If you would turn with me in your Bibles to Luke chapter 15. It can be found on page 874 in our pew Bibles. Before we go there, let me just say a thanks to David Groendyk for assisting us tonight. David is about to graduate from seminary so this is probably his last time to assist, so I want to say thanks to him and we’re thankful for him and for Anaite for their service and ministry here among us and elsewhere. They’re on to new things and we look forward to what God will do through them in the years to come and hopefully we’ve been a benefit to them as well. If nothing else, I think they’ve picked up – for two Michigan people – they’ve picked up “y’all” into their vocabulary so that’s a good thing they’ve picked up and gained from us!
Let me pray for us as we go to God’s Word.
Our Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You that You have called us here tonight to speak to us, that Your Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. We thank You for the wisdom and the beauty of Jesus and of His life and teaching. We thank You for His resurrection and for the gift of the Holy Spirit and we pray that Your Spirit would open our hearts to understand Your Word and to live in joy for all that Christ has done for us. We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.
Luke chapter 15. We’ll read the whole chapter tonight:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.''"
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.
"This man receives sinners and eats with them." You can almost hear the disgust and the irritation in the voices of the Pharisees as they grumbled against Jesus. There's contempt in their insult because they're trying to ruin Jesus' reputation; they're trying to discredit Him. And this is not an isolated incident, is it? There was a pattern of mistreatment on the part of the Pharisees against Jesus over and over and over again. A pattern of treating Him with contempt. And there's something particularly wounding about contempt. If we looked at Psalm 123, the psalmist prays this, "Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease of the contempt of the proud." The psalmist is praying for God to show him mercy in the face of persistent contempt. Here's what Derek Kidner writes in a comment about that psalm. He says that "other things bruise, but contempt is cold steel. It goes deeper into the spirit than any other form of rejection." Contempt cuts deep. In fact, the psychologist and the marriage counselor, John Gottman, he has identified contempt as "the most damaging and destructive emotion in marriage." It's that insult that comes from a place of superiority. It's the criticism that seeks to tear down the other person. He says that a marriage cannot last when contempt is allowed to take root. So watch out for contempt.
But let that just sink in for a moment. Let it just sink in all that Jesus faced throughout His life – all of the insults and the rejection and the betrayal and the denial from His own people, from His own peers. Here are the Pharisees. The Pharisees actually invited Jesus to dinner. They had Him into their homes, they shared a meal with Him, and for what reason? So that they could set traps for Him, they could cut Him down. And it was all cruel and it was all very ugly because there was nothing Jesus had done to deserve any of it. You see, Jesus lived a beautiful life, the most beautiful life. Jesus did good. Think about why was it in verse 1, it says the tax collectors and sinners all drew near to hear Jesus. Why? It's because He did good. He showed compassion. He helped the sick and the poor and the unwanted. He spoke truth with love and with power and with authority. There is no life that comes close to comparing to the beautiful life which Jesus lived. Yet what did He get in return for all of that? Contempt. "He came to His own and His own did not receive Him. He was despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." That was not just at the cross. That was the entire way through. That was His mission. That is what Jesus endured for the sake of His people. And as we see the Pharisees responding to Him in this way in this passage, don't miss the bite that is in their insult as they fling it towards Jesus.
But Jesus isn't the only one being shamed by the Pharisees, is He? The Pharisees are, in a sense, they're grumbling against the tax collectors and the sinners. "They don't deserve respect. Those people don't, they're not worthy of kindness". The Pharisees have a very shallow or a superficial perspective of the crowds who were following Jesus. We have a children's book of Bible stories that we've read in years past. And in the story about Zacchaeus, the writer says this. He says, "The little street was full of daddies and mommies and grandpas and grandmas and uncles and aunts and boys and girls and friends, all wanting to see Jesus." That's how children understand crowds and how they understand people – in that sort of relationship. They're somebody's mommy, they're somebody's daddy, they're somebody's friend. The children in my wife Molly's preschool class, they'll see me in the hallway and they'll say, "There's Miss Molly's dad!" Or one time, my favorite was, "There's Miss Molly's wife!" Not quite, but you see what they're trying to do. They're trying to make that personal connection. This is how we relate to one another. We're all somebody's mommy or daddy or aunt or uncle or friend. But not to the Pharisees. To the Pharisees they're sinners. Period. That's it.
So Jesus tells them this parable. The parable of the prodigal son is the one that stands out to us, it's the one that is maybe the most famous of all Jesus' parables, and it's a story that's captivated us; it's a story that's captivated many millions of people since Jesus first told it. But don't overlook the two stories that come right before the story of the prodigal son, because they go together. In fact, the connection between the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost son is really part of the genius and the power of this parable. They're building on one another. Now we could look at it and find that there are some similarities between those three scenes that jump out at us. There's something that is lost. Secondly, what was lost is found. And then what do they do? They rejoice. In all three cases, there's rejoicing, there's celebration. But notice what some of the differences are between the three stories.
There's a big difference, isn't there, between a lost sheep or coin and a lost son. And with the sheep, we read that story and a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes missing and he goes off searching for the one missing sheep. With the woman and her coins, there's ten and one is missing and she searches diligently to find that one coin. Then there are the two sons. There's only two sons and one of them is gone. See, that's one percent of the sheep, ten percent of the coins, and fifty percent of the sons that is missing. But it's more than that, isn't it? Because a son is irreplaceable. A son is priceless. There's no monetary value that can be placed on a child. Now, by the way, there's a sense in which the younger son is trying to do that himself when he asks his father for the share of property that is coming to him. He's saying, "Give me what I'm worth." That's part of the tragedy and the heartbreaking part of this story. But as the story is told, it's not the property or the inheritance that is lost. It's the son. The son is the one who is lost. And he's more than just lost. Did you notice that? The sheep and the coin and the son, they are all lost and found, but the son, the son was dead and is alive again. The son's condition is tragic. The son's condition is bitter. And the father grieved over the loss of his son. It tore him up and he rejoiced tremendously when his son came home.
Do you see what Jesus is doing with this parable? He could have told the third story just like the first two, but there’s so much more detail in the story about the prodigal son. What’s Jesus doing? He’s trying to show us the guilt and the misery of the younger prodigal son but He’s also shining the spotlight, He’s calling our attention to the older brother’s reaction at the same time. He wants us to make a personal connection with the characters, to identify with them. See, if someone loses a sheep and finds it, or if someone loses a coin and finds it, of course, yes, anybody would be happy for them, anybody would celebrate with that person. We will be happy for someone when they find a lost contact lens. It’s just that basic, it’s that simple that we rejoice over those kinds of things! But when it comes to someone who has rejected his father, he’s abandoned his home, someone who has squandered his possessions and sunk as low as you can go, well it’s not so easy to celebrate when that person comes home. Is it? That’s the older brother. That’s the older brother in this story. He wants no part of the celebration when his brother comes home. He was fine when his brother was gone. He was more happy as a matter of fact.
By the way, I won’t make any kind of comment on this, but the Greek word for “older” and “older brother” in this passage is the same word from which we get Presbyterian. I won’t say any more about that but I’ll just leave that!
Reason to Celebrate
But notice what the father says to this older brother. He says, “Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.” And there’s another difference there. Did you notice that when the sheep is gone and is found the neighbors and the community celebrates, when the coin is lost and is found the people around celebrate, but they have no connection to the sheep or to the coin? But when the younger son comes back it’s this man’s brother, it’s his brother that was dead and is now alive. That is a reason to celebrate.
What’s Jesus saying? What’s Jesus saying about sinners. He’s saying that a sinner is someone who is lost. A sinner is someone who is dead even. And a sinner is a cause for great concern. But He’s also saying that a sinner is a person. A sinner is a mommy or a daddy or a sister or a brother or a friend, a person of great value. He or she is worth going after and diligently searching for and embracing in love and receiving into the family. And a repentant sinner is reason to celebrate. There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
A Heart for Sinners
Do we have a heart for sinners? I think about my own casual conversations. How often do I direct conversations to Jesus? It struck me as I was getting my teeth cleaned the other day. And you have those moments between the scratching and the spitting and you're trying to fit any word in that you can get in, right? And I found that my thoughts and my eagerness to speak kept turning to music and to vacation and those kinds of things. But where was the eagerness to talk about Jesus? You know, we can bore people to death talking endlessly about our jobs, about our hobbies and our interests, food and drink, and our kids' activities, but where is the same enthusiasm for speaking about Jesus? If someone does not know Jesus as their Savior, that person's great need is to know about Jesus and to know Him. Do we recognize the severity of that person's need and the greatness of their value enough to overcome our own fears and our own inadequacies and to tell them about Christ, to tell them about His love and salvation? Do we long for others to know Jesus? Are we ready to see them come to salvation and to celebrate when they do that? I heard someone say recently that he was talking to someone in his church and that person said, "Don't you think our church is big enough as it is?" What is that question saying? It's saying that person doesn't have a heart for the lost, not really.
But do we convey the same message when we fail to welcome visitors and guests among us? Do we say that same thing when we fail to give to the work of ministry or the mission of the church? Do we show that same kind of attitude when we fail to pray for the lost, to pray for those who need salvation? Do we write off certain groups or certain neighborhoods and think that they are impossible to reach? David Strain has challenged us to pray for ten adult baptisms this year in the church, for those who are outside of the faith, who have not been involved in the church to come to faith in Christ. That is a great prayer, and I’ll commend that prayer to you as well. Because there’s great joy over one sinner who repents. Great joy.
Several years ago I was coming to the church, I think I had been out at the seminary, and I came back to the church around the time that carpool was letting out for the school. And there was a lot of commotion, or more commotion than usual for that day, which is really saying something at carpool time! But some of the students were already out, there were several parents who were there watching, and then there were some news cameras that were focused on the door that many of the students come out. And a mom was there. She was dressed in military fatigues and she had been deployed in the army for a year and she had just come home and her son was in second grade. He didn’t know that she was back yet. He didn’t know that she was going to be there that day. So the bell went off and the students started coming out and one student, her son, walked through the door and saw her. He dropped his backpack off of his back and jumped into her arms. He wrapped his arms around her and wrapped his legs around her and embraced her. I realized that I was crying and I slipped away. I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t prepared for that. But I’ll never forget it. She was gone, and now she was home, and it was a joyful, joyful celebration. A tearful one but a joyful celebration. Of course it was. Of course it was.
How much more when one sinner comes to Jesus, when the lost are found and when the dead are made alive? Jesus is calling us in this passage to put away self-righteous indignation, to get rid of an attitude of ownership, He’s calling us to stop trying to defend our territory. He’s calling us to have a heart for the lost, to have a heart that breaks for sinners, and to have a heart that rejoices over repentance. Jesus is calling us, you see, to have a heart like His, a heart of compassion and a heart of love. That’s what Jesus is saying to us about sinners.
Now, what's He saying to sinners? What's Jesus' saying to sinners in this passage? That's the other question we need to answer from this passage. He's saying to come home. Come home. Listen to what Alexander White writes about the prodigal son:
"The country-bred boy had been told stealthy and seductive stories about the delights of city life. A young man with a little money, he had been told, can command anything he likes in the great city. A young man who has never been from home can have no idea of the pleasures that are provided in the city for young men whose fathers have money. The games, the shows, the theatres, the circuses, the feasts, the dances, the freedom of all kinds – there is absolutely nothing that a young man's heart can desire that is not open to him who brings a good purse of money to the city with him. All these intoxications were poured into this young man's imagination and he was but too good a pupil to such instructions. ‘How long will my father live?' he began to ask. ‘How long will that old man continue to stand in my way? Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me!' It was a heartless speech but secret visions of sin will soon harden the tenderest heart in the world. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together and took his journey into a far country and there wasted his substance in riotous living."
It’s likely that there are some here today, tonight, who are in the far country, and you’ve believed the stories, you’ve chased the lies, and you’ve spent your time and your money on bread that does not satisfy and your labor on what will not satisfy, and you’re lost, you’re dead even. And there’s an emptiness or a restlessness that just won’t go away. There’s a joylessness that not even life’s best pleasures can fill. Come home. Repent and believe in Jesus. Turn from your sin, turn from your futile ways, and rest in the compassion and the grace of Jesus Christ because there’s forgiveness with Jesus, there’s an embrace and a kiss and a change of clothes and a feast. That’s what Jesus gives. There’s joy with Jesus. There’s a joy which nothing else can match and a joy that can never be taken away. Come to Jesus. Come home. Believe in Him.
You know, there may be, there are hardly any more gripping or moving words than what we read in this passage, and they are the words of the father when he says, “Let us eat and celebrate, for this my son was dead and is alive again.” Do you know what makes those words even more gripping is that they are basically the opposite of what the son had said to the father at the beginning of the passage. Because when he asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive, he was in a sense saying, “My father is alive, but he is dead to me.” He had rejected his father. And then we get to the end of the story and his father is rejoicing over him. That is the amazing grace of Jesus’ love for sinners because it was our sin that cut us off from God, it was our sin that sent Jesus to the cross to die for those who caused His pain, and it is because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, His victory over sin and death, that He restores the prodigal and He makes the dead to live. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see!” We could add to that, “Was dead but now alive.”
We all need to remember the amazing grace of Jesus tonight because what causes us to keep God at a distance and what causes us to sort of dabble in religion and the reason we keep others at a distance and judge and condemn others, the thing that robs our joy and interrupts our fellowship is that we think we’re servants instead of sons. And we think that we can do enough to earn God’s favor or we might do something that causes us to lose it. But never forget the love and the compassion of Jesus for sinners because that’s what we all are – saved only by the grace of God, and we are secure in all of His blessings, secure as sons, secure as restored sons.
It turns out the Pharisees were right. Their insult is actually the good news. What they said in contempt is actually the Gospel. It's the last word to us tonight, and maybe it's the only word that we need to hear today because it's our only hope. "This man, Jesus, this man receives sinners and eats with them." Praise God for that. Let's pray.
Our Father, there are some here tonight who are lost, who are dead in their sin and they know it. And so we pray, Father, that You would call them to Yourself. And Your Word tells us that sinners come not to a harsh master but to a loving Father and to a rejoicing in heaven. Would You make this a day when the lost are found and when the dead are made alive? And would You make this a day in which Your grace overwhelms us and astounds us, that we would rejoice in our salvation, and we would go out from here in freedom and in delight to enjoy all that You have provided to us in the Gospel. We pray that You would do this for the sake of Jesus because He has earned it and He is worth it. We pray it in the name of Jesus, amen.
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