Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Compassionate Father

(A Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2008 based on Luke 15:11-24)

[Image: Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt]

The Bible consistently refers to God as “Father.” What does that image mean to you? For some the word conjures up pictures of a stern disciplinarian. For others it evokes images of a distant and absent figure. For yet others it brings up thoughts of a conscientious provider.

The aspect of the idea of God as “Father” on which I want us to focus on is compassion. Granted, there are many aspects of God as Father on which we could concentrate, but we dare not neglect the compassion of the Father; indeed, we must major on it. In this parable the prodigal son encountered the radical compassion of the Father. If you are saved, so have you. If you will be saved, so will you.

The younger son left home. We have no indication why the son left. His actions show that, at the least, he wanted to “get away.” Maybe he needed to find his own way. Maybe he was tired of living under the strictures of his father’s law. Maybe he had the same problem we’ve all had since Adam and Eve—we don’t like to live with “thou shalt not.” Maybe the son couldn’t have told you exactly why he wanted to leave.

And what of the father? The son said, “Give me my share and let me go,” and the father gave it and let him! I suppose he could have made him stay, even as God could have made us stay. But the father did not do that and our Father does not do that. As Frederick Buechner said, “Even as the father lays down the law, he knows that someday his children will break it as they need to break it if ever they’re to find something better than law to replace it.” (Whistling in the Dark, p. 52. The quote is really about fathers in general and not about the father in the parable specifically.) The Father lets us go when we choose to go. So, at some point in our lives, our innocence gives way to our guilt and alienation. God gave us our freedom and we will go our own way, away from God. We will practice a kind of immature legalism, convinced that God loves us because and only if we are good and keep all the rules. Finally we do go away, thinking we will find freedom, but finding instead estrangement and lostness.

The parable, though, says that if we come back we find grace. Lost, running children need the compassionate grace of the Father. Once we come to ourselves the Father is eager and ready to receive us. Look at how radical and extravagant the father’s grace is in the parable. He ran to meet his son, flinging his arms around him and kissing him. The young man’s father abandoned all dignity and in an outpouring of affection rushed to his son, gathered him in his arms, and showered affection on him. Then he killed the fatted calf, dressed his son in fine garments, and had the biggest blowout the village had ever seen. That is how we should picture God. When we leave, God lets us go. It inevitably happens to all of us—we become sinners. And God knows that if we will come back and find his grace we will be wondrously blessed. And when we come, he rushes out to meet us. When we come, he throws his arms around us and kisses us. There is no “first you must do this” or “first you must prove yourself” or “first you must be punished.” No, there is rejoicing and laughing and dancing in heaven. God himself experiences the reckless abandonment of unbridled joy. Why? Because his daughter or son who was dead is alive, because the one who was lost is now found!

We may have difficulty thinking of our heavenly Father reacting in such extreme ways to the return of a lost child. We may have trouble imagining God running to meet us and throwing his arms around us. But this radical extravagance has already been seen in its fullest manifestation in the coming of Jesus. As Helmut Thielecke has said about this parable,

This is Jesus Christ himself who is speaking. And he is not merely telling us about this Father; the Father himself is in him. He is not merely imagining a picture of an alleged heaven that is open to sinners; in him the kingdom is actually in the midst of us. Does he not eat with sinners? Does he not seek out the lost? Is he not with us when we die and leave all others behind? Is he not the light that shines in the darkness? Is he not the very voice of the Father’s heart that overtakes us in the far country and tells us that incredibly joyful news, “You can come home. Come home!”? (The Waiting Father, p. 29)

How compassionate is our heavenly Father? He runs and hugs and celebrates when a lost child comes home. How compassionate is our heavenly Father? He came in his Son Jesus to be with us and to die for us. How compassionate is our heavenly Father? Hear another story, this one from Philip Yancey.

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, the drugs, and the 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 that 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 and provincial 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 habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on the 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.

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? And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off a 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 pavement rubbed worn by thousand of tires, 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, smoothes 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. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepared her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers, and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers, 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 stares out through the tears quivering I her eyes like hot mercury 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.”
(What’s So Amazing About Grace?, p. 51)

That is how the Father loves you! That is the compassion he has for you!

Oh! For the wonderful love He has promised,
Promised for you and for me;
Tho’ we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon,
Pardon for you and for me.
Come home, come home, Ye who are weary come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!

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