“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. —Luke 15:23-24
As we reformat our ministry with two services next Sunday morning, what are we inviting people into? Why should they come? Why should we come?
Here is one thing we all have in common. Every sinner is also a sufferer. Sin breeds misery. That’s what classical Christian theology says. But we don’t need Augustine and Calvin to tell us about it. We know it from daily experience. We are all sinners and sufferers. And what we need is comfort, relief, belovedness. We don’t need judgment. We need the comfort of gospel + safety + time. We need lots of good news from God, according to the Bible. We need lots of safety to face what’s really going on inside. And we need lots of time to rethink our lives and get past the barriers that hold us back. Who wouldn’t be comforted and helped and restored by gospel + safety + time? What we’re doing now at Immanuel is making more space for more people to join us in that safe place. That’s what we’re inviting people into.
It’s what Jesus did. Verse 1: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus.” Why did they come? They didn’t have to. They chose to. Why? Because he embodied the comfort we all need. And if that’s what Jesus was like, it has authority. It deserves to be spread further and offered to more people. That is what Jesus is calling us to do today. Jesus came to us as God incarnate, the very embodiment of who God is. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). That’s why he was controversial. Some people were drawn to him, but other people were offended by him. Some people thought, “How wonderful that God is like this!” Other people thought, “No way is God like this!” Verse 2: “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” The religious leaders claimed to represent God. Jesus also claimed to represent God. The religious leaders thought they represented God by shunning sinners. Jesus thought he represented God by welcoming sinners and comforting them and giving them their dignity back.
The question embedded in this chapter is a profound one: What is God really like? If God shuns sinners, so should we. But if God welcomes sinners, so should we. Here at Immanuel we know the answer, and we want more people to see God for who he really is. They will be immeasurably comforted.
The key to the whole chapter is the contrast between two words. Do you see the word “grumble” in verse 2? They grumbled. They took no pleasure in Jesus. They found fault with him. They criticized. What then is the chapter saying? It’s saying that God isn’t grumbling; God is rejoicing over repentant sinners. That takes us to the other key word in the chapter: “rejoice” – the opposite of grumbling. We see the word “rejoice” and other joy-centered words eleven times in the chapter, starting in verse 5: “And when he has found his lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” What drives Luke 15 is the tension between the grumbling of the Pharisees and the rejoicing of God.
All three parables here follow a simple pattern. Someone has something, then he loses it, then he finds it, then he rejoices over it. Verse 5: “He lays [that sheep] on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me.’” Verse 9: “And when she has found [her lost coin], she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me.’” The shepherd and the woman call their friends to rejoice with them. Why? There is no such thing as hoarded joy. It is not possible psychologically. We cannot experience joy and then increase that joy by keeping it to ourselves. Joy overflows, by its very nature. Joy creates community. Verse 10: “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” God is rejoicing over repentant sinners, and it’s spreading. The angels are rejoicing too. All God’s friends are rejoicing. But if the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling, how can they represent who God really is?
What were the Pharisees saying by their attitude? They were saying, “Our society is going down the drain, and it’s because of these sinners. God is angry about that, and so are we. If you’re not angry with us, you’re on the wrong side. We stand for God – unlike you, Jesus.”
So Jesus tells three parables to show us God. But he isn’t saying everything about God. He doesn’t explain why God welcomes repentant sinners. If all we knew about God was Luke 15, we might think that God just lowers his standards. We might think that God looks at his holiness and justice and purity and says, “That part of me doesn’t matter.” If we drew that inference from Luke 15, we would be wrong about God. Other parts of the Bible tell us more. Why does the all-holy God rejoice to gather sinners in his arms? Because the death of Jesus on the cross satisfied the holy wrath of God against us. The cross is why God rejoices to receive us. What Luke 15 shows is not why God receives us but how God receives us – gladly. God is not a grumbler. He feels good about providing a safe place for us to come home and get a fresh start.
Look at God here in Luke 15, rejoicing over one repentant sinner. He rejoices to the point of overreaction. The shepherd lost only one sheep out of a hundred. It was just a one percent loss. No big deal. And the woman lost only one coin. Why light a lamp to search the house? Burning that oil costs money. Why not cut your losses? And why call in friends to party over a coin? Kind of an overreaction, isn’t it?
By our standards, yes. But only God knows what deserves God-sized joy. So it’s good for us to see God overreacting, from our point of view. And Jesus isn’t talking about God’s joy at the second coming of Christ and the final triumph of good over evil and eternity in heaven above. He’s talking about one sinner repenting right now – just one sinner in Philadelphia or Bogota or Nashville. And right now, at this moment, God is feeling such joy that it spills over onto the angels in heaven. Look at the father’s instructions in verses 22-23: “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.” That’s uneconomical. The boy has already wasted half the family estate, and that money isn’t coming back. Whorehouses don’t give refunds. But the father covers that wild waste of sin with even more lavish forgiveness and happiness. The Bible says, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). God is no moderate rejoicer. Even one repentant sinner sets him off. The only one holding back here is the older brother.
Do you see now why the older brother is in the parable? There’s no one like him in the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. If Luke 15 had ended with verse 24, before the older brother shows up, we might not have felt anything was missing. But in verses 25-32, the final paragraph, Jesus includes the older brother. Why? Because he’s looping back to the Pharisees and scribes in verse 2. The tax collectors and sinners in verse 1 are the younger brothers. The Pharisees and scribes in verse 2 are the older brothers. And God wants to rejoice over them too. He wants to lead them to repentance. The “bad” sinners are already repenting. Now Jesus is inviting the “good” sinners to repent.
I wonder where you see yourself in this picture. We might prefer to think of ourselves more like this bad-boy younger brother. It’s cool to be a Mick Jagger-type sinner – or whoever the new Mick Jagger is. But deep inside all of us is the older brother too. Every one of us is both of these guys, depending on our mood. Sometimes we sin defiantly. There’s something we want to do, and we don’t care what anyone says, not even God, because we’re going to do what we want to do. But other times we sin hypocritically and covertly. We look at another sinner and think, “Well, I may not be perfect. But at least I haven’t done that!” We can flip back and forth quickly, gratifying wrong desires one moment and then reassuring ourselves of our innocence the next moment. All we have to do is leave God out of it. So, it’s good for us to face ourselves here in Luke 15 and the mask we wear inside, because we hide even from ourselves. It is good for us to read this parable, because it’s how Jesus gently takes the mask away and we see ourselves. And here is the most important thing Jesus wants you to know. God doesn’t love the ideal you you ought to be and even want to be. God loves the real, raw, unrehabilitated you that you are behind the mask. The first step to revival is a more honest you and me, walking in the light, because now we know who God really is. We see him in Jesus, the Friend and Comforter of sinners. We see ourselves in these two brothers, and we know that God receives us because of the cross and even rejoices over us. All we want to do now is share that with more people. That is why Immanuel Church is here.
Here’s what kills revival. Here’s what destroys all true comfort in the world today. It’s not primarily the sinfulness of the younger brother. That’s bad. But verse 17 says he came to himself, he woke up, he got it. The text literally says, “He came into himself.” He finally got in touch with who he really was and what he’d really done. It is so hard for us to get there! But the hunger and loneliness became so intense that this younger brother finally gave up and went home to his father. What destroys gospel + safety + time is not primarily that kind of stupidity, because it’s so painful. It gets our attention. What destroys gospel + safety + time is the angry aloofness of the older brother. His superiority doesn’t feel evil. It feels good. He even feels sinned against. And both these brothers are deep inside every one of us. How can we not comfort one another in the love of God? But between these two patterns of sin, the worse one in the sight of God is this older brother putting his foot down, boycotting the party. The worst sin of all is our pride. But the Father is saying, “That music and dancing you hear – it’s for you too. Come on in. You’ll be happy. You’ll be comforted. I promise.”
Why didn’t the older brother run inside that party? Here’s why. He has been with his father, but he has never understood his father. Verse 29: “Look, these many years I have served [slaved for] you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” He sees his father as the master, and he sees himself as the slave. He was obedient, but he hated obeying. There is a kind of obedience that’s just wrong. God isn’t in it. It has no freshness, no vitality. It has no happiness about it. There are so many good, obedient people who are neither comforted nor comforting – like this older brother. When his younger brother ran off, he stayed home and did his job. Why? He wanted to get paid. And his good record meant that his father owed him. He didn’t understand that real Christianity is something that happens to us, not something we do to or for ourselves. In real Christianity, everything comes from God, and nothing from us. That is why this older brother feels betrayed. His kid brother is up there in the house, with nothing to show for his life, and he’s being celebrated. The older brother must have been thinking, “I finally understand the ground rules in this dysfunctional family. You obey, and nothing happens. You disobey, and dad throws a party. Silly me.” And what was the Father’s answer to his bitterness? Verse 31: “Son, you are always with me.” But it is possible to be near God and still not feel loved by God, if our hearts are hard. Self-righteous drudgery kills our feeling of God’s love for us. Sin does too, but sin includes enough pain that we might wake up. Self-righteousness so deadens us that we feel no emotional difference between staying home with the Father and running away to buy a prostitute. What does God have to say to hard-hearted people who resent him with every act of obedience? Verse 31: “All that is mine is yours.” When we feel nothing toward God and his grace, his remedy is more grace. His grace neutralizes the buying power of our obedience by loving his stupid prodigal sons and his sourpuss dutiful sons equally. And the Father is saying to every one of us today, “All I want to do is rejoice of you and comfort you. Come home to me.”
Look at the love of God. He runs to us. He does not shame us. He kisses us. He doesn’t even let us finish the big speech we’ve rehearsed. Do you see that in verses 18-19, compared with 21? God knows what we want to say. He’s in a hurry to get the party going. He puts on us the best robe – the righteous covering of Jesus. He spares no expense to unleash joy over us, when we repent. And when we’re too angry to even start repenting, he comes out of the party and pleads with us gently, reasonably, even humbly. This is who God really is. Nashville must know who God really is!
Jesus didn’t finish the story. So we don’t know how the older brother responded. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to worry about him. What matters is how we respond. How should we respond to a Father like this?
If you’ve exploded your relationship with God through blatant defiance, you need to repent of your sins. God owes you nothing, but he wants you to know that you can come home without a beating but being rejoiced over. Jesus died to open the way back for rebels like you. What’s so great about your life right now? What would be so bad about loved? The Father is waiting for you.
But if you’ve done your best and you resent how much God owes you compared with how little he gives you, you need to repent of your goodness. It’s keeping you from God. He loves sinners through the finished work of Christ on the cross. If you’ll throw your good record away, God will give you the record of Christ. But he’s waiting for you too.
And for us all, as we grow our ministry in 2012, let’s give this church back to the Lord, for his joyous purpose to be fulfilled. Let go of your dream church. Real community is not a wishful ideal. It is utterly realistic about human sin and sorrow. Let this church get messy, as we walk in the light together. The Savior of the world is here. He can handle anything. And his joy will spread over us all. Martin Luther said it for us all:
May God preserve me from a Christian Church where everyone is a saint! I want to be in the church of the fainthearted, the feeble and the ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who cry to God for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sins.
Gospel + safety + time – that’s what God is inviting us all into. It’s a happy place. Let’s share it with more people!