The Waiting FatherErwin W. Lutzer | March 2, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Have you sinned so greatly that you don’t think you deserve God’s forgiveness? The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 gives us a wonderful example of how the Father is eagerly awaiting for us to return to Him.
The young man misused his father’s money, spurned his own religion, compromised his dignity, turned away from what he’d been taught, and when he no other recourse, he returned home… where he found his father waiting for him with open arms.
After you’ve blown it, even if you’ve blown it big time, God is still waiting for you to turn to Him.
I think of a young man, thirtyish, good looking, a graduate of a Bible college, intending to be an evangelist and a missionary, staring into a window, disheveled, saying to me, “How could I be in this mess?” He fathered a child and now his girlfriend would not allow him to see his own baby.
What do I do when I don’t know what to do?
Or I could think of a young woman, dating a man, bypassing all of the stop signs, all of the red lights, going ahead with a relationship that she knew intuitively was wrong, and eventually being entangled in a mess, and asking, “What now?”
This is the beginning of a series of messages entitled After You’ve Blown It, Reconnecting with God and Others, because we are going to talk about reconnecting with God, but we are also going to be talking about, later on, reconnecting with others. To what extent do you try to be reconciled with other members of God’s family, and what if people will not reconcile with you? How do you connect with God but also connect with others? To help us this morning I’m reminded of the parable that Jesus told in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was a master story teller and in principle, it’s a story that has happened a thousand times.
A young man becomes weary of the rules and the restraints of the farm, and he comes to his father, and he says to his father, “Father, give me the portion of the estate that falls to me, and I want you to give it to me right now.” We can imagine how impertinent it was for him to make this request, because in effect, what he was saying was, “Father, I can’t wait until you die before I receive my inheritance. I want it right now.” You can imagine the pain in the father’s heart, but the father bears the pain and buries the hurt, and gives to the young man according to the laws of Levitical inheritance one-third of the estate. And the other two-thirds is given to the elder brother who stays home. The father doesn’t lecture the boy, but the father allows the boy to go, and when the boy says, “Give me,” that defines his life, because the father is a giver, but the son is a taker. Wordless, the father watches his son go down the road. The father knows what the far country is like, and the father’s heart is broken, but there comes a time in the life of a young person where you simply must let them go if they will not stay at home.
What we’d like to do for the next few moments is to simply take some snapshots of this story. And first of all, we see some of the steps downward that this young man took as he left home.
First of all, we notice that he goes away to what is called a distant or a far country. What he wants to do is to get as far away from home as he possibly can. He doesn’t want to leave his cell phone number. He doesn’t want the father to intervene, and what he wants to do is to go where he is unknown so he can do whatever he wants to do and nobody back home will know what he’s up to.
And so the second thing that he does is he misuses the blessings that the father gave him, because when the father earned his money on the farm it was not his intention that the son squander his wealth in wild living. I like, at this point, what the King James version says. It says, “He wasted his substance.” And we still use that word today, don’t we? We speak about somebody being wasted, and sin is always waste. It is always waste. And he takes his money and he blows his money, and takes what the father gave him for blessing and he uses it to commit sins.
Another mistake that he makes is that he ends up spurning actually his own religion. Now as I read this story I can be very happy about the fact that this boy does not begin a life of stealing in order to get food. At least he’s willing to work for it, and he attaches himself, the Scripture says, to a citizen of that far country. And that citizen sends him into the fields to feed the pigs, but pigs were an abomination to the Jews. It’s not just that they were physically unclean. They were also spiritually or ceremonially unclean, and he knew that his religion would not allow this vocation. But if you are hungry, the precepts and the teachings of your religion have to be set aside for the greater good of continuing to live.
And so the Bible says that he longed to eat the pods that the pigs ate. He was there with them and he had to compromise his dignity and compromise what he had been taught. But sin always causes us to compromise, and it always brings us down. It never brings us up.
Something else about this younger boy that we discover is that his friends were untrustworthy. He trusted friends who would not be there for him when times became difficult. As a matter of fact, he had friends as long as he had money, but having squandered his inheritance, when the money was gone his friends were gone, because I read in the text that no one gave to him. Nobody was there for him in the end when he needed his friends that he had made in the far country.
Now there were many reasons why this boy might decide to stay in the far country. For example, he could have said to himself, “Well, I’m not coming back to my father. Even if I have to starve I won’t go back home.” And there would have been good reasons why he could have hardened his heart that way. After all, the question was, could he bear the shame of going back to the father? After all, he had discredited the father’s name, because there were folks in the village who talked about the farmer who had two sons, and they spoke about the good boy who stayed home, and the hard working elder brother, and then the scoundrel (the rascal) who ran off with his father’s wealth and turned it all into cash and then blew it in the far country. And he knew that he had not only hurt his father, but had hurt his father’s reputation, and in order for him to go back and to look into his father’s eyes and to admit that he came empty-handed and all the money was gone, that was tough to do.
But there’s another reason why he might have found it difficult to go back, and that was his elder brother, that goody two-shoes who never did anything wrong, who worked from early morning until late at night. He knew that there was no such thing as being reconciled to his father unless he also became reconciled at least in some way to his father’s other son. And so, because of that, he might have decided to stay in the far country.
And then he could have thought to himself, “I know that back on the farm I can’t waste my life. I cannot live a wild life,” as the NIV translates it. “I know that there are certain rules at the farm, and I don’t know whether or not I can live up to those rules, and so I’m not going home, whether I live or whether I starve.”
It seems to me that there comes a time in the life of everyone who has run through the stop signs when there is a fork in the road when they have to decide whether or not they’ll keep on making one bad decision after another, after another, or whether they will actually come to their senses and turn around, because there are so many who discover that when their environment gives out, as was true of this boy, when there’s a famine in the land, they keep on making the same mistake again and again and again, following the false path until the end, and they never turn around. So whatever we may say about this boy in the far country, we read the text of Scripture in those wonderful words in verse 17: “He came to his senses.” And he came to his senses because he was hungry. And he knew, however, that it is possible to make a right decision even after a series of bad destructive ones. There is one right decision that can still be made, and that is he can return to his father to be reconciled to him.
Now quite frankly we wish that his motives would have been a lot better. We wish that his motives would have been more noble. We wish that the text would read: “I love the father, and I’m missing the father, and so because I am missing him and I know that he loves me, I’m going home.” That’s not what we read. He comes home because he’s hungry. He comes home because he can’t live another day having to sleep out in the field. That’s why he comes. But at least he’s coming. Whether it’s a right motive or a wrong motive, at least his feet are now leading him in the right direction.
It was George MacDonald who was a friend of C. S. Lewis who said that when a child leaves home, he comes home because he’s hungry, but he needs his mother more than he does his supper. And certainly this boy needed his father more than he did a full stomach, but at least it’s the empty stomach that is bringing him home, and he comes home to be filled.
I believe it was C. S. Lewis who said that when he was converted, he thought that he was being converted to a place, but that he realized that he was being converted to a person, and it was that that was transforming. And it was because this boy knew that the father loved him, that it was that fact that gave him the permission to come back home, and he makes a speech that he’s going to give to his father. Along the way he rehearses it, and it says, first of all, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Somewhere along the line this boy learned some good theology. All of our sin is always first and foremost against God, and only secondarily against others.
So he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and I have sinned against you.” And then he says, “I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as a hired servant.” And so with that in his mind and heart, he begins the long trip back to the father. Meanwhile back home, the father has lost all interest in the business. There are times when the father puts down the tools and his eyes scan the horizon because he’s looking for his wayward child. And he thinks to himself, “I wonder if maybe he’s run out of resources in the far country. I wonder whether he will ever come home,” because even though the boy has left the father’s farm, the boy has not left the father’s heart.
And someone told me one time, and I believe it is true, that a father can only be as happy as his saddest child. And so even though the farm seems to be prospering, the father’s mind is somewhere else, and one day, as he puts down the tools, he looks in the distance, and in the Greek text when it says, “He saw him when he was a great way off,” it’s the same word as the far country, which leads us to believe that the father was actually scanning the horizon, looking as far as he possibly could into the far country to see whether or not he might find his boy. He sees a dot in the distance, and the dot begins to get closer and closer, and as he sees the boy coming toward him, suddenly he picks out his features, and he runs toward him. And the boy has practiced his speech, and he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, and I am no more worthy to be called your son,” but he can’t finish the words, “make me as one of your hired servants,” because suddenly he is smothered with kisses. And the father says, “Bring hither the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, for this, my son, was dead and is alive, and was lost and is found.”
The Pharisees who were listening to the parable that Jesus told were saying, “That’s stupid. How can a man love a boy with the smell of pigs on him? How do you love a boy like that?” But the father answers by saying, “Just let me put my arms around him.”
At this point in the parable there are two lessons that we should remember for wayward sons. The first lesson is simply this – that the Father awaits and longs for the return of all of His wayward sons and daughters. Oftentimes it is our sin that drives us away from God, and we think, “Well, God is so mad at me he doesn’t want me back.” And we don’t understand that by staying away we are hurting God. We are hurting Him because He loves us, and He delights in His children, and He wants fellowship with us. And all the reluctance is not on His side. None of the reluctance, I should say, is on His side. All of the reluctance is on our side. We are the ones who think, “Well, the Father doesn’t want me back,” forgetting that the Father does want us back. And if you are here today as a backslidden Christian, I want you to know that if you are out of fellowship with the Father that you are not just hurting yourself. You are also hurting the Father who loves you, and sent His Son to redeem you.
But there’s a second lesson that we learn, and that is that the Father abundantly blesses His wayward sons. He abundantly blesses His wayward sons. One commentator I read said that he struggles with this parable because he said, “The parable does not have the cross. The parable doesn’t say anything about Jesus Christ needing to die before the Father can forgive.” But I think that the cross is implied, because when the father says, “Bring hither the best robe,” that is the robe of righteousness that is given to those who believe in Jesus. In fact, it seems as if the right robe – the special robe - may be the father’s own robe that he’s going to give to his wayward boy. And then he says, “Bring hither the ring,” the ring symbolic of power and status, and then, “Put shoes on his feet.” No slave was ever allowed to wear shoes, only sandals.
The father was saying, “You’re not going to be a hired servant. You’re going to be my son, and I’m going to kill for you the fatted calf, and we’re going to have a party. We’re going to have a big party because you’ve come home.”
Why is it that the father was so anxious to bless his boy? The reason is because the father is, after all, very generous. And the father saw in the boy an opportunity. He found someone who wanted the robe, and the ring and the shoes. And the Father loves to give to those who are destitute, those who come back to Him with nothing in their hand except failure to present Him. But the Father loves them, and the Father reinstates them, and the Father blesses them.
Now it is at this point that we are introduced to someone else in the family. It’s the elder son. He’s the boy, you know, who has been working from early in the morning until late at night. He is the one to whom and for whom the farm prospers. He’s the kind of person who is dependable. If he says he’s going to do it, he does it. He’s working late. He comes home and he hears the party before he even sees the party, because the Bible says that as he drew near he heard the sound of music and dancing. And so he calls one of the servants and says, “What is going on?” And the servant says, “Well, your younger brother has come back, and your father has killed the fatted calf. He’s throwing a party because of your brother.” You might expect him to say, “Oh, that’s so wonderful,” and rush to the house, and throw his arms around his younger brother, and say, “Welcome back; I’ve been praying for you. We’ve been missing you.” But he doesn’t do that, because one of the things that we learn about the elder brother is this.
Though he is busy in the father’s work, the elder brother does not share the father’s heart. The elder brother does not delight in the salvation of his younger brother. The elder brother is judgmental. He’s a Pharisee. He’s a bean counter. And what the elder brother is interested in is so many years of work, so many years of reward. He can’t understand this business of God being generous to people who are destitute. He doesn’t get it. He’s the kind who says, “How can God possibly bless him? Look at that! He’s divorced. How can God bless him?”
How can God bless somebody who has spent time in jail? How can God bless somebody? Look at the home that they are from. Look at how dysfunctional they are. Look at the alcoholism. Look at the abuse. Look at the father who ran off with somebody else. And God is going to bless this child? How can He do it? You see, even though the elder brother happens to be busy on the father’s farm, and even though he is a son, he is actually living like a slave. And so when he meets the father on the back porch, the elder brother, with all the resentment that had been stirring in his heart for years, unloads on the old man. And he says to him, “Lo, these many years have I served you, and I never transgressed any of your commandments, and yet you never gave me a goat that I could have a party with my friends. But as soon as thy son has come, who has devoured thy living with prostitutes, you’ve killed for him the fatted calf.”
I want you to notice a few things about that speech. First of all, you’ll notice that he says the younger son devoured the living with harlots – prostitutes. We’re not told that explicitly, but the elder brother knows that that’s what he’d be doing if he had the nerve to leave the farm. There’s something else about that speech, and that is that he distances himself from his younger brother. He says, “As soon as this, thy son, is come…” Somebody, complaining about a church member at Moody Church, said to me one time… Instead of saying, “Do you know what that dear brother did - he did this and this?” he said, “You know what one of your members did at Moody Church, in your church?” Well, he’s a brother in Christ. I guess we all do that. I remember sometimes coming home and my wife would say (laughter)… You already know what she would say. (laughter) She’d say, “Do you know what your oldest daughter did today?”
But here’s a guy who is a son, but he’s living like a slave. And how does the father handle this guy? How does the father treat him? Does the father say, “Well, if you’re going to shout at me, I’m going to shout back?” No, and this is a third lesson for wayward sons. The father helps wayward sons to be reconciled to other members of the family, because I want you to notice how tenderly he speaks to him. He says in verse 31: “My son, you always are with me and everything I have is yours.” When he uses the expression my son, in Greek it’s technon. It means really my child, It’s a term of endearment, because God is even gracious to the judgmental Pharisees who are fault finders, who don’t like it that God is gracious. And so the father helps in the reconciliation process. He says, “Don’t you know that everything that I have is yours? You want a party? Oh man, you want a party! You’re asking for a goat and the hills are filled with goats. Help yourself and throw the biggest party you would want to throw, and invite all of your friends because everything that I have is yours.”
The older brother had forgotten that the father was generous. In the mind of the elder brother the father was stingy, and the father was not sharing the wealth so to speak, and so as a result of that, the elder brother had become bitter and resentful in the father’s work, but out of harmony in the father’s heart. So the father says, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.”
The elder brother did not under understand grace. John Piper says, “Grace is grace because it highlights God’s own overflowing resources of kindness. Grace is eternal because it will take that long to expend inexhaustible stores of goodness on us, totally and completely undeserved grace to those who are destitute and those who need a brand new beginning.” And so the father helps the son, and what he wants is reconciliation, saying to the elder son, “Come, join the party. Join the celebration. Get your heart where mine is so that we can rejoice together,” but the younger son has found his way home from the far country.
There is a fourth and final lesson for wayward sons and daughters, and that is it is never too late for you to come to your senses. It’s never too late for you to come to your senses. I’m speaking to some today who perhaps are angry. You may be angry with the Father. You may be angry at some of the Father’s sons and daughters, and you are saying, “I’m not going to have anything to do with the church.” Maybe something happened. Maybe one of those elder brothers stepped on your toes, or judged you, and you are saying, “I’m staying away from the Father, and I’m staying away from the Father’s people. I may come to church. I may listen to a message, but my heart is somewhere else.”
Some of you who are in the far country may be wasting your lives on riotous and wild living, and you say, “I can come, and I can listen, but I can’t give God my heart.” But it’s exactly your heart that God wants today.
Elizabeth Elliot said, “To give myself up is the last thing I think of doing. It looks like weakness, but in God’s eyes it is power.” C. S. Lewis says, “We are not only nearly imperfect creatures who must be improved. We are rebels who must lay down our arms.”
I’m talking to you today. I am talking to believers who are not walking in fellowship for a whole bunch of reasons. I’m asking you, I am pleading with you. Come back to the Father. Give up your bitterness. Give up your grudges. Give up your reasons. Give up your sins because the Father is waiting, and the Father loves you. And no matter how far you have fallen, and how many stoplights you have run, it’s always right to return to the Father who loves you.
Many years ago I heard a story about a more modern prodigal son. He was a kid brought up in a fine church and in a fine Christian home, and therefore he sinned against great light. He also went into the far country to seek his fling. He indulged in everything that the far country had to offer – drugs, alcoholism and sex. But one day he came to his senses and he wondered, “Would my parents ever have me back?” He knew that he had brothers and sisters in Christian work and that he had disgraced the family because of the way in which he lived. Everybody talked about the fact that his family was such a wonderful family, but just look at what that kid did.
But he came to his senses and he wrote a letter to his parents. And the letter said in effect, “Mom and Dad, I don’t know if you’ll have me back. I’d like to be reconciled to you. I’d like to be forgiven. But next Wednesday I am going to take a train ride back into the town, and you know that as the train rumbles through the village, from the window I can see the back yard.” He said, “If you will have me back, take a yellow ribbon and tie it on a branch of the old apple tree. If it’s there I’ll stop at the station. If not, I’ll just go to the next town."
When Wednesday came he could scarcely contain himself. He wondered what it would be like if the ribbon was not there – the rejection of his parents. As the train rumbled through town he pressed his nose against the window as if he were a child. And then when he had the nerve to look, tears streamed down his face as he saw a yellow ribbon on every branch of the apple tree.
And I say to you today that the reluctance of you being in fellowship with the Father does not exist with the Father, because the waiting Father has His arms open to the rebellious. He has His arms open to those who are in the far country, and He urges them to come back. The reluctance is all on our part. And after we have blown it, if we want to connect with God and we want to connect with others, the first step always is the right one. The first step is to return to the Father and His waiting arms. Are you willing today to give up the weapons of a rebel, and to say, “Father, I’m coming back home?”
Father, we ask today for those who are in the far country in their hearts, if not in their bodies. We ask for those, Father, whose lives have been one wrong decision after another, after another, who plunge on. You’ve tried to get their attention through circumstances, through famine, through heartache and through hunger, and they’ve not listened. We ask today, Father, that you will give them the grace to come to the Father, and to say, “Today I want to be in fellowship with someone who loves me,” and in coming back to the Father to be reconciled to His other children, difficult though it may be. Grant that grace we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.