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When Your Heart Needs A Home

Luke 15:11-24

Here is the greatest story ever told by the greatest storyteller who ever lived…

Once upon a time, there was a man who had two sons. The younger of those two sons said to the father, “Father, give me the share of the property which will belong to me.” Do you understand what the young man was actually saying? He was saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” You see, the law decreed in those days that the only way you could gain an inheritance was through the death of the father. Obviously, this young man wanted to be free from the expectations of his father and the prohibitions of his home. He wanted to cast aside all the rules, the regulations, and the restrictions that marked his everyday experience. He wanted to let that red-hot blood in his veins dance a little. Yes, that’s what he really wanted. So he came to his father with this shocking request—shocking because it was absolutely unthinkable in the society of which he was a part. He said, “Father, give me the share which will belong to me.” Even more shocking is the fact that the father, against all the customs of the day, granted the young man his request. He gave him one third of the estate. You see, the law decreed in those days that an estate would be divided as follows: the first born son would receive two thirds of this estate and any other sons in the family would split the remaining one third. Since there was only this one other son in this family, the father gave his younger son his one-third share of the estate. Here you begin to see something of the character of this father. He could easily have told the boy. “No.” Had he done that, the whole community would have applauded this decisive step. But you see this father understood that love cannot be commanded or coerced. It must spring freely from the heart. And so this father granted his son his request.

A few days later, the Bible says, the young man turned his assets into cash, and he headed off to what was called a far country. He wanted to get away from home and everything that home meant, so, the Bible says, he went to a far country. There—I have to tell you, I love the way the King James Version of the Bible expresses this—there the Bible says, “He wasted his substance in riotous living.” He had a blast. He had a ball. There were parties and presents and prestige, and he was at the center of it all, “Laissez les bon temps rouler”—let the good times roll! And roll they did. It was great while it lasted. The problem was it didn’t last. When he had blown through all of his cash, the economy took a down turn. The stock market crashed. Food and funds were in short supply. “No problem,” the young man thought to himself, “Every life has its ups and downs. I’ll just get me a job.” Now at this point in the story, Jesus is very precise in the language he uses. Jesus says that this young man attached himself (joined himself) to a citizen of the far country. In other words, the young man became a parasite. He became a social leech—living off of this man. Eventually, this citizen of the far country forced the young man to do the one thing most detestable to any Jew. You see, the law in those days decreed, “Cursed be he who feeds the swine.” Well, this citizen of the far country forced the young man to go into the fields to feed the pigs. Ironic, isn’t it? Here was this young man who wanted no rules, no regulations, no restrictions, who didn’t want anyone telling him what to do, and he winds up being forced to do the one thing on God’s green earth he would have hated most to do—feed the pigs. No more parties, no more presents, no more prestige—the good times stopped rolling. At that point in the story, we read a very telling phrase, “Gladly he would have eaten the slop that he was feeding the hogs.”

Dear friends, if we don’t learn anything else from this story we must learn this: Jesus loves the lost—and if Jesus loves the lost so must we. You see, our problem in the church is not that we are too dirty but that we are too clean. We are not so willing to get our hands dirty in the mud, the muck, and the mire; in the sin, the suffering, and the sorrow; in the loneliness, the lawlessness, and the lovelessness; in the pride, the poverty, and the prejudice which exist out there in the world. But that is precisely the world Jesus died to save. This story calls us clearly to do the sometimes-dirty work of taking Jesus Christ to the lost of this world. Just as Jesus loves the lost so must we.

But the story continues…

Like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this story has no excess verbiage. Every word, every phrase is carefully crafted to carry a precise meaning. You see that so clearly at this very dark point in the story when Jesus says of the young man, “He came to his senses,”—five words with a whole world of meaning, “He came to his senses.” Suddenly it dawned on him who he was, what he had become, and how far he had fallen.

Not very long ago, I read a great article in one of the most distinguished theological journals of our time, Sports Illustrated. It was a story written by Gary Smith about Muhammad Ali. Gary Smith went to interview Muhammad Ali at his farm outside Chicago one bitter cold day in January. At one point, Muhammad Ali took Gary Smith out to the barn on the farm—a barn which years before had been turned into an exquisite workout facility. There was a boxing ring in the center with all kinds of wonderful training equipment all around. But no one had used the place in forever. In fact, Gary Smith wrote, “Everything in the barn was covered with a thick layer of dust.” Then Gary Smith noticed, leaning over against one wall of the barn, there was a large row of large photographs—all of them recording the great moments from Muhammad Ali’s boxing career. One of the photographs was the picture, you no doubt have seen, of the young Cassius Clay leaning down triumphantly over the fallen Sonny Liston; one was a photograph of him holding up his bejeweled championship belt; one was a photograph of Muhammad Ali “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee” in the fight known as “the thrilla in Manila.” As they were looking at those photographs, suddenly Muhammad Ali became very quiet. At that point, Gary Smith writes, Ali shuffled over to the wall and with shaking hands proceeded to pick up each one of the photographs and turn it around so that it faced the wall. When he had finished turning around all of the photographs, he then looked over at Gary Smith and said, “Once I had it all, but look at me now.”

I think that’s what the young man in this story felt, “Once I had it all but look at me now.” It was then that he decided that nothing could be worse than where he was. He actually then sat down and prepared a speech to deliver to his father. He rehearsed it well so that he had it clearly in his mind ready to deliver. Then he headed home knowing full well what waited for him there. You see, in those days in the Middle East and it’s true even in the Middle East now, whenever a son dishonors his father and returns later to the village, the people in the village attack the son both verbally and physically. This young man headed back toward his hometown knowing that the people there would be ready to hurl curses upon him, to spit upon him, probably even to beat him with sticks. It is at that point that something truly remarkable occurs in the story. The Bible says that when the father saw the younger son at a great distance, he ran—dear God, he ran. Do you understand that Middle Eastern gentlemen never ever run, not for any reason, not anytime, never ever run. Yet in the story, this father ran toward his son—ran so that the curses fell upon his ears, so that the blows crashed upon his back, so that the spittle ran down his cheeks. Then when he reached his son, he threw his arms wide and he embraced his boy. The Bible says, “He kissed him”—mind you, not some dignified fatherly kiss, no, no. The word Jesus used here means repeated, affectionate kissing. He smothered this boy with kisses, and immediately the son began to deliver the speech, which he had prepared. The father cut him off. He wouldn’t even let him deliver the speech. The father then cried out to his servants, “Get the best robe for him”—it was like saying, “Give him my tux, I want him to look like a million bucks.” The father cried, “Put a ring on his finger”—it was the family signet ring. It was like giving him the family credit card. The father cried, “Put shoes on his feet.” Sons wore shoes; slaves were barefoot. You remember the slave’s dream in the great spiritual, “All God’s chillun got shoes . . . when I get to heaven I’m gonna put on my shoes. I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven.” Slaves were barefoot but the children of the father wore shoes. Then the father cried, “Let’s celebrate. This my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost, but now he is found.”

What do you call that? Let me tell you about a man who knew what to call that. He was born in the early 1700’s in England. Despite spending his early years in prayers and Bible reading at the knees of his mother, when he was still just seven years of age, his mother died. He was orphaned. He became a child of the streets. As he grew into adolescence, he became rebellious and contentious. He was a drunkard and a gambler. He was always in trouble with the law. Finally in order to avoid the consequences of the law, he lied about his age, and he enlisted in the Royal Navy and shipped out to Africa. There he went AWOL. Later he managed to hook on as a crewman on board a slave trading ship. Here he was not yet twenty years old working like the slaves the ship was carrying. He stayed in trouble even there. At one point, he broke into the galley. He stole some bottles of rum and got stinking drunk. The captain of the ship ordered him beaten by the other sailors, and in the process of the beating, he was tossed overboard. Then the other sailors made sport by harpooning him like a whale and hauling him back on board. To the end of his life from that point on, he had a hole the size of a fist in his side from that harpoon. It wasn’t long thereafter; the ship encountered a terrible storm. The crewmen were panicked. They believed they were going to perish. It was at that moment, in a moment of desperation I suppose, that the young man “came to his senses.” He remembered the prayers his mother used to pray when he was a little boy. So he prayed, “Lord, if you deliver me, I will not forget you.” The Lord delivered him, and he didn’t forget. He eventually made his way back to London. There he remembered how his mother had read to him from the Bible. So he picked up the Bible, and he began to read. His eyes fell upon the book of Ephesians, upon a remarkable phrase in that book. The words he read were these: “By Grace you have been saved.” Those words turned his life around. He went on to become a preacher. He ultimately helped William Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade in England. He spent the next sixty-five years of his life preaching, 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 young man didn’t deserve the father’s love, but the father gave him that love anyway. By the way, has it ever occurred to you that we never sing “Amazing Justice,” we only sing “Amazing Grace.”

This story reminds us…

We are all like the younger son. We all think we can go it alone in life. We don’t need anyone or anything else. We certainly don’t want anyone else telling us what to do, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” Let the good times roll. The problem is sooner or later the good times stop rolling, and all the while the Heavenly Father waits—ready to give rings, and robes, and sandals to all of us, ready to embrace us as His own, ready to welcome us home where we belong.

True story. It happened in France, in Normandy during the invasion of the Second World War. In the fierce fighting which occurred in the days after the D-Day landings, at one point two young GI’s saw their best friend gunned down. When at last the fighting stopped for a brief time, they managed to retrieve the dead body of their friend but there was no place to bury him. So they carried the body into the nearest town. They went to a little church there—a Catholic Church. They asked the priest if they might bury their friend in that church’s cemetery. The priest said, “No, I’m sorry this cemetery is reserved only for those who are members of this parish.” Well, the two young GIs didn’t know what to do so they simply went right outside the fence around the cemetery there. They dug a hole. They put the body of their buddy in the ground. They covered the hole over. That night they worked hard to fashion a wooden cross. They wanted to mark the spot where their friend was buried. The next day, they went back into town. They wanted to put that cross on the spot where they had buried their friend. When they got there, they couldn’t find the spot. They went up and down the fence. They couldn’t find the spot where they buried their friend. So they went to the priest, and they said, “Can you help us? We can’t find where we buried him.” The priest said, “Yes, I know. You see, I spent half the night thinking about the two of you and your dead friend. I spent the rest of the night moving the fence.”

That is what God in Jesus Christ does for you and for me. We don’t deserve to be in the Father’s presence. We don’t deserve the Father’s love but God in Jesus Christ has moved the fence so that now, in Christ, you and I can be children of the Heavenly Father.

“Come home; come home. Ye who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling, ‘O sinner, come home!”’

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