What do the following things all have in common? A stuffed puffer fish; a case full of dentures; a human skull; hundreds of umbrellas; and a pound coin? They have all been lost on the London underground! They’re just some of the thousands of items that have been handed in to the Lost Property Office of Transport for London.
In Luke chapter 15, Jesus tells some stories about lost things. In the first, a shepherd has one hundred sheep. One wanders off, and the shepherd goes to find it and rejoices as he brings it home again. In the second, a woman has ten coins, loses one, and searches for it until she finds it. And then he comes to the final story of the three. By now, we know the pattern - something is lost and then found.
But this time it’s different. We’re introduced to a man with two sons. The younger son wants to get lost, and asks his dad for his share of the inheritance. He’s basically saying that he wishes his dad was dead, he just can’t wait to get his hands on what is his. When he has the money, off he goes, you’ll not see him for dust. Away he goes, and in the distant country he has a great time. Lots of friends, lots of parties - ‘wild living’ as Jesus says.
But the money doesn’t last long. He goes through it quicker than a wrong answer on ‘The Million Pound Drop’; moving from riches to rags. He has nothing to show for it - but there’s worse to come. Just as the money dries up, so does the land; there’s famine. No one to help him; friends abandon him, he’s all alone.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, he takes on the only job going, feeding pigs. For a good Jewish boy, this is the ultimate disgrace, living with the pigs. You’re at the lowest of the low, the unclean animals your only friends. Think of the most disgusting job ever, the job you wouldn’t do if they paid you a million pounds, and you’re halfway to this guy among the pigs.
Picture him sitting there, definitely not as happy as a pig in muck, his mind wanders back to home. He remembers the servants, and how even they are better off than him. He came to his senses - he wised up - and decides to go back home. He doesn’t have the money for the bus fare, so he starts walking, and as he goes, he rehearses his speech. He knows what he’s going to say: ‘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.’
This is what confession looks like - admitting what you’ve done wrong, saying sorry; turning around.
As he walks home, though, he’s in for a big surprise. Verse 20: ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and was filled with compassion for him.’ He doesn’t even make it home - his dad comes to meet him. How did he know? His dad had been watching for him, waiting for him to come back. His dad has compassion for him - he loves him, he’s waiting for him.
The son doesn’t even get to finish his speech; he doesn’t get to the bit about applying for a job as a servant. Straight away, the father is giving orders to his servants asking for a robe and a ring and shoes - the signs of sonship; the symbols of being received as a son. The fattened calf is slaughtered, and a celebration is quickly arranged.
I don’t know you. I don’t know where you are in terms of your relationship with God. It could well be that you have wandered off from God. You’ve taken all the good things he provides, and wished that he was dead. You’ve lived as if God didn’t exist; that you’re in control of your own life and can do things to please yourself. You might be popular, seemingly successful; but in the end, the path you’re on leads to ruin, destruction. Perhaps you’ve reached the end of the path; you’re in the pigsty.
Jesus calls you to come home. Come back to the God who made you, who delights to call you his child. The God who loves you so much that he wants to welcome you into his family. The God who celebrates with the angels when one sinner repents.
God our Father is the God of grace - who gives us what we don’t deserve. None of us deserve to be welcomed in; and yet that’s what God does, as we repent. The way is open for us through the death of the Lord Jesus. Come and be saved. The party begins, and it looks as if the story is coming to a climax in verse 24: ‘Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
You might be thinking - hurray, a happy ending. Story over, let’s move on. Except Jesus isn’t finished. Did you hear about the Primary School class learning about this story, and the teacher asked who wasn’t happy when the prodigal came home? Wee Johnny put up his hand and said ‘The fattened calf’. I’m sure the fattened calf wasn’t happy, but Jesus tells us about the older son. Right at the start, Jesus said that the man had two sons - so let’s think about the older son.
While the younger son had gone off to seek his fame and fortune, the older son had stayed at home, working on the farm. Even now on this special day, he was out in the fields. It’s only as he comes home that he hears the music and dancing. He calls over one of the servants and asks what’s happening. ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
The servant thinks he’s telling him good news, but actually, the old brother is angry. his dad comes out to talk to him, and the reason is clear: This older brother hasn’t understood what being a son is all about. It turns out that he’s just as lost as his brother.
My mum has a terrible habit of losing his glasses. She’ll be searching all over the house, trying to find them. In fact, she even has a pair of glasses nearby to wear for when she’s trying to find her glasses. Sometimes, though, she’s searching for them, she’s convinced they’re lost, when they’re actually on her head! (It must run in the family, because I do that sometimes with my sunglasses when on holiday!) They’re right there, and yet they’re lost.
That’s a bit like the older brother. Here’s what he says: ‘All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders...’ The whole time he was at home, he was acting like a slave, rather than enjoying the privileges of being a son.
On the surface, he has never strayed, and yet he is just as lost as his brother was. This might be the greater danger for me and for you, growing up in church and CE and Christian organisations, if it’s all just a duty, all just outward show, yet our hearts are far from God. Outward obedience is nothing without heart obedience. We can go through the motions without ever enjoying the blessings of sonship.
It’s the very reason that Jesus told these three stories. You see, the Pharisees and scribes (the religious leaders) were complaining that Jesus was welcoming ‘sinners’. These religious people look at the sinners and think that they’re too bad for God to want them. They don’t like the way that these bad people are coming to Jesus and being welcomed in; that they’re experiencing God’s grace and forgiveness, just like the younger brother.
But in this story, the older brother is the Pharisee, the religious person who doesn’t think they need to repent. They think they’re ok with God; they don’t realise that they’re just as lost. The warning of the parable is for them - will they too recognise that they’re lost and need to repent? Will they realise what being a child of God is all about? Relationship, not religion. Sonship, not slavery.
I wonder if we have any older brother types here tonight. I wonder if you recognise yourself in this older brother. If so, the Father is pleading with you tonight, to come and join the celebration; to come home and share in his welcome; to discover that you too are loved; that you too are welcomed into the family - no longer as a slave, but as a loved son; a loved daughter.
The story ends like an episode of Eastenders (or whatever your favourite soap opera might be) - dum dum dum... a cliffhanger ending. The father’s closing words repeat the earlier climax - rejoicing because the lost are found. But we’re not told the older brother’s response. It’s left open for us. If you’re an older brother type, what will your response be?
This man has two sons, one the prodigal who squandered his inheritance; the other who lived as a servant rather than a son. But there’s another son in the story. This son never went astray like the prodigal; this son never forgot the privilege of sonship; this son perfectly obeyed his Father in everything. This son died for the sins of the two sons, to open the way for their acceptance. He died for your sins, so that you too can be welcomed with open arms. This son was the one who told the story, the one who receives sinners, whether prodigals or older brothers.
Will you come? I once was lost, but now am found. Amen.
This sermon was preached at the CE (Christian Endeavour)
Service in Ballinamallard Methodist Church on Friday 4th May 2012.