"Story Time: Lost Things"

LUKE 15:1-32

May 11, 2014



            It became the most expensive sermon in my life.  It was the late 1970's.  I was an associate pastor at West Hills Church here in town.  I was listening to a sermon on tape, on a cassette tape.  The preacher was my favorite Presbyterian preacher of all time ... Earl Palmer.  At the time Palmer was serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California.  Twenty-five years later, as a direct result of listening to Palmer's sermon, Trudy and I decided to go on a two week Baltic cruise to see a painting of Rembrandt's, a painting that Palmer referenced in his sermon, in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

            In the sermon Palmer preached on this passage, more accurately he preached on the last of the three "lost" stories in our chapter for today.  In this chapter Jesus tells three "lost" stories: the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin, and he caps it off with the story of the lost son.  We know that last story better as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told.

            Palmer, in the sermon, told a story about his traveling to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, a few years earlier.  This would have been in the early 70's when the Cold War was still very, very cold.  Downright frigid, in fact.  He signed up for a tour of the Hermitage and a stereotypical Russian woman at the time, built like a fire plug led the tour.  She was very strict, very matter of fact, and Palmer said that you really had to mind your P's and Q's on this tour.  Then they arrived at Rembrandt's painting of The Prodigal.  She began lecturing on the painting, and Palmer was taking it all in, and then the tour guide said, "Notice, the hands of the blind father as he rested his hands on the shoulders of his kneeling son."

            At that point Palmer said that he didn't know what to do.  The tour guide had just made a colossal mistake.  The tour guide had just given them wrong information.  He debated what to do.  Should he point out the mistake and risk getting kicked off the tour, and maybe even being handed over to security, or should he just keep his mouth shut?  He decided to speak up.  He said, "Excuse me.  What you said about the blind father is wrong.  The father wasn't blind."  Palmer said, "A key element in the parable is Jesus telling us while the son was still far off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion.  The father was not blind."

            You could hear a pin drop.  Would Palmer get into trouble for correcting the no-nonsense Russian guide.  She looked at him, and proceeded.  She said, "Note the hands of the blind father ... "

            Palmer kept his mouth shut the rest of the tour.  After hearing Palmer tell of his experience one of the things on my bucket list was to go to St. Petersburg, Russia and see Rembrandt's painting of The Prodigal.    Twelve years ago, I checked the painting off my bucket list.  It's a huge painting.  A little larger than life-sized.  It was well worth the time, money and energy we spent to see it.

            For those of you visiting us on Mother's Day, we are working our way through the middle section of Luke's Gospel.  I am calling the series, "Luke: The In Between Years, " the years between advent, his birth, and Holy Week, and his crucifixion and death.  Jesus is fast approaching Jerusalem for his appointment with the cross, but prior to arriving he tells a number of stories.  They are known in the bible as parables which are earthly stories with heavenly meanings.  Today we turn our attention to the last of the "lost" stories of the fifteenth chapter, the story about the lost or the prodigal son. 

            As we start today, I need to beg the forgiveness of all the mothers present today, because I'm not going to talk about mothers or motherhood.  Instead, we are going to focus our attention on what one biblical scholar calls the pinnacle, the final step in the revelation process about God.  What is that pinnacle?  What is that final step in the revelation process about God?  It is the revelation of God as a loving and compassionate Father. 

            Now the Old Testament placed great emphasis on another aspect of God:  God's holiness.  We hear the angels of Isaiah singing, "Holy, holy, holy is The Lord of Hosts," and the primary, not the only, but the primary idea of God throughout the Old Testament is that God is holy, pure, different, separate, a being who does not tolerate sin. 

            In the New Testament, however, things begin to change, not that holiness has been displaced or eliminated, but that something has been added.  Jesus introduces something new about God, and as a result a seismic shift takes place in the New Testament.  Instead of the emphasis being on the difficulty and danger of drawing near to a holy God, the emphasis has been shifted to the confidence we can have because God is not only holy, but also God is our Father.  Listen to how one biblical scholar J.I. Packer put it.


            If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God's child, and having God as his Father.  If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.  For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God.  "Father" is the Christian name for God.


            So my apologies to mothers in speaking of the fatherhood of God this morning.  If I had planned better I would have saved this until Father's Day, but I did not so that's what we have here, and lets take a closer look at this parable.  In this parable Jesus gives his audience a technicolor picture of the fatherhood of God.  As he does, he mentions three bold moves of love.    Note the first one: he let's his younger son go.  Verse 11.


            Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gather all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.


            He let his younger son go.  It has been said that healthy families self-destruct, that is, healthy families know when it is time to hold on and when it is time to let go.  I think of a woman in her thirties whose parents still expect her to call home everyday, and "check-in," and if she does not her parents feelings get hurt.  Everyday.  Everyday.  Now that is not a very healthy family. 

            This family in Jesus' story, however, is not like that.  I take that back.  The father in the story is not like that because the father allows his young son to leave, despite the risk of the boy blowing his inheritance or worst still, making it big in the far country and never coming back.  But as a wise mother once said, "The task of a parent is to give roots and wings," and the boy wanted to test his wings, and the Father, despite the obvious risks, let him go.

            So, that's the father's first bold move of love.  He let his younger son go.  The second bold move of love in the parable is the father running to meet his returning son.  After blowing his inheritance, the boy decides to head back home, hoping his father will take him back, not as his son, but as a hired hand, and note what happens.  This is the part of the story Earl Palmer shared with the guide at the Hermitage Museum.  Verse 20.


            So he set off and went to his father.  But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.


            Let's not miss the significance of this act.  In Jesus' day it was considered undignified for a senior man to run in public.  Aristotle echoed the rule of the day when he said, "Great men never run in public."  Back in that time, you would never have a senior division in the Jerusalem Marathon.  Look, however, at the father's love.  He breaks with custom.  He tucks his robe between his legs and takes off.

            And how do you think this act struck the son?  I think back to a time a number of years ago.  I was in my late 20's and had visited my dad in Reno, and my father took me to the airport and put me on the plane, and those were back in the days before security where you could walk someone all the way to their gate and sit with them as they waited to board the plane.  Well, I bordered the plane and as we pulled away, I looked at the window of the airplane to the big picture windows of the terminal, and there was my father watching my plane leave.  He didn't just drop me off at the airport.  He didn't take off after I boarded the plane.  He waited to watch my plane leave, waiving as I departed, not knowing if I could even see him from the plane window.  I will always carry that memory of my dad with me, his not wanting to say good-bye until my plane was out of sight.  I was struck with how much my dad loved me.

            So think about how this young man will remember his father ... dashing to meet him despite the fact that the son, in effect, had rejected him earlier.  He had said to his father, "I can't wait around for you to die.  Give me my inheritance now.  I've got to get out of here," and now months after uttering those words to his father, his father runs to meet him, tears running down his father's cheeks.  That young man will never forget that moment.

            Finally, note the third great move of love on the part of the father:  he went out and pleaded with the older brother.  Verse 25.


            Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound."  Then he became angry and refused to go in.  His father came and began to plead with him.


            Note how the father did not "talk" to his elder son.  He did not "converse" with his elder son.  He "pleaded" with him.  One dictionary defines "pleading" as the action of making an emotional or earnest appeal to someone.  Additionally, note how the father addresses his elder son after the elder son gave his father a piece of his mind.  Verse 29.


            But he answered his father, "Listen!  For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrated with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!" Then the father said to the son, "Son, you are always with me ... "


            The father addresses him as "son", but the English does not do the Greek word justice.  The Greek word used for "son" here is "teknon" a word of tender endearment. 

            The point?  Well, Jesus reveals to us in this story that the father not only tenderly loves bold sinners like the younger son, but the father also tenderly loves self-righteous folk, like his elder son.  And that's great news because a some of us have a little elder brother in us.  Some of us even have more elder brother in us than younger brother in us.  We can be unforgiving.  Critical.  Entitled.  Prideful.  Self-sufficient.

            For example, ever wonder about some of the people you see here in church, especially on high holy days like Christmas Eve and Easter and Mothers Day?  I mean, be honest.  Don't you think some of these infrequent worshippers take advantage of God?  Don't you get a little bugged that they are not taking their Christianity as seriously as you?  I mean, you make it a point to be here every week, but they seem to come when it's convenient.  You only miss if you are out of town or when you lost an arm or a leg.  I mean, do these other folk really deserve God's blessings like you deserve them? 

            If something like this has ever gone through your mind, welcome to The Elder Brother Club, and the good news is our Heavenly Father loves us too.  He affectionally calls us "teknon," his beloved children, even when we are petty and hyper-critical and prickly and unloveable.

            Oh, and as an aside, it's fortunate that the father got to the younger brother before the elder brother did.  Think what might have happened if the elder brother had met the younger brother on the road prior to the father seeing him.  Why the younger brother would have never made it home, and I have to wonder if anyone has ever gone back to the far country because they met us before they met our Heavenly Father. 

            Let's think about that.  Let's stand and sing.  Amen.