Tonight is Christmas Eve and every year in our Christmas Eve services, usually the one that ends right at midnight, someone I know who has wandered away, wanders back in. And this is maybe the only thing I would want you to know...
…an angel of the Lord appeared to (Joseph) in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (NRSV)
There is always a "back story" to those who come wandering back. And this story speaks of those who didn’t just wander off, but took off without looking back. If there had been a door we would have heard it slam behind him with a sense of finality.
And it raises a question for us: What if we haven’t just “wandered away” from God, but literally walked out? What if we have kicked the dust off our feet, thumbed our noses turned on our heels, cut off all ties, and headed off to a far off land? And what if we decide somewhere along the way that we wish we could go home again?
What then? What does the Christmas narrative of the one who is named “God saves” and “God is with us” say to us?
In Luke 15 Jesus told what I believe is the most important story in the bible. I am sure that most of us know it and if nothing else you have probably seen it depicted in art, like Rembrandt’s famous “Return of the Prodigal.” But maybe we can all hear it again tonight.
Allow me to pause here and interrupt your expectations. This story is often called “The Prodigal Son”, but right from the get-go, we see that it is story about a man with TWO sons, not one, which should remind us that this story tells about more people and speaks to more people than most of us expect.
But let’s get back to the story. …“There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
This story, though tragically sad, is woefully all too familiar, isn’t it? When we are prone to think that the Bible is all “pie in the sky by and by”, we need to remember that Jesus told stories about the most common kinds of family pain. An ungrateful son who bound and determined to leave home and has the audacity to ask his dad to bankroll the plans he has made. But to the original hearers of Jesus’ story, it was even more disturbing. The boy has come to his father and said, in effect, I wish you were dead and I had my inheritance now. I don’t care about you, I just want what you have so I can spend it on myself. I am done with this family. I am done with you. I am going out on my own and all I want is money that I think you will give to me.
Frankly, in antiquity, this would never have happened. This boy is not only being rude, he is flirting with death. Indeed, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 would allow the father to have this boy beaten or stoned to death for such rebellion. The hearers of the story are expecting that the Father will rebuke the boy and send him back to the fields, threaten to cut him off or give his inheritance to his brother. But he doesn’t. He divides up his estate, gives it to both of his sons, right then and there as if he is dead already and watches his younger boy walked off into the sunset never to be seen again.
Let’s also be clear that to the hearers of this story, the father is no loving, generous man, but a weak fool who pampers a spoiled brat. This is a bad reality show. And all they can hope is that the boy gets what’s coming to him. And thank God, it seems that he does.
14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
A Jewish boy, who doesn’t eat pork because what pigs eat is unclean, is reduced to wishing he could eat what the pigs eat.
To Jesus’ hearers, this is the end of the story and it is a cautionary tale. The boy gets what’s coming to him, thank God! And it speaks loud and clear: Don’t rebel against the family, don’t leave the community. Don’t be so proud as to think you can do it on your own. Because if you cut yourself off from us, you will be on your own when tragedy strikes. And you will become less than an unclean pig. Is that what you want? Here is the moral of the story: Stay home, be good, be grateful and honor your father or you will get what’s coming to you.
Except of course, Jesus had a different ending in mind, so he continues.
17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he set off and went to his father.
Somewhere in the midst of the pig slop and his hungry stomach, the boy remembers his father in a different light. He remembers that his father’s servants are treated better than he is and he determines that if he is going to be nothing more than a hired hand, that he might as well work for a more generous man.
The hearers of Jesus’ day would not think that the boy was humble, but presumptuous. What kind of gall? Who does he think he is coming back now? Sure, now you are all repentant and obedient. They would have hoped that the father would throw this ingrate out on his ear and send him back to the pig slop where he belonged.
But again, Jesus has a surprise ending in mind, so he again continues.
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.
Elderly Jewish men didn’t run. His robe flying up like a skirt, his bare legs showing, his dignity that was robbed when his son left is now completely ruined by this display of emotion and pandering. The father makes a fool out of himself in welcoming back this lout of a son.
The boy seeing his father launches into his prepared speech… ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father cuts him off. The boy never gets to ask him if he could be a servant because the father immediately calls out to the servants. ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
The boy gets his father’s robe (for that would be the best one) the family signet ring (welcoming him back into the family) and a celebration fit for a wedding. This is enough food to feed the whole village. The father doesn’t scold the boy or punish him, or hide his shame or keep it a secret, the father throws a party! He announces loud and clear to anyone who would hear it, “I don’t care what any of you think, my boy is home and that is all that I care about! Raise a glass, dance all night, eat and drink until your are full, my son, my son was dead and now is alive, he was lost and now is found!” And so they partied.
And those hearing the story would have shaken their heads. What on earth is this rabbi saying? Does he have no respect for our traditions? Does he have no common sense? What is with this Jesus?
And let’s face it, though we may know the story, we too, could be shaking our heads, too. Why did Jesus tell this story and why do we tell it again at Christmas time?
To understand that, we actually have to go back and look at the opening of Luke 15. Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable...
Jesus told this story and two others to answer the criticisms of why he hung out with sinners and tax collectors. This was not his message to the prodigal sons and daughters but to the religious leaders of the day. It was not a message to those who had wandered off, but to those who had stayed in the middle of the religious life of the day, but who had wandered off in their hearts!
Jesus was saying, Do you want to know why I hang out with sinners? Why I welcome the unwelcome and “pander” to the prostitutes and publicans? Because God is like this, “There once was a man with two sons…”
This is what his ministry is about and ultimately this is what Christmas is about. Christmas is the story of Jesus, the one named “God saves” who will save HIS PEOPLE, those Pharisees and scribes standing right in front of him, as well as all the less-committed, less devout wanderers from their sins. Christmas is the story of the God who is always with us, whose other name is “Emmanuel”.
God is not a disconnected deity.
God is not a stern rule-maker.
God is not harsh Lord shaking a finger and giving us what we deserve.
God is a waiting, Father. A forgiving Father. A loving Father. A Father who misses us when we go, who scours the countryside looking for us, runs to meet us, welcomes us and celebrates when we have come home.
The prodigal didn’t really know the heart of his father, so he left. The prodigal son didn’t leave home when he got his money, he began to wander off in his heart long before he actually left home. And this is the most important Christmas gift that I can offer to those of us who are wanderers:
And that is not just a problem for those of us who are lured to the evils of the world, that is also a problem for those of us who are right in the middle of a faith community. For people, like you Pharisees, Jesus was saying. For though you may not have left home, you have certainly wandered off.
How do I know that he was saying that? Because his story isn’t finished.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
Notice how the Father comes to this son, also. Jesus is saying to the religious leaders of the day, “Look, you are no better than those who rebel against God and end up in a far off land eating pig slop. You are still outside the party. And God is coming to you also! Enter in, come to the party! Join the celebration! This is what God is doing in the world. This is what grace is. This is what the Kingdom of heaven is all about. Please, come join the party.
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 celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”
The elder brother didn’t know the heart of his father, also. Though he had been with him every day, had worked alongside him and served him, he still didn’t know him.
And this, he says to those religious leaders is YOUR problem. You are the older brother who is missing the party of the Kingdom of God.
So Jesus tells this story to both kinds of prodigal sons and daughters. To those who have stormed out, wandered away, becoming careless in living. Or to those who have sat and simmered in a stew of resentment and entitlement, becoming callous in heart.
My friends, let me speak clearly and gently to all of us. You can be along way from God spiritually and still find your way home. And you can be absolutely rooted in the father’s house geographically and still be in a far off land spiritually.
All of us are prodigal sons and daughters. All of us. And all of us forget the fatherly, welcoming, lavishly foolish, embracing, gracious, celebrating, extravagant love of God that is extended to us. All of us.
There are so many of us who treat God and his church like it is the family fortune that they deserve. Pander to me, we say, meet my needs, let me have more. And if I don’t like it, I’ll leave. Don’t expect me to give or serve. I want what I want with the people I want, when I want it.
And very often, these are the folks who wander off until a tragedy strikes, until they come to themselves, until they are face down in the pig pen and want to return home and then what do we do?
But as we seek to embrace, reach out to and extend ourselves to those who have wandered off and may be trying to wander back in, but many of us really don’t want to. We want the church to be for US! For those of us who have been here. We are older brothers who want the church spoils to be for those of us who have stayed.
And if we search our hearts we will recognize, that you don’t have to
be physically in a far off land, to be a long, long way from the home
of your heavenly father’s heart.
Finding our way home…
My friends, where are you today. Where is your heart today? We find our way home when we realize that no matter how far away we go, or how far inside we go, we are never away from the Father’s heart.
Hear the word of God to you this day. This is the promise of Christmas, the good news of Emmanuel, the message of the one who came to save us, to forgive our sins…
We are always with God. Whether we have left him far behind and have simply wandered back or whether we are standing outside the party stubbornly refusing to join his celebration even when he comes out to plead with us. We are always with him. All he has he offers us.
Come home. Join the party. Trust the father’s heart.