dead.” Quite obviously, this young man wanted to be free of the expectations of his father and he wanted to be out of the prohibitions of his home. He wanted to lay aside all the rules and the regulations and the restrictions which were a part of his everyday life.

He wanted to let the red hot blood in his veins dance a little. That’s what he really wanted. And so he said to his father, “Give me the share of your estate which is going to be mine anyway.” Shocking request. Unthinkable in that day and time. Because, you see, it was a direct act of dishonor to his father. But as shocking as was the request, even more shocking was the father’s response. The father gave to his younger son his full one-third share of the estate. Understand, please, that the law in those days decreed that at the death of the father, the estate would be divided as follows: two-thirds would go to the firstborn son in the family. The remaining one-third would be divided among any other sons in the family. In this family, there was only the one other son and so the father granted to him his full one-third share of the estate.

Now right here, you begin to see something of the character of this father. You see, if the father had responded to the younger son by saying no, a thousand times no, he would have received the acclaim of the community round about. But this father understood something terribly significant. This father understood love cannot be commanded or coerced. Love must come springing freely from the heart.

And so he gave to his younger son his one-third share of the estate.

Now, Jesus, the great storyteller, then goes on to say that after a short period of time, the younger son turned all of his assets into cash. Cold, hard cash. And then Jesus says he headed off to a distant country. Oh, he wanted to get just as far away from the old man as he possibly could. So he headed off to a distant country. And there, I have to tell you, I love the way the King James Version translates this verse. There, the King James says, there “he wasted his substance in riotous living.” Isn’t that great? I mean, he had a blast. He had a ball. There were parties. There were presents. There was prestige. And he was at the center of it all. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll. And roll they did. And it was great while it lasted. Problem was, it didn’t last. Just about the time he’d blown through all of his cash, the economy took a downturn. The stock market crashed. Food and funds were in short supply.

Oh, no problem, the young man thought to himself. Every life has its ups and downs. I’ll just have to get me a job. Well, it turned out to be easier said than done. And so the young man, and at this point I want you to hear this. Jesus uses a very specific word to describe what the young man did. Jesus says the young man attached himself, joined himself to a citizen of that distant country. In other words, he became a parasite. He became a social leech living off the largess of this citizen of the distant country. And that was okay for a time. But then gradually the citizen of the far country tired of the arrangement and decided that it was high time the young man began to earn something of his keep. And so he made the young man do the one thing most detestable to any Jew.

Understand, please, the law in those days decreed, cursed be he who feeds the swine. The citizen of the far country sent the young man out into the fields to feed the pigs. No more parties. No more presents. No more prestige. The good times stopped rolling. Oh, did they ever. Catch the irony at this point, please. Here was this young man. He didn’t want anybody telling him what to do. He didn’t want any rules or regulations or restrictions in his life. And what happens? He winds up being made, being forced to go out into the fields and to do the one thing on God’s green earth he would most have hated to do. Feed the pigs.

At that point, the great storyteller inserts a very poignant and painful line. He says the young man longed to fill his own stomach with the slop he was feeding the pigs. And no one gave him anything.

I would like to interrupt the story just for a moment right here. Because, you see, there is something lurking just beneath the surface of the story that I think it’s important for us to hear. When you dive down deep into the story, you suddenly discover that the message comes rising up that Jesus loves the lost. And if Jesus loves the lost, so must we. You see, that’s our call as followers of Christ. We are called to go out into this sometimes dirty world of ours, out into all the mud, the muck, and the mire, all the sin, the sorrow, and the suffering, all the pride, the poverty, and the prejudice, all the loneliness and the lawlessness and the lovelessness. We’re called to go out into that world to the people who live in the world, to take to them the great good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those people, those people are the ones for whom Christ died. Jesus said it himself. He said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost.” If Jesus loves the lost, so must we.

While the great storyteller continues his story, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this story has no wasted words. No excess verbiage. Every word, every phrase, is carefully crafted to produce a precise meaning. We see it so clearly here at this very dark point in the story.

Jesus says of the young man, “He came to his senses.”

Five little words, but oh, they carry a whole world of meaning. He came to his senses. He looked into the mirror, as it were, and suddenly realized who he was and what he had become and what he had had and how far he had fallen. He came to his sense. It was a shattering moment for him. I remember reading a great article in one of the most distinguished theological journals of our time, Sports Illustrated. The article was about Muhammad Ali. The article was written by Gary Smith.

Gary Smith went to interview Muhammad Ali one bitter cold day in January on the farm outside the city of Chicago where Muhammad Ali lived. At one point in the course of the day, Muhammad Ali invited Gary Smith to go with him out to the barn on the farm. A barn which, some years before, had been turned into a wonderful training facility. There was a boxing ring in the center, all kinds of wonderful equipment all about. Gary Smith said obviously, the place hadn’t been used in forever. Everything, Gary Smith said, everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. And then Gary Smith noticed that over against the wall of the barn, leaning against the wall, a whole series of large, poster-sized photographs. Each photograph one significant moment in the boxing career of Muhammad Ali. There was, for example, the picture of the young Cassius Clay leaning down in triumph over the fallen Sonny Liston. There was a picture of the heavyweight champion holding up his bejeweled championship belt. There was a picture of Muhammad Ali floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee in the fight known as the Thrilla in Manila. One photograph after another, all of them great moments from Muhammad Ali’s boxing career.

Gary Smith said suddenly, Muhammad Ali shuffled over to the wall and with tremulous hands, proceeded to pick up each one of the photographs and turn it so that it faced the wall. And when he had turned every photograph away from view, he then turned back to Gary Smith and in slightly slurred speech, he said, “Once, I had it all. But look at me now.”

I tell you, I think that’s what it was like for the younger son. He came to his senses and suddenly he thought to himself, “Once I had it all. But look at me now.” And in that moment he realized that nothing could be worse than where he was now. And he made a significant decision at that point. He made the decision to go back to his father’s house. He actually sat down and he wrote out a speech which he had intended to deliver to his father. A speech expressing his remorse and regret for all that he had done. And he got that speech tucked away in his mind and he screwed his courage to the sticking post because he knew what was waiting for him back at home.

Understand, please, that in Middle Eastern villages then and in Middle Eastern villages now, if a son ever dares to dishonor his father and if that son then dares to return to the village, the villagers will be there to attack him in punishment. They will curse at him, they will spit on him, they will beat him with sticks. He knew what was waiting for him, but still he turned his feet toward home. And at that point in the story, an amazing thing happens. In fact, those listening to the story for the first time would actually have gasped in shock.

Jesus says that when the father saw his son at a distance, he ran to him.

Understand, please, Middle Eastern gentlemen then, Middle Eastern gentlemen now never, ever run. Not for any reason. Not for any cause. They never, ever run. And Jesus said this father saw his son at a distance and he ran to him.

And you see what happened then, don’t you? The father took the punishment upon himself. The curses rained down on his ears. The spittle ran down his cheeks. The sticks cracked across his back. But he ran to his son. And he threw his arms and he embraced his boy and he kissed him. Oh, mind you, this was not some dignified, fatherly kiss. Oh no, no, no, no. The word Jesus uses means repeated affectionate kissing. He smothered that boy with his kisses. And the son began to deliver the speech he had so carefully prepared. And the father stopped him. The father interrupted him. He wouldn’t let him finish his speech. The father cried out to his servants, “Bring the best robe for him.” In other words, get him my tux. I want him to look like a million bucks. The father said, “Put a ring on his finger.” It was the family’s signet ring. It was the equivalent of giving him the family credit card. The father said, “Put shoes on his feet.” You understand, don’t you, that slaves then and for a long time thereafter, slaves were always barefoot. Only the children of the father wore shoes. You do remember that great slave’s dream in the old spiritual, don’t you? “All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven.”

Slaves were always barefoot. Only the children of the father wore shoes. And the father said, “Put shoes on his feet.” And the father said, “Let’s celebrate. This, my son, was dead and he’s alive again. He was lost but now he’s found.” What you call that?

Let me tell you about a fellow who knew what to call it. He was born in England in the early 1700s. Shortly after his birth, tragedy struck. His father died. Ah, but his mother was a wonderful woman. A devoted mother and equally devoted follower of Christ. And the boy spent the days of his childhood at his mother’s knee, listening to her pray for him and for so many others. Listening to her as she read to him from the pages of the Bible. And then when he was just seven years old, tragedy struck again. His mother died. He was orphaned. He became a waif. A child of the streets. As he grew into adolescence, he became contentious and rebellious. He became a drunkard and a gambler. He was forever in trouble with the law.

In fact, at one point, in order to evade the consequences of the law, he lied about his name and his age and he enlisted in the Royal Navy and he shipped out to Africa. And there, he went AWOL. Later on, he managed to hook on as a crewman on board a slave trading ship. Here he was, not yet 20 years old, and working every bit as hard as the slaves that ship was carrying. Even there, he got into trouble. One night he broke into the ship’s galley, he stole two bottles of rum and got stinking drunk. The captain ordered him punished. Had him bound, placed on the deck of the ship, and the other sailors were ordered to beat him. In the process of the beating, he accidentally fell overboard. The other sailors then made sport of him. They took a harpoon and they harpooned him like a whale and hauled him back on board the ship.

From that point on for the rest of his life, he had a hole in his side the size of a fist from that harpoon. Not long thereafter, the ship encountered a terrible storm. Everyone on board panicked. They felt they were going to perish. He felt that, too. And then he came to his senses. He suddenly remembered how his mother had prayed for him all those years before. And so he prayed, Lord, if you deliver me, I will not forget you. And the Lord delivered him and he didn’t forget. He made his way back to England. And there he remembered how his mother used to read to him from the Bible and so he began to read the Bible. One day he was reading the Bible and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. And he came to a line in that letter and the line just jumped off the page and grabbed his heart. He read the words, “By grace, you have been saved.” Those words turned his life around. He went on to become a preacher. He wound up helping William Wilberforce bring an end to the slave trade in England. And for the next 60 years, he spent his life preaching and teaching and songwriting. Maybe best of all, songwriting. His name was John Newton. You know him by the words he wrote. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”

That’s what you call what happened in this story. Amazing grace. The younger son did not deserve the father’s love, but the father gave it to him anyway. The younger son did not deserve to be in the father’s presence but the father embraced him anyway. Amazing grace. By the way, has it ever occurred to you that we never sing Amazing justice? We only sing Amazing Grace.

The great storyteller’s story reminds us that we’re all like that younger son, aren’t we? I mean, we prefer to go alone in life. We don’t really need anything or anyone else. We certainly don’t want anyone else telling us what to do. I mean, okay, so we once in a while break a moral standard or two. So what? Problem is, sooner or later, we discover that we are broken when we break them. You know what we love to say. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll. Problem is, sooner or later, the good times stop rolling. And all the while, all the while, the Heavenly Father waits, ready to put robes and rings and sandals on us. Ready to embrace us as his very own. Ready to welcome us back home where we belong.

True story. It happened in France. In Normandy, not long after the D-Day landings there. After those landings there was fierce fighting in the countryside all about. At one point, two of our young GIs saw their best friend cut down in a hail of bullets. When at last there came a lull in the fighting, they rushed out and picked up the body of their dead friend. There was no place to bury him there on the battlefield. And so, they carried his body into the nearest little town and there they saw a little church and had a little cemetery right next to it. It was a Catholic church and so they went to the priest and they asked the priest if they might bury their friend in the church’s cemetery. And the priest said, “No, I’m sorry. This cemetery is reserved only for those who are members of this parish.” They didn’t know what to do. And so in desperation, they actually just went right alongside the fence outside the cemetery and they took their camp shovels and they dug a deep hole there and they placed the body of their dead friend down in that hole and with their shovels, they shoveled the dirt back on the hole and then smoothed out the top of it very carefully.

That night, they found a couple of pieces of wood and they put them together as a cross and they carved their buddy’s name on that cross. And the next morning, they went back into the town intending to mark the spot where they had buried their friend with that cross and when they got there, they couldn’t find the spot. They went up and down the fence, up and down the fence. They couldn’t find the spot where they’d buried their friend. In desperation they sought out the priest and they said to him, “You were here yesterday. You saw us, where we buried our friend, but today we can’t find the spot. We can’t find where we buried him. We can’t find it. Can you help us?” And the priest said, “Yes, I know.” The priest said, “Last night, I spent half the night worrying about the two of you and your dead friend. And I spent the rest of the night moving the fence.”

Do you understand? Do you understand that that is exactly what God in Jesus Christ does for you and for me? We do not deserve the Father’s love. We do not deserve to be in the Father’s presence, but God in Jesus Christ has moved the fence so that now you and I, by the grace of Jesus Christ, by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ, you and I can be the children of the Heavenly Father. “Come home. Come home. Ye who are weary, come home. Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling. Oh, sinner, come home. Come home.”

Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.

 

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