Luke 15:11-32 (click to display NIV text)
Aug. 18, 2013
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“. . .he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
““But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions –- it is by grace you have been saved.” — Ephesians 2
I remember beginning my first sermon in Jamestown, New York, in the summer of 1975. That day was really the beginning of the journey in ministry. I began by saying it might be appropriate to start with an old Swedish saying that I learned from my father: “Vell, here ve go, now.” What began then has now come to completion, but not to an ending. In Christ there are completions; of tasks, of callings along the way, but there are no endings. His love endures forever.
We did not get all the way to the end of Luke in this series, so we conclude with the parable of the Lost Son, which is not the end of the Gospel, but is the heart of the Gospel.
Here is the story. Jesus tells of a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. All three are found, and there is rejoicing. I find that the central picture in the Lost Son parable is that of a road. The son walks on a road to the far country. He returns on that road in repentance to the father’s house. The father meets him on that road. So there is a road that stretches between the far country and the house of the Father. On one end of the road there is wild living and famine. It is a place where the wealth of a family, literally the “life” of the father, is scattered. “Wild living” can also be translated “luxurious living.” The young son wants to be rich. But he becomes poor and unclean in the far country, a Jewish man living with pigs.
So this young son traded a relationship with his father for an “attachment” with a farmer who did not feed him, but made him unclean. The English versions say he “hired himself out” to this farmer, as if he were getting paid. But the Greek says he “attached” himself to the farmer. He showed up at his door and did not leave, and the cultural rules of hospitality placed an obligation on this man to welcome him. So the farmer sent this Jewish boy to work with the pigs, because he knew a Jewish boy would never do that, and then he would leave. But this young man lived with the pigs, and even though he was hungry, no one gave him anything.
According to the elder son, this boy also attached himself to prostitutes, to women who did not care for him at all. He became morally and ritually unclean, hungry and alone. Then he “came to his senses,” he “came to himself.” He decides to try for a job in his father’s house as a hired man. He is willing to lose his worth and his identity. But his father does not greet him with a few carob seeds and send him to work with pigs; he kills the fattened calf for him, and puts a fine robe on him, and a ring on his finger. The lost son is found, and he has retained his value in the father’s eyes. The father attaches himself to his son with an embrace, and begins a celebration with music and dancing.
The music of the far country scatters wealth, isolates people, breaks community. In the far country, no one gives, they only take. But the son’s repentance leads to a restoration and to rejoicing.
The father makes it clear that the son did not find his own way home, did not earn his way back into the community. He was lost and now is found, just like the sheep and the coin. He was dead and now is alive. The banquet is not held to honor the son–it honors the father, who wants lost people to be found.
This is not my personal story. I did not run away from home or squander the family wealth. I have known a few people for which this is their story. But in a deeper way, this is indeed our story. Paul makes that plain in Ephesians chapter 2.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions…All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the craving of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
There is a road that runs from the Father’s house to the Far Country and from the Far Country to the Father’s house, and we walk on it every day, we walk on it one direction or the other.
How did I get to this place in life? Where did that road begin for me? Certainly it began in a time of coming to faith in Christ and making a commitment to him. But my story in ministry begins a few years later. I was 14 years old, and I was wasting another summer playing baseball and watching “I Love Lucy” and hanging around the neighborhood playfield. I was invited to be the dishwasher along with Jim Otness at Family Camp at Covenant Beach. In those days Family Camp was a ten-day event that was much more like a Bible conference. So the dining hall was a busy place at dinner, as some people would drive out for the evening. It turned out to be a great job for me. I have this vivid memory of taking my little suitcase and sleeping bag and walking to the bus stop by our house in Seattle, and riding it downtown to catch the rural route bus. I got off in Des Moines, and then walked down the road to Covenant Beach, and as I walked down the road that bright morning I remember thinking that I was beginning something new, that this was a road that was leading me somewhere, somewhere that would be good for me. This was a road on the way to the Father’s house.
When Family Camp was over, the director, Dwight Nyquist, asked me to come back later in the summer for three weeks, and so I did and I became a camp counselor at age 14, which is a crazy thing to allow. But that became a formative experience for me. That is where I met so many wonderful people, pastors and young adults and others who came to be part of the boys’ camps. It is where I learned to pray and to read the scriptures and to listen to God’s call, and to experience grace.
Paul is right. We all begin in the Far Country, whether that is an attitude or a fellowship or a location of rebellion from God. At some point we come to our senses. We hear the invitation to grace. We walk by faith on the road to the father’s embrace. There are times when we turn around and go the other way. There are times when we get stuck on the road. But there are encounters with God in Christ along the way that draw us home.
It is a remarkable thing about life. We join the party in the father’s House, and then we find ourselves on the road again. Each day we walk on the road. Each day we decide which way to go. There is in this an assurance of salvation, and a sure hope in the faithfulness of God. But this is also a daily walk. It is not all party. There is grace that is new each morning for the demands of each day. There are people and experiences that invite us to walk on the way to the Father. There is also disappointment, there is grief, brokenness, and temptation. The Far Country tempts you with what looks like fun. There are people who welcome you. There is a vision of freedom offered. But to walk that way, and to settle there leads to a very different experience.
So we are to listen to the invitations we receive to walk in a new direction. Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — “it is by grace you have been saved.” He grants us moments when we come to our senses. He speaks to us with clarity in the Word of God. He brings to us the counsel of the right person. He calls us to follow and invites us to serve in the Kingdom.
How thankful I am for those invitations, and the people who made them. Dwight Nyquist, who invited me to spend a few weeks at camp even though I was so young. Worth Hodgin, the Pastor who encouraged an affirmed me in so many ways through High School and College days; Bob Bergquist, who asked me one day during college if I was going to be a pastor and quietly but firmly overcame my protests; Jerry Johnson, my mentor through the early years of ministry; Ted Nordlund, who years later when I was stuck and struggling and afraid I would not make it to completion, took a day with me and renewed my soul; Don DeJong, from a group called “Churches Alive” who met with me monthly for a time to teach me how to deal with changes and with growth; Hal Pullin, a therapist who invited me into a little group of pastors and counselors who had lunch each Thursday for a number of years to process and discern the Spirit’s leading in our lives; John Kerl, David Mark and Tom Kelly, missionaries who allowed me to come to Mexico on a sabbatical and discover a different culture and a courageous faith in the churches there; Bob Ekblad, who led me to jail ministry and VBS programs at migrant farm worker camps; Lee Eklov and Peter Hawkinson, who drew me into groups of pastoral fellowship; Spark Ball, who introduced us to a food pantry in Waukegan and a furniture ministry in Zion; and so many others, all obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit so that I might continue a journey from the Far Country to the Father’s house.
I am thankful for the road and all I have met on it. I stand amazed at the grace of Christ who keeps turning me back to the Father’s embrace when I wander. The story of the Lost Son belongs to all of us. The invitation is clear. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are called away from the Far Countries of our rebellion.
Come, let us walk on the road that leads to the Father.